Compton Verney, Warwickshire

Sunflower at Compton Verney

Compton Verney is one of my favourite places in Warwickshire, and it features in my current WIP, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire. A gracious Georgian mansion set in a Capability Brown landscape with a tranquil lake, it has a fascinating history. During the course of the twentieth century, this brought it through a variety of owners, into a state of near dereliction, and on to its ultimate rescue by a major arts foundation who renovated the building and transformed it into a well-loved arts centre and magnificent art gallery. Amongst many other artworks in its permanent exhibition, it houses an outstanding British Folk Art collection, which I love.

Here is a selection of photos taken at Compton Verney. Here, I have tried to show the wilder aspects of the planting around the grounds.

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A Walk in Jephson Gardens Leamington Spa to Lift the Spirits

We are lucky to have many beautiful places to walk, in Leamington Spa Warwick and Kenilworth, with gardens, rivers, castles, historical houses and parklands. Each time I walk in Jephson Gardens, Leamington Spa, I see new delights. Throughout this pandemic, the natural world has upheld the spirits of so many – and the imagination, hard work, dedication and creativity of gardeners.

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.

Warwickshire Lockdown Walks

Curious how when we are instructed by the government to stay at home and only venture out for a very few clearly defined purposes, those of us who didn’t do enough walking prior to the pandemic suddenly find ourselves seizing the opportunity to get out every day.

And I am one of those. Living in Warwick we have several lovely walks not far from our home. We can head for Leamington Spa, and Jephson Gardens; or to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth. Both are very special places and water is in abundance there and in many other local places – either the River Leam or the River Avon or the Finham Brook or the Grand Union Canal….

Views of Jephson Gardens Leamington Spa, and Abbey Fields, Kenilworth.

Do you have lovely places to walk, close to your home? I’d love to hear about them! Do share in the comments below.

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.

Glimpses of Paranormal Warwickshire Part 2: Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle view from town bridge black and white photo credit Jamie Robinson SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Warwick Castle view from town bridge black and white photo credit Jamie Robinson SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

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

Here is the classic view of Warwick Castle, seen from the town bridge as you enter Warwick from the south. This magnificent medieval fortress makes a dramatic impact upon the visitor, a romantic vision crowning a cliff above the river Avon. Of course, I couldn’t write a book called Paranormal Warwickshire without including Warwick Castle.

Warwick Castle view from the island bridge photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman
Warwick Castle view from the island bridge photo credit Jamie Robinson Paranormal Warwickshire SC Skillman

The history of the castle spans over 1,100 years, as the first fortification was built here by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, in the year 914. A rich succession of stories and characters has kept this castle at the heart of English history ever since: by no means least among them being Richard Neville known as Warwick the Kingmaker (earl from 1449 to 1471) whose final battle is commemorated in The Kingmaker exhibition at the castle.

Warwick Castle view from the Mill Garden Warwick SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Warwick Castle view from the Mill Garden Warwick SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

The castle is now owned and looked after by Merlin Entertainments and is one of England’s top tourist destinations. Whether you tour the castle’s State Rooms and Great Hall; descend into the dungeons; climb to the battlements and admire the view; stand atop the summit of Ethelfleda’s Mound; or view the majestic edifice from the island whilst enjoying a reconstruction of the Wars of the Roses – this site breathes glory, drama and high emotional stakes.

So, we might say, few paranormal tales here – and they have been reported by many – could escape the charge of being conjured up by the imagination.

Caesar's Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Caesar’s Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

But is that true of every single story told here? With such a large number of independent curious anecdotes, the weight of accumulated evidence tends to suggest “there are strange things going on behind the scenes.” I recount several stories about the castle in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. I examine the evidence for the most famous one, and consider whether or not it was conjured up by a cunning Earl of Warwick in order to attract visitors. I also come across a few new tales told by recent visitors.

Guy's Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire
Guy’s Tower Warwick Castle SC Skillman Paranormal Warwickshire

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.

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

Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick

Gaveston Cross and the Saxon Mill, Warwick

St Mary’s, Warwick

Kenilworth Castle

Abbey Fields, Kenilworth

Leamington Spa

St Michael’s Church, Baddesley Clinton

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.

#covid19walks #socialdistancing – A Strange New Name for Local Walks in the Springtime

A strange new title for local walks in the springtime has emerged. Steering clear of other walkers, whilst wandering along in the balmy spring afternoon, seems dreamlike…

I’m pleased to announce that I have signed a contract

I’m pleased to announced that I have signed a contract with history publishers Amberley Publishing for a book about Warwickshire to be published in June 2020. This will be a highly illustrated book full of stories arranged under themes from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.

St Mary’s Church Warwick at night. Photo credit: Jamie Robinson.

The book will explore some of the supernatural and spiritual stories in the region. It describes a number of Warwickshire’s most iconic locations which I believe have spiritual resonance and which I’ve visited many times.

These include Guy’s Cliffe House and the Saxon Mill in Warwick; Hall’s Croft and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon; Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle among other locations.

I’m weaving into this insights from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits. And I’ve also been out and about interviewing and listening to people closely associated with the properties who have rich and fascinating stories to tell.

More news on this to follow!

SC Skillman

psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction

Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path

The Season of Christmas Craft Fairs and Giving Books for Christmas

I always love getting out to meet readers and potential new readers – either by giving Author Talks, or by leading Creative Writing Workshops or by appearing at Craft Fairs

to sell signed copies of my books.

Remember – books are a great choice when it comes to choosing a gift for a keen reader among your family and friends.

Novels can make an excellent gift as long as you know the taste of your gift recipient. And if not, or you’re unsure, why not surprise them with a story they might not have considered reading before? A member of the  audience at one of my recent author talks told me that I had inspired her to read outside her comfort zone.

The next few weeks are very busy and I have one author talk and five Christmas Craft Fairs lined up already, with the prospect of more to come.

So if any of these are near where you live do drop in for a chat at my bookstall.

I’ll have signed copies of my two novels Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit for sale,

along with my non-fiction book Perilous Path: A Writer’s Journey, and also copies of the new anthology Merry Christmas Everyone to which I’ve contributed a piece.

Merry Christmas Everyone - anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers
Merry Christmas Everyone – anthology pub Nov 2018 Association of Christian Writers

On Wednesday 7th November  at 7.30pm I’ll be giving my Author Talk “The Power of Story” at the Northgate Methodist Church, Warwick.

On Wednesday 28th November I’ll be selling signed copies of my books at the Christmas Shopping, Pamper, Psychic and Holistic Night at Stonebridge Golf Course from 7 to 10pm. Post code: CV7 7PL.

On Friday 30th November from 5.30 to 7.30pm I’ll be at the Christmas Fair in Clapham Terrace Primary School, Leamington Spa. Find the school at CV31 2AR

On Sunday 2nd December find me at the Christmas Market at the Graham Adams Centre in Southam.Set your satnav for  CV47 OLY.

On Saturday 8th December, drop in to the Christmas Market in King Edward the Sixth School, Stratford-upon-Avon – postcode CV37 6BE – and have a chat at my stall.

Or on Saturday 15th December 2-4pm you’ll find me at the Christmas Fair at the Park View Care Home in Warwick CV34 4ND.

Hope to see some of you at one of the Warwickshire Christmas Fairs!

 

 

 

 

The Throckmortons of Coughton Court, Warwickshire: A Family Forever Linked to those Who Conspired to Murder their King

Approaching Coughton Court, the ancestral seat of the Throckmortons, near Alcester in Warwickshire, we may admire the mellow sandstone sixteenth century house with its dramatic battlemented gatehouse tower and lovely timbered north and south wings.

the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court
the entrance to the gatehouse, Coughton Court

In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.

view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court
view from window in south wing, onto the garden in the forecourt Coughton Court

Everything about this house and its surrounding grounds and gardens speaks graciousness, fine proportions, serenity: all that tends to make us feel relaxed, good-humoured and full of positive anticipation. But that has by no means always been the case. In the past this house has known betrayal, terror and conspiracy.

This house has been held by the Throckmorton family for over 600 years and during that time the vast majority of them have been fervent Catholics, remaining loyal throughout times of great persecution. Several generations of the Throckmortons have been closely involved with some of the major events of English history. 

The first Throckmortons to own land in Coughton were John and Eleanor in 1412 and John became the founder of this historically-important family.  A later Throckmorton, Robert, was knighted in 1494 along with Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII, thus beginning the family’s long association with the Tudor monarchy, sometimes profitable, always dangerous, and ultimately fateful.

His son George was to discover the folly of opposing Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon; the mortification of being a dissenting guest at Anne Boleyn’s coronation; the inadvisability of thwarting Thomas Cromwell in a land dispute; and, no doubt, a rather uncharitable sense of vindication at finding himself prosecution witness at Thomas’s trial and in a position to seal his fate.

Robert’s son Nicholas stands out among the Throckmortons as having been a Protestant; and I cannot help wondering how that affected his family relationships, coming as he did from an otherwise unbroken line of devout Catholics.  Nicholas too discovered the slipperiness of close involvement with the Tudor monarchy.

 He had a very narrow escape when his support of Lady Jane Grey ended in defeat; found himself in prison after opposing Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; and suffered the thanklessness of Elizabeth after he had acted as confidant to the young princess, brought the news of Mary’s death to her, and finally acted as her emissary to Mary Queen of Scots. All of this failed to win for him the high office at court which he had hoped for. 

After Nicholas’s death, the family resumed its activities on behalf of the Catholic side with renewed zeal. In 1584 his nephew Francis was executed for trying to depose Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

In 1858 a 16th century priest-hole was rediscovered in the Tower Room: a double hide, one chamber on top of the other, so the priest hiding in the chamber below would have been highly unlikely to be discovered, even if the upper chamber came to light.

The Drawing Room, Coughton Court
The Drawing Room, Coughton Court

The Tower room is where the family kept a small altar with everything needful to celebrate Mass according to their Catholic faith; the windows both sides of the room gave extensive views out onto the surrounding countryside so they would be alerted to anyone approaching the house from a considerable distance away. Certainly they would have had plenty of warning if Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters were approaching, and enough time to hide the priest together with all the objects of Catholic worship in that ingenious hiding place.

The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court
The view from the battlements of the gatehouse tower, Coughton Court

When you begin your tour of the house, you are soon shown through a well-laid-out exhibition about the Gunpowder Plot; and after visiting that, as you enter the drawing room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, you cannot but be very aware that this was the room where the first news of the plot’s failure was broken to those who waited here. In the early hours of 6th November 1605, Lady Digby, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, one of the Plotters, sat in this drawing room, anxiously awaiting news.

At 6am Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby (charismatic mastermind of the plot) galloped across the bridge over the moat and climbed the stairs to the drawing room. No doubt drenched with sweat, wild haired and eyes full of terror, Thomas broke the news which would have filled her with horror and fear: the plot had been discovered, Guy Fawkes arrested, her husband Sir Everard captured, and his fellow conspirators were all on the run in fear of their lives. She would have had no doubt whatsoever about what lay in store for her husband and his friends. The fate that awaited all those found guilty of treason was a vile and brutal punishment: hanging, drawing and quartering. It was, however, a fate that many chose to risk. They were desperate times. The stakes were high, and hot-headed, religious zealots were willing to run that risk for their passionate beliefs.

Following this, the party at Coughton Court quickly dispersed to various locations, among them two priests, Nicholas Owen the master priest-hole builder, and the Vaux sisters who had rented Baddesley Clinton for the express purpose of providing a safe meeting place for priests, together with concealed chambers they could hide in during raids. Meanwhile, the plotters fled to the house of another Catholic friend, hoping for support, which they did not receive: instead they headed off to Holbeach Hall, where final disaster awaited them.

Of those who fled to Holbeach Hall, we learn in the special exhibition at Coughton Court, four suffered the least painful, and the quickest, death. They (incredibly) betrayed their presence by trying to dry their gunpowder in front of the fire. Not surprisingly (but presumably, it surprised them) their gunpowder exploded. The noise alerted the Sheriff of Worcestershire who came with his troops and surrounded the house. In the ensuing gunfight the next morning, four conspirators were shot dead, including Robert Catesby the charismatic mastermind of the plot. Of the others, six were tried on 27th January 1606 and executed at the end of that month.  One other, Francis Tresham, was arrested on 12th November and fortuitously died of a natural illness in the Tower on 23rd December.

The room in which Lady Digby received Thomas Bates’ news is a beautiful one to our eyes, and we might expect to find a lingering atmosphere of fear and dread. But indeed no such feeling hangs around this room, and our emotional response to the story may be most clearly elicited in the room which holds the exhibition. The information about the Plot is imaginatively displayed, thus giving visitors their best chance to remember the names of the people involved and the details of their desperate flight and foolhardy actions during those final fateful hours after Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.

Whatever we may think now of the issues at stake during years of turmoil in which England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, nevertheless, when viewed on the human scale, we see individuals chancing their lives and family destinies, on the hoped-for success of desperate strategies, utterly at the mercy of the State’s ruthless response to their own religious zeal, often leading to heart-rending and grisly outcomes.

Here at Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons who were so closely connected to those dramatic events, we may see this played out through generations of unswerving Catholic devotion both before the events of 1605 and for centuries after, right down to the present day. After Sir Robert Throckmorton became Lord of Coughton in 1680, he built an illegal Catholic chapel, only to see it burned down by a Protestant mob, during the anti-catholic riots which were followed by the exile of James II. The mob also burned the east side of the house, and the ruins stayed there for another century.

When I enter a house such as Coughton Court, the rich surroundings, the elegant and lofty rooms, the grand family portraits and the harmonious decor play their part; but most powerful of all is the story of the house, brought alive by the artefacts that are displayed here. We may find the chemise that Mary Queen of Scots wore on the day of her execution; the dole-gate that one of the family, Elisabeth Throckmorton, Abbess of Denny, brought with her as a poignant memento as she fled the dissolution of the monasteries; the chair made out of wood  originally used for the bed Richard III slept on before he fought the Battle of Bosworth.

And, too, we may view the family photographs of the present-day members of the Throckmorton family – two of them, Clare McLaren-Throckmorton and her daughter Christina, responsible for the design and creation of the enchanting walled garden. These photos also have a poignancy to them, when you remember the contemporary family’s forbears. We may consider this a luxury few may claim, to know your family history back 600 years; but I believe there may be a certain burden in carrying this, a certain weight on your shoulders, a weight of knowledge of the details of your ancestors’ vices and virtues, their hopes and failures, their deeds, their triumphs and disasters.

 

How to get there:

Alcester

Warwickshire

B49 5JA

 

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