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Walk into central Warwick through its medieval West Gate and, up to your left, you’ll see the splendid Lord Leycester Hospital. Together with the houses opposite, it forms one of the most picturesque ensembles of half timbered town buildings in the country and it’s an area that has frequently attracted the attention of film and TV producers looking for a period setting. Even the makers of BBC TV’s Dr Who have fallen for its charms.
Walk on a few more yards though and you’ll find that medieval and Tudor timber has been replaced by Stuart and Georgian brick. Changing tastes have meant that this has taken place in a fairly piecemeal way in high streets all across the country, and the same thing would probably have happened here. But the initial reason for the wholesale rebuilding of much of central Warwick was something much more drastic.
At around 2pm on 5 September 1694, a spark from a torch set light to the thatched roof of a building near to where the Friends Meeting House now stands. It had been a hot, dry summer and, fanned by a strong south-westerly wind, the fire rapidly spread through Warwick’s narrow streets and overhanging buildings. It was all over in five hours but by that time half of the town had been reduced to smouldering ruins and more than 250 families left homeless.
An Act of Parliament was quickly passed both to facilitate the rebuilding of the town and to ensure such a disaster could never happen again. Streets were widened, houses were to be of brick and stone, generally no more than two storeys high, and the use of thatch was banned. The effects of the Act can be seen in the architectural uniformity of the new streets, which are in marked contrast to the surviving parts of the pre-fire town.
Warwick’s best-known attraction, its castle, is also a place of contrasts. From mighty towers to luxurious state rooms, dungeons to Capability Brown gardens, ghost tours to archery displays, collections of armour to waxworks, there’s more than enough to appeal to the keen historian and the casual tourist alike – a fact that’s reflected in the admission price. So if you’re planning to visit it, make sure you allow enough time (at least three hours) to do it justice.
1: Court House
The court house was built from 1725 to 1731 by local architect Francis Smith, a project that cost the princely sum of £2,254. It housed the town’s magistrates’ court (note the statue of justice in the central niche outside, which is cast in lead and painted to look like stone) but, with a ballroom on the first floor, was also used for entertaining. The building now houses the Town Council Chamber, Tourist Information centre and Warwickshire Yeomanry Museum.
2: Lord Leycester Hospital
The hospital was founded in 1571 by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, as an almshouse for ex-servicemen, a role it still performs today. It was upwind of the 1694 fire and so escaped the flames. The hospital’s timber framed buildings incorporate the 14th‑century banqueting hall and council chamber of Warwick’s medieval trade guilds. They also house the regimental museum of the Queen’s Own Hussars.
3: The Westgate
The arch, which is partly cut through the rock on which the medieval town stands, dates back to the 12th century. The Chapel of St James above it is used on a daily basis by the brethren of the adjacent Lord Leycester Hospital. The tall west tower was built in the 15th century. Just inside the Westgate stands a Doric column pillar box of 1856, one of only eight surviving in the country.
4: Collegiate Church of St Mary
The 1694 fire robbed the church of its tower, nave and transepts and these were rebuilt in the early 18th century. However the chancel, crypt and superb 15th-century Beauchamp Chapel escaped the blaze. The ornate tombs in the latter include those of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Richard Beauchamp, father-in-law of the legendary Warwick the Kingmaker. The 174 feet-high tower offers spectacular views over Warwick.
5: Hill Close Gardens
This recently-restored group of hedged Victorian gardens were designed for shopkeepers and businessmen who lived in the centre of the town and had no room for gardens next to their properties.
6: Warwick Castle
Founded in 1068 as a motte and bailey castle on the site of a Saxon burgh, Warwick Castle has been impressively extended over the centuries. The 15th-century gatehouse and barbican are particularly interesting as are the two artillery towers begun by Richard III. The castle was renovated by the Grevilles in the early 17th century and further refurbishments were carried out following a fire in 1871. The castle’s attractions include the state rooms, a dungeon, an enormous working trebuchet (siege weapon) and two waxworks displays – one depicting a late Victorian house party, the other showing Warwick the Kingmaker’s household preparing for war in 1471.
7: Market Hall
The market hall was built in 1670 and, as well as market stalls, contained a lock-up and a set of stocks. Its arches were originally open. It now houses the county museum with exhibitions of archaeology and natural history and a display on the Great Fire of Warwick.
8: St John’s Museum
This is a Jacobean mansion built by the Stoughton family on the site of a medieval hospital for travellers. It houses reconstructions of a Victorian kitchen and classroom and also the museum of Field Marshal Montgomery’s old regiment, the Royal Warwickshire Fusiliers.
Warwick is 25 miles south-east of Birmingham off Junction 15 of the M40.
A direct train service to Warwick runs from London Marylebone and Birmingham Snow Hill.
Warwick Tourist Information:
Tel: 01926 492212
Tel: 0870 4422000
Please check opening times and admission prices before making a special journey.