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.

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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

Taste the Spirit of Warwickshire – A Shakespeare-Inspired Spiritual Travel Guide

My proposed new non-fiction book, Spirit of Warwickshire, is currently in the early stages of its journey into the world.

St Peter's Church Wootton Wawen: The Saxon Sanctuary photo credit Abigail Robinson
St Peter’s Church Wootton Wawen: The Saxon Sanctuary photo credit Abigail Robinson

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.

Enchanted Kenilworth Castle photo credit Abigail Robinson
Enchanted Kenilworth Castle photo credit Abigail Robinson

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.

Milverton Hill, Warwick, in June - photo credit Abigail Robinson
Milverton Hill, Warwick, in June – photo credit Abigail Robinson

 

 

 

 

New Book: Spirit of Warwickshire

Now I’ve begun work on my new book Spirit of Warwickshire, here’s a taster of what you’ll find in it.Baddesley Clinton 26 Mar 18 image 2

The book, which I plan to release later this year with Luminarie, will contain a selection of articles about places in Warwickshire which I’ve visited and which have spiritual resonance. These will be places which carry meaning, places which have power, and places which set off chains of reflections, memories, dreams.

Each of my articles will be accompanied by a full colour original photo of the location by my photographer daughter Abigail Robinson.

This will not be a traditional tourist guide, but an individual take on various places that visitors to Warwickshire may well want to include on their itinerary. This is a guide for travellers of spirit, not just tourists. Here’s a glimpse of just some of the places that will be on my list of contents:

  • Holy Trinity Church, Morton Bagot: Water, Rock, Moon & Ancient Stone
  • Guys Cliffe House: Romantic Ruin
  • St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen: Saxon Sanctuary
  • Upton House: A Watered Garden
  • The Saxon Mill, Warwick: a Writer’s Delight
  • The Saxon Mill, Warwick: A Snowy Walk
  • Enchanted Kenilworth
  • Kenilworth Castle: Boxing Day
  • Kenilworth Castle: Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Garden
  • Kenilworth Castle : Christmas Wreath Making
  • Kenilworth Castle: A Dream Arising from Ruins
  • Kenilworth Castle: Elizabeth and Dudley
  • St Mary’s Church, Warwick: Inspiration from the Tower
  • Spring at Baddesley Clinton
  • Shakespeare’s , New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon: Garden of Curious Amusements
  • The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon: Sir Antony Sher and Shakespeare
  • Folk Festival, Warwick
  • St James’s Church, Old Milverton: Country Graveyard
  • House of Bread, Shipston-upon-Stour: Sheep and Lamb
  • Compton Verney: Capability Brown Landscape
  • The Castle Inn, Edgehill

Oxfordshire Place of Inspiration: Castle Inn, Edgehill

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.Castle Inn Edge Hill image 1

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.

Castle Inn Edge Hill image 2.jpgOne 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.
The Castle Inn EdgehillAnd by the way the interior is delightful, the views are magnificent, the service excellent and the menu thoroughly enjoyable!

Spring is Starting to Win… at Baddesley Clinton

A few photos from Baddesley Clinton, one of my favourite National Trust properties, a short drive from my home in Warwick.

The Battle Between Spring and Winter in England March 2018

In England we do love talking about the weather and so  during the last few weeks we have had several heavensent opportunities to express a wide range of thoughts and feelings about it.

But beauty is everywhere, and there are few things more poignant and touching than signs of fresh new life juxtaposed with a blanket of virgin snow.

In the last few weeks we have enjoyed bright sunshine and beautiful fresh blossom, interspersed with treacherous ice and white-outs!

So here I share some images of these contrasts in the natural world.