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WARWICK , just eight miles northeast of Stratford and easily reached by bus and train, is famous for its massive castle, but it also possesses several charming streetscapes erected in the aftermath of a great fire in 1694, as well as an especially fine church chancel. An hour or two is quite enough time to nose around the compact town centre, but you'll need the whole day if, braving the crowds, you're also set on exploring the castle. Either way, Warwick is the perfect day-trip from Stratford.

Towering above the River Avon at the foot of the town centre, Warwick Castle (daily: April-Oct 10am-6pm; Nov-March 10am-5pm) is locally proclaimed the "greatest medieval castle in Britain" and, if bulk equals greatness, then the claim is certainly valid, although much of the existing structure is the result of extensive nineteenth-century restoration. It's likely that the first fortress here was raised by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, in about 915 AD, but things really took off with the Normans, who built a large motte and bailey towards the end of the eleventh century. Almost three hundred years later, the eleventh Earl of Warwick turned the stronghold into a formidable stone castle, complete with elaborate gatehouses, multiple turrets and a keep.

The entrance to the castle is through the old stable block, beyond which a footpath leads round to the imposing east gate. Over the footbridge - and beyond the protective towers - is the main courtyard. You can stroll along the ramparts and climb the towers, but most visitors head straight for one or other of the special displays installed inside by the present owners, Madame Tussauds. The most popular of these displays is the "Royal Weekend Party, 1898", an extravaganza of waxwork nobility hobnobbing in the private apartments which were rebuilt in the 1870s after fire damage. Another display, "Kingmaker - a preparation for Battle", adds smells and atmospheric sounds to a waxwork scene of the preparations for Richard Earl of Warwick's - as in "Warwick the Kingmaker" - final battle in 1471.

Re-emerging from the castle at the stables, Castle Street leads up the hill for a few yards to its junction with the High Street. Turn left and it's a brief stroll to another outstanding building, the Lord Leycester Hospital (June-Sept Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; Oct-May Tues-Sun 10am-4pm), a tangle of half-timbered buildings that lean at fairy-tale angles against the old West Gate. The complex represents one of Britain's best-preserved examples of domestic Elizabethan architecture. It was established as a hostel for old soldiers by the Earl of Leicester, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, and incorporates several beamed buildings, principally in the Great Hall and the Guildhall, as well as a wonderful galleried courtyard and an intimate chantry chapel.

Doubling back along the High Street, turn left up Church Street - opposite Castle Street - for St Mary's church (daily 10am-5pm, 4pm in winter; £1 donation suggested), which was rebuilt in a weird Gothic-Renaissance amalgam after the fire of 1694. One part remained untouched, however - the chancel , a glorious specimen of the Perpendicular style with a splendid vaulted ceiling of flying and fronded ribs. On the right-hand side of the chancel, the Beauchamp Chapel contains several beautiful tombs, exquisite works of art beginning with that of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who is depicted in an elaborate suit of armour of Italian design from the tip of his swan helmet down. The adjacent tomb of Ambrose Dudley is of finely carved alabaster, as is that of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, one of Elizabeth I's most influential advisers.

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