Perfect Cottage Retreat in the Surrey Hills

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

 

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

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

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

Book Review: ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

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

Book cover of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Review: The 99th Koala by Kailas Wild

This account of the koala-rescue campaign in bushfire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is gripping and very emotional. Accompanied by superb photos, arborist Kailas Wild tells a story sometimes dramatic and inspiring, and at other times sad and heartrending, packed with tense and harrowing descriptions of koala rescues.

As one of the few professional tree-climbers/ experienced koala handlers called to Kangaroo Island following the wildfires that swept through parts of Australia in 2019, Kailas used his rope climbing equipment to scale 30 metre high burnt trees to flag down traumatised koalas, bundle them into pet carriers, and drive them to the animal hospital for treatment – or sometimes to be euthanised.

As you read the book you feel amazed he didn’t suffer long-lasting mental health difficulties following this incredibly harrowing and challenging time on Kangaroo Island. He is, indeed, very open about his emotional distress and his mental trauma. Throughout the book the reader is moved by his skill and courage, in this dangerous and tough work.

Kailas Wild with rescued koala

Kailas gives many fascinating details of his work, including for example his knowledge of how to test the structural integrity of a fire damaged tree before he starts climbing; his endurance of scratches from the claws of frightened koalas; and the best way to handle them, to avoid the very real danger of being bitten by their knife-sharp teeth. The photos are often dramatic and impactful; shots of him up a tree trying to reach a koala on an adjacent tree, images of a burnt koala, photos which make clear his own mental trauma, visible in his face.

His working days among the burnt plantations involved 10-12 hours of physically and emotionally draining labour. He spent “days alone amongst burnt trees and dead animals… and even the successful rescues are traumatic.”

After a considerable time in which he feels a lack of co-ordination and resources, he finally gets the help he needs from two other wildlife rescue experts – Deb and Fraya. The efforts they go to as the terrified koalas resist capture is astonishing. Their own stress is compounded by the knowledge of the stress to which they are subjecting the koalas – and then at the end the rescued animals may have to be euthanised.

The author is very open about the toll this takes on his mental health. He also considers the ethics of human intervention in the lives of wild animals suffering an environmental disaster; does his work compromise the ability of the wild animals to live independently when released back to the wild, having become over-reliant on humans? He also describes the moment when they realise the risk of injury to the koalas themselves outweighs the benefits of attempting rescue.

Finally the time comes when Kailas and his colleagues realise they have done everything they can, and the remaining koalas, having already survived this long, will most likely thrive.

A deeply moving book for all those who love animals, care about environmental issues and are interested in wildlife conservation, but also an account of courageous human endeavour and compassion, in the face of ethical dilemmas.

Snow in Warwickshire

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

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

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

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

Guys Cliffe, Warwick

Paranormal Warwickshire is widely available online and via any bookshop.

Magical light trail at Warwick Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within the Orangery glittering Christmas Trees could be seen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extract from the Introduction to Paranormal Warwickshire

I have heard, but not believed,

The spirits of the dead

May walk again

William Shakespeare

So says William Shakespeare, through the lips of Antigonus in Act 3 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale.

William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout
William Shakespeare Engraving First Folio 1623 by Martin Droeshout

Did Shakespeare believe in ghosts and spirits? Opinions are divided; Herbert,  Shakespearean actor, who led us around Stratford-upon-Avon one evening on the town ghost tour, maintained that Shakespeare did; whereas a distinguished Cambridge professor, examining the Bard’s use of paranormal manifestations throughout his plays, concluded that he believed these are all ‘emanations from the mind.’

Hamlet and his father's ghost. Shakespeare's Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Hamlet and his father’s ghost. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Painting by John Gilbert. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

We cannot say for sure what Shakespeare believed; but his works are full of ghosts and spirits. It is known that he himself played the part of his most famous and loquacious ghost, the spirit of Hamlet’s father, many times, and it was the top of his performance as an actor, according to his first biographer. This is the ghost of whom Hamlet says:

 The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil, and the devil hath power

To assume a pleasing shape.

William Shakespeare

And yet throughout the play Hamlet continues to explore and agonise over the true nature of the spirit he has seen, with the input of his sceptical friend Horatio; and he reaches different conclusions according to the state of his mind.

Whether because they made excellent dramatic devices, or because their presence in Shakespeare’s plays denotes something much deeper, more complex and hidden within the recesses of his own heart, it is true his county, Warwickshire, is saturated even today in strange events for which there is no scientific explanation.

Ghost Banquo at Feast. Shakespeare's Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons. SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
The Ghost of Banquo at the Feast. Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve lived in Warwickshire for twenty-five years, at the time of writing.  I’ve grown to love and feel a deep connection with some of this county’s most iconic locations: castles, houses, and churches; and also some of its less familiar ones.

Thomas Oken House Warwick
Thomas Oken’s House Warwick – photo credit Jamie Robinson

All of these places have rich and complex stories to tell which span the full range of the emotional, moral and spiritual spectrum, as befits the county of Shakespeare.

Brutus & Caesar's Ghost 1802 Wikimedia commons Shakespeare Julius Caesar SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Painting dated 1802. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

But the stories here acknowledge that energy lingers in many places other than manor houses, abbeys and castles. They also tell of ordinary people going about their business in a very familiar, even mundane environment. It’s about shop owners and sales staff, families in terraced houses and busy commuters on a railway platform. Some of the stories you will find here are those that people kept to themselves, for a long time, for fear of being ridiculed.

Shakespeare monument Holy Trinity Church Stratford upon Avon
Shakespeare’s monument above his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

 Our task here is simply to listen to the stories that people tell, and, like Hamlet, to explore the nature of these strange experiences both with our hearts and our minds, and reach our own conclusions.

Paranormal Warwickshire is available everywhere good books are sold.

Paranormal Warwickshire is Now Live!

I’m delighted to announce that Paranormal Warwickshire has now been released by Amberley Publishing.

Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman book cover
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman book cover

It was a very exciting moment when I received my box of books.

Author SC Skillman opening box of books Paranormal Warwickshire
Author SC Skillman opening box of books Paranormal Warwickshire

Here’s an early review from fellow author and blogger Ritu Bhathal, who received an advance review copy:

A fantastic book filled with tales of ghostly sightings across the county of Warwickshire.
SC Skillman has found some intriguing stories and researched their background and possible origins. The results are fascinating and eye-opening.
I especially loved the accompanying photographs, old and new, showing the different castles and buildings where these events are said to have taken place.
Warwickshire was where I grew up, and we regularly visited places like Warwick Castle, Kenilworth Castle, Stratford-Upon-Avon and Leamington Spa, so this book held an extra special interest for me.
Thank you to the author for providing me with an arc, for an honest review.

 

Thank you Ritu and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book!

Check out Ritu’s lovely blog here:

Another early reviewer, Marje Mallon, wrote this:

 

Thank you so much to the author for entrusting me with an advanced readers copy for an honest review.

I have always been fascinated by the paranormal and have had a far few ghostly and strange experiences myself, so this book by S. C. Skillman caught and kept my attention throughout.

It’s a well-researched, detailed and beautifully photographed book. Some of the images within are by S.C. Skillman herself.

If you like tales of haunted castles, churches, theatres, hotels, manor houses and many more locations beside, (a ghost can hang out anywhere they feel drawn to,) this is for you!

The collection begins in Warwick and moves on to various locations in Warwickshire: Kenilworth, Stratford-upon-Avon, Lapworth, Alcester, Rugby, Nuneaton (Birthplace of George Eliot,) and Leamington Spa.

Some of my favourite tales within included ghostly tales from theatres: in Stratford-upon-Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The ‘grey lady’ ‘is thought by by many to be the spirit of Elisabeth Scott, and is one of the theatre’s most well-known ghosts.’ ‘She appears so real she is often mistaken for a lost theatregoer.’ ‘It seems that many who have loved this theatre in their lifetimes cannot turn away from this magical and evocative place.’

And in Rugby Theatre: ‘One of the stories told here is of a woman seen floating down the stairs. It is thought she was an usherette in former times…’

It’s an interesting collection and one that will encourage you to explore the paranormal. After reading, you will want to visit these locations first hand to see if you experience the haunting visitations described within. Who knows, you might even want to become a paranormal investigator!
 

 

Thank you Marje for your review.  And for all who’d like to  visit Marje’s blog, it’s here.

And if you’d like the chance to hear me reading from the book and answering questions from those who came to my Facebook Live launch event, do check it out here:    https://www.facebook.com/scskillman

You can buy the book on all major online retail sites, and order it from your local bookshop. 

Here are a few places to go to buy the book: Waterstonesbookshop.org; Amazon; Hive.

 

 

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 10: Leamington Spa

This is the tenth and final post in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

A historical panorama of Leamington Spa and surrounding countryside, on display in the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington Spa.

The town of Royal Leamington Spa underwent a dramatic transformation beginning from the early 1700s when the 4th Earl of Aylesford discovered a mineral spring on his land. Subsequently, a few further twists and turns of the story raised the fortunes of this sleepy little village called Leamington Priors, until it had attained the highest reputation with The Beau Monde, and re-invented itself as a desirable Regency health resort. Aristocrats and the wealthiest members of society would flock here, to take the waters. The town met with the approval of Queen Victoria, which is why she’s celebrated with a statue in front of the Town Hall.

Victoria House, Willes Road, Leamington Spa (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

I found several curious anecdotes and strange tales in Leamington Spa; these surround the railway station, which plays a significant role in Leamington Spa’s history from the 19th century on; the elegant building, formerly known as the Masonic Halls, now known as Victoria House; and a certain residential property in Leam Terrace which was proving difficult to sell.

Blue Plaque on the wall at Leamington Spa Railway Station

Here’s an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire:

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, you could only reach Leamington Spa by Crown Prince stagecoach, and the journey from London took nine hours. But in 1844 everything changed with the formal opening of the Warwick and Leamington Branch Railway, and the first railway station in the town. This brought Leamington Spa within four hours journey of London.  That station building was replaced in 1852.  Posters advertised the town as a “Modern Holiday and Cure” resort. In 1939, despite initial negative reaction stirred up by the local press, the Great Western Railway opened an Art Deco station to replace the original building of 1852. The building is listed Grade II.

    Both passengers and station staff report paranormal occurrences. Stephen worked there from 2012 to 2016.

       “My job was night-time security officer,” he says……

  Stephen has several stories to tell of strange events in the station at night, when the station is closed to passengers, and no trains run.

   “Once, at about three or four in the morning, across the tracks I saw a lady on Platform 2.  I challenged her. ‘Excuse me, what are you doing in the station? How did you get in here?’ She looked at me as if she’d heard me, turned away and carried on walking. I ran down underneath and up the stairs to find her, and she had gone. So I got onto the CCTV and there was nothing there. But I had seen her clearly.  I had to make a phone call to report her so as to make sure there was no danger of someone being on the track. We have to cover ourselves.

   “Another time, I was walking around when I saw that a door I had previously locked was standing open. So I went to check the door. It was on Platform 1.  The door slammed on me as I went to it. I thought it must have been the wind, and locked it.

   “A lot of paranormal activity takes place in the offices upstairs. I went upstairs to check the place out and the door was open. I went back, and the door was closed.”

 This is corroborated by other members of staff  who regularly see and hear things including doors slamming and electrical equipment turning on and off.

   One staff member said, “When we first moved into the top floor offices the people who had been there previously had obviously left in a hurry. I regularly have paperwork thrown about. Doors are left open and I hear footsteps. I find it is often a quick way to end a meeting having a door slam for no logical reason. I’ve now learned to live in harmony with the ghosts.”

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

To find out more, do order your copy of Paranormal Warwickshire.

Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 9: Nuneaton

This is the ninth in a series of ten posts which will take us up to the date of publication of my new book Paranormal Warwickshire, out from Amberley Publishing on 15th November. This richly illustrated compilation of strange tales from Shakespeare’s county can be pre-ordered now from all online bookstores, and from Warwick Books and Kenilworth Books.

George Eliot Hotel in Nuneaton (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

Nuneaton is strongly associated with one of the greatest of English novelists, George Eliot, who was born on the Arbury Hall estate here and brought up in Nuneaton; this background afforded her the opportunity to meet people in all walks of life, the ‘high-born’ and also the working people. From these she found much inspiration and demonstrated her insight through her many fictional characters. George Eliot is rightly celebrated in the town of her birth and upbringing. In harmony with her own literary focus, I found that some of the most extraordinary tales in my book come from working people in their everyday environment.

60 & 62 Queens Road Nuneaton, during the time the property was owned and managed by Angela Collings as The Entertainment Exchange

Here’s an extract from Paranormal Warwickshire.

As we have seen, George Eliot was a radical intellectual; her novella ‘The Lifted Veil’ (an example of the Victorian horror genre), published in July 1859, is unique amongst her works for its supernatural premise. It explores themes of extra-sensory perception, the essence of physical life, the possibility of life after death, and the power of fate.

  I believe that if George Eliot had been alive and writing her novels 200 years later she would have been keen to bring her spirit of enquiry into the extraordinary series of events reported by ordinary working people in their workplaces at Queens Road, Nuneaton, in the late 20th/early 21st century.

   Queens Road was in former times the main street of the town until it was split into two parts by the Nuneaton ring road. In Queens Road, strange events are reported by the staff of several retail businesses – and none more so than those who have worked at number 62. Angela, the former lessee, experienced supernatural disturbances there for several years along with many staff members and customers,

   Angela first bought no. 60 Queens Road in order to start up a business with her partner Dawn, selling video games and movies.

    Having made a success of this, they leased 62 and turned their business into a big two floor music store. Entertainment Exchange opened in 1994 and became the biggest music / gaming / film collectors store in the West Midlands. This culminated at the height of the business in their having twenty-five staff on the rota at any given time.

   Both buildings are extremely historic and atmospheric; Angela’s account focuses on  62 where she spent most of her time during the twenty years she traded there. As from 2014, Angela no longer owned or operated from either of these two buildings.

   Angela’s story begins on the day before her store opened at 62, when she spent four hours upstairs alone in the shop, with the door to the street locked, pricing vinyl and laying out displays. As she was putting LP’s in racks, she saw something in the corner of her eye in the direction of the old office: a small dumpy woman dressed in black with dark hair which she wore in a bun at the back of her head. Shocked, Angela turned her head straight to the store room door and the image vanished in front of her.

from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman

Angela’s story is developed further in my book, and this experience was the first in a series of astonishing events, experienced independently by herself and her partner, many of her customers and staff, and by those who had worked in the building during the decades before her ownership

Find out the full story in Paranormal Warwickshire.