The heart of ye olde England

Date Posted: 11/08/2010

Visit the birthplace of the Bard and discover the history, heritage and highlights of Warwickshire.

Warwickshire is the epitome of olde England, with ancient half-timbered buildings and honey-coloured cottages in pretty villages, busy market towns and dramatic castles. It is also the birthplace of the world’s most famous writer, William Shakespeare.

Adding to its appeal as a top group destination is its location right in the heart of England. Several major motorways lead to the region, making Warwickshire easily accessible from all parts of the country.

Curtain up at Royal Shakespeare Theatre

One of the most eagerly awaited events of the year is the unveiling of the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre, following a £100 million facelift. Stratford’s landmark theatre, and its sister Swan Theatre, have been closed since 2007 for the massive makeover.

The new theatre has transformed the original 1932 building, whilst retaining attractive art deco and Victorian design features. At the heart of the project is a new auditorium, seating 1,000 people on three sides of the stage and creating a much more intimate theatre experience. There will also be a theatre square for outdoor performances, a linked foyer joining both theatres, and improved cafe, restaurant and toilet facilities.

The theatres reopen in November for a series of preview events, in advance of the first performances from February 2011. In the meantime, groups can continue to see Shakespearian plays at the Courtyard Theatre, which offers discounted ticket rates for groups.

Flying visit

The Stratford Butterfly Farm celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer. Set in a large greenhouse, landscaped with waterfalls, ponds and exotic plants, it is the UK’s largest attraction of its kind. With up to 250 species of butterflies from 20 countries, your group members can walk through a tropical paradise with around 1,500 butterflies flying all around. In the caterpillar room they can find out about the life cycle of the butterfly and discover insects from around the world (housed behind glass!) in a separate section.

To mark its anniversary, the farm is opening a new butterfly garden, where groups will be able to see an extensive range of British butterflies in their natural habitat, and pick up tips on how to attract butterflies to their own gardens. Group incentives include discounted admission and special tours, plus there is a handy drop-off point outside the attraction.

Landscape art

At Compton Verney groups can view art in the setting of a Grade I listed Robert Adam mansion set in 120 acres of spectacular parkland. Compton Verney houses six permanent themed collections and a changing programme of exhibitions. The current exhibition, which is very topical given recent events in Iceland, runs until the 31st October and explores five centuries of art inspired by volcanic eruptions. In November and December there will be a display of Kurt Tong photographs documenting the belief of life after death in China.

New for this year is a coffee bar, open weekends and holidays, offering counter service drinks, cakes and sandwiches. This complements the full service cafe, available during normal opening times, serving a wider menu and hot meals. Pre-booked groups of 15 or more receive discounted admission, special offers in the cafe and a free 15-minute introductory talk focused on either the current exhibition or main collection.

Motoring marvels

The Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, situated off junction 12 of the M40, recently won an award at the Renaissance West Midlands Best of the West Awards 2010. Home to the world’s largest historic collection of British cars, the attraction will take your group on a fascinating journey down memory lane.

There are also various exhibitions, several using fascinating narratives, film archive and old photos. They include Making British Cars, covering the history of the motor industry, including its highs and lows, and the people who worked in it. There is discounted admission for groups of 12 or more and guided tours. The centre also welcomes passing groups who can drop by and use the cafe, toilet facilities and enjoy a free 15-minute taster tour.

Capture the castle

Groups can experience 1,000 years of spellbinding history at Warwick Castle, a story that covers great battles, ancient myths, pampered princesses, heroic knights and a dark castle dungeon.

The castle recently revamped its long-running attraction, The Royal Weekend Party, which lifts the lid on hedonistic aristocratic house parties held in days gone by. Your group will be taken back to 1898 to a scandalous country house weekend hosted by Daisy, Countess of Warwick. After being introduced to party guests by a butler, your group will tour the private chambers of the Prince of Wales and Daisy’s own quarters. Along the way they will encounter loose-lipped servants, eager to spill the beans on the outrageous goings on.

Warwick Castle offers discounts for pre-booked groups of ten, group meals and a useful fact sheet to help GTOs make the most of time spent at the attraction.

Tourism update

Following the demise of South Warwickshire Tourism, known as Shakespeare Country, there have been changes on the tourism front that will provide GTOs with information and help in planning a visit to the region.

Soon after the closure, Seek the Magic Org, the company behind Stratford’s Creaky Cauldron museum, set up the Stratford-upon-Avon: Not Just Shakespeare website, which includes a section for groups and a telephone information service. In June, a consortium led by the South Warwickshire Association of Tourist Attractions secured the Shakespeare Country brand, website and use of the online accommodation reservation service.

Stratford-on-Avon District Council opened a temporary Tourist Information Centre in Henley Street while the TIC on Bridgefoot is revamped. For further information on the TIC, and an update on the refurbishment, call 01789-264293 or e-mail tourism@stratford-dc.gov.uk. Contact details for the other two organisations are at the end of the article.

Ten great group attractions

1 Shakespeare’s Birthplace: The house where the Bard was born and grew up is the perfect starting point for a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns the five Shakespeare Houses, and discounted admission and combination tickets are available for groups of 15 or more.

2 Kenilworth: This vast medieval fortress is one of the largest historic visitor attractions in the West Midlands and one of England’s most spectacular castle ruins. The newly re-created Elizabethan Garden, lost for 400 years, is now open to visitors.

3 Royal Leamington Spa: This elegant town earned its royal prefix in 1838, following a visit by Queen Victoria to the spa, and the grand Royal Pump Rooms now house an award-winning cultural complex.

4 Ragley Hall: Designed in 1680, and one of England’s earliest and finest Palladian houses, Ragley Hall is set in beautiful parkland and houses a wonderful collection of art, porcelain and furniture.

5 Bancroft Cruisers: The company offers 45-minute sightseeing cruises along the River Avon on traditional passenger boats, including the new Rita Ellen launched earlier this year.

6 Stratford Armouries Museum: This attraction set in 86 acres of rolling countryside showcases arms and armour from around the globe, including a set of armour for an elephant.

7 Henley-in-Arden: This charming town has one of the country’s most unspoilt historic high streets with its medley of red brick and black and white half-timbered buildings.

8 Upton House: This late 17th century house, with its outstanding art collection, was remodelled in the 1920s to become an oil millionaire’s country residence.

9 Twycross Zoo: Situated on the Warwickshire/ Leicestershire border, Twycross recently unveiled its multi-million pound Himalaya visitor centre overlooking the new snow leopard enclosure.

10 Stoneleigh Abbey: The country seat of Jane Austen’s relatives, the Leighs, the rooms are still as the famous author would have known them..

Useful contacts:

Not Just Shakespeare:
0844-824 8600
www.notjustshakespeare.org

Shakespeare Country:
0844-801 0063
www.shakespeare-country.co.uk

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