It's a knockout: Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire - Museums Association

It’s a knockout: Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire

English Heritage has moved away from its polite but dull version of history and made the most of Kenilworth Castle's royal connections in its redevelopment, writes Oliver Green
Does the name Kenilworth resonate with many people nowadays? Probably not. But English Heritage describes it as one of the great historical sites of the UK, closely associated with many big names in English royal history including King John, John of Gaunt and Henry V.

It was both a palace and a fortress, which withstood a full-scale siege in 1266 and became a popular royal retreat. Many of the buildings have remained unaltered since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who granted the castle to her favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

The story of Elizabeth, Dudley and Amy Robsart was romanticised in the book, Kenilworth, written by Walter Scott and published in 1821. Hardly anyone reads Scott today, but his historical novels were hugely popular throughout the 19th century. Mainly because of Scott, Kenilworth Castle's romantic ivy-clad ruins became a well-known tourist attraction at the time, and was painted by Turner and visited by Dickens and Queen Victoria. Before long the name was transposed to suburban villas all over the country, and graced many Englishmen's very own homes and castles. When I was young, the only Kenilworth I knew was my gran's semi in Bournemouth.

Kenilworth Castle was bought for the nation in 1937 by Sir John Siddeley, the local motor industry magnate, who was made the first Lord Kenilworth. His company's graceful Armstrong Siddeley saloon cars with their sphinx radiator mascots have now become desirable heritage items themselves. Even at the time, a close association between modern motors and the early glimmers of the heritage industry was emerging.

Philip Hames, whose family leased and lived in Leicester's 1575 castle gatehouse in the 1930s, wrote Tea at the Castle, which recounts how they ran it as a tourist attraction. As a teenager, he used to take early motor coach tour groups around, charging them a shilling each. The Hames family also managed Lord Leicester's Barn Restaurant in the great 1550 stable block, with olde English waitresses dressed like a cross between Elizabethan serving wenches and Nippies from Joe Lyons teahouses.

Lord Kenilworth's largesse saved the castle for posterity and his son gave the freehold of the castle to Kenilworth Town Council in 1958. Care and maintenance were in the hands of HM Office of Works, which eventually morphed into English Heritage in 1984. But between them, none of these agencies had either the money or the imagination to do much more than cut the grass and stop the buildings from falling down.

One historian described Kenilworth Castle in the 1960s as looking like a huge burned out factory from a distance. Meanwhile, just down the road, the other great castle of middle England, Warwick, was attracting all the visitors and cash, particularly once it came under the active commercial promotion of the Tussauds Group.

It's very gratifying to report some major changes at Kenilworth after years of stagnation. English Heritage has recently unveiled the spectacular results of the first phase of a £2.5m investment in new visitor facilities, site interpretation and renovation works. The results are not radical, but do suggest a turning point for the government conservation body because they represent a move away from the polite, well-mannered, but often rather dull management of monuments that we were once used to.

There is a new ticket office and shop, which is potentially controversial because of its pole position at the entrance. Conservation architect Richard Griffiths has produced a sensitive but distinctive design to suit the difficult location. All visitors are now offered a free Antenna Audio guide, currently programmable in English, German and French. These are linked to numbered interpretation panels forming a trail around the site. English Heritage has introduced this system at a number of sites, but Kenilworth is the first to offer a children's version.

The audioguides for adults and children are both well presented although a bit plummy and ponderous, with actorly BBC accents and a lot of hey-nonny musical interludes. Most family groups seemed to give up on them fairly quickly, and if English Heritage is trying to engage new audiences, these sound guides need to be livened up.

Even the children's version still sounds a bit like an old radio schools' programme. It includes an interactive audio quiz feature - which is a great idea - but as adults can't hear the questions, there is no scope for families to use these together.

A new exhibition on the castle's history occupies one half of the great 16th-century stable block and there is a cafe at the other end that will be refurbished over winter. The highlight of the exhibition is a self-guided virtual tour of the castle ruins on a big screen. This is fun to play around with, but could do with some re-creations of the buildings as they were to bring it to life. Kenilworth needs a visit from Tony Robinson and the Time Team to fund the sort of expensive computer-generated images people have come to expect on heritage television programmes.

Museums and heritage attractions can never really compete with the best televisual interpretation. I was happy to look at the real thing on site and take away the new guidebook to read later.

At the heart of the castle restoration project is the transformation of Leicester's Gatehouse, built between 1570 and 1575 by Robert Dudley, and now fully accessible for the first time in more than 30 years. The sandstone exterior has been carefully conserved and the interior adapted for a range of uses.

The ground and first floors are presented as they would have been in the 1930s when the Hames family lived here, a nice double take on heritage room reconstruction. A self-contained learning space for school and community groups has been incorporated, and full access by lift to all floors has been unobtrusively provided, a model of how to do this in a cramped historic building.

A second new exhibition on the renovated top floor of the gatehouse, Queen and Castle: Robert Dudley's Kenilworth, explores the relationship between Elizabeth I and her favourite. There are portraits of them both and some very personal loan items on show including Dudley's last letter to the Queen. The perennial fascination with Elizabeth demonstrated by recent film and television productions shows no sign of dimming, and this exhibition is an astute choice to capitalise on that continuing public interest. It also seems absolutely appropriate to focus on the Queen's famous 19-day visit in 1575, the most extravagant and glamorous episode in Kenilworth's long history.

The final feature of the new works is still to come. This is the re-creation of an Elizabethan garden, which will be ready by next summer. Kenilworth's dramatic transformation will then be complete, and English Heritage must make sure it promotes it loudly. It deserves to become a major visitor attraction again.

Oliver Green is the head curator at London's Transport Museum

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