Naturewatch in St Nicholas Churchyard Kenilworth

Last Sunday St Nicholas Church Kenilworth held a ‘Naturewatch’ in the churchyard.

The church is close to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and Abbey Fields, which feature in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. The Naturewatch took us on a walk around the churchyard identifying a variety of beautiful and curious things – flowers, trees, gravestones, herb garden, secret steps, Celtic cross, abbey ruins, fallen wall and old tree which have become wildlife havens. This churchyard has long been one of my favourite places, and yet I learned many new things. An enchanting and fascinating churchyard hunt.

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Rescued Maori Meeting House in the Grounds of an English Stately Home

I was fascinated to see this Maori meeting house in the grounds of Clandon Park, Surrey. It immediately attracted me as I loved learning about the Maori culture in New Zealand during my November 2019 visit.

I discovered that the original meeting house, Hinemihi, had been sited in an area of New Zealand’s North Island which suffered a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Several people were killed, and the meeting house was damaged and abandoned.

The Earl of Onslow, then Governor of New Zealand, rescued a number of precious Maori carvings and had the damaged meeting house dismantled then transported back to his house and parkland at Clandon Park, Surrey.

Clandon Park itself has suffered disaster – major fire damage had nearly destroyed it but its structure remained intact and it is now the centre of a massive renewal project by the National Trust.

So here at Clandon Park our minds and imaginations are strongly focused on rescue, renewal and new life. An uplifting and inspiring visit.

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Magical light trail at Warwick Castle

On Wednesday 30th December at the end of the Covid year 2020, we visited the Light Trail at Warwick Castle.

As a local resident I have long been a frequent visitor to Warwick Castle, and of course it features in my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Tonight the castle was especially magical. Merlin Entertainments really had excelled themselves.

Entering through the courtyard coach-house tea-rooms, we emerged out on the path to the castle.

Powerful beams intermittently bathed Guy’s Tower and the ramparts in mauve and green and blue, and the stalls of the Christmas Market were decked out in myriad lights.

As we entered the path to the light trail, I felt every trace of the anxiety and low spirits and fear and disappointment of this Covid-oppressed year melt away, and in its place all the excitement and wonder of childhood, at the magical vision that had been created in this iconic castle and its grounds.

We walked past the market stalls and along the trail, entering the castle courtyard through the arch to behold the battlements and gatehouse, Caesar’s Tower, the State Apartments, Time Tower and Elfrida’s Mound all washed by waves of alternating colours.

The voice of an actor broadcast around the courtyard the story of Sir Fulke Greville who after his arrival in 1604, transformed the castle into a grand palatial residence and created exquisite gardens here. He also, as a poet, entertained many famous literary figures here, among whose numbers William Shakespeare would have appeared.

Through the windows of the State Apartments we saw glimmering Christmas trees. Although visitors were not allowed to enter the Castle due to Covid restrictions, nevertheless we were able to gaze at the gorgeous decorations within the rooms.

Having circled the coutryard we left through the arch and made our way around past the Mound and down the slope and across the bridge to the island. In every aspect the castle and its grounds was transformed into something beyond this physical world. It is a beautiful, magical sight anyway, in broad daylight; but with the play of lights it was truly dreamlike.

Traversing the island and returning across the bridge we all climbed the slope to the left leading out into the fields beyond the Peacock Garden.

The giant trebuchet was irradiated with purple light, and the boathouse seemed like a gingerbread house from a child’s storybook.

All the while the full moon perfectly harmonised with the man-made light displays. The backdrop of trees glittered with rich colour, floodlit to set out in sharp relief the ones in front.

Every detail of the monkey puzzle tree glowed with crimson light.

There we passed numerous brightly coloured illuminated tents; and then a field of what looked like giant luminous fungi – in reality multi coloured open umbrellas on the grass.

We headed across the field to the illuminated tunnel where several couples couldn’t resist taking romantic selfies surrounded by the glittering lights.

We emerged into the peacock garden with is glowing Christmas tree and every feature of the garden delineated in lights.

Within the Orangery glittering Christmas Trees could be seen.

As we completed the trail and made our way out of the castle, an then on the long walk through the illuminated woodlands back to the car park, we took with us the joy and enchantment of this wonderful light trail.

Do check out more photos and many curious tales surrounding Warwick Castle in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Extract from the Introduction to Paranormal Warwickshire

I have heard, but not believed,

The spirits of the dead

May walk again

William Shakespeare

So says William Shakespeare, through the lips of Antigonus in Act 3 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale.

William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout
William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout

Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts and spirits? Opinions are divided; Herbert,  Shakespearean actor, who led us around Stratford-upon-Avon one evening on the town ghost tour, maintained that Shakespeare did; whereas a distinguished Cambridge professor, examining the Bard’s use of paranormal manifestations throughout his plays, concluded that he believed these are all ‘emanations from the mind.’

Hamlet and his father's ghost. Shakespeare's Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Hamlet and his father’s ghost. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

We cannot say for sure what Shakespeare believed; but his works are full of ghosts and spirits. It is known that he himself played the part of his most famous and loquacious ghost, the spirit of Hamlet’s father, many times, and it was the top of his performance as an actor, according to his first biographer. This is the ghost of whom Hamlet says:

 The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil, and the devil hath power

To assume a pleasing shape.

William Shakespeare

And yet throughout the play Hamlet continues to explore and agonise over the true nature of the spirit he has seen, with the input of his sceptical friend Horatio; and he reaches different conclusions according to the state of his mind.

Whether because they made excellent dramatic devices, or because their presence in Shakespeare’s plays denotes something much deeper, more complex and hidden within the recesses of his own heart, it is true his county, Warwickshire, is saturated even today in strange events for which there is no scientific explanation.

Ghost Banquo at Feast. Shakespeare's Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
The Ghost of Banquo at the Feast. Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve lived in Warwickshire for twenty-five years, at the time of writing.  I’ve grown to love and feel a deep connection with some of this county’s most iconic locations: castles, houses, and churches; and also some of its less familiar ones.

Thomas Oken House Warwick
Thomas Oken’s House Warwick – photo credit Jamie Robinson

All of these places have rich and complex stories to tell which span the full range of the emotional, moral and spiritual spectrum, as befits the county of Shakespeare.

Brutus & Caesar's Ghost 1802 Wikimedia commons Shakespeare Julius Caesar SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Painting dated 1802. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

But the stories here acknowledge that energy lingers in many places other than manor houses, abbeys and castles. They also tell of ordinary people going about their business in a very familiar, even mundane environment. It’s about shop owners and sales staff, families in terraced houses and busy commuters on a railway platform. Some of the stories you will find here are those that people kept to themselves, for a long time, for fear of being ridiculed.

Shakespeare monument Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Shakespeare’s monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

 Our task here is simply to listen to the stories that people tell, and, like Hamlet, to explore the nature of these strange experiences both with our hearts and our minds, and reach our own conclusions.

Paranormal Warwickshire is available everywhere good books are sold.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 10: Leamington Spa

This is the tenth and final post in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

A historical panorama of Leamington Spa and surrounding countryside, on display in the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington Spa.

The town of Royal Leamington Spa underwent a dramatic transformation beginning from the early 1700s when the 4th Earl of Aylesford discovered a mineral spring on his land. Subsequently, a few further twists and turns of the story raised the fortunes of this sleepy little village called Leamington Priors, until it had attained the highest reputation with The Beau Monde, and re-invented itself as a desirable Regency health resort. Aristocrats and the wealthiest members of society would flock here, to take the waters. The town met with the approval of Queen Victoria, which is why she’s celebrated with a statue in front of the Town Hall.

Victoria House, Willes Road, Leamington Spa (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

I found several curious anecdotes and strange tales in Leamington Spa; these surround the railway station, which plays a significant role in Leamington Spa’s history from the 19th century on; the elegant building, formerly known as the Masonic Halls, now known as Victoria House; and a certain residential property in Leam Terrace which was proving difficult to sell.

Blue Plaque on the wall at Leamington Spa Railway Station

Here’s an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire:

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, you could only reach Leamington Spa by Crown Prince stagecoach, and the journey from London took nine hours. But in 1844 everything changed with the formal opening of the Warwick and Leamington Branch Railway, and the first railway station in the town. This brought Leamington Spa within four hours journey of London.  That station building was replaced in 1852.  Posters advertised the town as a “Modern Holiday and Cure” resort. In 1939, despite initial negative reaction stirred up by the local press, the Great Western Railway opened an Art Deco station to replace the original building of 1852. The building is listed Grade II.

    Both passengers and station staff report paranormal occurrences. Stephen worked there from 2012 to 2016.

       “My job was night-time security officer,” he says……

  Stephen has several stories to tell of strange events in the station at night, when the station is closed to passengers, and no trains run.

   “Once, at about three or four in the morning, across the tracks I saw a lady on Platform 2.  I challenged her. ‘Excuse me, what are you doing in the station? How did you get in here?’ She looked at me as if she’d heard me, turned away and carried on walking. I ran down underneath and up the stairs to find her, and she had gone. So I got onto the CCTV and there was nothing there. But I had seen her clearly.  I had to make a phone call to report her so as to make sure there was no danger of someone being on the track. We have to cover ourselves.

   “Another time, I was walking around when I saw that a door I had previously locked was standing open. So I went to check the door. It was on Platform 1.  The door slammed on me as I went to it. I thought it must have been the wind, and locked it.

   “A lot of paranormal activity takes place in the offices upstairs. I went upstairs to check the place out and the door was open. I went back, and the door was closed.”

 This is corroborated by other members of staff  who regularly see and hear things including doors slamming and electrical equipment turning on and off.

   One staff member said, “When we first moved into the top floor offices the people who had been there previously had obviously left in a hurry. I regularly have paperwork thrown about. Doors are left open and I hear footsteps. I find it is often a quick way to end a meeting having a door slam for no logical reason. I’ve now learned to live in harmony with the ghosts.”

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

To find out more, do order your copy of Paranormal Warwickshire.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 8: Rugby

This is the eighth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

Rugby Theatre (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Rugby has a picturesque town centre rich with history, as I found when I joined an entertaining historical and paranormal tour there. Not only did we learn a lot about Rugby, and about English history, but we also heard several colourful tales recounted by a highly skilled raconteur.

The Black Swan, Rugby, and 14th century house next door, formerly the location of Tew’s the Butchers, mentioned in the classic novel ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ – photo credit Jamie Robinson

Here’s an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire:

   On Henry Street you will find Rugby Theatre, with which several paranormal tales are associated. In 1946 the Rugby Amateur Theatre Society was formed with the intention of founding a permanent theatre in the town. In 1949 the Society obtained a former cinema on the current site, and set about converting it into a theatre.

   One of the stories told by the theatre fraternity here is that of the ghostly figure of a woman who is seen floating down the stairs. It is thought she was an usherette in former times, who is still taking tickets and escorting people to their seats once they have come past the box office.

   Another story concerns the Circle. This is believed to be haunted by the apparition of a man who fell over the balcony and died. He loved the theatre so much he is often seen in his former place and people have actually got out of his way when he went to the seats.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

To find out more curious tales about this theatre, and several other locations in Rugby, why not preorder Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

  

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 7: Warwick Castle

This is the seventh in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

Warwick Castle viewed from the town bridge. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

Warwick Castle, currently owned and looked after by Merlin Entertainments, is not only a spectacular sight for all who enter Warwick from the south, but it is also a treasure-house of stories: both historical, and some perhaps owing their provenance more to the imagination.

Warwick Castle: Caesar’s Tower. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

I attended a fascinating evening there several months ago when we discovered how the castle historians find out the truth of the numerous intriguing objects within the castle walls. We learned that a few of those objects owed their story more to the imagination of the Greville Earls of Warwick, than to any historical evidence (Guy of Warwick’s punch bowl being one of those artefacts).

The medieval bridge into Warwick, now a picturesque ruin close to the Castle Mill and Engine House. Photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Here is an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire.

    In 914, Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, built the first fortification on the land where Warwick Castle now stands, to keep out the Danes. After 1066 William the Conquerer took it over as a site for one of the many motte and bailey forts he established throughout England.

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

   Today, many stories are told of paranormal experiences around the Castle. One of the most well-known tales describes the apparition of Sir Fulke Greville in Watergate Tower. However, the story is no more than one hundred years old, and is not mentioned at all in the writings of Daisy, Countess of Warwick in the 1890s and early 1900s. Being a keen spiritualist, Daisy would have been well-motivated to repeat a spooky tale if it came to her ears. Strong circumstantial evidence suggests it may have been invented to increase tourism to the Castle. A documentary report published in 1996 concluded: “Little trace of Fulke Greville’s alterations survive in the tower…. It is unlikely that he ever lived in it.”

   Sir Fulke held the Castle between 1604 and 1628 and made many alterations to improve and beautify the castle and gardens. His death was a sad one: stabbed at his house in London by a resentful manservant, he lingered on for the next four weeks, suffering at the hands of inept doctors, before he died in agony. His body was brought back to Warwick and he was buried in the Chapter House of St Mary’s Church Warwick, where you may see his tomb.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

To find out more, and read some of the many curious anecdotes about Warwick Castle which are not so easily dismissed, do order your copy of Paranormal Warwickshire, out on 15th November 2020.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 6: Kenilworth Castle

This is the sixth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

Kenilworth Castle (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Today I share an extract from my chapter on Kenilworth Castle, a historical site of great spiritual resonance, looked after by English Heritage, and a place I love and have visited many times.

Kenilworth Castle, Leicester’s Gatehouse. Photo credit Sheila Robinson

   John of Gaunt’s great hall saw many feasts, the walls covered with vibrant tapestries, blazing logs spitting and crackling in the great fireplace and the table laden with banquets. We can imagine the heat that billows through the kitchen, and see the toiling cooks and servants amid the steam, and smell the sweet and savoury fragrance of the dishes that are being prepared and cooked.

   The Castle passed into John of Gaunt’s hands in 1361. John was created Duke of Lancaster and fought long campaigns in France and Spain. But in 1391 he set about converting the castle into a palace, and during the following eight years he held his great banquets.

    Two centuries later, Sir Robert Dudley’s guests arrived at Leicester’s Building, the special accommodation he built to house Elizabeth I and her entourage during their famous nineteen-day visit between 9 and 27 July 1575.

   Sir Robert’s father John, Duke of Northumberland, built the castle stables in 1553. Today the stables contain the castle tea rooms and restaurant, and an exhibition of the castle’s history. The stables have the reputation of being haunted. Visitors have reported seeing the ghostly apparition of a young stable boy. He is dressed in ragged clothes, is thought to be around fourteen years old and of the period not long after the stables were built.  He has been seen in three places: the stables, around Leicester’s Gatehouse, and wandering among the ruins.

    Other strange experiences in the stables are reported by English Heritage staff, who claim to have heard voices from behind locked doors, and felt presences in the kitchen.

   In 1575 Sir Robert spent a considerable amount of time and money preparing for Elizabeth’s visit and his last attempt to persuade her to marry him. As part of his preparations, not only did he build the impressive accommodation block, but also he added Leicester’s Gatehouse. The gatehouse is set up to look as it would have done in the 1930s, when it was used as a private residence. On the top floor is an exhibition to explore the royal love story between Elizabeth and Dudley.

   Several paranormal tales emerge from Leicester’s Gatehouse. Some visitors describe the apparition of a little girl who asks for her daddy. Others have witnessed a spectral man dressed in black who was killed in a swordfight. Other reported appearances include an old lady who breaks the same candle time after time.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
Kenilworth Castle: view of the Keep from the new staircase inside Leicester’s Building. Photo credit Sheila Robinson

To find out more, why not preorder Paranormal Warwickshire, published on 15th November 2020, widely available online and through all good bookshops.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 4: St Mary’s Church Warwick

This is the fourth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

Gothic Tower of St Mary’s Warwick at night. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

The gothic tower of St Mary’s Church Warwick is the defining feature of the town of Warwick, which can be viewed from miles away, especially by those approaching from the direction of Stratford-upon-Avon along the A429. I can imagine that in past centuries travellers would have reached the top of the hill and said, “Ah! here’s Warwick!”

From the top of the church tower you may obtain an excellent view down onto Guy’s Tower in Warwick Castle; and likewise, from Guy’s Tower, one of the very best views of St Mary’s Warwick may be obtained.

St Mary’s Church, Warwick, as seen from the top of Guy’s Tower, Warwick Castle. Photo credit Abigail Robinson.

At St Mary’s you may find one of the greatest medieval treasures in the UK, retaining the glorious craftsmanshp of pre-Reformation England: the magnificent, richly ornamented Beauchamp Chapel.

The Beauchamp Chapel, St Mary’s Church Warwick. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

The Chapel contains several tombs of the Earls of Warwick and other famous historical individuals, such as Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his wife Lettice, and their infant son who tragically died young, and was known affectionately as the Noble Impe.

Here is an extract from my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

The Beauchamp Chapel was consecrated in 1475.

   Within it you may find the tomb of Ambrose Dudley (earl from 1561 to 1590), who was granted Warwick Castle by Elizabeth I and whose brother Guilford married Lady Jane Grey. Also entombed in the Chapel is Sir Robert Dudley, [image] Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, who died in 1588 and here lies alongside his second wife, Lettice Knollys; and also the tomb of their son, the Noble Impe, (image) who died in infancy in 1584.

   Of particular note, too, are the long scrolls of plainsong music carried by angels, while the feathered figures of other angels play musical instruments of the period. They may be seen high in the tracery of the side windows, and on occasions St Mary’s hosts concerts by musicians such as the York Waits, who play replicas of the very medieval instruments – shawms, rebecs and sackbuts among others – played by the angels.

   On a number of occasions visitors report the sound of a ghost choir singing psalms in the chapel when there’s nobody there.

   If you stand in the nave and looks toward the chancel and altar, you may admire the vaulting of flying ribs, one of the finest examples on this scale in England. There are many memorials in this part of the church, and underneath it is a vault which was commonly called the bone-house or charnel house.

   A mysterious dark figure is often seen at the altar in the evenings when the verger comes to close the church. When the verger moves down the aisle to ask him to leave, the figure disappears into the choir stalls and doesn’t reappear. A search of the choir stalls shows them to be empty. So far no research has uncovered the history behind this figure.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

Find out more by preordering Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts: Part 3 The Thomas Oken Tea Rooms, Warwick.

This is the third in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

Thomas Oken’s House is one of Warwick’s most enchanting Tudor buildings. It was built by and is associated with a benevolent gentleman, one of those wealthy Elizabethan merchants who stewarded his money wisely, made a hugely generous bequest to his town, and whose gift is still doing good five hundred years later for the local people.

Numerous curious tales are told of Thomas Oken’s House; and many of them from those who either work in or enjoy a meal in the tea rooms.

Afternoon Tea in The Thomas Oken Tea Rooms, Warwick (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

Here’s an extract from my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

   As soon as Jo took over the tea rooms in November 2011, she started to hear tales of odd goings-on from her young staff. But first, let us backtrack to Jo’s curious conversation with the previous owner of the business.

   “He said to me, ‘You won’t want to hang around too long on your own after closing time, I can tell you.’”  Curious, Jo nevertheless took a sceptical view of this. The vendor added that he had seen door latches shaking up and down on their own. But since Jo took over, she has felt nothing but a friendly presence there. “Thomas Oken was a wonderful man,” she says. The affection with which she speaks of him is testament to the enduring reputation of this good-hearted and far-sighted Elizabethan merchant.

   Jo continues, “I have a lot of young staff who seem to experience strange things in the house much more than I do. I believe that younger people are more spirit-sensitive. Several customers have reported seeing a dignified gentleman with fine clothes and a stick who saunters into the room going from table to table and smiling benevolently at the customers there. One visitor told me that she was sitting in the big upper room and the chatter faded away, whereupon she heard the sounds of a medieval street market: carts and horses, vendors shouting their wares.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
The menu in the Thomas Oken Tea Rooms, Warwick. Photo credit: Sheila Robinson

To find out more preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.

And if you like listening to podcasts, you can listen to me here, talking to radio presenter Tony Lloyd about my books on Tony Lloyd’s podcast Human Stories.