In case you weren’t aware, this weekend played host to the annual Open Heritage Days event – a fantastic endeavour organised by volunteers, which seeks to open up to the public, free of charge, hundreds of places that are usually out of bounds. Not only is this an uplifting, inspiring example of embedding cultural enrichment into local communities, but, for me, it also provided the opportunity to finally access a place that has been piquing my curiosity for years…
I enjoyed walking past this sign – in your face, prohibition.
Imagine, if you will, the eerie silhouette of a ruined, fire-scorched building of Gothic architecture, set against a moonlit sky. The sadly neglected grandeur teeters on the edge of a sheer sandstone cliff, which plunges into the silently flowing River Avon below, fat with secrets. Bats stream out of vaulted cellars, flitting around elaborate towers and crumbling chimneys.
Add to this the sound of low, sonorous chanting, emanating from a leaded stained-glass window of an attic room. Inside, mysterious Masonic rituals are being played out, or perhaps it’s the Knights Templar. Strange symbolism decorates the walls of this once-consecrated chapel, and a larger-than-life relief carving of a one-armed, empty-faced king, reputed to be a giant of old, watches over the proceedings.
A grief-stricken lady ghost haunts the vaults, lamenting her suicidal leap from the cliff, whilst the tiny cave in which her kingly husband turned reclusive hermit secretly abided drips dank water into sacred wells below, celebrated by pagans of old. An Anglo-saxon inscription on the hermitage wall tells of religious zealotry, whilst leering African faces cut into the wall of another vault whisper of shameful links to the slave trade, and a monument set deep within a nearby hilltop copse commemorates the decapitation of Piers Gaveston, one of the king’s favourite men.
A still-accurate clock-tower presides over an empty courtyard, once filled with casualties from the first world war and fostered waifs and strays during the second world war. Inside the chapel, the clock stays still, the hands pointing to midnight.
This is Guys Cliffe, a site just outside Warwick that has more mystery and strange goings-on packed into its history than Dracula’s castle. It’s an enigma wrapped inside an enigma; the more you delve, the more odd the story becomes. Now owned, of course, by that most enigmatic of organisations, the Freemasons, I really don’t know where to start when recounting the stranger than fiction events that have shaped its current sorry yet proud, ruinous state.
I have included some photos below that shed light on some of the more bizarre stories associated with this site’s fascinating past. But I feel I have barely scratched the surface – every corner I turned revealed more dark corners, caves, follies and tunnels, all filled with intrigue. The weirdness of the Masonic lodge in particular had my nose twitching like an anteater who has just struck termite gold.
I came across this ancient looking casket seemingly discarded at the back of one of the caves being used as storage – a vampiric coffin, surely? (When I asked, they told me it had been used to store precious documents from the chapel – piffle, methinks.)
Freemason symbolism in the old chapel. I learnt that the smooth cube shows that the incumbent of this chair is high up in the Masonic echelons. When you are first initiated you receive a ‘rough-hewn’ piece of rock, to indicate your rough-round-the-edges status. The night-time globe on its side is put upright to indicate the end of the session – a day-time version is erected whilst the meeting is in progress. The gavel is used simply to call order, apparently (however, every answer the seemingly candid Freemason guide gave me was met with unavoidable cynicism. Which brings me onto my next photo…).
This is part of the brilliant ‘Freemasons – What’s it All About?’ brochure, which, for all its attempts at friendly accessibility, does a great line in smoke and mirrors and gives very little away indeed. This particular page made me audibly snort with disbelief, to my subsequent embarassment. In case you can’t read it, the first sentence says, ‘Freemasonry prides itself on its transparency’. Errrr…hello?!
More symbolism – the ‘all-seeing-eye’ is always displayed in a prominent location in Masonic lodges – this was hanging from the ceiling of the chapel. The ‘G’ dangling below represents the ‘supreme being’ or ‘great architect’ that the Masons believe in. My probings concerning Masonic belief systems and links to religion were met with increasingly curt responses, especially when I asked whether there is support within the Masons for the intelligent design theory as an alternative to evolution, seeing as they call the supreme being the ‘great architect’. For this I received a distinctly dirty look and a reply that roughly accorded with ‘I couldn’t possibly comment’ but translated clearly as ‘I’ve had enough of your impertinent nosiness now, young lady, so please be on your way…’. I also learnt that every Masonic lodge displays a clock that stands still, which signifies that the passing of time is of no import once a meeting is in session. Creepy.
This is Guy’s cave. Guy of Warwick was a famous Anglo-saxon prince and legendary dragon-slaying warrior, to rival Arthurian fame. However, in his later life, and much to the consternation of his wife, Lady Felice, he decided to embark on a pilgrimage of penance. During this time, he turned heavily to religion. Eventually he returned home and, without declaring his identity to his wife, moved into this tiny cave, which is cut into the cliff beneath the house, to live out the rest of his life as a religious hermit. Just before he died, he sent his wedding ring to his wife and news of his whereabouts. She rushed to see him but was too late. It is said that her grief led her to throw herself from the top of the cliff, and her sad ghost still haunts the cellars.
This is one of the four eerie African-esque faces cut into the rock interior of one of the caves. It is known that a later owner of the estate in the 1700s, the Greatheed family, were wealthy merchant traders who had derived much of their fortune through involvement in the slave trade in the West Indies. These carved faces have led to rumours that slaves may have been kept in the cave, and used for manual labour at the site.
During the first world war, the house was used as a Red Cross hospital. During the second world war it was used to house boys from the ‘Waifs and Strays’ society (yes, that was its actual name) – mosty orphans and boys from the workhouse.
In 1992 the house was used by Granada TV to film a night scene for an episode of Sherlock Holmes, which involved a ‘controlled’ fire. However, controlled soon became uncontrolled, and an inferno raged, taking ten hours to put out and gutting the building in the process. Was this an elaborate insurance scam or just the curse of Guy’s Cliffe dramatically rearing its head after a lengthy slumber over the two world wars?
Nowadays, the house is mainly used by the Freemasons, and also by the Knights Templar (I didn’t even know this still existed as an organised society – apparently, they are as mysterious to the Masons as the Masons themselves are to Joe Public – interesting…). The Masons do a lucrative side-line in pimping out the estate to ghost-hunters and paranormal activity seekers. They are also trying to advertise it as a wedding reception venue, but aren’t having much success – this doesn’t surprise me, as its history of so much sadness and secrecy seems to lies heavy on the place.
Anyway, that’s your lot for now. There is so much more to tell, not to mention all the elaborate theories I have been concocting about various facets of its past and present. It is the kind of place that sends an imaginative mind into freefall – I’m still reeling… I will definitely be returning next year for another fix – that is, unless I have been blacklisted by the Masons…