The stories of people who believe they have had strange experiences

Recently I visited one of the locations in my current work-in-progress, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire to be published by Amberley Publishing in 2022.

The subject matter of the book varies widely but is largely about curious events in the physical world, based in known fact; however, the first chapter is devoted to strange and spooky tales.

The West Gate of Warwick

The venue was local to my home in Warwick, and I had already received a full account of strange experiences from a very reliable informant, lasting over a period of decades. Now I was seeking a story which might corroborate his description, but describe much more recent experiences. Sadly, the people I questioned on two separate visits had not experienced anything at all. I was inclined to put it down to the Covid-19 lockdown: presumably, I thought, the ghosts had gone into lockdown too. I respected the fact that they had no story to tell, and acknowledged this in my book, believing that a lack of stories is also important to record. For the mystery of paranormal experiences is that whilst many may visit a particular location, some feel and see nothing: others sense a rich atmosphere: and still others do indeed see, hear, and feel things that have no scientific explanation.

This reminded me of a series of questions that collectors of paranormal stories are to ask.

  1. Can you tell me how you first became aware this was more than a mundane incident?
  2. Did any other explanations come to mind?
  3. What conclusion did you reach as you thought through these possibilities?
  4. Did you take any action based on this?
  5. How did it affect you from then on?
  6. Do you have any background, cultural or historical, that sheds light on this?

These are the questions I kept in mind as I researched various stories for my book Paranormal Warwickshire.

Paranormal Warwickshire fireside read published Amberley 15 November 2020
Paranormal Warwickshire fireside read published Amberley 15th November 2020

Paranormal Warwickshire emerged from my experience in several places, which I describe as spiritual resonance.  These great buildings, maybe in a ruinous state, are not simply piles of stone, but animated by that “indefinable spark.”

In my book, the curious anecdotes told of these buildings acknowledge the life that fills the spaces between the stones. I include stories of everyday places as well: shops, railway stations, houses, pubs and churchyards, not just castles, abbeys and manor houses.

When I hear stories, I listen respectfully, even if I feel some may be conjured up by the imagination. I also ask why several different people, independently of each other and unknown to each other, should have the same experience in the same place over a long period of time. There have been many recorded cases of which this is true. Then, if you think it was “all their imagination”, you have to ask “what is it about this particular place that makes so many different people imagine the same thing there?”

The most compelling ghost stories are not about famous historical characters. A lot of them turn out, after research, to have emerged from the lives and deaths of people who never made their mark on history: people about whom we would have known nothing if the paranormal event had not alerted our attention and prompted research.

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A Visit to Stourhead National Trust: a Perfect Vision of an Idyllic Landscape and Lake; an Infamous ‘Romantic’ Encounter in the Temple of Apollo

Before visiting the gardens at Stourhead, Wiltshire the other day I looked forward to seeing for myself this ‘living work of art’, for I had created a brightly coloured, stylised copy of a photo of that iconic view just last year, during the first UK lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.

When we visited the garden, originally created in the eighteenth century by the Hoare family, we learned that Henry “the Magnificent” (‘gentleman gardener’) had relied on elements of concealment and surprise in his grand vision of this classical landscape. So we took the route that Henry had set out specially for his guests to take, from the house to the lake, and experienced the concealment and surprise and revelation for ourselves.

The first lookout point, Stourhead gardens, from which you can see the Temple of Apollo
Further along the path from the first lookout point, Stourhead gardens
The second lookout point, Stourhead gardens – here you can see the Pantheon
The third lookout point, Stourhead gardens – a clearer view of the Pantheon

Finally, having received glimpses of both the Temple of Apollo and the Pantheon through the carefully selected, planted, cultivated and shaped trees, we came upon the iconic view itself, where you can see the Pantheon across the lake beyond the bridge:

The iconic view of bridge, lake and pantheon at Stourhead gardens

I was enchanted as this was the view I had copied in acrylic paints from a photo back in the lockdown. I felt as if I was walking into my own painting, albeit with more subtle colouring than my own fluorescent production!

Stylised acrylic copy of photo of the iconic view of lake and pantheon in the gardens at Stourhead

Later, after visiting the house, we walked around the lake and climbed up to the Temple of Apollo.

The steps at the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead gardens – this was where Keira Knightley stood, in the role of Lizzie Bennett, in the film of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when Darcy came striding towards her to propose marriage in the pouring rain – she turned him down.
The Pantheon which you can see across the lake, beyond the bridge, in the iconic view of Stourhead gardens
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A Visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose, a perfect time capsule that transports us into another world

On a recent trip to Portsmouth, we were absorbed into the lives of the great ships there, and their rich histories. The Mary Rose Museum shone out for us with its immersive experience and its astonishing recovery of details of the sailors’ lives back in 1545.

View of Portsmouth Gunwharf Quays Marine from the HMS Warrior

But HMS Warrior and HMS Victory also enthralled us as we explored both ships, full of wonder at the insights flooding in on us (in the metaphorical sense only!).

HMS Victory

The audio tour of the HMS Victory helped us to relive the dramatic and heartrending moments of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s fatal injury, his journey to the surgeon’s quarters and his final hours, with his loyal second-in-command Captain Hardy.

HMS Victory

The audio narration and dramatic re-enactment engaged us on every level, enabling us to imagine the feelings, sights, sounds and smells of that experience, along with all the emotions of horror and disgust and tragedy and to guess at how the news of victory may have provided some compensation to Nelson for the imminent loss of his life.

Underneath HMS Victory in the dry dock
Underneath the bow of HMS Victory

HMS Warrior, a magnificent Victorian armoured ship in immaculate condition ‘never fired a gun in anger’. Built in 1860 it ran on half sail half steam.

On board HMS Warrior

Now, with Living History actors on board playing the part of the original sailors we felt a real sense of how it must have been to spend time on board as a member of the crew.

HMS Warrior

Beyond these two wonderful ships, the Mary Rose Museum filled us with awe. Sunk in the Solent in 1545, and raised over four centuries later, the Mary Rose and her story exerts a curious power over us: her many artefacts recovered along with the mortal remains of 129 crew, this exhibition was a truly amazing experience for us. The number of people originally on board at the time of the tragedy is not known for sure and it varies between 500 and 700. It is thought the shop was overloaded, and this may have been one of the factors causing it to sink. The number of survivors is also thought to have been between 35 and 40. They would have chanced to be in the right place on the ship at the right time to escape and be rescued by small boats sent out to save them. Many others were trapped by the “anti-boarding nets” stretched over the decks to prevent the enemy swarming on board. The ship sunk very quickly, and half of it ended up deep in silt so it was preserved.

Now, the recovered part of the timber hull is held in a state of perfect equilibrium, so the timbers no longer need to be sprayed with water or viewed through portholes. Instead, thanks to a fine balance of atmosphere and temperature and a series of air-lock doors, we may gaze at the recovered hull in its entirety, at every deck level.

Most poignant of all are the many objects and possessions of the sailors and the remarkable amount of details about several individuals on board: the Master Gunner, the Master Carpenter, the Pursar, the Archer, the Surgeon – their lives, medical histories and personal items.

I am in awe of the skill, ingenuity and expertise of the archaeologists, the divers, the forensic anthropologists and other scientists and all those who made this exhibition possible, for us to see and imagine and empathise with those many hundreds of people who lost their lives that day in 1545.

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A Poignant Story from Charlestown, St Austell Cornwall

We recently visited Charlestown, a beautiful little Cornish seaport, which opened up several stories for me. Not only did we explore the moving and compelling tales of numerous historical shipwrecks and recovered artefacts  in the Shipwreck Treasure Museum: but also I learned the poignant story of the man who created, designed and built Charlestown: Charles Rashleigh.

Along with the history of Charles Rashleigh’s rise and fall, we have numerous heartrending accounts of shipwrecks in the museum. As we wander through the museum gazing at the recovered treasures and reading of the sea tragedies  we may reflect once again on the high risks humans take, for the chance of adventure and the dream of making their fortune. Some succeed; others perish. In no other sphere of human aspiration can we best reflect upon fate than in the realm of sea voyages. The sea remains powerful, mysterious, cruel and merciless: yet a source of unending wonder and attraction.

Charlestown Harbour  St Austell Cornwall

Charles started building the seaport in 1790. It was completed by 1804 and  has changed little since: now it is popular among film location scouts and has appeared as a film location on several occasions.

Views of Charlestown Harbour

The poignancy of Charles’s story lies in the fact that he created Charlestown out of his own personal wealth and was a hugely gifted man, for the port was highly successful: yet in later life he formed an attachment to 2 young men, Joseph Dingle and Joseph Daniel, who betrayed him and brought him to bankruptcy.  The whole story is told in the book ‘Charlestown: a guide to Charlestown and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum’ by Richard and Bridget Larn.

A Walk Around Port Isaac on the Cornish Coast, from One Headland to Another

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Compton Verney, Warwickshire

Sunflower at Compton Verney

Compton Verney is one of my favourite places in Warwickshire, and it features in my current WIP, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire. A gracious Georgian mansion set in a Capability Brown landscape with a tranquil lake, it has a fascinating history. During the course of the twentieth century, this brought it through a variety of owners, into a state of near dereliction, and on to its ultimate rescue by a major arts foundation who renovated the building and transformed it into a well-loved arts centre and magnificent art gallery. Amongst many other artworks in its permanent exhibition, it houses an outstanding British Folk Art collection, which I love.

Here is a selection of photos taken at Compton Verney. Here, I have tried to show the wilder aspects of the planting around the grounds.

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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.