Cornwall mini series Part 4: The Lost Gardens of Heligan

This is the fourth in a series of short reflections on places in Cornwall.

There will be few words, and mainly images.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan are an example of beauty recovered from loss and neglect following the devastation of War. Their recovery again emerged from the vision of Tim Smit who then went on to set in motion The Eden Project. Come here to share in the wonder of these gardens and be part of their witness to renewal of hope.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published on 15th June 2020 by Amberley Publishing.

I’m pleased to announce that I have signed a contract

I’m pleased to announced that I have signed a contract with history publishers Amberley Publishing for a book about Warwickshire to be published in June 2020. This will be a highly illustrated book full of stories arranged under themes from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.

St Mary’s Church Warwick at night. Photo credit: Jamie Robinson.

The book will explore some of the supernatural and spiritual stories in the region. It describes a number of Warwickshire’s most iconic locations which I believe have spiritual resonance and which I’ve visited many times.

These include Guy’s Cliffe House and the Saxon Mill in Warwick; Hall’s Croft and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon; Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle among other locations.

I’m weaving into this insights from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits. And I’ve also been out and about interviewing and listening to people closely associated with the properties who have rich and fascinating stories to tell.

More news on this to follow!

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path

Film Review: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Film Starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins: A True Picture of Tolkien’s Inspirations?

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Film Reviews: ‘Tolkien’ 2019 Starring Nicholas Hoult

Tolkien film 2019
Tolkien film 2019

I’ve recently been to see the film Tolkien about the early life of the great author who created The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As one who has loved the creations of Tolkien, both his writings and his art, since I was at university, I looked forward greatly to seeing this film.

I was aware that Tolkien’s family have distanced themselves from the film so I was intrigued to find out for myself what could be the cause of their objections.

Nicholas Hoult’s performance as young Tolkien is admirable, and I often found the story very moving. The film sets out to show what might be considered Tolkien’s formative years – his childhood move to Birmingham, the loss of his parents, the transfer of his care to a priest, his lives at school and university, the relationships he formed, his early relationship with Edith who became his wife, his experience in the trenches in the First World War and his early married life, moving towards the time when he began writing The Hobbit.

Some of the criticisms levelled at the film have included the fact that no mention is made of his Catholic Christian worldview which played a vital part in his conception of Middle Earth and can even more clearly be seen in The Silmarillion. But this didn’t strike me as a major fault in the limited context of this film, since I had not expected it to cover more than a few elements which may have played their part in the creation of Middle Earth.

The film opens with a grim scene in the trenches and we return to this again and again in flashback. Then we move on to idyllic sunlit forest – woodland at Sarehole Mill, known to have inspired Tolkien. Throughout the film we are offered scenarios in which the film-makers speculate about the experiences from which may have sprung many elements in Tolkien’s fantasy world: the eye of Sauron, the two Towers, the Nazgul, the Dark Lord,  the Ents,  the Elvish princess Arwen, the close Fellowship of the Ring, the devotion and loyalty of Samwise Gangee to Frodo; and behind the action we often hear the voices of Lothlorien.

I enjoyed all this, accepting that the film-makers could not necessarily be expected to stick to known facts. From the point of view of a writer myself, I know that often when we write, ideas arise from the unconscious, and we cannot even say necessarily where any of them came from: unless it strike us unexpectedly. Thus it would surely have been for Tolkien as he created Middle Earth.

I was fascinated, though, to learn of Edith’s love for Wagner’s Ring Cycle – a love I share – and how this would have influenced Tolkien.  And also to learn of the influence of his professor in Philology, played by Derek Jacobi, who says: “There’s a comfort in distance, in ancient things.”  Tolkien’s passion for creating languages, complete with structure and vocabulary, comes over strongly.

And the film ends again back in the woodland at Sarehole Mill with Tolkien encouraging his children to speak to the trees, and speaking to them of their power:  “little people just like you… little in stature, not in spirit.”

Here are some other posts I’ve written about Tolkien.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path.

l

 

 

Book Review: “The Making of Us” by Sheridan Voysey

Here’s a book which should appeal to those of you who feel as if you’ve reached  a point in your lives where all that you hoped for has not been achieved; maybe it seems you have to let go of your dreams; and perhaps you simply don’t know where to go from here.

The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey

 The Making of Us by Sheridan Voysey is the story of a pilgrimage on foot from the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) to the Shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral. It’s  also a Christian-inspired self-help book enabling readers to reflect upon their own life journeys. Following the rhythm of the two pilgrims, (the author Sheridan Voysey and his friend DJ), we can visualise the landscape they travel, and feel the spiritual highs and the physical and emotional lows of the journey.

I met Sheridan at an author’s conference a couple of years ago. He told us his story, and spoke about his books and his broadcasting work, and then, having shared his own writing journey, he offered inspiration and guidance to the writers in the audience.

During the day he also offered his expertise as an experienced broadcaster, and asked for volunteers among us, to come up so he could interview us about ourselves and our books. I was one of those who volunteered, and it was a very helpful and enlightening exercise in the art of introducing yourself to a radio audience within a limited time-frame, in the most succinct and engaging way!

Sheridan is originally from Brisbane in Australia, though he now lives in Oxford in the UK.  I find his observations about Brisbane and Sydney particularly poignant as I lived in Brisbane myself for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK.

I have another personal connection with the subject of Sheridan’s book: I visited Lindisfarne (Holy Island) myself three years ago. This island is a very special place, and I felt a strong spiritual presence there; a retreat on the island offers several ways to reflect upon your life and your place in the world and in the universe.  During his promotional videos for the release of this book, Sheridan has included videos of Holy Island and of him walking across to the island from the mainland during low tide.

Through the medium of this physical journey between Lindisfarne and the Shrine of St Cuthbert, Sheridan teaches us much deeper values which may apply to our own lives, especially those of us who may define ourselves by any of the following:

  • who we know
  • our possessions
  • our status
  • our dreams and ambitions
  • our job titles.

Do you, perhaps, suffer from imposter syndrome This is an affliction that often applies to writers – even those whom the world might consider “successful”. Or, do you find that when people ask what you “do”, you respond with what you used to do?

These two pilgrims’ journey through the woods and fields and paths and roads of Northumberland then starts to parallel our own life journeys. During Sheridan’s description of the walk, he reflects upon periods in his own past life story. Places he and DJ visit give rise to memories of people he has known whom he now sees in a new light.

In all this, Sheridan’s purpose seems to be to shift our value systems, our vision of what really matters about our lives here on this earth. He interweaves biographical information about the Celtic saints Aidan and Cuthbert into his pilgrimage, giving us the opportunity to relate aspects of their journeys to our own.

One of the most striking sentences in the book is:

Maybe when identity is lost we can discover who we really are.”

And the most challenging question:

Could you be content having your contribution to the world left unknown or forgotten, yet known by God and pleasing to him?

At the end of the book, Sheridan gives a series of questions to reflect on for each chapter, and several blank journalling pages if you wish to use the book as the basis for a much more in-depth project of self-knowledge. The book could be used as a group resource as well as an individual one; but if you were to study and work with the book as part of a group, that group would need to be one in which you felt safe and secure.

He also offers his own contemporary Creed which you may download from his website sheridanvoysey.com.

I give this book the highest possible rating, 5 stars, and I recommend it to all those of you who resonate with what I’ve written in this review.

I received a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

Great Gardens of England: Hidcote Manor Gardens, near Chipping Campden

A great garden is an image of paradise, in more than one religious outlook. Perhaps this is because  within such a garden, all the very best of the natural world is taken by human ingenuity, and then gifted and skilled gardeners weave their own design and creativity into it. Our dreams become realised through a beautiful garden.

 

Hidcote Manor Gardens in the Cotswolds is one of the National Trust’s greatest gardens.

I remember once taking a tour with the Head Gardener here and he pointed out that the garden is defined by borders and obeys a structure closer to the house, and yet the further you wander from the house, the more you feel the garden becoming fluid and serpentine in its design, less structured, as if it is flowing into the land beyond.

And I remember him saying that they have protection rights over the view here, for the vistas are some of the garden’s most prized elements.

When I visited a few days ago (February 2019) the garden was of course still at the end of winter, beginning to move towards the opening-up time of spring.

Even so, its beauty is still apparent.

Enjoy the photos here and reflect upon how much we owe to those visionaries and dreamers who are able to bring what they imagine into reality, for the enrichment of the spirits of others.

SC Skillman

psychological,  paranormal,  mystery  fiction and inspirational non-fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit, Perilous Path

 

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

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

If this be error and upon me proved

I never writ nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare:  Sonnet 116

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to get there:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Kenilworth

Warwickshire

CV8 2LF

 

Find out more:

www.stoneleighabbey.org

 

 

Hattton Locks, Warwick: The Stairway to Heaven

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

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

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

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

 

How to get there:

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

Find out more:

http://www.canalrivertrust.org.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

How to get there:

Alcester

Warwickshire

B49 5JA

 

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