Thursday, January 31, 2013


When William Capel inherited a fine historic Jacobean manor house on the wooded rolling slopes of the Stroud Valley in 1842, he did what any rich, assertive young Victorian squire would have done. He demolished it and had it rebuilt in a fashionable neo-Gothic style.

He was an extremely wealthy landowner and landlord of many houses and cottages all around the Painswick and Stroud area. He was a powerful Tory and a County Magistrate, one time High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, and he built the imposing and dominant house not just as his residence but as a fitting emblem of his status. What he didn't know, as he sat in his luxurious living room quaffing his port and peering through the mullioned windows at the expanse of his copious estate, was that the door-frames and skirting boards all around him were filled with secret messages.

It's impossible to know exactly how the site, now run as Hawkwood College, would have looked through the ages. At the time William Capel inherited it – just one of a family line who lived in the house for centuries – it was known as The Grove and occupied its beautiful position as part of a substantial estate. During the 17th century the house was owned by a family called Mayo, and when their surviving heir was a girl, Hester, who married one Samuel Capel in 1700 and bought out her sisters' shares in the estate, the family name changed but the genetic line continued. It's unclear who built the Jacobean manor house but traces of medieval stonework have turned up which indicate an earlier origin for the site. I'd always understood that there was a monastery (or more likely, a small religious cell) there at one time, but so far no evidence has been found to support this. Other than the occasional psychic impressions of visitors, who have been known to 'see' cowled figures mooching about the grounds, even when they didn't have any previous knowledge of the monastery story.

I'd go a step further and say that the Hawkwood College site has the feel of having been a sacred place throughout time. It has the most extraordinary atmosphere, and is quite unlike any other place I've known. It has a focused and contained kind of energy, as if its sanctity is insulated from the outside world, and when you're inside it you feel as though anything is possible.

The building, which feels as magically charged as the land it sits on, is perched on a ledge in the landscape underneath a slope covered by woodland. It has a magnificent view to the south over the meadows to the town of Stroud and beyond (the clod-hopping white bulk of the new SGS College campus notwithstanding – how did they get planning permission for that?) and the adjacent Cotswold scarp, and if you go and stand on the top of the Toots long barrow on Selsley Common you can clearly see Hawkwood across the valley with its distinctive Gothic gables. On the lawn beside the house there rises a spring, whose cool bright chalybeate loveliness flows steadily throughout the year (when I was younger I used to take it home in bottles and make wine with it – it's wonderful stuff – makes a lovely cup of tea too).

Immediately beside the spring is a mammoth, venerable sycamore tree. This tree has its own spring welling up underneath it, and the thick roots of the sycamore form a basin in which a little pool of water stands, lightly strewn with leaves. It's a scene straight from the legend of Gereint and Enid in the Mabinogion, where a sycamore stands beside a spring in an enchanted garden. I wouldn't like to speculate how old the tree is (at least 300 years, I'm told, and probably older, which is unusual for a sycamore), or whether the spring was ever considered a holy well, but standing beside it the whirly churning feeling in your stomach tells you that this is a very special place indeed. The Hawkwood double spring has a very special active-passive energy, one spring gushing out over the land and the other gently enclosed by a naturally formed well.

William Capel is shown in the 1841 census in his early 30s and living with his mum in what must then have been the Jacobean manor house. He was still unmarried at the time and in fact didn't marry until later life. He's described in the following census as a Magistrate and Proprietor of Land, Farming 500 Acres. Among his domestic staff, in 1871, can be found a young man called William Gurney, who lived in the house as a domestic servant. He came from Maisemore and was in fact Ivor Gurney's uncle!

Presumably it was when William Capel's mum passed away that he decided to knock down the ancestral home. A few bits of stonework from the older house still survive, but the rebuilding was substantial, and he also had some new cellars added. The Gothic design of the building is very much the style of the classic Cotswold manor house and built from beautiful honey-coloured local ashlar. There are some beautiful decorative details, like this foliate head – which may be a green man but probably more likely a lion or similar beastie.

Among the skilled craftsmen employed to work on the rebuilding of the house was a carpenter and joiner named William Clifton. He was born in Chipping Norton on or around 24th January 1816, and after serving an apprenticeship in Witney, spent the rest of his life in Tetbury, where he married the daughter of another carpenter. In 1843, at the age of 27, he was working at The Grove (Hawkwood) where he was responsible for much of the decorative woodwork around door frames and skirting boards. We know this because he signed and dated many of the fixtures before fitting them in place.

A number of intriguing pieces of wood with pencil scribbles on the back have been coming to light over the last 40 years or so in the course of repairs and alterations. But the extent and detail of it only became clear a couple of years ago, when a burst mains water pipe in the upper part of the house caused a devastating flood in the downstairs sitting room. In the course of clearing up the damage, the skirting boards were taken off and revealed the prevalence of William Clifton's literary endeavours – and his political views.

"Down with Kings and Queens and the Aristocracy and all Tyrants". One of William Clifton's secret messages, written on the back of a chunk of wood which lay hidden within the house for 168 years.

 This piece is signed "Wm Clifton Chipping Norton" (his birthplace, although he lived in Tetbury) and is dated 1843. The two slogans read "Down with Kings and Queens" and "Universal Suffrage for ever".

Like many working class people in the 1840s, William Clifton was a Chartist. Some of his slogans include direct references to the Chartist movement, others refer more generally to its principles. One of them was signed "He who has no voice in the making of Laws by which he is governed is a Slave. William Clifton".  I don't know how he felt about his employer William Capel and whether he had him in mind when he condemned the ruling classes – Capel was a respected man in society, but what kind of person he was and how he treated his staff is much harder to know – but Clifton was performing a powerful act of talismanic magic in hiding such fiery sentiments under the boards of a country squire's house.

And in its way, his magic worked, even if it took its time. The last of the Capel dynasty died in 1932, and the house and its somewhat diminished estate was sold to a bloke called Colonel Murray. Murray was a bit of a military history fanatic, and it was he who rechristened the house Hawkwood – named after his hero, the 14th century mercenary Sir John Hawkwood. A few years later it was sold to Roland and Lily Whincop, who founded an adult education college there based around the principles of Rudolf Steiner.

William Clifton didn't live long enough to encounter the work of Steiner; he died in Tetbury in March 1872 at the age of 56. But he would probably have been pleased with what the house has turned into: a socially and environmentally responsible college which anybody can attend for education or spiritual refreshment – with the landed proprietor and the class system of unbalanced social power long gone. He also didn't live to see the introduction of universal suffrage, the cause in which he believed so passionately, although one of the succession of "Reform Acts" in the Victorian era may possibly have granted him a right to vote in 1867 when suffrage was extended to include skilled working class men (prior to that, you had to be an owner of property to have the vote). But universal suffrage didn't find its way into British statute until 1918.

Hawkwood remains an incredibly special place. As well as its education programme it provides a venue for all kinds of creative and spiritual groups, and was the scene of Gareth Knight's legendary ritual workshops during the 1980s. The Gareth Knight Group was founded in its dining room in 1973, and still meets at Hawkwood today. And if you're among those who encounter one of the strange presences that are occasionally seen or heard in the upper rooms and corridors of the house, don't be alarmed, just remember that it's a place where the walls are full of magic.

With special thanks to Dave James, Head of Maintenance at Hawkwood College, who provided much of the historical information and kindly allowed me to photograph his collection of door jambs.