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.
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.
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!
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:
Did you know my very first published work under the name of SC Skillman was a cry from the heart, in the form of a poem which appeared in print courtesy of The Beatles?
Here it is, a cry from the heart of a frustrated fan, as it first appeared in Beatles Monthly edition no. 64, testifying to my obsession with Paul McCartney and my shameless dedication to turning up at Paul’s House in St John’s Wood, London, in the hope of catching a glimpse of him. The poem is addressed to Johnny Dean, who was the editor of the Beatles Book.
Here is the transcript of the poem:
This poem sums up what I feel at the moment!
HOW NOT TO MEET PAUL (BY, HOWEVER, AN OPTIMIST)
If I go to Paul’s house
He’ll either come back from Greece two hours after I’ve gone,
Or he’ll have just gone off to India.
Whenever Paul goes
To Regents Park or Hyde Park
He makes sure I’m not there.
Whenever Paul takes
Martha for a walk,
Before he does so, he
Makes sure Sheila Skillman isn’t outside.
And doesn’t get a chance of seeing him.
When Paul records at the EMI studios
He makes sure I’m not hanging around;
When I phone up the EMI studios,
It’s one of the secretary’s uncooperative days,
Or she doesn’t know, or
She’s got no idea, luv.
When Paul’s at the Apple offices,
he makes sure I’m not going to be in the vicinity,
And then decides it’s safe to turn up.
When the Beatles, ages ago went to Sevenoaks,
They made sure that
When they were driving up Court Road through Orpington,
S. Skillman wasn’t taking her dog for a walk
At the same time
(Because she lives just off there.)
In short, S. Skillman Has Ways Of Not Meeting Paul.
But don’t worry, she’ll do it one day.
Hope you like it
There were, of course, usually many fans congregating outside Paul’s house, and I will admit I have had some fascinating conversations with people there. It’s also known that in the early days of his ownership of the house, Paul might often pop outside the front gate and get the fans to take his dog Martha for a walk, or do other tasks for him.
Nothing like that happened, alas, when I was there. But the poem I wrote about it, within the Beatles Monthly magazine no. 64, remains a part of Beatles folklore, and it forms part of my extensive collection of Beatles memorabilia, along with several other editions of the Beatles Monthly magazine.
I will always remember how I felt when I saw my poem had been printed. I first heard about it from Leslie, a friend of my parents, whose daughter Sarah was also a Beatles fan. Leslie said to me slyly one day, “I see you’ve flown into print, my dear.” I was surprised and didn’t know what he was talking about. He mentioned Sarah, and Beatles Monthly. Shortly afterwards I shot down the road to the newsagent, procured my copy, and began walking up the road. flipping through the magazine. I opened it to the letters page and saw my poem. The feeling I had then may be compared to that of a first time novelist who gains their first contract of publication with a commercial publishing house. An over-the-top reaction perhaps… but that’s how I felt. I walked up the road to my home in a golden haze.
After this poem was published I received an extensive response from other Beatles fans/ readers of Beatles Monthly, based in the UK and the USA, of which these letters form a small part:
These responses were the equivalent to comments on a tweet or a blog post now.
I also began long pen pal correspondences with two of the writers from the USA and one of them sent me a ticket from the Beatles’ famous concert at Shea Stadium on 15 August 1965, as well as original prints of photos she’d taken of the Beatles; she later visited London and I had the pleasure of meeting up with her. Being American she was much more upfront than me and had met the Beatles and pushed herself forward on occasions when I would have hung back shyly in the background! Chrissy O’Brien, if you read this blog, it would be lovely to hear from you again!
The comments I received in some of these letters are given below:
I saw the letter you wrote… and I said to myself, Hey! There goes a girl with the kind of luck I have! Sort of a kindred spirit you might say (Delana from Detroit, Michigan)
In case you’re wondering how I got your name it was from Beatles Book 64 (how else?). Well at least Paul knows you exist, a privilege shared by few. (Graham, from Swanley, Kent)
I read your letter in Beatles Monthly and I entirely agree with you. When I go to see Paul he is never in. (Sue from Cricklewood, London NW2)
You seem to be enquiring how to meet Paul.. maybe I can help, if you care to write, as I have a telegram from Paul when I met him at London Airport in July 1965. (Brian from Orpington, Kent)
I know this is idiotic but… I just read your poem in Beatles Monthly. It was about Paul Boy. If only I could write one to George like that!!! Enclosed is a photostat copy of a letter I received from Paul thanking me for my letter…. As you can see it isn’t much but it is Paul. And of course I wish it was George’s instead. Foul of me, I know. (Sherry from Eugene, Oregon, USA)
I saw your name in Beatles Monthly so I thought I’d write to you… (Anna from California).
I became a member of the Official Beatles Fan Club a couple of years after it started, and included in my memorabilia collection you may find most of the Beatles’ original Christmas records for Fan Club members, all four Beatles’ autographs, an interesting collection of news cuttings covering the major events of the Beatles’ career from the time my interest began, up until George Harrison’s death; and several newsletters and personal letters from Freda Kelly, former secretary to Brian Epstein, and the first Beatles Fan Club Secretary, who did so much to help Beatles fans during her time as the fan club secretary
Open this link to read all about the 2013 film about Freda Kelly Good Ol’ Freda.
Click here to read another of my posts on Paul McCartney, the first in my blog series People of Inspiration.
I’d love to hear your Beatles thoughts and memories. Please do share in the comments!
I recently went to see the musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London where a magnificent cast through phenomenal singing and dancing told the story of a man who lived and died passionately and made big mistakes which swept him through to a memorable death.
Through powerful singing and dynamic, electrifying, whiplash sharp dancing, we were captivated by the ideas that first gripped the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, when he began to read the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and felt he identified with the origins of Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States.
A spectacular and compelling musical, certain words in the songs stand out for me: Hamilton sings that he wants to “build something that will outlive me. If you don’t stand for something what will you fall for?”
And at the end, we hear Aaron Barr – a man for whom we feel sympathy in this telling of the story, the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, sing these words to us: “I survived but I paid for it, now I am the villain in your story.”
I loved the way the dynamics of storytelling held us all in its grip throughout the performance, and especially the way the duels were choreographed. One of the most stunning (literally!) parts of the musical came when the dancers froze the moment in which the bullet was fired which killed Hamilton. Brilliant choreography and dancing suspended our disbelief as we watched the bullet arrested in mid-flight.
When I originally heard of Hamilton the musical, a year ago when my daughter first bought the tickets, I thought, What a peculiar subject for a musical. I thought exactly the same when I first heard about The Book of Mormon – another brilliant London musical which made a big impact on me.
Now I confess I think you can make any subject at all into a musical so long as you have a creator who can inspire total confidence with his passion to believe in and run with a central idea, and as long as you end up with fantastic songs, words, character and story.
On Saturday 23rd December 2017 I went to see the exhibition “Living with Gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition curator Jill Cook had set out to show the development of religious symbols through physical objects which people in widely diverse cultures and historical periods have used to denote their relationships with a spiritual reality beyond nature.
The exhibition ranged from a 40,000 year old sculpture of a lion man, through a Buddhist wheel of life held in the claws of the god of death, via a Japanese Shinto household shrine, to a Soviet communist poster of an astronaut with a rather inane grin on his face floating in space and declaring “There is no God.” On the Buddhist wheel of life the artist had depicted instances of human and animal suffering and wickedness of all types, which I must confess reminded me of Dan Brown’s description of Dante’s Inferno…
I was also interested to learn that the image of the many-armed creator/destroyer god Lord Shiva is on display outside CERN in Switzerland, as a symbol of the atom.
However, inevitably much was missing from the exhibition. For instance, I found no reference to the aboriginal image of the Rainbow Serpent said to be one of earliest of religious symbols, in this case symbolising Creation. Neither did I find the spirituality of the North American Indians, nor the mystical system of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.
The whole tapestry and landscape of humankind’s attempts to build and sustain a relationship with spiritual reality beyond the observed world is so vast and complex, this exhibition inevitably could give just a small representative taste alongside a dispassionate commentary. In reality each religious outlook and philosophical system deserves its own special in-depth study in order to do anything like justice to it – and the curious investigator can find many books to help.
But one of the most moving parts of the exhibition for me was the display about the Japanese persecution of Christianity in the 17th century, during the time of the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, a story told in the brilliant novel Silence by Shusako Endo, upon which was based the 2016 film starring Andrew Garfield.
I remember the impact the book made on me, when those being persecuted were ordered to trample the fumi-e – a bronze plaque showing Christ on the cross. I found myself gazing in awe at an authentic fumi-e and thought again of the powerful end to the novel Silence.
One of the most interesting things about that novel was the way it showed how Christianity may be introduced into what may seem an alien culture and how those within that culture may take on the Christian faith and understand it within their own cultural terms. I remember a scene in the novel where Japanese Christians were being tortured by being tied to stakes on a beach while the tide rolled in and out around them. They gained the stength to endure by continually singing, We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God.
If there is any lesson at all to be learned from an exhibition of this type, perhaps it is that we have the challenge ahead of us to communicate what we believe to be the truth, whilst also respecting other human beings and where they are in terms of their own worldview.
As English Heritage members we’ve visited this castle many times but it was so beautiful to see the trees, castle ruins and grounds illuminated with imaginative light displays. We particularly enjoyed the large projected image of Elizabeth I
on the side of Leicester’s Building – which was constructed specially to accommodate the royal party and all the guests during Elizabeth’s famous 19-day visit to Kenilworth Castle in July 1575, during which Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, made his last attempt to win her hand in marriage.
Dancing figures of light appeared on the walls, and before us a banqueting table was laid out with goblets – just a mere shadow of the lavish parties which John of Gaunt threw here during the 1360’s having turned the fortress castle into a palace.
The Elizabethan Garden looked enchanting with the central statue on the fountain fully illuminated and lights dancing and playing in the garden.
Sir Robert Dudley missed a trick when he tried to impress Elizabeth I with his creation of the original garden here – if he’d put on a light display like that after dark, I think he might have succeeded in winning her hand after all…
When thick snow arrives it transforms our world, for as long as it stays on the ground and on the trees, on the rivers and ponds.
The fascinating thing about snow – as an occasional visitor to our familiar landscape – is how it acts as a catalyst for the negative and the positive in human nature. However you see life, seems to be encapsulated in how you react to the sudden arrival of snow. As a child I was very romantic about snow. I never saw the negative side. But as adults we can see inconvenience, closure of schools and colleges, cancellation of social events, cars skidding and sliding, accidents and piles of dirty slush.
Or we can choose to see it as millions of exquisite, miraculous ice crystals, as an agent for transformation, as a way of seeing the world through new eyes, even if only for a relatively short period of time.
Near our home, the Saxon Mill pub, Warwick, is a popular venue. Situated on the river Avon by a bridge over a weir, with the atmospheric ruins of Guys Cliffe house on the horizon, it is a romantic, historical place to which people are attracted in huge numbers – at certain times of year. I love visiting it at any time of year but especially in the snow.
For some of my other posts about eerie, mysterious Guys Cliffe House, and about the romantic appeal of the Saxon Mill, click here and here.