Thomas Oken’s House is one of Warwick’s most enchanting Tudor buildings. It was built by and is associated with a benevolent gentleman, one of those wealthy Elizabethan merchants who stewarded his money wisely, made a hugely generous bequest to his town, and whose gift is still doing good five hundred years later for the local people.
Numerous curious tales are told of Thomas Oken’s House; and many of them from those who either work in or enjoy a meal in the tea rooms.
As soon as Jo took over the tea rooms in November 2011, she started to hear tales of odd goings-on from her young staff. But first, let us backtrack to Jo’s curious conversation with the previous owner of the business.
“He said to me, ‘You won’t want to hang around too long on your own after closing time, I can tell you.’” Curious, Jo nevertheless took a sceptical view of this. The vendor added that he had seen door latches shaking up and down on their own. But since Jo took over, she has felt nothing but a friendly presence there. “Thomas Oken was a wonderful man,” she says. The affection with which she speaks of him is testament to the enduring reputation of this good-hearted and far-sighted Elizabethan merchant.
Jo continues, “I have a lot of young staff who seem to experience strange things in the house much more than I do. I believe that younger people are more spirit-sensitive. Several customers have reported seeing a dignified gentleman with fine clothes and a stick who saunters into the room going from table to table and smiling benevolently at the customers there. One visitor told me that she was sitting in the big upper room and the chatter faded away, whereupon she heard the sounds of a medieval street market: carts and horses, vendors shouting their wares.
from Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman
To find out more preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.
And if you like listening to podcasts, you can listen to me here, talking to radio presenter Tony Lloyd about my books on Tony Lloyd’s podcast Human Stories.
Today let me take you to Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick. This poignant and atmospheric ruined mansion is the first place local people think of when I speak to them about my book. “Have you included Guy’s Cliffe?” they ask. I reply, “Yes – the first chapter is devoted to it. I took a tour with the custodian Adrian King and have recorded many of his stories.”
Here’s an extract.
Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick
Leave not the mansion so long tenantless
Lest, growing ruinous, the building fall
And leave no memory of what it was!
Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act 5, Scene 4
What could be more poignant than a great house, surmounting a cliff, abandoned and desolate? Clinging to a cliff alongside the river Avon north of Warwick, you may find the ruins of just such a mansion.
Many stories linger within these imposing ruins and their environs. As you wander around you may wish to climb those gaping staircases, or gaze at the view down the Avon, beyond the Saxon Mill to Milverton Hill from those stone balconies; or imagine you see a shadowy figure flit past that empty window-frame.
Adrian King, the present Custodian of Guy’s Cliffe, told me: “Years ago, my father told me a story, which first drew me to this estate. He said that whilst standing on the bridge further down the river at the Saxon Mill, looking toward Guy’s Cliffe, he noticed a woman standing on one of those high balconies. He said ‘she had a green aura around her’. Then to his horror she threw herself off the balcony down onto the ground.”
This story piqued Adrian’s interest and he began to research the history of Guy’s Cliffe. Years later he took up an appointment as custodian there.
The known story of the estate spans ten centuries. Well before any structures existed here, Christian hermits were attracted to the caves by the mystical qualities of this location. 16th century historians described the area as an idyllic glade with many clear springs above a steep rock full of caves….washed at the bottom by a crystal river.
Even before those hermits, it is probable that ancient Celtic people would have come here.
“Water has a strong influence on this place,” says Adrian. “The attraction would have been not only rock – a wooded area with caverns in it – but springs as well. Those two aspects alone, rock and water, are spiritual; they would lend a reverence to the place. Very early on, a spring would have been attributed to a deity. The Romans came along and they melded their gods with the local deities, and so forth.”
Adrian feels sure that people from the very distant past knew where to find centres of energy, or sites that you would consider sacred.
“They seemed to home in on them.”
He believes that the stone or rock here, and the water, work together rather like a battery. The stone tape theory proposes that stone possesses a certain unique property whereby human events and emotions are imprinted upon it and will later replay.
Paranormal Warwickshire by SC Skillman, pub. Amberley, 15 Nov 2020
Adrian goes on to share many of the curious anecdotes associated with Guy’s Cliffe, and the strange events visitors continue to experience, right up to the present day.
To find out more about the history of this fascinating place, and about the many strange stories that cling to the house and estate, preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.
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.
Like the fussy angel played by Michael Sheen in the deliciously funny and clever ‘Good Omens’ by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett?
More, perhaps like this angel depicted by Vincent Van Gogh?
or maybe like the powerful and moving Knife Angel that appeared at Coventry Cathedral in 2019?
Or perhaps even, the guardian angel Clarence.
We met him in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life.
In the TV sitcom Rev, the main character Adam Smallbone (played by Tom Hollander) reaches a point where he has been betrayed, lost his church, his self-respect, and his vocation, and feels he has failed all those who believed in and depended on him.
In a state of despair, he goes up a hill carrying the cross intended for the Easter Sunday service. At the top of the hill he meets a homeless man (played by Liam Neeson) who dances and sings with him, knows and understands what’s going on for him, and offers consolation and hope. He transforms how Adam feels about his situation. Then he disappears.
This kind of encounter takes on the shape of what I would call an angel encounter.
This I would define as: a situation where you are in personal crisis of some kind, and you are helped in a timely manner by a person who appears unexpectedly, transforms your situation, and then disappears quietly. Throughout the encounter, this stranger seems surrounded by an aura of graciousness, gentleness and kindness.
I’m starting a new series of occasional posts here on my blog, entitled:
I know many people hold on to belief in angels – whether they be guardians, guides, or protectors – even in this supposedly secular, materialistic society in which we live here in the UK.
In this book Peter Stanford gives a history of humankind’s belief in angels, beginning long before the historical origins of the Christian faith, and continuing right up to the present day, with the interest in angels ever popular through folk religion and other spiritual outlooks.
Peter Stanford uncovers much intriguing material, and also includes an examination of the appearance of angels in great art. Throughout he maintains an objective, academic approach which he combines with his own views.
Today, many of those who believe in angels see them as ‘independent agents’, outside traditional faith structures.
As Stanford says, People have… believed in angels for millennia… the only difference today is that this reliance on angels as dwellers in time and space is happening outside of organised religion… Angels once… largely belonged in religious narratives and institutions… but… have somehow detached themselves from the declining institutions and are now thriving on their own.
At the end of the book Stanford remarks: I have lost count while researching and writing the book of how many times I have been asked if I “believe” in angels.
Many other authors too have written on the subject of angels, from a wide variety of viewpoints. A popular author on the subject is Theresa Cheung and I blogged about her book Angel On My Shoulder on 28 February 2017
The book is full of authentic first-person accounts. Several things fascinated me about these:
1) I could identify with a number of them from my own experience, though I’ve tended to think of them as synchronicity; 2) Each one had a distinct element of the supernatural; 3) Far than being sentimental, they all demonstrate strength and simplicity.
Several describe sudden and shocking bereavement. In each case the narrator of the story has experienced a compelling supernatural intervention which has totally changed their attitude to the tragedy and to death itself, and has provided the sort of comfort and reassurance that others might achieve only through long-term counselling or psychotherapy.
The author’s stance in relating the stories is measured and balanced. She fully accepts those who take a “reductionist” view of these events and prefer a rational explanation, and she invites us to make up our own minds.
I found the whole book very convincing, not least because of the cumulative effect of so many testimonies from different people unknown to each other, who have all had similar experiences. It had the same effect upon me as another book I’ve reviewed calledMiracles by Eric Metaxas.
In her summing up, Teresa Cheung refers to organised religion no longer providing the structure and certainty that it used to (maybe because so many feel it doesn’t meet their needs, and appears irrelevant to their lives). The stories in this book suggest, to one way of thinking, that many may be connecting with “the divine” totally outside the confines of “church” – through angels.
This, interestingly, is the same conclusion that Peter Stanford comes to.
In this occasional series on my blog, I’ll consider modern-day angel encounters.
I’ve written about angels and supernatural experiences before on this blog. Check out these posts:
I have long felt that canals are like a parallel world, a shining ribbon running through our towns and countryside, often hidden from us by lush greenery. All the haste and anxiety and stress of our frantic, driven lives seems to melt away for those climbing the steps down to, walking alongside, boating on, or standing gazing at the canals of our country. And where better to experience this world apart than at Hatton Locks, Warwick, on the Grand Union Canal; very close to the famous flight of locks which raise the water level by 45 metres via a flight of 21 locks known as the stairway to heaven.
The magic of canals is such that I find the peacefulness and enchantment and wonder tends to steal into people without any conscious awareness. Within a dreamlike atmosphere, people of all ages come to gaze, mesmerized, at the locks, at the boats moving through them, and at the radiant colours of the paintwork and the folk art of decorated boats and flower pots, seeming to denote a simpler, more contented, more innocent world; and at the names of the boats, sometimes quirky, sometimes affectionate and amusing, often playful, and always evoking for the boats personalities of their own.
When I gaze at the canal, it seems to me as if I am in another dimension. We are so used to planning our next move according to the routes taken by roads, the A roads and B roads and motorways, that we carry around with us an internal map that penetrates our concept of the country we live in and even the mental world we inhabit. But, if we come apart just a little way from our established route, we will find the canal, a secret ribbon running through the towns and the landscape, from Birmingham through Hatton then on, all the way to Little Venice, Maida Vale via Regents Park in London, close by London Zoo.
And among the loveliest aspects of our country we find the waterside inns with their beer gardens, their tables and chairs and sunshades set out beside the canal, offering a highly-prized setting for a meal or a drink, in summer becoming, of course, sometimes too popular. We have outstanding inns along the canal in Warwick, The Cape of Good Hope and The Hatton Arms being my favourites.
How to get there:
The Heritage Skills Centre, Canal Lane, Hatton, Warwick, CV35 7JL
This weekend Warwick hosted its annual Folk Festival.
Folk dancers and singers were out in force together with a wide variety of creative stallholders and vendors, and everywhere we saw bright coloured clothes and gypsy-style skirts and hats decorated with flowers.
In common with many others I love to watch to listen to folk songs and watch folk dancing; it strengthens our sense of community and connects us with our traditions and our agrarian culture of centuries ago.
There is always a tendency to idealize life in Britain before the industrial revolution, when those in the country villages practised all sorts of traditional customs, many related to our superstitious beliefs of the past.
And yet folk memory is strong within us, and it can never be eradicated. It reappears in so many ways in our contemporary lives; in lingering folk religion and folklore, in our language, and in our actions, whether conscious or unconscious.
I love to watch the mummers and the morris dancers, and to see their eccentric costumes and the vigorous, energetic dances.
This is a part of English society that we can well celebrate, long into the future.
What could be more poignant than a formerly grand mansion, standing on a cliff, now partially demolished, abandoned and desolate?
Gaping staircases you cannot climb; stone balconies you long to stand on to gaze at the view; empty windows you feel sure a shadowy figure should flit past.
Just such a gaunt mansion is Guy’s Cliffe House, our local romantic ruin, perched atop a cliff above the River Avon, catching the imagination of all who pass by on the other side of the river.
Gothic stone tracery, an ornate balcony, evidence of a flambuoyant builder, remain to tantalize you.
For one of those who occupied the house embellished it with Roman, classical, mediaeval and Gothic elements.
Guy’s Cliffe House so caught my own imagination during the past few years that I occasionally wished that, if I was hugely wealthy, I could pay for it to be restored to its former glory.
In reality, I’d like it to be made safe for people to enter and explore, and for new timber staircases and walkways to be constructed, so we could climb to those balconies and gaze at the view.
And I’d like all the original formal gardens to be restored so people can wander around in them and enjoy the romantic setting.
I feel that Guy’s Cliffe is a poignant illustration of what happens when wealthy property owners do not successfully pass on their property to an equally rich and prudent and competent heir.
One developer/house-breaker deliberately demolished part of the Guy’s Cliffe House, then all the contents were auctioned off, and and accidental fire and neglect did the rest.
We all find it difficult to understand how such a grand property gets damaged, ransacked and neglected like that.
8 foot tall bamboo now crowds close to the cave in the cliff, where Guy of Warwick, in the tenth century, returned from the Holy Land and mysteriously chose to live for two years, rather than reuniting with his wife and child in the house above.
Ruby’s mother Sarah was tending the flowers, and Ruby’s father Richard was mowing the grass.
Ruby was in my daughter Abigail’s year at school, and Abigail knew Ruby and her story, as many others in our area do, whose hearts were touched by Ruby’s three year struggle with cancer, and her death in 2009.
Sarah, cheerful and pleasant, said to Abigail, “You’re the age Ruby would have been. Tomorrow is her 18th birthday.”
Ruby’s dog Gracie was with them too. Propped against the flower containers by the plaque is a photo which shows this family pet with Ruby 5 years ago.
As we walked out through the gate onto Milverton Hill, beyond the church, I couldn’t help comparing the shortness of Ruby’s life to the transience of golden fields in the English countryside.
In this lovely field, popular with walkers, the cobweb tracery of Shepherd’s-Purse flowers, too, appear between the golden rapeseed flowers. Each petal is silk to the touch, and you feel the cool breeze as you face towards the church. Turning back again to face down towards the Guy’s Cliffe House ruin and the Saxon Mill, the trees seem sculpted against a radiant horizon of intense clarity, each golden flower backlit.
Golden fields don’t last long. But they do reappear each summer. And so will this little memorial to Ruby touch many hearts through future generations.
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!