Stoneleigh Abbey – a Glorious Restoration and a Fascinating Historical Tour

We recently made another visit to Stoneleigh Abbey, very near where we live in Warwick: a stately home that has been beautifully restored since it was devastated by fire in 1960.

Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire
Stoneleigh Abbey, Warwickshire

Originally home to an order of Cistercian monks granted land by Henry II in 1145, this later evolved into a gracious seventeenth century residence, formerly owned by the Leigh family, and it is the subject of one of the chapters in my forthcoming illustrated non-fiction book Spirit of Warwickshire.

I can also thoroughly recommend the historical house tour, and also the Jane Austen tour. The guide is both highly entertaining and full of fascinating historical information.

The house is famous for Jane Austen’s visit with her mother Cassandra in 1806, when they were both invited by Cassandra’s cousin the Revd Thomas Leigh to come and view his surprise inheritance. Cassandra – who does sound as if she was rather snooty, and a perfect model for some of Jane’s class-conscious characters –  was delighted and enormously impressed by everything she and her sharp-eyed daughter saw aand experienced during the ten days of their visit, and Jane herself, whilst admiring the physical attributes of the house, imbibed many subtle details which would later emerge in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.

"The morning room" at Stoneleigh Abbey
“The morning room” at Stoneleigh Abbey

Their visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have  certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.

Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey
Humphrey Repton grounds, Stoneleigh Abbey

Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.

View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey
View of the 14th century gatehouse at Stoneleigh Abbey

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Originally posted on the ACW “More than Writers” blog.
We all know who ascends the brightest heaven of invention.

SHAKESPEARE'S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
SHAKESPEARE’S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
Yes, it’s a muse of fire, which Shakespeare wished for in his Prologue to Henry V, as if the power of creativity were indeed a separate being, in this case from Greek mythology.
And I believe that it may sometimes be helpful to visualise our source of inspiration as a separate being – maybe an angel, if not a muse.
As writers, we love and work with metaphor and figurative language all the time, and one of the most loved devices is of course personification, which can often be highly effective in, for instance, comic writing.
A couple of years ago I went to a special event in the garden at New Place, site of Shakespeare’s former family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: an event which stands out as my most imaginative and inspiring experience in that town, even with its rich supply of Shakespeare properties.
It was known as The Garden of Curious Amusements, and presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The central idea of catching the muse was sparked off by the fact that Shakespeare researchers believe the Bard wrote his play The Tempest in his home during 1610/1611.
Can specific geographical locations of this earth hold an inspirational power? Does the muse reside there? Can we be infused with that muse by standing in that very place where a genius caught his or her most world-changing idea?
This notion was the launching pad for a group of  creative people who called themselves the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (UNBOSI for short), and through the medium of art, acrobatics, invention and acting, entertained the visitors who flocked to this attraction. Our purpose: each to take a marble and catch in it some of that muse which inspired Shakespeare, through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The journey itself was full of fun, laughter and delight – and at the centre of this fanciful Art Happening may be found a profound question: is there a correlation between place, time and light-bulb moments? That may sound eccentric and zany; but through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found inspiration and ideas that have changed the world.
We can only imaginatively reconstruct what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens where we embarked on a hilarious but also ingeniously thought-provoking journey of “Muse Catching”.
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished in 1759 in a fit of spite by a character Shakespeare himself might have created: the Reverend Francis Gastrell, the impetuous priest who owned the property and got so fed up with the Shakespeare tourists, he decided to burn the house down. At that time property owners could do what they liked with their properties and the idea that the authorities could step in and save a historically-important heritage building against the will of the owner was unthinkable.
But even a senseless, devastating act like this can sometimes bring unlooked-for benefits in the future. I feel that what I brought away from this entertainment in the garden was in its way more profound than the experience of looking round a carefully presented fifteenth century property and being told that he was born here and trying to feel some sense of awe and connection with the great poet.
So where is inspiration to be found? Is it present in the air, or does it lie hidden in the fabric of a special place? Or does it perhaps emanate from the ground? These and other ideas were played with at New Place on the day of my visit.
Upon entering the garden through the site of the original gatehouse, visitors cross an area which would formerly have been the service range, and where you may listen to an illustrated talk about the history of New Place. Then you will approach a circular area which delineates the space formerly occupied by “the heart of the house”, where there would have been a large medieval open hall with a fireplace in the centre of the room and a vent to let the smoke out.
Close to the centre you will find a bronze replica of a chair and desk which represents researchers’ best estimate of where Shakespeare himself may have sat writing his later plays during those final years up until 1613.
Near to the desk, a bronze tree appears, its branches bent to one side by the force of Shakespeare’s creativity; and beside it a bronze globe is worn smooth by that same force. The rough side of the globe symbolises a visualisation of white noise in outer space – which, the guide suggested to visitors, represents the idea that Shakespeare’s genius may help us make sense of the universe.
In “the heart of the house” during the special UNBOSI event, several information boards explored the idea that many world-renowned geniuses had their light-bulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the creative, quirky and silly – for along that path there may flare up that muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

A Creative Way To Grow, to Journey Through Our Lives and to Be Replanted in Eden

Dandelions. They are strong and beautiful. DandelionFlower

 

They grow even in thin, dry, tough places.

 

They have a deep root system.Dandelion seeding

dying dandelion

And when they die they give their seeds so other dandelions can grow.

Recently I was at a Creative Arts day at Christ Church, Orpington in Kent, which centred around the theme of Growth and was called Creative Encounters with a Creative God. The day was organised by Liesel Stanbridge, musician/composer and music leader at Christ Church. During the day she introduced us to her lovely song: “Replanted in Eden.”

At the centre of the day was this beautiful song “Grow” by Francis, accompanied by a video of stills of dandelions at every stage of their life journey, death, and dispersal of seeds.

During the day there were several creative workshops to choose from including pottery, jewellery, meditation, drumming, poetry, harvest arrangements, dancing with flags, and creative writing, to mention only a few  All of these carried the theme of Growth.

At the end of the day I feel sure that all of us brought something away with us which would have enabled us to see our life journeys afresh: something to think about, something to learn from and something to open up our true identities. I attended the Pottery class led by Caroline Bailey, in which we pressed leaves and scallop shells into clay, whilst listening to poetry, prayers and meditations; a moving and uplifting experience.  Also I attended a workshop on CS Lewis: Image and Imagination and was inspired by the wisdom and discernment of that great writer.

I led the Creative Writing workshop in the afternoon. Here is the description of my workshop:

Classic story structure: the very heart of story-tellingMany of us have a favourite story of all time. Story is a deep and powerful part of our lives from infancy. But did you know that behind every story that thrills our hearts, lies classic story structure? It is to be found in all great stories and myths, and it encompasses the mythic journey of the hero. Suspense author SC Skillman will share the secrets of classic story structure and then lead a creative writing session where you’ll be able to draw upon your own life, and find classic story structure emerging from your own experiences. Come and be inspired to turn your own life experiences into fiction – whether that be short stories or novels for children or adults.

In fact for the writing exercise I used Story Cubes, and each table of participants used the images on the 9 sides of the story cubes to create a story of their own based on the principles of classic story structure. Much hilarity resulted as the groups shared their story lines which were a wild and free mix of genres!

I find it awesome to see the innate creativity of people in the way they respond to story, (even among those who might initially claim a lack of ideas or imagination). And I was moved and delighted to hear and see what the story cubes awaken in people who trust and engage with the process.

All in all, this was a day in whch I believe that all of us present must surely have experienced for ourselves the miracle and wonder of growth.

 

 

 

 

Algorithms and Magical Thinking – at St Mary’s Church Warwick and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

How do we deal with the unpredictabilty of the world we find ourselves in?spellbound-website-banner

Recently I’ve been challenged at two quite separate events to consider the ways in which we look at the world and handle the unpredictability and unaccountability of our lives.

One event was held in St Mary’s Church Warwick where I heard a lecture by Revd. Professor Bernard Silverman, formerly Scientific Adviser to the Home Office.

Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician
Professor Bernard Silverman, British Statistician

And the other event was an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, called Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

At first glance, it seems our choice between the two is clear. After all, we are rational twenty-first century beings. We’ve had the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we know all about logic and philosophy and psychology and the laws of cause and effect. We have modern medicine. We know about viruses and bacteria. We have innoculations. We live in a much more civilised, controlled, functional world, don’t we, than our predecessors?

Or do we? Take your choice:

Do we trust mathematical predictions through algorithms?

or do we rely on the magical thinking in which humankind has engaged for centuries?

or… do we hold both of these in our consciousness as we proceed through this world, along with other outlooks as well?

Do you ever wonder where those politicans get their statistics from that they throw at us during media interviews, to underline or prove or disprove certain policies?politicians and statistics As a statistician, Prof Silverman has advised the government on many vital issues, including the numbers of people involved in modern slavery, and those taking certain classes of illegal drugs and those involved in drug-dealing, and how to handle a massive influx of migrants into the country. He employs his expertise to predict and manage probabilities and to anticipate situations on a scientific basis, and thus to provide solutions to the best way of handling problems.

Once someone said to him incredulously, “You mean, you found that out by…. using algebra?”

To which he replied, “…as opposed to just guessing? Yes.”

He researches data and then fits a mathematical model to it, and then gives impartial expert advice to support government. He did say it’s up to science not to overplay the evidence; and it’s incumbent on scientists to explain what they’ve found in terms people can understand; findings should be informed by expertise and not solely by the scientists’ personal opinions.

He was asked about the ethical challenges to scientists and he said the only real danger is when the Chief Scientific Adviser gets captured by the agenda.

In order to guard against that, he or she must:

a) make sure advice is in the public domain

b) have several people to whom he or she is accountable

c) listen and observe – after all, that encapsulates the scientific method.

Having listened to Professor Silvermen I felt heartened and encouraged,  and left the church with a much more  positive view of our country and our system of government and indeed our politicians.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I felt that with the Chief Scientific Advisers behind them, we have good reason to trust our politicans, perhaps, much more than we do.

Then I went to the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.

Here we found displayed many objects which testify to the reliance our forbears placed upon the idea of changing the external world and their circumstances by manipulation of objects through magic.

I found the exhibition aroused many different emotions; it was at different points, creepy, sad, disturbing, distressing, moving, thought-provoking. And as I went round the exhibition, I thought Humans are not essentially rational creatures – they are kaleidoscopic creatures.

George Iles quote on superstition

When we look at English history we may consider the following paradoxes:

Henry VIII chopped off people’s heads and condemned them to be hanged drawn and quartered,  and was in many ways a monster… and yet he was the first monarch to ensure an English translation of the Bible should be in every church, so the people could read in their own language the Gospels he himself clearly had not read (because the message of love, mercy and compassion had evidently not got through to him).

Elizabeth I fought to stop the idolatry and superstition of Catholic practices, and to institute her new Church, enlightened, rational, flower of the Reformation… and she also employed John Dee, Court Magician ( some of whose magical objects were in this exhibition). And women were persecuted and executed as witches right up until 1680 – 22 years into her reign.

James I has given his name to first much-revered King James translation of the Bible, and no more women were executed for witchcraft during his reign, and he fought to maintain Protestantism….except that he was obsessed with witchcraft, he wrote a book on it, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please James I, and took the witches’ (genuine) spells directly out of James I’s book.

Yes, here in the twenty-first century we are rational beings… but we still have within us black spots of what has been called wilful self-deception.

People for centuries have ostensibly followed Christianity yet believed in magical objects and rituals and spells. Clergymen have fought a losing battle against superstition, and caches of magical objects – used everyday items imbued with magical spells – have been found even in the twentieth century, secreted in hiding places in old houses. Some of these caches were on display in the museum; a pair of man’s breeches; a child’s shoe; several teeth; a number of small medicine bottles, and all sorts of items, almost like a curious time capsule, stashed away up the chimney or under the floorboards to somehow magically influence the lives of their owners.

As I moved through the exhibition I found myself thinking that in the past centuries, the powerlessness and brutality of life would have often led people to magical thinking, when Christian prayer seemed not to work.

17th century woodcut - poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft
17th century woodcut – poor women demonised by accusations of witchcraft

But are we so civilised and enlightened that we can look down on all that with incredulous disdain?

Do we cross our fingers, or avoid walking under ladders, or feel uneasy with the number 13? Do we have a dream catcher in our bedroom, or a lucky duck from Whitby sitting on the shelf? Do we pass on Irish blessings over social media with a threat that if you don’t forward it to 7 others something bad will happen to you? do you believe in house blessings, or keep crosses or icons around the house? Do you buy guardian angels on chains to wear as a pendant, or take a St Christopher on a journey with you? If we write, do we always use a special pen, or follow a certain ritual before beginning?

These and many other little rituals show that we still use magical thinking.

Certainly we can understand where JK Rowling got her ideas from and why her books have such a powerful hold on us…

 

 

 

A Special Place in Warwickshire to Reflect Upon Our Wills and Fates: St Peter’s Church Wootton Wawen – Saxon Sanctuary

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices still are overthrown;

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, 2, 602

ST PETER'S CHURCH WOOTTON WAWEN SAXON SANCTUARY photo credit Abigail Robinson
ST PETER’S CHURCH WOOTTON WAWEN SAXON SANCTUARY photo credit Abigail Robinson

 Surely the best places to reflect upon the universal truths that lie behind Shakespeare’s words above, are the many historical sites to be found in his county.

Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon sanctuary.

It’s in St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, which lies to the north west of  Stratford-upon-Avon, on the way to Henley-in-Arden. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.

Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the manor) of Wootton before 1066, probably holding court in the estate farmstead and hall of Wudu Tun which sat securely within ancient moated banks. He is known to have been a companion of Early Leofric, who founded a monastery at Coventry in 1043. But at the time of his lordship at Wudu Tun near the river Alne, the minster church had been here since the early 700s. I wondered about Lord Wagen as I looked through the exhibition. When William the Conqueror took over, this woodland village in the forest of Arden was one of the many land holdings that came to his attention. He confiscated the land from Wagen and gave it to one of his own pals (as was the way of many English monarchs).  In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.

The Dynasty of the Staffords, lasted through to 1521 when the last one was executed by Henry VIII. Thus centuries of royal favour and privilege came to an end for that particular family.

It is thought there may be a Shakespeare connection with the church at Wootton Wawen: a Victorian author claimed in 1890 that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in their courting days used to visit their friend, John Mascall, the Vicar of Wootton, just as Mascall was beginning his 60 year stint as pastor of the parish. The same Victorian author also speculates that John Mascall may have been the officiant at Will and Anne’s marriage in the private chapel of Shottery Manor, owned by the same family who at that time held the manor of Wootton. (And who knows, perhaps John inspired Will for the character of Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet!)

Along with this exhibition in the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought played into my musings: a TV documentary I had seen about the fifty greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC drama production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; and our visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, was killed.

Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind.

A Viking with bad attitude buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found by chance 1300 years later.

Henry V triumphed at Agincourt then married Catherine daughter of the French king. Henry died when their son was 9 months old. When he grew up, that son,  Henry VI, later revered as a saint, shrank from the role of king whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Meanwhile Catherine had gone off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.

Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future. But her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, her Catholic husband deserted her, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.

So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune and how they interface with our lives.

English history is full of “what-ifs.” Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of history and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.

In the face of these truths it seems that success or failure are not determined by hard work and striving. Perhaps we have to live with a healthy awareness that they may in a moment be swept away and rendered irrelevant by a quirky twist of fate.

Thus we may find ourselves pondering, as we wander around such a place as the Saxon sanctuary in Wootton Wawen.

How to get there

Stratford Road

Wootton Wawen

B95 6BE

 

Find out more

http://www.saxonsanctuary.org.uk/

Stoneleigh Abbey: A Setting to Inspire Jane Austen for Her Novels

If this be error and upon me proved

I never writ nor no man ever loved.

Shakespeare:  Sonnet 116

Certainly, among novelists living and working in the centuries following Shakespeare’s outpourings of genius, it can most truly be said of Jane Austen that if anything she wrote be error and upon her proved, then she certainly never wrote at all. Elegant interior Stoneleigh AbbeyFor Jane Austen observed not only manners, attitudes, words and behaviours in her own society and social class, but she saw into the hearts of everyone she wrote about. Her subject matter took for its outward form a restricted world of elegance, wealth and privilege; but in its essence her focus was simply universal truth.

For her settings and character names, she took her inspiration from her own life, and the places she visited. One of these was Stoneleigh Abbey, situated between Kenilworth and Leamington Spa, near the village of Stoneleigh.

Stoneleigh abbey seen from the other side of the river AvonAs you turn off the B4115 from Leamington Spa, and drive in between the Grecian Lodges, and make your way along the avenue between the tall, symmetrical, evenly spaced rows of trees, you become immediately aware that you are in a setting of precision and elegance. Cross the rusticated stone bridge, and you will see ahead of you on the right the mellow stonework of the fourteenth century gatehouse.

Passing through the gatehouse you emerge onto a winding path beside  flower beds, and ahead of you arises an imposing, silver stone building surmounted with ornamental balustrades.

This is Stoneleigh Abbey, which occupies land granted to a group of Cistercian monks by Henry II in 1154.

The monks longed for a peaceful, tranquil piece of land and they certainly found it here beside the River Avon. Building commenced in April 1156 and the rhythm of the Daily Office continued here undisturbed over four hundred years for the white monks. But with the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, there came Henry VIII’s agents, evicting the abbot and monks, dispersing them and confiscating lead and major timbers from the property for the royal treasury.

View of Stoneleigh Abbey from across the River Avon.jpgFor twenty five years the property remained a roofless ruin until it was sold to Sir Rowland Hill and Sir Thomas Leigh. Subsequently, it was to remain in the hands of the Leigh family for the next four centuries, whose first move was to build an Elizabethan manor from the ruins, while later generations built around the cloisters. By the seventeenth century it was a sumptuous and richly furnished mansion.

Jane Austen’s connection with Stoneleigh Abbey was via her mother Cassandra Leigh Austen’s relationship to the Leigh family. In 1806, following the death of Mary Leigh, the direct line of descent from the first Thomas Leigh came to an end and the estate of Stoneleigh Abbey passed to the successors of Thomas’s eldest son Rowland. Thus, Cassandra’s distant cousin Sir Thomas Leigh found himself the new owner, and he visited in 1806 with Jane Austen, her sister, and her mother.

During the few days of the visit, Jane Austen’s sharp observational skills were fully employed. Names and life histories of family members, details of conversations at the dinner table, and perfect descriptions of rooms and chapel, have all been discerned in her novels.

Elegant interior Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgAs you tour the grand rooms here today, you will observe that they are not  faded by age; but that they look exactly as they would have done in 1806. That is a consequence of a series of major reversals of fortune for the property, similar to the case of Compton Verney.  Following the disappearance of the family wealth, swallowed up in debts, the house went through a sad period of degradation. Then in 1960 a disastrous fire severely damaged the West wing. Most of the furniture and paintings were rescued, but the house was forced to close. In subsequent decades, it fell into further disrepair. In 1996 ownership of the house and estate was transferred from Lord Leigh to Stoneleigh Abbey Limited. Stoneleigh Abbey was saved from becoming a ruin.

Subsequently the Abbey underwent a massive restoration project in which close attention was paid to the integrity of the original. I visited the Abbey during its period of restoration and enjoyed a guided tour under the direction of a conservation expert, thereby gaining some insights into the methods by which the restorers ensured the materials, colours and furnishings were as authentic as they possibly could be.

Admired so much by Jane Austen's mother - interior at Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgNow, the ordered beauty of the Georgian interiors will fill you with a deep sense of pleasure and calm. These are much more appealing to my eye than the very busy interiors favoured in other historical periods: an abundance of flambuoyant rich gold frames and decorative work on already very ornate walls, along with rich and elaborate furniture, combines to assault the visitor with an overload of visual stimuli. But as we walk from room to room here, I appreciate their shape and proportions even more when complemented by the arrangement of the paintings, the three-dimensional plasterwork and the subtle colours of the wall coverings. The library with its mahogany panelling is one of my favourite rooms; I would love to retreat there for several days to immerse myself in the books, among which are the poetry books of former owner and friend of Lord Byron, Chandos Leigh.

Along with her mother and sister, Jane Austen would have greatly admired the aspect and proportions of the rooms, their decor and furnishings; but she would also have dedicated a finely-tuned ear to the conversations that took place within them. Nothing would have escaped her, especially not the words and behaviour of those who moved through these rooms. She would have silently accomplished what Lizzy Bennett does out loud, to the annoyance of Mr Darcy; that is, sketching their characters.

Interior, Stoneleigh Abbey.jpgI feel sure, too, that Jane Austen would have been only too aware of the wisdom of keeping this keen scrutiny to herself; for Lizzy Bennett’s voiced observations certainly alerted Mr Darcy to the fact that he was the subject of shrewd examination, much to his discomfort.

Just like several of her own heroines, Jane Austen would have been discerning the vices, quirks, and follies of her fellow dinner guests. She would be noting wit, or lack thereof; manners, and attitudes; and always what these revealed  of the hearts within.

Jane Austen’s visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have  certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.

Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.

 

How to get there:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Kenilworth

Warwickshire

CV8 2LF

 

Find out more:

www.stoneleighabbey.org

 

 

Hattton Locks, Warwick: The Stairway to Heaven

I have long felt that canals are like a parallel world, a shining ribbon running through our towns and countryside, often hidden from us by lush greenery.  Hatton Locks image 2All the haste and anxiety and stress of our frantic, driven lives seems to melt away for those climbing the steps down to, walking alongside, boating on, or standing gazing at the canals of our country. And where better to experience this world apart than at Hatton Locks, Warwick, on the Grand Union Canal; very close to the famous flight of locks which raise the water level by 45 metres via a flight of 21 locks known as the stairway to heaven.

Hatton Locks image 1The magic of canals is such that I find the peacefulness and enchantment and wonder tends to steal into people without any conscious awareness. Within a dreamlike atmosphere, people of all ages come to gaze, mesmerized, at the locks, at the boats moving through them, and at the radiant colours of the paintwork and the folk art of decorated boats and flower pots, seeming to denote a simpler, more contented, more innocent world; and at the names of the boats, sometimes quirky, sometimes affectionate and amusing, often playful, and always evoking for the boats personalities of their own.

Hatton locks image 3When I gaze at the canal, it seems to me as if I am in another dimension. We are so used to planning our next move according to the routes taken by roads, the A roads and B roads and motorways, that we carry around with us an internal map that penetrates our concept of the country we live in and even the mental world we inhabit. But, if we come apart just a little way from our established route, we will find the canal, a secret ribbon running through the towns and the landscape, from Birmingham through Hatton then on, all the way to Little Venice, Maida Vale via Regents Park in London, close by London Zoo.

photo0078And among the loveliest aspects of our country we find the waterside inns with their beer gardens, their tables and chairs and sunshades set out beside the canal, offering a highly-prized setting for a meal or a drink, in summer becoming, of course, sometimes too popular. We have outstanding inns along the canal in Warwick, The Cape of Good Hope and The Hatton Arms being my favourites.

 

How to get there:

The Heritage Skills Centre, Canal Lane, Hatton, Warwick, CV35 7JL

Find out more:

http://www.canalrivertrust.org.uk

Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, King Edward VI School,  Stratford-upon-Avon: Strong Discipline, Repetition and Learning by Rote That Nurtured a Great Poet

A thousand times the worse, to want thy light.

Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,

But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

Romeo and Juliet

  

Whether or not this is a true reflection of how Shakespeare felt about his own schooldays, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe upon entering the fifteenth century schoolroom where Shakespeare would have studied from 1571 to 1578, between the ages of seven and fourteen.

Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Actor playing the part of a 16th century schoolmaster in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

Even more impressive is the opportunity to experience a costumed actor playing the part of a schoolmaster of Shakespeare’s time, teaching as young William would have been taught; the recital of Latin vocabulary and declensions, drummed into the boys’ heads through wearisome repetition. Perhaps, even, this discipline, tedious as it may have been, prepared and fitted the young boy for the acting profession, since learning lines by heart is part of an actor’s skills.

Within the schoolroom Shakespeare would have also watched visiting troupes of actors perform plays. Also he would probably have acted in school plays himself. To be in the place where he may have conceived his first love for poetry, drama, and the acting world, is indeed moving. Quite apart from the mellow historical beauty of the sixteenth century interiors, I cannot but feel this is a special experience to come here. Pupils do sometimes use these classrooms today in King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare’s Schoolrooms and Guildhall have only been open to visitors for a relatively short time (two years at the time of my visit) to further illuminate the life of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's Schoolroom
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

The meeting chamber of the Guild is a gracious and imposing room. In this particular chamber, Shakespeare’s father John would have presided over meetings of the Guild in 1568, when he served as Bailiff (equivalent to Lord Mayor); and he would also have participated as a member of the jury in court hearings here. It is amusing to think how in his younger days he had fallen foul of the local authorities for being one of those responsible for creating a muckheap in the streets. But since then he had clearly regained a good reputation.

Nevertheless we may also wonder at the fact that 14 year old William had to leave school because his father could no longer afford it and was now in debt. What had happened in the intervening years since his high office for the local authority, and his ignominious removal of William from school?

We may find it very tempting to speculate. Quite often we have insufficient biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Was William cross? Or was he relieved at his new-found freedom? The fact that he left school at 14 and didn’t go to university is  used as one of the possible pieces of evidence for the theory that the man known as William Shakespeare could not possibly have written those plays and poems attributed to him. How could he? the skeptics enquire. He never went to university.

And yet… is it possible that William was a child prodigy? That he found all that learning by rote very boring? (Though in fact it was to serve him extremely well in the acting profession). Was it possible that William was like certain child prodigies in contemporary times who attain a double first university degree by 15? Was he the type who is perfectly capable of taking his A levels without doing the two year course?

Another aspect to consider is that Shakespeare may have absorbed what he learned at school to a much greater depth and intensity than his contemporaries. It is certain he studied the stories of Ovid and other Roman writers, for these stories appear in his plays. Perhaps William made up for his interrupted schooling by voracious reading. What was he doing between the age of 14 and 18, at which age we know he married Ann Hathaway?

These and many other questions spring into the mind of the visitor at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, a rich new addition to the Shakespeare properties on offer to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

How to get there:

King Edward VI School

Church Street

Stratford-upon-Avon

CV37 6HB

 

Find out more:

Shakespearesschoolroom.org

 

Warwick Castle: a Powerhouse of Influence on the Tides of English History, Through the Lords of Warwick

Rising up before you as you approach Warwick from the south, along the Banbury road, you will see a spectacular sight: that of Warwick Castle, perfectly preserved ancient fortress, later transformed into a stately residence.

view of Warwick Castle from the river island bridge
view of Warwick Castle from the river island bridge

The south-east side of the castle commands a cliff on the opposite bank of the River Avon, as you enter Warwick. It is best viewed from those on foot, or seated high enough to look beyond the stone parapets of the bridge.

But, to my mind, the most awe-inspiring view may be obtained by standing on the river island bridge inside the castle grounds. The massive walls soar up from the water; and above them the buildings which house the state rooms of the castle are situated. From this point you gaze along the river back in the direction of the road bridge; you will see the mill and engine house, and just beyond it the whitewater of the weir, where groups of cygnets will be galvanizing themselves to take the plunge.

Beyond that you will glimpse the ruins of the medieval bridge, which are best observed from the decking outside the mill and engine house. This was the original bridge which for four hundred years formed the main approach to Warwick. It was built in the fourteenth century together with a toll booth. The site of that toll booth is now in the glorious Mill Garden, another location from which you have an outstanding view of the Castle. Once the new wider bridge was built over the Avon in the 1780s, the medieval bridge was sealed off and later partially demolished to form a picturesque ruin.

The first fortification on the land where Warwick Castle now stands was built in 914 by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, with the purpose of keeping out the Danes. Subsequently William the Conquerer took it over as a site for one of the many motte and bailey forts he established throughout England.

view of the castle courtyard from one of the state rooms at Warwick Castle
view of the castle courtyard from one of the state rooms at Warwick Castle

The mound on which these fortifications stood remains today as a prized element of the estate surrounding Warwick Castle; and indeed when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was commissioned by Francis Greville, Earl of  Warwick from 1759 to 1773, to landscape the grounds, he suggested making the mound an important aesthetic feature, by ordering ornamental trees to be planted down its slopes surrounding the spiral path.

The first owner of the castle was, naturally, one of those who supported William the Conquerer; namely, Henry de Newburgh, Constable of the Castle from 1088 to 1119.  But it was really only when the first member of the family de Beauchamp inherited the castle, beginning with William de Beauchamp in 1268, that a dynasty with significant influence in the affairs of the nation commenced.

From then on, through the Beachamps and the Nevilles and the reign of Edward IV, it is true to say that any individual who could be addressed My Lord of Warwick had a considerable influence on English history: and throughout the generations of Earls, the one to win the most noteworthy place in history books was Richard Neville, holder of the Earldom from 1449 to 1471. He held two kings prisoner during the course of one year, 1469: Edward IV in Warwick Castle and Henry VI in France.

It is easy for us to see Richard Neville’s actions as worthy of mirth now but within the complexities and the power struggles of his time these were grave decisions and deeds. It is intriguing to note how the balance of power often seemed to be influenced by the women behind the throne; in the case of Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, later to be known as one of the she-wolves of English history: and in the case of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville and the powerful family behind her.

One of the great recurring themes of English royal history is that of betrayal and changing sides. The two Tudor kings Henry VII and his son Henry VIII left the castle to fall to ruins probably because of its associations with that Demon Brood, the Plantagenet dynasty who had preceded them.

Sellars and Yeatman, of course, brilliantly summed up the trap into which so many of us can fall, in their comic classic 1066 And All That (first published in 1930).  In that slim volume they gave us:  A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember.  Of Richard Neville they say:  Any baron who wished to be considered king was allowed to apply at Warwick the Kingmaker’s, where he was made to fill up a form.

Richard Neville held sway more than any other Earl of Warwick before or after him, helping to depose both Henry VI and Edward IV. He also brought about the Readeption of Henry VI, to the great astonishment of Henry himself, for one year in 1470-71 before Henry was ‘put to death’ (or died of melancholy, as some would have it) in the Tower, and Edward IV took over again.

Though saintly – and judged by history to have been so – Henry VI was a disastrously ineffectual medieval king. But whilst manipulating the trusting and pliable man who had never wanted to be king, Richard Neville used the magic of Henry VI’s name as a cloak of respectability for his own ambitions.

But, in the beguiling manner of English history, his fortunes rapidly changed when he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, at which point Edward IV awarded the castle to his own brother, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence.

The Battle of Barnet is the battle whose extensive preparations we see in the brilliant waxwork exhibition Kingmaker at Warwick Castle.

The Knights of Middle England performing the Wars of the Roses at Warwick Castle
The Knights of Middle England performing the Wars of the Roses at Warwick Castle

Another much earlier earl of Warwick had been responsible for the treacherous crime committed in 1312 against Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite.  Guy de Beauchamp, earl from 1298 to 1315, was one of a group of earls known as the Ordainers who aimed to try and contain Edward II in his excesses, and restrict his abuse of power. Guy was responsible for luring Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite, to Warwick in 1312; and Piers ended up being dragged to Blacklow Hill and slaughtered there.

Yet another Earl of Warwick – Richard Beauchamp, earl from 1401 to 1439 – presided over the trial of Joan of Arc, and sentenced her to burn at the stake. This same Richard was also responsible for the building of the Beauchamp chapel in St Mary’s Church, Warwick – so priests could pray for his departed soul. It’s very tempting to speculate that he hoped thereby to assuage his lingering guilt for the part he played in bringing the  Maid of Orleans to the stake; but it’s unlikely, of course, that he felt any guilt at all. We must always be careful not to attribute a 21st century conscience to one living in very different times.

Now when we visit the Castle, owned by Merlin Entertainments, our introduction to historical matters is via the Horrible Histories maze, which (arousing local controversy) stands in place of the previous Victorian rose garden, and gives great entertainment to many visitors. The intention of Horrible Histories is of course to amuse and amaze as well as inform, but it does mock the behaviour of our ancestors – of which more later in this chapter.

One of the other castle attractions is a visit to the State Rooms. After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Robert Greville, then Lord of Warwick, began a period of restoration at the castle, and created there a grand palatial residence. From that time on, the castle rose again from its threatened fate of becoming a picturesque ruin.

The first Greville to lavish his wealth on renovating the property and creating new gardens had been Sir Fulke Greville, who held the castle between 1621 and 1628.  It seems an undeserved irony that having achieved so much good, he should end up murdered by his manservant Ralph over the matter of how much money he had left Ralph in his will.

And Sir Fulke’s work on the new gardens was swept away by his successor who sided with Parliament during the English Civil War. During that period much damage was done to the Castle.

the peacocok garden and orangery at Warwick Castle
the peacocok garden and orangery at Warwick Castle

But when Francis Greville commissioned Lancelot Capability Brown to transform the grounds in the late 1750s, he made a major contribution to the castle’s power to attract and inspire visitors. Today, as you stand on the river bridge with your back to the island, you see the land sweep upwards to the Peacock Garden, and round to the north-west side of the castle in a way that appeals to our deepest sense of proportion and harmonious design.  In fact Warwick Castle was Capability Brown’s first major commission, which launched him on his subsequent career, in which he transformed the grounds of many great houses in England.

When we walk round Warwick Castle, whether we tour the excellent Kingmaker Exhibition, admire the Great Hall with its magnificent weapon displays, wander through the State Rooms, walk the ramparts and towers, climb to the Conquerer’s Fortress or watch the Knights of Middle England re-enact the Wars of the Roses, we cannot but be aware of the rich concentration of English history, centred upon this castle.

weapon display in the Great Hall at Warwick Castle
weapon display in the Great Hall at Warwick Castle

And we might also reflect that it’s no wonder medieval earls and barons and kings were so willing to risk their lives for glory and power and wealth. Everyone would have been intensely aware of life as insecure, short and easily-disposable. That would drive anyone with ambition to an All or Nothing philosophy.

Though their pitilessness is undeniable, to all who descend the steps to the Gaol and gaze down the dreadful oubliette into which the unluckiest prisoners were thrown to be forgotten and to die of starvation or madness. But the judgements we pass on historical characters are often suspect. The decisions we ourselves make now – if  significant enough to be remembered – will be as easy mocked from a distance of a few hundred years.

Looking back to medieval times, if we imagine the complexity of the situations and power struggles within which these personalities sought to reach their goals, all in the context of limited vision, we recognise that they had to make decisions just as we do now with no knowledge of future outcomes. We too will seem equally as self-defeating when viewed from the distance of centuries.

The Throckmortons of Coughton Court, Warwickshire: A Family Forever Linked to those Who Conspired to Murder their King

Approaching Coughton Court, the ancestral seat of the Throckmortons, near Alcester in Warwickshire, we may admire the mellow sandstone sixteenth century house with its dramatic battlemented gatehouse tower and lovely timbered north and south wings.

the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court
the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court

In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.

view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court
view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court

Everything about this house and its surrounding grounds and gardens speaks graciousness, fine proportions, serenity: all that tends to make us feel relaxed, good-humoured and full of positive anticipation. But that has by no means always been the case. In the past this house has known betrayal, terror and conspiracy.

This house has been held by the Throckmorton family for over 600 years and during that time the vast majority of them have been fervent Catholics, remaining loyal throughout times of great persecution. Several generations of the Throckmortons have been closely involved with some of the major events of English history. 

The first Throckmortons to own land in Coughton were John and Eleanor in 1412 and John became the founder of this historically-important family.  A later Throckmorton, Robert, was knighted in 1494 along with Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII, thus beginning the family’s long association with the Tudor monarchy, sometimes profitable, always dangerous, and ultimately fateful.

His son George was to discover the folly of opposing Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon; the mortification of being a dissenting guest at Anne Boleyn’s coronation; the inadvisability of thwarting Thomas Cromwell in a land dispute; and, no doubt, a rather uncharitable sense of vindication at finding himself prosecution witness at Thomas’s trial and in a position to seal his fate.

Robert’s son Nicholas stands out among the Throckmortons as having been a Protestant; and I cannot help wondering how that affected his family relationships, coming as he did from an otherwise unbroken line of devout Catholics.  Nicholas too discovered the slipperiness of close involvement with the Tudor monarchy.

 He had a very narrow escape when his support of Lady Jane Grey ended in defeat; found himself in prison after opposing Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; and suffered the thanklessness of Elizabeth after he had acted as confidant to the young princess, brought the news of Mary’s death to her, and finally acted as her emissary to Mary Queen of Scots. All of this failed to win for him the high office at court which he had hoped for. 

After Nicholas’s death, the family resumed its activities on behalf of the Catholic side with renewed zeal. In 1584 his nephew Francis was executed for trying to depose Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

In 1858 a 16th century priest-hole was rediscovered in the Tower Room: a double hide, one chamber on top of the other, so the priest hiding in the chamber below would have been highly unlikely to be discovered, even if the upper chamber came to light.

The Drawing Room, Coughton Court
The Drawing Room, Coughton Court

The Tower room is where the family kept a small altar with everything needful to celebrate Mass according to their Catholic faith; the windows both sides of the room gave extensive views out onto the surrounding countryside so they would be alerted to anyone approaching the house from a considerable distance away. Certainly they would have had plenty of warning if Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters were approaching, and enough time to hide the priest together with all the objects of Catholic worship in that ingenious hiding place.

The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court
The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court

When you begin your tour of the house, you are soon shown through a well-laid-out exhibition about the Gunpowder Plot; and after visiting that, as you enter the drawing room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, you cannot but be very aware that this was the room where the first news of the plot’s failure was broken to those who waited here. In the early hours of 6th November 1605, Lady Digby, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, one of the Plotters, sat in this drawing room, anxiously awaiting news.

At 6am Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby (charismatic mastermind of the plot) galloped across the bridge over the moat and climbed the stairs to the drawing room. No doubt drenched with sweat, wild haired and eyes full of terror, Thomas broke the news which would have filled her with horror and fear: the plot had been discovered, Guy Fawkes arrested, her husband Sir Everard captured, and his fellow conspirators were all on the run in fear of their lives. She would have had no doubt whatsoever about what lay in store for her husband and his friends. The fate that awaited all those found guilty of treason was a vile and brutal punishment: hanging, drawing and quartering. It was, however, a fate that many chose to risk. They were desperate times. The stakes were high, and hot-headed, religious zealots were willing to run that risk for their passionate beliefs.

Following this, the party at Coughton Court quickly dispersed to various locations, among them two priests, Nicholas Owen the master priest-hole builder, and the Vaux sisters who had rented Baddesley Clinton for the express purpose of providing a safe meeting place for priests, together with concealed chambers they could hide in during raids. Meanwhile, the plotters fled to the house of another Catholic friend, hoping for support, which they did not receive: instead they headed off to Holbeach Hall, where final disaster awaited them.

Of those who fled to Holbeach Hall, we learn in the special exhibition at Coughton Court, four suffered the least painful, and the quickest, death. They (incredibly) betrayed their presence by trying to dry their gunpowder in front of the fire. Not surprisingly (but presumably, it surprised them) their gunpowder exploded. The noise alerted the Sheriff of Worcestershire who came with his troops and surrounded the house. In the ensuing gunfight the next morning, four conspirators were shot dead, including Robert Catesby the charismatic mastermind of the plot. Of the others, six were tried on 27th January 1606 and executed at the end of that month.  One other, Francis Tresham, was arrested on 12th November and fortuitously died of a natural illness in the Tower on 23rd December.

The room in which Lady Digby received Thomas Bates’ news is a beautiful one to our eyes, and we might expect to find a lingering atmosphere of fear and dread. But indeed no such feeling hangs around this room, and our emotional response to the story may be most clearly elicited in the room which holds the exhibition. The information about the Plot is imaginatively displayed, thus giving visitors their best chance to remember the names of the people involved and the details of their desperate flight and foolhardy actions during those final fateful hours after Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.

Whatever we may think now of the issues at stake during years of turmoil in which England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, nevertheless, when viewed on the human scale, we see individuals chancing their lives and family destinies, on the hoped-for success of desperate strategies, utterly at the mercy of the State’s ruthless response to their own religious zeal, often leading to heart-rending and grisly outcomes.

Here at Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons who were so closely connected to those dramatic events, we may see this played out through generations of unswerving Catholic devotion both before the events of 1605 and for centuries after, right down to the present day. After Sir Robert Throckmorton became Lord of Coughton in 1680, he built an illegal Catholic chapel, only to see it burned down by a Protestant mob, during the anti-catholic riots which were followed by the exile of James II. The mob also burned the east side of the house, and the ruins stayed there for another century.

When I enter a house such as Coughton Court, the rich surroundings, the elegant and lofty rooms, the grand family portraits and the harmonious decor play their part; but most powerful of all is the story of the house, brought alive by the artefacts that are displayed here. We may find the chemise that Mary Queen of Scots wore on the day of her execution; the dole-gate that one of the family, Elisabeth Throckmorton, Abbess of Denny, brought with her as a poignant memento as she fled the dissolution of the monasteries; the chair made out of wood  originally used for the bed Richard III slept on before he fought the Battle of Bosworth.

And, too, we may view the family photographs of the present-day members of the Throckmorton family – two of them, Clare McLaren-Throckmorton and her daughter Christina, responsible for the design and creation of the enchanting walled garden. These photos also have a poignancy to them, when you remember the contemporary family’s forbears. We may consider this a luxury few may claim, to know your family history back 600 years; but I believe there may be a certain burden in carrying this, a certain weight on your shoulders, a weight of knowledge of the details of your ancestors’ vices and virtues, their hopes and failures, their deeds, their triumphs and disasters.

 

How to get there:

Alcester

Warwickshire

B49 5JA

 

Find out more