As the days of the lockdown pass, I’m becoming more aware of a new and powerful sense of renewal in the natural world.
Not only have I noticed this on my daily walks but I am hearing it from other people too.
“It’s like going back 50 years. Everyone is so much more ‘together’ and more friendly.”
“The sky is much bluer, the water in the River Avon is much clearer. The birdsong is outstanding.”
“Air quality has improved. There are no longer any chem-trails from planes flying over.”
I myself on my walks feel that nature is much brighter and more intense and more abundant than I have ever known before.
The light keeps shining on delicate buds and new baby leaf sprays about to burst open. The green is rich, the white is intense. It is all very spiritual.
I find myself being constantly ‘surprised.’ As I returned home from one walk, everything became more golden and more green until it was almost overwhelming.
Nature has flourished because human activity has been subdued.
This isn’t just the open countryside, it’s the pockets of green and the pathways and small areas of parkland nestled in between and alongside houses and canal and roads.
This is how it appears to me because we are all slowing down, the streets are quiet, we are not all engaging in frenzied activity and chasing achievement and Doing and Aquiring Things as we normally do.
“May this heal us from the sickness that brings death to the body; may this heal us from the sickness that brings death to the soul.”
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. For 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.
As 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.
For 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.
As 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.
Now, 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.
I 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.
Rising up before you as you approach Warwick from the south, along the Banbury road, you will see a spectacular sight: that of Warwick Castle, perfectly preserved ancient fortress, later transformed into a stately residence.
The south-east side of the castle commands a cliff on the opposite bank of the River Avon, as you enter Warwick. It is best viewed from those on foot, or seated high enough to look beyond the stone parapets of the bridge.
But, to my mind, the most awe-inspiring view may be obtained by standing on the river island bridge inside the castle grounds. The massive walls soar up from the water; and above them the buildings which house the state rooms of the castle are situated. From this point you gaze along the river back in the direction of the road bridge; you will see the mill and engine house, and just beyond it the whitewater of the weir, where groups of cygnets will be galvanizing themselves to take the plunge.
Beyond that you will glimpse the ruins of the medieval bridge, which are best observed from the decking outside the mill and engine house. This was the original bridge which for four hundred years formed the main approach to Warwick. It was built in the fourteenth century together with a toll booth. The site of that toll booth is now in the glorious Mill Garden, another location from which you have an outstanding view of the Castle. Once the new wider bridge was built over the Avon in the 1780s, the medieval bridge was sealed off and later partially demolished to form a picturesque ruin.
The first fortification on the land where Warwick Castle now stands was built in 914 by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, with the purpose of keeping out the Danes. Subsequently William the Conquerer took it over as a site for one of the many motte and bailey forts he established throughout England.
The mound on which these fortifications stood remains today as a prized element of the estate surrounding Warwick Castle; and indeed when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was commissioned by Francis Greville, Earl of Warwick from 1759 to 1773, to landscape the grounds, he suggested making the mound an important aesthetic feature, by ordering ornamental trees to be planted down its slopes surrounding the spiral path.
The first owner of the castle was, naturally, one of those who supported William the Conquerer; namely, Henry de Newburgh, Constable of the Castle from 1088 to 1119. But it was really only when the first member of the family de Beauchamp inherited the castle, beginning with William de Beauchamp in 1268, that a dynasty with significant influence in the affairs of the nation commenced.
From then on, through the Beachamps and the Nevilles and the reign of Edward IV, it is true to say that any individual who could be addressed My Lord of Warwick had a considerable influence on English history: and throughout the generations of Earls, the one to win the most noteworthy place in history books was Richard Neville, holder of the Earldom from 1449 to 1471. He held two kings prisoner during the course of one year, 1469: Edward IV in Warwick Castle and Henry VI in France.
It is easy for us to see Richard Neville’s actions as worthy of mirth now but within the complexities and the power struggles of his time these were grave decisions and deeds. It is intriguing to note how the balance of power often seemed to be influenced by the women behind the throne; in the case of Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, later to be known as one of the she-wolves of English history: and in the case of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville and the powerful family behind her.
One of the great recurring themes of English royal history is that of betrayal and changing sides. The two Tudor kings Henry VII and his son Henry VIII left the castle to fall to ruins probably because of its associations with that Demon Brood, the Plantagenet dynasty who had preceded them.
Sellars and Yeatman, of course, brilliantly summed up the trap into which so many of us can fall, in their comic classic 1066 And All That(first published in 1930). In that slim volume they gave us: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember. Of Richard Neville they say: Any baron who wished to be considered king was allowed to apply at Warwick the Kingmaker’s, where he was made to fill up a form.
Richard Neville held sway more than any other Earl of Warwick before or after him, helping to depose both Henry VI and Edward IV. He also brought about the Readeption of Henry VI, to the great astonishment of Henry himself, for one year in 1470-71 before Henry was ‘put to death’ (or died of melancholy, as some would have it) in the Tower, and Edward IV took over again.
Though saintly – and judged by history to have been so – Henry VI was a disastrously ineffectual medieval king. But whilst manipulating the trusting and pliable man who had never wanted to be king, Richard Neville used the magic of Henry VI’s name as a cloak of respectability for his own ambitions.
But, in the beguiling manner of English history, his fortunes rapidly changed when he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, at which point Edward IV awarded the castle to his own brother, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence.
The Battle of Barnet is the battle whose extensive preparations we see in the brilliant waxwork exhibition Kingmaker at Warwick Castle.
Another much earlier earl of Warwick had been responsible for the treacherous crime committed in 1312 against Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite. Guy de Beauchamp, earl from 1298 to 1315, was one of a group of earls known as the Ordainers who aimed to try and contain Edward II in his excesses, and restrict his abuse of power. Guy was responsible for luring Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite, to Warwick in 1312; and Piers ended up being dragged to Blacklow Hill and slaughtered there.
Yet another Earl of Warwick – Richard Beauchamp, earl from 1401 to 1439 – presided over the trial of Joan of Arc, and sentenced her to burn at the stake. This same Richard was also responsible for the building of the Beauchamp chapel in St Mary’s Church, Warwick – so priests could pray for his departed soul. It’s very tempting to speculate that he hoped thereby to assuage his lingering guilt for the part he played in bringing the Maid of Orleans to the stake; but it’s unlikely, of course, that he felt any guilt at all. We must always be careful not to attribute a 21st century conscience to one living in very different times.
Now when we visit the Castle, owned by Merlin Entertainments, our introduction to historical matters is via the Horrible Histories maze, which (arousing local controversy) stands in place of the previous Victorian rose garden, and gives great entertainment to many visitors. The intention of Horrible Histories is of course to amuse and amaze as well as inform, but it does mock the behaviour of our ancestors – of which more later in this chapter.
One of the other castle attractions is a visit to the State Rooms. After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Robert Greville, then Lord of Warwick, began a period of restoration at the castle, and created there a grand palatial residence. From that time on, the castle rose again from its threatened fate of becoming a picturesque ruin.
The first Greville to lavish his wealth on renovating the property and creating new gardens had been Sir Fulke Greville, who held the castle between 1621 and 1628. It seems an undeserved irony that having achieved so much good, he should end up murdered by his manservant Ralph over the matter of how much money he had left Ralph in his will.
And Sir Fulke’s work on the new gardens was swept away by his successor who sided with Parliament during the English Civil War. During that period much damage was done to the Castle.
But when Francis Greville commissioned Lancelot Capability Brown to transform the grounds in the late 1750s, he made a major contribution to the castle’s power to attract and inspire visitors. Today, as you stand on the river bridge with your back to the island, you see the land sweep upwards to the Peacock Garden, and round to the north-west side of the castle in a way that appeals to our deepest sense of proportion and harmonious design. In fact Warwick Castle was Capability Brown’s first major commission, which launched him on his subsequent career, in which he transformed the grounds of many great houses in England.
When we walk round Warwick Castle, whether we tour the excellent Kingmaker Exhibition, admire the Great Hall with its magnificent weapon displays, wander through the State Rooms, walk the ramparts and towers, climb to the Conquerer’s Fortress or watch the Knights of Middle England re-enact the Wars of the Roses, we cannot but be aware of the rich concentration of English history, centred upon this castle.
And we might also reflect that it’s no wonder medieval earls and barons and kings were so willing to risk their lives for glory and power and wealth. Everyone would have been intensely aware of life as insecure, short and easily-disposable. That would drive anyone with ambition to an All or Nothing philosophy.
Though their pitilessness is undeniable, to all who descend the steps to the Gaol and gaze down the dreadful oubliette into which the unluckiest prisoners were thrown to be forgotten and to die of starvation or madness. But the judgements we pass on historical characters are often suspect. The decisions we ourselves make now – if significant enough to be remembered – will be as easy mocked from a distance of a few hundred years.
Looking back to medieval times, if we imagine the complexity of the situations and power struggles within which these personalities sought to reach their goals, all in the context of limited vision, we recognise that they had to make decisions just as we do now with no knowledge of future outcomes. We too will seem equally as self-defeating when viewed from the distance of centuries.
In each one of my places of inspiration I have found spirit of place : in India, at Ayers Rock/Uluru in Australia, in London, in the White Garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, and in Sydney Opera House. But today, I return to a place very close to home – it’s the Saxon Mill on the River Avon, just outside Warwick – and five minutes walk from where I live.
The Saxon Mill is a romantic building, which feeds a writer’s imagination – especially for those who write historical fiction. And just down the river is the gaunt, atmospheric ruin of Guy’s Cliffe House. I cannot walk along the river bank here, and stand opposite and gaze at it without imagining all sorts of stories – tales of romance, tragedy, ill deeds, ghosts…
Nearby, on Blacklow Hill, in 1312 King Edward II’s favourite Piers Gaveston was dragged by the Earl of Warwick’s heavy-gang, to a spot now known as Gaveston’s Cross, where he was savagely murdered. He was Edward II’s lover, and exerting much too much power over the kingdom for the Earl of Warwick’s liking. Even a grim tale like this can add to the romance of a place – separated as those events are from us by 700 years.
But what completes the delight of the Saxon Mill for me is its location on the River Avon. Tables and benches are set out overlooking the mill-pond; the old water-wheel may be viewed here too. I love the smell of it; dank, moist timber, full of darkness and age and mystery…
Further along is the footbridge over the weir. White water gushes down, foaming the river. The terrace overlooking the mill-race is filled daily with people eating and drinking and chatting and laughing; it’s a popular gathering place for locals and those who come from a greater distance.
We went there in the heavy snow of December 2010 to photograph the river and trees, looking like Wonderland.
Beyond the footbridge you may find a track which traverses the fields to Old Milverton Church – another path much enjoyed by walkers and dogs alike.
I associate the Saxon Mill with happy social gatherings, with a writer’s inspiration, with romantic wonderings… Very close to home, it has that unmistakeable spirit of place.
Do you have a favourite place, near to home, that inspires your imagination? I’d love to hear your stories and comments!