Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 11: Thomas Oken’s House and Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

This is the eleventh in a series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Thomas Okens House Warwick
Thomas Oken’s House Warwick (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Inside Thomas Oken's Tea Rooms Warwick
Inside Thomas Oken’s Tea Rooms 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.

Commemorative plaque Thomas Oken and his wife Joan in St Marys Church Warwick
The commemorative plaque to Thomas Oken and his wife Joan in St Mary’s Church Warwick (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Lord Leycester Hospital, 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.

Guildhall Lord Leycester Hospital Warwick
The guildhall in Lord Leycester Hospital Warwick where Thomas Oken presided over the guild in the 16th century (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Thomas Oken image in exhibition Lord Leycester Hospital Warwick
Thomas Oken image in guildhall exhibition at the Lord Leycester Hospital Warwick (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Do 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.

Warwick Castle

Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick

Gaveston’s Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick

St Mary’s Warwick

Kenilworth Castle

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

Leamington Spa

Baddesley Clinton

Stoneleigh Abbey

The other posts in the series will cover the following locations:

Rugby Theatre and other Rugby locations

Nuneaton locations

Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

Coughton Court, Alcester

You can pre-order Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 6: Kenilworth Castle

This is the sixth in my series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Kenilworth Castle keep. Photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Kenilworth Castle keep. Geoffrey de Clinton built this in the 1120s. It was blasted by the Parliamentarian troops of Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth in 1649 after the English Civil War. The troops also breached the dam and drained the Great Mere which formerly surrounded the castle. Photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

I have long loved Kenilworth Castle, very close to my home, and one of English Heritage‘s most treasured castles. Not only has it provided the setting for one of the British Monarchy’s most romantic episodes – the elaborate programme of festivities laid on by Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1575, as his last and most extravagant attempt to win the hand of Elizabeth I in marriage – but also it encompasses a glorious, dramatic and turbulent span of English history from as far back as the 1120s.

Leicesters Gatehouse Kenilworth Castle photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Leicester’s Gatehouse at Kenilworth Castle (photo credit Jamie Robinson). Many strange tales emerge from the Gatehouse. The top floor houses a fascinating exhibition about the royal love story between Elizabeth and Dudley.

Of course, many have reported ghostly apparitions, strange occurrences and curious anecdotes about this castle. Stories cluster around the castle stables and Leicester’s Gatehouse.

The stables Kenilworth Castle photo credit Sheila Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
The stables at Kenilworth Castle (photo credit Sheila Robinson). They were built in 1553 by Sir Robert’s father, John, Duke of Northumberland. The stables are reputed to be haunted.
View of the Kenilworth Castle keep from the Elizabethan garden photo credit Sheila Robinson Paranormall Warwickshire SC Skillman
View of the Kenilworth Castle keep from the Elizabethan garden (photo credit Sheila Robinson). This garden was faithfully recreated by English Heritage from the detailed written description of one of the Earl of Leicester’s servants. The original garden was created in 1575 by Sir Robert Dudley to entice Elizabeth I to accept his proposal of marriage.

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.

Warwick Castle

Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick

Gaveston’s Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick

St Mary’s Warwick

The other posts in the series will cover the following locations:

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

Leamington Spa

St Michael’s Church, Baddesley Clinton

Stoneleigh Abbey

Thomas Oken’s House, and the Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Rugby Theatre and other Rugby locations

Nuneaton locations

Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

Coughton Court, Alcester

You can pre-order Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 1: Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits

This is the first of a series giving you a few tasters from my book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be released by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman cover design. Published Amberley 15 November 2020
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman cover design. Published Amberley 15 November 2020

Warwickshire is a county steeped in the supernatural, as befits the county of Shakespeare and the many ghosts and spirits that he conjured up in his works. In Paranormal Warwickshire I investigate the rich supernatural heritage of this county at the heart of England in places both grand and everyday, including Guy’s Cliffe, the Saxon Mill, Kenilworth Castle, Warwick Castle, Stoneleigh Abbey, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as well as in the towns of Rugby, Nuneaton and Leamington Spa.

When I began my book, I was inspired by the spiritual resonance of so many locations in Shakespeare‘s county of Warwickshire. It seemed entirely appropriate to draw all the stories together through the central theme of Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of these supernatural encounters and characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus, tormented by guilt, is haunted by the ghost of murdered Caesar.

Brutus & Caesar's Ghost 1802 Wikimedia commons Shakespeare Julius Caesar SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Painting dated 1802. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, grief-stricken and betrayed, agonises over whether or not he is visited by the spirit of his father.

Hamlet and his father's ghost. Shakespeare's Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Hamlet and his father’s ghost. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

In Macbeth , the king of Scotland (whose name many actors are too superstitious to mention), cannot believe he is the only person who sees Banquo’s spirit at the feast…

Ghost Banquo at Feast. Shakespeare's Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
The Ghost of Banquo at the Feast. Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Alongside those who witness the apparitions, we have some wonderful sceptical foils or sounding boards. Cassius in Julius Caesar is convinced Brutus’s vision was just the power of his imagination. In Hamlet, Horatio tells his troubled friend that it is but a fantasy. Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale says he has heard but not believed the spirits of the dead may walk again.

And as for spirits, either they are serving the will of the magician Prospero in The Tempest

Prospero, Ariel & Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Paiting by William Hamilton Image sourced from Wikipedia. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Prospero, Ariel & Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Painting by William Hamilton. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

or setting out, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to accomplish the task of teasing mortals…

Puck a Sprite. Painting by Arthur Rackham. sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Puck, a Sprite. Painting by Arthur Rackham. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

But in the end, are they but airy nothing, to which the poet’s pen gives a local habitation and a name?

Whether they are purely dramatic devices, or whether Shakespeare himself believed in ghosts and spirits, we cannot definitively say. Scholars and Shakespearean actors and lovers of the Bard differ in their views. But one thing we can say for sure; they fired Shakespeare’s imagination to the highest degree, and he lavished upon them great poetry, humour, playfulness and mischief, the heights of powerful drama, the depths of despair, guilt and existential angst, and his most discerning observations of mental distress.

Throughout my book Paranormal Warwickshire I have used quotes from Shakespeare. In every case I found a quote which I believe resonates with how I feel about the place.

Perhaps Shakespeare would have been surprised to know that four hundred and twenty years into the future, a belief in ghosts and spirits would prevail with such strength in our society. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. He reached to the heart of the human condition, and the emotions and dilemmas he presents are fresh and vivid and relevant to us today. So I confirmed when I toured many places in his county, Warwickshire, and found not only spiritual resonance from the rich stories associated with these places, but many people who have tales to recount, of experiences for which they can find no scientific explanation.

Check out some of my previous posts on the subject of Shakespeare:

Shakespeare and the Plague

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Our wills and fates

In my next post I will share some photos and discoveries at Warwick Castle.

Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman will be published by Amberley on 15th November 2020. Pre-order now either online or from your local bookstore.

Angel Encounters Mini Series: Part 3. A Divine Encounter: the Right People in the Right Place at the Right Time

Angel encounters: another person, who just happens to be nice? God? Or an angel?

Philip meeting the Ethiopian Eunuch, as told in the Book of Acts in the New Testament

In the Bible the identity of angels is often confused with/ blurred with God.

“Was it God or an angel?” is often a question you have in your mind after a biblical encounter. Examples are the story where Jacob wrestled with a stranger; the story of 3 visitors to whom Abraham offered hospitality; and the angels who came and tended to Jesus in the wilderness after he’d resisted the 3 temptations.

Then there’s the story of Philip meeting the Ethiopian Eunuch.

This is an example of an encounter we might relate to.

For both people in the encounter, the moment was right. They were the right people in the right place at the right time.

When the student was ready, the teacher appeared

When the lesson was over, the teacher mysteriously disappeared.

At the end of the encounter, “the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. And the Eunuch did not see him again but went on his way rejoicing.”

Here the bible makes no attempt to say that the stranger the Eunuch met was anything other than a human being. Not God, not an angel, but a person. But for the Eunuch you might say Philip occupied the same role as an angel, in many similar encounters people might experience, religious or non-religious, in the past, or right up to the present day.

I think all the modern day angel encounters I describe in this series are and will be ones where the people experiencing the encounter went on their way rejoicing. The same happened in the story of the road to Emmaus. In that story the stranger turned out to be the resurrected Jesus.

Many of these encounters are powerful in direct proportion to their brevity.

What makes them special, even divine, is the element of grace.

Human beings tend to need a motivation to do things, and they tend to expect something for it: some kind of reward. Gratitude, a response, some kind of material or emotional or psychological payback for the action.

God-incidences and divine or supernatural or angelic encounters are characterised by grace. They just happen. The stranger offering the help requires nothing. If the recipient of their help offers thanks, that is somehow a separate issue. They appear and disappear.

God can use a choice word, a routine appointment, or a brief conversation to change a life

(Lectio 365 Wed 1st  July 2020).

In this series I describe a number of occasions where somebody today, in our contemporary world,  believed they experienced a supernatural event, an angelic encounter, or a God-incident…. And in every case they went on their way rejoicing.

I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:

Angels and Supernatural Experiences

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

and the first two posts in this Angel Encounters series:

Part 1

Part 2

Also you may like to visit some of the following bloggers to learn more of what different people believe about modern angel encounters:

http://www.thepsychicwell.com/spirituality/connecting-with-angels-spirit-guides/modern-day-angels-and-miracles/

http://www.crystalwind.ca/angelic-paths/the-angelic-realm/calling-all-angels/angels-and-spiritual-life-things-you-need-to-know

https://www.beliefnet.com/inspiration/7-modern-miracles-that-science-cant-explain.aspx

Next time I’ll continue this series with some stories I have been told of modern angel encounters.

What do you think?

Do you believe in angels?

Have you an experience to share? Please share in the comments below.

Angel Encounters Mini Series: Part 2. “I met Two Angels in a Mercedes Benz on a Dark Road Near Oxford.”

In the days before we all had mobile phones and satnavs, I drove north along the M40, heading home to Warwick, having visited my elderly father near Sevenoaks in Kent.

petrol gauge in car showing tank is empty
Petrol gauge in car showing tank is empty

Dusk had fallen. I looked at my petrol gauge; the marker hovered on red.

I had no hope of reaching the next services before running out of petrol.  I visualised an overnight vigil on the hard shoulder.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

In a panic I turned off the M40 just before Oxford.  I reached a hotel, pulled into the car park and went into reception to ask for directions to the nearest filling station.  Memorising the instructions, I headed away again, praying I’d arrive before it was too late.

On a dark road I realised I was lost; and then the petrol ran out.  I now know what it feels like for your car to quietly die on you, and whisper to a halt.

I sat there in the silence for minutes I feared would turn into hours, my mind numb, but dimly realising the futility of getting out and walking off in the dark to find a non-existent filling station. I had turned off my lights. I was afraid to attract attention.

Headlights swam into my vision; a car approached and stopped. I feared the worst.

A young couple emerged from the car. No threat, no judgement, just sympathy. They listened to my story, gave me a lift to the nearest filling station to buy petrol, returned me to my car, so I could replenish the tank, then waited to see me safely off on my journey. I must have thanked them several times over.

Throughout the whole incident they were gentle, gracious, wholly accepting and totally non-judgemental. No “shame you didn’t check your gauge before getting onto the motorway” or “bet you won’t let yourself run out of petrol again after this.”

As I drove away, I noticed their car was a Mercedes Benz.

Ever since then, whenever I remember that young couple who helped me, I think of them as angels.

What do you think? Angels? Or “just” nice people? (And should there be a “just” in there?)

And by the way, I have also never run out of petrol again.

I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:

Part 1 of this Angel Encounters series

Angels and Supernatural Experiences

and

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Also you may like to visit some of the following bloggers to learn more of what different people believe about modern angel encounters: http://www.thepsychicwell.com/spirituality/connecting-with-angels-spirit-guides/modern-day-angels-and-miracles/

http://www.crystalwind.ca/angelic-paths/the-angelic-realm/calling-all-angels/angels-and-spiritual-life-things-you-need-to-know

https://www.beliefnet.com/inspiration/7-modern-miracles-that-science-cant-explain.aspx

Next time I’ll consider some angel encounters which do come from within an established faith tradition – and ask what light they may shed on some modern angel encounters.

What do you think?

Do you believe in angels?

Have you an experience to share? Please share in the comments below.

Inspiration for Creative Writers From Grayson Perry in Grayson’s Art Club

Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I am currently finding inspiration from  artist Grayson Perry as he showcases “Covid-19 lockdown art” in his TV show “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4.

Grayson makes use of our contemporary culture which he transforms into art –  tapestries, lithographs, glazed vases. One of my favourite items in a Grayson Perry exhibition in London was his “career advancement vase” upon which he had painted lots of different cliché words and phrases job seeker use on CVs.  These words are so evocative. They carry within them all sorts of pretensions, eagerness to impress, compulsion to present a false picture of oneself to the world.

In. another exhibition of Grayson’s works, I loved his “Walthamstow Tapestry

In Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones’ book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, co-author Wendy Jones writes: “During the interviews Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a mediaeval minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing – I hadn’t come across that before and I doubt I shall see it often again.”

This capacity to morph strikes a chord in me as I watch Grayson’s Art Club, listen to his raucous laugh, and observe the change in his hairstyle between scenes. I also find myself imagining him as a young girl, in one of his many other personnas, I love the idea of a “fluid and flexible ego”, something I believe Grayson Perry has; and I used this idea myself in my novel “Mystical Circles” where it is eventually understood as part of the shapeshifting gifts of a shaman. Wendy Jones’ description was fascinating to me as I have known of those who morph in this fashion and have witnessed it myself and worked it into my own fiction.

Grayson Perry suggests that we “sit lightly to our beliefs”, and “let go of a compulsion to seek meaning – we will enjoy life in this world much more.” His art bears this out; everything is referred back to his childhood teddy Alan Measles, his “guiding spirit”; everything is set against that barometer of his childlike perceptions, even to the extent of  dressing as a little girl.

Grayson Perry  has important things to say, strong challenges to make to me. I cannot ignore these challenges as a creative writer.

Grayson Perry in one of his colourful alternative personnas
Artist Grayson Perry

Inspiration from Fantasy Novelist Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors

During the Covid19 lockdown, the Society of Authors are presenting a number of webinars with notable authors, and the other day I attended “Afternoon Tea with Philip Pullman”.

I was keen to hear from the author of a fantasy trilogy that captivated me, “His Dark Materials“. 500 of us attended, all waiting with drinks and snacks to hear what the President of the Society of Authors might have to say to us from his Oxford study. When he came on, he showed us his working space; untidy, spilling over with miscellaneous items such as his jacket slung over an open box of labels, files and paper and books. I was greatly encouraged to see this; no compulsion to tidy up his workspace there!

He was asked what the Society of Authors means to him, and he said, “It simply means that I am part of a body of people who have experienced some of the disappointments and hopes and occasional successes that I have.

On his wall is a giant map of the world and it seems this is a major inspiration for him. He says he doesn’t plan his novels. As he starts his thoughts might be as vague as, “I think she should go north” or “It would be rather nice if she went to Central Asia.”

He loves maps, and for one of his earlier novels, “The Ruby and the Smoke” (another novel I love) he sourced ordnance survey maps of London in 1872.

I myself have a giant map of Warwickshire which I plan to put up on the wall near my working area. It helped me for my book “Paranormal Warwickshire” (due to be published by Amberley 15 November 2020) and I hope it will be useful for my next book too (more of that later).

Philip Pullman came over as a genial, laidback, engaging schoolmaster-like character – after all, he was an English teacher in an Oxford school for several years – and his approach was helpful and encouraging.

I enjoyed his reply to the question: “Do you have a particular age group in mind as a target audience when you begin to write?”

His answer was:

“No. I don’t. When you write a book you should do what you want to do; ignore everybody’s advice. It’s none of their business. When your book’s out, it becomes democratic. Then, everybody’s totally entitled to think exactly what they want to about the book.”

He told us that, before starting “His Dark Materials”, the concept of the daimons (which may be defined as ‘the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self, that takes the form of an animal’) was in his mind for a while but he had no idea what to do with it.

Then one day he was wandering in the garden and near a rock when he thought, “Children’s daemons change, adult’s daemons don’t.”

“That was the most exciting moment I’ve ever experienced as a storyteller.”

It was (just like the idea about the boy wizard that came to J K Rowling on that train journey), the key to unlock his unconscious – and, for him, all the characters and actions and events of Lyra’s alternative world followed.

There is a powerful lesson for authors here: we must listen to that first instinctive prompt, hold onto it, and follow through, even if other voices try to break in and interrupt it. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel it’s wise to seek other people’s opinions on a work-in-progress. Finally, his most practical answer came in reply to the perennial question posed to authors:

“Where do your ideas come from?”

“I don’t know where they come from but I know they come to my desk, and if I’m not there they go away.”

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 25: North Island, New Zealand: Rotorua and the Tamaki Maori Village

This is the twenty-fifth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the eighth of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about our visit to Rotorua, and The Redwoods Treewalk, a tranquil experience, walking through the forest canopy among the graceful, majestic Redwood trees, along high swinging timber walks suspended from slings secured around the tree trunks.

The evening of our visit to the Redwoods Treewalk, we joined a busload of tourists to visit the Tamaki Maori village. All were expecting “a Maori cultural experience”. What we may not have expected was that we would become a Maori tribe for the evening, and one among us would be chosen as the Chief, and that person would need to memorise the name of our tribe along with certain Maori terms and also carry out the formal greetings required between one Maori chief and another.

One of our number, a Scandinavian visitor, volunteered to be Chief. Meanwhile, all of us needed to learn certain Maori terms; and I think I can guarantee that the one word we all did carry away with us from the experience was “Kia-ora” which was repeated so many times it would be difficult to forget! It translates as “have life” or “be healthy” and is used for “hello” or “hi”.

Before we arrived at the Maori village we were instructed that during the opening ceremony we were to be quiet, to remain unsmiling, and not to laugh or copy any of the Maori warriors’ actions; although we were allowed to take photos.

Each tourist group present had an elected Chief, and a tribal name. Our own Chief stepped forward, and the traditional greeting took place (nose rubbing)

As soon as the formalities had been completed, the atmosphere was transformed. The cheerful Maori Leader welcomed us and said we could all now laugh and smile as much as we liked, and then everyone relaxed and made ready for the most enjoyable experience ahead.

We moved forward into a lovely “Maori Village” environment; Maori huts were arranged around a forest glade, beside a creek with a traditional canoe in it. Each hut was a “station”, between which we moved to see demonstrations of warrior moves, games, cooking, basket-weaving, tattooing and its symbolism. Participation was strongly encouraged, and great fun was had by all.

After that, we moved on to see a demonstration of traditional Maori hangi: cooking foods using heated rocks buried in a pit oven.

Demonstration of traditional Maori ‘Hangi’ booking

Then we entered the “Ancestral Meeting Hall”, to watch a performance of song, dance and storytelling.

Finally we entered the dining hall for a feast and later on a choir sang to us Maori songs and gave another dance performance. A brilliant experience and I can thoroughly recommend the Tamaki Maori Village attraction to all visitors to Rotorua.

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 to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

Australia and New Zealand Mini Series Part 19: North Island, New Zealand: Enchantment and Delight for ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Fans: Matamata and Hobbiton

This is the nineteenth in my series of short reflections on different places in Australia and New Zealand, as experienced during my November 2019 visit. Today is the third of my posts on New Zealand’s North Island.

map of New Zealand
map of New Zealand
Map of Australia and New Zealand

In my last post I wrote about Paihia and the Bay of Islands.

We set off from Paihia early in the morning and drove south through a landscape of velvety green hills uninterrupted by hedges or fences, dotted with a wide variety of trees, and occasionally by pretty white bargeboard houses in gardens. It felt as if we were surrounded by JRR Tolkien‘s hobbit country all the time: The Shire, that pastoral idyll which the hobbits called home. No wonder the makers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films settled upon this landscape as the ideal location for Hobbiton.

Further along in our journey we entered a region of verdant forest packed with trees so diverse and so attractively interspersed with giant tree ferns that they seemed planted by design.

arriving in Matamata close to the Hobbiton film set

When we arrived in Matamata we immediately saw the welcoming sign and those of us who have loved the world of Middle Earth for so long at once felt a sense of high excitement.

excitement at arriving in Matamata

Even the local visitor information centre has been turned into a nostalgic homestead reminiscent of the hobbits’ innocent world.

The visitor information centre in Matamata

And yet, as we were to discover again and again throughout our stay in Matamata and our visit to Hobbiton, you don’t even need to have read the books or have seen the films to be thrilled by what has been done here to recreate this romantic vision of pre-industrial rural England.

This of course was what inspired JRR Tolkien. The irony is that he was influenced by the countryside between Birmingham and Warwick, in the UK, and by Sarehole Mill – and his vision of Mordor came from the industrial wastes he found. So Tolkien’s inspiration is very close to where I live. But I went halfway across the world to find it recreated here in New Zealand!

Upon entering the visitor information centre we found a sculpture of Tolkien’s most insightful creation: the tragic and chilling figure of Gollum, who had, long before, been known as Smeagol, one of the river folk, until he came into possession of the One Ring, and had been enslaved and possessed by his lust for ‘the Precious’. The One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

The sculpture of Gollum in the visitor information centre at Matamata

I can imagine Matamata itself was an unassuming little ‘one-horse settlement’ before Peter Jackson found his ideal location for the Hobbiton film set nearby. It is astonishing to reflect upon the power of an iconic fantasy epic to catch the imagination of millions and transform the fortunes of one small town.

We had dinner at a restaurant called The Redoubt which had, along with the town of Matamata, ‘fully embraced its Middle Earth credentials’! (a phrase borrowed from the Matamata section in the Lonely Planet Guide for New Zealand).

The Redoubt bar and eatery in Matamata

The menu and decor were based around characters from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

“Sneaky little hobbitses” – Gollum’s well-known catchphrase, up on the wall of The Redoubt bar and eatery in Matamata (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

We had a delightful meal in The Redoubt and it built up our excitement at the prospect of visiting Hobbiton the next day. It was also an opportunity to sample a range of New Zealand red wines!

Inside the Redoubt Bar and Eatery in Hobbiton

Early the next morning we arrived at The Shires Rest, a short distance outside Matamata, to join our tour of Hobbiton, led by a young man called James, who was, appropriately enough, English.

The tour bus took us through the rolling hills of the Alexander Farm, a vision of the undulating landscape of young children’s picture books, a perfect setting for the small, round, cheerful hobbits.

On the way James showed video clips of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films, and also gave us plenty of fascinating facts about the making of the films, how this area came to be chosen as the site for the Hobbiton film-set, and why indeed there now exists here a perfect, robust and well-built rendition of hobbit country, for the delight of many thousands of visitors each year.

AS for Hobbiton itself, we all found it beyond our expectations, so perfectly realised, with exquisite attention to every detail: Bilbo’s sign on the gate announcing ‘No admittance except on party business’; the oak tree above Bag End, the line of washing, the wheelbarrows full of freshly harvested vegetables, the mill and bridge, the party field, Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday cake, the Green Dragon Inn and the tankards of beer.

Throughout Hobbiton we found exquisite English flower varieties, all in top condition. In fact, being here was indeed like being transported into JRR Tolkien’s original vision. It has been said that he wouldn’t have liked the idea of his books being turned into films, as he believed that the power of the imagination must determine how people see the world he created. Nevertheless I feel that he would have been awed by what has been achieved here. Hobbiton lacked only one thing: real life hobbits!

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 to pre-order now either online, or from the publisher’s website, or from your local bookshop.

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.