Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kenilworth and Sundials

On Friday night I picked up my friend Carol and we drove across to Kenilworth to Woodside, part of the Sundial Group. I had been invited on a 'Taste of Sundial'- a promotional event which included around 70 guests.

When we arrived we were greeted with tea and chocolate eclairs, and every staff member we met was very welcoming and friendly. We then convened at 7pm for an official welcome and a 'mysterious' tour. Taken in groups of 20, we walked round the beautiful grounds and met historical characters along the way. Each encounter entertained us with a story of events from the darker side of history. The tableux were presented by a group called 'Walk on the Dark Side'. We learned the story of Jebediah Stone and his misdeeds, his encounter with the Devil and a dishonest innkeeper, plus the strange story of Moll Bloxham of Warwick, who misused the generosity of the court and ended up cursing the city. I can definitely see a couple of songs in there! Especially as Moll undergoes a transformation into a demon dog - oh yes, songworthy!

This was followed by a marvellous dinner which was, I have to say, extremely appetising, if a little prolonged. Amongst the guests at our table were of the actors, plus Jo (part of the family who own the Sundial Group). We mixed well, had extremely interesting and stimulating conversations (from Spinoli dogs to haunted houses, from Egypt to existentialism), and I was impressed with the service of the staff.I had been to a Sundial Hotel before, Highgate House, and had been extremely impressed last time. There is something about a business run by a family - rarer and rarer in these times in this industry - that is very encouraging. Without exception, at both hotels, the staff were friendly and welcoming. From the cleaners who I passed on my way to the swimming pool, the Czeck barman, to the General Manager - everyone had a ready smile and - something we appreciated - a ready glass of wine too!

After breakfast on Saturday morning we were given a 15 minute tour of the training facilities - including (and I really liked this) the training rooms with magnetic walls. Well, the walls must have been metal but the little magnets stuck to them (and they looked just like normal walls) so you could put up flipchart paper or promotional materials without damaging the walls.

Sundial also run their own team building events with 'Teamscape' and have facilities within the grounds at all of their venues.We were then taken by coach to Warwick Castle where we were briefed on a Treasure Hunt exercise which took us round the castle on an information trail - finding the answers to questions and find certain items. This was arranged by Adventure Sports. One of the objects we were asked to acquire was a peacock feather. They have many peacocks in the Castle Grounds who are no doubt used to gawking tourists and being chased by children, but they must have been particularly irritated that day as so many adults were following them round in the hopes of a dropped feather! Warwick Castle is a great venue for corporate events, and they have a superb range of team building and facilities that the 'tourist' visitor doesn't see. However, trying to rush round the castle in two hours was a little bit of a tall order - so much to see! We were also 'caught' by a 'stalker'. She followed the teams and got each to perform a silly task which was videoed.

These included: Looking up into the sky and yelling 'aliens!'; Using a bad foreign accent to ask another visitor where the Monkey House was; Marching to a sargeant major yelling; Telling a rude joke and... A hopping race. Our team got the hopping race which we did in one of the rooms in the great hall, we were lucky not to get thrown out!

We then returned to Woodside for a lovely barbecue and those who were not staying over left. That was the end of the official part of the weekend, so my friend and I headed into Stratford to visit Anne Hathaway's Cottage, took a trip round the town and then in the evening extended our 'dark side' experiences by going on the Warwick Walk with the Darkside folks. We learned even more about the history of the city and also some speculative intrigue on Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Elizabeth visited Robert several times at his wonderful home in Kenilworth (he extended the castle specifically to build her amazing apartments) and on the 'famous' stay of 19 days, it has been speculated that she did actually marry Dudley, even if it was just a Pagan hand-fasting. What gives rise to this theory? According to Andy of Darkside, it's all in the Langham Diaries. There were a number of events with a strongly Pagan feel and - well - she was there 19 days, they were friends from childhood and she never married anyone else. All we need to prove this theory is... a Tardis!

The rumours that Dudley murdered his first wife Amy were another black mark in Dudley's book, making him an unsuitable suitor for Elizabeth - but according to historical record, he was at Hampton Court at the time of her death. And no one saw anything - in a time in history where a new rabbit on the field might well have been noticeable! All stories from Andy and his crew, but they have been thorough enough to research their subjects from historical sources rather than just reading stuff on the web and putting it in their own words.

Sunday morning Carol and I took a walk and accidentally ended up at Stoneleigh Abbey, which is nearby. One part of our walk was over the motorway - that felt really weird! We were too early for it to be open to the public, but it looked impressive. And in walking distance from Woodside too! Before heading home we went to Kenilworth Castle which the Sundial team had kindly arranged free entry to. This was another amazing experience steeped in history and further intrigue with Dudley and Elizabeth. My overall impressions of the weekend are that Sundial Group care about their delegates and that their staff are fantastic. The Midlands is a superb area for activities and sites of historical interest and if you are arranging retreats, soft skills training or team building events, then this is a superb location. Click here for photographs I took including some of the actors and of Warwick.

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