Mountains, Castles and Inspiration in Bavaria

We are just back from Bavaria where we were inspired by King Ludwig II’s castles,

view of Neuschwanstein Castle

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delighted by glorious mountain views, view from the summit of Wallbergapple strudel in Panorama Restaurant at the top of Wallbergenjoyed delicious apple strudels

and slipped into Austria where we had a lot of fun on the Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg.The Original Panorama Tours Sound of Music Tour in Salzburg

But the most outstanding feature of our holiday was our discovery of a truly intriguing character: King Ludwig II. Ludwig was a dreamer and visionary whose image is now ever-present in Bavaria.The young Ludwig II

Whilst visiting his three castles – the castle on an island in a lake, Herrenchiemzee, the fairy-tale like apparition high on a mountain crag, Neuschwanstein, and the exquisite vision in a valley, Linderhof, I was fascinated by his romantic idealism, his passionate devotion to the idea of being “an absolute king” dwelling in Castle Perilous, his love of immensely rich and precious interior decoration, his total disregard of the practical implications of his various passions, and his intense relationship with the great composer Richard Wagner.  His story was often tragic, and his end terribly sad – he was declared mad and killed – yet Bavaria thrives on his legacy today.

There were several aspects of Ludwig which inspired me for a major character in my WIP.  So this visit to Bavaria came at just the right time as I’m about to embark on the second draft. With such a complex character, I cannot be entirely sure whether his passion, intensity and commitment to a world of the imagination will infuse my villain, hero or anti-hero. That is yet to be determined…

 

The Fatal Flaw in Human Nature, Castles in the Air, and Dreams and Visions

My recent visit to an English Heritage castle, Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire, stirred up some reflections on life.20170501_124937-1

A visit to a medieval castle cannot help remind you that this great pile represents in stone the major themes in human nature: war, power, wealth, moral and economic hierarchies, social injustice and religion.

Of course what we choose to focus on when we visit a castle is conditioned by the story we attach to it; and when I visit my nearest EH castle at Kenilworth my mind is usually full of the intriguing romance between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester, because that’s the angle English Heritage love to take.

However at Goodrich Castle, several different images whirled around my mind: a chapel in a gatehouse with arrow slits in it, murder holes, double portcullis, double gates, two drawbridges, luxury accommodation and all the contemporary mod cons for the aristocratic family and their friends, and the reminder that the 200 servants would have just dossed down anywhere they could find that was as warm and comfortable as possible.20170501_112727

I found myself thinking about three things:

First, social justice.

We’re very conscious of it now in our society, only because our eyes have been opened to it; perceptions have changed. To modern Christian eyes social justice has always been at the heart of the gospel. But has it? For many centuries the most dedicated Christians were oblivious to it. So has it always been there, and they were just wilfully blind? Or is it only there because we’ve formed a political agenda for it?

Second, religion and violence.

They were pious Christians with rich Chapels and they had all the arrangements in place to hurl boiling oil on people and shoot arrows at them through slits in the walls of their chapel even as they were worshipping. But can we ever judge those who lived in a different age by our own values and standards in very different times? Many who oppose the Christian faith now cite its history as evidence that it is sheer folly. To what extent can we judge the truth of a system of thought/ a religion/philosophy/worldview by its human history?

Third, human nature.

In church recently someone said to me, “He who expects nothing is never disappointed. My view is that human nature is fatally flawed. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think there could be some improvement.” This reminded me that the teachings of Jesus go against human nature. You cannot actually follow through the logical implications of Jesus’ teaching without battling human nature.

What is human nature anyway? With the benefit of hindsight we see the behaviour of medieval castle inhabitants as folly, and it all seems very black and white to us. Future generations looking back will see and think exactly the same about our behaviour now, in 2017, down in our very own microcosm.

Many of our own “dreams” are foolish, vain things – “wishful thinking, ” “pipe dreams”, “castles in the air”. They are not worthy of being fulfilled and are not designed to be fulfilled, but are destined to dissipate in the desert air.

All we can do is take little steps forward according to what seems right, or helpful, or appropriate to us at the time.

We always have to see our “dreams” in this context, of failed, fatally flawed, human nature. And to realise that we’re down here in the microcosm and can only see through a glass darkly, notwithstanding all our little dreams and visions.

 

 

Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

Research in Southwark for Setting for New Novel

Last Saturday I was in Southwark, London SE1, researching locations for my new novel.

To me, the setting for a novel must have a strong emotional connection. My first two novels were set in the Cotswolds, near where I now live. My next novels will be set in London, near where I was born and brought up.

What a  fascinating part of London Southwark is, rich in layers of history, the medieval squashed in with the 21st century, sparkling new towers, majestic cathedral, paupers graveyard and bustling market and Dickensian street names and eccentric pubs all crammed in together – and one of London’s most colourful and stimulating walks, along Bankside, from More London right through to the London Eye…..

But what I’m interested in isn’t just the tourist sites; it’s the atmosphere, the pubs, the unexpected small parks and gardens, the odd corners and street names. Here’s a selection from the many photos I took. And I’ll be back again, absorbing the feel of the place, and imagining my characters into it.

The Joys of a Great Building, and its Healing Power to Relieve the Stresses of Our Lives: Beautiful Pershore Abbey

As the mother of a son with autism, I have throughout his life acted as an advocate, carer, companion, supporter. One of his difficulties is taking unfamiliar journeys alone. welcome-to-pershore-abbey-signNow aged 18, he has just started a new course in Horticulture at Pershore College in Worcestershire.

Yesterday we met what was, for both of us, a challenge: we navigated the minefield of getting from Warwick to Pershore College by 9.30 am (a three hour journey by public transport). It was a challenge for me because, as a car-owner, I’m used to driving everywhere and am unfamiliar with public transport, especially in rural areas.  Having recently been involved in a car accident, I’m currently without a car.  So we both set out, expecting to find the buses arriving and departing according to the timetables, and I ended up with feelings of frustration, anger and even betrayal from the difficulties and unexpected events we encountered (all of them caused by human error). I thought to myself, ‘I must write about this…. if I was a satirical novelist, I’d write a brilliantly comic piece about it.’ Even as I raged impotently against the bus companies of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, the infuriating details of this journey  struck me as perfect material for a comic novelist’s take on life.

Having delivered my son an hour late at the college (slightly relieved by the discovery that several of the other students had also had trouble with public transport this morning, and were late, or still hadn’t arrived – so my son wasn’t alone, and hadn’t missed anything important) – I walked into Pershore to explore the town before returning to the college later in the day.

I was thinking to myself, “this is a lovely place” but my nerves were still so jangled  by our recent journey, and the thought that he’d have to go through this 3 days a week for the next academic year. I found myself reflecting on how so many people in our society seem to operate by keeping one area of information separate from others, and they don’t coalesce, responding flexibly  in relation to other facts. It reminded me of a recent comment on Facebook I had read by a fellow-writer, observing that she regarded the world as largely insane, as a matter of course.

Then I found Pershore Abbey.pershore-abbey-exterior-view-close-up-image-2

 

First of all I walked all around the exterior of the Abbey.

exterior-view-of-pershore-abbey-close-up-showing-wall-buttresses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pershore abbey exterior view image 1.jpgThen I walked in through the west door, and this was the sight that met my eyes.

pershore-abbey-view-as-you-come-through-the-west-door

Immediately,  I thought: Sanity. It was as if I had been trapped in a stifling, enclosed cell and now entered a place where there was fresh air, living water, and a vision of life that transcended all I had been experiencing for the last few hours. I felt released, opened up, by the beauty of this space.

And this is the purpose of great religious buildings, and the goal of all truly noble architecture – to draw you in and welcome you as you enter, to make you feel that you are accepted, whoever you are, and whatever state you’re in, and to live your eyes upwards, so that you may transcend the troubles of this world, and indeed, see this life in divine perspective.welcome-to-pershore-abbey-sign

 

Heatwave Inspiration – The View From Broadway Tower in Bright Sunshine

What do you do in a heatwave? We headed for the Cotwolds and one of our favourite places, Broadway Tower.20160718_135655

The last time I was there a cold gusty wind and a heavy damp mist greeted us.

But on this visit, the sun blazed out of an azure sky,20160718_123139

 

and it was an ideal day to climb the Tower20160718_122645 and view the 16 counties from the top.20160718_122306

I’ve written about Broadway Tower before on this blog as it’s a place of inspiration, 20160718_122253not least because of its association with the preRaphaelites and in particular William Morris, whose philosophy I admire and whose designs I love.20160718_122322-1

As I wrote in my previous post about Broadway Tower, among all things most romantic to me is a high place.

I go to high places for calmness and peace, and also to reconnect with that sense of perspective we all need so dearly in the world today.

There are a number of high places I love to visit, from where I live in Warwickshire. the nearest are the Burton Dasset Hills; Broadway Tower is about half an hour away; and the Malverns a little further.  But all are sources of inspiration.

What are your favourite places to visit, for inspiration and upliftment of spirits?  I’d love to hear about them, wherever you live… unless of course they are secret locations that you don’t want to be swamped by visitors! Do share in the comments below.

 

Antithesis to HRH’s Quirky Garden Rooms Full of Curiosities: Compton Verney Capability Brown Landscape

Isn’t it lovely how many different moods and themes can be captured by garden designers and landscape architects?

The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire
The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire

A week ago I was speaking to the guide who led our tour around Highgrove Gardens about how HRH The Prince of Wales viewed Capability Brown. And the answer was that he realises in some contexts the ideas of that great eighteenth century garden designer might be appropriate, but personally it’s not his “sort of thing”. For when Capability Brown was brought in to transform the surroundings of a stately home, he would be thinking of sweeping lawns flowing seamlessly into the extensive parklands via the ha-ha, dotted with majestic parkland trees, and would of course throw in a cunningly-situated lake, which would create a perfect vista from the house.  This is a profoundly different  approach to that of the sequence of interconnected rooms full of  quirky and unexpected things, which is itself a very popular style of garden design among the great gardeners (such as Vita Sackville West with Sissinghurst Castle Garden, of course).

View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney
View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney

However yesterday I was in one of my favourite Capability Brown landscapes at Compton Verney in Warwickshire

And again I thought how calming and uplifting it is to be in this spacious parkland, which wraps around the house perfectly, providing an ideal setting.

But there’s now a new feature in the landscape, of which HRH the Prince of Wales would wholeheartedly approve: a new wildflower meadow on the West Lawn, with mown paths running through it corresponding to a William Morris design, relating directly to the theme of the excellent Arts and Crafts exhibition currently showing inside the house.

As we visited it on the last day of August the wildflowers were long past their best; apart from a single patch which gave some idea of what the entire meadow will look like next May:

Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney
Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney

Secret Gardens: The First Glimpse of the ‘Privy Garden’ at Kenilworth Castle for Elizabeth in 1575

I find this view of the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle very evocative.

Approaching the steps down into the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle
Approaching the steps down into the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle

It would have been the view Elizabeth  first saw when Sir Robert Dudley led her into the garden in 1575, hoping that this time she’d accept his proposal of marriage.

This first sight of the garden, glimpsed from the Keep, conjures up for me visions of secret gardens, of a lovely vision opening up unexpectedly from a dark approach.

Secret gardens are a strong archetype, a central image in my childhood reading.

They represent the Golden Age of children’s literature and this is reflected in a book I found on the subject.

The classic children’s writers who have touched upon this theme include Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame, George Macdonald, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A.A. Milne and others whose books I have loved. No wonder, then, that this view immediately appealed to me when I visited Kenilworth Castle again today.

View from the Keep into the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle
View from the Keep into the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle

Christmas Wreath Making at Kenilworth Castle

Have you ever put yourself in for something that was out of your comfort zone? Or maybe you fancied doing it but hadn’t considered whether you had the skill or know-how?

close-up of Christmas wreath
close-up of Christmas wreath

On Friday I went to a traditional Christmas wreath making workshop at Kenilworth Castle.

I had always loved these wreaths and jumped at the chance to find out how to make one myself.

16 of us turned up in the Castle shop ready for action and a very jolly English heritage shop assistant in festive mood plied us with spicy Christmas mead samples.

Then we headed off for the Stables, which were very cold, and met our teacher, a professional florist called Zoe.

Fortified by English Heritage ginger wine we watched Zoe demonstrate and listened to her instructions, then we were off, with buckets of damp sphagnum moss, sharp and potentially lethal lengths of wires, secateurs, spruce branches and reels of wire.

The Stables at Kenilworth Castle
The Stables at Kenilworth Castle

What I hadn’t previously realised was how much skill, patience and dexterity is involved in making these wreaths, and that rubber gloves and protective clothing are to be recommended.

Some of us seemed to have a natural flair, others were more challenged. For me, time was fast running out as I battled in a welter of wires, spruce branches, damp moss, and blood from the cuts I had acquired  trying to locate the end of the sharp wires that I had pushed through the moss in order to twist them round back into the moss and attach my “accessories” – dried orange slices, fir cones, sprigs of red berries, bunches of cinnamon sticks and seed-heads.

As I finally staggered out of Kenilworth Castle with my heavy wreath I reflected upon what joy this would give me and a sense of achievement as my family enjoyed a truly hand-made traditional Christmas wreath!

Sheila  with Christmas wreath
Sheila with Christmas wreath

Red Poppies and the Power of Story at The Tower of London

A family trip to the Tower of London at the weekend reminded me once again of how much I love visiting English castles.

at the Tower of London (photo credit SC Skillman)
at the Tower of London (photo credit SC Skillman)

I was trying to account for this in one of my previous posts, but a fellow-writer put it beautifully; when you go round these places you are reassured about the meaningfulness of our lives through the power of story.

No matter how grisly and macabre the behaviour of our predecessors was, we thrill to these historical sites. Everyone of all ages can enjoy them, both adults and children – whether or not the latter are currently studying medieval castles at school! And the Tower of London is immensely photogenic. You cannot move a step without itching to capture another angle, another story-filled view.

The red poppy installation at the Tower – in which the moat has been filled with 888,246 ceramic poppies in commemoration of the 1st World War – is an awe-inspiring, beautiful and moving sight.

art installation at the Tower of London commemorating 1st World War (photo credit SC Skillman)
art installation at the Tower of London commemorating 1st World War (photo credit SC Skillman)

As I am constantly learning more about the Tudors, I feel that the Tower has a tremendous emotional poignancy. I cannot look at the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula without thinking of the account I have read of Anne Boleyn’s ladies-in-waiting carrying her body to the chapel for burial, and having to wait several hours for space to be prepared for her beneath the altar pavement – because nobody had actually expected her to be executed; many believed a last-minute reprieve would arrive from Henry VIII.

But it didn’t. And Anne Boleyn’s legacy is a very special place in English history – as the chief person that springs to our minds in the same breath as The Tower of London.

The chapel at the Tower where Anne Boleyn was buried under the altar pavement (photo credit SC Skillman)
The chapel at the Tower where Anne Boleyn was buried under the altar pavement (photo credit SC Skillman)