Tony Robinson recently visited Warwick Castle to unlock four rooms not seen by the public for hundreds of years. GTW caught up with him to ask about his favourite days out, the importance of visiting historical sites & what places can do to attract tourists.
Described as ‘Britain’s ultimate castle’, Warwick Castle is a perfect example of the best of Britain’s historical sights. Beautiful and imposing, it stands in a glorious setting on the banks of the River Avon. Over the centuries, the castle has played a key role in pivotal moments in England’s history. These days, it has become an excellent example of how to develop and run such a site, with so much to see and do that one day is not enough to enjoy everything on offer. Warwick Castle still doesn’t stand still, either; an impressive programme of research and restoration means that there is always more to see and explore. In February, Time Team presenter and Blackadder favourite Tony Robinson officially unlocked four new rooms, including a tower built for Richard III during his reign. GTW will be looking at Warwick Castle and the new rooms more closely next month, but we also took the chance to catch up with the nation’s favourite historian.
QOur magazine focuses on groups days out, group breaks and so on… in these days of TV programmes and virtual online tours, what is the importance of still coming to visit places like Warwick Castle in person?
A I don’t think you can beat that extraordinary sense of reality that you get when you’re actually in a place that is immersed in history. It’s a completely different experience. It’s the difference between falling in love and reading a sex manual! But I also think that there’s a responsibility on local authorities, local museums, local libraries to try to integrate the experience of a place in such a way that people can travel there and know what they’re seeing, know how to get from one place to another, and how to use their day well. Warwick is a perfect example of this - I really don’t know the town of Warwick and I feel I should. I would love to see Warwick Castle as a springboard for discovering the whole of Warwick and I would love to see Warwick itself helping me to understand the relationship between the town and the castle. That way, if I came, I might actually stay the night – I might stay two nights! In these straitened times, we’re going to be relying on the dollar, we’re going to be relying on the yen, we’re going to want people to stay in our areas. Just to have one or two attractions will only hold people for so long. I was talking to someone at the Eden Project recently, and they told me about the statistics for visitors: if they stay for X number of hours they won’t eat anything, they’ll just have a pee. X plus one hours, they’ll have coffee with you. X plus five hours, they’ll stay the night! We all need to work on that. Visitors come to somewhere like this, but the castle didn’t just exist on its own. Go beyond the confines of it and learn the whole story.
Q What is your favourite day out? Where would you choose to go on a day off?
A If I had a day off I would stay in and watch all that Sky+ stuff that has stacked up over the year! But if I was going to go out, I love the city of London. If you wanted to go for a walk that was full of history, you would only have to walk about ten paces and you would be confronted by so many different echoes of history. Further afield, each year I do a series about walks through Australian towns. The Australians always think they have no history at all, but in half an hour I walk about a kilometre and a half, and everywhere I go there are things to see that just blow my mind. So actually, for a fantasy day out anywhere in the world, I would probably choose Hobart.
Q Have you got any other projects coming up this year?
A My next big thing is World Book Day, which I’m fronting this year. One of my books is one of the eight books nominated that kids can have for the pound book token. I also have my series ‘Tony Robinson’s Weird World of Wonders’ - I’m going round schools at the moment promoting that and World Book Day.
QWhen you visit schools, can you see changes in the way history is being taught?
A Children are much more actively involved than in my day. Some people say there is a crisis in history teaching – I certainly don’t see it at primary and secondary levels, I see great teachers and kids who are very excited by history. I’ve just got bored with everyone rubbishing our teachers and rubbishing our education system. It’s part of the glue that holds this country together. By and large, the quality of teaching in this country is great.
Q Finally, I’m sure you’ve already been asked to death about this, but what is the significance of the Richard III bones find?
A The significance now is that I think it will act as a focus for Leicester to take a much more hands-on possession of its history. It is inevitable that provided they play their cards right, tens of thousands of tourists will come to Leicester who haven’t come before. They’re not just going to be able to show them the bones, there is a whole city out there to be reclaimed – it’s a massive opportunity. Ultimately, finding the bones doesn’t actually change history. The guy died! If they’d found him and there was a faint bit of movement in the body, that would have been significant! However, I think it will reignite interest in that era of history. People know about the Tudors. There’s something very easy about ‘Henry VII was the first one, he lived a long time, then there was his son who was messed up because his dad was so horrible, he got fat and had the six wives, then there was Elizabeth…’. But The Wars of the Roses are a nightmare for people to take any sort of intellectual and emotional possession of. The great thing about finding these bones and the publicity for Richard is that people will begin to ask the questions: Who were these Plantagenets? Why were there Plantagenets and not Tudors at that time? What happened before that? The stories are so fantastic.
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Don’t forget to look out for our article on Warwick Castle in next month’s issue of GTW.