London - Ever feel like you’re just not trying when it comes to Christmas? Standing beside the 8m bauble-filled tree of Warwick Castle’s Great Hall, listening to our guide, I realised I was going to have to up my game.
It wasn’t just the magnificent decoration, but the tales of aristocratic celebrations past. Apparently Richard II had 10 000 people to a Christmas dinner of peacock that lasted five days. And Henry VI, another chum of the Warwick Earls, was so extravagant his table groaned with nativity scenes carved out of blancmange. Blancmange… nativity... I scribbled furiously in my notepad, wondering if my local butcher sold fresh peacock. Suddenly turkey and sprouts were looking a bit dull.
If you want to get Christmas inspiration, then Warwick Castle is putting on its seasonal finery this month until January 6, making it a perfect excuse to get off the sofa either post – or between – Christmas and New Year.
The castle, on the outskirts of Warwick, dates back 1 000 years and is a marvellously preserved piece of English history. With its mullioned windows and roaring fire, The Great Hall was a moment of pure time travel – although the ukulele-playing Christmas elves probably weren’t quite so authentic.
Outside in the courtyard things were crisp – if not yet deep and even. Much of Warwick Castle’s entertainment is outdoors, so you need to know exactly where the cosy Undercroft Restaurant is to duck in and warm up with coffee and a mince pie… or a full English roast.
Trying to negotiate the Escher-like labyrinth that leads to the restaurant, though, means coming up against the medieval fortress issue of tiny windy staircases everywhere. Wheelchair access is non-existent in a lot of the castle. Come with a pram and you’ll spend most of your time leaving it parked outside various entrances. Luckily there were three of us, so we could tag team it into various attractions.
The big ones here are Merlin: Dragon Tower themed on the BBC1 series, which promised much but was over too soon – and the Castle Dungeon, a load of gruesome fake blood bunkum and a not very Christmassy walking/shrieking tour of the plague, torture and local witches. Ho ho ho!
If you want more of a festive spirit, then walk the golden stone rampart outside to see the twinkling Christmas lights and 60 acres of grounds. These are full of fun things to do from falconry displays to mock duels. It’s a bit “Medieval World” for the true history purist (although the castle’s History Team does provide tours of the State Rooms and Armoury), but families with young children will have a ball.
We finished our day here with a stroll in the Victorian Rose and Peacock Gardens, admiring the stunning levels and sweeps of the Capability Brown-designed grounds and cheeky peacocks that came up to eyeball our sandwiches as the light faded into twilight.
It’s just a 35-minute train journey from Warwick to Stratford, and Warwickshire’s other great attraction, the birthplace of the Bard. A chocolate box confection of half-timbered houses and Olde Worlde streets dripping with sparkling strands of lights at this time of year – this pretty market town hides a wealth of Christmas shopping possibilities in boutiques, knick-knack shops and high-end retailers.
The next day, down on the banks of the River Avon that cuts through the town, we took a stroll around the Christmas Market and watched swans and barges cutting the cold mirror water gracefully under sweeping willow trees. In the distance, we spotted the spire of Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, in the pale winter sky.
Most people come for the town’s favourite son – and there are plenty of Shakespearean treats to see. You can take a bus tour, but many are within a reasonable walking distance – so we wandered, noses reddening in the cold, from Shakespeare’s birthplace to Anne Hathaway’s thatched cottage, both decorated for Christmas.
Arguably, though, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, lying along the banks of the river, is the epicentre of living culture here, having re-opened in 2010 after a £112.8 million (R1.5 billion) renovation.
The Orphan of Zhao is currently showing at the Swan theatre, one of the two in the complex. And after a performance there are lovely bars at which to have a drink, or the Rooftop Restaurant for dinner.
To my mind, the restaurant is best enjoyed over lunch though, when you can really see the views of the bucolic town and surroundings. The next day, we ate warming braised ox cheek with pumpkin and looked out over a quintessentially English winter watercolour scene, steeped in history and atmosphere.
With a clink of our Merlot glasses, we toasted our winter Warwickshire Wonderland – Christmas, we decided, had truly begun.