ENGLISH HERITAGE:Kenilworth Castle Location: Castle Green, Kenilworth, Warwickshire CV8 1NG [map] Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar) Admission: £10.70 Website:english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenilworth-castle Four word summary: partially-intact historical hub Time to allow: a couple of hours
Some castles still stand in their entirety. Kenilworth isn't one of those. Some castles are romantic ruins and little more. Kenilworth isn't one of those either. It does have plenty of knocked-down bits, but crucially also several surviving walls and bits of towers, which is great because nothing beats a genuine medieval spiral staircase.
Kenilworth's a Norman castle enlarged by King John, enlarged further by John of Gaunt, and generally poshed-up by the would-be husband of Queen Elizabeth I. It'll have cropped up in your history books more than once at school. But 500 years of importance came to an end when the Roundheads slighted it, and these days the worst altercations it sees involve pint-size knights on a half-term rampage.
The castle's on the edge of town, a good twenty minutes walk from the station, and ten from the Bus Focal Point. The most interesting way to get there on foot is across the Abbey Fields, where a few remains of a 12th century abbey survive (and the town council have plonked an ugly indoor swimming pool). It's also worth taking a look at the old part of Kenilworth on the hill beyond, which is a lot quainter than the main street.
Entrance to the castle is across the Tiltyard, which would have provided passage above the Mere when all the adjacent fields were flooded for extra defence. After that you're into the main grassy courtyard, which is massive, with the main ruins up the slope to the left, and more resilient buildings to the right. The Tudor Stables are one of these, and contain an exhibition and the cafe. The Gatehouse is another, and also has an exhibition (with a more Elizabethan focus), plus your first spiral staircase to boot.
The red sandstone Keep is massive, but is now a shell, and may have pigeons roosting on the upper levels. Step out front and there's an excellent view across the Elizabethan Gardens, or at least there is in summer. I looked at the gorgeous sunny photo on the take-round map, and tried to match that to the twiggy beds and wrapped-up fountain in front of me, but the geometry (and the bejewelled aviary) were impressive all the same.
Behind the Great Hall, steps lead up the curtain wall, then up again. Here are the proper spiral staircases, tight and narrow and very much the original stone. As I climbed the slippery steps, my eyes getting used to the dark and trying not to put my hand down onto anything a bird had left, London's over-protective Hold The Handrail announcements seemed a million miles away. But the view from the very highest rampart was splendid, both across the Warwickshire countryside and looking inwards over the courtyard below.
The other great bit to climb, using more 21st century steps, is the tower added to impress Queen Elizabeth I. In 1575 she spent three weeks here on one of her royal progresses, as part of Sir Robert Dudley's plan to properly impress her. He threw banquets and dances and massed spectacles, and still the Queen wouldn't accept his hand in marriage, and heaven knows how English history would have been different if he'd been successful. But oh to able to stand in mid-air amid her private chambers, and to imagine what the full £1700 extravaganza might have looked like.
Kenilworth has a bit of something for everyone - deep history if you delve into the audio guide, plenty of nooks for the inquisitive to explore, ample running-around space for livelier kids, and gluten-free rolls with your soup. What there isn't are dungeon experiences, interactive towers and Costa coffee, but Warwick's only a four quid bus ride away for anyone so-minded.