Saturday 12 May 2012


I’ve just completed a two-week tour to mark the publication of the paperback edition of my Tudor novel VIII. It took me to all sorts of places – Ipswich & Bramhall, Oxford & Hampton Court – and among them was my old childhood stamping ground of Leamington Spa & Warwick, neighbouring towns that have spread so close to one another that, as Eric Morecambe used to say, you can’t see the join. Here, Keith & Frances Smith, the lovely owners of the independent bookshops ‘Warwick Books’ and ‘Kenilworth Books’ (see their website) arranged for me to speak at an evening event alongside Nicola Shulman and Prof. Eric Ives, at the most wonderful venue imaginable…

'These deep eyes were now surveying them, slow and solemn, but very penetrating... One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present...' J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

The week before last, early on the Wednesday evening, a taxi deposited me outside an ancient building in the town of Warwick. I walked up to the imposing gate. Since it was well past 5 o’clock, a notice beside the gate said ‘Closed’ but, feeling rather Alice-in-Wonderland-ish, I thought I should try the door anyway. I turned the giant handle (above) and stepped inside. 

The gate from the inside

I had come to speak at an event in this most august of venues: the Lord Leycester Hospital in Warwick.
Alone inside the gateway, I hesitated. As anyone who has had the misfortune to wait for a train with me would confidently predict, I was early. No one else was in sight. What should I do? Ah, what? Loiter, of course! Loiter and look about me and feel the privilege of spending some time alone in this flabbergastingly gorgeous place.

The Westgate of Warwick (left), with chantry chapel above, and The Lord Leycester Hospital (right)

The Hospital’s own website (hereoffers this potted history:
The Lord Leycester Hospital is not now, and has never been a medical establishment. The word hospital is used in its ancient sense meaning "a charitable institution for the housing and maintenance of the needy, infirm or aged".
The Hospital is an historic group of timber-framed buildings dating mainly from the late 14th Century clustered round the Norman gateway into Warwick with its 12th Century Chantry Chapel above it. Hidden behind the ancient buildings is the tiny but delightful Master's Garden.
For nearly 200 years it was the home of Warwick's mediaeval Guilds. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I it became a place of retirement for old warriors. So it remains today as an independent charity providing a home for ex-Servicemen and their wives.

I loitered my way into the galleried courtyard, passing beneath this bear and ragged staff – an emblem that has been associated with the Earls of Warwick since at least the 14th century, and was used by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, favourite of Elizabeth I (whose father & brother were Earls of Warwick). It was Dudley who, having bought these buildings in 1571, set them up as a home for aged or injured soldiers.
Inside the courtyard, on the façade of the Master’s house, I spotted other bears standing guard along with a marvellous bristling porcupine (the porcupine was an emblem of the Sidney family, who were linked by marriage with the Dudleys).

The Master of the Hospital himself, Lt. Col. Gerald Lesinski, soon emerged from the door you can see on the left above. He would have been well within his rights if he'd asked me brusquely what I thought I was doing, peering at his house after closing time… but, on the contrary, he was all graciousness & generosity. He had, he told me, just been looking through the Hospital’s guest book and had found Oscar Wilde’s signature. “I knew we had Dickens and Darwin,” he said, “but I didn’t realise we had Wilde too!”
Oscar Wilde… Dickens… Darwin… I looked at the buildings about me with fresh eyes. The Lord Leycester, I reflected, is not only a medieval place, a Tudor place… it has been a Victorian place too. And a Georgian one, and an Edwardian and an everything-in-between-and-since.

Of course, you simply cannot stand here without thinking of the past in some fashion. But often I tend to think of the past in slices, rather than taking in the scale of the whole it… So, I look at these buildings and automatically estimate when they were built… and then, a few moments later, I try to picture them during my favourite period, the 16th century.
And in so doing, I tend not to think of the sheer length of time the buildings have stood here and all that has happened in that time - the enormous well these buildings represent, filled up with ages of memory.

A short time later, as I looked across the street from the Lord Leycester, instead of defining the (wonderfully wonky) half-timbered building opposite (above) solely by the era in which it was built, I thought instead about all the changes it must have seen, and how it had stood there while the brick houses that you can just make out on the right were being constructed. And I realised that I’ve often looked at rows of buildings of different dates as if they were simply different cakes lined up in a cake shop window: this is 14th century flavour, this is 18th century flavour…

...instead of recognising that the 14th century one is a building that, perhaps, stood alone before it acquired neighbours - or perhaps had other, different neighbours and stood solid even as they were demolished and replacements built.

It’s rather like a child’s view of the people around them, i.e. Granny happens to be a wrinkly person whose job is to be my grandmother, rather than Granny has seen so much! She was my age once, and then my mum's age too, and has lived through so many more days & years than me
Now I began to think: the Lord Leycester Hospital buildings are medieval & stood here as the Wars of the Roses raged... but they stood here during the Civil War too – and during the Napoleonic Wars and the Russian Revolution and the Blitz. I began to think: these buildings were lived in by soldiers who fought in the Crimea, and on the Somme (perhaps). These buildings have seen all those days and months, those decades and centuries, and they will be here – I very much hope – when I am in my grave.
How easy it is to forget the accumulated weight of the past! If people’s life experience shone out of the tops of their heads like the light of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past, the elderly’s would shine tallest & brightest… (for an illustration of the ghost, see here).
In the same way, the life experience (if I can put it that way) of these buildings is awe-inspiringly huge. And they have been significant not just at the time of their 'birth', but in each period they have 'lived' through. It is not only the new buildings of any period that give the flavour of that time. Just as in Henry VIII’s inventory there are treasured old items (devotional objects that belonged to his mother or grandmother, for example, or a sword used by Henry V) as well as items from Henry's time, so too the people of each period have inhabited, used, loved (or hated) old buildings, as well as modern ones.
When the Lord Leycester Hospital itself was ‘modern’, there would have been ‘old’ buildings in Warwick, of course. Over the centuries, as the Hospital has stood firm, buildings around it have come and gone. The idea plays in my mind like a time-lapse film – like this intriguing film from 1901 (credited as the first time-lapse film, in fact) which records the demolishing of a theatre in New York (it runs first in reverse, so that the theatre seems to be being built): see the film here.

Note the beady-eyed white pigeon!

Add to all this another layer: in the Lord Leycester Hospital, for me, the sweep of history is riffle-shuffled with my own personal memories.
For example, I love the Great Hall where that evening’s event took place – & where once, as the Master told me, James I sat down to dine (they still have the chair he sat in!). I love it for its marvellous beamed roof & higgledy-piggledy lattice windows…

… but I also love it because it was the venue, 23 years ago, for the Ruby Wedding celebration for my very dear great-uncle & great-aunt, Gordon & Lucy Southeard, and I could not possibly spend a moment in that room without thinking of Lucy (who still lives in Warwick) and without remembering Gordon - a remarkable, lovely and much missed man.

Uncle Gordon & Auntie Lucy (wearing red button-holes)
 in the Great Hall 

Try to hold your attention wide, taking in all that sweep of time, and it’s as if a pack of cards is being shuffled - what you see is: now that day, now this, now – in your mind’s eye – James I, now Oscar Wilde, now (for me) Uncle Gordon… now the astonishing kaleidoscope of every moment, great and small, that this building must hold in its memory:

How many people have stood in that dark doorway on the right (above), over the centuries? For how many people has the Lord Leycester Hospital been an old friend, a part of their lives, a place past which they have walked daily?
Never mind Oscar Wilde or Robert Dudley, what about the ordinary people of Warwick who knew it in, say, the 1720s, or the 1830s, or the 1940s?
That Wednesday visit turned into a wonderful evening, and I must end this post with some book recommendations. My fellow-speaker was Nicola Shulman, author of Graven with Diamonds, which is an audacious, erudite & superbly entertaining new analysis of the poems of Thomas Wyatt, and the uses to which they were put within the claustrophobic inner circle of Henry VIII’s court.
The chair for the evening was Prof. Eric Ives, author of an absolutely brilliant biography (the biography, I'm tempted to say) of Anne Boleyn - The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Prof. Ives is also the author of (amongst other things) a fascinating analysis of the rise & fall of Lady Jane Grey: Lady Jane Grey - A Tudor Mystery. And – to be published this June – a book on the Reformation that I can’t wait to read: The Reformation Experience. See details of all 3 titles here.

(l-r) Prof. Eric Ives, Nicola Shulman, Brother Peter, me

Here we are at the steps to the chantry chapel alongside Brother Peter, one of the Hospital’s residents.

Thank you to Keith & Frances Smith of Warwick Books for arranging & supporting the evening, and to the Master for welcoming us so warmly!

The Lord Leycester Hospital is open to visitors all year round and can be contacted about hosting events (including weddings) through its website here. It relies on visitor fees to keep it going and is an independent charity well worth supporting!

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK and by Penguin in Australia. It is now available in paperback, hardback & ebook format.
H.M. Castor's website is here.


alberridge said...

What a spectacularly brilliant post - and what a wonderful location. I've never, ever been to the Lord Leycester Hospital, and now will simply have to. It breathes history, and your whole post simply tingles with it. The Fangorn quote is perfect, and I'll never read it again without remembering the Lord Leycester.

But best of all is this image: 'If people’s life experience shone out of the tops of their heads like the light of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past, the elderly’s would shine tallest & brightest…'
That's so beautiful, so moving, and so true.

And for an old bat like me, very comforting....

Mark Burgess said...

Fab post, Harriet, thank you. I love old buildings and imagining how things were in the past, and I'm also deeply saddened when lovely old buildings go, especially those that I have some connection to. They are a lot like people, aren't they. Thank heavens for historical novelists like yourself who breathe new life into the past.

Geri, The History Lady said...

Harriet, great post. I am feeling similarly this week, back in the UK and in my mum's hometown in Fife. As I walked around late last night with a cousin, we noticed how many buildings we remembered as paper shops, the post office had become residential...and yet with those changes so many others remain unmarked by the passage of time, in the same way as the major landmarks (Arthur's Seat, InchKeith).

Glad your tour is successful. Geri

Solstice Yarns said...

Wonderful post. Bristling with the tangible history within the place. x

Caroline Lawrence said...

Wonderful post and thanks for posting all those great pix, too. I love them!

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you, Louise, & I'm very impressed that you knew straight away which passage the Tolkien quote came from! I'm currently reading 'The Two Towers' to my daughter at bedtimes, never having read it before, and happened to read that passage the day I'd been thinking about the subject for this post - it leapt out at me. Thank you to Mark and Geri (where in Fife are you, Geri? I spent many childhood summer holidays there & love it very much), & to Eleanor and Caroline too.

Carol McGrath said...

Lovely photographs and as Warick is close to me I must explore it further. I too enjoyed Eric Ives Ann Boleyn. It is an exceptional study. This seems to have been a fabulous visit.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Lovely post, Harriet, thank you. I've passed through Warwick many times but now I must stop and take a look at those fabulous buildings. How lucky we are to live in a country where old buildings are precious to us, carrying as they do, such a huge amount of our history.

Pauline Chandler said...

A wonderful post! I'm an enormous fan of old buildings that have so many stories to tell. We're so lucky in this country to have so many. This one is new to me, so thank you so much for posting about it.

michelle lovric said...

Thank you, Harriet! The way you talk about buildings and context, and the way you endow buildings with a richly lived existence ... why, anyone might think you were married to an ... architect!

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you Carol, Barbara and Pauline - and Michelle, too; you've rumbled me! :)

Linda B-A said...

Utterly lovely post and magnificent pictures. And how you've captured the magic of stepping into a place filled with ghosts of past, present and future. Like Louise, i love the image of your head-lights.

Emma Pass said...

Wonderful post, Harriet, and fantastic photos! Thank you for sharing them.

Leslie Wilson said...

Fascinating post!

Julie said...

I really enjoy this blog. It's nice to know there are others out there who think the way I do, imagining the old places in other time periods and the people there at the time. I've been working on my family's genealogy and often feel like I know the ancestors better than the people around me now. Just last week I found my 3rd great-grandfather's baptismal record. I did a double-take when I saw that he was baptized by Patrick Bronte!

H.M. Castor said...

I would have too, Julie! What a fantastic detail to uncover!