Before visiting the gardens at Stourhead, Wiltshire the other day I looked forward to seeing for myself this ‘living work of art’, for I had created a brightly coloured, stylised copy of a photo of that iconic view just last year, during the first UK lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When we visited the garden, originally created in the eighteenth century by the Hoare family, we learned that Henry “the Magnificent” (‘gentleman gardener’) had relied on elements of concealment and surprise in his grand vision of this classical landscape. So we took the route that Henry had set out specially for his guests to take, from the house to the lake, and experienced the concealment and surprise and revelation for ourselves.
Finally, having received glimpses of both the Temple of Apollo and the Pantheon through the carefully selected, planted, cultivated and shaped trees, we came upon the iconic view itself, where you can see the Pantheon across the lake beyond the bridge:
I was enchanted as this was the view I had copied in acrylic paints from a photo back in the lockdown. I felt as if I was walking into my own painting, albeit with more subtle colouring than my own fluorescent production!
Later, after visiting the house, we walked around the lake and climbed up to the Temple of Apollo.
We are lucky to have many beautiful places to walk, in Leamington Spa Warwick and Kenilworth, with gardens, rivers, castles, historical houses and parklands. Each time I walk in Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, I see new delights. Throughout this pandemic, the natural world has upheld the spirits of so many – and the imagination, hard work, dedication and creativity of gardeners.
Curious how when we are instructed by the government to stay at home and only venture out for a very few clearly defined purposes, those of us who didn’t do enough walking prior to the pandemic suddenly find ourselves seizing the opportunity to get out every day.
And I am one of those. Living in Warwick we have several lovely walks not far from our home. We can head for Leamington Spa, and Jephson Gardens; or to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth. Both are very special places and water is in abundance there and in many other local places – either the River Leam or the River Avon or the Finham Brook or the Grand Union Canal….
Do you have lovely places to walk, close to your home? I’d love to hear about them! Do share in the comments below.
Entering through the courtyard coach-house tea-rooms, we emerged out on the path to the castle.
Powerful beams intermittently bathed Guy’s Tower and the ramparts in mauve and green and blue, and the stalls of the Christmas Market were decked out in myriad lights.
As we entered the path to the light trail, I felt every trace of the anxiety and low spirits and fear and disappointment of this Covid-oppressed year melt away, and in its place all the excitement and wonder of childhood, at the magical vision that had been created in this iconic castle and its grounds.
We walked past the market stalls and along the trail, entering the castle courtyard through the arch to behold the battlements and gatehouse, Caesar’s Tower, the State Apartments, Time Tower and Elfrida’s Mound all washed by waves of alternating colours.
The voice of an actor broadcast around the courtyard the story of Sir Fulke Greville who after his arrival in 1604, transformed the castle into a grand palatial residence and created exquisite gardens here. He also, as a poet, entertained many famous literary figures here, among whose numbers William Shakespeare would have appeared.
Through the windows of the State Apartments we saw glimmering Christmas trees. Although visitors were not allowed to enter the Castle due to Covid restrictions, nevertheless we were able to gaze at the gorgeous decorations within the rooms.
Having circled the coutryard we left through the arch and made our way around past the Mound and down the slope and across the bridge to the island. In every aspect the castle and its grounds was transformed into something beyond this physical world. It is a beautiful, magical sight anyway, in broad daylight; but with the play of lights it was truly dreamlike.
Traversing the island and returning across the bridge we all climbed the slope to the left leading out into the fields beyond the Peacock Garden.
The giant trebuchet was irradiated with purple light, and the boathouse seemed like a gingerbread house from a child’s storybook.
All the while the full moon perfectly harmonised with the man-made light displays. The backdrop of trees glittered with rich colour, floodlit to set out in sharp relief the ones in front.
Every detail of the monkey puzzle tree glowed with crimson light.
There we passed numerous brightly coloured illuminated tents; and then a field of what looked like giant luminous fungi – in reality multi coloured open umbrellas on the grass.
We headed across the field to the illuminated tunnel where several couples couldn’t resist taking romantic selfies surrounded by the glittering lights.
We emerged into the peacock garden with is glowing Christmas tree and every feature of the garden delineated in lights.
Within the Orangery glittering Christmas Trees could be seen.
As we completed the trail and made our way out of the castle, an then on the long walk through the illuminated woodlands back to the car park, we took with us the joy and enchantment of this wonderful light trail.
This is the seventh in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.
Warwick Castle, currently owned and looked after by Merlin Entertainments, is not only a spectacular sight for all who enter Warwick from the south, but it is also a treasure-house of stories: both historical, and some perhaps owing their provenance more to the imagination.
I attended a fascinating evening there several months ago when we discovered how the castle historians find out the truth of the numerous intriguing objects within the castle walls. We learned that a few of those objects owed their story more to the imagination of the Greville Earls of Warwick, than to any historical evidence (Guy of Warwick’s punch bowl being one of those artefacts).
Here is an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire.
In 914, Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, built the first fortification on the land where Warwick Castle now stands, to keep out the Danes. After 1066 William the Conquerer took it over as a site for one of the many motte and bailey forts he established throughout England.
The mound on which these fortifications stood remains today as a prized element of the estate; and indeed when Francis Greville, Earl of Warwick from 1759 to 1773, commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to landscape the grounds, he suggested making the mound an important aesthetic feature, ordering ornamental trees to be planted down its slopes surrounding the spiral path.
Today, many stories are told of paranormal experiences around the Castle. One of the most well-known tales describes the apparition of Sir Fulke Greville in Watergate Tower. However, the story is no more than one hundred years old, and is not mentioned at all in the writings of Daisy, Countess of Warwick in the 1890s and early 1900s. Being a keen spiritualist, Daisy would have been well-motivated to repeat a spooky tale if it came to her ears. Strong circumstantial evidence suggests it may have been invented to increase tourism to the Castle. A documentary report published in 1996 concluded: “Little trace of Fulke Greville’s alterations survive in the tower…. It is unlikely that he ever lived in it.”
Sir Fulke held the Castle between 1604 and 1628 and made many alterations to improve and beautify the castle and gardens. His death was a sad one: stabbed at his house in London by a resentful manservant, he lingered on for the next four weeks, suffering at the hands of inept doctors, before he died in agony. His body was brought back to Warwick and he was buried in the Chapter House of St Mary’s Church Warwick, where you may see his tomb.
from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
To find out more, and read some of the many curious anecdotes about Warwick Castle which are not so easily dismissed, do order your copy of Paranormal Warwickshire, out on 15th November 2020.
Today I share an extract from my chapter on Kenilworth Castle, a historical site of great spiritual resonance, looked after by English Heritage, and a place I love and have visited many times.
John of Gaunt’s great hall saw many feasts, the walls covered with vibrant tapestries, blazing logs spitting and crackling in the great fireplace and the table laden with banquets. We can imagine the heat that billows through the kitchen, and see the toiling cooks and servants amid the steam, and smell the sweet and savoury fragrance of the dishes that are being prepared and cooked.
The Castle passed into John of Gaunt’s hands in 1361. John was created Duke of Lancaster and fought long campaigns in France and Spain. But in 1391 he set about converting the castle into a palace, and during the following eight years he held his great banquets.
Two centuries later, Sir Robert Dudley’s guests arrived at Leicester’s Building, the special accommodation he built to house Elizabeth I and her entourage during their famous nineteen-day visit between 9 and 27 July 1575.
Sir Robert’s father John, Duke of Northumberland, built the castle stables in 1553. Today the stables contain the castle tea rooms and restaurant, and an exhibition of the castle’s history. The stables have the reputation of being haunted. Visitors have reported seeing the ghostly apparition of a young stable boy. He is dressed in ragged clothes, is thought to be around fourteen years old and of the period not long after the stables were built. He has been seen in three places: the stables, around Leicester’s Gatehouse, and wandering among the ruins.
Other strange experiences in the stables are reported by English Heritage staff, who claim to have heard voices from behind locked doors, and felt presences in the kitchen.
In 1575 Sir Robert spent a considerable amount of time and money preparing for Elizabeth’s visit and his last attempt to persuade her to marry him. As part of his preparations, not only did he build the impressive accommodation block, but also he added Leicester’s Gatehouse. The gatehouse is set up to look as it would have done in the 1930s, when it was used as a private residence. On the top floor is an exhibition to explore the royal love story between Elizabeth and Dudley.
Several paranormal tales emerge from Leicester’s Gatehouse. Some visitors describe the apparition of a little girl who asks for her daddy. Others have witnessed a spectral man dressed in black who was killed in a swordfight. Other reported appearances include an old lady who breaks the same candle time after time.
from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
To find out more, why not preorder Paranormal Warwickshire, published on 15th November 2020, widely available online and through all good bookshops.
I love Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth, and have visited it several times. The history tour and the Jane Austen tour are both excellent; the Humphrey Repton grounds and gardens enchanting; and the afternoon tea in the Orangery is to be highly recommended!
Originally the home of an order of Cistercian monks,who were granted the land by Henry II in 1154, the abbey saw the twists and turns of fortunes through the centuries, emerging from the dissolution of the monasteries in a sorry state and spending 25 years as a roofless ruin before Rowland Hill and his protegee Thomas Leigh purchased the building and set about building an Elizabethan manor house in the ruins.
The full story of the history of the house, through the generations of the Leigh family, how they gained and nearly lost their Baronetcy, how further extensions to the building were made, and how the Abbey emerged from a devastating fire a few generations ago, but has now been sensitively restored, may be heard in a lively and engaging history tour through the grand rooms. Stoneleigh Abbey claims a close connection with Jane Austen, who in 1806 formed part of a family party invited by her mother’s cousin Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop to view his new inheritance. Jane drew several inspirations for her novels from her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey.
Many curious tales cling to the abbey; and my favourites are associated with the library.
Who haunts this room? We cannot be sure, but it may be Chandos Leigh, poet, first Baron Leigh of the second creation. Chandos loved this room and spent many hours writing and studying in here. He was the only son of James Henry Leigh (1765–1823), MP, of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire, and subsequently of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, by his marriage with Julia, eldest daughter of Thomas Fiennes, tenth lord Saye and Sele.
Chandos during his lifetime was a very well-known poet. His first publication was ‘The Island of Love,’ a poem, published in 1812; he published ‘Trifles Light as Air,’ in 1813; ‘Poesy, a Satire,’ in 1818; ‘Epistles to a Friend in Town, Golconda’s Fate, and other Poems,’ in 1826. His poems reflected the influence of Horace, Virgil, Pope, and Byron, and were much prized by the scholarly few.
But for the room’s paranormal stories, we must let the Abbey’s history guide take up the narrative. “I was doing a tour here,” he says, “and while I was speaking, the handle on that door over there started moving violently. It was really loud so I said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. So I said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door and you need to have a word with them as it really put me off my tour.’ He said, ‘that’s impossible.’ I said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’ He said, ‘no no no, the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side.”
The Tudor house at Coughton Court, for centuries the family seat of the Throckmorton family, is one of the loveliest National Trust properties in Warwickshire and it has a variety of gardens, both formal and natural, including an enchanting bog garden.
The grounds slope down towards the banks of the River Arrow.
The grounds are particularly notable for a stunning walled RHS garden which was designed by two members of the Throckmorton family, Clare and her daughter Christine, professional garden designers.
Nearby are two churches: the nearest, St Peter, is Anglican and was built in the late 15th century by Sir Robert Throckmorton. It began life as a Catholic church but after the reformation became Church of England.
The paranormal tale which I recount in my book Paranormal Warwickshire is connected to the graveyard of the Anglican church.
Beyond that the Catholic Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Elizabeth was built in 1855, when the family could at last worship openly as Catholics. The family have remained true to their Catholic faith for many generations, and in the sixteenth century they found their way around Elizabeth I’s religious laws, as so many Catholic recusants did in those dangerous and turbulent times.
Another curious anecdote relates to the coat of arms which formerly hung over the front entrance. To find out more, do preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.
The Throckmorton name is of course linked to the Gunpowder Plot and a fascinating exhibition in the house tells the full story.
Discover more about the intriguing history, the curious anecdotes, and the many poignant associations with the most dramatic periods of English history at Coughton Court in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.
First an Elizabethan mansion emerged from the ruins of the abbey. The property would remain in the hands of the Leigh family for the next four centuries. One member of the family, another Thomas, became the 1st Baron Leigh after he found favour with King Charles I , and by the seventeenth century the property had become a sumptuous and richly furnished mansion. Damaged by a fire in the 1960s, the grand rooms were beautifully restored and now offer a fascinating experience for visitors.
Much of the building is occupied by private residents but those gracious rooms, the chapel, the library, the Humphrey Repton gardens and the Orangery are all open to visitors. The association of the Leigh family, and thus the Abbey, with Jane Austen, via her mother Cassandra Leigh, and a very fruitful visit in 1806, makes the Jane Austen tour a rivetting addition to the more general but equally entertaining history tour.
Chandos Leigh, nineteenth century poet, and member of the literary establishment, was the first Baron Leigh of the second creation, and it is in his lovely library (my favourite room) that we may encounter some strange phenomena, and hear a few curious anecdotes.
You may wander through the Humphrey Repton grounds, and cross the River Avon (which was specially diverted here from its natural course, to ensure the gracious silver stone building might be reflected in the water, and shown to its best advantage) to gaze at the Abbey from the opposite bank.
One of my stories comes from a visitor who was doing this very thing, when she saw someone whom she took to be an irate landowner – and later had to revise that view. You can find out more in my book Paranormal Warwickshire when it comes out in November 2020