Abbey Road

I was still feeling the effects of the lunar eclipse in the early hours of Monday on Tuesday morning. Not in a spiritual way, I was just knackered from staying up. However Croxden, the first stop on my rambles around the North of the shire last week, was a sight for my sore eyes. The tiny village is dominated by the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1176 by Bertram de Verdun of Alton Castle (1) for the souls of his predecessors and successors.

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdon. Not open to the public. As I found out...

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdun.

What is left of the semi-circular East end of the abbey church, unusual in England and probably inspired by the French designs the Abbey’s patrons would have known, lies to one side of the road that someone decided to cut through the site. The nave, south transept and other monastic buildings lie on the other and you can see a plan showing what is still visible above ground and what has been lost here. In 1288, a priest from Walsall called William de Schepisheved, was given the task of chronicling life inside and out of these Abbey walls.  He worked backwards to 1066 and contemporaneously until 1320 when the entries in his hand stop, although the chronicle continues until 1374.

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn't see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn’t see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

We tweeted and shared our photos of the lunar eclipse. William the Chronicler recorded the celestial events he witnessed in the annals. Understandably for him and those of his time, eclipses were considered bad omens, often linked to any conflict, pestilence or bad weather that occurred. William records a solar eclipse in July 1330 and connects it to the floods and unseasonable weather which occurred two months before and for three months after, resulting in a late harvest, “…they had scarcely reaped the last of their corn with the greatest toil on the feast of All Saints and they had at last collected their peas into barns and outhouses on the feast of the blessed apostle Andrew. And what is so remarkable to see and hear, on the feast of All Saints and of St Martin fresh peas in their shells were given to the convent in the refectory instead of pears and apples”.  Another notable event in July 1301 appears in the Abbey’s annals describing how, “on the day of the Blessed Mary Magdalene, about the sixth hour, a great earthquake took place, to such an extent that all the persons in the convent, being at their first refection, were dismayed with a sudden and unlooked-for trembling”.

The chronicle also documents a connection between the abbey and Lichfield. William recorded that on Easter Eve in 1313, the great bell of the Monastery was broken by mischance and a man called Henry Michel came from Lichfield with his youths to cast another. It was reported that his first attempt failed but he started afresh and completed by the Festival of All Saints. It seems likely that this was Henry the Bellfounder who granted Lichfield’s Franciscan Friars the springs near Aldershawe which would later supply water to the whole of the city.

Plaque on Lichfield's Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

Plaque on Lichfield’s Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

As well as life at the abbey, Death inevitably also features in the chronicle. There are the descriptions of the burials of the Verdun family including that of Lady Joan Furnival, eldest daughter and heir of Theobald de Verdun, who on October 2nd 1334, “was taken by untimely death in childbirth; for on the day she died she was only thirty years and almost two months” and was “buried near her ancestors between Lord Nicholas de Verdun, son of the founder, and her ancestor and Lord John de Verdun, her great-grandfather”. Their now empty stone coffins can be seen alongside the ruins at the east end of the church.


Stone coffins at Croxden.

The entry for 1349 simply and bleakly says, ” There was a great pestilence throughout the whole world.” Nothing more. No indication of how many succumbed to and how many survived the plague here in Croxden.  The following year, 1350, another single sentence notes, “This year was a jubilee” (2), and then there is nothing until the harrowing entry made in 1361 which records, ” A second pestilence took place, and all the children that were born since the first pestilence died.” In the absence of detail, I did a little reading between the lines. After ten years, plague had reared its ugly head again and although overall mortality rates were lower than in the first outbreak, the disproportionate number of deaths amongst the young in this second wave led to it being known as ‘the Children’s Plague’. Was this was because those who had survived the plague the first time around had some sort of immunity that the children born subsequently did not? I don’t know. I’m not sure that anyone does for sure. In 1369, another ‘visitation’ is recorded.

West front of the Abbey Church

Five years later the Chronicle ends but not before recording two further natural disasters affecting the Abbey – a flood destroying all the grass growing near the water together with all the bridges across the River Churnet, and a tempest which took the lead off the dormitory, infirmary, and abbot’s chamber, throwing down half the trees in the orchard. Plague and poor harvests took their toll and by the end of the fourteenth century, the Abbey was in decline.


One thing that doesn’t seem to appear in the Chronicle is the ‘fact’ that King John’s Heart is buried at Croxden. Possibly because it isn’t. I first came across the claim in Arthur Mee’s guide to Staffordshire and since have found several other sources saying the same, including William White’s Directory of Staffordshire (1851), Samuel Lewis’ Topical Directory of England (1831) and The Gentleman’s Magazine (1823). Trouble is other, more reliable sources say it’s at Croxton, Leicestershire including the Charter Roll of 1257. I’m sorry to say, I think we have to concede this one to our foxy neighbours.

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from "HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from “HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

The King’s bowels were also said to have been removed at the time of his death and buried somewhere in Croxton, and to quote Simon Schama, their removal left John, ‘as gutless in death as he was said to have been in life’. The majority of John’s body rests in Worcester Cathedral, although more in pieces than at peace. When the tomb was opened in 1797, it became apparent that the bones had been disturbed, with the jaw lying by an elbow and all but four of the teeth and most of the finger bones missing – the King’s hands presumably having fallen into the hands of souvenir hunters.

The end of the road for Croxden came on 7 September 1538 when Dr. Thomas Leigh and William Cavendish received the surrender of the abbey and the roof was removed to prevent the Abbot and resident six monks from continuing to use the site. Although Croxden Abbey has been privately owned since then, it has been under state guardianship since 1936. Today, the ruins are cared for by English Heritage and it’s absolutely free to go and explore them (although I’m sure they’d appreciate a donation). Unlike staying up all night to watch a lunar eclipse, I can highly recommend it. More information on visiting and directions here.


(1) I had no idea there was a castle at Alton until I went to Alton with a friend and saw a sign for it. As we found out, it is not open to the public.

(2) I suspected that a jubilee in this context did not mean what I thought it did so I of course googled it and discovered that jubilee years had been started by Pope Boniface in 1300, and to be celebrated every hundred years thereafter. However, Pope Clement VI later amended this as people’s average lifespan was too short and so many would not live to see one. Plus there was money to be made from pilgrims. Pope Paul II later amended the frequency of jubilee years to be every twenty five. For anyone interested, the next one will be in 2025.


Self-representation of Medieval Religious Communities  Anne Müller, Karen Stöber


BY CHARLES LYNAM )(North Staffordshire Field Club)

The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 89, Part 2

Capturing The Castle

This year’s Heritage Open Days are now in full swing and yesterday a friend of mine took me on a grand day out to Astley Castle in Warwickshire. I’m sure I could find a tenuous link to Lichfield if I looked hard enough, but why be parochial when there’s an opportunity to share a stunning example of how even our most neglected historic buildings can be given a sustainable future? Even if it is in Warwickshire. Anyway, I really like castles.

Astley Castle exterior - new bricks built into ancient stones

Astley Castle exterior – new bricks built into ancient stones

I’ve never seen one quite like this though. Actuallly, it’s more fortified manor house than castle, but it has crenellations and a moat and has been associated with three English queens so let’s not quibble too much over nomenclature. The fortified manor house castle has fallen into varying states of disrepair at various points throughout its seven hundred year history but it was a fire in 1978, and the subsequent vandalism, theft and collapse, that rendered Astley a complete ruin. In the late 1990s, the Landmark Trust (1) attempted to rescue the property using conventional restoration and conversion methods but it was financially and technically impossible. However, the Trust refused to give up on Astley and returned to the property in 2005. Accepting that parts of the building were now beyond repair, they held an architectural competition with a brief to create a four bedroomed house to sleep eight people at the castle. Ideas ranged from building an new house in the grounds, which would have made the castle itself the world’s grandest garden shed (“Have you seen the tool box, love? Think it’s in the Jacobean wing, next to the hosepipe”.) to building a new house behind the retained facade (2). The design that won the competition, and went on to win the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize was created by Witherford Watson and Mann architects. In my very humble opinion, it blends and bonds the ancient and modern together magnificently. I’ve seen it described as a reinvention rather than a restoration and perhaps that is the way forward. After all, as one of the project architects said, when you have a building that has been continually altered to meet the needs of its inhabitants over a span of seven hundred years, which point in time do you choose to restore it to?

A room with a view

A room with a view

astley castle ruins from windown

Another one

Of course, following our visit I now really want to stay there (I don’t have a bucket list but I am going to start one so I can put ‘have a bath at Astley Castle on it’). I’d say that about anywhere with a bed and a bit of history though. What’s different about Astley is it’s possibly the first historic building I’ve visited where ideas about the present and the future have captured my imagination more than stories about the past. At a place where those stories include that of the fugitive Henry ‘father of Lady Jane’ Grey hiding in a nearby hollow oak, being betrayed by a servant and executed at the Tower of London, and returning afterwards to haunt his former home minus his head, that’s quite an achievement.

Immerse yourself in history

Immerse yourself in history

(1) The Landmark Trust is a conservation charity which rescues at risk historic buildings by restores them using traditional techniques and makes them available for holiday lettings.

(2) Bingo! There’s our tenuous Lichfield link. I’m sure I remember this being proposed (and subsequently rejected) as an idea for the Victoria Hospital.

astley castle exterior

Lichfield Discovered Meet-Up

Our Lichfield Discovered monthly meet-up is at the King’s Head on Bird Street tonight (Tuesday 8th September). It starts at 7.30pm but don’t worry if you’re late, just join us when you can. We’ll be there for a while….We’ve got plenty to talk about including plans for our Halloween get-together at a suitably historic location just outside the city, the possibility of a garden archaeology project next year and we’ll be chucking around ideas about some experimental local history (this may or may not involve charabancs). We need to have a bit of a chat about the future direction of the group and of course, there’s bound to be general chatter about all things Lichfield.

Kings Head, Lichfield

These meet-ups are informal, open to everyone and you can get involved as much, or as little as you’d like. You can come along and have a say in what we do and how we do it, or you can just come along and say ‘hello’. There’s no obligation to come every month, just as and when you want to.

As ever, the best place to keep up to date and get in touch is on twitter @lichdiscovered or like our Lichfield Discovered Facebook group.

(Apologies for the late notice with this. I had some technical issues with the blog which I am hugely grateful to Philip John for sorting out. I hope nobody bought one of those mobile phones)

Rode Trip

The 462nd Sheriff’s Ride and its spin-off take place this coming Saturday (5th September) and I’m marking the occasion with a post about posts. For those who don’t know, the Sheriff’s Ride is an annual perambulation of the boundary of the City (and between 1553 and 1888 the County) of Lichfield on the Saturday nearest to the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary aka the eighth of September.

The Sheriff perambulating Cross in Hand Lane in 2014

The Sheriff perambulating Cross in Hand Lane in 2014

In the past, where the border wasn’t defined by natural features, such as the Circuit Brook in the North, man-made boundary markers were used. The ride traditionally began (and ended) at Cross in Hand Lane, where a long since vanished cross indicated the city limits and in a talk on the Sheriff’s Ride in 1937 (1), Percy Laithwaite described how a headless cross marked the half way point of the ride at Freeford.  Between these two ancient crosses, in the nineteenth century at least,  a series of wooden posts staked out the boundary. I know this because in 1878, at the half way point of the Sheriff’s Ride, Colonel Dyott of Freeford Hall complained that nearly half of them were missing. Concerned that the true purpose of the ride i.e. inspecting and maintaining the City of Lichfield’s boundary had been lost, the Colonel offered to point out the boundary as he knew it so that the decayed and disappeared posts could be replaced. That year’s Sheriff, Thomas Sherrat, added that he could remember a series of white posts marked with a letter L along the boundary and Mr Coxon of Freeford Farm recalled that there had been nine posts in the vicinity of his property when he first arrived there, but only one remained.

It seems that the matter of the missing posts didn’t quite make it onto anyone’s to-do list that year, as in 1879 the Sheriff (Dr Browne) reported that he had perambulated the boundary as best he could but found it difficult and unsatisfactory due to the disappearance of many of the boundary posts. According to his reckoning, twenty seven of the forty timber posts were missing in total and due to the ‘injurious consequences to which their absence might easily lead’, he requested that they be replaced. He went onto suggest that the whole lot should be replaced by iron markers. Were they?

Even more important that the physical markers which defined the boundary was the knowledge of it held within the collective memory of the city’s residents. The Sheriff’s Ride was not just a civic event, but a community one.  Laithwaite says that as late as 1645, the Lichfield Court ordered at least one member of each household to accompany the Sheriff on the ride or be fined.  Lichfield’s younglings would follow in the footsteps (ok, hoofsteps) of Lichfield’s senior citizens who, after decades of perambulating, knew their Lady Leasowe from their Austin’s Coat. Knowledge was passed down the generations and when it came to disputes, it was used as evidence. Laithwaite referred to a case in 1656, when there was a disagreement over where Lichfield began and Lord Paget’s land ended (and vice versa). The bailiffs of the city produced four city elders as witnesses, who swore under oath the route of the boundary line that they had followed since they were boys.

The earliest written description of the boundary is thought to date back to the late eighteenth century but I suspect you’d still need to know where you were going in order to be able to follow it, if that makes sense. I wheel it out every year but just in case you haven’t seen it before, here is the description of the route which dates back to the late 18th century. Some places are recognisable, some just about fathomable (it took me a while to decipher Whisich as Wissage) and some are…..Hic-filius.

It begins at a place called the Cross and Hand near the end of a street there called Bacon street and from thence goeth northward along the lane leading to Longdon Church unto a little lane at the further side of Oakenfields and so along that little cross lands unto another lane that leadeth from Lichfield to King’s Bromley and then along that lane towards Lichfield unto a little lane lying between the Grange Ground and Collin’s Hill Field commonly called the Circuit lane unto the further end of it betwixt two fields the one called Hic-filius and the other Piper’s Croft and so over across a lane that leadeth from Lichfield to Elmhurst and then into another little lane between Stichbrooke Ground and Gifforde’s Crofte and so along that little lane to a green lane at the further side of the Lady Leasowe being the land of Zachary Babington Esquire and down that lane to a called Pone’s Brook and so over that brook into another lane called Stepping Stones lane and so along that lane taking in the land of Richard Dyott Esq Pone’s Fields unto a lane leading from Lichfield to Curborough Somerville so along that lane towards Lichfield until you come to the upper end of the grounds called Scott’s Orchard and then leaving that lane turn into a field of Lichfield called Whisich at a stilt going into the fields called Browne’s Fields and so taking in the field called Whisich then go by the closes called Browne’s Fields Hedge unto the grounds called God’s Croft Hedge and so along that hedge taking in the field called Whisich lane called Goslinge’s lane and along Goslinge’s Lane unto a lane called Matthew Coal Lane and so over across that lane into a field called Cross field at or near an elm tree and so along a head land about the middle of Cressfield unto the nearer end of Gorsty Bank into the lane leading from Lichfield to a cross way called Burton turnings and from thence along Ikenield street taking in Spear Hill and Boley unto a cross way leading from Lichfield to Whittington and so along that lane towards Whittington unto the south end of Austin’s Coat Grounds then turning upon the left hand at that brook to a gate going into Fulfin Grounds unto the moors called Dernford Moors and so along by the hedge of those moors unto the nether side of Dernford Mill stream and so going by the mill door to the pool dam and going along by the pool and the brook taking in Horslade and a meadow belonging to Freeford House unto a bridge called Freeford Bridge in a lane leading from Lichfield to Tamworth and so from that bridge up the sandy lane to Freeford House and along that lane to the corner of the meadow and then turning into Bispells at the corner of the meadow and so going by the meadow hedge until you come to the brook that runneth to Freeford Bridge and so going up a little pool taking in all Bispells unto a ford called Baltrex ford and then entering into Old field turn up the left hand to the brook that runs from Freeford Pool and so along that brook to Freeford Pool and along by the pool and the brook that comes from Swynfen Mill until you come into the lane that leads from Swynfen unto the mill and so along that lane to a gate that leads from Lichfield unto Swynfen called Old Field Gate and then not coming in at that gate but going to the corner of the hedge adjoining to Cley Lands come in at a gap and taking in all Old field come by the demesnes of Swynfen unto a place called Long bridge and so entering into a little lane between Long furlong and Long bridge grounds leading to Well crofts and so taking in all Well crofts along by the Knowle Leasowes being the Hospital Land unto Ikeneld street and so along Ikeneld street unto the further side of a close called Gorsty Leasowe and leaving the hedge on the left hand taking in that close going along by that hedge leading to Hare house Ground and so along that hedge unto the top of Dean’s Slade taking in all Hare house Ground northward enter into Park field leaving the hedge on the right hand and so following that hedge unto a little lane at Aldershawe that comes down that lane to the gate and through the gate then turn upon the left hand by Aldershawe Hedge taking in the barn and so go into the Wheat Close leaving the hedge on the left hand unto the road called the Fosse way up to the top of Mickle hill then crossing over Pipe green along an old decayed cart way into a lane end that leads to Pipe grange lane to the further side of Padwell’s and so taking in Padwell’s leaving the hedge on the left hand to a little lane that leadeth into Ashfield leaving the hedge on the left hand into the grounds called Lammas Grounds and leaving the hedge on the left hand and so into Lemondsley then following the brook to Pipe green gate and so along the brook in Pipe green into a little lane that butteth upon the lane that leadeth from Lichfield to Pipe and crossing that lane into Smithfield at the corner of Abnell Hedge and so taking in all Smithfield leaving Abnell Ground on the left hand unto the Cross and Hand where it began.

Say it aloud!

Whisich/Wissage. Try saying it aloud! No idea what it means though….

Percy Laithwaite rounded off his talk in 1937 by hoping that in another four centuries time someone would still be talking about the annual delights of perambulating what had been called ‘the jolliest sixteen miles in Staffordshire’ (although perhaps not if you were riding with Dr Browne in 1879). Well, we’re still doing it seventy eight years on (although due to boundary changes it’s now a twenty mile round trip) and I hope everyone taking part in the rides has a great day on Saturday. Of course, if anyone ever spots one of those old boundary markers, please keep do me posted!

(1) One of a series of ‘Our City’ talks arranged by the Higher Education Committee of Lichfield City Council.

On the Rocks

Lichfield is about as far as you can get from the sea. Somebody once wrote to the Guardian to say there was a plaque somewhere in the city making this claim but I’ve never seen it. However, being stuck in the middle of the country has not prevented the formation of the Lichfield Lighthouse Company, a group who meet at the Kings Head to sing sea shanties each month. It also didn’t stop me from heading out to look for shells in the city centre yesterday.

I’d read about the London Pavement Geology project over breakfast and I persuaded the other half to put his geology degree to good use and help me find out what Lichfield is made of, other than the ubiquitous sandstone (lovely though it is).

Lichfield Cathedral on Martyrs Plaque, Beacon Park

Lichfield Cathedral on Martyrs Plaque made from sandstone

Our first port of call was another of landlocked Lichfield’s nautical links. Unless you live under a rock, you’ll probably be familiar with Beacon Park’s statue of Captain Smith which someone from Hanley in Stoke on Trent tries to appropriate whenever there’s a new chapter in the Titanic story, due to the mistaken belief that the statue was originally intended for their town. On this occasion, it wasn’t the bronze captain but the plinth he was stood on that interested me. The nearby plaque told me it was Cornish Granite, a material which has also been used at the Titanic Memorial in London and the memorial at Belfast. I wonder whether there are any symbolic reasons for choosing this stone alongside the practical and aesthetic ones?

Captain Smith plaque, Beacon Park

Captain Smith plaque, Beacon Park

Not far from the Captain, King Edward VII stands on a base made of Hopton Wood stone. Get up close and you can see that the limestone is full of fossils including (and please correct me if I’m wrong) corals, crinoids and brachiopods from around 350 million years ago when the area that was to eventually become Derbyshire was under water. Lichfield wasn’t always so far from the sea!  It seems a similar stone has been used for the plinth Samuel Johnson sits on in the Market Square, as that too is full of fossils.

Samuel Johnson statue, Market Square, Lichfield

Samuel Johnson statue, Market Square, Lichfield

Fossils in Dr Johnson statue Fossils in Dr Johnson statue 2Of all the building materials we saw on our travels, the most unusual were to be found in a wall on Christchurch Lane. According to a booklet on the history of Leomansley compiled by the Friends of Christ Church, it was built by Cloggie Smith who used anything suitable that he had in his yard at the time. So, no Portland Stone here, just two Belfast Sinks. Are there any other examples of unorthodox construction materials used in and around the city?

Wall mounted Belfast sink

Wall mounted Belfast sink

You’ve probably guessed that I am way out of my depth when talking about geology, but the point is that after eleven years, seven months and two days here in Lichfield, someone made me look afresh at things so familiar that I barely saw them any more. Sometimes, the most amazing things are right under your nose. Or, in this case, under Dr Johnson’s and King Edward VII’s noses.


King Edward VII statue Lichfield Fossils in King Edward VII statue Lichfield


Not All About that Bass

Last Sunday, I had an appointment at Burton upon Trent and wanted to make an afternoon of it. However, it seemed unfair on my designated driver to make him explore the town’s famous brewing industry without being able to sample a drop of ale and so I thought we’d base our trip on water instead, and whilst doing a bit of research for this, I found a great story about air.

Winshill tower

Winshill Water Tower, also known as Waterloo Tower as it stands in front of woodland planted in 1815 to commemorate the battle, was built by the South Staffordshire Water Company in 1907 to improve water pressure in the area. Since the 1990s, the 50,000 gallon capacity tank has been empty and the tower’s only practical purpose has been to host communications aerials and masts on its summit. It’s a much loved Burton landmark though, supposedly visible from wherever you are in the town. (1)

Winshill water tower

During Burton Aviation week, held from 26th September to 1st October 1910, flags were flown from the tower to signal to the crowds gathered on on Bass Meadows (1) whether flights had been suspended due to wind or whether another flight was imminent. An advertising poster for the event announcing that Helene Dutrieu (2) would be one of the seven fliers and carrying passengers can be seen here.

Helene Dutrieu (image from wikipedia)

Helene Dutrieu, pioneering aviator and much, much more. Image from Wikipedia

Due to high winds, nothing much happened on the first day of the show. On day two however, things got very exciting, and not just for people gathered on Bass Meadows. News had reached Lichfield that some of the pilots would be flying around the Cathedral in an attempt to win a cup given by the Marquis of Anglesey for the fastest round trip. Large crowds assembled around Minster and Stowe Pools, in the Cathedral Close (it was even reported that there were people up the central spire) and on the Burton Road. At quarter past five in the afternoon, Julien Mamet whirred into sight on his Bleuriot plane, swept around the north side of the Cathedral, flew south over Christ Church and the Bowling Green and headed back for Burton where he arrived at fourteen minutes later. There was a lot of cheering and waving of hats and hankies (what would we wave nowadays? Nothing probably, we’d be too busy trying to record it on our phones). An hour later, a shout went up as another Bleuriot, this time piloted by Paul de Lesseps, was spotted. The Mercury reports that although De Lesseps lost his bearings by following the wrong train line somewhere around Wychnor Junction, he managed to find them again, approaching the city from the South and flying parallel to Bird Street above the heads of the crowd.

By this time it was dusk and De Lesseps, deciding he would be unable to reach Burton before dark, landed his aircraft in a field belonging to Grange Farm on Wheel Lane, clipping the tail on a fence (it was later reported that De Lesseps had only narrowly missed the roof of the farmhouse). As darkness fell back at Bass Meadow, the mood changed from excitement to concern. Mamet had flown up to meet his rival, but saw no sign of him.  As spectators lit bonfires, flares and lamps in the hope they would guide De Lesseps safely back to Burton, a search party set off in the direction of Lichfield. Eventually, they found De Lesseps in the field, signing scraps of paper for a crowd of autograph hunters by matchlight. The damaged plane was taken charge of by the police, and De Lesseps was taken to the George Hotel, where he informed a crowd gathered at the steps that he hoped to fly back to Burton at four the following afternoon, once he had made the necessary repairs.

Well, that was the plan anyway. Flying back to Burton, however, in an attempt to break the record for flying at high altitude, De Lesseps missed the town altogether.  There was another anxious wait for the crowd who had seen De Lesseps flying over at a great height before disappearing in the direction of Derby. Eventually, a message was received that he had landed safely at Colwick Hall near Nottingham.

De Lesseps’ return journey to Burton had was also not without drama. As he flew over Meadow Lane, where Notts County were playing Bristol City, he caused such a sensation that the match had to be stopped for a for a few minutes as the crowd, players and officials gazed upwards.  Unfortunately, the referee, a Reverend Marsh, forgot to adjust his watch, blew his whistle four minutes too early and had to call the players, some of whom had already started to get changed, back out out of the dressing rooms to finish the match. As if this wasn’t a memorable enough occasion already, it was apparently also The Magpies’ first victory at their new ground (where’s this guy when you need him?).

Aerial view of Meadow Lane (and City Ground. I did not realise how close they were!) Wonder how much has changed since De Lesseps saw it from a similar perspective?

Aerial view of Meadow Lane (and City Ground. I did not realise how close they were!) Wonder how much has changed since De Lesseps saw it from a similar perspective?

Mamet may have taken the prize for the out and home Burton to Lichfield flight, but De Lesseps definitely stole the show.


(1) On my next trip, I plan to take the bus and check whether it is really visible from everywhere, including several beer gardens.

(2) Bass Meadows was an area of land owned by the brewing company and used to provide sports facilities for their employees.

(3) Helene Dutrieu was a racing and stunt cyclist, a racing car driver and a pioneering aviator. During the First World War, Dutrieu became an ambulance driver and director of a military hospital and later become a journalist. More about her incredible life here.


Lichfield Mercury Archives


Bike Lock

On Wednesday, Christine from the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration Trust and I set off on a joint expedition to explore the remains of the stretch of the Wyrley and Essington Canal between the Fosseway Level Crossing and Sandfields Pumping Station.

Canal rocks

As we crossed through the gate off Falkland Road, the canal, or what once was the canal, was to our left. Down a steep slope to our right however, was a wide expanse of land filled with curious humps, bumps and scars. At the far end was a pile of stones, which Christine thought had come from the canal (it seems they were moved when the new road was built).  As we mused on the origins of the mysterious earthworks, I was reminded that someone had told me that this was once the place where the youth of Lichfield would come to ride their bicycles, both the pedal and motor varieties. Later, I popped the photos of this section on our Lichfield Discovered page on Facebook asking whether anyone else remembered this.  Steve Martin did and he sent this brilliant reply:

Used to take my bike down there some 30 odd years ago when, if I recall correctly, there was a lot less grass there. It was about a fifteen minute ride to get there from where I used to live but was well worth it because that area was a playground for bikes as there were well defined tracks , bumps and jumps in the area between the train track and the old canal. There were often youths there, some on motorbikes, riding around and jumping their bikes . . . I do remember being the only person there one day and coming off my bike on a track near the top of the embankment and having a rather spectacular kid/bike roll to the bottom.


The youth of today may have moved on to the skatepark or the nearby MUGA or, let’s be honest, moved in to play on the Xbox but previous generations have left their mark on the landscape here. And no doubt the landscape made a mark on a few of them too, eh Steve? It’s something you won’t find on a map but it’s a great bit of social history that I’d love to hear more about.

Who got else got their teenage kickstarts here?

Who got else got their teenage kickstarts here?

Bricks kickstart


I’m not sure that all of the earthworks here are related to what appears to have been Lichfield’s own version of Junior Kickstart (you’ll be humming that theme tune the whole day). The old maps suggest there was a lock on the canal here which might explain the presence of bricks. Christine and I continued along the wildly overgrown towpath, to where the remains of a lock are far more evident. It was a gorgeous walk – the sun shone, birds sang and butterflies flitted (although I did ruin things a bit by planting the thought in our heads that the vegetation above our heads might contain giant hogweed. It didn’t).

Christine on our lock crusade

Christine Howles and the Lock Crusade

If anyone can ID those purple flowers would be grateful!

If anyone can ID those purple flowers we would be grateful!

Lock ladder

We clambered back down the bank to stand in what would have been the canal, and walked in through the lock. We were surprised at how modern some of the brickwork looked, and the ladder certainly appeared to be a fairly recent addition. We later found out renovation work had been carried out on this stretch not all that long ago (which also explains the solitary picnic bench we found). Adventurous though we are, climbing out using the ladder was a step too far and so we clambered back up the bank and carried on along the towpath. At the end of this stretch there is a canal cottage with a lovely BCN boundary stone in the front garden. Due to dog related issues, I didn’t take a photo so you will have to go and see it with your own eyes.  If boundary stones don’t excite you as much as they do me, perhaps the old Fosseway crossing signal box and opportunity to trespass on the disused railway track which runs adjacent to the canal from Sandfields up to Pipe Hill wharf will float your boat instead.

Fosseway crossing

Trespass on railway

I’ve not gone into the history of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal in any depth here for the simple reason that it’s been done far better elsewhere. Your first port of call is of course the Lichfield and Hatherton Canal Restoration website, where you can discover not only the history of the waterway but also their plans for its future.  Of course if you’d like to do something constructive to help, literally, they are always looking for volunteers! You can get in touch and keep up to date with what’s going on Twitter @lhcrt1 or on Facebook.

Sandfields at dusk

Sandfields at dusk

Back at the opposite end of this stretch, the canal flowed past Sandfields Pumping Station before crossing the Chesterfield Road, and flowing under the Birmingham Road (where you can still see one of the bridges by the Duke of Wellington!). For us on this occasion though, Sandfields was the end of the line. Again, the history of this Grade II* listed building has been captured in detail elsewhere, by friend and colleague David Moore. You can discover why Sandfields is such an important part of not only Lichfield’s past but also that of the Black Country’s here on the Lichfield Waterworks Trust site. Put simply, by supplying fresh water to our neighbouring towns, Sandfields saved lives and now the Trust are trying to save Sandfields for the community. It’s a building we should be singing the praises of at least as much as the Cathedral. If you think you might like to add your voice, please come along to the Lichfield Waterworks Trust monthly meeting next week (details here) or we have a drop-in session at the Beacon Park discovery hub tomorrow, Saturday 25th July, between 11am and 12pm, where you can find out more about Sandfields and the Trust’s work. I’ll be flying the Lichfield Discovered flag there too, so if social and sociable history is your thing, come down and say hello!

Finally, thanks to Christine for sharing the adventure and thanks to Steve for sharing the memories and the photos.

Moon above the lock 2012-ish. Taken by Steve Martin

Moon above the lock 2012-ish. Taken by Steve Martin

Up Letocetum

Wall, located just two miles to the south of Lichfield, is an incredible place to visit at anytime of the year. This Sunday (19th July) however, the Friends of Letocetum will be bringing the remains of the Roman settlement here to life with their annual open day, held in conjunction with English Heritage and the National Trust.  Entrance is free and the event runs from 11am to 4pm, during which time you’ll be able to experience life as a Roman soldier, get creative with a Roman artist and explore what everyday life would have been like at Letocetum.  A group of Saxons are also setting up an encampment at the site and for literature fans there will be a Saxon book binder and storyteller.  Children can take part in a range of games and activities* and there will also be a stall selling Roman games, perfumes and beads.


Roman style bootcamp at last year’s open day

John Crowe, chair of the Friends group and Wall Parish Council said, “Last year we welcomed over twelve hundred visitors. The whole village comes together each year for our annual open day, and we want people to come along and have fun, whilst learning more about the significance of this major Roman settlement, situated at the crossroads of two of the most important roads at the centre of Roman Britain. The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered just one mile to the west of the village, and other finds from the local area suggest that Christianity may have been established at Letocetum prior to St Chad’s arrival in Lichfield”.

Stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what's thought to be a shield.

This stone, one of several found built into one of the walls at Wall, is just one of the many fascinating artefacts on display at the museum. It is thought to be Romano-British and features two carved heads with horns and what has been interpreted as a shield.

“The church of St John, built in 1837 and designed by William Moffatt and George Gilbert Scott, will be open to visitors, and refreshments will be available in the village hall. There will also be volunteers on hand in the museum to talk visitors through the fascinating collection of artefacts discovered at the site, so please do come and join us for what will be an enjoyable and informative day”.

Life at if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site...

Life at Letocetum…see if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site…

*there is a small charge for these activities to cover costs

Midnight on the Hill


Borrowcop Hill is a place that doesn’t want to give up its secrets easily. What interests me about places like this is how gaps in our knowledge create a space where legends and folklore can grow unchecked. It’s not just a hill with a nice view. It’s the burial place of kings and martyrs, the site of Lichfield Castle.

to borrowcop gazebo

Stand at the summit and you’re standing at the highest point in Lichfield. Beacons have been lit here certainly for celebrations, possibly as warnings. The grammar school moved here from St John Street in 1903 and in 1971, merged with the adjacent Kings Hill secondary modern school to form the current King Edward VI School.  Interesting how the folklore was even referenced in the school name here. Another school on the site, the just as evocatively named Saxon Hill, was opened in 1979.

borrowcop sign

Christmas 1940

At last year’s Lichfield Discovered talk by Peter Young on Philip Larkin’s connections to the city, he told us that that whilst staying with relatives at Cherry Orchard in 1940, Larkin had written three poems. Only one, ‘Out in the Lane’, was published but all three were inspired by his temporary surroundings. Peter believes the arched field of ‘Christmas 1940’ refers to Borrowcop Hill. I’ve reproduced it here from a folio collated by The Philip Larkin Society for their celebration of his birthday in August 2001. I hope they don’t mind, but I can’t find it anywhere else!

The name ‘Borrowcop’ does hint that there was once something here. Its earliest written forms, Burwey or Burwhay, feature the Old English element ‘burh’,  suggesting a fortified place (1).  Whilst there are vague reports of Erasmus Darwin recovering bits of burnt bone from somewhere up here, according to the Heritage Environment Report, ‘more recent excavations have so far failed to recover any evidence for human activity’. Well, I went up there on Sunday and I found this:

borrowcop chair

And this:

"The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes"

“The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes”

And this:

borrowcop graffiti

Plenty of human activity in what Five Spires Live , the Lichfield satirist who also doesn’t give up his secrets easily, yesterday described as  “… the perfect setting for bit of Larkin”. See, as much as I like legends, I also like the real.  I like layers of history that celebrate everything a place is and not just what we want it to be. The way our own memories of a place form our own folklores. The title for this post is one I’ve appropriated from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. It’s summer nights, it’s cheap cider (or ‘energy and guava’, if you’d rather), it’s messing about with your mates in a space maintained by the council because you’ve nowhere else to go. It’s perfect. Borrowcop or not, we’ve all been there. And like it or not, that’s as much a part of history as those kings and castles are.

1) A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz,


Perhaps the biggest faux pax you can commit about the place that gave the world Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson is to spell the name incorrectly. Outsiders, please note that these days the only acceptable ‘T’ in Lichfield comes with biscuits and/or cake. The other way to wind up a Lichfeldian is to refer to Staffordshire’s premier heritage city as a town. En-route to the Guildhall Cells, perpetrators of this crime are taken past our central railway station to illustrate just how wrong they were.

"Lichfield City Station (6668724487)" by Elliott Brown from Birmingham, United Kingdom - Lichfield City StationUploaded by Oxyman. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Lichfield City Station (6668724487)” by Elliott Brown from Birmingham, United Kingdom – Lichfield City StationUploaded by Oxyman. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Once they are in the stocks, heretics are then read to from the charters, currently held at the museum in St Mary’s, which include Queen Mary’s declaration of 1553 that Lichfield was not only to be a city, as granted by her brother Edward five years earlier, but also a county in its own right.


“OK it’s a city. I get it. I’m sorry. I’m from Tamworth”

This is the charter which gave rise to the annual Sheriff’s Ride (and its much more recent and considerably shorter spin-offs), a twenty mile perambulation of the current boundary of Lichfield. I had often sat and wondered whether at any point, the boundary was physically marked in someway (I do need to get out more) and just recently found an article written in the late nineteenth century which says it was, “formerly marked by wooden posts, but they have much deteriorated and in some instances disappeared. A renewal in iron of the most important has recently taken place”.

The Sheriff perambulating Cross in Hand Lane in 2014

The 2014 Sheriff perambulating Cross in Hand Lane.

Descriptions of the boundary of the City of Lichfield date back to the late 1700s. Back then it was only a sixteen mile round trip. Although in 1806, local historian Harwood said they were based on ‘ancient writings’, I understand there is no earlier written description of exactly what constituted Lichfield. However, there are piecemeal records showing some of the boundary changes over the centuries. And there must have been a fair few changes to get from a medieval town you could walk around in an hour to a city with a circumference of sixteen miles.

Last week I spent a sunny morning trying to trace the boundary of what would have been the medieval town. With the help of John Snape’s 1782 plan of Lichfield, it’s actually fairly easy to do, even for someone as illiterate at map reading as me.  Bishop Roger de Clinton surrounded the south part of the new town he had laid out in the late twelfth century with a bank and ditch and fortified the shared northern boundary of the town and Cathedral Close. Apart from a couple of inconveniently placed walls, you can pretty much walk the whole way around.

The moat marking the northern boundary of both medieval Lichfield and the Close. Described on Snape's map as a dry ditch or dumble.

The moat marking the northern boundary of both medieval Lichfield and the Close. Described on Snape’s map as a dry ditch or dumble.

Remains of the NE Tower, part of the Close's fortifications.

Remains of the NE Tower, part of the Close’s fortifications.

Thanks to archaeological investigations, we know that the town ditch in the St John’s Street area was about five metres wide, two metres deep and inevitably, was also used as a public tip.

Castle Ditch plaque

The driveway passing the LD Council Offices follows the line of the town ditch, and there's a plaque there telling you that.

The driveway passing the Lichfield District Council Offices follows the line of the town ditch, and there’s a plaque there too.

When a section in the Council House car park was excavated in 2008, archaeologists discovered the sole of a woman’s shoe from the twelfth century, part of a medieval jug and the remains of a medieval dog’s head.

This plaque is located at the junction of Lombard St, Stowe Rd and George Lane

This plaque is located at the junction of Lombard St, Stowe Rd and George Lane.

Back to plaque, looking up George Lane which was actually once part of the town ditch

Back to plaque, looking up George Lane which was actually once part of the town ditch, possibly until the 16thc

Snape’s plan also marks the gates, or bar(r)s, at the main entrances into and out of Lichfield, and there are plaques at each of the locations, with the, hopefully temporary, exception of the Sandford Street gate. The building it was mounted on has recently been demolished but I’m sure the plaque is being kept safely somewhere….

Perhaps the best known of the gates is the one at St John Street which is still recalled in the name of St John the Baptist without the Barrs. You know, the place with all the chimneys. As the name indicates, this stood just outside the gate and started out as a hostel for those arriving when Lichfield was closed for business for the night, many of them pilgrims on their way to see the shrine of St Chad at the Cathedral.

st john sign

On the subject of names, the section of the ditch running from the gate on Tamworth Street, to the gate near St John’s Hospital was known as Castle Ditch, and this, alongside hard evidence in the form of stones turning up nearby and evidence of a slightly more fluffy nature in the form of myth and folklore, has caused endless speculation as to whether Lichfield ever had a castle proper alongside the fortified Close with its towers, turrets and strong walls.

Remains of south gate tower leading from dam Street to The Close. Excavated in the 1980s

Remains of one of the towers which were part of the south gate between Dam Street and The Close. Excavated in the 1980s.

So, plenty of opportunities to get out more here. I think the two mile-ish walk around the ditch will make an excellent Lichfield Discovered adventure. I would also happily walk sixteen miles to find one of those old iron boundary markers although I may be on my own with this. It’d also be interesting to see how Lichfield has burst its boundaries over the years gobbling up all of the surrounding settlements, so much so that it’d take you six hours and twenty four minutes to perambulate the current perimeter, according to this walking calculator I’ve found.  And that doesn’t even include getting distracted by other things or stopping off at the pub. It’ll have to wait though, as right now I’m off on an expedition to Borrowcop to see if I can capture Lichfield Castle.

1)  If we’re doing names, then I have to mention that Bakers Lane was once known as Peas Porridge Lane. Just because.