Encrypted

I first heard of the crypt beneath St Editha’s in Tamworth town centre a couple of years back when Mark from Tamworth Time Hikes visited and wrote about the place (see here). A recent article in the Tamworth Herald reminded me of its existence and so with an hour or so to kill in the town before an appointment, I went to take a look for myself.

St Editha's from Tamworth Castle

St Editha’s from Tamworth Castle

Exisiting stonework shows that the church dates back to at least 1080 but it’s thought the Normans may have built on the site of an existing Saxon church. It’s a wonderful mixture of architectural styles, with some beautiful stained glass and monuments to the great and good (and probably not so good) of Tamworth, plus a rare double spiral staircase in the tower. However, with only limited time, all of these wonders would have to wait for another day as I wanted to focus on the crypt.

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In the 1860s, the entrance was apparently down through a trap door and along a narrow passage. These days the crypt is reached via a flight of steps, making it far more accessible, but perhaps a little less atmospheric, especially as what looks like a Mothercare stairgate has been installed to prevent people tumbling to their doom.  Rightly or wrongly, I’m not the sort of woman who goes around opening stairgates without first seeking permission and so I went over to the bookshop to ask.  Here, I got a little distracted from the task in hand and ended up buying a book on ‘The Castles and Moated Mansions of Staffordshire’ (within which I’m sure lie the beginnings of many future wanderings) but soon got back on track and asked about going down into the crypt. Luckily for me, the church guide was sat in a nearby pew reading a newspaper and he offered to take me down there and tell me all about its history.

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One theory is that seven hundred years ago the crypt was part of a stand alone chapel, that may even have been Saxon in origin. At some point in the fourteenth century it was incorporated into the main church. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it started to be used as a charnel house to accommodate the old bones that were disturbed when new graves were being dug in the churchyard. This remained its purpose until 1869, when the crypt was needed to house a boiler and the bones were returned to the churchyard, reburied in the north east corner. I nearly fell off my plastic chair when we were told that there was a plague pit beneath our feet and coffin lids in the roof above our heads, including one thought to have belonged to a crusader and on which faint carvings can still be seen.

You can just about make out the carvings on what is said to be the stone coffin lid of a crusader

You can just about make out the carvings on what is said to be the stone coffin lid of a crusader

I’m assuming the coffins themselves were destroyed during the Victorian renovations, although one does survive in the main body of the church, near the entrance to the Comberford chapel.

One of the stone coffins can now be found outside the Comberford chapel

One of the stone coffins can now be found outside the Comberford chapel

When Mark wrote about the crypt he included this brilliant drawing of it from a Victorian account of Tamworth by Charles Ferrers Raymund Palmer.

According to Ferrers, when he entered the crypt, the bones were stacked up in very regular order and occupied the whole of the east end, where local folklore had it that a passageway ran from here to the Castle. In trying to find this passageway, Ferrers says he made a path through the bones by ‘carefully piling them aside’ but found ‘nothing there, except the remains of the ancient altar; the stone slab of which is gone’. He was unable to examine the floor at the base of the altar as there was nowhere to store the bones, which were ‘so rotten, that they crumbled to pieces beneath our feet’ as ‘in spite of all our efforts, they returned to our feet, and their dull clatter seemed a reproach to us, for disturbing their long and quiet repose in the sacred place’.

Ferrers is clearly made out of sterner stuff than me. Stood in near darkness with the bones of ancient Tamworthians rolling around his feet he even stayed down the crypt long enough to examine an ancient Latin inscription on the wall. Still visible today, the verse is thought to date back to the fourteenth century and is now protected by glass. Apparently it translates as:

O Lord of wealth and power
Thou shalt not live for evermore
Do well whilst life thou hast
If thou should live when death is past

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Crypt Tamworth

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All the guide wanted in return for his time and knowledge, was a comment in the visitor book. So, if you ever go, and I really hope you do because it’s such an incredible place, don’t forget to sign it on the way out (you may notice a comment from a very enthusiastic and delighted Kate Gomez of Lichfield…)

Sources:

The history of the town and castle of Tamworth by Charles Ferrers Raymund Palmer

A Short History and Tour of St Editha’s Church, Tamworth by Stan T Parry

http://tamworthtimehikes.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/the-crypt/

 

Hollow Earth

One of the most popular posts on the blog has been The Lichfield Underground. It seems people are fascinated by the unseen part of the city, the potential of what could be beneath their feet as they walk the streets.

Captivating, yet slightly scary….

It was this fascination with tales of the underground that started the chain of events culminating in the formation of Museufy, a group made up of myself and my friends Mark and Magdalena – two creative, innovative people that it’s a joy to collaborate with.  The aim of the group is to create alternative ways of collectively exploring history and interacting with our surroundings. We have a website where you can read our manifesto and find out about some of the projects we are working on.

One of these is ‘Hollow Earth Mapping’, a project in which we want to create a way to document underground spaces, mixing together reality and rumours.  We’re asking anyone who already contributed to The Lichfield Underground post via the comments section, or anyone else who has a story, to share them on our flickr page.  It will be a chance to look at  familiar surroundings through the fascinating, captivating and slightly scary world of the underground.

As the stories are shared, the underground spaces will be cut out, creating a hollow space on the map.   The flickr group will be a place for discussion about the stories, and the possibilities that might follow the creation of the map…..

Fools & Hobby Horses

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance takes place each year on Wakes Monday (the first Monday following the first Sunday after 4th September), which means that this year it will be on 10th September.

As far as I can gather, the horn dance is one of those traditions where no-one is quite sure what it’s all about. There are six dancers carrying reindeer antlers, a fool, a hobby horse, Maid Marian, a boy with a bow and arrow, an accordion player & a triangle player. The horns are collected from the church of St Nicholas at 8am and are returned 12 hours later after the participants have danced around the village and out to Blithfield Hall. According to the horn dance of Abbots Bromley website, when one of the horns was damaged in 1976, a piece was sent to be carbon dated. It was found to date back to 1065 (plus or minus 80 years) although the general consensus is that this doesn’t really help to date the dance itself.

I’m ashamed to say that every year I’ve planned to go and watch the dance, but haven’t made it for one reason or another. I have been to the village on several non-horn dance occasions though and it is a lovely place.  However, Mr J Carver, in his 1779 book ‘The Universal Traveller’ wasn’t impressed , saying,

It stands at the distance of a hundred and twenty eight miles from London but contains nothing worthy of note

(Lichfield fares a little better. In Mr Carver’s opinion, ‘It is a long, straggling place but has some handsome houses’).

Walking through the village, to my 21st century eyes, practically every building looks worthy of note. Amongst many others, there’s the Butter Cross (or Burger Cross as a practical joker would have it in 2002), the Goat’s Head Inn (which is thought to date back to the early 1600s, with possibly even older cellars and of course, a secret passage story!) and Almshouses (above the doors are the Bagot family arms and the inscription Deo et Igenis DDD Lamberius Bagot Arm Anno 1705).

The Butter Cross, The Goats Head Inn & St Nicholas Church

View of St Nicholas, where the horns are displayed throughout the year.

Church of St Nicholas, from the High St

Almshouses

A couple of years ago the BBC made a programme about folk dancing in England and you can see the clip about the horn dance here. There are also some photographs of the tradition taking place in the 1930s here on the Staffordshire Past Track website.

I believe that the horns never leave the parish boundary (when not in use they are stored in the church of St Nicholas) although the dance can be performed elsewhere (another set of antlers is used on these occasions). I’ve also just discovered that this year the third annual Abbots Bromliad will take place in California, where they are hoping to beat their own record for most people dancing the horn dance at once (144 in 2010). You can even order your own set of acrylic antlers for $20 to help you feel the part! Hmmm, I wonder what the postage & packaging would be to get a pair sent to Lichfield….and would they get here in time to wear on the 10th September?

Seriously, we’re lucky to live so near to a place where one of the country’s best known (and possibly one of the oldest) traditions takes place and I really must make an effort to go this year to see it for myself.

 

The Lichfield Underground

St Mary's House, The Close.

My introduction to Lichfield’s underground world came a couple of years ago, on the thoroughly enjoyable Gruesome & Ghostly City tour.

Then, back in January 2011, there was a series of great posts on TamworthTimeHikes about underground mysteries in Tamworth. As a result, information came to light (sorry!)about tunnels in Lichfield and Mark kindly passed the information on to me. Since then, tunnels have resurfaced several times (sorry again!), most recently in conversations with Vickie Sutton, Brownhills Bob , the folks at the BeaconStBlog, and as you may already have seen, in the comments section of the Monks Walk post. So, I thought I should finally get around to doing something on them! Here’s what I’ve heard/read/speculated about so far…..

1)      Under Sandford St

My first tunnel! Standing on the corner of Sandford St on a chilly October night we were told that tunnels led from that area to the Cathedral. In recent conversations on the Monks Walk post, ‘Born a Lichfeldian’ has contributed more to the story of the tunnel, suggesting that the tunnel also runs to The Friary.  You can read the discussion here.

2)      White Hall on Beacon St

In a book ‘Lichfield & its Cathedral’ by H Snowden Ward (1893) is the following description “From the cellars of the inn, an underground passage ran some distance and was popularly believed to terminate as St Chad’s Church. That is went so far is extremely unlikely, and what was its object or termination will never be known, for a few years ago the late owner of the White Hall caused the portion under that house to be filled up, and without having the passage explored through its whole length”.

Edit 15/11/2011

City librarian & historian J W Jackson (who I’ll introduce you properly to another time) noted in his weekly history column in the Lichfield Mercury of the 1930s that the tunnel under White Hall was dug out by a previous owner during the plague. Presumably he wished to go about his business without soming into contact with carriers of the disease or the bad air that some thought caused the plague at the time. Would be interesting to see if there are stories of any tunnels elsewhere being dug for this purpose?

3)      Under Dam St

Some information from googling,  that I think came may have originally come from the Staffs Books Shop that used to be on Dam St, says that there is speculation that a passage runs along Dam St from the Cathedral to the Guildhall, and was used as an escape route during the Civil War. In an 1819 book, ‘A Short Account of the Ancient & Modern State of the City & Close of Lichfield’, it says ‘A large subterraneous passage of stone, several feet beneath the surface, has been traced from the middle of Quonians Lane, under the houses on the west side of the street, for a considerable distance in the gardens; its use cannot now be ascertained.”

4)      St Mary’s House in The Close

In the Lichfield Records Office there is a copy of Lomax’s Pictoral Book of Lichfield, edited by Alan J Bull. It describes St Mary’s House as the oldest house in Lichfield and says that the East & South walls are part of the original building which dates back to before 1321 and formed part of the Close’s defences – at the base the walls are 6ft thick and you can still see the arrowslits. The book goes on to say that tradition has it that below this building are underground passages leading to St Chad’s, White Hall, the Friary, St John’s Hospital and the Old Brewery on Sandford St.

5)     Beacon Street again!

Vickie’s Aunt remembers seeing a very large tunnel somewhere in the vicinity of Beacon St, which she describes as being whitewashed and large enough for a coach & horses to get through.

6)      Tudor Tea Rooms

On their own website, there is a description of a passage going from their cellars to the Cathedral. They speculate that it may have been dug out  during the Civil War. Apparently, the “passage has been followed for some distance in recent years, but is too dangerous to pursue further”

7)      Greenhill

A rumour of a tunnel behind a building on Greenhill, which used to be a pub called the Spread Eagle. (You can still see the archway for the coaches & the building is called ‘Spread Eagle House’).

As well as discussing tunnels, I’ve also been talking to people recently about the importance of stories & legends, like these. Do we really need to get to the truth or should we leave them be & enjoy them for what they are? I still haven’t made my mind up, so, I’ll leave it for you to decide in this case.

Therefore, this next part is a bit like a Choose your Own Adventure book (remember those? I used to have my fingers bookmarking about 5 different options at a time!). If you would like to investigate the truth behind Lichfield’s mysterious tunnels you could start by clicking here or exploring some old maps of Lichfield here. Just suggestions though, can’t guarantee you’ll find the answers!

If you’re happy to accept the stories as they are, then relax and perhaps go & make yourself a nice cup of tea :)

Edit:

I’ve been told about another tunnel by someone on Twitter – one between Gaia Lane and the Cathedral. Apparently it leads to a house that used to be used as a laundry/servants quarters. A relative of my tunnel informant has actually been in the tunnel, and says it is blocked off. We’re thinking laundry tunnel, servants passage – anyone else know anything?

Interestingly there was a daughter and mother,  Ellen Stone and a Mary Skelton, both described as a ‘Laundress’ living at Gaia Lane on the 1851 census. Going off topic somewhat, Ellen’s son Henry lived with them. He was illegitimate and there is some interesting speculation on who his Father may have been. You can read more at the Stone Family History site here.

Edit: 10/3/2012

I’ve come across a scribbled note I made some time ago which says there is a tunnel underneath Farewell Church. Interestingly, there is a work of semi- fiction set at the nunnery that preceded the church. The story is set at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries and is called ‘A Tale of Fairwell’. The last scene of the book is set in ‘the subterranean vaults of Fairwell Priory’.

Also, Hanch Hall has a confirmed underground passage of some description – the listed building description says there are ‘extensive brick vaulted cellars with vaulted passage or drainage channel leading into the park’.