Christmas Market at Shakespeare’s School on Saturday 8th December 2018

I’m looking forward to being part of the Christmas Market at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday 8th December 2018 from 12.30-3.30pm.KES Christmas Market

This was the school where Shakespeare studied in the famous Schoolroom between the years 1571 and 1578. So he won’t be at there in person but he may well be in spirit; for he was fond of revelry, and so were some of his most famous characters, Falstaff among them.

12.jpg

Having exhibited and sold my books at this fair in previous years I can promise there will be music, fun, a festive atmosphere and a fantastic raffle ( which I must admit does carry the best prizes I’ve ever seen at events of this sort). So if you are in the Stratford-upon-Avon area this weekend do come along to the Christmas Market, enjoy the revels, soak up the atmosphere, browse the stalls, and come and have a chat at the Local Author stand, where I’ll be signing and selling my paranormal thriller suspense novels.SC Skillman booksigning table at King Edward VI School Christmas Fair 3 Dec 2016.jpg

 

Jericho Writers: Review of an Inspired and Comprehensive Online Resource for Writers

Jericho Writers is a resource that has emerged from The Writers Workshop, an online resource masterminded and instigated by Harry Bingham a highly successful crime author, who, along with his own writing career, is dedicated to providing exhaustive resources for writers.

Jericho Writers, an online resource to help writers at every stage of the journey towards getting published
Jericho Writers, an online resource to help writers at every stage of the journey towards getting published

Jericho Writers takes its name from Harry Bingham’s location, which is Jericho, an area of Oxford. I must admit that my first thought when I saw the new name of his online resource was the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual: “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho, Joshua fought the battle of Jericho And the walls came a-tumbling down.”

The irony of course, is that for many writers, it’s a very good image of the writing journey: we are indeed fighting a battle, and as for the walls which must come tumbling down, well, I think we may all have our different ideas of what they symbolise for writers.

I first came upon Harry’s online resource The Writers Workshop several years ago, and have used some of its resources, seeking feedback on my manuscripts from two of their editors. In addition, I’ve sought and received advice by email; I’ve studied and used the agents submission kit; and have also watched some of Harry’s videos. In particular I found one on “The inner world of your characters” excellent and very helpful as I self-edited “A Passionate Spirit”. Over the course of time I have come to respect Harry Bingham’s voice as one of the few unfailingly sensible, honest and realistic voices online that offer encouragement and genuine practical help to authors.

Those who’ve heard my author talks will know that during my talk I cover the subject of “The ups and downs of the writing life” and in feedback I’ve discovered that the details I give are often new to my audiences. Many of them had previously had no idea whatsoever of the difficulty of writing a strong, saleable novel, and of getting it published.

Snoopy the struggling author
Snoopy the struggling author

 

One of the points I make is about the support and advice available to authors. I specifically refer to  “advice given online to authors.” I have learned that in the writer’s journey there are many voices online, who all want to give advice to you as an author. And one of the most common themes is this. “How I became enormously successful, and sold x thousands of books, and how you can do the same if you follow my advice.”

There’s one fatal flaw to all this barrage of advice: human beings are unique, and every person’s individual journey is different. And what works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

I have come to think of these people as “Siren Voices.”  In Homer’s The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus was sailing home across the Mediterranean from the Trojan War.

Odysseus and the Sirens
Odysseus and the Sirens

He came to a region of the ocean where the sirens could be heard. The sirens’ hauntingly beautiful voices would lure sailors to their doom on the rocks. So what did Odysseus do? He stopped up all the ears of his sailors, and he lashed himself to the mast. Thus he sailed past the sirens, beyond the range of their voices, saving his own life and the lives of all of his sailors.

And this is what I have learned to do, with the siren voices of the internet.

However, I can recommend Harry Bingham to you as one voice on the internet which is genuine, down-to-earth, full of integrity, and belongs to someone who has a passionate commitment to helping fellow-authors navigate the treacherous seas of the writing journey, and achieve their goals.

For those of us who are innately suspicious of yet more emails full of advice and handy hints and tips and resources that they claim are going to help us and transform our lives, let me add this: Harry is also very funny. And as far as I’m concerned, that is the one saving grace that probably first made me give him my time and my attention, and has continued to do so. I can be shaking with laughter as I read his observations on the publishing world (in particular, most recently, his remarks about vanity presses and one in particular which he called Austin Macawful). Because his observations are funny, they’re also true; and that works in reverse too, especially in the world of writing and publishing. And the things he talks about, I recognise. It’s happened to me.

So here’s a review of Harry’s new incarnation of The Writers Workshop: Jericho Writers.

This is a most amazingly comprehensive resource; as I looked through it I realised that it truly does cover everything an author might need at any stage of his or her journey, including the equivalent of a Creative Writing MA.

Jericho Writers itself is a club which you pay an annual fee to join; and then you have the run of of four main services: Editing; Courses; Events; and a Library of Articles. The full range of what’s on offer can be overwhelming; and you may find yourself thinking, where shall I start? What would be most helpful for me, at my stage? In that case you are welcome to send them an email and explain your situation and they will advise you on what might be the best place to start. For myself, on joining Jericho Writers and looking through their resources, I found myself thinking there was so much I wanted to do, how would I handle the time-management aspect of it?

Well, it’s all a matter of your priorities and the perceived value to you of what’s on offer. And that’s something you have to ask yourself and carefully consider as you read through the website.

Under the category of EDITING, you’ll find several levels of manuscript assessment: the entire manuscript; or an agent submission pack review of your synopsis, query letter and first 5,000 words; or an assessment of your first 8,000 words; or an assessment of children’s picture books, and screenplays and scripts. They also offer copy-editing, essential for self-publishers.Each service attracts an appropriate fee and you can look through them all to decide what would be best for you.

Under COURSES  I was most impressed to discover Daren King’s Complete Novel course – this is one-to-one, online, and with no fixed duration, and works as a personal mentorship with Daren King, bestselling adults’ and children’s author. You will get prose tutorials, constant feedback and advice, will work through Drafts 1-3 with Daren, and when the book is strong enough you will also get help to reach an agent with it. Of course, this is at a significant cost. Yet some have said it’s “like an MA in Creative Writing, only better”.  I can well understand that for writers in a certain position, who are genuinely considering a Creative Writing MA, this might be a better, more appropriate and more effective choice.

Under COURSES, the website also includes video courses of different types, to meet varied requirements; whether that be “Snapshot” advice, filmed masterclasses, or training in Self-publishing.

There is also an AGENTMATCH database to make the task of finding an agent easier, and in addition a forum called The Jericho Townhouse.

Under EVENTS, Jericho Writers runs two different one-day events at Regents College, London: one on Getting Published and one on How To Write. They also run an annual Festival of Writing which brings together authors, publishers and agents over a weekend. This includes one-to-one meetings between authors and agents, and it is claimed that often a writer will come away having attracted the interest of an agent, and subsequently landing a publishing deal and a successful literary career.

Finally, the LIBRARY on the site contains articles with good practical advice, on such subjects as How to Write a Book; How To Get Ideas; How Many Words in a Novel; How To Plot, etc.

So do  find Jericho Writers here, have a look through the website, and see if it might be what you as a writer need at this stage of your writing journey.

Heaven on Earth: The Joy of A Capella Harmony Singing with The B Naturals

What is the greatest musical instrument of all?

I believe it is the human voice.

Nothing compares to the joy of a capella harmony singing – in perfect pitch, of course, and under the tuition of an inspirational musical director… or how about four musical directors, one for each voice part?

Recently I  took part in an Abba singing workshop led by the B Naturals, a fantastic A Cappella quartet.

The B Naturals - Abba Workshop in Leamington Spa 3 Nov 2018
The B Naturals – Abba Workshop in Leamington Spa 3 Nov 2018

We all gathered in a church hall in Leamington Spa and the group members, each taking on the task of training a different part – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – taught us four gorgeous Abba songs: Does Your Mother Know, Eagle, Name of the Game and SOS. When you sing Abba songs you realise how complex they are, and also how discerning and often very moving the lyrics are, relating to so many different life experiences.

The four workshop leaders – Nick Petts, Guy Wilson, Dave King and Jon Conway –  worked together, interweaving with each other as they taught the parts. What a joy it was, along with a great sense of accomplishment,  as we mastered the rich harmonies, and sang the songs all the way through.

As a singer who belongs to two very different local choirs – a traditional choir and a community choir – I have often marvelled at the precious gift of music in our lives. The experience of singing in harmony with others is pure joy and one of the nearest things to heaven I can possibly imagine.

This high spiritual quality of music was recognised by JRR Tolkien in his book The Silmarillion. This book sets out Tolkien’s created world, which grew with him throughout his life: the ancient drama to which characters in The Lord of the Rings look back. And it opens with The Music of the Ainur. He begins: There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar: and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought… propounding to them themes of music: and they sang before him, and he was glad….

Quite apart from the immense resources of classical choral music sung by traditional choirs, there is a vast repertoire of music suitable for arrangement for A Cappella Quartets and community choirs, and so many gifted composers and musicians who have created glorious music for us – the music of the Beach Boys, of Abba, of the Beatles among many, along with a wealth of songs of different types and genres from around the planet.

In the midst of a world where there is so much disharmony, tragedy and grief, let us uphold and celebrate one of the greatest and most spiritual gifts of all – joyous and uplifting music.

The Season of Christmas Craft Fairs and Giving Books for Christmas

I always love getting out to meet readers and potential new readers – either by giving Author Talks, or by leading Creative Writing Workshops or by appearing at Craft Fairs

to sell signed copies of my books.

Remember – books are a great choice when it comes to choosing a gift for a keen reader among your family and friends.

Novels can make an excellent gift as long as you know the taste of your gift recipient. And if not, or you’re unsure, why not surprise them with a story they might not have considered reading before? A member of the  audience at one of my recent author talks told me that I had inspired her to read outside her comfort zone.

The next few weeks are very busy and I have one author talk and five Christmas Craft Fairs lined up already, with the prospect of more to come.

So if any of these are near where you live do drop in for a chat at my bookstall.

I’ll have signed copies of my two novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit for sale,

along with my non-fiction book Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, and also copies of the new anthology Merry Christmas Everyone to which I’ve contributed a piece.

Merry Christmas Everyone - anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers
Merry Christmas Everyone – anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers

On Wednesday 7th November  at 7.30pm I’ll be giving my Author Talk “The Power of Story” at the Northgate Methodist Church, Warwick.

On Wednesday 28th November I’ll be selling signed copies of my books at the Christmas Shopping, Pamper, Psychic and Holistic Night at Stonebridge Golf Course from 7 to 10pm. Post code: CV7 7PL.

On Friday 30th November from 5.30 to 7.30pm I’ll be at the Christmas Fair in Clapham Terrace Primary School, Leamington Spa. Find the school at CV31 2AR

On Sunday 2nd December find me at the Christmas Market at the Graham Adams Centre in Southam.Set your satnav for  CV47 OLY.

On Saturday 8th December, drop in to the Christmas Market in King Edward the Sixth School, Stratford-upon-Avon – postcode CV37 6BE – and have a chat at my stall.

Or on Saturday 15th December 2-4pm you’ll find me at the Christmas Fair at the Park View Care Home in Warwick CV34 4ND.

Hope to see some of you at one of the Warwickshire Christmas Fairs!

 

 

 

 

New Christmas Anthology: Merry Christmas Everyone

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve just received 2 boxes full of copies of a new Christmas Anthology, for which I am one of the contributing authors. This is “a festive feast of stories, poems and reflections” and entitled Merry Christmas Everyone.

Merry Christmas Everyone - anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers
Merry Christmas Everyone – anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers

The anthology is published by the Association of Christian Writers. It covers the entire spectrum of emotions that this season can arouse, and I have contributed a piece called The Christmas List.

The book’s available on all online retail sites and I have two dozen copies myself which you may order from me if you live in the UK, at the retail price of £8.99 plus p & p £1.50. If you do wish to order please contact me via this website and I will mail you a copy enclosing the invoice.

The book is a wonderful resource for Christmas readings – whether that be for parties, gatherings of friends and family round the fireside or dinner table, or church services.

If you read the book I do hope you find something in there which speaks to your heart, however you feel about this season – across the entire emotional range.

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.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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