A Special Place in Warwickshire to Reflect Upon Our Wills and Fates: St Peter’s Church Wootton Wawen – Saxon Sanctuary

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown;

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, 2, 602

ST PETER'S CHURCH WOOTTON WAWEN SAXON SANCTUARY photo credit Abigail Robinson
ST PETER’S CHURCH WOOTTON WAWEN SAXON SANCTUARY photo credit Abigail Robinson

 Surely the best places to reflect upon the universal truths that lie behind Shakespeare’s words above, are the many historical sites to be found in his county.

Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon sanctuary.

It’s in St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, which lies to the north west of  Stratford-upon-Avon, on the way to Henley-in-Arden. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.

Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the manor) of Wootton before 1066, probably holding court in the estate farmstead and hall of Wudu Tun which sat securely within ancient moated banks. He is known to have been a companion of Early Leofric, who founded a monastery at Coventry in 1043. But at the time of his lordship at Wudu Tun near the river Alne, the minster church had been here since the early 700s. I wondered about Lord Wagen as I looked through the exhibition. When William the Conqueror took over, this woodland village in the forest of Arden was one of the many land holdings that came to his attention. He confiscated the land from Wagen and gave it to one of his own pals (as was the way of many English monarchs).  In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.

The Dynasty of the Staffords, lasted through to 1521 when the last one was executed by Henry VIII. Thus centuries of royal favour and privilege came to an end for that particular family.

It is thought there may be a Shakespeare connection with the church at Wootton Wawen: a Victorian author claimed in 1890 that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in their courting days used to visit their friend, John Mascall, the Vicar of Wootton, just as Mascall was beginning his 60 year stint as pastor of the parish. The same Victorian author also speculates that John Mascall may have been the officiant at Will and Anne’s marriage in the private chapel of Shottery Manor, owned by the same family who at that time held the manor of Wootton. (And who knows, perhaps John inspired Will for the character of Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet!)

Along with this exhibition in the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought played into my musings: a TV documentary I had seen about the fifty greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC drama production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; and our visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, was killed.

Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind.

A Viking with bad attitude buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found by chance 1300 years later.

Henry V triumphed at Agincourt then married Catherine daughter of the French king. Henry died when their son was 9 months old. When he grew up, that son,  Henry VI, later revered as a saint, shrank from the role of king whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Meanwhile Catherine had gone off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.

Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future. But her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, her Catholic husband deserted her, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.

So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune and how they interface with our lives.

English history is full of “what-ifs.” Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of history and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.

In the face of these truths it seems that success or failure are not determined by hard work and striving. Perhaps we have to live with a healthy awareness that they may in a moment be swept away and rendered irrelevant by a quirky twist of fate.

Thus we may find ourselves pondering, as we wander around such a place as the Saxon sanctuary in Wootton Wawen.

How to get there

Stratford Road

Wootton Wawen

B95 6BE

 

Find out more

http://www.saxonsanctuary.org.uk/

Stoneleigh Abbey: A Setting to Inspire Jane Austen for Her Novels

If this be error and upon me proved

I never writ nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare:  Sonnet 116

Certainly, among novelists living and working in the centuries following Shakespeare’s outpourings of genius, it can most truly be said of Jane Austen that if anything she wrote be error and upon her proved, then she certainly never wrote at all. Elegant interior Stoneleigh AbbeyFor Jane Austen observed not only manners, attitudes, words and behaviours in her own society and social class, but she saw into the hearts of everyone she wrote about. Her subject matter took for its outward form a restricted world of elegance, wealth and privilege; but in its essence her focus was simply universal truth.

For her settings and character names, she took her inspiration from her own life, and the places she visited. One of these was Stoneleigh Abbey, situated between Kenilworth and Leamington Spa, near the village of Stoneleigh.

Stoneleigh abbey seen from the other side of the river AvonAs you turn off the B4115 from Leamington Spa, and drive in between the Grecian Lodges, and make your way along the avenue between the tall, symmetrical, evenly spaced rows of trees, you become immediately aware that you are in a setting of precision and elegance. Cross the rusticated stone bridge, and you will see ahead of you on the right the mellow stonework of the fourteenth century gatehouse.

Passing through the gatehouse you emerge onto a winding path beside  flower beds, and ahead of you arises an imposing, silver stone building surmounted with ornamental balustrades.

This is Stoneleigh Abbey, which occupies land granted to a group of Cistercian monks by Henry II in 1154.

The monks longed for a peaceful, tranquil piece of land and they certainly found it here beside the River Avon. Building commenced in April 1156 and the rhythm of the Daily Office continued here undisturbed over four hundred years for the white monks. But with the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, there came Henry VIII’s agents, evicting the abbot and monks, dispersing them and confiscating lead and major timbers from the property for the royal treasury.

View of Stoneleigh Abbey from across the River Avon.jpgFor twenty five years the property remained a roofless ruin until it was sold to Sir Rowland Hill and Sir Thomas Leigh. Subsequently, it was to remain in the hands of the Leigh family for the next four centuries, whose first move was to build an Elizabethan manor from the ruins, while later generations built around the cloisters. By the seventeenth century it was a sumptuous and richly furnished mansion.

Jane Austen’s connection with Stoneleigh Abbey was via her mother Cassandra Leigh Austen’s relationship to the Leigh family. In 1806, following the death of Mary Leigh, the direct line of descent from the first Thomas Leigh came to an end and the estate of Stoneleigh Abbey passed to the successors of Thomas’s eldest son Rowland. Thus, Cassandra’s distant cousin Sir Thomas Leigh found himself the new owner, and he visited in 1806 with Jane Austen, her sister, and her mother.

During the few days of the visit, Jane Austen’s sharp observational skills were fully employed. Names and life histories of family members, details of conversations at the dinner table, and perfect descriptions of rooms and chapel, have all been discerned in her novels.

Elegant interior Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgAs you tour the grand rooms here today, you will observe that they are not  faded by age; but that they look exactly as they would have done in 1806. That is a consequence of a series of major reversals of fortune for the property, similar to the case of Compton Verney.  Following the disappearance of the family wealth, swallowed up in debts, the house went through a sad period of degradation. Then in 1960 a disastrous fire severely damaged the West wing. Most of the furniture and paintings were rescued, but the house was forced to close. In subsequent decades, it fell into further disrepair. In 1996 ownership of the house and estate was transferred from Lord Leigh to Stoneleigh Abbey Limited. Stoneleigh Abbey was saved from becoming a ruin.

Subsequently the Abbey underwent a massive restoration project in which close attention was paid to the integrity of the original. I visited the Abbey during its period of restoration and enjoyed a guided tour under the direction of a conservation expert, thereby gaining some insights into the methods by which the restorers ensured the materials, colours and furnishings were as authentic as they possibly could be.

Admired so much by Jane Austen's mother - interior at Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgNow, the ordered beauty of the Georgian interiors will fill you with a deep sense of pleasure and calm. These are much more appealing to my eye than the very busy interiors favoured in other historical periods: an abundance of flambuoyant rich gold frames and decorative work on already very ornate walls, along with rich and elaborate furniture, combines to assault the visitor with an overload of visual stimuli. But as we walk from room to room here, I appreciate their shape and proportions even more when complemented by the arrangement of the paintings, the three-dimensional plasterwork and the subtle colours of the wall coverings. The library with its mahogany panelling is one of my favourite rooms; I would love to retreat there for several days to immerse myself in the books, among which are the poetry books of former owner and friend of Lord Byron, Chandos Leigh.

Along with her mother and sister, Jane Austen would have greatly admired the aspect and proportions of the rooms, their decor and furnishings; but she would also have dedicated a finely-tuned ear to the conversations that took place within them. Nothing would have escaped her, especially not the words and behaviour of those who moved through these rooms. She would have silently accomplished what Lizzy Bennett does out loud, to the annoyance of Mr Darcy; that is, sketching their characters.

Interior, Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgI feel sure, too, that Jane Austen would have been only too aware of the wisdom of keeping this keen scrutiny to herself; for Lizzy Bennett’s voiced observations certainly alerted Mr Darcy to the fact that he was the subject of shrewd examination, much to his discomfort.

Just like several of her own heroines, Jane Austen would have been discerning the vices, quirks, and follies of her fellow dinner guests. She would be noting wit, or lack thereof; manners, and attitudes; and always what these revealed  of the hearts within.

Jane Austen’s visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have  certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.

Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.

 

How to get there:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Kenilworth

Warwickshire

CV8 2LF

 

Find out more:

www.stoneleighabbey.org

 

 

Hattton Locks, Warwick: The Stairway to Heaven

I have long felt that canals are like a parallel world, a shining ribbon running through our towns and countryside, often hidden from us by lush greenery.  Hatton Locks image 2All the haste and anxiety and stress of our frantic, driven lives seems to melt away for those climbing the steps down to, walking alongside, boating on, or standing gazing at the canals of our country. And where better to experience this world apart than at Hatton Locks, Warwick, on the Grand Union Canal; very close to the famous flight of locks which raise the water level by 45 metres via a flight of 21 locks known as the stairway to heaven.

Hatton Locks image 1The magic of canals is such that I find the peacefulness and enchantment and wonder tends to steal into people without any conscious awareness. Within a dreamlike atmosphere, people of all ages come to gaze, mesmerized, at the locks, at the boats moving through them, and at the radiant colours of the paintwork and the folk art of decorated boats and flower pots, seeming to denote a simpler, more contented, more innocent world; and at the names of the boats, sometimes quirky, sometimes affectionate and amusing, often playful, and always evoking for the boats personalities of their own.

Hatton locks image 3When I gaze at the canal, it seems to me as if I am in another dimension. We are so used to planning our next move according to the routes taken by roads, the A roads and B roads and motorways, that we carry around with us an internal map that penetrates our concept of the country we live in and even the mental world we inhabit. But, if we come apart just a little way from our established route, we will find the canal, a secret ribbon running through the towns and the landscape, from Birmingham through Hatton then on, all the way to Little Venice, Maida Vale via Regents Park in London, close by London Zoo.

photo0078And among the loveliest aspects of our country we find the waterside inns with their beer gardens, their tables and chairs and sunshades set out beside the canal, offering a highly-prized setting for a meal or a drink, in summer becoming, of course, sometimes too popular. We have outstanding inns along the canal in Warwick, The Cape of Good Hope and The Hatton Arms being my favourites.

 

How to get there:

The Heritage Skills Centre, Canal Lane, Hatton, Warwick, CV35 7JL

Find out more:

http://www.canalrivertrust.org.uk

Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, King Edward VI School,  Stratford-upon-Avon: Strong Discipline, Repetition and Learning by Rote That Nurtured a Great Poet

A thousand times the worse, to want thy light.

Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,

But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

Romeo and Juliet

  

Whether or not this is a true reflection of how Shakespeare felt about his own schooldays, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe upon entering the fifteenth century schoolroom where Shakespeare would have studied from 1571 to 1578, between the ages of seven and fourteen.

Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

Even more impressive is the opportunity to experience a costumed actor playing the part of a schoolmaster of Shakespeare’s time, teaching as young William would have been taught; the recital of Latin vocabulary and declensions, drummed into the boys’ heads through wearisome repetition. Perhaps, even, this discipline, tedious as it may have been, prepared and fitted the young boy for the acting profession, since learning lines by heart is part of an actor’s skills.

Within the schoolroom Shakespeare would have also watched visiting troupes of actors perform plays. Also he would probably have acted in school plays himself. To be in the place where he may have conceived his first love for poetry, drama, and the acting world, is indeed moving. Quite apart from the mellow historical beauty of the sixteenth century interiors, I cannot but feel this is a special experience to come here. Pupils do sometimes use these classrooms today in King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare’s Schoolrooms and Guildhall have only been open to visitors for a relatively short time (two years at the time of my visit) to further illuminate the life of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

The meeting chamber of the Guild is a gracious and imposing room. In this particular chamber, Shakespeare’s father John would have presided over meetings of the Guild in 1568, when he served as Bailiff (equivalent to Lord Mayor); and he would also have participated as a member of the jury in court hearings here. It is amusing to think how in his younger days he had fallen foul of the local authorities for being one of those responsible for creating a muckheap in the streets. But since then he had clearly regained a good reputation.

Nevertheless we may also wonder at the fact that 14 year old William had to leave school because his father could no longer afford it and was now in debt. What had happened in the intervening years since his high office for the local authority, and his ignominious removal of William from school?

We may find it very tempting to speculate. Quite often we have insufficient biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Was William cross? Or was he relieved at his new-found freedom? The fact that he left school at 14 and didn’t go to university is  used as one of the possible pieces of evidence for the theory that the man known as William Shakespeare could not possibly have written those plays and poems attributed to him. How could he? the skeptics enquire. He never went to university.

And yet… is it possible that William was a child prodigy? That he found all that learning by rote very boring? (Though in fact it was to serve him extremely well in the acting profession). Was it possible that William was like certain child prodigies in contemporary times who attain a double first university degree by 15? Was he the type who is perfectly capable of taking his A levels without doing the two year course?

Another aspect to consider is that Shakespeare may have absorbed what he learned at school to a much greater depth and intensity than his contemporaries. It is certain he studied the stories of Ovid and other Roman writers, for these stories appear in his plays. Perhaps William made up for his interrupted schooling by voracious reading. What was he doing between the age of 14 and 18, at which age we know he married Ann Hathaway?

These and many other questions spring into the mind of the visitor at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, a rich new addition to the Shakespeare properties on offer to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

How to get there:

King Edward VI School

Church Street

Stratford-upon-Avon

CV37 6HB

 

Find out more:

Shakespearesschoolroom.org

 

Warwick Castle: a Powerhouse of Influence on the Tides of English History, Through the Lords of Warwick

Rising up before you as you approach Warwick from the south, along the Banbury road, you will see a spectacular sight: that of Warwick Castle, perfectly preserved ancient fortress, later transformed into a stately residence.

view of Warwick Castle from the river island bridge
view of Warwick Castle from the river island bridge

The south-east side of the castle commands a cliff on the opposite bank of the River Avon, as you enter Warwick. It is best viewed from those on foot, or seated high enough to look beyond the stone parapets of the bridge.

But, to my mind, the most awe-inspiring view may be obtained by standing on the river island bridge inside the castle grounds. The massive walls soar up from the water; and above them the buildings which house the state rooms of the castle are situated. From this point you gaze along the river back in the direction of the road bridge; you will see the mill and engine house, and just beyond it the whitewater of the weir, where groups of cygnets will be galvanizing themselves to take the plunge.

Beyond that you will glimpse the ruins of the medieval bridge, which are best observed from the decking outside the mill and engine house. This was the original bridge which for four hundred years formed the main approach to Warwick. It was built in the fourteenth century together with a toll booth. The site of that toll booth is now in the glorious Mill Garden, another location from which you have an outstanding view of the Castle. Once the new wider bridge was built over the Avon in the 1780s, the medieval bridge was sealed off and later partially demolished to form a picturesque ruin.

The first fortification on the land where Warwick Castle now stands was built in 914 by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, with the purpose of keeping out the Danes. Subsequently William the Conquerer took it over as a site for one of the many motte and bailey forts he established throughout England.

view of the castle courtyard from one of the state rooms at Warwick Castle
view of the castle courtyard from one of the state rooms at Warwick Castle

The mound on which these fortifications stood remains today as a prized element of the estate surrounding Warwick Castle; and indeed when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was commissioned by Francis Greville, Earl of  Warwick from 1759 to 1773, to landscape the grounds, he suggested making the mound an important aesthetic feature, by ordering ornamental trees to be planted down its slopes surrounding the spiral path.

The first owner of the castle was, naturally, one of those who supported William the Conquerer; namely, Henry de Newburgh, Constable of the Castle from 1088 to 1119.  But it was really only when the first member of the family de Beauchamp inherited the castle, beginning with William de Beauchamp in 1268, that a dynasty with significant influence in the affairs of the nation commenced.

From then on, through the Beachamps and the Nevilles and the reign of Edward IV, it is true to say that any individual who could be addressed My Lord of Warwick had a considerable influence on English history: and throughout the generations of Earls, the one to win the most noteworthy place in history books was Richard Neville, holder of the Earldom from 1449 to 1471. He held two kings prisoner during the course of one year, 1469: Edward IV in Warwick Castle and Henry VI in France.

It is easy for us to see Richard Neville’s actions as worthy of mirth now but within the complexities and the power struggles of his time these were grave decisions and deeds. It is intriguing to note how the balance of power often seemed to be influenced by the women behind the throne; in the case of Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, later to be known as one of the she-wolves of English history: and in the case of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville and the powerful family behind her.

One of the great recurring themes of English royal history is that of betrayal and changing sides. The two Tudor kings Henry VII and his son Henry VIII left the castle to fall to ruins probably because of its associations with that Demon Brood, the Plantagenet dynasty who had preceded them.

Sellars and Yeatman, of course, brilliantly summed up the trap into which so many of us can fall, in their comic classic 1066 And All That (first published in 1930).  In that slim volume they gave us:  A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember.  Of Richard Neville they say:  Any baron who wished to be considered king was allowed to apply at Warwick the Kingmaker’s, where he was made to fill up a form.

Richard Neville held sway more than any other Earl of Warwick before or after him, helping to depose both Henry VI and Edward IV. He also brought about the Readeption of Henry VI, to the great astonishment of Henry himself, for one year in 1470-71 before Henry was ‘put to death’ (or died of melancholy, as some would have it) in the Tower, and Edward IV took over again.

Though saintly – and judged by history to have been so – Henry VI was a disastrously ineffectual medieval king. But whilst manipulating the trusting and pliable man who had never wanted to be king, Richard Neville used the magic of Henry VI’s name as a cloak of respectability for his own ambitions.

But, in the beguiling manner of English history, his fortunes rapidly changed when he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, at which point Edward IV awarded the castle to his own brother, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence.

The Battle of Barnet is the battle whose extensive preparations we see in the brilliant waxwork exhibition Kingmaker at Warwick Castle.

The Knights of Middle England performing the Wars of the Roses at Warwick Castle
The Knights of Middle England performing the Wars of the Roses at Warwick Castle

Another much earlier earl of Warwick had been responsible for the treacherous crime committed in 1312 against Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite.  Guy de Beauchamp, earl from 1298 to 1315, was one of a group of earls known as the Ordainers who aimed to try and contain Edward II in his excesses, and restrict his abuse of power. Guy was responsible for luring Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite, to Warwick in 1312; and Piers ended up being dragged to Blacklow Hill and slaughtered there.

Yet another Earl of Warwick – Richard Beauchamp, earl from 1401 to 1439 – presided over the trial of Joan of Arc, and sentenced her to burn at the stake. This same Richard was also responsible for the building of the Beauchamp chapel in St Mary’s Church, Warwick – so priests could pray for his departed soul. It’s very tempting to speculate that he hoped thereby to assuage his lingering guilt for the part he played in bringing the  Maid of Orleans to the stake; but it’s unlikely, of course, that he felt any guilt at all. We must always be careful not to attribute a 21st century conscience to one living in very different times.

Now when we visit the Castle, owned by Merlin Entertainments, our introduction to historical matters is via the Horrible Histories maze, which (arousing local controversy) stands in place of the previous Victorian rose garden, and gives great entertainment to many visitors. The intention of Horrible Histories is of course to amuse and amaze as well as inform, but it does mock the behaviour of our ancestors – of which more later in this chapter.

One of the other castle attractions is a visit to the State Rooms. After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Robert Greville, then Lord of Warwick, began a period of restoration at the castle, and created there a grand palatial residence. From that time on, the castle rose again from its threatened fate of becoming a picturesque ruin.

The first Greville to lavish his wealth on renovating the property and creating new gardens had been Sir Fulke Greville, who held the castle between 1621 and 1628.  It seems an undeserved irony that having achieved so much good, he should end up murdered by his manservant Ralph over the matter of how much money he had left Ralph in his will.

And Sir Fulke’s work on the new gardens was swept away by his successor who sided with Parliament during the English Civil War. During that period much damage was done to the Castle.

the peacocok garden and orangery at Warwick Castle
the peacocok garden and orangery at Warwick Castle

But when Francis Greville commissioned Lancelot Capability Brown to transform the grounds in the late 1750s, he made a major contribution to the castle’s power to attract and inspire visitors. Today, as you stand on the river bridge with your back to the island, you see the land sweep upwards to the Peacock Garden, and round to the north-west side of the castle in a way that appeals to our deepest sense of proportion and harmonious design.  In fact Warwick Castle was Capability Brown’s first major commission, which launched him on his subsequent career, in which he transformed the grounds of many great houses in England.

When we walk round Warwick Castle, whether we tour the excellent Kingmaker Exhibition, admire the Great Hall with its magnificent weapon displays, wander through the State Rooms, walk the ramparts and towers, climb to the Conquerer’s Fortress or watch the Knights of Middle England re-enact the Wars of the Roses, we cannot but be aware of the rich concentration of English history, centred upon this castle.

weapon display in the Great Hall at Warwick Castle
weapon display in the Great Hall at Warwick Castle

And we might also reflect that it’s no wonder medieval earls and barons and kings were so willing to risk their lives for glory and power and wealth. Everyone would have been intensely aware of life as insecure, short and easily-disposable. That would drive anyone with ambition to an All or Nothing philosophy.

Though their pitilessness is undeniable, to all who descend the steps to the Gaol and gaze down the dreadful oubliette into which the unluckiest prisoners were thrown to be forgotten and to die of starvation or madness. But the judgements we pass on historical characters are often suspect. The decisions we ourselves make now – if  significant enough to be remembered – will be as easy mocked from a distance of a few hundred years.

Looking back to medieval times, if we imagine the complexity of the situations and power struggles within which these personalities sought to reach their goals, all in the context of limited vision, we recognise that they had to make decisions just as we do now with no knowledge of future outcomes. We too will seem equally as self-defeating when viewed from the distance of centuries.

The Throckmortons of Coughton Court, Warwickshire: A Family Forever Linked to those Who Conspired to Murder their King

Approaching Coughton Court, the ancestral seat of the Throckmortons, near Alcester in Warwickshire, we may admire the mellow sandstone sixteenth century house with its dramatic battlemented gatehouse tower and lovely timbered north and south wings.

the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court
the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court

In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.

view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court
view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court

Everything about this house and its surrounding grounds and gardens speaks graciousness, fine proportions, serenity: all that tends to make us feel relaxed, good-humoured and full of positive anticipation. But that has by no means always been the case. In the past this house has known betrayal, terror and conspiracy.

This house has been held by the Throckmorton family for over 600 years and during that time the vast majority of them have been fervent Catholics, remaining loyal throughout times of great persecution. Several generations of the Throckmortons have been closely involved with some of the major events of English history. 

The first Throckmortons to own land in Coughton were John and Eleanor in 1412 and John became the founder of this historically-important family.  A later Throckmorton, Robert, was knighted in 1494 along with Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII, thus beginning the family’s long association with the Tudor monarchy, sometimes profitable, always dangerous, and ultimately fateful.

His son George was to discover the folly of opposing Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon; the mortification of being a dissenting guest at Anne Boleyn’s coronation; the inadvisability of thwarting Thomas Cromwell in a land dispute; and, no doubt, a rather uncharitable sense of vindication at finding himself prosecution witness at Thomas’s trial and in a position to seal his fate.

Robert’s son Nicholas stands out among the Throckmortons as having been a Protestant; and I cannot help wondering how that affected his family relationships, coming as he did from an otherwise unbroken line of devout Catholics.  Nicholas too discovered the slipperiness of close involvement with the Tudor monarchy.

 He had a very narrow escape when his support of Lady Jane Grey ended in defeat; found himself in prison after opposing Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; and suffered the thanklessness of Elizabeth after he had acted as confidant to the young princess, brought the news of Mary’s death to her, and finally acted as her emissary to Mary Queen of Scots. All of this failed to win for him the high office at court which he had hoped for. 

After Nicholas’s death, the family resumed its activities on behalf of the Catholic side with renewed zeal. In 1584 his nephew Francis was executed for trying to depose Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

In 1858 a 16th century priest-hole was rediscovered in the Tower Room: a double hide, one chamber on top of the other, so the priest hiding in the chamber below would have been highly unlikely to be discovered, even if the upper chamber came to light.

The Drawing Room, Coughton Court
The Drawing Room, Coughton Court

The Tower room is where the family kept a small altar with everything needful to celebrate Mass according to their Catholic faith; the windows both sides of the room gave extensive views out onto the surrounding countryside so they would be alerted to anyone approaching the house from a considerable distance away. Certainly they would have had plenty of warning if Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters were approaching, and enough time to hide the priest together with all the objects of Catholic worship in that ingenious hiding place.

The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court
The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court

When you begin your tour of the house, you are soon shown through a well-laid-out exhibition about the Gunpowder Plot; and after visiting that, as you enter the drawing room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, you cannot but be very aware that this was the room where the first news of the plot’s failure was broken to those who waited here. In the early hours of 6th November 1605, Lady Digby, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, one of the Plotters, sat in this drawing room, anxiously awaiting news.

At 6am Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby (charismatic mastermind of the plot) galloped across the bridge over the moat and climbed the stairs to the drawing room. No doubt drenched with sweat, wild haired and eyes full of terror, Thomas broke the news which would have filled her with horror and fear: the plot had been discovered, Guy Fawkes arrested, her husband Sir Everard captured, and his fellow conspirators were all on the run in fear of their lives. She would have had no doubt whatsoever about what lay in store for her husband and his friends. The fate that awaited all those found guilty of treason was a vile and brutal punishment: hanging, drawing and quartering. It was, however, a fate that many chose to risk. They were desperate times. The stakes were high, and hot-headed, religious zealots were willing to run that risk for their passionate beliefs.

Following this, the party at Coughton Court quickly dispersed to various locations, among them two priests, Nicholas Owen the master priest-hole builder, and the Vaux sisters who had rented Baddesley Clinton for the express purpose of providing a safe meeting place for priests, together with concealed chambers they could hide in during raids. Meanwhile, the plotters fled to the house of another Catholic friend, hoping for support, which they did not receive: instead they headed off to Holbeach Hall, where final disaster awaited them.

Of those who fled to Holbeach Hall, we learn in the special exhibition at Coughton Court, four suffered the least painful, and the quickest, death. They (incredibly) betrayed their presence by trying to dry their gunpowder in front of the fire. Not surprisingly (but presumably, it surprised them) their gunpowder exploded. The noise alerted the Sheriff of Worcestershire who came with his troops and surrounded the house. In the ensuing gunfight the next morning, four conspirators were shot dead, including Robert Catesby the charismatic mastermind of the plot. Of the others, six were tried on 27th January 1606 and executed at the end of that month.  One other, Francis Tresham, was arrested on 12th November and fortuitously died of a natural illness in the Tower on 23rd December.

The room in which Lady Digby received Thomas Bates’ news is a beautiful one to our eyes, and we might expect to find a lingering atmosphere of fear and dread. But indeed no such feeling hangs around this room, and our emotional response to the story may be most clearly elicited in the room which holds the exhibition. The information about the Plot is imaginatively displayed, thus giving visitors their best chance to remember the names of the people involved and the details of their desperate flight and foolhardy actions during those final fateful hours after Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.

Whatever we may think now of the issues at stake during years of turmoil in which England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, nevertheless, when viewed on the human scale, we see individuals chancing their lives and family destinies, on the hoped-for success of desperate strategies, utterly at the mercy of the State’s ruthless response to their own religious zeal, often leading to heart-rending and grisly outcomes.

Here at Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons who were so closely connected to those dramatic events, we may see this played out through generations of unswerving Catholic devotion both before the events of 1605 and for centuries after, right down to the present day. After Sir Robert Throckmorton became Lord of Coughton in 1680, he built an illegal Catholic chapel, only to see it burned down by a Protestant mob, during the anti-catholic riots which were followed by the exile of James II. The mob also burned the east side of the house, and the ruins stayed there for another century.

When I enter a house such as Coughton Court, the rich surroundings, the elegant and lofty rooms, the grand family portraits and the harmonious decor play their part; but most powerful of all is the story of the house, brought alive by the artefacts that are displayed here. We may find the chemise that Mary Queen of Scots wore on the day of her execution; the dole-gate that one of the family, Elisabeth Throckmorton, Abbess of Denny, brought with her as a poignant memento as she fled the dissolution of the monasteries; the chair made out of wood  originally used for the bed Richard III slept on before he fought the Battle of Bosworth.

And, too, we may view the family photographs of the present-day members of the Throckmorton family – two of them, Clare McLaren-Throckmorton and her daughter Christina, responsible for the design and creation of the enchanting walled garden. These photos also have a poignancy to them, when you remember the contemporary family’s forbears. We may consider this a luxury few may claim, to know your family history back 600 years; but I believe there may be a certain burden in carrying this, a certain weight on your shoulders, a weight of knowledge of the details of your ancestors’ vices and virtues, their hopes and failures, their deeds, their triumphs and disasters.

 

How to get there:

Alcester

Warwickshire

B49 5JA

 

Find out more

 

Felix Dennis, Eccentric Millionaire Poet – a Man with a Vision for the Future, and Founder of a Great Forest in the Heart of England

In an age of information where we are bombarded with news and facts and false facts and opinions, both genuine and prejudiced,  I find we tend to select our own blind spots, to filter out the onslaught. Felix DennisWhich is why, sometimes, although something and somebody can be publicised hugely in innumerable ways, it’s still possible for some of us to say, “I didn’t know that,” or “Never heard of him.”

It was like that for me with Felix Dennis, whose Garden of Heroes and Villains and Poetry Shard Garden I recently visited in Dorsington, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

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Bronze sculpture in the Garden of Heroes and Villains: Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) tied himself to the mast so he would not be lured by the calls of the sirens

Perhaps it’s unsurprising my subsconscious had blocked Dennis out previously; I would not have been at all interested in his underground publishing activities or magazines called OZ in the late sixties and early seventies, or in the obscenity trial that he was involved in with two colleagues in 1971.

Over the years I’ve been aware of other big creative personalities who have indeed made an impact on me – author Adrian Plass, poet Adrian Henri, artist Graham Clarke and actor Brian Blessed among them – and now, rather late (four years after his death) I’ve discovered Felix Dennis. I bought a book about his 2010 nationwide poetry tour, Did I Mention the Free Wine? by Jason Kersten; and looking at pictures of him, I can see his physical appearance in later years reminds me of all of those four. And not least he reminds me of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 & 2. A man with a gift and an instinct and an appetite for making money, he amassed millions and when he died in 2014 he ultimately bequeathed them to the creation of a forest.

What an amazing and wonderful legacy, a legacy for the future of humankind. And I also discovered his poetry, beginning with those poems that were engraved on shards of glass in his poetry garden.

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Bronze sculpture of Bruce Lee in the Garden of Heroes and Villains

One of them,written not long before his death, particularly struck me:

I’ve plucked all the cherries Chance would allow, Take them, and welcome – I’m done with them now.

His bluntness and honesty, expressed in poetry, immediately appealed to me, as it has to so many who enjoy the gallows humour in his rhyming couplets. But the poems contain much more than gallows humour: sharp observations on life expressed in unpretentious, witty poetry that lends itself beautifully to live performance. Being a fan of live performance poetry, I can only wish that I’d found out about Felix years ago, and actually attended his poetry performance in the Bridgehouse Theatre, Warwick in 2010.

Tribute to Felix Dennis on the Founder's Rock, Arboretum, Dorsington
Founder’s Rock in new woodland, Heart of England Forest

I am enjoying the book Did I Mention the Free Wine? – it is the most fascinating account of how to organise a book promotion tour on a grand scale, among many other things – and watch out for my review of it on Amazon and Goodreads! Meanwhile I shall be deepening my new-found interest in his forest, his garden and his poetry. Somehow, discovering him after his death has a poetic irony which he himself would probably have enjoyed greatly…

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Life and the Writer’s Journey from a Mamma Mia Perspective

Yes I do indeed find some lessons from Mamma Mia on the dynamics of life – and the writing journey.

Mamma Mia Here We Go Again

Having recently seen the film Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, twice, and loved it even more the second time I saw it,  I felt compelled to draw out some dynamic equivalents for all of us.

Mamma Mia, the first movie, has been accused of being sentimental, idealistic,  sugary, unrealistic; and yet the second movie with its fast moving sequences of prequel and sequel I believe is very like life as we all can experience it… minus the extremely skilful singing and dancing sequences of course!

Of course all that I write from now on will only be fully understood by those who have seen and loved both movies. And if you haven’t seen the second film yet and don’t like spoilers… then don’t read on!

Certainly I identified with young Donna to an extent; I myself travelled to Greece on an extremely eventful holiday with my friend during my first university vacation; and it was full of romantic interludes and risk-taking and narrow escapes. My first move after graduating from university was to go to the Greek island of Rhodes. And during that holiday I, like Donna, with Sam, enjoyed an island tour on the back of a motorbike, with a young Greek Adonis whom I had only met for the first time the hour before…

Here are the highlights in the second movie from which I drew my reflections:

1.  When young Donna and young Sam took a boat across to the small island, Donna spoke about knowing what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She said she wanted to stay on the island forever. Sam said it wasn’t that simple… and as we watched, we were fully aware of how their lives would pan out for the next twenty five years, as a consequence of their actions and decisions and words during the small amount of time they spent together.

2.  The relationship between Sophie and Sam twenty five years later, both grieving for Donna, but supporting and loving each other: so sad and yet so beautiful, and everything that Donna could have hoped for, notwithstanding that she could never have known her life would be cut short so early.

3.  The use of parallelism as the scenes switched back and forward over twenty five years; the rooms in the farmhouse; the two pregnancies; the two babies.

4. Amanda Seyfried, who played Sophie: older, sadder and wiser than the sparkly, impulsive, madcap young girl we see in the first film – and yet still so beautiful inside and out.

5.  The role that Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie play throughout both films; first, supporting and encouraging Donna, and then transferring that same support to Sophie.

6. Seeing the older men and their young selves dancing together at the end.

7. Cher in the role of formerly recalcitrant grandmother – now returned, reformed – to meet again the man she last saw in 1959.

Perhaps stretching credulity for some of us … and yet still may there be a message for us there?

Life can be very strange indeed. It was Adrian Plass who said, You don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.

Life may have brought us many disappointments; it may be difficult to keep faith, and easy to give up hope in achieving all that we have dreamed of: and I don’t deny that. I am very well aware of it myself, in my life, in the wrong choices I’ve made, and especially in my writing journey;  and yet we can never discount life’s quirkiness, its unexpectedness, the twists and loops and connections that may utterly surprise us.

It does seem to be an essential part of the dynamics of life that what we hope for and dream of may be taken out of our hands, and yet at some future stage we may receive an unexpected gift, that would never have been possible without our hasty actions or impulsive decisions in the past; sometimes we may do something outrageous or foolish; all this may play its part in some unfathomable outcome years ahead.

And the men dancing with their younger selves? You may see that as just a fun scene with the actors stepping outside their roles in the story timeline, and enjoying themselves. So it was. But also what a lovely metaphor for us:  dancing with our younger selves, even if we feel they made mistake and wrong choices, even if we regret things those younger selves said and did… perhaps the message is to dance with our younger selves, a joyous acceptance of all that we are and have been… and accept the passing of time, together with all the unexpected gifts that brings, trust in the process of life, and keep faith.

Inspiration from JRR Tolkien in Oxford

My recent visit to Oxford to see the exhibition of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth was a revelation to me and full of inspiration.Tolkien-maker of middle-earth

You may find the exhibition in the  ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library, next to Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street. It’s packed with fascinating objects and letters, and drawings: Tolkien’s own exquisite illustrations for The Hobbit and  The Lord of the Rings, plenty of original letters giving intriguing biographical information about him, authentic items and furnishings from his own home, a magnificent  projection of a 3D model of the map of Middle-earth and many other  delights for all those who love Tolkien and the fantasy world which flowered from his creative genius.

I love The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion: I first came to The Lord of the Rings when I was at university in Lancaster; and for many of us then it was a cult book; the world of Middle-earth so absorbed us that Tolkien’s characters, and situations from Frodo and Sam’s epic journey, would appear in our conversations without any need for explanation or context. Over the years I have been moved and enchanted by the  powerful illustrations of places in Middle-earth such as Rivendell, but until I came to this exhibition in Oxford I confess I had no idea that Tolkien was himself such a gifted artist and had actually himself drawn and hand-coloured much of the artwork with which I have been captivated.

These are just a few of the many gems I discovered from the exhibition:

Tolkien spent twelve years writing The Lord of the Rings, in order to provide his publisher George Allen & Unwin with “something more about hobbits” as a sequel to The Hobbit – his publishers were hoping for a lucrative series like Swallows and Amazons

He squeezed that writing into his evenings, after full days spent on academic work in his role as English professor at the University, family life, and socialising, etc.

The words In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…. came to him while he was doing some marking of student papers, and he scrawled those words in an empty space on a paper he was marking. He did nothing with that idea for several years, it just lay in his mind, waiting its time (just like the ring itself lay waiting…)

His first concept of Treebeard was as an evil character but eventually he transformed the Ent into a good character

The village near Birmingham where he lived as a young child inspired him for Hobbiton.

He kept having wonderful ideas for additions to The Lord of the Rings, such as an exquisitely-rendered facsimile of a seriously war-damaged and bloodstained ancient manuscript, and a fascinating epilogue, a letter from Aragorn to Sam Gangee years after the events of The Lord of the Rings, but his publishers would decide against incorporating them for various reasons including because they thought it cost too much…

After the Tolkien exhibition we spent a considerable amount of time in Blackwell’s, losing ourselves among the special Harry Potter displays and Tolkien and CS Lewis sections not to mention among the pages of the Paddington Bear London pop-up book…

Then we enjoyed a fascinating tour of the Oxford Colleges, as you’ll see from some of the photos here.

Oxford is the city of dreaming spires and has a rich and complex history,  a tapestry of darkness and light, which perhaps suggests just a few reasons why it is also, for creative people, a city of lightbulb moments…

Insights From the Silence

Have you ever seen the episode of the TV comedy drama series Rev when our main character, Rev. Adam Smallbone, goes on retreat? Adam, played by Tom Hollander, is in the austere setting of a convent, and returns to his room when suddenly Roland, the media vicar, played by Hugh Bonneville, appears at the window, crying “Retreat!”

Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander in Rev
Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander in Rev

In he comes and it transpires he’s brought  plenty of alcoholic supplies with him to offset the effect of the austerity to which they have both committed themselves for the next several days. Then Adam opens the drawers in his bedside cabinet and reveals his stash of chocolate bars and bottles of whisky.

“Dear boy,” says Roland with a look of extreme seriousness on his face, “I think we’re going to get through this.”

I’ve just been on silent retreat for a week at Lee Abbey in Devon.

View from Octagon at Lee Abbey, Devon
View from Octagon at Lee Abbey, Devon

It isn’t a convent, nor is it austere, and there’s absolutely no need for chocolate bars and bottles of wine in the bedroom, as we were well-fed… in fact, I find retreat centres tend to over-feed you rather than the opposite, and within the Christian community that runs the retreat centre, there is a team of house elves who wait on you hand and foot until you almost feel guilty… and thus begin the insights you may draw from silence.

And ever present outside this retreat centre is the sublime scenery of Lee Bay. Throughout the week, it called me, a background to all that was said, a huge presence out there. There were all the things Michael was saying as he weaved his spell and beguiled us, and all the insights and metaphors his stories gave us about the dynamics of life, and beyond it all was the vast embracing presence of the scenery, the rocky headlands, the tree-covered cliffs, the sea.

Our silence lasted 48 hours, and I loved it.

Insight is the child of silence wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Lee Bay, Devon
Lee Bay, Devon

For me, a silent retreat gets better and better. You’re completely released from small talk; from having to answer other people’s questions; from people at the table passing comment on your vegetarian meal and asking what it is; from people commenting on why you’re eating a banana or a pear or a yogurt instead of the rich lemon syllabub and caramel sauce and chocolate flakes they are all eating.

You are free: to smile at people and not say anything; from any anxiety that you ought to say something; from feeling out of it because other people are chatting in little huddles and you’re the only one not talking; from feeling compelled to make conversation just to fill the silence or to be polite or in case people think you’re unfriendly.

Everyone is released from the curse of unguarded tongues and small talk and nonsense. Blessed silence releases us from all that. Silence is such a gift. How I love it.

The only person allowed to speak during that silence was our retreat leader, Michael Mitton. And he gave us treasures, in what he later described as “a Jackanory week”, retelling stories from the bible in the most beguiling way. The stories were taken from his book Seasoned by Seasons.

His retellings of those stories engage every sense: funny, illuminating, revelatory and totally absorbing. Moving and absolutely relatable, these stories are intimate, warm, human.

It’s as if you are an invisible observer on the scene of a story. Or maybe you are inside the thoughts of a character. You can smell, feel, hear, touch and taste what it is like to be there. There is humour, poignancy and passion in these stories and often they are deeply moving. Sometimes you may find yourself thinking, “What! Is this in the bible?” or “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this character. But this story is so powerful, and relevant to me, and my life.”

I feel, too, that I now have a much richer sense of Jesus himself, his humour, his warmth, his compassion, his wisdom, his humanity, his understanding, his disregard for convention and rules, his sharpness, his wit, his mental flexibility, his clear vision, his sheer versatility.

During the silence, there were for me no telephone calls, no internet, no Facebook, no texts, no messages, no emails. Only the power of Michael’s storytelling, the insights that  poured from those stories, and from the silence, and above and beyond it all, the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation, silent, unfolding before me in lines of faint blue and pink across the horizon above the luminous sea.

Sunset over Lee Bay, Devon
Sunset over Lee Bay, Devon