Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire, and Director’s Cut: Works in Progress

Hello! On today’s blog I share what I’m up to at the moment – writing, researching, editing, promoting. I have two books on the go, which makes life interesting!

Firstly, I’m working on my new non-fiction book for Amberley Publishing, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire. The fully completed manuscript has to be delivered by the end of this year. It will be another highly illustrated volume, including 100 images, as with Paranormal Warwickshire. My tales will cover, amongst others, the following topics: Strange and Spooky Tales, Extraordinary True-life Stories, Tales of Warwickshire Witchcraft, Mysterious Murders and Other Crimes, Intriguing People, Strange Happenings and Mysteries, Curious Place Names, Ancient Legends, Folklore and Folk Customs, Ancient Ceremonies and Strange Rituals, and the Magical Forest of Arden.

I have been out and about gathering photos, interviewing people, and finding new stories. My son Jamie takes many of the photos as he has a good camera and an eye for an excellent view, The other day we travelled up to north Warwickshire in search of one story, and found material for three others, which was very exciting.

Alongside my work on Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire I’ve also been editing my new novel Director’s Cut. This novel is to be the first of a series starring gifted young musical rebel Dylan Rafferty. Director’s Cut is set in south London. I’ve written half of the sequel, which is called Standing Ovation and is set in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Director’s Cut should appeal to all those interested in the world of actors and filming; and in the reputation of actors to be superstitious, sensitive souls. Here is a quote from Geraldine Beskin, owner of London’s most mystical bookshop, Atlantis Books, for the Ghost Club, on 15 May 2021. What she says encapsulates how I feel about actors, and why my fascination with them has fed into this novel.

Geraldine Beskin emphasises the very human side of the acting profession with both its quicksilver triumphs and equally cataclysmic failures. ON and off stage, actors and actresses are known for their sensitive and emotional natures Drama is not confined to the theatre (or the filmset). Many thespians exist in a state of high tension, surviving on the margins, experiencing intense peaks and troughs of personal emotion, often alone.

As I’ve edited the novel, this theme has woven itself more deeply into my plot. Initially, the world of acting was to have simply provided the presenting situation for Dylan; but now, following several interviews during research, and a deeper understanding, it has an organic relationship to the unfolding of the story. The word liminal also plays a central part in the novel. Liminal means: ‘occupying a position at, or on both sides, of a boundary or threshold’.

One of the best illustrations of this theme lies in the closing speech of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck, the mischievous spirit who stirred up all the emotional tumult at the behest of Oberon King of the Fairies, says this as he comes to address the audience:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

That you have but slumbered here

while these visions did appear.

During my research for Paranormal Warwickshire, I studied a lecture by Professor Sir Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits.

One of the points he makes is that the word shadows may also be taken to mean actors. Therefore, the interplay between actors and spirits is one that Shakespeare felt deeply. Another famous Shakespeare quote also demonstrates this:

As Prospero the magician says in The Tempest:

Our revels now are ended, these our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits

In Director’s Cut, Dylan, gifted young musical rebel, discovers his favourite actress is filming a TV drama in a nearby Jacobean mansion, and he crashes the set to meet her. Upon arrival at Trident Court he discovers a deeply dysfunctional family haunted by an intergenerational curse, and a troop of ghostly actors in the garden doomed to perpetually rehearse A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Meanwhile actors, directors and film crew in the house are all swept up into the family’s strange world. Dylan comes to believe he alone can save them through the power of his musical genius. But he learns he must team up with the local priest to discover the family’s secrets. As they delve deeper into the family’s traumatic backstory Dylan encounters a supernatural being and finds he must cross the boundary between this world and another dimension.

As I near the end of my editing work on the novel, I seek beta readers before I pitch to publishers. In particular I am unsure about genre, whether the novel is paranormal mystery, magical realism or gothic. So I welcome any offers from prospective beta readers who may be able to clear up the mystery for me!

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Paranormal Warwickshire Extracts Part 2: The Saxon Mill and Gaveston’s Cross, Warwick

This is the second 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.

The Saxon Mill, viewed from the Coventry road, Warwick. Photo credit Abigail Robinson.

Today we visit the Saxon Mill,now a well-loved pub, bar and restaurant, and formerly the mill belonging to the Guy’s Cliffe estate. And after we have explored and enjoyed all that the Saxon Mill has to offer, at this scenic and atmospheric location on the river Avon, we will then head across the road and further up towards Leek Wootton, to wonder at the curious monument of Gaveston’s Cross.

Gaveston’s Cross. Photo by permission of Warwickshire Libraries.

Here’s an extract:

The original mill belonged to the Augustinian St Mary’s Abbey in Kenilworth. The abbey owned the mill until the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541. It then formed part of the Guy’s Cliffe Estate, and remained so up until the Second World War during which time it was known as The Old Mill.

    In 1813, Bertie Greatheed added the picturesque balcony, which forms the scene for a present-day paranormal tale.

   James, a former member of staff, takes up the story.

  “I was employed as a grill chef at the pub when Harvester owned it. One hot summer night, whilst working on the grill in the front of house, I went to open the side door and let some air through. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a white figure pass along the balcony beyond the small window. Thinking someone had come up the outside stairs, I waited for them to come through the door. No one came through. I looked out through the window to see who it was, but saw no one there. About ten to fifteen minutes later I saw another figure moving towards the door again. I poked my head out once more and still saw nothing. I told my colleagues, who said, ‘that’s Monty, the pub’s ghost. He often knocks things over, slams doors and such. He’s quite entertaining!’”

   Rebuilding work was carried out on the Mill in 1822 and it was a working mill until 1938. It was converted to a restaurant and bar in 1952.  The water-wheel, now restored, is visible to all who pass by; the mill-race can be seen through a glass panel in the floor of the pub.

   On the other side of the Avon, you may take the riverside path for a good view of  Guy’s Cliffe across the water.

   Nearby, Blacklow Hill became the scene of a notorious summary execution on 1 July 1312.  Guy de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, had lured Piers Gaveston, King Edward II’s favourite, to Warwick Castle. Guy had long wanted to get rid of Piers, who had insulted him personally, and was exerting far too much influence over the king. Also he had flouted commands to leave England and stay out, if he valued his life.  The earl’s men dragged Piers in a cart to Blacklow Hill, where they ran him through with a sword and beheaded him. The place of his execution is now occupied by Gaveston’s Cross. [image]

   It was Bertie Greatheed himself who caused the monument to be erected on his land. Today the land is in different private ownership, and not open to the public. However, by special permission it is possible to visit Gaveston’s Cross, in the heart of the woods.

   The area where the monument stands is, according to several accounts, a centre of paranormal activity. James remembers an incident from his early teens. “Some friends and I walked up into the woods opposite the Saxon Mill to try and find Gaveston’s Cross. Being a bright summer’s day I thought nothing of the potential fear factor. We hadn’t got further than a few feet into the wood when day turned into the pitch black of night, with a cold clammy feeling to boot. Needless to say we didn’t hang around long and burst back into bright sunshine feeling rather relieved and more than a bit shaky.”

Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman, pub Amberley 15 Nov 2020
Inscription on Gaveston’s Cross. Photo by permission of Warwickshire Libraries.

To find out more about the history and the curious tales surrounding these and many other locations in Shakespeare’s county, do order your copy of Paranormal Warwickshire here.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 9: St Michael’s Church, Baddesley Clinton

This is the ninth in a series of glimpses into my new book Paranormal Warwickshire which will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15th November 2020.

Baddesley Clinton photo credit Abigail Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
The Manor House at Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

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.

St Nicholas Owen 1550-1606 master priesthole builder photo credit Wikimedia commons Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
St Nicholas Owen 1550-1606 master priest-hole builder photo credit Wikimedia commons Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

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.

The Quartet in the Great Hall Baddesley Clintond painting by Rebecca Orpen Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Gifted artist Rebecca Orpen (1830-1923) came to live at Baddesley Clinton in 1867 with her husband Marmion. In this painting she shows herself and Marmion with her aunt Georgiana and Georgiana’s husband Edward in the Great Hall. Known as The Quartet, they were all artistically gifted, and filled their lives here in this lovely manor house with poetry, painting, writing and music.

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.

The tower of atonement St Michaels Church Baddesley Clinton photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
The tower of atonement at St Michael’s Church Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Nicholas Brome stained glass east window St Michaels Church Baddesley Clinton photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Nicholas Brome kneeling in prayer – in the stained glass east window St Michael’s Church Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

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.

Nicholas Brome under doormat St Michaels Church Baddesley Clinton photo credit Sheila Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Plaque marking burial place of Nicholas Brome under doormat of St Michael’s Church Baddesley Clinton (photo credit Sheila Robinson)

Do check out my other posts in this series, which I began on 14th August 2020 with Shakespeare’s Ghosts and Spirits, and which brings us up to the publication date of my book Paranormal Warwickshire – 15th November 2020.

Warwick Castle

Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick

Gaveston’s Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick

St Mary’s Warwick

Kenilworth Castle

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

Leamington Sp

The other posts in the series will cover the following locations:

Stoneleigh Abbey

Thomas Oken’s House, and the Lord Leycester Hospital, Warwick

Rugby Theatre and other Rugby locations

Nuneaton locations

Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon

Coughton Court, Alcester

You can pre-order Paranormal Warwickshire here.