Thomas Oken’s House is one of Warwick’s most enchanting Tudor buildings. It was built by and is associated with a benevolent gentleman, one of those wealthy Elizabethan merchants who stewarded his money wisely, made a hugely generous bequest to his town, and whose gift is still doing good five hundred years later for the local people.
Numerous curious tales are told of Thomas Oken’s House; and many of them from those who either work in or enjoy a meal in the tea rooms.
As soon as Jo took over the tea rooms in November 2011, she started to hear tales of odd goings-on from her young staff. But first, let us backtrack to Jo’s curious conversation with the previous owner of the business.
“He said to me, ‘You won’t want to hang around too long on your own after closing time, I can tell you.’” Curious, Jo nevertheless took a sceptical view of this. The vendor added that he had seen door latches shaking up and down on their own. But since Jo took over, she has felt nothing but a friendly presence there. “Thomas Oken was a wonderful man,” she says. The affection with which she speaks of him is testament to the enduring reputation of this good-hearted and far-sighted Elizabethan merchant.
Jo continues, “I have a lot of young staff who seem to experience strange things in the house much more than I do. I believe that younger people are more spirit-sensitive. Several customers have reported seeing a dignified gentleman with fine clothes and a stick who saunters into the room going from table to table and smiling benevolently at the customers there. One visitor told me that she was sitting in the big upper room and the chatter faded away, whereupon she heard the sounds of a medieval street market: carts and horses, vendors shouting their wares.
from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
To find out more preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.
And if you like listening to podcasts, you can listen to me here, talking to radio presenter Tony Lloyd about my books on Tony Lloyd’s podcast Human Stories.
Today we visit the Saxon Mill,now a well-loved pub, bar and restaurant, and formerly the mill belonging to the Guy’s Cliffe estate. And after we have explored and enjoyed all that the Saxon Mill has to offer, at this scenic and atmospheric location on the river Avon, we will then head across the road and further up towards Leek Wootton, to wonder at the curious monument of Gaveston’s Cross.
Here’s an extract:
The original mill belonged to the Augustinian St Mary’s Abbey in Kenilworth. The abbey owned the mill until the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541. It then formed part of the Guy’s Cliffe Estate, and remained so up until the Second World War during which time it was known as The Old Mill.
In 1813, Bertie Greatheed added the picturesque balcony, which forms the scene for a present-day paranormal tale.
James, a former member of staff, takes up the story.
“I was employed as a grill chef at the pub when Harvester owned it. One hot summer night, whilst working on the grill in the front of house, I went to open the side door and let some air through. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a white figure pass along the balcony beyond the small window. Thinking someone had come up the outside stairs, I waited for them to come through the door. No one came through. I looked out through the window to see who it was, but saw no one there. About ten to fifteen minutes later I saw another figure moving towards the door again. I poked my head out once more and still saw nothing. I told my colleagues, who said, ‘that’s Monty, the pub’s ghost. He often knocks things over, slams doors and such. He’s quite entertaining!’”
Rebuilding work was carried out on the Mill in 1822 and it was a working mill until 1938. It was converted to a restaurant and bar in 1952. The water-wheel, now restored, is visible to all who pass by; the mill-race can be seen through a glass panel in the floor of the pub.
On the other side of the Avon, you may take the riverside path for a good view of Guy’s Cliffe across the water.
Nearby, Blacklow Hill became the scene of a notorious summary execution on 1 July 1312. Guy de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, had lured Piers Gaveston, King Edward II’s favourite, to Warwick Castle. Guy had long wanted to get rid of Piers, who had insulted him personally, and was exerting far too much influence over the king. Also he had flouted commands to leave England and stay out, if he valued his life. The earl’s men dragged Piers in a cart to Blacklow Hill, where they ran him through with a sword and beheaded him. The place of his execution is now occupied by Gaveston’s Cross. [image]
It was Bertie Greatheed himself who caused the monument to be erected on his land. Today the land is in different private ownership, and not open to the public. However, by special permission it is possible to visit Gaveston’s Cross, in the heart of the woods.
The area where the monument stands is, according to several accounts, a centre of paranormal activity. James remembers an incident from his early teens. “Some friends and I walked up into the woods opposite the Saxon Mill to try and find Gaveston’s Cross. Being a bright summer’s day I thought nothing of the potential fear factor. We hadn’t got further than a few feet into the wood when day turned into the pitch black of night, with a cold clammy feeling to boot. Needless to say we didn’t hang around long and burst back into bright sunshine feeling rather relieved and more than a bit shaky.”
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman, pub Amberley 15 Nov 2020
To find out more about the history and the curious tales surrounding these and many other locations in Shakespeare’s county, do order your copy of Paranormal Warwickshire here.
Today let me take you to Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick. This poignant and atmospheric ruined mansion is the first place local people think of when I speak to them about my book. “Have you included Guy’s Cliffe?” they ask. I reply, “Yes – the first chapter is devoted to it. I took a tour with the custodian Adrian King and have recorded many of his stories.”
Here’s an extract.
Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick
Leave not the mansion so long tenantless
Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall
And leave no memory of what it was!
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 5, Scene 4
What could be more poignant than a great house, surmounting a cliff, abandoned and desolate? Clinging to a cliff alongside the river Avon north of Warwick, you may find the ruins of just such a mansion.
Many stories linger within these imposing ruins and their environs. As you wander around you may wish to climb those gaping staircases, or gaze at the view down the Avon, beyond the Saxon Mill to Milverton Hill from those stone balconies; or imagine you see a shadowy figure flit past that empty window-frame.
Adrian King, the present Custodian of Guy’s Cliffe, told me: “Years ago, my father told me a story, which first drew me to this estate. He said that whilst standing on the bridge further down the river at the Saxon Mill, looking toward Guy’s Cliffe, he noticed a woman standing on one of those high balconies. He said ‘she had a green aura around her’. Then to his horror she threw herself off the balcony down onto the ground.”
This story piqued Adrian’s interest and he began to research the history of Guy’s Cliffe. Years later he took up an appointment as custodian there.
The known story of the estate spans ten centuries. Well before any structures existed here, Christian hermits were attracted to the caves by the mystical qualities of this location. 16th century historians described the area as an idyllic glade with many clear springs above a steep rock full of caves….washed at the bottom by a crystal river.
Even before those hermits, it is probable that ancient Celtic people would have come here.
“Water has a strong influence on this place,” says Adrian. “The attraction would have been not only rock – a wooded area with caverns in it – but springs as well. Those two aspects alone, rock and water, are spiritual; they would lend a reverence to the place. Very early on, a spring would have been attributed to a deity. The Romans came along and they melded their gods with the local deities, and so forth.”
Adrian feels sure that people from the very distant past knew where to find centres of energy, or sites that you would consider sacred.
“They seemed to home in on them.”
He believes that the stone or rock here, and the water, work together rather like a battery. The stone tape theory proposes that stone possesses a certain unique property whereby human events and emotions are imprinted upon it and will later replay.
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman, pub. Amberley, 15 Nov 2020
Adrian goes on to share many of the curious anecdotes associated with Guy’s Cliffe, and the strange events visitors continue to experience, right up to the present day.
To find out more about the history of this fascinating place, and about the many strange stories that cling to the house and estate, preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.
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.
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon is known as Shakespeare’s Church, because the Bard was baptised there, and because he is buried there. The story of his association with this church, and the presence of several clues that he may have drawn direct inspiration from the church and its graveyard for his literary works, makes this church a place of pilgrimage for those who love Shakespeare.
The church is located beside the River Avon beyond the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and it has strong spiritual resonance, for many reasons beside the fact that it is a place of worship, and has been a centre of holiness for centuries.
Speculating about Shakespeare’s own faith, and his position on matters of religion, has long been a fruitful area of debate and enquiry among Shakespeare scholars, and it is fascinating to hunt for evidence of his own beliefs within his works – and to draw our own conclusions from this.
Since he lived in times of great religious turbulence, it has been speculated that his own father had true Catholic sympathies (despite the fact that at the reformation, he was forced to whitewash over the medieval splendour on the walls of the Guild Chapel). It is known, too, that during Shakespeare’s period of schooling, the young boy destined for literary greatness would have come under the influence of a schoolmaster who was a strong Catholic.
As in matters of politics, so in matters of religion – and since they were inextricably bound up with one another, Shakespeare would have needed to tread a delicate tightrope as he wrote his plays. What he wrote cannot be seen in isolation from the pressures that would have been placed upon him by Elizabeth I and James I. And yet his originality of thought, his humanity and profound insight into human nature shone through all this.
One of the most often-told tales of this church concerns the inscription upon Shakespeare’s grave.
Discover more about the intriguing history, the curious anecdotes, and the many poignant associations with Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.
For all those who have completed their visit to Warwick Castle, and leave the castle by the town gate, Thomas Oken’s House will be seen straight ahead, between Castle Street and Castle Lane. This beautiful timbered property is now occupied by the Thomas Oken Tea Rooms. Thomas Oken himself built the house over 500 years ago. He was a philanthropic Elizabethan merchant, and he is renowned for his generosity as the benefactor of the town of Warwick.
Those who work in the tea rooms – and especially the young waiters and waitresses – along with several customers, and the current owner, Joanna Hobbs, have plenty of reasons to feel that Thomas’s benevolent influence still lingers there. Thomas died in this house on the night of 29 July 1573, leaving an amazing bequest to the town of Warwick, giving his name to a fund which still yields revenue today for the benefit of local causes.
Numerous strange experiences have been reported in his house, including a few apparitions, a strong sense of ‘presence’ (experienced when the building is empty apart from one person), and curious auditory phenomena too.
Much of this does seem to be associated with the person of Thomas Oken himself; and to learn more about his life, and his significance in the story of Warwick, we must go to the Lord Leycester Hospital, further down the high street in Warwick.
Surely this is one of England’s loveliest buildings (in the eyes of many, and certainly in mine). First built in the late 14th century, it was taken over by Sir Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, in 1570 as a retirement home for venerable retired service personnel. These were known as ‘the Brethren’, and the building was never what we now know as ‘a hospital.’ The present-day members of the Brethren, with their Master, live in the building. Behind the building is an exquisite garden, known as The Master’s Garden.
The property is regularly used by TV drama and feature film-makers as it represents a perfect authentic Elizabethan setting with its courtyard, its gallery, guildhall, great hall and brethren’s kitchen..
At night it is floodlit, and I love to gaze at it as I walk along the high street towards this medieval vision. It appears to me like a storybook image. I find myself remembering haunting childhood stories like The Pied Piper of Hamelin, as I approach. These are the kinds of stories that inhabit our minds, and create unexpected connections in subsequent years. Of course it may have a lot to do with illustrations of medieval towns in children’s storybooks. The Lord Leycester Hospital seems to match these.
Thomas Oken served in a capacity equivalent to that of Lord Mayor, as the Master of the Guild, and would have presided over meetings in the guildhall (on the first floor of the building). Visitors may find an engrossing exhibition here about his life, and the circumstances of his bequest to the people of Warwick.
The medieval manor house at Baddesley Clinton is one of my favourite National Trust properties. Full of secrets and stories, this is the style of architecture I most love, timber-framed, set within a moat, full of secrets and stories, with its nooks and dens and unexpected corners and disappearing staircases… and of course the much-loved priest-holes.
Not so much loved, I imagine, by the sixteenth century Jesuit priests who had to hide in them for days to escape Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters; although they would certainly have been grateful for the sanctuary, knowing the alternative; arrest, trial and execution by hanging, drawing and quartering.
No, we are the ones who have the luxury of loving the priest-holes; for today we gaze with awe and wonder at the sheer ingenuity, physical strength and building skills of the master priest-hole builder, Nicholas Owen (later canonised by the Catholic church).
The original house was built here in 1400. Its name derives from a Saxon called Baeddi, who first cleared the site in the Forest of Arden where the house stands, and the de Clinton family, who dug the moat in the 13th century.
For 500 years the house was owned by the Ferrers family, passing from father to son for twelve generations. The Ferrers family remained loyal to the Catholic faith despite periods of persecution after Henry VIII’s split from Rome.
Edward Ferrers built much of what we see today, from 1526 onwards.
Many curious tales are told of the house, many by National Trust staff. One of the tales concerns the lingering presence of an unfortunate 15th century priest, one Willelmus Foster, who was killed by the hot-headed owner of the manor, Nicholas Brome (1450-1517) in a fit of misdirected jealousy.
It is in St Michael’s Church, close by the manor house, that we may find ample evidence of Nicholas’s attempt to make amends. This is a fascinating story in which repentant Nicholas went to elaborate lengths to save his soul, according to the accepted beliefs of the time.
He funded the construction of two towers in two churches, one of which is at the church in nearby Packwood, and the other of which is here at Baddesley Clinton. They are called the Towers of Atonement.
Nicholas also became a member of eight religious fraternities, praying each day for the souls of their members. Thus he was spared the usual penalty for murder, according to the law of the land (i.e. paying in the traditional manner for murdering the priest). It may also have had something to do with the fact that he was the lord of the manor.
It makes a fascinating story for us today, and it is recounted in the church, where Nicholas may be seen kneeling in prayer, resplendent in the stained glass of the east window.
He did however, as a final spiritual insurance policy, make reparation for his sins by directing that he be buried just outside the west door of the church, under the step where the doormat is placed, so all who entered the church might walk over him.
Today I feature two locations very near to my home: the Saxon Mill pub and eatery north of Warwick town, and Gaveston’s Cross, hidden in a wood on privately-owned land across the road.
Both have a fascinating history, and are the scenes of haunting experiences. Many curious incidents have been recounted at these two locations. The Saxon Mill draws visitors not only for its hospitality, its menu and its bar; but also for the sheer romantic beauty of its setting on the river Avon, by the bridge across the weir, leading to Milverton Hill. As if this itself wasn’t enough, it provides the perfect site to view the poignant ruins of Guy’s Cliffe, across the mill pond and further up the river.
Of course curious anecdotes are related of the pub itself; and I include these in my book. But the most compelling stories are of visions experienced by those standing on the bridge or upon the riverside path opposite Guy’s Cliffe, as they gaze towards the ruined mansion.
Meanwhile, further up the road from the Saxon Mill, we may find – if we are persistent enough – Gaveston’s Cross, hidden in a wood. The cross commemorates a murderous act of revenge by the then Earl of Warwick Guy de Beauchamp and his henchmen, in the year 1312, when Piers Gaveston, King Edward II‘s favourite, had finally pushed his luck too far.
We may however look to the year 1821, and to the colourful former owner of Guy’s Cliffe, Bertie Greatheed, for the reason as to why this monument is there at all. Bertie caused the cross to be erected on his land, in a direct line of sight from the top floor of his flamboyant gothic mansion. Bertie himself was a creative man, a writer, traveller and architect, a ‘child of the romantic era’ and I think it appealed to him to mark this example of human infamy, so he could see it whenever the mood took him.
So he caused the cross to be erected, and upon it was carved a fascinating inscription, full of wordy relish. I understand that the wording was devised by the local clergyman. It manages to heap recrimination on everyone involved, and simultaneously derive self-righteous glee from the wrongdoings of the past.
This is the third in my series of glimpses into the subject of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
Guy’s Cliffe claimed its hold on my imagination from the first time I saw it, not long after I moved to Warwickshire twenty six years ago.
Clinging to a cliff alongside the river Avon north of Warwick, this ruined gothic mansion nearly fulfilled Shakespeare’s words in Two Gentlemen of Verona Act 5, Scene 4:
Leave not the mansion so long tenantless,
Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall
And leave no memory of what it was!
As in the case of all grand historical houses, this one has been vulnerable to the changing fortunes of the families who held it over the centuries, and in particular the use to which it was put, and the way it was treated, during the two World Wars. Some of these grand houses were saved, others not.
In this case, the mansion at Guy’s Cliffe, first built by wealthy landowner Samuel Greatheed in 1751, has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune – but only in a ruined state. Today it teases and haunts those who view it, with its gothic architectural flourishes, thanks to the romantic imagination of its most colourful owner, Bertie Greatheed, whose influence is felt everywhere in Warwick and Leamington Spa.
The full story is told in my book Paranormal Warwickshire, in which I repeat many curious anecdotes about this atmospheric ruin and its environs. During the course of my research, I interviewed the custodian Adrian King whose love of the history and the spiritual ambiance of this location is very evident; not least in the facts that he currently leads a major fundraising effort to restore the site, and also hosts popular ghost-hunting tours at this location.
The present ruinous condition of the mansion serves only to feed the imagination of all those who view it from the Saxon Mill, further down the river, and all those who tour the ruins as I did, with Adrian’s expert guidance.
The land on which Guy’s Cliffe is built attracted ancient Celtic people and Christian hermits long before any structures existed here. According to 16th century historians, the combination of an idyllic glade with many clear streams above a steep rock full of caves… washed at the bottom by a crystal river proved irresistable to the Romans, cave-dwelling hermits, the Earl of Warwick, and chantry priests; and to many others.
The enduring legend of Guy of Warwick is centred upon this location, and the tragic tale of his wife, the lady Felice, and her fateful plunge from the cliff has imbued the site with its poignant aura.
Now, the grounds of Guy’s Cliffe receive loving attention; clearance work and restoration of the formal gardens is underway and in the not too distant future, visitors may gain greater access to this beguiling location with its ruined mansion, the Chapel of Mary Magdalene with its statue of Guy of Warwick, its mysterious grounds and outbuildings, which never cease to deliver curious experiences and strange stories, right up to the present day.
Check out my previous posts on the subject of Guy’s Cliffe estate.
This is the second in my series of glimpses into the subject of my new book, Paranormal Warwickshire, which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
Here is the classic view of Warwick Castle, seen from the town bridge as you enter Warwick from the south. This magnificent medieval fortress makes a dramatic impact upon the visitor, a romantic vision crowning a cliff above the river Avon. Of course, I couldn’t write a book called Paranormal Warwickshire without including Warwick Castle.
The history of the castle spans over 1,100 years, as the first fortification was built here by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, in the year 914. A rich succession of stories and characters has kept this castle at the heart of English history ever since: by no means least among them being Richard Neville known as Warwick the Kingmaker (earl from 1449 to 1471) whose final battle is commemorated in The Kingmaker exhibition at the castle.
The castle is now owned and looked after by Merlin Entertainments and is one of England’s top tourist destinations. Whether you tour the castle’s State Rooms and Great Hall; descend into the dungeons; climb to the battlements and admire the view; stand atop the summit of Ethelfleda’s Mound; or view the majestic edifice from the island whilst enjoying a reconstruction of the Wars of the Roses – this site breathes glory, drama and high emotional stakes.
So, we might say, few paranormal tales here – and they have been reported by many – could escape the charge of being conjured up by the imagination.
But is that true of every single story told here? With such a large number of independent curious anecdotes, the weight of accumulated evidence tends to suggest “there are strange things going on behind the scenes.” I recount several stories about the castle in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. I examine the evidence for the most famous one, and consider whether or not it was conjured up by a cunning Earl of Warwick in order to attract visitors. I also come across a few new tales told by recent visitors.
Check out my other posts in this series, which I began on 14th August 2020 with Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits, and which brings us up to the publication date of my book Paranormal Warwickshire – 15th November 2020.
The other posts in the series will cover the following locations:
Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick
Gaveston Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick
St Mary’s, Warwick
Abbey Fields, Kenilworth
St Michael’s Church, Baddesley Clinton
Thomas Oken’s House, and the Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick
Rugby Theatre and other Rugby locations
Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon