Warwickshire lies to the east side of Birmingham, taking up much of the space before you reach Oxfordshire. It’s a county of big landscapes, ancient woodlands, castles, rivers and canals and manor houses. And the former home of one William Shakespeare, the Bard himself. Stay in one of the fascinating towns as your base for exploring, and you’ll never be short of things to do in Warwickshire. From culture to history to the big outdoors, there’s a wealth of experiences to satisfy visitors here.
Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway from London, or have more time available, you won’t be bored. Welcome to Shakespeare’s England, to castles, sieges, trebuchets, art collections, automata, lakes canals and the serene River Avon.
Best Of The Bard – Shakespeare’s Warwickshire
Say Stratford-upon-Avon, and the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is its role as the birthplace of playwright and poet William Shakespeare. Some 2.5 million visitors each year come to see Shakespeare’s Stratford. There are five houses relating to Shakespeare open to visitors, and all are managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. You’ll find
- Shakespeare’s Birthplace, furnished as it would have been at the time, including John Shakespeare’s glove making workshop.
- Hall’s Croft, home to his daughter Susanna and her husband Dr John Croft. You’ll find 16th and 17th century paintings and furniture here, plus information about the medical practices of the period.
- Shakespeare’s New Place, giving a view of the Bard, and including the Tudor Nash’s House next door.
- Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in the village of Shottery, the home of Shakespeare’s wife prior to marriage. Although described as a cottage, it’s actually a big farmhouse, now a museum.
- Mary Arden’s House in Wilmecote, now known as Palmer’s Farm after it was discovered that Mary Arden actually lived next door. It’s the Shakespeare Countryside Museum, and a working farm.
Although Stratford-upon-Avon can at times feel pretty busy, the charm of its half-timbered cottages and wealth of cultural things to do makes that worthwhile. Don’t forget to check out the RSC theatre, and its two smaller counterparts The Swan and The Other Place for the Bard at work.
Boating On The River Avon
Stratford really is upon the Avon, and you’ll find plenty to see and do where the canal meets the river in the town. Fantasize about owning your own narrowboat by wandering the canal basin to look at these beauties – known as gongoozling – and check out the widebeam craft on the river. If you want to take to the river itself, there are dining boats, boats to hire that you can row, powered boats for hire, and boats where you can let someone else do the work.
The beautiful bridges and walkways around the Avon are also well worth a visit, and there are plenty of places to stop off for a drink or a coffee. You’ll be entertained by large groups of assertive swans, and under-intimidated ducks plus a few moorhens. It’s surprising how much time passes quickly and interestingly riverside.
Museum of Mechanical Art And Design
If you are absolutely full to the brim with history, then you might like to visit the much more contemporary Museum of Mechanical Art And Design (MAD Museum) in Stratford. Full of things that clang, chime, whirr and clunk, the MAD Museum is a delight for anyone who loves oddities and interactive exhibits. It’s got kinetic art, automata, and many useful and arty moving parts. I don’t think I’ve ever visited without background sounds of laughter and delight; it really is that kind of place.
MAD Museum suggests that the average visiting time is 1-2 hours, but I’ve seldom prized my companion from the building before 2 hours is up. Don’t forget that your ticket allows you to nip out for refreshments or food and then return. The museum is fully accessible, and just five minutes from the picnic area at the River Avon. Don’t forget to download the free activity pack from the website if you’re visiting with family.
William the Conqueror made many marks on history, and one of the most enduring ones is Warwick Castle. The original 1068 wooden motte-and-bailey castle on the bend of the River Avon was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century. During the Hundred Years War, the side facing the town was refortified, and it was used as a stronghold until the early 17th century. Later it was converted to a country house, and finally an attraction.
From whichever direction you approach it, the castle dominates the town, perhaps explaining why it was so successful in protecting the Midlands from rebellion. Warwick Castle might harbour a teeny grudge with nearby Kenilworth Castle, as it was taken in a surprise attack from Simon de Montford, based at Kenilworth. The castle’s history is full of drama, betrayal, political machinations, battles and privations. Small wonder then that it is one of Britain’s top tourist attractions alongside the Tower of London, Stonehenge and Edinburgh Castle.
Today you can see the Warwick Trebuchet, a siege engine that is 18 meters tall and takes 8 people half an hour to load and release using treadwheels. You can also see eagles, archery and jousting when you visit, and maybe even a dragon-slaying evening…
Lord Leycester’s Hospital, Warwick
This beautiful spot was originally the home of the United Guilds of Warwick, including the Chantry Chapel of St James, the Guild of St George (established in 1383) and the Guild of the Blessed Virgin. Living quarters, and halls for reception, meeting and dining were added, with the Guildhall being built in 1450. Henry VIII, who seems to have been pretty influential around these parts, dispersed the Guilds in 1546. The buildings were then used for teaching, and then as a hospital for aged or injured soldiers and their wives.
Today the hospital is run by the Master, a retired armed forces officer. Eight ex-service personnel and their spouses are provided with flats in recognition of past service, with funding being derived from visitor income.
At Lord Leycester’s, you’ll also find the Museum of the Queen’s Own Hussars, and a 2,000 year old Egyptian Urn in the Master’s Garden. If the building looks familiar, you might have seen it used for television productions of Pride and Prejudice, Tom Jones, or Moll Flanders, taking in half of an English Literature syllabus in one fell swoop.
Royal Leamington Spa – Royal Pump Rooms & Regency Town
Royal Leamington Spa is a classic English spa town, and the Royal Pump Rooms and Baths is where it all happened. Situated beside the River Leam, the beautiful building attracted many visitors seeking a cure via salty spa water. The wealthy and the famous came to take the waters, and numerous fine Georgian townhouses were built to accommodate the visitors.
A tour of the Pump Rooms is fascinating. You can see the Hammam and learn all about the treatments available to visitors. Here I found out that colonic irrigation is not a recent idea. Treatment by diet and the taking of the waters led to the need for some more pleasurable activities. The Assembly Rooms, a magnificent ballroom with domed ceiling built to entertain those visitors, is now a source of rather different pleasures; it’s a live music venue.
Independent Shops and Dining in Royal Leamington Spa
Leamington’s been voted the happiest place to live in England. And surely contributing to that is the wealth of independent shops and eating places in the town. Here you’ll find all kinds of specialist shops from vintage to skincare and books to homewares and comic books. In fact, Leamington and the surrounding area have the nickname of Silicon Spa, a global centre for the video gaming industry.
Leamington’s also a great foodie destination. The Food and Drink Festival, held every September, is immensely popular. You can investigate some of Leamington’s many restaurants, bars and cafes here. Or simply explore the side streets off The Parade for plenty of distinct dining venues.
Wootton Wawen – Craft Centre and Aqueduct Walk
The charmingly named Wootton Wawen, between Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon, makes a good point to stop off and explore. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, the village had 7 hides, land for 9 ploughs, 23 villagers plus priest, 2 mills and a value of £4.
At the Stratford end of the village, after a charming terrace of four storey mill cottages to the left, you’ll see signs to the Craft Centre. Here you can find everything from a farm shop and cafe through to craft supplies, antiques and a range of other treats.
Turn left out of the car park, and you’ll spot a lane to your right with an apple tree on the corner. That takes you up to the canal. And not just any section of canal. This is where the canal crosses the road by aqueduct. It’s a fascinating walk, with plenty of information about the engineering and how the aqueduct works.
When you cross the aqueduct, high above the road below, the towpath is actually below the level of the canal. Boats crossing with you will be at shoulder height. You can feel the chill of the water through the metal side of the canal casing. If you visit in autumn, bring a bag. This is a great blackberrying spot.
The Saxon Sanctuary and Wootton Hall At Wootton Wawen
On the Birmingham side of Wootton Wawen village, you’ll spot the Saxon Sanctuary up on the hill. Stop off and explore a while. There are carefully tended gardens outside, complete with lavender and happy bees. The door bears a sign reminding you to close it behind you to prevent birds from becoming trapped inside. The Sanctuary itself is the oldest church in Warwickshire. There is a small chained library of 17th century works.
Further along between the church and the mill is Wootton Hall. This is a Palladian style house, mainly built in 1687, but incorporating parts of an earlier Elizabethan house. The landscaping is splendid, including a weir on the river. Wootton Hall’s grounds are now home to a mobile home community, the success of which rescued and restored the Hall.
Yarningdale Common and Hay Wood
If you love the big outdoors, you’ll be spoiled for choice in Warwickshire. Hay Wood is one of my favourite spots, tucked into the countryside not far from Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton. Here you’ll find the chance to wander and unwind. I can particularly recommend bluebell time.
Also magnificent in bluebell season or at any time of year is Yarningdale Common. There’s a tiny car park with space for around ten lucky arrivals, then you can take a variety of paths up the hill. There are truly spectacular views across the countryside. A couple of well-positioned benches and a picnic table mean that you can enjoy the view even on muddy days. The loudest noise is birdsong, or possibly a distant sound of sheep. You wouldn’t believe you’re half an hour from Birmingham, England’s second largest city.
Home to what’s believed to be the longest siege in English history (six months in 1266), Kenilworth Castle was constructed in various stages from Norman to Tudor times. It was a base for the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, and is also the place where Edward II lost the throne. The Earl of Leicester entertained Elizabeth I here in style in 1575.
Construction of the castle began in the 1120s with the Norman great tower, and it was massively enlarged by King John at the start of the 13th century. Local streams were used to create huge water defences which you can still see today; they truly are massive moats. The late 14th century saw John of Gaunt turning the medieval structure into a palace fortress in perpendicular style, which was all the rage.
The Parliamentary forces partly destroyed Kenilworth Castle in 1649 to prevent it being a military stronghold. Although it is ruined, significant amounts of the structure remain, with two of its buildings still habitable. The 18th century saw it become a tourist destination, and the castle became famous after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth in 1821.
Today this Scheduled Monument is managed by English Heritage. It’s easy to put yourself in the place of those previously living in the castle. Don’t forget to check out the elegant and structural knot gardens, and allow time to appreciate all the exploration the site has to offer.
A couple of miles outside Warwick on the road to Birmingham, you’ll find the small village of Hatton and its flight of locks. This flight on the Grand Union Canal has 21 locks, spread out over less than 2 miles and rising 148 feet through the countryside.
The Hatton stretch of the canal was widened in 1929 to accommodate traders with large cargos of coal, sugar, tea and spices. This meant that industrial boats could pass through, or two narrowboats side by side. The widening of the locks means that today two boats can work the locks together, making for an easier transit.
The difficulty of the flight led to its nickname of the “stairway to heaven”, maybe also because it led to Camp Hill where workmen would be paid. Today Hatton Locks make for an interesting and atmospheric walk. To the Warwick end of the locks you’ll find a car park, a set of picnic tables, and a fabulous large dragonfly sculpture in the pond. Turn right up the locks, and you’ll find the visitor centre and cafe. Ten minutes’ stroll past a lot of hungry ducks (a duck food bin is available) and you’ll find yourself in a tranquil stretch tunneled by trees. If you like the idea of seeing life from a narrowboat, there’s a guide to holiday boat rental here.
This Grade II listed building was once the country seat of Sir Christopher Wren, no doubt offering a bit of a respite during his work on St Paul’s Cathedral. It was built in 1141 by Sir Hugh de Hatton, and then occupied for 400 years as Wroxall Priory, home to a Benedictine community of nuns. Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries ended this arrangement in 1536. You can still see and walk around the ruins of the Priory.
Robert Burgoyne, the High Sheriff of Warwickshire, began the construction of a manor house in the Elizabethan style in 1597, and this house was later used by Sir Christopher Wren. The current buildings comprise of a Victorian mansion in the Gothic style, a Grade II listed building.
The Lady Chapel, known as Wren’s Cathedral is a tiny place, elegant and atmospheric. Today Wroxall Abbey is a hotel and conference centre, with beautiful grounds (including a lot of sheep very safely grazing), and a wood-panelled bar with an open fire.
Compton Verney Art Gallery
Compton Verney itself is a tiny village with a population of just over 100 people. It’s sited just off the Fosse Way, running between the Roman settlements of Cirencester and Leicester. Here you’ll find the manor house that is now Compton Verney Art Gallery. The house itself is a restored Grade I listed 18th century mansion, surrounded by 120 acres of grounds landscaped by Capability Brown.
You can read more about the Compton Verney Art Gallery here. You’ll discover galleries dedicated to Chinese works, Naples, featuring the Golden Age, European art, British portraits, British folk art and the Marx Lambert collection. Outside in the grounds, there’s so much to see and do. From the bird hide on the lake to the recently-planted labyrinth, and from orienteering to Tai Chi in the park, there are so many options to enjoy this beautiful spot.
Baddesley Clinton, owned by the National Trust, is a moated manor house 8 miles north west of Warwick. John Brome, once the wonderfully named Under-Treasurer of England, bought the manor is 1438 and passed it to his son, Nicholas. Many improvements were made by Nicolas, including the extensive rebuilding of the parish church. The reason for this work on the church? The murder of the parish priest, reputed to have taken place in the manor house itself. Take the house tour, and you can hear all about it from enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides stationed in the main rooms.
Henry Ferrers also influenced the shape of the house, starting the tradition of rendering the family coat of arms in stained glass in many of the public rooms. Today’s house is surrounded by extensive formal gardens and ponds, with even the farm buildings dating back to the eighteenth century.
The house was a sanctuary for persecuted Catholics. Don’t forget to look out for the priest holes: secret passages designed to hide people in case of a search. You’ll find doors hidden in the wood panelling and a space in the ceiling reputed to hold six people. There’s even a further space leading down the garderobe (toilet) shaft to the sewer using a rope.
Walking Between Baddesley Clinton and Packwood House
One wonderful feature of the National Trust’s website is the walking guide taking you from Baddesley Clinton onto our next stop Packwood House and back. You’ll find all the details of the 5 mile dog-friendly walk here, estimated to take 2.5 hours. It’s a glorious part of Warwickshire in all seasons, and making the journey on foot allows you to appreciate the countryside at a leisurely pace. Here you’ll also find spaces where the trappings of modern life become invisible. You can enjoy many of the views of Warwickshire that our ancestors also appreciated, much as they would have viewed them.
Packwood House is a near neighbour to Baddesley Clinton, and is also owned by the National Trust. A timber-framed Tudor manor house, Packwood is noted for its fine tapestries and furniture. Beautiful though the interior is, for me, the joy of Packwood is in its grounds.
There is much to explore outside from walled gardens to tree lined walks and spotting features such as sundials. The crowning glory has to be the famous Yew Garden. This comprises over 100 trees laid out in the mid 17th century. The clipped yews are named The Sermon on the Mount, with twelve great yews known as the Apostles and four representing the Evangelists. A spiral path lined with box hedges works its way up a small hill known as The Mount. You’ll find a single yew on its summit: The Master. Further planting in the 18th century created The Multitude of smaller yews. There’s a great view over the house and the garden itself from The Mount.
Wandering Through Warwickshire
I hope you’ve enjoyed our meanderings through the county of Warwickshire. It has so much to recommend a visit. When you visit, why not also stop off in Coventry, the city of peace and reconciliation, which is very surrounded by the county of Warwickshire. You could also visit brilliant Birmingham, which is way too shy about its attractions. If Warwickshire has captured your attention, you can read more about Stratford-upon-Avon and the Forest of Arden.
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