AS thick snow begins to settle on the deck in front of us, we peer out from behind the curtains of our cosy wooden lodge.
It’s one of the first times my two-year-old niece Ophelia has seen proper snowfall — and she is mesmerised.
But we are not in the French Alps, nor Lapland. Instead, we are in Warwick, the Tudor market town just south of Coventry, and the ferocious Storm Arwen has delivered a flurry of the white stuff just in time for our winter staycation.
A knock on the door breaks our stares and Ophelia bounds over to open it. Two jolly elves dressed in green felt frocks and red tights beam down from the doorway.
“Santa’s told us some very good children are staying here,” they say.
It’s tricky to tell if it’s the bitter cold or costume make-up, but their cheeks are flushed a rosy pink as they hand Ophelia and her older sister Niamh a shiny present each.
This elf wake-up call is a highlight of the Santa’s Sleepover experience here in the grounds of Warwick Castle. And it’s enough to get even 15-year-old Niamh in the spirit.
That’s certainly not the end of the seasonal festivities, either. In front of the castle walls, a large ice rink has been installed for winter, as well as a new light trail that weaves throughout the gardens.
Beyond the portcullis, children can also explore the princess tower or head for storytime with Santa, where they build their own board game in an elf workshop before settling down to hear tales of magical sleigh journeys across the Northern Lights and beyond.
Hang around until after dark to experience the true magic, though. In the courtyard, German-inspired market stalls sell mulled drinks, bratwurst sausages and giant marshmallows to toast over an open fire, while in the background, castle turrets glow from spectacular multi-coloured spotlights.
Hungry visitors can tuck into pork rolls, fudge, chocolate-covered marshmallows and sweet treats galore. If that doesn’t fill you up, the Knight’s Village — the castle’s on-site accommodation — has its own restaurant serving heartier dishes.
We’re spending the night in a five-person lodge, where the varnished walls are adorned with swords, medieval riding gloves and other knight-themed artefacts.
As we step out into the frost in the morning though, the place feels more like a scene from Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You video rather than ancient castle grounds.
Children kitted out in gloves and woolly hats have left footprints in the paths, and poking above the stony castle wall we spot a towering bauble-laden Christmas tree.
With so many kid-friendly activities and festive fun, the castle, which is part of the Merlin Entertainment group that also owns Alton Towers and Sea Life, is Warwick’s main draw.
But with the high street’s independent shops and quirky cafes just a five-minute walk away, there’s plenty more to explore.
As we make our way towards the main town, wonky timber houses line the streets and round every corner is a collection of small boutique shops selling everything from house plants to antique furniture.
STAYING THERE: Warwick Castle’s Christmas At The Castle runs until January 3. The Santa’s Sleepover experience costs from £339 per family of four, including one night’s B&B in a Woodland Lodge, two days’ entry to the castle and an elf wake-up call with a gift for two children. A 45-minute ice-skating session and Light Trail tickets costs an additional £14.50, while Stories With Santa is from £26pp including castle entry. See warwick-castle.com or call 01926 406610.
OUT & ABOUT: The Lord Leycester Hospital costs from £8.50 per adult, £2 per child or £20 per family of five. See lordleycester.com.
If you haven’t yet had your fill of history at the castle, then a trip to the Lord Leycester Hospital just off the high street is a must.
Once a functioning hospital in the Elizabethan age, the museum has kept many of its ancient rooms intact, including the former Brethren’s kitchen which now operates as a cafe.
There’s plenty of traditional, cosy pubs too, including the always-busy Rose and Crown that overlooks the bustling weekend market, and the Old Fourpenny that serves up loaded burgers, classic roasts and fish platters.
As the snow starts to thicken, we rush into the nearby church, where an annual Christmas tree festival is taking place. Rows of intricately decorated fir trees line the church nave and flickering lights dance on the stained-glass windows, reflecting on to cheery faces.
Even without the snow, you’d have to be a Scrooge not to feel festive in Warwick.
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