Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 9: St Michael’s Church, Baddesley Clinton

This is the ninth in a series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Baddesley Clinton photo credit Abigail Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
The Manor House at Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

The medieval manor house at Baddesley Clinton is one of my favourite National Trust properties. Full of secrets and stories, this is the style of architecture I most love, timber-framed, set within a moat, full of secrets and stories, with its nooks and dens and unexpected corners and disappearing staircases… and of course the much-loved priest-holes.

St Nicholas Owen 1550-1606 master priesthole builder photo credit Wikimedia commons Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
St Nicholas Owen 1550-1606 master priest-hole builder photo credit Wikimedia commons Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

Not so much loved, I imagine, by the sixteenth century Jesuit priests who had to hide in them for days to escape Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters; although they would certainly have been grateful for the sanctuary, knowing the alternative; arrest, trial and execution by hanging, drawing and quartering.

No, we are the ones who have the luxury of loving the priest-holes; for today we gaze with awe and wonder at the sheer ingenuity, physical strength and building skills of the master priest-hole builder, Nicholas Owen (later canonised by the Catholic church).

The original house was built here in 1400. Its name derives from a Saxon called Baeddi, who first cleared the site in the Forest of Arden where the house stands, and the de Clinton family, who dug the moat in the 13th century.

For 500 years the house was owned by the Ferrers family, passing from father to son for twelve generations. The Ferrers family remained loyal to the Catholic faith despite periods of persecution after Henry VIII’s split from Rome.

Edward Ferrers built much of what we see today, from 1526 onwards.

The Quartet in the Great Hall Baddesley Clintond painting by Rebecca Orpen Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Gifted artist Rebecca Orpen (1830-1923) came to live at Baddesley Clinton in 1867 with her husband Marmion. In this painting she shows herself and Marmion with her aunt Georgiana and Georgiana’s husband Edward in the Great Hall. Known as The Quartet, they were all artistically gifted, and filled their lives here in this lovely manor house with poetry, painting, writing and music.

Many curious tales are told of the house, many by National Trust staff. One of the tales concerns the lingering presence of an unfortunate 15th century priest, one Willelmus Foster, who was killed by the hot-headed owner of the manor, Nicholas Brome (1450-1517) in a fit of misdirected jealousy.

It is in St Michael’s Church, close by the manor house, that we may find ample evidence of Nicholas’s attempt to make amends. This is a fascinating story in which repentant Nicholas went to elaborate lengths to save his soul, according to the accepted beliefs of the time.

The tower of atonement St Michaels Church Baddesley Clinton photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
The tower of atonement at St Michael’s Church Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

He funded the construction of two towers in two churches, one of which is at the church in nearby Packwood, and the other of which is here at Baddesley Clinton. They are called the Towers of Atonement.

Nicholas also became a member of eight religious fraternities, praying each day for the souls of their members. Thus he was spared the usual penalty for murder, according to the law of the land (i.e. paying in the traditional manner for murdering the priest). It may also have had something to do with the fact that he was the lord of the manor.

It makes a fascinating story for us today, and it is recounted in the church, where Nicholas may be seen kneeling in prayer, resplendent in the stained glass of the east window.

Nicholas Brome stained glass east window St Michaels Church Baddesley Clinton photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Nicholas Brome kneeling in prayer – in the stained glass east window St Michael’s Church Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

He did however, as a final spiritual insurance policy, make reparation for his sins by directing that he be buried just outside the west door of the church, under the step where the doormat is placed, so all who entered the church might walk over him.

Nicholas Brome under doormat St Michaels Church Baddesley Clinton photo credit Sheila Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Plaque marking burial place of Nicholas Brome under doormat of St Michael’s Church Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

Do check out my other posts in this series, which I began on 14th August 2020 with Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits, and which brings us up to the publication date of my book Paranormal Warwickshire – 15th November 2020.

Warwick Castle

Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick

Gaveston’s Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick

St Mary’s Warwick

Kenilworth Castle

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

Leamington Sp

The other posts in the series will cover the following locations:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Thomas Oken’s House, and the Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Rugby Theatre and other Rugby locations

Nuneaton locations

Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

Coughton Court, Alcester

You can pre-order Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 3: Guy’s Cliffe

This is the third in my series of glimpses into the subject of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Guy’s Cliffe claimed its hold on my imagination from the first time I saw it, not long after I moved to Warwickshire twenty six years ago.

Guys Cliffe seen from Saxon Mill photo credit Abigail Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Guys Cliffe seen from Saxon Mill photo credit Abigail Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

Clinging to a cliff alongside the river Avon north of Warwick, this ruined gothic mansion nearly fulfilled Shakespeare’s words in Two Gentlemen of Verona Act 5, Scene 4:

Leave not the mansion so long tenantless,

Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall

And leave no memory of what it was!

As in the case of all grand historical houses, this one has been vulnerable to the changing fortunes of the families who held it over the centuries, and in particular the use to which it was put, and the way it was treated, during the two World Wars. Some of these grand houses were saved, others not.

Guys Cliffe courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Guys Cliffe courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

In this case, the mansion at Guy’s Cliffe, first built by wealthy landowner Samuel Greatheed in 1751, has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – but only in a ruined state. Today it teases and haunts those who view it, with its gothic architectural flourishes, thanks to the romantic imagination of its most colourful owner, Bertie Greatheed, whose influence is felt everywhere in Warwick and Leamington Spa.

Guys Cliffe entrance courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson. Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Guys Cliffe entrance to the Courtyard photo credit Jamie Robinson. Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

The full story is told in my book Paranormal Warwickshire, in which I repeat many curious anecdotes about this atmospheric ruin and its environs. During the course of my research, I interviewed the custodian Adrian King whose love of the history and the spiritual ambiance of this location is very evident; not least in the facts that he currently leads a major fundraising effort to restore the site, and also hosts popular ghost-hunting tours at this location.

The present ruinous condition of the mansion serves only to feed the imagination of all those who view it from the Saxon Mill, further down the river, and all those who tour the ruins as I did, with Adrian’s expert guidance.

Guys Cliffe 1900 photo credit Warwickshire County Record Office SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Guys Cliffe as it appeared in 1900 photo credit Warwickshire County Record Office SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

The land on which Guy’s Cliffe is built attracted ancient Celtic people and Christian hermits long before any structures existed here. According to 16th century historians, the combination of an idyllic glade with many clear streams above a steep rock full of caves… washed at the bottom by a crystal river proved irresistable to the Romans, cave-dwelling hermits, the Earl of Warwick, and chantry priests; and to many others.

The enduring legend of Guy of Warwick is centred upon this location, and the tragic tale of his wife, the lady Felice, and her fateful plunge from the cliff has imbued the site with its poignant aura.

John Rous historian chantry priest guys cliffe Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
John Rous, medieval historian and Chantry Priest at Guys Cliffe, writing in the year 1440, tells us of the Celtic monk St Dubritous who established the St Mary Magdalene Oratory here in the year 600

Now, the grounds of Guy’s Cliffe receive loving attention; clearance work and restoration of the formal gardens is underway and in the not too distant future, visitors may gain greater access to this beguiling location with its ruined mansion, the Chapel of Mary Magdalene with its statue of Guy of Warwick, its mysterious grounds and outbuildings, which never cease to deliver curious experiences and strange stories, right up to the present day.

Check out my previous posts on the subject of Guy’s Cliffe estate.

The walled garden which was formerly the kitchen garden for the mansion

and

romantic ruin in a dreamlike state

If you are interested in supporting the fundraising project headed by Adrian King do look here for further details.

You can read much more about Guy’s Cliffe in my book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published on 15th November 2020 by Amberley Publishing. Pre-order the book here.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 2: Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle view from town bridge black and white photo credit Jamie Robinson SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Warwick Castle view from town bridge black and white photo credit Jamie Robinson SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

This is the second in my series of glimpses into the subject of my new book, Paranormal Warwickshire, which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Here is the classic view of Warwick Castle, seen from the town bridge as you enter Warwick from the south. This magnificent medieval fortress makes a dramatic impact upon the visitor, a romantic vision crowning a cliff above the river Avon. Of course, I couldn’t write a book called Paranormal Warwickshire without including Warwick Castle.

Warwick Castle view from the island bridge photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Warwick Castle view from the island bridge photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

The history of the castle spans over 1,100 years, as the first fortification was built here by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, in the year 914. A rich succession of stories and characters has kept this castle at the heart of English history ever since: by no means least among them being Richard Neville known as Warwick the Kingmaker (earl from 1449 to 1471) whose final battle is commemorated in The Kingmaker exhibition at the castle.

Warwick Castle view from the Mill Garden Warwick SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Warwick Castle view from the Mill Garden Warwick SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

The castle is now owned and looked after by Merlin Entertainments and is one of England’s top tourist destinations. Whether you tour the castle’s State Rooms and Great Hall; descend into the dungeons; climb to the battlements and admire the view; stand atop the summit of Ethelfleda’s Mound; or view the majestic edifice from the island whilst enjoying a reconstruction of the Wars of the Roses – this site breathes glory, drama and high emotional stakes.

So, we might say, few paranormal tales here – and they have been reported by many – could escape the charge of being conjured up by the imagination.

Caesar's Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Caesar’s Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

But is that true of every single story told here? With such a large number of independent curious anecdotes, the weight of accumulated evidence tends to suggest “there are strange things going on behind the scenes.” I recount several stories about the castle in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. I examine the evidence for the most famous one, and consider whether or not it was conjured up by a cunning Earl of Warwick in order to attract visitors. I also come across a few new tales told by recent visitors.

Guy's Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Guy’s Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

Check out my other posts in this series, which I began on 14th August 2020 with Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits, and which brings us up to the publication date of my book Paranormal Warwickshire – 15th November 2020.

The other posts in the series will cover the following locations:

Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick

Gaveston Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick

St Mary’s, Warwick

Kenilworth Castle

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

Leamington Spa

St Michael’s Church, Baddesley Clinton

Stoneleigh Abbey

Thomas Oken’s House, and the Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Rugby Theatre and other Rugby locations

Nuneaton locations

Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

Coughton Court, Alcester

You can pre-order Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 1: Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits

This is the first of a series giving you a few tasters from my book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be released by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman cover design. Published Amberley 15 November 2020
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman cover design. Published Amberley 15 November 2020

Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works. In Paranormal Warwickshire I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places both grand and everyday, including Guy’s Cliffe, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, Stoneleigh Abbey, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.

When I began my book, I was inspired by the spiritual resonance of so many locations in Shakespeare‘s county of Warwickshire. It seemed entirely appropriate to draw all the stories together through the central theme of Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of these supernatural encounters and characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus, tormented by guilt, is haunted by the ghost of murdered Caesar.

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

In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, grief-stricken and betrayed, agonises over whether or not he is visited by the spirit of his father.

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.

In Macbeth , the king of Scotland (whose name many actors are too superstitious to mention), cannot believe he is the only person who sees Banquo’s spirit at the feast…

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.

Alongside those who witness the apparitions, we have some wonderful sceptical foils or sounding boards. Cassius in Julius Caesar is convinced Brutus’s vision was just the power of his imagination. In Hamlet, Horatio tells his troubled friend that it is but a fantasy. Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale says he has heard but not believed the spirits of the dead may walk again.

And as for spirits, either they are serving the will of the magician Prospero in The Tempest

Prospero, Ariel & Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Paiting by William Hamilton Image sourced from Wikipedia. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Prospero, Ariel & Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Painting by William Hamilton. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

or setting out, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to accomplish the task of teasing mortals…

Puck a Sprite. Painting by Arthur Rackham. sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Puck, a Sprite. Painting by Arthur Rackham. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

But in the end, are they but airy nothing, to which the poet’s pen gives a local habitation and a name?

Whether they are purely dramatic devices, or whether Shakespeare himself believed in ghosts and spirits, we cannot definitively say. Scholars and Shakespearean actors and lovers of the Bard differ in their views. But one thing we can say for sure; they fired Shakespeare’s imagination to the highest degree, and he lavished upon them great poetry, humour, playfulness and mischief, the heights of powerful drama, the depths of despair, guilt and existential angst, and his most discerning observations of mental distress.

Throughout my book Paranormal Warwickshire I have used quotes from Shakespeare. In every case I found a quote which I believe resonates with how I feel about the place.

Perhaps Shakespeare would have been surprised to know that four hundred and twenty years into the future, a belief in ghosts and spirits would prevail with such strength in our society. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. He reached to the heart of the human condition, and the emotions and dilemmas he presents are fresh and vivid and relevant to us today. So I confirmed when I toured many places in his county, Warwickshire, and found not only spiritual resonance from the rich stories associated with these places, but many people who have tales to recount, of experiences for which they can find no scientific explanation.

Check out some of my previous posts on the subject of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare and the Plague

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Our wills and fates

In my next post I will share some photos and discoveries at Warwick Castle.

Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman will be published by Amberley on 15th November 2020. Pre-order now either online or from your local bookstore.

Coming Soon: A New Series of Glimpses from Paranormal Warwickshire

My new book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th Nov 2020.

Paranormal Warwickshire fireside read published Amberley 15 November 2020
Paranormal Warwickshire fireside read published Amberley 15th November 2020

On this blog I will be featuring a series of glimpses into the book, and sharing some of the photos from the book alongside a few tasters from each of the places I have visited.

Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works. In Paranormal Warwickshire I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places both grand and everyday, including Guy’s Cliffe, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, Stoneleigh Abbey, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.

The series Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire begins on Friday 14th August 2020.

Inspiration for Creative Writers From Grayson Perry in Grayson’s Art Club

Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I am currently finding inspiration from  artist Grayson Perry as he showcases “Covid-19 lockdown art” in his TV show “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4.

Grayson makes use of our contemporary culture which he transforms into art –  tapestries, lithographs, glazed vases. One of my favourite items in a Grayson Perry exhibition in London was his “career advancement vase” upon which he had painted lots of different cliché words and phrases job seeker use on CVs.  These words are so evocative. They carry within them all sorts of pretensions, eagerness to impress, compulsion to present a false picture of oneself to the world.

In. another exhibition of Grayson’s works, I loved his “Walthamstow Tapestry

In Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones’ book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, co-author Wendy Jones writes: “During the interviews Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a mediaeval minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing – I hadn’t come across that before and I doubt I shall see it often again.”

This capacity to morph strikes a chord in me as I watch Grayson’s Art Club, listen to his raucous laugh, and observe the change in his hairstyle between scenes. I also find myself imagining him as a young girl, in one of his many other personnas, I love the idea of a “fluid and flexible ego”, something I believe Grayson Perry has; and I used this idea myself in my novel “Mystical Circles” where it is eventually understood as part of the shapeshifting gifts of a shaman. Wendy Jones’ description was fascinating to me as I have known of those who morph in this fashion and have witnessed it myself and worked it into my own fiction.

Grayson Perry suggests that we “sit lightly to our beliefs”, and “let go of a compulsion to seek meaning – we will enjoy life in this world much more.” His art bears this out; everything is referred back to his childhood teddy Alan Measles, his “guiding spirit”; everything is set against that barometer of his childlike perceptions, even to the extent of  dressing as a little girl.

Grayson Perry  has important things to say, strong challenges to make to me. I cannot ignore these challenges as a creative writer.

Grayson Perry in one of his colourful alternative personnas
Artist Grayson Perry

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 28: Queensland, Australia: from University Campus to Botanic Gardens and Iconic Lookout: Brisbane Highlights

This is the twenty-eighth and final post in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our final visit in New Zealand: Auckland Botanic Gardens. Whilst there we enjoyed the outstanding Sculptures in the Gardens exhibition which continues to showcase and celebrate New Zealand sculptors and artists, through to March 2020..

After flying from Auckland to Brisbane, we were to catch up on some of Brisbane’s highlights in the closing days of our visit.

Promotional websites for Brisbane will point up a number of places to visitors as the “jewels in the city’s crown” but I think the University of Queensland campus certainly deserves to be one of them. I worked there in the School of External Studies, during the time I lived in Brisbane during the 1980s. Much has changed since then but I still enjoyed walking once more through the cloisters of the Great Court, and admiring the wonderful landscaping and of course the magnificent poincianna tree with profuse blossoms, and fragrant frangipani trees which you may see here. Among many other outstanding features, the campus also has a stunning art gallery.

Out last two visits in Brisbane were to the Look-Out and the Botanic Gardens at Mount Coot-tha.

The Lookout is one of Brisbane’s most popular tourist destinations, offering almost 360 degree views. I’ve been there many times in the past, and often a glorious blue sky and clear atmosphere makes this a joyful experience for visitors. However, on this occasion, at the summit the heat was fierce, and the smoke from bushfires was very much in evidence, filling the Brisbane skies.

For me this was a nostalgic, poignant visit, though it has always given me pleasure just to be there and do some tourist-watching! The views from this lookout must be the most popular place in Brisbane as a backdrop for photo opportunities, and at the height of the holiday season, myriads of holiday-makers from all around the world enjoy posing in happy and often artfully-arranged groups.

Our final visit was to Mount Coot-tha Botanic Gardens. These gardens, too, I have loved and often wandered around in the past; today, sadly, the temperatures and humidity were so high, we were unable to tour the gardens as there is much uphill walking, and again a lovely lookout at the highest point of the gardens.

Instead we did the Rainforest Trail: always a blessed relief and an excellent option in times of fierce heat and humidity!

I was also a pleasure afterwards to enter the air-conditioned atmosphere of the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. The day of our visit the Planetarium was offering as its midday show, “Cosmic Collisions” narrated by Robert Redford. I’ve been to the planetarium show too in the past and greatly enjoyed it.

It was a pleasure to return once more to Brisbane and to the many familiar haunts that I remembered from the four and a half years I spent living there in the 1980s. Inevitably there have been tremendous changes, and yet these simply serve to highlight and set in sharp relief those elements which endure, and arouse a sense of recognition, bringing again a sense of deep connection.

These can arise at unexpected moments, sometimes the subtropical forest of a mountain lookout, or a kookaburra sitting on a branch in front of the panorama of the Samford Valley; at other times the glimpse of a gracious colonial Queenslander with its iron lace balustrades; or the feeling of walking through spacious galleries and gazing at the water features of the State Library of Queensland or the Gallery of Modern Art, or the lovely landscaping of the South Bank Parklands.

Perhaps I may best end by highlighting an excellent presentation of the history of the city, in the Museum of Brisbane to be found in the City Hall in King George Square.

There, aboriginal people speak on video. They represent the ancestral owners of all the land upon which Brisbane is built.

“We believe the land respects us if we respect the land.”

Another said, very gently, of the great city that has risen up on this land: “We wish it wasn’t here. But times change.”

I thought of the corroboree spaces, the campsites, the burial grounds and other places of aboriginal life along the Brisbane river in the past. These were all vividly depicted on a timeline map of the Brisbane river, to be found on display in the museum.

“We believe the land respects us if we respect the land”.

Their words, and the feeling behind them made me feel sad. And yet, I reflected, if the feelings of the aboriginal people had been respected, and their land not taken from them and occupied…. I would never be here myself.

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 27: North Island, New Zealand: Auckland Botanic Gardens

This is the twenty-seventh post in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today concludes my account of a journey through New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our visit to the Coromandel Peninsula.

Map of the Coromandel Peninsula

I described our stay in Hahei, on the South Pacific coast, and our boat trip to Cathedral Cove: which appears as the first dramatic setting for the Pevensie children as they arrive unexpectedly in Narnia in the opening scene of the film Prince Caspian.

On the last day of our day we headed south again back to Auckland. Before returning to Auckland airport for our return flight to Brisbane, we visited the Auckland Botanic Gardens.

The entrance to the gardens featured lovely architecture, sculptures and water features.

Inside the entrance area we found an art gallery and cafe. Here in the Auckland Botanic Gardens, Sculpture in the Gardens will showcase and celebrate some great sculptors and artists through to March 2020. We found much to inspire, move and challenge us. I was particularly impressed by a white sculpture of a sad seated girl: poignant, graceful and evocative.

White sculpture of sad seated girl in the entrance area of Auckland Botanic Gardens

Another sculpture which fascinated me, by artist Oliver Stretton-Pow, represents a vision of a city. Called Just City, the artist created it in 2019 using wood, steel and found objects.

Just City, a sculpture in the entrance area of Auckland Botanic Gardens, created in 2019 by artist Oliver Stretton-Pow, using wood, steel and found objects.

Out in the gardens we found this intriguing installation by artist Jeff Thomson. Jeff is known as “Mr Corrugated Iron” and he called this installation Islands. Using corrugated iron, water, galvanised steel mesh, hay, wire, wetland and aquatic plants, he has re-created some of the 50-pus islands of the Haurakia Gulf. He hopes that by playing with positive and negative shapes, he will make us question the relationship between land and sea.

Later we wandered through an area of the garden which featured giant bees on honeycomb.

The ingenious use of arts and sculpture interwoven with colourful planting delighted us all.

Elsewhere in the gardens, we found an area devoted to demonstrating styles of garden design and planting suited to specific climates and location; I was interested to find a recommendation of “green manure” very similar to that seen in Ryton Organic Gardens in Warwickshire a year or so ago. ‘Green manure’ rules, in both the UK, and in New Zealand twenty six hours fight away!

We then set off for Auckland airport and so ended our tour of New Zealand’s North Island, a green and beautiful land full of majestic landscapes and sublime coastal scenery, along with outstanding tourist attractions and awesome geological wonders.

In my next post, the last in my ‘Australia and New Zealand’ series, I share more images of lovely botanic gardens: this time, on the slopes of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane.

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 25: North Island, New Zealand: Rotorua and the Tamaki Maori Village

This is the twenty-fifth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the eighth of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our visit to Rotorua, and The Redwoods Treewalk, a tranquil experience, walking through the forest canopy among the graceful, majestic Redwood trees, along high swinging timber walks suspended from slings secured around the tree trunks.

The evening of our visit to the Redwoods Treewalk, we joined a busload of tourists to visit the Tamaki Maori village. All were expecting “a Maori cultural experience”. What we may not have expected was that we would become a Maori tribe for the evening, and one among us would be chosen as the Chief, and that person would need to memorise the name of our tribe along with certain Maori terms and also carry out the formal greetings required between one Maori chief and another.

One of our number, a Scandinavian visitor, volunteered to be Chief. Meanwhile, all of us needed to learn certain Maori terms; and I think I can guarantee that the one word we all did carry away with us from the experience was “Kia-ora” which was repeated so many times it would be difficult to forget! It translates as “have life” or “be healthy” and is used for “hello” or “hi”.

Before we arrived at the Maori village we were instructed that during the opening ceremony we were to be quiet, to remain unsmiling, and not to laugh or copy any of the Maori warriors’ actions; although we were allowed to take photos.

Each tourist group present had an elected Chief, and a tribal name. Our own Chief stepped forward, and the traditional greeting took place (nose rubbing)

As soon as the formalities had been completed, the atmosphere was transformed. The cheerful Maori Leader welcomed us and said we could all now laugh and smile as much as we liked, and then everyone relaxed and made ready for the most enjoyable experience ahead.

We moved forward into a lovely “Maori Village” environment; Maori huts were arranged around a forest glade, beside a creek with a traditional canoe in it. Each hut was a “station”, between which we moved to see demonstrations of warrior moves, games, cooking, basket-weaving, tattooing and its symbolism. Participation was strongly encouraged, and great fun was had by all.

After that, we moved on to see a demonstration of traditional Maori hangi: cooking foods using heated rocks buried in a pit oven.

Demonstration of traditional Maori ‘Hangi’ booking

Then we entered the “Ancestral Meeting Hall”, to watch a performance of song, dance and storytelling.

Finally we entered the dining hall for a feast and later on a choir sang to us Maori songs and gave another dance performance. A brilliant experience and I can thoroughly recommend the Tamaki Maori Village attraction to all visitors to Rotorua.

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 19: North Island, New Zealand: Enchantment and Delight for ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Fans: Matamata and Hobbiton

This is the nineteenth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the third of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about Paihia and the Bay of Islands.

We set off from Paihia early in the morning and drove south through a landscape of velvety green hills uninterrupted by hedges or fences, dotted with a wide variety of trees, and occasionally by pretty white bargeboard houses in gardens. It felt as if we were surrounded by JRR Tolkien‘s hobbit country all the time: The Shire, that pastoral idyll which the hobbits called home. No wonder the makers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films settled upon this landscape as the ideal location for Hobbiton.

Further along in our journey we entered a region of verdant forest packed with trees so diverse and so attractively interspersed with giant tree ferns that they seemed planted by design.

arriving in Matamata close to the Hobbiton film set

When we arrived in Matamata we immediately saw the welcoming sign and those of us who have loved the world of Middle Earth for so long at once felt a sense of high excitement.

excitement at arriving in Matamata

Even the local visitor information centre has been turned into a nostalgic homestead reminiscent of the hobbits’ innocent world.

The visitor information centre in Matamata

And yet, as we were to discover again and again throughout our stay in Matamata and our visit to Hobbiton, you don’t even need to have read the books or have seen the films to be thrilled by what has been done here to recreate this romantic vision of pre-industrial rural England.

This of course was what inspired JRR Tolkien. The irony is that he was influenced by the countryside between Birmingham and Warwick, in the UK, and by Sarehole Mill – and his vision of Mordor came from the industrial wastes he found. So Tolkien’s inspiration is very close to where I live. But I went halfway across the world to find it recreated here in New Zealand!

Upon entering the visitor information centre we found a sculpture of Tolkien’s most insightful creation: the tragic and chilling figure of Gollum, who had, long before, been known as Smeagol, one of the river folk, until he came into possession of the One Ring, and had been enslaved and possessed by his lust for ‘the Precious’. The One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

The sculpture of Gollum in the visitor information centre at Matamata

I can imagine Matamata itself was an unassuming little ‘one-horse settlement’ before Peter Jackson found his ideal location for the Hobbiton film set nearby. It is astonishing to reflect upon the power of an iconic fantasy epic to catch the imagination of millions and transform the fortunes of one small town.

We had dinner at a restaurant called The Redoubt which had, along with the town of Matamata, ‘fully embraced its Middle Earth credentials’! (a phrase borrowed from the Matamata section in the Lonely Planet Guide for New Zealand).

The Redoubt bar and eatery in Matamata

The menu and decor were based around characters from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

“Sneaky little hobbitses” – Gollum’s well-known catchphrase, up on the wall of The Redoubt bar and eatery in Matamata (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

We had a delightful meal in The Redoubt and it built up our excitement at the prospect of visiting Hobbiton the next day. It was also an opportunity to sample a range of New Zealand red wines!

Inside the Redoubt Bar and Eatery in Hobbiton

Early the next morning we arrived at The Shires Rest, a short distance outside Matamata, to join our tour of Hobbiton, led by a young man called James, who was, appropriately enough, English.

The tour bus took us through the rolling hills of the Alexander Farm, a vision of the undulating landscape of young children’s picture books, a perfect setting for the small, round, cheerful hobbits.

On the way James showed video clips of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, and also gave us plenty of fascinating facts about the making of the films, how this area came to be chosen as the site for the Hobbiton film-set, and why indeed there now exists here a perfect, robust and well-built rendition of hobbit country, for the delight of many thousands of visitors each year.

AS for Hobbiton itself, we all found it beyond our expectations, so perfectly realised, with exquisite attention to every detail: Bilbo’s sign on the gate announcing ‘No admittance except on party business’; the oak tree above Bag End, the line of washing, the wheelbarrows full of freshly harvested vegetables, the mill and bridge, the party field, Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday cake, the Green Dragon Inn and the tankards of beer.

Throughout Hobbiton we found exquisite English flower varieties, all in top condition. In fact, being here was indeed like being transported into JRR Tolkien’s original vision. It has been said that he wouldn’t have liked the idea of his books being turned into films, as he believed that the power of the imagination must determine how people see the world he created. Nevertheless I feel that he would have been awed by what has been achieved here. Hobbiton lacked only one thing: real life hobbits!

SC Skillman, psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction. My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire, will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020 and is available to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.