Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 7: Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Gold Coast, Queensland

This is the seventh in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

In our November 2019 visit, we found Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary just a short walk around the corner from our accommodation at Currumbin Sandcastles, Gold Coast. The sanctuary is popular with families and has many attractions for young children including a ‘Meet the Gruffalo‘ area – though we didn’t include that on our day’s itinerary.

There is plenty to fascinate visitors of all ages with a wide variety of birds and animals to delight and amaze, along with an Aboriginal Culture Show. The sanctuary also enchants visitors with its magnificent rainforest landscaping, boardwalks and waterfalls.

The sanctuary is famous for its lorikeet feeding opportunity, and on my past visits here I’ve experienced thousands of these exquisite birds swooping down to feed from the dishes of honey held by visitors. Sadly, on this occasion, we noticed a much smaller number of lorikeets; whatever the reasons for this, we felt sad to see the reduction in numbers.

Like Australia Zoo, the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary offers many opportunities to learn about wildlife, and on this visit we were captivated by the Crocodile Behaviours Show. Here we learned intriguing things about the large crocodile in the enclosure. He had been relocated from his previous environment, where he had proved a danger to local livestock and had finally sealed his fate (not such a bad one) by preying on an expensive prize bull.

We learned that crocodiles have inbuilt ear-plugs and nose-clippers, and can stay immersed and invisible in muddy water using their nostrils as snorkels. So they can drown their vicitims whilst avoiding drowning themselves in the process. Another fascinating fact about crocodiles is that they can live for up to a year without eating anything.

However, that day, the crocodile was clearly in the mood for a snack because the keeper fed him on a chicken dangled from a line on a rod; and he was happy to eat it.

If you visit the Gold Coast, do include a visit to the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary on your itinerary.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 6: Australia Zoo

This is the sixth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

Australia Zoo is one of the jewels of Queensland; I’ve visited it a number of times during different periods of time spent in Australia. Not only is it a shining example of animal conservation, and of education about respect for and protection of wildlife, but it is also a superlative tourist attraction.

I believe that one of its strongest attributes is the personal nature of the organisation, owned by the Irwin family. Some may even view the prominence of the family members as a little like a ‘personality cult’. And yet the emphasis upon Steve Irwin and the work he did, and now upon his window Terri, daughter Bindi, her fiance Chandler, and her photographer brother Robert, only serves to enhance the profile of the zoo and the profoundly important work it does.

When you visit Australia Zoo, not only are you guaranteed a good day out, and the chance to see and admire a magnificent collection of wild animals, but you also learn about how to interact with wild creatures in a more respectful, understanding and compassionate way. The famous Crocoseum performance always includes a teaching element, especially about how to deal with snake encounters.

This is of course more likely to be relevant for Australians than for those living in the UK. And yet, it becomes relevant the more you travel around the world. Interestingly enough, the correct way for us to behave towards snakes is often counter-intuitive. If you meet a snake across your path, stop, turn, and walk very slowly and calmly away. If you get a snakebite, remain still, (assuming you have someone who can call for help). The more you move around and panic, the more easily the poison can move through your system.

If you visit Queensland, do include a visit to Australia Zoo on your itinerary.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 5: Brisbane, Queensland: Cloverlea Cottage, Mount Glorious

This is the fifth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, which I visited in November 2019. From now on I’ll be posting twice weekly on this blog: on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Map of Australia and New Zealand

The restaurant at Cloverlea Cottage may be found on Mount Glorious, a short drive up into the mountains behind Brisbane’s western suburbs. It’s very close to Westridge Outlook, the subject of my blog post published on 31st December 2019.

Cloverlea Cottage is not only a delightful restaurant with sublime views across the mountains, but also a meeting point for a variety of native birds, some of whom are keen to perform reception duties, as was the case with this king parrot.

King parrot on reception duty at Cloverlea Cottage restaurant, Mount Glorious, Brisbane, Queensland

As you can see from the photos, the mountain air was cool when we visited – and blankets were provided, to drape over our shoulders during our time there. If you visit Brisbane, do include a trip up Mount Glorious; and make sure you drop into Cloverlea Cottage for lunch, where you may relax over a delicious meal, and soak in the panoramic views whilst meeting the king parrots, magpies, and kookaburras.

SC Skillman

psychological, suspense, paranormal fiction & non-fiction

My next book, Paranormal Warwickshire

will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th June 2020

and is available for pre-order now from Amazon.

Cornwall mini series Part 5: Port Isaac

This is the fifth in a series of short reflections on places in north Cornwall.

There will be few words, and mainly images.

Port Isaac is an exquisite fishing village with so many breathtaking views.

It seems that from every angle there is another gorgeous picture waiting to be captured.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published on 15th June 2020 by Amberley Publishing.

Cornwall mini series Part 3: The Eden Project

This is the third in a series of short reflections on places in Cornwall.

There will be few words, and mainly images.

The Eden Project is now famous for its extraordinary vision, which emerged from the original idea of one man, Tim Smit. And now it is a glorious display of the wonders of this earth: both natural, and man-made.

A visit here will inspire you with new faith in the human race. It also warns us of what a precious, fragile treasure we have in our hands, as stewards of the planet earth.

Above all, just come here to wonder, to imagine, to feel joy and inspiration.

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published on 15th June 2020 by Amberley Publishing.

Glass Sculpture Transforming Kew Gardens

I recently made another visit to Kew Gardens, where we were enchanted by several glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly.

Placed in the most surprising areas – at the top of the Sion Vista, just outside the Temperate House, hovering over the pond in the water Lily House, or cunningly nested in amongst the tropical foliage in the Palm House, they enhanced and playfully transformed the natural shapes and forms to be found throughout these gardens.

A day of wonder and joy, as Chihuly’s multi-coloured art twisted and curled and rose and nestled among the already abundant beauty of Kew Gardens.

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path

Stoneleigh Abbey: A Setting to Inspire Jane Austen for Her Novels

If this be error and upon me proved

I never writ nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare:  Sonnet 116

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. Elegant interior Stoneleigh AbbeyFor 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.

Stoneleigh abbey seen from the other side of the river AvonAs 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.

View of Stoneleigh Abbey from across the River Avon.jpgFor 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.

Elegant interior Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgAs 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.

Admired so much by Jane Austen's mother - interior at Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgNow, 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.

Interior, Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgI 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.

 

How to get there:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Kenilworth

Warwickshire

CV8 2LF

 

Find out more:

www.stoneleighabbey.org

 

 

Hattton Locks, Warwick: The Stairway to Heaven

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.  Hatton Locks image 2All 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.

Hatton Locks image 1The 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.

Hatton locks image 3When 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.

photo0078And 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

Find out more:

http://www.canalrivertrust.org.uk

Felix Dennis, Eccentric Millionaire Poet – a Man with a Vision for the Future, and Founder of a Great Forest in the Heart of England

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. Felix DennisWhich 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.”

It was like that for me with Felix Dennis, whose Garden of Heroes and Villains and Poetry Shard Garden I recently visited in Dorsington, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

20180811_123954
Bronze sculpture in the Garden of Heroes and Villains: Ulysses (also known as Odysseus) tied himself to the mast so he would not be lured by the calls of the sirens

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.

20180811_115509
Bronze sculpture of Bruce Lee in the Garden of Heroes and Villains

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.

Tribute to Felix Dennis on the Founder's Rock, Arboretum, Dorsington
Founder’s Rock in new woodland, Heart of England Forest

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…

 

 

 

 

Insights From the Silence

Have you ever seen the episode of the TV comedy drama series Rev when our main character, Rev. Adam Smallbone, goes on retreat? Adam, played by Tom Hollander, is in the austere setting of a convent, and returns to his room when suddenly Roland, the media vicar, played by Hugh Bonneville, appears at the window, crying “Retreat!”

Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander in Rev
Hugh Bonneville and Tom Hollander in Rev

In he comes and it transpires he’s brought  plenty of alcoholic supplies with him to offset the effect of the austerity to which they have both committed themselves for the next several days. Then Adam opens the drawers in his bedside cabinet and reveals his stash of chocolate bars and bottles of whisky.

“Dear boy,” says Roland with a look of extreme seriousness on his face, “I think we’re going to get through this.”

I’ve just been on silent retreat for a week at Lee Abbey in Devon.

View from Octagon at Lee Abbey, Devon
View from Octagon at Lee Abbey, Devon

It isn’t a convent, nor is it austere, and there’s absolutely no need for chocolate bars and bottles of wine in the bedroom, as we were well-fed… in fact, I find retreat centres tend to over-feed you rather than the opposite, and within the Christian community that runs the retreat centre, there is a team of house elves who wait on you hand and foot until you almost feel guilty… and thus begin the insights you may draw from silence.

And ever present outside this retreat centre is the sublime scenery of Lee Bay. Throughout the week, it called me, a background to all that was said, a huge presence out there. There were all the things Michael was saying as he weaved his spell and beguiled us, and all the insights and metaphors his stories gave us about the dynamics of life, and beyond it all was the vast embracing presence of the scenery, the rocky headlands, the tree-covered cliffs, the sea.

Our silence lasted 48 hours, and I loved it.

Insight is the child of silence wrote the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Lee Bay, Devon
Lee Bay, Devon

For me, a silent retreat gets better and better. You’re completely released from small talk; from having to answer other people’s questions; from people at the table passing comment on your vegetarian meal and asking what it is; from people commenting on why you’re eating a banana or a pear or a yogurt instead of the rich lemon syllabub and caramel sauce and chocolate flakes they are all eating.

You are free: to smile at people and not say anything; from any anxiety that you ought to say something; from feeling out of it because other people are chatting in little huddles and you’re the only one not talking; from feeling compelled to make conversation just to fill the silence or to be polite or in case people think you’re unfriendly.

Everyone is released from the curse of unguarded tongues and small talk and nonsense. Blessed silence releases us from all that. Silence is such a gift. How I love it.

The only person allowed to speak during that silence was our retreat leader, Michael Mitton. And he gave us treasures, in what he later described as “a Jackanory week”, retelling stories from the bible in the most beguiling way. The stories were taken from his book Seasoned by Seasons.

His retellings of those stories engage every sense: funny, illuminating, revelatory and totally absorbing. Moving and absolutely relatable, these stories are intimate, warm, human.

It’s as if you are an invisible observer on the scene of a story. Or maybe you are inside the thoughts of a character. You can smell, feel, hear, touch and taste what it is like to be there. There is humour, poignancy and passion in these stories and often they are deeply moving. Sometimes you may find yourself thinking, “What! Is this in the bible?” or “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this character. But this story is so powerful, and relevant to me, and my life.”

I feel, too, that I now have a much richer sense of Jesus himself, his humour, his warmth, his compassion, his wisdom, his humanity, his understanding, his disregard for convention and rules, his sharpness, his wit, his mental flexibility, his clear vision, his sheer versatility.

During the silence, there were for me no telephone calls, no internet, no Facebook, no texts, no messages, no emails. Only the power of Michael’s storytelling, the insights that  poured from those stories, and from the silence, and above and beyond it all, the grandeur and majesty of God’s creation, silent, unfolding before me in lines of faint blue and pink across the horizon above the luminous sea.

Sunset over Lee Bay, Devon
Sunset over Lee Bay, Devon