I will never forget the day I first visited Gainsborough Old Hall.
In the summer of 2001 I had moved up from the south coast to Lincolnshire. It was a part of England that was completely unknown to me.
With our belongings unpacked and the new cottage reasonably settled, I had decided that rainy, grey afternoon to just drop everything and take off in my car for a couple of hours of ‘me time’. And so following the advice of my new neighbours, I set off towards Gainsborough.
When I first saw the Old Hall I immediately fell in love with it. And yet on entering I soon noticed that I appeared to be the only visitor that afternoon.
I had the most wonderful time wandering around lofty rooms and exploring all the nooks and crannies until I came to a huge, dimly lit chamber with walls crammed full of dusty portraits. Immediately I was drawn to one in particular. It was the portrait of an elderly, severe-looking Tudor woman dressed all in black. According to the portrait’s inscription her name was Rose, wife to Anthony Hickman and daughter of Sir William Lock.
There was something about this woman in that painting that drew me to her and yet I had no idea why.
When I returned to the gift shop, I asked the staff who this ‘Rose’ was. They told me that she and her late husband, Anthony, had helped wanted Protestants escape England during the reign of Bloody Queen Mary. And that Rose had later helped shelter a Separatist congregation at the Old Hall during the time of King James I. In her old age Rose had written an account of her life which at the time of my visit the staff had ‘presumed lost’.
I wanted to find out more about this lady. The seeds of intrigue had been truly sewn and I found myself returning time and again to the Old Hall, trying to learn as much as I could about its history.
The following winter the post of ‘Keeper’ at the Old Hall became vacant. Although I had no experience in running such an establishment I nonetheless applied. During my interview I suddenly found myself suggesting that if I did not get the job then I would go away and write a novel set in the Old Hall in order to help bring in more visitors. Me? Write a novel? To this day I do not know why I said that. I had not written anything longer than a poem since leaving school at 15!
Within nine months I had written my first novel – ‘Mayflower Maid’. The central character of that book was ‘Dorothy,’ the fictional maidservant of Lady Rose Hickman.
While writing Mayflower Maid something very worrying happened. I began waking up at night hearing Rose Hickman talking to me. At one point I feared that perhaps I was heading for a nervous breakdown. However after joining an on-line writing group others there reassured me that I was not going mad. Instead they explained that the voice in the night was just my writer’s imagination working overtime in my sleep. They added that I should take a notebook to bed with me and write down everything that I ‘heard’ Rose say and use it in my book. So I did. However what I did not know at the time was how close to history the things Rose ‘said’ were.
‘Mayflower Maid’ was published in 2005 just after my fiftieth birthday. Its sequels ‘Jamestown Woman’, and ‘Restoration Lady’ quickly followed.
As I had neared writing the final chapters of ‘Restoration Lady’ I had had the irresistible urge to move the story away from Lincolnshire and to the place I grew up – Merton in south London- and to its parish church. I did not know why.
Although I spent my childhood there, Merton held few happy memories for me. At the age of 11 in the October of 1966, 19 year-old brother died. I was neither allowed to go the funeral or to stay in the house. Instead on that bitterly cold, grey day during the half-term holiday, I was turned out to wander the streets with nowhere to go.
Eventually I took shelter in a pretty Norman church, St Mary the Virgin, about a mile and a half from my home. That church soon became my regular place of sanctuary. It was a quiet place for prayer and reflection and for a bereft child to try to make sense of the awful things going on around her. I even laid claim to my own special seat next to the organ in the chancel. There I would sit for hours upon my own in times of my greatest trouble. When I eventually ran away from home at 15, I never returned to Merton.
In 2009, shortly after the launch of ‘Restoration Lady’, I unexpectedly received something in the post that would rock my world and leaving me utterly dumbfounded. When I opened the brown envelope a copy of the parish guide book to St. Mary the Virgin church had slid out. I quickly thumbed through the book looking at the beautiful pictures which brought childhood memories flooding back into mind. Then I made a cup of tea and settled down to read the text.
According to this guide, when plague hit London in 1537, a certain’ William Lock’ and his family had left for the safety of a country village called Merton then some seven miles south of the Tudor City. The hairs began to rise on the back of my neck at the mention of the name ‘Lock’ even though it was common enough.
Although spared from plague, on the same date in October as my brother had passed away, William Lock’s wife, Kathryn, died in childbirth and was buried beneath the floor in St. Mary’s church. Among her young brood of grieving children was an 11 year old daughter, Rose.
The guide book then went on to explain how in old age, Rose had left behind a record of her childhood reminiscences. And also how later during the reign of Bloody Queen Mary she and her husband, Anthony Hickman, had helped wanted Protestants to escape from England…’
It was then that I began to feel as if I had entered the ‘twilight zone’. I just could not believe that what I was reading could be true. I went onto a genealogy site I used for my own family research and trawled through all the family trees containing ‘Lady Rose Hickman’. To my utter disbelief this confirmed that the Rose at Gainsborough Old Hall was indeed the same ‘Rose’ who was briefly at Merton. And just as I had sat in St. Mary’s Church at 11 grieving for my brother, she at 11 had no doubt grieved in that very same church for her mother. And then, unwittingly, in my later life I had followed Rose to her last home in Lincolnshire, stood before her portrait and wondered who she was!
Moreover after contacting the historian who had written the guide book, he had assured me that I could not possibly have known about the Locks when I was young as he had only recently researched the family. Indeed his trail had run cold and he had no idea of what had become of Rose in later life – or that she had ended up at Gainsborough.
He also explained that there was no longer any visible sign of Kathryn Locke’s burial. However he had found a detailed reference to it in an account of the late 1600’s which said that there was once a brass plaque bearing Katherine Locke’s name in the chancel floor. She had been buried roughly under the seat by the organ that had been my’ special place’.
So you see that one chance visit to Gainsborough Old Hall has changed my life forever. Then again I have come to wonder if there really is any such thing as chance.