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.
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.
Just off the road between Warwick and Kenilworth you will find Guy’s Cliffe Historic Walled Garden. It used to be the kitchen garden for Guy’s Cliffe House, the atmospheric mansion about which I have already written on this blog. You can read my post here. But after the last heir to the estate, Sub-Lieutenant Algernon Percy, died in the First World War, the estate was broken up. For years this walled garden was lost beneath thick undergrowth, but in the last few years, the garden has undergone restoration by a team of devoted volunteers.
I’ve visited the garden a few times, sited behind Hintons Nursery off the Coventry Road, Warwick; and my son Jamie, a horticultural student, has also spent some hours volunteering in the garden.
The garden now is testament to the dedication of those who’ve freely given their time and expertise and hard work to bring it to its present state. It’s an ongoing project and has been featured on Gardeners’ World.
Recently the gardeners have installed a new poppy wall mural to commemorate the Battle of Jutland, in which Algernon Percy, the last heir to the estate, died.
What an inspiration this garden is; and it is also full of atmosphere, invoking a strong sense of the lives of those who worked here and loved the garden and nurtured it in the past.
How to find it:
The Walled Garden is at the back of Hintons Nursery.
We went to the show on Saturday 14 April 2018 at the Ascot Racecourse and were inspired by our day there – many imaginative and enchanting ideas for gardens, the seven student Young Gardeners of the Year gardens to admire inside, and also the professional show gardens outside.
Pershore College team by their garden
Jamie, young gardener, member of Pershore College team
Gold certificate for Pershore College team
Saturday was a day of bright Spring sunshine, perfect for the garden show. The event was also just the right size, so it doesn’t overwhelm the visitor, as can be the case with a major, hugely popular event like the Chelsea Flower Show.
We particularly enjoyed TV gardener David Domoney‘s talk on Unusual Gardening Techniques, and we will certainly never look at eggshells, tea bags, plastic bottles, Deep Heat spray, rusty brillo pads and old socks in the same way again!
We also heard a brilliant talk by Harvey Stephens, the Deputy Keeper of the Savill and Valley Gardens, the Crown Estate. He showed several slides of the beautiful flowers, shrubs and trees to be found in those gardens, and passed round some glorious blossoms: a pink Atlas Magnolia and a white Columbus Magnolia for us to all to hold and admire. He filled us with a strong desire to visit The Valley Gardens as soon as possible, at the height of their spring magnificence!
It was so exciting to look at all the gardens the horticultural students had designed and built, and to see the young people there, ready to talk about their gardens. These are the garden designers and heritage gardeners and landscape architects of the future, and I loved reading about their intentions behind the gardens as well.
The gardens were all intended for a small urban space, and all had to incorporate features of sustainability. For me, my response to a garden arises from what the garden makes me feel when I first see and enter it.
The Pershore College garden gives a feeling of calm and tranquility. It is a minimalist garden, with an emphasis on white and with a mediterranean atmosphere. I imagined it as a “meditation garden”.
I hope you enjoy these images which give just a taste of what an exciting, fun and inspiring day we had at the Ascot Spring Show.
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.
Personally I love a circular garden design. My ideal is winding paths, leading off behind shrub and trees so that the eye is led forward and the imagination stirred; what lies round that next bend?
Of course we’re all influenced by great gardens that we’ve visited. The genius of the garden designer is to find a pleasing design and planting scheme that will suit the individal size, shape, soil, orientation and circumstances of a particular plot.
No wonder Paradise is imagined as a garden in different world mythologies and religions. My dream garden is one with sweeping velvet lawns, and wide paths disappearing behind massive banks of rhododendrums and azaleas in full bloom (perpetually!)
Perhaps I’ve been influenced by the gardens of great stately homes, tended by teams of highly-trained, devoted and hardworking gardeners. And why not? The ultimate joy of a great garden is, in Paradise and Eden mythology, a place of perfection and supreme reward for those who have the luxury of wandering and resting in it and being nourished by it: and for us, here on earth, a place to dream in.
Other posts by SC Skillman about paradise gardens:
I’m delighted to say that Jamie, my son, will be representing Pershore College along with his fellow horticultural students, to compete with five other top horticultural colleges in the Young Gardener of the Year competition at the Ascot Spring Show in Windsor Great Park 13-15 April 2018.
In the photo above, Jamie is standing just above David Domoney (in the blue jacket).
The horticultural colleges will compete to design and build a garden incorporating an equestrian theme.
Jamie’s interest in gardening began during a vocational year in secondary school studying horticulture. The picture below shows him at Charlecote Park National Trust during his work experience placement, five years ago in 2013.
The teams will be building their gardens during the two weeks prior to the show. Buy your tickets now to see the student gardens, to find out who won the Gold, the Best-in-Show – and to vote for your favourite garden in the People’s Choice!
I’ll be blogging about the Spring show during the run-up and reporting on how the work is going for the Pershore College team… without giving away any secrets of course. And finally I’ll blog about the show and the gardens when they are revealed!
A few images from Dunham Massey, a National Trust property in Cheshire. These were taken on 19th February – just at that time of the year for us in England where the spring flowers are arriving, heralds of joy and new hope.
I have long loved wildflower meadows, and thought how lovely it would be to have one instead of a garden. But creating a wildflower meadow isn’t just a matter of buying a few packets of seeds and scattering them over a piece of unwanted lawn. Several years ago I did just that and waited, hoping for a glorious profusion of wildflowers several months later and the result was – nil.
In May 2016 we attended a Plantlife talk at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’ beautiful garden near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, and came away with two packets of wildflower seeds.These seeds were a special Highgrove mix – enough for a small patch of wildflower meadow in the garden.
We now knew that to plant a wildflower meadow in your garden you need poor soil, perhaps an area of “old lawn”, and certainly not lawn or soil which has been fertilised and carefully tended in the past. So we chose a wild area.
Last August my son Jamie (a budding horticulturalist) sowed the seeds in a a patch measuring 4 square metres in our back garden.
We didn’t expect much in the first year; a wildflower meadow may take a few years to become fully established. In fact I must admit I expected that during the first year we’d have just a small jungle of weeds, and would need to wait and trust that the beauty would emerge in a few years.
But this July we’re delighted to see the wild grasses tall and shining in the sun, and among them, a few of the first wildflowers to appear.
It gives us great pleasure to look out beyond the more “domesticated” beds of rose and lavender, past the newly-sown area of lawn, to our little area of Highgrove wildflower meadow.
It will be mown for the first time in September, and then after that four times a year.
Next year we hope to see a profusion of colours and perhaps a small version of the lovely wildflower meadow at Highgrove!
For more posts from me about wildflowers and Highgrove, click here and here
I’d love to know what you think about wildflower meadows! Have you ever tried to create your own meadow in your garden? And how successful have you been?