Uncovering a Warwick landmark one section at a time
It’s one of Warwickshire’s most enchanting landmarks, but mythical Guy’s Cliffe in Warwick has been out of bounds for much of its history. Josh Layton joins volunteers in an effort to uncloak its past.
One patch of ground at a time, a mythical, tumbledown mansion is being freed from the grip of the weeds that have choked it for several decades.
Once or twice a week, volunteers lay tentative paths and clear Japanese bamboo from the water’s edge under the imposing, jutting ruins of Guy’s Cliffe house and grounds, which lie by the River Avon.
As the foliage and rubble are rolled back, the survival of Guy’s Cliffe as a self-sustaining venue edges closer – along with the prospect of uncovering long-rumoured tunnels and the remains of a legendary knight.
It’s a crisp Saturday morning when I meet Adrian King, custodian at Guy’s Cliffe.
Owned by the Freemasons, the core site is now the focus of the Bring Back Guy’s Cliffe campaign, an effort to involve the wider community in the regeneration work, saving a heritage asset that rivals nearby castles and stately homes in legend, if not grandeur.
Looming over us are the Grade II-listed ruins, standing on a site that has scientific interest dating back to the Triassic period – which witnessed the first dinosaurs.
“When I first came here it was like the land that time forgot, it had this mysterious aura about it,” Adrian says. “You have the links with legendary figures such as Guy of Warwick and when I first came here I didn’t know much about him as he had drifted into obscurity, but then you realise Guy of Warwick is up there with King Arthur.
“Then you have other characters such as John Rouse, a famous antiquarian who lived here and was writing the Guy’s Cliffe story in the fifteenth century.”
Used as a meeting place by the Freemasons, the Guy’s Cliffe’s history is every bit as labyrinthine as its physical layout.
The charted history dates back to Roman times, when the secluded cliffs and water were a place of tranquillity and reflection.
Guy of Warwick, a knight and pilgrim, spent his final years living as a hermit in a cave which can be seen at the foot of the cliffs.
Fortunes dipped after World War Two, with the house and grounds entangled in development and ownership wrangles.
The core buildings returned to regular use in the 1970s, with the Freemasons becoming tenants and carrying out renovation work. In 1981 they took ownership from the then split estate of Aldwyn Porter, Guy’s Cliffe’s former owner.
A blow came when flames tore through the main house in 1992 while Granada Television was filming an episode of Sherlock Holmes. In the aftermath, great slumps of debris further obscured the rear of the house.
Bring Back Guy’s Cliffe, born out of a ‘friends’ group which still supports the site, is inviting the community to take help make the new chapter a reality.
“There’s a misconception that Friends of Guy’s Cliffe is made up of Masons, which it isn’t, it’s open to everyone,” Adrian says.
“The idea was to make it a community effort and to open this place up to regular visitation so it can be enjoyed and we can save an old historic site.
“Freemasons are perceived as very rich people and once upon a time that may have been true,” said Adrian.“But they are made up of people from all walks in life and they didn’t come here with a great wad of cash, they came here and put it right themselves through their own efforts.
“They did what they could and continue to try and improve the place through their own resources. They don’t have bottomless pockets and the ruin remains a ruin, they can’t do much with it.”
The fabled cave where Guy of Warwick is said to have lived is a fairly unremarkable hole in a base layer of sandstone rock.
There’s little fanfare about the Site of Special Scientific Interest, even its toothy cliffs being obscured by undergrowth. This is changing, slowly.
“Obviously Guy’s Cliffe will continue in its use for Freemasonry,” Adrian says. “By nature of that concern it’s possible for it to open quite a lot in the summer months when it’s quieter for Freemasonry business, and to have regular open days.
“People could come for picnics, we could have school groups and maybe even weddings. I don’t think we’ll ever throw the doors open and let people wander on in because it’s not that kind of site.
We’ll never get it fully safe, basically, but we can make the outer grounds attractive and welcoming again.”
Mounds of earth under the skeleton of the former grand house are thought to have buried tunnels, chambers and rooms. The top of a grand arch can be seen at the head of one escarpment underneath the austere stone facework of the manor. It suggests that a forgotten level lies under the stone above.
“It may lead to a tunnel system, it may just lead to a small cavern, we just don’t know,” says Adrian. “Until we remove the rubble from a lot of these places, we just won’t know.”
According to folklore, Guy himself is said to be buried within the cave, though, there has never been a concerted effort to find his remains.
“The tale is that Guy of Warwick was buried in the cavern that he lived in,” Adrian says. “That’s still there. Are there internments in it, who knows? There’s never been any ground penetrating radar or sample dig lower down.
“There are hints and possibilities of things underneath this property that there’s more to come,” Adrian says.“Who knows what we’ll find. I’m a believer that tunnels do exist, there’s evidence of old tunnels across the site.
We retrace our steps back into the slice of courtyard and make our way up along a ridge that rises above the rear of the house and grounds.
Adrian shows me where the undergrowth has been cleared, with footpaths being laid near a viewing platform that looks out across Warwickshire.
Using old depictions of the site, they are pooling their own resources along with small grants and assistance from charities and trusts to restore and enhance the landmark.
Asked why he devotes so much time to the site, Adrian says: “We have dug as far down into the history as we possibly can with the research and amassed as many old images as we can, but we’ve not even completed that. It’s so close to the town, but it’s the land that time forgot.
“We haven’t solved the puzzle of it yet and for someone who is interested in the paranormal, you have all those things combined. All we know is that there are yet more things to come.”
It’s a work in progress, but this mysterious trove of history is beginning to open to the world, one patch of earth at a time.