Stoneleigh Abbey – a Glorious Restoration and a Fascinating Historical Tour

We recently made another visit to Stoneleigh Abbey, very near where we live in Warwick: a stately home that has been beautifully restored since it was devastated by fire in 1960.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire

Originally home to an order of Cistercian monks granted land by Henry II in 1145, this later evolved into a gracious seventeenth century residence, formerly owned by the Leigh family, and it is the subject of one of the chapters in my forthcoming illustrated non-fiction book Spirit of Warwickshire.

I can also thoroughly recommend the historical house tour, and also the Jane Austen tour. The guide is both highly entertaining and full of fascinating historical information.

The house is famous for Jane Austen’s visit with her mother Cassandra in 1806, when they were both invited by Cassandra’s cousin the Revd Thomas Leigh to come and view his surprise inheritance. Cassandra – who does sound as if she was rather snooty, and a perfect model for some of Jane’s class-conscious characters –  was delighted and enormously impressed by everything she and her sharp-eyed daughter saw aand experienced during the ten days of their visit, and Jane herself, whilst admiring the physical attributes of the house, imbibed many subtle details which would later emerge in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

"The morning room" at Stoneleigh Abbey
“The morning room” at Stoneleigh Abbey

Their 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.

Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey
Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey

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.

View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey
View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey

Inspiration and Encouragement for Those Currently Trying To Beat the Target of 50,000 words in a Month with Nanowrimo 2018

The first time I ever heard of Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) I was incredulous; I thought it a crazy idea.

National Novel Writing Month 2018
National Novel Writing Month 2018

How on earth do you write  a novel in a month? Then, as I investigated further, I realised that it’s actually a handy motivational tool to get that first draft of your novel written.

Currently I’m working with Nanowrimo to complete the first draft of my new novel “Standing Ovation” (the second in my YA Dylan Raftery series).

And here’s one of my own past blog posts, updated to re-enthuse any other novelists out there currently struggling to meet this target:

The Writing Process for Creating a Novel In Less Than a Month

National Novel Writing Month is currently in progress, and I’m again taking this challenge – completing the first draft of my new novel.  Here is an article I wrote when I was 3 weeks into the 2011 challenge, in order to write the first draft of my second novel “A Passionate Spirit”. Everything I said then still applies now; and my extra challenge is to take my own advice! I hope some of you who have set out on this challenge again for 2018 will find it a source of inspiration.

The task is: write a novel of at least 50,000 words in a month; and by the word “novel” we must mean, of course, “the first draft of a novel.”

Here are three tips to have that completed first draft of a novel in a month:

1) Do your preparation work before the month begins. Ideas will have been hatching in your mind for the last couple of years, perhaps; and now you have a ground plan. You have created a one-sentence storyline, and expanded it to a blurb and a synopsis and perhaps you have drawn up a list of scenes for your novel. Not everybody needs to have done this before they begin writing the novel. Some like to plunge into the writing with two or three characters and a conflict in mind, and let the story emerge. But I had already been thinking about my characters for a year or so before beginning my novel. And I know from experience what it’s like to allow your characters to take over. Characters will do that anyway, even if you have a plan. But I now believe having a plan is a very good way to start, even if the plan is radically changed by the time you’ve finished your first draft.

2) Begin writing, and don’t go back to edit. Control your desire to look over previous chapters and assess or improve them. This needs great discipline. Just keep writing even if you suspect what you are writing is rubbish, because you are going to go back over your manuscript anyway after the month is up and use it as the basis for your second draft.

3) Don’t fall into the trap of slacking or subsiding or falling away because your novel feels as if it’s sinking in the middle. Introduce something crazy or bizarre that occurs to you; just follow that instinct, introduce it into your plot, set your characters the task of dealing with it and keep on writing.

Those who find their minds go blank at the prospect of producing a full-length work of the imagination should remember this one thing: creating a first draft of fiction requires only motivation and courage. It requires you to forget everything negative you ever believed of yourself, and to believe in whatever ideas come to you, believe in them enough to incorporate them in your first draft. When you read your manuscript through in a month’s time, you may be amazed at what you came up with apparently “out of nowhere.”

 

n.b. this article, first published online in 2011, forms part of my writer’s guide, Perilous Path: a writer’s journey

Jericho Writers: Review of an Inspired and Comprehensive Online Resource for Writers

Jericho Writers is a resource that has emerged from The Writers Workshop, an online resource masterminded and instigated by Harry Bingham a highly successful crime author, who, along with his own writing career, is dedicated to providing exhaustive resources for writers.

Jericho Writers, an online resource to help writers at every stage of the journey towards getting published
Jericho Writers, an online resource to help writers at every stage of the journey towards getting published

Jericho Writers takes its name from Harry Bingham’s location, which is Jericho, an area of Oxford. I must admit that my first thought when I saw the new name of his online resource was the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual: “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho, Joshua fought the battle of Jericho And the walls came a-tumbling down.”

The irony of course, is that for many writers, it’s a very good image of the writing journey: we are indeed fighting a battle, and as for the walls which must come tumbling down, well, I think we may all have our different ideas of what they symbolise for writers.

I first came upon Harry’s online resource The Writers Workshop several years ago, and have used some of its resources, seeking feedback on my manuscripts from two of their editors. In addition, I’ve sought and received advice by email; I’ve studied and used the agents submission kit; and have also watched some of Harry’s videos. In particular I found one on “The inner world of your characters” excellent and very helpful as I self-edited “A Passionate Spirit”. Over the course of time I have come to respect Harry Bingham’s voice as one of the few unfailingly sensible, honest and realistic voices online that offer encouragement and genuine practical help to authors.

Those who’ve heard my author talks will know that during my talk I cover the subject of “The ups and downs of the writing life” and in feedback I’ve discovered that the details I give are often new to my audiences. Many of them had previously had no idea whatsoever of the difficulty of writing a strong, saleable novel, and of getting it published.

Snoopy the struggling author
Snoopy the struggling author

 

One of the points I make is about the support and advice available to authors. I specifically refer to  “advice given online to authors.” I have learned that in the writer’s journey there are many voices online, who all want to give advice to you as an author. And one of the most common themes is this. “How I became enormously successful, and sold x thousands of books, and how you can do the same if you follow my advice.”

There’s one fatal flaw to all this barrage of advice: human beings are unique, and every person’s individual journey is different. And what works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

I have come to think of these people as “Siren Voices.”  In Homer’s The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus was sailing home across the Mediterranean from the Trojan War.

Odysseus and the Sirens
Odysseus and the Sirens

He came to a region of the ocean where the sirens could be heard. The sirens’ hauntingly beautiful voices would lure sailors to their doom on the rocks. So what did Odysseus do? He stopped up all the ears of his sailors, and he lashed himself to the mast. Thus he sailed past the sirens, beyond the range of their voices, saving his own life and the lives of all of his sailors.

And this is what I have learned to do, with the siren voices of the internet.

However, I can recommend Harry Bingham to you as one voice on the internet which is genuine, down-to-earth, full of integrity, and belongs to someone who has a passionate commitment to helping fellow-authors navigate the treacherous seas of the writing journey, and achieve their goals.

For those of us who are innately suspicious of yet more emails full of advice and handy hints and tips and resources that they claim are going to help us and transform our lives, let me add this: Harry is also very funny. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the one saving grace that probably first made me give him my time and my attention, and has continued to do so. I can be shaking with laughter as I read his observations on the publishing world (in particular, most recently, his remarks about vanity presses and one in particular which he called Austin Macawful). Because his observations are funny, they’re also true; and that works in reverse too, especially in the world of writing and publishing. And the things he talks about, I recognise. It’s happened to me.

So here’s a review of Harry’s new incarnation of The Writers Workshop: Jericho Writers.

This is a most amazingly comprehensive resource; as I looked through it I realised that it truly does cover everything an author might need at any stage of his or her journey, including the equivalent of a Creative Writing MA.

Jericho Writers itself is a club which you pay an annual fee to join; and then you have the run of of four main services: Editing; Courses; Events; and a Library of Articles. The full range of what’s on offer can be overwhelming; and you may find yourself thinking, where shall I start? What would be most helpful for me, at my stage? In that case you are welcome to send them an email and explain your situation and they will advise you on what might be the best place to start. For myself, on joining Jericho Writers and looking through their resources, I found myself thinking there was so much I wanted to do, how would I handle the time-management aspect of it?

Well, it’s all a matter of your priorities and the perceived value to you of what’s on offer. And that’s something you have to ask yourself and carefully consider as you read through the website.

Under the category of EDITING, you’ll find several levels of manuscript assessment: the entire manuscript; or an agent submission pack review of your synopsis, query letter and first 5,000 words; or an assessment of your first 8,000 words; or an assessment of children’s picture books, and screenplays and scripts. They also offer copy-editing, essential for self-publishers.Each service attracts an appropriate fee and you can look through them all to decide what would be best for you.

Under COURSES  I was most impressed to discover Daren King’s Complete Novel course – this is one-to-one, online, and with no fixed duration, and works as a personal mentorship with Daren King, bestselling adults’ and children’s author. You will get prose tutorials, constant feedback and advice, will work through Drafts 1-3 with Daren, and when the book is strong enough you will also get help to reach an agent with it. Of course, this is at a significant cost. Yet some have said it’s “like an MA in Creative Writing, only better”.  I can well understand that for writers in a certain position, who are genuinely considering a Creative Writing MA, this might be a better, more appropriate and more effective choice.

Under COURSES, the website also includes video courses of different types, to meet varied requirements; whether that be “Snapshot” advice, filmed masterclasses, or training in Self-publishing.

There is also an AGENTMATCH database to make the task of finding an agent easier, and in addition a forum called The Jericho Townhouse.

Under EVENTS, Jericho Writers runs two different one-day events at Regents College, London: one on Getting Published and one on How To Write. They also run an annual Festival of Writing which brings together authors, publishers and agents over a weekend. This includes one-to-one meetings between authors and agents, and it is claimed that often a writer will come away having attracted the interest of an agent, and subsequently landing a publishing deal and a successful literary career.

Finally, the LIBRARY on the site contains articles with good practical advice, on such subjects as How to Write a Book; How To Get Ideas; How Many Words in a Novel; How To Plot, etc.

So do  find Jericho Writers here, have a look through the website, and see if it might be what you as a writer need at this stage of your writing journey.

The Season of Christmas Craft Fairs and Giving Books for Christmas

I always love getting out to meet readers and potential new readers – either by giving Author Talks, or by leading Creative Writing Workshops or by appearing at Craft Fairs

to sell signed copies of my books.

Remember – books are a great choice when it comes to choosing a gift for a keen reader among your family and friends.

Novels can make an excellent gift as long as you know the taste of your gift recipient. And if not, or you’re unsure, why not surprise them with a story they might not have considered reading before? A member of the  audience at one of my recent author talks told me that I had inspired her to read outside her comfort zone.

The next few weeks are very busy and I have one author talk and five Christmas Craft Fairs lined up already, with the prospect of more to come.

So if any of these are near where you live do drop in for a chat at my bookstall.

I’ll have signed copies of my two novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit for sale,

along with my non-fiction book Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, and also copies of the new anthology Merry Christmas Everyone to which I’ve contributed a piece.

Merry Christmas Everyone - anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers
Merry Christmas Everyone – anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers

On Wednesday 7th November  at 7.30pm I’ll be giving my Author Talk “The Power of Story” at the Northgate Methodist Church, Warwick.

On Wednesday 28th November I’ll be selling signed copies of my books at the Christmas Shopping, Pamper, Psychic and Holistic Night at Stonebridge Golf Course from 7 to 10pm. Post code: CV7 7PL.

On Friday 30th November from 5.30 to 7.30pm I’ll be at the Christmas Fair in Clapham Terrace Primary School, Leamington Spa. Find the school at CV31 2AR

On Sunday 2nd December find me at the Christmas Market at the Graham Adams Centre in Southam.Set your satnav for  CV47 OLY.

On Saturday 8th December, drop in to the Christmas Market in King Edward the Sixth School, Stratford-upon-Avon – postcode CV37 6BE – and have a chat at my stall.

Or on Saturday 15th December 2-4pm you’ll find me at the Christmas Fair at the Park View Care Home in Warwick CV34 4ND.

Hope to see some of you at one of the Warwickshire Christmas Fairs!

 

 

 

 

New Christmas Anthology: Merry Christmas Everyone

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve just received 2 boxes full of copies of a new Christmas Anthology, for which I am one of the contributing authors. This is “a festive feast of stories, poems and reflections” and entitled Merry Christmas Everyone.

Merry Christmas Everyone - anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers
Merry Christmas Everyone – anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers

The anthology is published by the Association of Christian Writers. It covers the entire spectrum of emotions that this season can arouse, and I have contributed a piece called The Christmas List.

The book’s available on all online retail sites and I have two dozen copies myself which you may order from me if you live in the UK, at the retail price of £8.99 plus p & p £1.50. If you do wish to order please contact me via this website and I will mail you a copy enclosing the invoice.

The book is a wonderful resource for Christmas readings – whether that be for parties, gatherings of friends and family round the fireside or dinner table, or church services.

If you read the book I do hope you find something in there which speaks to your heart, however you feel about this season – across the entire emotional range.

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Originally posted on the ACW “More than Writers” blog.
We all know who ascends the brightest heaven of invention.

SHAKESPEARE'S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
SHAKESPEARE’S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
Yes, it’s a muse of fire, which Shakespeare wished for in his Prologue to Henry V, as if the power of creativity were indeed a separate being, in this case from Greek mythology.
And I believe that it may sometimes be helpful to visualise our source of inspiration as a separate being – maybe an angel, if not a muse.
As writers, we love and work with metaphor and figurative language all the time, and one of the most loved devices is of course personification, which can often be highly effective in, for instance, comic writing.
A couple of years ago I went to a special event in the garden at New Place, site of Shakespeare’s former family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: an event which stands out as my most imaginative and inspiring experience in that town, even with its rich supply of Shakespeare properties.
It was known as The Garden of Curious Amusements, and presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The central idea of catching the muse was sparked off by the fact that Shakespeare researchers believe the Bard wrote his play The Tempest in his home during 1610/1611.
Can specific geographical locations of this earth hold an inspirational power? Does the muse reside there? Can we be infused with that muse by standing in that very place where a genius caught his or her most world-changing idea?
This notion was the launching pad for a group of  creative people who called themselves the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (UNBOSI for short), and through the medium of art, acrobatics, invention and acting, entertained the visitors who flocked to this attraction. Our purpose: each to take a marble and catch in it some of that muse which inspired Shakespeare, through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The journey itself was full of fun, laughter and delight – and at the centre of this fanciful Art Happening may be found a profound question: is there a correlation between place, time and light-bulb moments? That may sound eccentric and zany; but through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found inspiration and ideas that have changed the world.
We can only imaginatively reconstruct what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens where we embarked on a hilarious but also ingeniously thought-provoking journey of “Muse Catching”.
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished in 1759 in a fit of spite by a character Shakespeare himself might have created: the Reverend Francis Gastrell, the impetuous priest who owned the property and got so fed up with the Shakespeare tourists, he decided to burn the house down. At that time property owners could do what they liked with their properties and the idea that the authorities could step in and save a historically-important heritage building against the will of the owner was unthinkable.
But even a senseless, devastating act like this can sometimes bring unlooked-for benefits in the future. I feel that what I brought away from this entertainment in the garden was in its way more profound than the experience of looking round a carefully presented fifteenth century property and being told that he was born here and trying to feel some sense of awe and connection with the great poet.
So where is inspiration to be found? Is it present in the air, or does it lie hidden in the fabric of a special place? Or does it perhaps emanate from the ground? These and other ideas were played with at New Place on the day of my visit.
Upon entering the garden through the site of the original gatehouse, visitors cross an area which would formerly have been the service range, and where you may listen to an illustrated talk about the history of New Place. Then you will approach a circular area which delineates the space formerly occupied by “the heart of the house”, where there would have been a large medieval open hall with a fireplace in the centre of the room and a vent to let the smoke out.
Close to the centre you will find a bronze replica of a chair and desk which represents researchers’ best estimate of where Shakespeare himself may have sat writing his later plays during those final years up until 1613.
Near to the desk, a bronze tree appears, its branches bent to one side by the force of Shakespeare’s creativity; and beside it a bronze globe is worn smooth by that same force. The rough side of the globe symbolises a visualisation of white noise in outer space – which, the guide suggested to visitors, represents the idea that Shakespeare’s genius may help us make sense of the universe.
In “the heart of the house” during the special UNBOSI event, several information boards explored the idea that many world-renowned geniuses had their light-bulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the creative, quirky and silly – for along that path there may flare up that muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

A Creative Way To Grow, to Journey Through Our Lives and to Be Replanted in Eden

Dandelions. They are strong and beautiful. DandelionFlower

 

They grow even in thin, dry, tough places.

 

They have a deep root system.Dandelion seeding

dying dandelion

And when they die they give their seeds so other dandelions can grow.

Recently I was at a Creative Arts day at Christ Church, Orpington in Kent, which centred around the theme of Growth and was called Creative Encounters with a Creative God. The day was organised by Liesel Stanbridge, musician/composer and music leader at Christ Church. During the day she introduced us to her lovely song: “Replanted in Eden.”

At the centre of the day was this beautiful song “Grow” by Francis, accompanied by a video of stills of dandelions at every stage of their life journey, death, and dispersal of seeds.

During the day there were several creative workshops to choose from including pottery, jewellery, meditation, drumming, poetry, harvest arrangements, dancing with flags, and creative writing, to mention only a few  All of these carried the theme of Growth.

At the end of the day I feel sure that all of us brought something away with us which would have enabled us to see our life journeys afresh: something to think about, something to learn from and something to open up our true identities. I attended the Pottery class led by Caroline Bailey, in which we pressed leaves and scallop shells into clay, whilst listening to poetry, prayers and meditations; a moving and uplifting experience.  Also I attended a workshop on CS Lewis: Image and Imagination and was inspired by the wisdom and discernment of that great writer.

I led the Creative Writing workshop in the afternoon. Here is the description of my workshop:

Classic story structure: the very heart of story-tellingMany of us have a favourite story of all time. Story is a deep and powerful part of our lives from infancy. But did you know that behind every story that thrills our hearts, lies classic story structure? It is to be found in all great stories and myths, and it encompasses the mythic journey of the hero. Suspense author SC Skillman will share the secrets of classic story structure and then lead a creative writing session where you’ll be able to draw upon your own life, and find classic story structure emerging from your own experiences. Come and be inspired to turn your own life experiences into fiction – whether that be short stories or novels for children or adults.

In fact for the writing exercise I used Story Cubes, and each table of participants used the images on the 9 sides of the story cubes to create a story of their own based on the principles of classic story structure. Much hilarity resulted as the groups shared their story lines which were a wild and free mix of genres!

I find it awesome to see the innate creativity of people in the way they respond to story, (even among those who might initially claim a lack of ideas or imagination). And I was moved and delighted to hear and see what the story cubes awaken in people who trust and engage with the process.

All in all, this was a day in whch I believe that all of us present must surely have experienced for ourselves the miracle and wonder of growth.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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…