SOMETIMES it’s the small things that count – especially after a year we’ve spent hunkered down at home, hatches battened down, in and out of lockdown.
In most family homes, I suspect, it has been 12 months during which technology has been key to survival, whether just keeping in touch or staring at a screen.
So many movies to stream; so many games to play; so many virtual trips to take … so much time.
So returning to mighty Warwick Castle yesterday to embrace the wide open spaces, the warmth of the sun and the freedom to roam once more were simple pleasures rediscovered.
I was there with my daughter Sara and grandchildren Zachary, aged nine, and Miles, aged seven, to catch up with Zog, the baby dragon whose misadventures are loved by millions.
For the uninitiated, he’s the hapless outsider at dragon school in Julia Donaldson’s kids’ classic Zog, which was made into a film voiced by the likes of Lenny Henry, Tracey Ullman and Kit Harington. Watch it before you visit.
Warwick Castle, of course, is no stranger to dragons. Ten years ago this very week, I was there interviewing Anthony Head and Angel Coulby for the launch of Merlin: The Dragon Tower, an attraction based on the TV series.
An animatronic dragon, voiced by John Hurt, was installed in one of the castle’s towers, and cleverly interacted with its audience.
More recently, son et lumiere spectacular Dragon Slayer has seen a fire-breathing dragon reduce much of the castle to ruins during remarkable projections onto the walls.
Zog and the Quest for the Golden Star is a much more humble affair, a new children’s trail with five stops dotted around the grounds, recreating the Year 1 to 5 lessons that the dragon learns at school. Befitting the times in which we live, they’re all outdoors.
And, of course, youngsters each get a quest card they can stamp after completing each lesson. Kids love anything they can stamp and collect. My kids did – and their children love it too.
Year 1: Learn To Fly is a simple photo opportunity with Zog, the castle battlements providing an impressive backdrop.
Year 2: Learn To Roar has kids jumping on pressure pads to make young dragons let out fearsome roars. Be warned that smaller, lighter, children may need help to make the most of this one. But it’s fun watching the grown-ups bouncing up and down.
Year 3: Learn to Breathe Fire works on the same principle, pressure pads shooting up jets of water as Zog breathes smoke. Sadly, when we visited, it proved a damp squib as no amount of leaping on the pads had any effect. Even dragons have teething troubles.
Year 4: Learn to Capture a Princess is a family-friendly balance course youngsters negotiate, egged on by a real-life princess (well, a costumed character). There’s also a track for those less able-bodied to ensure that everyone can take part.
Year 5: Learn to Fight is the piece de resistance as armed knights engage in swordplay each half hour, followed by a ‘Simon Says’-style game led by the chatty Sir Gadabout. You can buy swords and shields from the nearby pop-up shop.
At the end of this final challenge, you’re presented with the coveted Golden Star that Zog was so desperate to receive in the book and film.
Year 5, and meet and greet sessions with Zog himself, run to fixed timeslots but the rest can be done at any time of your choosing, and in whichever order you like.
Here’s a tip: get there early if you want to do them in number order to avoid queues. Or head straight to Year 5 and pick the others off as you explore the expansive castle grounds.
That said, castle admission numbers are currently limited as part of Covid precautions and we rarely had any concerns, with most guests maintaining social distancing and plenty of places to make your own, run and play, or dine al fresco.
You can still climb the Conquerer’s Mound, negotiate the Horrible Histories maze, and try your hand at archery, although walking the castle walls is not an option just yet. The Knight’s Village has also re-opened, with overnight stay packages on sale.
Restrictions do mean, however, that a number of regular attractions are currently closed, including the The Falconer’s Quest, the UK’s largest birds of prey show, which is due to resume on May 1.
It is hoped that indoor activities, such as the Kingmaker and Royal Weekend Party exhibitions, the state rooms and the Dungeon will re-open on May 19 if the Government’s roadmap goes to plan.
The change in emphasis to outdoor family fun, however, has had at least one welcome initiative. The number of costumed cast members walking the grounds has increased, several of them specifically linked to the story of Zog.
Children and adults alike love meeting the characters. On our visit, all had time to stop and chat, including the Earl of Warwick on his faithful steed – followed by a squire with a brush and pan… Yes, get the kids to ask what they’re for.
Warwick Castle is currently hosting a number of evening Digbeth Dining Club events and the courtyard is a sea of tables, offering plenty of space for snacks and lunches. There’s a Coffee & Cakes pop-up, and other concessions in the courtyard, down by the river and in the Peacock Garden.
Prices are not cheap, but pretty much the norm for major attraction rates. Expect, for example, to pay £6 for a jumbo sausage and skin-on fries, with cans of soda at £2 and regular coffee from £2.50. There are vegetarian options too.
We arrived for 10am and cleared Years 1 to 3 of the Zog trail, and the Horrible Histories maze before cakes and coffee in the courtyard. Time then, to cross the river for Year 4, then a leisurely stroll back uphill for the Year 5 finale.
“Be in the courtyard at 12.30pm and watch the walls,” a knight in armour whispered to me as he applied hand sanitiser – there are gel stations throughout the grounds – so that was our next call.
High above us, a knave demanded that we pile our valuables on the tables before he was chased along the walls in a series of dramatic swordfights, delighting grandson Zachary in particular.
We headed back down to the river for lunch and obligatory ice creams all round before another wander round the grounds and a farewell stop at the courtyard gift shop…
So who is Zog and the Quest for the Golden Star for? I’d say it’s aimed fair and square at primary school age kids, who will be delighted by the story, but older children will be more demanding.
As such, it’s a good addition to the castle’s many family activities at no extra cost rather than a destination attraction in its own right. Don’t expect bells and whistles or hi-tech thrills.
But, at the end of the day, what child doesn’t love to pretend to be a knight in shining armour or a princess?
And the chance to run unfettered in a real-life castle’s 64-acre grounds? That’s priceless at the moment.
- The Zog activity trail is available every day to September 5 and is included in the price of the castle entry ticket, currently £12 (adult), £12 (child aged over 12) and £8 (child aged 3 to 11) online.
- Under-3s get in free, and there’s a special Parent & Toddler (under 5) ticket at £12 on Monday to Thursday only until May 13. See warwick-castle.com for tickets, Knight’s Village accommodation availability, latest Covid openings and advice.