Friday, 24 February 2012


The Westgate

We met up with our friends Sally and Malcolm for this city walk at a point equidistant between our respective homes. We started the walk - in less than ideal conditions, with cloud and rain - outside the imposing Westgate. This already existed in 1129 (Pevsner) and already had a chapel over it at this point. What you see today seems to be 14th century.

We went through the gate and doubled back to visit the wonderful Lord Leycester Hospital, which surely must be one the finest almshouses in the country.

It was founded in 1571 by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, using premises of two Guilds of the town. The little chapel of St James over the Westgate (rebuilt1383) has a small but delightful stained glass window by William Morris.

You go through into a lovely courtyard. I was staggered to discover from Pevsner that the building on the left, the Master's Lodge, dates only from about 1850. Pevsner laments the "overdone" details, but we all found them rather charming.

The Hospital also includes two fine halls, one with the very interesting Museum of the Queen's Own Hussars, and a small millenium garden and the celebrated Master's Garden - closed of course until April.

The Hospital now houses seven ex-Servicemen, known as Brothers, and we rather had the impression that they ran the place as a sort of family business.  One handled reception duties in an exceptionally friendly way, one was in the museum. OK, one was practising the trumpet in the hall, so perhaps this theory doesn't quite hold up.

Across the street, you can see one of the boundaries of the great fire of 1694: the half-timbered houses on the right pre-date it, but the brick one on the left and the rest of the street were the result of subsequent rebuilding. We recently saw an even more comprehensive rebuilding after a fire of a similar period in Blandford Forum.

We now walked along High St and Jury St, mainly Georgian in character. So to the East Gate, which Pevsner tells us was built before 1426. The chapel was rebuilt in 1726 and is now part of the Girls' High School.

We carried on eastwards into Smith St. At the end of this street, which is notable now for some truly niche shops (vacuum cleaner spares, unpackaged tea), is St John's House, which dates from about 1626. It is now a museum.

At this point, we turned round and retraced our steps up Smith St. There is a nice group near the top of the street, with the Landor House of 1692 dominating.

Back into Jury St and left into Castle St for a quick peek at Warwick Castle.

Then back again and into Church St, where the massive tower of St Mary's stands proudly at the end, 174 ft high to the finials.

Inside the church is extraordinary. The tower, nave and aisles were destroyed in the great fire and were rebuilt to the designs of Sir William Wilson - completed in 1704. The windows are massive and the aisles are the same height as the nave, so the effect on entering is of a vast airy space.

The east end of the church survived the fire and at the end of the nave you immediately see the chancel, finished in 1392, with its unusual flying ribs in the roof.

Immediately to the right is the tiny Dean's chapel, with an extraordinary plaster ceiling.

And further to the right is the fabulous and celebrated Beauchamp Chapel: the chantry chapel of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. It was begun in 1443. Fantastic tombs, decoration, stained glass.

Now, finally, to the Market Place, a large rather characterless space, dominated by the former Town Hall of 1670, now a museum (another museum!).

We repaired to the excellent Rose and Crown, more a restaurant than a pub, for an excellent and by now much-needed hot lunch.

Conditions: wet, cool.

Distance: about 2.5 miles.

Rating: four stars. Full of character and charm. Many interesting things to see, without even getting a proper look at the castle.

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