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.
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.
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.
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.
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. For 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.
As 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.
For 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.
As 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.
Now, 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.
I 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.
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. All 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.
The 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.
When 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.
And 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
In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.
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 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.
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.
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. Which 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.”
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.
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.
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…
In my new non-fiction book Spirit of Warwickshire I have chosen several places in Shakespeare’s county which I believe have spiritual presence; and each chapter is accompanied by a full colour photo of the highest quality, showing some of the spirit of each place. Many of the places are associated with Shakespeare, and each chapter is headed with a quote from the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, which I feel corresponds either in spirit or in specifics to what I feel about the place I describe.
And what a fascinating exercise it is to search for and find a Shakespeare quote to correspond with a piece you have written, inspired by your own independent thoughts and feelings:
Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise.
And so might I meditate on the meaning of that at my first sight of the Burton Dasset beacon, which appears on the hill as you drive along the B4100 from Warwick to Banbury.
A new visitor driving towards the Burton Dasset Hills Country Park from either Warwick or Banbury might have little idea of the view which will greet them from around the next bend in the road. Without warning, an extensive radiant visa rises into view, seen beyond the green hills of this former quarry, now a place which many sheep call home and to which a large number of visitors are attracted each year wiith their dogs and families, to walk, to picnic, and to admire the views from the highest point, crowned by a beacon.
Just such a beacon appeared to William Shakespeare as he wondered how he would encapsulate a beacon to the wise.
My proposed new non-fiction book, Spirit of Warwickshire, is currently in the early stages of its journey into the world.
Richly illustated with full colour photos by photographer Abigail Robinson, the book contains twenty short pieces about places in Warwickshire that I love, visit often, and believe to have spiritual presence.
I define a place of spiritual presence in these terms: “it affords us an opportunity to reflect upon the lives of those long dead, the interweaving of fate and destiny, and explore dynamic equivalents within our own lives.” As this suggests, many of the places I describe have strong historical character.
Because I love Shakespeare, and Warwickshire is Shakespeare’s county, I have headed each chapter with an appropriate quotation from the Bard that I feel corresponds either in spirit or in specifics to what I have independently written about each place.
Here’s a taste of what you may find in the book, visually: a sneak peek at some of the beautiful and high quality illustrations to be included.
Now I’ve begun work on my new book Spirit of Warwickshire, here’s a taster of what you’ll find in it.
The book, which I plan to release later this year with Luminarie, will contain a selection of articles about places in Warwickshire which I’ve visited and which have spiritual resonance. These will be places which carry meaning, places which have power, and places which set off chains of reflections, memories, dreams.
Each of my articles will be accompanied by a full colour original photo of the location by my photographer daughter Abigail Robinson.
This will not be a traditional tourist guide, but an individual take on various places that visitors to Warwickshire may well want to include on their itinerary. This is a guide for travellers of spirit, not just tourists. Here’s a glimpse of just some of the places that will be on my list of contents:
Holy Trinity Church, Morton Bagot: Water, Rock, Moon & Ancient Stone
Guys Cliffe House: Romantic Ruin
St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen: Saxon Sanctuary
Upton House: A Watered Garden
The Saxon Mill, Warwick: a Writer’s Delight
The Saxon Mill, Warwick: A Snowy Walk
Kenilworth Castle: Boxing Day
Kenilworth Castle: Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Garden
Kenilworth Castle : Christmas Wreath Making
Kenilworth Castle: A Dream Arising from Ruins
Kenilworth Castle: Elizabeth and Dudley
St Mary’s Church, Warwick: Inspiration from the Tower
Spring at Baddesley Clinton
Shakespeare’s , New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon: Garden of Curious Amusements
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon: Sir Antony Sher and Shakespeare
Folk Festival, Warwick
St James’s Church, Old Milverton: Country Graveyard
House of Bread, Shipston-upon-Stour: Sheep and Lamb
A place of inspiration is any place which arouses strong emotions, or perhaps memories, dreams, or reflections. The Castle Inn at Edgehill Oxfordshire is one such place.
A tavern was first built in this high location in 1742 – one hundred years after the date of the Battle of Edgehill which took place in the valley below. There, on 23rd October 1642 the forces of the Parliamentarians and the Royalists faced each other in the open field between Kineton and Radway. The English Civil War was just beginning. The King’s forces had been on their way to London via Birmingham and Kenilworth. The Parliamentarian forces had been heading for Worcester. And they accidentally came together in this bloody battle. The Civil War should have ended there. But it didn’t. The battle ended indecisively, but if the royalist forces had marched straight to London they would have gained the advantage, and the war would have been over.
Instead, they made one of those fateful wrong decisions upon which English history so often turns. The Parliamentarian forces got to London first, and a cruel war ensured. King Charles I had lost his best chance to win. His own personal story ended when he paid the highest price for his errors and bad choices, by being beheaded.
One of England’s most evocative and compelling ghost stories lingers around this place too. Since the time of the battle, haunting sounds and apparitions have been reported by many, at night, and particularly around the anniversary of the battle.
Above all this, the Castle Inn sits with its folly in the form of a castellated tower (in which you may book an overnight stay), a picturesque and intriguing attraction at Edgehill, offering refreshment, delicious meals and excellent service in its delightful beer garden, refurbished dining room and historic bar.
It’s one of my favourite pubs to visit, here in the heart of England. Though its attendant history is very sad – see the exhibition now on display at St Peter’s Church Radway – being a story full of tragedy and cruelty and fate, of the kind we love to reflect upon from our safe distance of centuries: until we start to compare it with several current situations of conflict in the world today.
Such, to me, qualifies it to be a place of spiritual resonance, because it affords us an opportunity to reflect upon our own lives, and upon the human story and its twists and turns of fate, from our perspective of centuries after the original historical events. When a place evokes strong feelings of pity, poignancy, compassion, to my mind, that makes it a special place.
And by the way the interior is delightful, the views are magnificent, the service excellent and the menu thoroughly enjoyable!
More eccentric and intriguing residents of the bird park
I was very impressed with it when we visited on Easter Saturday. The park is beautifully landscaped with some enchanting gypsy caravans and playhouses for young children, and the birds and animals are very tame indeed. A word of warning – do buy the bird-feed before you go in as all the birds and animals come hurrying towards you at every bend of the path, full of expectancy and anticipation (rather like authors at a writers conference converging on the agents and editors present with their first three chapters and a synopsis….)
I can thoroughly recommend this attraction as a day out for a family. And it’s set in the most beautiful part of the Cotswolds, with deep valleys and steep hills, close to Prinknash Abbey with its delightful cafe and shop.