Today I’m hosting a new book by fellow author S.C.Skillman – Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire: published on 22nd April this year, by Amberley Publishing, £15.99
I enjoyed reading this book, and I hope you will too!**
In her latest book, Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire, S.C. Skillman has done meticulous and painstaking research to bring all the rich detail of this county to life. Warwickshire has long been a centre of pilgrimage for tourists with an interest in its most famous historical figure, the writer William Shakespeare. I remember visiting as a child to explore Shakespeare’s birthplace, and the various houses and other buildings and locations he would have known. The book is illustrated on every page with photos taken by the author or members of her family. These reminded me how thrilled I was, on that visit, by the numbers of timbered Medieval-style buildings, to be found in other Warwickshire towns in addition to Stratford on Avon. I’d recently discovered historical novels, in addition to enjoying Shakespeare’s mysterious plays
To set Warwickshire in context, before I began reading I first looked at a counties map of England, and discovered the borders are touched by nine others (counting Derbyshire which the border just touches!). It is indeed in the centre of England and for famous writer from a sea-faring nation, Shakespeare was born and raised in possibly the furthest county from the coast, and in a town surrounded by lush countryside with a nearby ancient Forest which he incorporated into his writing.
A quick look through the pages of Illustrated Tales tells the reader (possibly a tourist from overseas) that this county is absolutely illustrative of that picture of England which associates us with history, and with a quiet traditional life, surrounded by peaceful views of countryside, set with old churches, harking back to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. And although that is of course only part of the tale – modern life indeed came to Warwickshire in the form of industries (now consigned to the small county of ‘West Midlands’, home to Coventry and the large conurbation of Birmingham), the southern part remains mostly rural. Along with counties such as Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Buckinghamshire, Warwickshire suggests the perceived ‘Englishness’ of England.
Under each chapter’s title, there’s a relevant quotation from one of Shakespeare’s Plays – excepting one. Chapter 13 has no quotation, and tells of an old and grisly local practice, ‘the gallows healing’, a somewhat unpleasant old tradition. Having said that, many interesting quaint, or creepy, or peculiar traditional tales are associated with houses another buildings both in Stratford , (Shakespeare’s birthplace and childhood home) and surrounding towns and villages. This offers further insight into how our ancestors living in those timber framed houses thought, what drove their decisions, how they made sense (or not) of the world. There may’ve been churches everywhere, but folk felt there was much unexplained and revered it. ‘Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost’ (from Henry V part II) begins the first chapter. The next few chapters include ‘spooky tales’, ‘extraordinary true-life stories’ and ‘tales of witchcraft’, giving a picture of eccentricity and fear, while photos (for example on pages 22-3, (chapter 4, ‘Rural Crimes’), show apparent peace and plenty quietly existing in the villages of Eathorpe and Weston-under-Wetherley. A curious ritual associated with paying dues to the Lord of the Manor, (the ‘Wroth Silver ceremony’, in Chapter 12) ) remains to this day – with a candlelit ceremony at dawn, in the open air, and a hearty breakfast at the local Inn (now the Queen’s Head at Broughton, but traditionally at the Dun Cow at Stretton-on-Dunsmore) to conclude proceedings. It is said this ceremony has roots in Anglo-Saxon times.
Along with Shakespeare are other literary figures associated with Warwickshire: J.R.R. Tolkien (whose creation, The Shire, seems to echo a feel of the county), Malory who wrote the original ‘Morte d’Arthur’, and the actress Sarah Siddens, who began her working life not on the stage but as a Lady’s Maid at Guy’s Cliffe, a large house in Warwick itself. Another is Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice books, along with a number of other writers including Rupert Brooke, Arthur Ransome, and Salman Rushdie, all commemorated by curious and interesting sculptures, The Writers’ Rest, located in various parts of Rugby in honour of writers connected by having been pupils at Rugby school or lived in Rugby.
And we discover the Forest of Arden has a chapter to itself, (chapter11 p.73): it was not an invention but a real Forest. Though by now only some ancient traditional hedgerows and a few small woodlands remain, as a memory of the Forest in As You Like It which held dangers such as bears and wolves. However, two very old churches exist in what was Arden, one of which built before the Norman conquest. This remains without modern conveniences of any kind and is lit by candles in winter. The author has attended a service there! Shakespeare’s mother was from the Arden family, and various relatives were living in several villages located in the ancient forest. I really appreciated that Skillman has gone as far as to find out those relatives, giving extra interest to what could just have been a convenient invented woodland, part of the plot of a play.
If there’s one thing I missed in this excellent book, it was a sketch map of Warwickshire showing the locations of the various towns and villages, as this would give an idea of where and approximately how far each is from another. It would be helpful for the visitor on holiday when planning a route between sights of interest. No matter, a small thing.
And all manner of interesting details emerge along the way to enhance the locations the tourist might visit during holiday spent in this county, perhaps using Stratford as a centre and culminating with attending a Shakespeare play, with or without delving into the witchcraft and haunting associated with many houses, towns and villages. And to conclude the visit, if there is a fair or similar happening nearby, watch another English institution, a performance by the Morris Men (and women). I would highly recommend this informative and well produced book to anyone who is thinking about a stay-at-home British holiday, or has friends relatives visiting from overseas, much more than a ‘guide book’ it is an interesting read, well illustrated and meticulously researched but also very accessible!
** I received a copy of the book from the Publisher, in order to write a review as part of a Blog Tour.
My own books, which you can access on my website (https://hodgepublishing.co.uk/), are all fiction, plus one poetry book, and I write at the intersection of sociology and family stories, the events taking place between the late 1980s and the present day, featuring a combination of moral questioning, decision-making, the importance or not of faith, and romance.