My visits to Nuneaton have uncovered some truly astonishing stories. Nuneaton is strongly associated with the great novelist George Eliot, who lived there during the first part of her life, before she moved to London. She was inspired by the working people of Nuneaton and surrounding area. Her father was a land agent at Arbury Hall. She accompanied him on his business journeys to the hall and around the area, and she gained extraordinary insight into the hearts and minds of the working people as well as the aristocrats who lived in Arbury Hall.
George Eliot is considered among the greatest of all novelists. I love her books: Middlemarch is one of my all-time favourites.
Several curious tales are associated with one of the locations she would have visited: The Griffin Inn, just down the road from her former home.
The most compelling stories emerge from among the working people in whom George Eliot was so interested: in this case, those who worked for decades in very unassuming commercial premises in Queens Road.
In fact I regard the anecdotes that emerge from the business owners and employees at 62 Queens Road as one of the most convincing paranormal sagas I’ve ever come across: simply because there have been so many individual witnesses, experiencing similar things quite independently of each other, over a number of decades.
I knew little of the ghosts of Rugby until I joined a fascinating town tour one afternoon led by Matthew, an entertaining and well-informed raconteur. Those who had booked for the tour gathered outside The Black Swan pub in Chapel Street. We were all to discover a rich history and a wealth of colourful and curious paranormal tales.
Famous of course for its school, (founded by the Elizabethan merchant and philanthropist Lawrence Sheriff) and for the popular sport to which the town gave its name, Rugby is to be found in the pages of the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was an Anglo-Saxon hamlet known as Routbie.
Over the years, it slowly grew until, following the Industrial Revolution, the town experienced swift growth with the arrival of the railways. In 1838 an early part of the present West Coast Mainline was built around the town. Soon after that, many wagon works and engineering facilities were opened.
A history tour of Rugby’s centre will provide a wealth of strange anecdotes. Several relate to the terrace of period properties in Chapel Street, foremost among which is the oldest house in Rugby, the 14th century building which once housed Tew’s the Butchers, famed for its appearance in the pages of Thomas Hughes’1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Other eerie and intriguing tales cling to the terrace of shops formerly occupied by the Lawrence Sheriff Almshouses in Church Street; the Rugby Theatre; a certain residence in Castle Street; and several buildings in the High Street, including the Lawrence Sheriff pub and two properties now occupied by retailers but which formerly served as locations for the Town Hall.
Finally several strange stories emerge from the memorial garden at St Andrew’s Church, and the gardens behind the church, an area which has a recorded history dating back to 1130 in the reign of King Stephen.
This magnificent church has stood at the heart of Rugby since the 14th century, with its west tower believed to be the town’s oldest structure. Here, in St Andrew’s Gardens, you may find many historical graves; and the land is believed to have formerly been occupied by a manor house protected by guards.
For all those who have completed their visit to Warwick Castle, and leave the castle by the town gate, Thomas Oken’s House will be seen straight ahead, between Castle Street and Castle Lane. This beautiful timbered property is now occupied by the Thomas Oken Tea Rooms. Thomas Oken himself built the house over 500 years ago. He was a philanthropic Elizabethan merchant, and he is renowned for his generosity as the benefactor of the town of Warwick.
Those who work in the tea rooms – and especially the young waiters and waitresses – along with several customers, and the current owner, Joanna Hobbs, have plenty of reasons to feel that Thomas’s benevolent influence still lingers there. Thomas died in this house on the night of 29 July 1573, leaving an amazing bequest to the town of Warwick, giving his name to a fund which still yields revenue today for the benefit of local causes.
Numerous strange experiences have been reported in his house, including a few apparitions, a strong sense of ‘presence’ (experienced when the building is empty apart from one person), and curious auditory phenomena too.
Much of this does seem to be associated with the person of Thomas Oken himself; and to learn more about his life, and his significance in the story of Warwick, we must go to the Lord Leycester Hospital, further down the high street in Warwick.
Surely this is one of England’s loveliest buildings (in the eyes of many, and certainly in mine). First built in the late 14th century, it was taken over by Sir Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, in 1570 as a retirement home for venerable retired service personnel. These were known as ‘the Brethren’, and the building was never what we now know as ‘a hospital.’ The present-day members of the Brethren, with their Master, live in the building. Behind the building is an exquisite garden, known as The Master’s Garden.
The property is regularly used by TV drama and feature film-makers as it represents a perfect authentic Elizabethan setting with its courtyard, its gallery, guildhall, great hall and brethren’s kitchen..
At night it is floodlit, and I love to gaze at it as I walk along the high street towards this medieval vision. It appears to me like a storybook image. I find myself remembering haunting childhood stories like The Pied Piper of Hamelin, as I approach. These are the kinds of stories that inhabit our minds, and create unexpected connections in subsequent years. Of course it may have a lot to do with illustrations of medieval towns in children’s storybooks. The Lord Leycester Hospital seems to match these.
Thomas Oken served in a capacity equivalent to that of Lord Mayor, as the Master of the Guild, and would have presided over meetings in the guildhall (on the first floor of the building). Visitors may find an engrossing exhibition here about his life, and the circumstances of his bequest to the people of Warwick.
First an Elizabethan mansion emerged from the ruins of the abbey. The property would remain in the hands of the Leigh family for the next four centuries. One member of the family, another Thomas, became the 1st Baron Leigh after he found favour with King Charles I , and by the seventeenth century the property had become a sumptuous and richly furnished mansion. Damaged by a fire in the 1960s, the grand rooms were beautifully restored and now offer a fascinating experience for visitors.
Much of the building is occupied by private residents but those gracious rooms, the chapel, the library, the Humphrey Repton gardens and the Orangery are all open to visitors. The association of the Leigh family, and thus the Abbey, with Jane Austen, via her mother Cassandra Leigh, and a very fruitful visit in 1806, makes the Jane Austen tour a rivetting addition to the more general but equally entertaining history tour.
Chandos Leigh, nineteenth century poet, and member of the literary establishment, was the first Baron Leigh of the second creation, and it is in his lovely library (my favourite room) that we may encounter some strange phenomena, and hear a few curious anecdotes.
You may wander through the Humphrey Repton grounds, and cross the River Avon (which was specially diverted here from its natural course, to ensure the gracious silver stone building might be reflected in the water, and shown to its best advantage) to gaze at the Abbey from the opposite bank.
One of my stories comes from a visitor who was doing this very thing, when she saw someone whom she took to be an irate landowner – and later had to revise that view. You can find out more in my book Paranormal Warwickshire when it comes out in November 2020
The medieval manor house at Baddesley Clinton is one of my favourite National Trust properties. Full of secrets and stories, this is the style of architecture I most love, timber-framed, set within a moat, full of secrets and stories, with its nooks and dens and unexpected corners and disappearing staircases… and of course the much-loved priest-holes.
Not so much loved, I imagine, by the sixteenth century Jesuit priests who had to hide in them for days to escape Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters; although they would certainly have been grateful for the sanctuary, knowing the alternative; arrest, trial and execution by hanging, drawing and quartering.
No, we are the ones who have the luxury of loving the priest-holes; for today we gaze with awe and wonder at the sheer ingenuity, physical strength and building skills of the master priest-hole builder, Nicholas Owen (later canonised by the Catholic church).
The original house was built here in 1400. Its name derives from a Saxon called Baeddi, who first cleared the site in the Forest of Arden where the house stands, and the de Clinton family, who dug the moat in the 13th century.
For 500 years the house was owned by the Ferrers family, passing from father to son for twelve generations. The Ferrers family remained loyal to the Catholic faith despite periods of persecution after Henry VIII’s split from Rome.
Edward Ferrers built much of what we see today, from 1526 onwards.
Many curious tales are told of the house, many by National Trust staff. One of the tales concerns the lingering presence of an unfortunate 15th century priest, one Willelmus Foster, who was killed by the hot-headed owner of the manor, Nicholas Brome (1450-1517) in a fit of misdirected jealousy.
It is in St Michael’s Church, close by the manor house, that we may find ample evidence of Nicholas’s attempt to make amends. This is a fascinating story in which repentant Nicholas went to elaborate lengths to save his soul, according to the accepted beliefs of the time.
He funded the construction of two towers in two churches, one of which is at the church in nearby Packwood, and the other of which is here at Baddesley Clinton. They are called the Towers of Atonement.
Nicholas also became a member of eight religious fraternities, praying each day for the souls of their members. Thus he was spared the usual penalty for murder, according to the law of the land (i.e. paying in the traditional manner for murdering the priest). It may also have had something to do with the fact that he was the lord of the manor.
It makes a fascinating story for us today, and it is recounted in the church, where Nicholas may be seen kneeling in prayer, resplendent in the stained glass of the east window.
He did however, as a final spiritual insurance policy, make reparation for his sins by directing that he be buried just outside the west door of the church, under the step where the doormat is placed, so all who entered the church might walk over him.
This is the eighth in a series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
Today we visit Leamington Spa, which in the 18th and 19th centuries became a fashionable Regency health spa. But it traces its origins back to the Domesday Book when it was a hamlet called Lamintone. In medieval times it was owned by Kenilworth Priory.
Leamington gained its status as a spa town following the discovery of mineral springs here : the first one being discovered in the early 1700s by the 4th Earl of Aylesford. He made the spring water available to all, free of charge. When a gentleman by the name of William Abbotts discovered a second mineral spring on his land in 1784, he set up a bath house called Abbott’s Bath. But it was his friend Benjamin Satchwell who changed everything. He wrote a glowing account about the healing properties of his friend’s well. His account was published and circulated through London society: and soon, wealthy and influential visitors began to head for Leamington in the Prince Regent stagecoach.
When the star of the gossip columns, the Duchess of Gordon, arrived in 1808, the town’s fashionable status was sealed.
Leamington also drew its fame from the presence of an illustrious medical man, Dr Henry Jephson, who met the medical needs of the wealthy and offered his own personal free health service for the poor, and who is now celebrated in the lovely Jephson Gardens.
When the eleven year old Princess Victoria visited the town in 1830, she was delighted with all she found; and later, after becoming Queen, she was ‘graciously pleased’ to bestow upon the town the status which entitled it town to become known as Royal Leamington Spa.
The status of the town had changed by 1880, when those glorious spa days were almost over; for the arrival of the railways had brought travel within the means of many, including those of more modest means: and even the fashionable were then choosing to visit the seaside resorts rather than the spa towns.
Leamington Spa by no means lacks strange tales. In my bookParanormal Warwickshire I share the details of several curious experiences in such places as Victoria House, an elegant building constructed in 1835, which has seen a variety of different occupants including the Freemasons, and (during the Second World War), soldiers from the Polish and Czech armies in exile.
Many eerie experiences, too, are recorded at Leamington Spa railway station. I share several stories told by the night-time security officer. You can find out more in Paranormal Warwickshire, coming out in November 2020.
This is the seventh in a series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
Abbey Fields in Kenilworth are a well-loved open space with a lake, adjacent to the thirteenth century parish church of St Nicholas. For centuries this land belonged to St Mary’s Abbey, before it was dissolved in 1538. This abbey gained its status in 1447 having previously been a priory for Augustinian canons.
Today parts of the cloisters remain, as do stones from the former chapter house, and also parts of the gatehouse and arch leading from Abbey Fields into the churchyard.
The lake here would have formerly been one of the stew ponds where the monks bred fish for their tables.
When I walk through Abbey Fields, past the cloisters, along beside the Finham Brook, or through the archway into the shady and atmospheric churchyard, I cannot help but think of those former inhabitants, the monks and the abbot, and of their daily ordered existence for so many centuries on this land where I walk.
Poignant feelings arise: an awareness, perhaps, of those who have occupied this same space before us, and who have imprinted upon it their hopes and dreams, their faith and doubt, their joys and sorrows.
Curious incidents have been reported here; both eerie sensations, and sighting of apparitions. You can find out more about these in my book Paranormal Warwickshire, which is coming out in November.
This is the sixth in my series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
I have long loved Kenilworth Castle, very close to my home, and one of English Heritage‘s most treasured castles. Not only has it provided the setting for one of the British Monarchy’s most romantic episodes – the elaborate programme of festivities laid on by Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1575, as his last and most extravagant attempt to win the hand of Elizabeth I in marriage – but also it encompasses a glorious, dramatic and turbulent span of English history from as far back as the 1120s.
Of course, many have reported ghostly apparitions, strange occurrences and curious anecdotes about this castle. Stories cluster around the castle stables and Leicester’s Gatehouse.
This is the fifth in my series of glimpses into the pages of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.
St Mary’s Church Warwick stands close to Warwick Castle, at the heart of England’s history. The church foundations date back 900 years, and it is believed a Saxon church stood here before the Norman conquest. The first Norman earl of Warwick began a collegiate foundation here modelled on the cathedrals of St Paul’s, Lincoln, York and Salisbury; and his son completed it in in 1123.
The church therefore has been a centre of faith for many centuries, and the rich atmosphere within this magnificent building bears testimony to that. St Mary’s holds many treasures, the greatest of which is the elaborate Beauchamp Chapel, commissioned by Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick from 1401 to 1439. The chapel today offers us a rare glimpse of medieval splendour, much of which was destroyed in English churches after the Reformation.
Around and behind the church building we are drawn into a different world: in the graveyard, many curious tales are told by those who walk among the tombstones.
Today I feature two locations very near to my home: the Saxon Mill pub and eatery north of Warwick town, and Gaveston’s Cross, hidden in a wood on privately-owned land across the road.
Both have a fascinating history, and are the scenes of haunting experiences. Many curious incidents have been recounted at these two locations. The Saxon Mill draws visitors not only for its hospitality, its menu and its bar; but also for the sheer romantic beauty of its setting on the river Avon, by the bridge across the weir, leading to Milverton Hill. As if this itself wasn’t enough, it provides the perfect site to view the poignant ruins of Guy’s Cliffe, across the mill pond and further up the river.
Of course curious anecdotes are related of the pub itself; and I include these in my book. But the most compelling stories are of visions experienced by those standing on the bridge or upon the riverside path opposite Guy’s Cliffe, as they gaze towards the ruined mansion.
Meanwhile, further up the road from the Saxon Mill, we may find – if we are persistent enough – Gaveston’s Cross, hidden in a wood. The cross commemorates a murderous act of revenge by the then Earl of Warwick Guy de Beauchamp and his henchmen, in the year 1312, when Piers Gaveston, King Edward II‘s favourite, had finally pushed his luck too far.
We may however look to the year 1821, and to the colourful former owner of Guy’s Cliffe, Bertie Greatheed, for the reason as to why this monument is there at all. Bertie caused the cross to be erected on his land, in a direct line of sight from the top floor of his flamboyant gothic mansion. Bertie himself was a creative man, a writer, traveller and architect, a ‘child of the romantic era’ and I think it appealed to him to mark this example of human infamy, so he could see it whenever the mood took him.
So he caused the cross to be erected, and upon it was carved a fascinating inscription, full of wordy relish. I understand that the wording was devised by the local clergyman. It manages to heap recrimination on everyone involved, and simultaneously derive self-righteous glee from the wrongdoings of the past.