The Nature of Creative Inspiration and Practice – Inspiration from Hilary Mantel

Recently I watched and listened to Hilary Mantel speaking at an online event from the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, following the publication this year of her two newest books The Mirror and the Light and Mantel Pieces.

Hilary Mantel with portrait of Thomas Cromwell

I loved what Hilary said about the process of writing.  It seems that she does not subscribe to the belief that we must create a structure beforehand, and plan out our work in detail. In regard to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, the idea she caught was the notion that the truth behind an apparently “evil” character in English history may be far more complex. And then her curiosity and her love of historical research took her on a long and compelling journey. She talks of catching ideas, and of writing scenes and chapters out of order, and  I loved it.

I’ve read the first two novels in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and plan to read the final book of that trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

In the past I have indeed tried to create a structure beforehand, and I found it not at all helpful. So personal experience has taught me that Hilary Mantel’s way of writing is more to my taste.  

When you begin to write a novel, it can often be impossible to say  from which source the inspiration has come – and how far back in the past that inspiration had its source.

David Helfgott performing in Sydney
David Helfgott performing in Sydney

Now my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire has been published, I am getting back to work on my next novel Standing Ovation

Thsi is the second in a magical realist series starring Dylan Rafferty, young musically gifted rebel.

The first book, Director’s Cut, sees Dylan tackling a very troubled family in a large house in south London haunted by a family curse.

Dylan seeks to escape the overwhelming influence of his own family and the conventional path they want him to follow through education and his future career. He discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion. He sets off, eager to crash the set and meet her.  He succeeds; and she’s delighted by this unusual, intense, talented boy. But Dylan discovers a deeply dysfunctional family who believe themselves afflicted by an inter-generational curse. The house is haunted by ghosts of previous generations. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save these people through the power of his own musical genius As he plunges deeper into the spiritual and psychic deadlock in the house, he encounters a supernatural being, and finds that he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

The story awaits further editing, and I’d also welcome any willing beta readers!

Meanwhile I’m completing the sequel.

In Standing Ovation, Dylan has moved forward from the position he was in at the end of Directors Cut, but he now seeks a quantum leap in his career. 

He’s in Stratford-upon-Avon, staying with his friend Xavier, a stage manager at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Then he lands a post as personal assistant to his idol, Konstantin Kosoff, mentally and physically fragile concert pianist, currently controlled by his two highly dubious brothers. Dylan enters another highly dysfunctional and dangerous household and plunges into a position only vacant because the two previous post-holders died in mysterious circumstances.

There are several people who might inspire me for some aspect of my fictional great pianist. I already have in mind the central inspiration; but that may change as I continue the novel, because when writing we may find elements entering the story from the subconscious. I won’t be able to tell how strong a part any of these elements may play until the story decides for itself, and reaches completion.

Do you other writers out there find Hilary Mantel’s approach rings a bell for you? Or do you rely on creating structure beforehand, and planning out the novel in detail? I’d love to know your own creative practice!

Extract from the Introduction to Paranormal Warwickshire

I have heard, but not believed,

The spirits of the dead

May walk again

William Shakespeare

So says William Shakespeare, through the lips of Antigonus in Act 3 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale.

William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout
William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout

Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts and spirits? Opinions are divided; Herbert,  Shakespearean actor, who led us around Stratford-upon-Avon one evening on the town ghost tour, maintained that Shakespeare did; whereas a distinguished Cambridge professor, examining the Bard’s use of paranormal manifestations throughout his plays, concluded that he believed these are all ‘emanations from the mind.’

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.

We cannot say for sure what Shakespeare believed; but his works are full of ghosts and spirits. It is known that he himself played the part of his most famous and loquacious ghost, the spirit of Hamlet’s father, many times, and it was the top of his performance as an actor, according to his first biographer. This is the ghost of whom Hamlet says:

 The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil, and the devil hath power

To assume a pleasing shape.

William Shakespeare

And yet throughout the play Hamlet continues to explore and agonise over the true nature of the spirit he has seen, with the input of his sceptical friend Horatio; and he reaches different conclusions according to the state of his mind.

Whether because they made excellent dramatic devices, or because their presence in Shakespeare’s plays denotes something much deeper, more complex and hidden within the recesses of his own heart, it is true his county, Warwickshire, is saturated even today in strange events for which there is no scientific explanation.

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.

I’ve lived in Warwickshire for twenty-five years, at the time of writing.  I’ve grown to love and feel a deep connection with some of this county’s most iconic locations: castles, houses, and churches; and also some of its less familiar ones.

Thomas Oken House Warwick
Thomas Oken’s House Warwick – photo credit Jamie Robinson

All of these places have rich and complex stories to tell which span the full range of the emotional, moral and spiritual spectrum, as befits the county of Shakespeare.

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

But the stories here acknowledge that energy lingers in many places other than manor houses, abbeys and castles. They also tell of ordinary people going about their business in a very familiar, even mundane environment. It’s about shop owners and sales staff, families in terraced houses and busy commuters on a railway platform. Some of the stories you will find here are those that people kept to themselves, for a long time, for fear of being ridiculed.

Shakespeare monument Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Shakespeare’s monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

 Our task here is simply to listen to the stories that people tell, and, like Hamlet, to explore the nature of these strange experiences both with our hearts and our minds, and reach our own conclusions.

Paranormal Warwickshire is available everywhere good books are sold.

Virginia Woolf on the art of reading a book

Listening to an interview by Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 the other day, I was delighted to learn that Virginia Woolf‘s classic essay How Should One Read a Book? has been republished in a new edition (12 October 2020).

Virginia Woolf

I studied this text in school as part of my GCE ‘O’ level English Literature syllabus. Ironically, although I found Virginia Woolf’s novels quite challenging to read (although I loved Orlando), that is not the case for this essay. That’s probably because it was originally a talk given at a girls school in Sevenoaks in 1926. I still remember the impact Virginia’s words had on me. The essay is very accessible, and Virginia writes with passion on her subject.

One of her observations appeals to me: “you haven’t read a book properly until you’ve talked about it”. Brilliant! How that makes the heart of an author sing. Nowadays of course authors often look for their readers to “talk about” their books, either in book clubs, or by personal recommendation, or by posting an Amazon or Goodreads review online.

Authors and publishers also, of course, value professional reviews in the major periodicals and newspapers; and these reviews are often quoted at length in the front matter of very popular books. Personally, I prefer not to know the details of what other people think until I’ve read the book – or at least until I’m halfway through. I want to make my own response to the book.

But these are the days when everyday readers – all those out there who love reading books – have power, with their opinions and feelings. Every response to a book is valid. I remember my creative writing teacher at Lancaster University saying:

“Once you’ve written your book, and it’s published, and out in the world, it doesn’t belong to you any more. It becomes a Thing on the Table, for anybody to make what they want of it.”

This view is echoed by Philip Pullman , the author of His Dark Materials trilogy, who, in a recent very enjoyable Society of Authors webinar, said that while you are writing a book, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. You write what you like and you don’t worry what anybody else thinks: they can mind their own business. When it’s published it’s a different matter. It’s not yours any more. The world can then make what it likes of your book.

Passion for reading, for the different worlds you may enter and explore when you are a voracious reader, shines out from Virginia’s essay.

Here is one quote from Virginia Woolf which many readers have seized upon, as it confirms the joy and the richness of being a great reader. I quote this near the end of my author talk on The Power of Story – for one of my goals is to enhance or re-awaken a love of reading.

“I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Virginia Woolf, in The Second Common Reader

SC Skillman

Psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction.

Paranormal Warwickshire was published 15th November 2020

Available everywhere good books are sold.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 9: Nuneaton

This is the ninth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

George Eliot Hotel in Nuneaton (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Nuneaton is strongly associated with one of the greatest of English novelists, George Eliot, who was born on the Arbury Hall estate here and brought up in Nuneaton; this background afforded her the opportunity to meet people in all walks of life, the ‘high-born’ and also the working people. From these she found much inspiration and demonstrated her insight through her many fictional characters. George Eliot is rightly celebrated in the town of her birth and upbringing. In harmony with her own literary focus, I found that some of the most extraordinary tales in my book come from working people in their everyday environment.

60 & 62 Queens Road Nuneaton, during the time the property was owned and managed by Angela Collings as The Entertainment Exchange

Here’s an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire.

As we have seen, George Eliot was a radical intellectual; her novella ‘The Lifted Veil’ (an example of the Victorian horror genre), published in July 1859, is unique amongst her works for its supernatural premise. It explores themes of extra-sensory perception, the essence of physical life, the possibility of life after death, and the power of fate.

  I believe that if George Eliot had been alive and writing her novels 200 years later she would have been keen to bring her spirit of enquiry into the extraordinary series of events reported by ordinary working people in their workplaces at Queens Road, Nuneaton, in the late 20th/early 21st century.

   Queens Road was in former times the main street of the town until it was split into two parts by the Nuneaton ring road. In Queens Road, strange events are reported by the staff of several retail businesses – and none more so than those who have worked at number 62. Angela, the former lessee, experienced supernatural disturbances there for several years along with many staff members and customers,

   Angela first bought no. 60 Queens Road in order to start up a business with her partner Dawn, selling video games and movies.

    Having made a success of this, they leased 62 and turned their business into a big two floor music store. Entertainment Exchange opened in 1994 and became the biggest music / gaming / film collectors store in the West Midlands. This culminated at the height of the business in their having twenty-five staff on the rota at any given time.

   Both buildings are extremely historic and atmospheric; Angela’s account focuses on  62 where she spent most of her time during the twenty years she traded there. As from 2014, Angela no longer owned or operated from either of these two buildings.

   Angela’s story begins on the day before her store opened at 62, when she spent four hours upstairs alone in the shop, with the door to the street locked, pricing vinyl and laying out displays. As she was putting LP’s in racks, she saw something in the corner of her eye in the direction of the old office: a small dumpy woman dressed in black with dark hair which she wore in a bun at the back of her head. Shocked, Angela turned her head straight to the store room door and the image vanished in front of her.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

Angela’s story is developed further in my book, and this experience was the first in a series of astonishing events, experienced independently by herself and her partner, many of her customers and staff, and by those who had worked in the building during the decades before her ownership

Find out the full story in Paranormal Warwickshire.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 5: Stoneleigh Abbey, Kenilworth

This is the fifth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

Stoneleigh Abbey seen from the other side of the River Avon, showing the Orangery (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

I love Stoneleigh Abbey, near Kenilworth, and have visited it several times. The history tour and the Jane Austen tour are both excellent; the Humphrey Repton grounds and gardens enchanting; and the afternoon tea in the Orangery is to be highly recommended!

Originally the home of an order of Cistercian monks,who were granted the land by Henry II in 1154, the abbey saw the twists and turns of fortunes through the centuries, emerging from the dissolution of the monasteries in a sorry state and spending 25 years as a roofless ruin before Rowland Hill and his protegee Thomas Leigh purchased the building and set about building an Elizabethan manor house in the ruins.

Stoneleigh Abbey – the approach from the gatehouse (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

The full story of the history of the house, through the generations of the Leigh family, how they gained and nearly lost their Baronetcy, how further extensions to the building were made, and how the Abbey emerged from a devastating fire a few generations ago, but has now been sensitively restored, may be heard in a lively and engaging history tour through the grand rooms. Stoneleigh Abbey claims a close connection with Jane Austen, who in 1806 formed part of a family party invited by her mother’s cousin Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop to view his new inheritance. Jane drew several inspirations for her novels from her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey.

Many curious tales cling to the abbey; and my favourites are associated with the library.

Stoneleigh Abbey – view of the 14th century gatehouse. Photo credit Jamie Robinson

Here is an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire (published 15th November 2020).

Who haunts this room? We cannot be sure, but it may be Chandos Leigh, poet, first Baron Leigh of the second creation. Chandos loved this room and spent many hours writing and studying in here. He was the only son of James Henry Leigh (1765–1823), MP, of Adlestrop, Gloucestershire, and subsequently of Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire, by his marriage with Julia, eldest daughter of Thomas Fiennes, tenth lord Saye and Sele.

   Chandos during his lifetime was a very well-known poet. His first publication was ‘The Island of Love,’ a poem, published in 1812; he published ‘Trifles Light as Air,’ in 1813; ‘Poesy, a Satire,’ in 1818; ‘Epistles to a Friend in Town, Golconda’s Fate, and other Poems,’ in 1826.  His poems reflected the influence of Horace, Virgil, Pope, and Byron, and were much prized by the scholarly few.

   But for the room’s paranormal stories, we must let the Abbey’s history guide take up the narrative. “I was doing a tour here,” he says, “and while I was speaking, the handle on that door over there started moving violently. It was really loud so I said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. So I said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door and you need to have a word with them as it really put me off my tour.’ He said, ‘that’s impossible.’ I said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’  He said, ‘no no no, the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side.”

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

Preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts: Part 3 The Thomas Oken Tea Rooms, Warwick.

This is the third in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

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.

Afternoon Tea in The Thomas Oken Tea Rooms, Warwick (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

Here’s an extract from my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

   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
The menu in the Thomas Oken Tea Rooms, Warwick. Photo credit: Sheila Robinson

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.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 16: Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

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

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.

Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout
William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout

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.

Shakespeare monument Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Shakespeare’s monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Shakespeare's grave Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Clopton Chapel Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Clopton Chapel, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson). One of the paranormal tales told of this church concerns a young girl who was a member of the Clopton family.

One of the most often-told tales of this church concerns the inscription upon Shakespeare’s grave.

Inscription on Shakespeare's grave Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Inscription upon Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon forbidding anyone to disturb his bones – so far the warning has been honoured, despite applications for permission to investigate his grave to find manuscripts which are rumoured to be buried with the Bard

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.

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

Thomas Oken’s House and Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Rugby locations

Nuneaton locations

Ettington Park

Coughton Court, Alcester

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 13: Nuneaton

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

George Eliot Hotel Nuneaton
George Eliot Hotel Nuneaton (photo credit Sheila Robinson). The great novelist George Eliot is celebrated in Nuneaton as she was born and brought up here.

My visits to Nuneaton have uncovered some truly astonishing stories. Nuneaton is strongly associated with the great novelist George Eliot, who lived there during the first part of her life, before she moved to London. She was inspired by the working people of Nuneaton and surrounding area. Her father was a land agent at Arbury Hall. She accompanied him on his business journeys to the hall and around the area, and she gained extraordinary insight into the hearts and minds of the working people as well as the aristocrats who lived in Arbury Hall.

Griff House Nuneaton
Griff House, Nuneaton, former home of George Eliot (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

George Eliot is considered among the greatest of all novelists. I love her books: Middlemarch is one of my all-time favourites.

Several curious tales are associated with one of the locations she would have visited: The Griffin Inn, just down the road from her former home.

The Griffin Inn Nuneaton
A view of The Griffin Inn, at Griff near Nuneaton, near to George Eliot’s former home – many curious tales are told of this inn

The most compelling stories emerge from among the working people in whom George Eliot was so interested: in this case, those who worked for decades in very unassuming commercial premises in Queens Road.

Commercial premises at 62 Queens Road Nuneaton
Commercial premises at 60-62 Queens Road Nuneaton, during the time they were occupied by Entertainment Exchange.

In fact I regard the anecdotes that emerge from the business owners and employees at 62 Queens Road as one of the most convincing paranormal sagas I’ve ever come across: simply because there have been so many individual witnesses, experiencing similar things quite independently of each other, over a number of decades.

Discover the full story in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

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

Thomas Oken’s House and Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Rugby locations

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

Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

Coughton Court, Alcester

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.