The Joy of English Woodlands

The Spinney, Warwick

At this time of year in England, there is something healing about walking in the woodlands. I always feel that some of the loveliest flowers of all are cow parsley and bluebells.

I am also lucky enough to be a member of Songlines, a local community choir, and as the pandemic lockdown rules have been eased, we have been singing in Foundry Wood, Leamington Spa.

There are few things more beautiful than singing in a clearing in the middle of a woodland rich with fresh spring greenery. Of course, the birds do sometimes compete with us – not to mention the sound of the trains going past on the nearby railway line! Best of all is when a friendly and curious robin redbreast alights in the middle of our circle.

Perhaps I might capture a picture of him to include in a future post!

Perfect Cottage Retreat in the Surrey Hills

Hello – I write on the first day of the relaxation of the lockdown here in the UK and we have travelled from Warwick in the Midlands to the lovely Surrey Hills, close to Leith Hill Tower with its wonderful views.

 

This early 18th century cottage was originally a gamekeeper’s cottage and is hidden amongst dense woodland down steep, narrow winding lanes and is like a storybook dwelling. It stands beside a beautiful sparkling pond which often attracts swans, geese and ducks and other wildlife.

It is so peaceful here, with a sense of stillness and tranquility, a gentle subdued light lending a dreamlike quality to the scene as we move towards the end of the day.

Only the delicious sounds of a bubbling brook, an enchanting variety of birdsong, buzzing insects and the numerous calls of other wildlife can be heard. The cool breeze and the receding golden glow of the sun highlights the long shadows across the grass. This is indeed the perfect place for a retreat, in the heart of nature.

Book Review: ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

I waited quite a long time for Waterstones to send me this book; and having received it, I spent the next few hours devouring this story of William Shakespeare’s family and the tragic death of his 11 year old son Hamnet.

Book cover of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Living as I do near Stratford-upon-Avon I have visited all the Shakespeare properties a number of times. I will never experience Shakespeare’s Birthplace the same way again, now I have read this book. As I enter the rooms, I will imagine Ann Hathaway giving birth here, to her twins Judith and Hamnet; and in another room I will think of her laying out Hamnet’s body with loving care, sewing him into his shroud; and in another, of John Shakespeare browbeating William, or of his sister questioning or advising him.

Ann in this story is called Agnes; William himself is never named but called either ‘the Latin Tutor’ or ‘her husband’ or ‘their father / brother’. So we think of him in his relationships as an ordinary family man, rather than being distracted by the weight of his awesome reputation, over five centuries later.

The story initially moves back and forwards between two time-frames: the time of Agnes’ pregnancy with Suzanne, and the turbulent reaction of the families, and her subsequent marriage to Will; and then to the final 24 hours of Hamnet’s life, 13 years later as he falls victim to the Bubonic Plague. Life and death, beginnings and endings, are constantly interwoven, folding back on each other.

I found the book very intense, full of exquisite moment-by-moment accounts of highly emotional events, and the long period of Agnes’ grief, while her husband is in London on one of his long absences.

Will’s sister Eliza is the go-between in that she, unlike Agnes, is literate and can write the letters Agnes dictates and read the letters Will sends in return. Some have thought William Shakespeare very unloving to his wife and family, spending so much time away from them; but in this story we are offered a much more sympathetic picture. Will asks Agnes to come to London to live with him but she refuses as she fears Judith’s delicate health will suffer in the disease ridden city streets.

Ultimately with his London money Will is able to buy the gracious mansion at New Place; and I loved the descriptions of Agnes creating her dream garden there, planting many fruit trees and medicinal herbs and keeping bees and a host of cats.

The epiphany in this story comes with Agnes’ realisation of the true significance of her husband’s new tragedy ‘Hamlet’.

This is a book which will certainly have you scurrying to Google to check up on the known facts of William Shakespeare’s life and family members. You will see him in a new light and may also be deeply moved by the reality of life and death in 15th & 16th century England. A very highly recommended book.

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Signs of Spring

Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, offer the early signs of spring, and hope that we will move out of lockdown before too long and can perhaps look forward to a return to new life.

Snow in Warwickshire

Many of us love the arrival of snow – as long as it doesn’t last too long or lie too heavy or cause too much disruption…

When snow falls it creates an immediate transformation. We see the familar scenes in a different light. And many also associate it with fun – snowmen, toboggans, slides and snowball fights.

I love to see all the familiar trees and shrubs and objects set in sharp relief by the snow.

Guys Cliffe, the subject of chapter one in my new book, Paranormal Warwickshire, always takes on a fresh aura of mystery in the snow.

Guys Cliffe, Warwick

Paranormal Warwickshire is widely available online and via any bookshop.

Warwickshire Lockdown Walks

Curious how when we are instructed by the government to stay at home and only venture out for a very few clearly defined purposes, those of us who didn’t do enough walking prior to the pandemic suddenly find ourselves seizing the opportunity to get out every day.

And I am one of those. Living in Warwick we have several lovely walks not far from our home. We can head for Leamington Spa, and Jephson Gardens; or to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth. Both are very special places and water is in abundance there and in many other local places – either the River Leam or the River Avon or the Finham Brook or the Grand Union Canal….

Views of Jephson Gardens Leamington Spa, and Abbey Fields, Kenilworth.

Do you have lovely places to walk, close to your home? I’d love to hear about them! Do share in the comments below.

Magical light trail at Warwick Castle

On Wednesday 30th December at the end of the Covid year 2020, we visited the Light Trail at Warwick Castle.

As a local resident I have long been a frequent visitor to Warwick Castle, and of course it features in my latest book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Tonight the castle was especially magical. Merlin Entertainments really had excelled themselves.

Entering through the courtyard coach-house tea-rooms, we emerged out on the path to the castle.

Powerful beams intermittently bathed Guy’s Tower and the ramparts in mauve and green and blue, and the stalls of the Christmas Market were decked out in myriad lights.

As we entered the path to the light trail, I felt every trace of the anxiety and low spirits and fear and disappointment of this Covid-oppressed year melt away, and in its place all the excitement and wonder of childhood, at the magical vision that had been created in this iconic castle and its grounds.

We walked past the market stalls and along the trail, entering the castle courtyard through the arch to behold the battlements and gatehouse, Caesar’s Tower, the State Apartments, Time Tower and Elfrida’s Mound all washed by waves of alternating colours.

The voice of an actor broadcast around the courtyard the story of Sir Fulke Greville who after his arrival in 1604, transformed the castle into a grand palatial residence and created exquisite gardens here. He also, as a poet, entertained many famous literary figures here, among whose numbers William Shakespeare would have appeared.

Through the windows of the State Apartments we saw glimmering Christmas trees. Although visitors were not allowed to enter the Castle due to Covid restrictions, nevertheless we were able to gaze at the gorgeous decorations within the rooms.

Having circled the coutryard we left through the arch and made our way around past the Mound and down the slope and across the bridge to the island. In every aspect the castle and its grounds was transformed into something beyond this physical world. It is a beautiful, magical sight anyway, in broad daylight; but with the play of lights it was truly dreamlike.

Traversing the island and returning across the bridge we all climbed the slope to the left leading out into the fields beyond the Peacock Garden.

The giant trebuchet was irradiated with purple light, and the boathouse seemed like a gingerbread house from a child’s storybook.

All the while the full moon perfectly harmonised with the man-made light displays. The backdrop of trees glittered with rich colour, floodlit to set out in sharp relief the ones in front.

Every detail of the monkey puzzle tree glowed with crimson light.

There we passed numerous brightly coloured illuminated tents; and then a field of what looked like giant luminous fungi – in reality multi coloured open umbrellas on the grass.

We headed across the field to the illuminated tunnel where several couples couldn’t resist taking romantic selfies surrounded by the glittering lights.

We emerged into the peacock garden with is glowing Christmas tree and every feature of the garden delineated in lights.

Within the Orangery glittering Christmas Trees could be seen.

As we completed the trail and made our way out of the castle, an then on the long walk through the illuminated woodlands back to the car park, we took with us the joy and enchantment of this wonderful light trail.

Do check out more photos and many curious tales surrounding Warwick Castle in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth – haunted by English history, natural beauty and happy memories

View across the churchyard of St Nicholas Church Kenilworth from Abbey Fields

Here’s another of my haunted locations for Paranormal Warwickshire.

Abbey Fields in Kenilworth is much loved by the local people and I have continuously visited this atmospheric place ever since my children were young.

The ancient abbey ruins, the beautiful old church of St Nicholas and its enchanting churchyard, the view of Kenilworth Castle, the lovely lake and the Finham Brook that runs through Abbey Fields – all combine to make this a place that draws many back again and again.

Recently I walked along the path beside the Finham Brook, noticing how high and lively the waters ran, and an old lady turned to me and said she had come out from her home where she lived alone, and setting aside all worry about the ongoing pandemic, she found joy and consolation in gazing at these tumbling waters. She always finds it in Abbey Fields. She echoed my thoughts exactly.

A place haunted by many happy memories… and by other curious tales too which you might find in my new book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Out now, it may feed a curiosity about atmospheric places, enhance your knowledge of English history, and also provide a welcome retreat from the current woes of the UK, as you enjoy the many photographs. An ideal gift this Christmas, it’s available everywhere good books are sold.

Our Relentless Drive for Pursuit of Happiness Through Products – and the One Saving Grace

Happiness. An endless sandy beach, blissful sunshine, a turquoise sea spangled with silver, cocktails, a balmy breeze and… happiness? contentment? inner peace?

I was inspired to write this post by Andy Mort who runs Haven.

Andy occasionally sends out thought-provoking and discerning emails to his subscribers and I particularly agreed with him about the slippery soap that is our pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness puts me in mind of a brilliant book I read called “Finding Sanctuary” by Abbot Christopher Jamieson. In this book he talks about how we wear numerous masks during our lives, and in pursuit of happiness we constantly seek products which the advertising industry tells us are going to make us happy. We long for peace and a state of calm and inner contentment, and we seek it through more products, such as holidays. In fact we can never escape from the compulsion to seek the fulfilment of our ultimate longings within a product of some kind.

Being reflective about all this is such a good step on the journey to seeking some kind of release from this compulsive drive. It has been said by a doctor that everyone needs to go on retreat once a year (and of course Abbot Christopher was the one who featured in that TV programme The Monastery about the men who went on retreat). Though it could be argued that even a retreat is a product!!

I write this as I am busily selling a product myself …. a book called Paranormal Warwickshire – and I do my fair share of using marketing techniques tried and tested by the advertising industry – the Mr Bigs of this world. In fact when I think about it all, I could despair, except for the one saving grace that helps us keep it all in perspective – a sense of humour!

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.