Warwick Castle’s identity issue

It’s five years since I visited Warwick Castle. I spent a long day visiting Kenilworth and Warwick. Kenilworth was my priority, but since I was in the area visiting a friend at the University of Warwick it seemed like a good opportunity to visit Warwick Castle.

The contrast between the two is stark. Whereas Kenilworth is the pride of English Heritage – with high visitor numbers, guided tours, a spectacular great tower, sprawling ruins – Warwick is a business. The cost of entry if near enough £25 for an adult, and that’s if you don’t want to visit the dungeon. But what’s the point of going if you’re not going to at least see the dungeon?

The courtyard at Warwick Castle is a bustling place and there are regulars shows of one sort or another: archery, birds of prey, guided tours, and sometimes jousting. When I visited this was interesting, but not the reason I was there so I skipped by most of it.

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The courtyard at Warwick Castle. Photo by John Mueller, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Merlin Group’s estimates, more than £6 million has been spent on repairs, restorations, and maintenance in the space of a decade.

The key difference between Warwick and Kenilworth is encapsulated by what you can take home with you. At the English Heritage property you can buy a lavishly illustrated guidebook with up-to-date interpretations. If you want to read about it at home they have online resources where you can read as much as you like. At Warwick, there was none (or at the very least I somehow missed it).

And that sums it up. Warwick Castle is treated as a theme park rather than a gateway to our history. That much is abundantly clear from Merlin’s other properties which include Thorpe Park and Alton Towers and its own website where they refer to it as such. This is not a universally popular approach, as demonstrated when Merlin Group proposed to build lodges and tents in a protected historic landscape known as Foxes Study. The Warwick Society are leading the opposition to the proposal.

On the one hand, the commercial nature of the property has funded its repairs and restoration. For context English Heritage’s recent budgets have typically set aside £16 million for maintenance spread across a portfolio of 420 sites. The average spending of £600,000 a year at Warwick is a considerable investment. If commercial considerations at Warwick are limited, it is worth considering who else could take the burden of maintenance.

More pressing than money is the fact that this castle is one of the most important in England. Any changes to the castle and its landscape must take that into account. I had more fun going round Kenilworth with its atmospheric ruins, rich historic, and engaging tours. Perhaps not everyone would, but it is certainly possible to enhance a site sensitively. It is also important to consider how much Merlin have contributed to our understanding of the site’s history. Considering there isn’t so much as a guidebook I’m not sure what that contribution is. For English Heritage, guidebooks at the accessible way to frame the most up-to-date work on sites. Merlin have the resources to invest a huge amount in understanding the castle.

But in the end perhaps a castle shouldn’t be a theme park?

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3 thoughts on “Warwick Castle’s identity issue

  1. Reblogged this on archaeologyuos and commented:
    Warwick Castle is an interesting case study of the competing aims of conservation and modern use and income stream generation. And this just one of the UK’s hundreds of thousands of protected historic sites. Many of the readers of these blogs will have visited historic sites open to the public where you are guided from ticket office to shop and only then to the site. Once inside some parts of the site might be dedicated to other income generating activities. Sometimes the overtly commercial nature of these approaches detract from the site itself which just becomes a pretty back-drop. However, without such diverse income streams in a time of stretched grant funds and local government cuts these monuments of our past, and the stories of the people who built, lived and worked in them, could be lost in our generation. Perhaps the ability to buy ice cream and jars of chutney is worth putting up with, then?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although rather more of our medieval history is lost than many people think (on a recent visit to Lincoln Castle I was made aware of how much of the ‘medieval’ fabric of that castle is 19th century restoration) we are lucky in England to have enough castles for there to be a diverse set of approaches to management. Warwick’s current presentation is certainly not to my taste but it is open, as is Raby Castle in County Durham – although the interior is only accessible by an awful sycophantic guided tour! However Wigmore (Herefordshire), preserved as a ‘overgrown’ ruin, is also not to some people’s taste. When considering how to manage historic sites we can be at risk of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Intangible aspects such as the educational value and the ‘sense of place’ such sites give are easily overlooked as are the value such sites can have in attracting to an area important skilled people like GPs, good teachers and entrepreneurs.
    One of my concerns is that the recent changes to English Heritage will mean that it may lose it function as the ‘role model’ of excellence for the preservation and presentation of lesser historic sites and buildings. It will need to put its limited resources into it’s ‘money spinners’ (like Kenilworth) but what will happen to smaller places like Longtown Castle, Acton Burnell Castle or, my local EH property, the vulnerable Monk Bretton Priory.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do think that as English Heritage moves to a new footing one of the key challenges it will face is making sure that it doesn’t focus all its spending on the most popular sites. If I remember correctly, the amount it aims to fundraise will increase year-on-year for a while.

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