Pills ‘n’ Chills and Deli Bakes

Yesterday I was in Tamworth for the summer food festival, enjoying excellent locally produced pork pies, sausage rolls and blue cheese.

After a gentle stroll around the town, I hopped back into the car and headed to Hopwas for a forage. For once, my walk took me along the canal in the opposite direction to the woods, a decision which may have been influenced by having read about a disused and reputedly haunted cemetery on Hints Road.

The graveyard once belonged to Hopwas Chapel, built in 1836 and dedicated to St John, and its resident ghost is said to be a small boy who can be seen by children (but not by a childish 39 year old it seems). The chapel was pulled down in the 1880s, as it was ‘full, small and inconvenient’, and replaced by the gorgeous St Chad’s Church up on the hill. A drawing of the old chapel can be seen here on the Stafforshire Past Track site. The old font survived and stands outside the new church, and the chapel’s bell still tolls in St Chad’s tower.  According to a report in the Tamworth Herald on Saturday 16th April 1898, the holy table from St John’s was made use of in the new Workhouse chapel.

St Chad’s, Hopwas, dedicated and opened in 1881

The old font from St John’s Chapel

Nearby, I found a cottage with the best name ever, which fitted in perfectly with the theme of the day, followed by a pill box in a field alongside the River Tame.

Too well guarded by nettles to even attempt to take a look inside, I plan to return as part of a much longer pill box walk along this section of the Western Command Stop Line Number 5 in winter. If I eat as much as I did at the summer festival, on the way home from the Tamworth Christmas food festival would probably be a good time….






Been catching up on messages (I’m sorry if I still owe you a reply!) and saw I’d recently received a lovely email from Claire who leads a volunteer group called the Heritage Gardeners in Glenside, New Zealand. Claire told me that the group had recently planted a tree in honour of Joan, their longest living gardener. The tree is a copper beech, chosen as Joan has fond memories of one in Lichfield at The Friary, where she attended school between 1938 and 1948. On the Glenside blog, it describes how Joan recalled the school being next to an ancient hairpin shaped path known as the Monks Walk and having to pass a huge and beautiful copper beech tree on a lawn to get there. Joan also recalled how the tree’s catkins were painted gold and silver and used as decorations at Christmas. You can read the full blog post here

Of course, Claire was wondering whether Joan’s original copper beech was still standing 70 years on and 12,000 miles away, and if anyone knows the history of it. The first question I could answer immediately. Well, after a five minute drive to the Friary anyway.

Copper Beech, The Friary

The lawn is now a car park but from Joan’s description this seems to be the right tree. I will send the photographs to Claire and Joan to be sure, as there was another beech tree at the edge of Monks Walk which was lost to a fungus known as Meripilus Giganteus back in 2011, and replaced by a walnut tree.


The remains of the diseased beech tree in 2011

As to the history of the tree, it was surely planted by one of the former owners of the Friary, which had become a private estate following the dissolution of the Franciscan Friary in 1538. In 1920, the estate was gifted to the city by Sir Richard Cooper and the following year, a girls’ school took up residence.  It was renamed the Friary in 1926, and the school was based at the site until 1975, when the school relocated to Eastern Avenue, and there are some wonderful memories of the school on the comments on this post.

Mysterious photos!

According to my daughter, receiving a mysterious box of photographs in the post, ‘is how horror films start’…

By coincidence, I received a mysterious box of old photographs in the post a couple of weeks ago. They’d been found during a house clearance and though there are very few clues as to who the people in them are, there are a few which suggest there is some connection to Lichfield, including an school photograph of The Friary which looks as though it dates to the mid-twentieth century.

It’s proving incredibly difficult to photograph, probably because it’s been rolled up in a box for half a century, and so I’m just posting a couple of sections here, to see if anyone can date it more accurately or add anything at this stage. It really would be quite a coincidence if it dated to Joan’s time at the school! When I have better light and more patience, I will post the whole thing, along with the other mystery photographs as I’d love to be able to find a proper home for this box of memories. At the moment however, I’m stumped…

Friary School 1Friary school 5

Friary school 3

Human Remains

What’s in a name? Quite a lot actually, Juliet bab. The authors of ‘England in Particular’, a book that has been one of the biggest influences in my wonderings and wanderings over the years (second perhaps only to the Ladybird book of castles) describe it perfectly. Names carry resonances and secrets.

I’ve got an urge to do something that combines my love of linguistics and local history by exploring the Midlands via its place names. I want to know why there is a Snailbeach in landlocked Shropshire, how an Anglo-Saxon god clung on in Wednesbury in the West Midlands, and whether Foul End in Warwickshire was as bad as it sounds.

My interest in place names associated with death was brought to life several years ago when looking at a map of Lichfield from 1815 and spotting a place called ‘Bessy Banks Grave’. I’ve written at length on this lost name and the story behind it here.

Just up the road in Tamworth is Knox’s Grave Lane. The locally accepted story behind the name seems to be that Knox was a footpad who preyed on travellers passing through the country lanes around Hopwas Woods. His criminal career came to an end when he attempted to hold up a stage coach on route to Ashby but was arrested by the four army officers who were on board. Knox was hanged three days later, and his body gibbeted somewhere at the junction of Flats Lane and Watling Street. His poor parents, in all senses of the word, cut down his body and buried it near to their cottage on the lane. Apocryphal or authentic?

In his invaluable PhD thesis, ‘A survey and analysis of the place names of Staffordshire’, David Horovitz includes a section on those which appear to be associated with corpses. These include Dead Woman’s Grave (supposedly after a woman who hanged herself in a skein of wool and was buried at crossroads two miles to the west of Codsall) and Dead Lad’s Grave at the junction of Birches Barn Rd and Trysull Rd, three miles south west of Wolverhampton. There was also a Dead Knave to the north of Sedgley, a Dead Man’s Lane in Newcastle Under Lyme, and Alice Hurst’s Grave, in the vicinity of Rolleston, near Burton on Trent.

However, Horovitz warns that popular etymology has led to that some names being corrupted, giving the example of  a place called Dimsdale near Newcastle under Lyme being altered to Deadmans Dale in the early nineteenth century. Another Dimmins Dale on Cannock Chase also seems to have been sensationalised around the same time, and was known as ‘Demons Dale’ for a while.

Lichfield was of course believed to mean ‘the Field of the Dead’ for centuries. The actual meaning is now accepted to be something along the lines of ‘the field near the grey wood’, although not by all and the field of the dead interpretation lives on. In his article on Names and Identity, Botolov Helleland of the University of Oslo says it’s possible to listen to place names as voices from the past. The British and the Anglo-Saxons are telling us that, for them, significance lay in the location of the settlement near a grey wood but it was a legendary field of slaughtered martyrs which resonated with those who came after them.

At the heart of what I want to do is to use place names as a way of trying to make sense of people’s sense of place and both real and fake etymologies, whether accidental or contrived to deliberately to change the story of a place, are a part of this human geography. I’ll be starting a new blog to cover all this after I get back from my holiday near Shitterton, which sits on a brook which flows into the River Piddle in Dorset and frequently appears on lists of Britain’s rudest place names.   Go ahead and snigger as I did when I found out, but actually it brings more to the discussion than just a bit of light relief amidst all the death. In the nineteenth century, those delicate Victorians attempted to change the name to Sitterton, which is an example of etymology that says a lot more about people than it does about a place. Although some locals apparently still prefer the sanitised version of the village name, most are proud of their earthy origins, so much so that they decided to have it set in a ton and half of stone after the ‘official’ village sign was stolen for the umpteenth time. “We thought, ‘Let’s see them try and take that away in the back of a Ford Fiesta'”, explained the chair of the parish council. Might get it in the boot of a Leomansley Tractor though….

Taken from Wikipedia


Helleland, B. Ore, C_E,  & Wikstrøm, S (eds.) Names and Identities ,Oslo Studies in Language 4(2), 2012. 95–116.

Horovitz, D. (2003) A survey and analysis of the place-names of Staffordshire, PhD thesis: University of Nottingham

King, A & Clifford, S. (2006) England in Particular: A Celebration of the Commonplace, the Local, the Vernacular and the Distinctive, Hodder and Stoughton: London



Higher Education

I recently went on a school trip to Stafford Grammar and had an excellent history lesson from the brilliant Mr Bateman, whose knowledge and enthusiasm were A* (or whatever the equivalent is now the grading system has been changed).

Burton manor

The school was founded in 1982 at Burton Manor, a Victorian house built on the site of a medieval manor, where some of the Whitgreave family (perhaps best known for their connection to Moseley Old Hall and the escape of Charles II) lived until 1720. In 1851, Francis Whitgreave bought back the ancestral home and commissioned Edward Welby Pugin to build a new house in Neo-Gothic style. Pugin junior based the new Burton Manor on his father’s house at Ramsgate and incorporated some genuine Gothic alongside his Victorian version including a stone cross excavated from the Grey Friars site in Stafford over the porch. A chancel window from the same friary is also believed to have been taken there and broken up and used in a rockery.

Burton manor cross

There was restoration work taking place so I got to see the cross close up! Or perhaps I should say close down?

We had a look around the grounds and there was no obvious sign of the broken window but after a bit of impromptu weeding, Mr Bateman did show me another interesting feature. Stonework carved with the biblical quotation ‘He who drinketh this water shall thirst again’, surrounds a spring, now covered by a metal cover. My well hunting expert friend Pixy Led has no record of a spring of any spiritual significance on this site, and so perhaps it was a practical feature given the Pugin treatment?

Burton manor spring

Spring cleaning

In Whitgreave’s day, all this was fields – a  report in the Staffordshire Advertiser in September 1866 describes how the family’s coachman, George Murray, died as a result of exasperating a bull while out picking mushrooms nearby. It was the rural setting that attracted the British Reinforced Concrete Engineering company, owned by the Hall family who wanted to relocate from Manchester and were looking to build a new factory nearer to their newly acquired estate in Market Drayton and wanted somewhere with room to create a model village for their employees.

They acquired the Burton Manor estate in the 1920s, and built their Art Deco factory on Silkmore Lane. A photograph taken just before it was demolished in 1991 can be seen here on Staffordshire Past Track.   The original plan was to provide high quality housing for workers along with a school, church and cinema but the scheme was only partly realised. Less than half of the planned two hundred houses were built and in place of the proposed leisure facilities, Burton Manor was used as a social club for workers and extended to add a ballroom with what Mr Bateman told me was once the largest sprung dance floor in the county.

As the name suggests, the company made products to strengthen concrete structures and during the Second World War assisted with the building of harbours and runways. This wasn’t their only contribution to the war effort. When the Mayor of Stafford launched the Stafford and District Spitfire Fund in August 1940,  announcing in the Staffordshire Advertiser that, ‘£5,000 is required to purchase one of these machines and I am confident that this amount will be very quickly raised in the district’, BRC managing director Mr Butler pledged that the firm would contribute £10,000 if the town met its target. The money flew in, with even the Luftwaffe inadvertently making their own contribution to the fund with £343 raised from people paying a shilling to see the remains of a German bomber on display in the meat market. In October 1940, Lord Beaverbrook wrote to the Mayor to, ‘thank the people of Stafford and District for their magnificent contribution to the strength of the Royal Air Force, which is a noble tribute to our airmen’ and Spitfires R7229 and R7263 were given the names B.R.C Stafford I and B.R.C Stafford II respectively. Spitfire AB842 was called ‘The Staffordian’.

The stories around these and the estimated 2,600 other presentation spitfires are fascinating, particularly as those contributing could name their plane. Almost every town and city raised money for at least one and named theirs accordingly, including of course Lichfield, whose Spitfire BL812 was shot down whilst being flown by John Gofton on 3rd February 1943, I believe. Other names are more intriguing and my own personal favourite is ‘Dorothy of Great Britain and the Empire’ which was paid for soley by women called Dorothy, who took part in a chain mail fundraising scheme. I’m curious about the numbers of the aircraft too – why do the BRC planes have the letter R but The Staffordian has the letters AB?

City of Lichfield spitfire.jpg

Lichfield Spitfire (from Lichfield DC collection)

One of the pleasures of writing this blog is you never quite know where things will lead. It was medieval history, in the form of the stone cross from Greyfriars which took me to Stafford Grammar but thanks to my visit, I’ve found myself learning about early examples of corporate social responsibility and crowdfunding.  I may have just finished my degree, but my education continues…

(Also, before anyone says I need a lesson in photography, my camera was broken, so apologies for the far from picture perfect images!)


Thanks once again to Mr Bateman for showing us around






Dead Wood

One of the many upsides to doing whatever it is I actually do, is that people don’t feel the need to engage me in generic social chit chat about pleasant but dull subjects. Instead they come straight in with a tantalising bit of trivia or an anecdote they’ve heard about where they live. The most recent example of this was meeting the Mayor of Lichfield at an exhibition at the Library, where the conversation went a little like this.

Mayor: Hello!
Me: Hello!
Mayor: I’ve got some information for you! I was born at Gallows Cottage and when I was a child, I was told that the walnut tree outside was planted to mark the place where the gallows once stood.
Me: Hold my glass of rose, I’m off to the Shell Garage.

I’m exaggerating of course but naturally it refuelled my interest in the subject which I first wrote about back in 2011.  I roped in a mate to come and take a look with me and sure enough, on the patch of grass outside outside the garage, where the London Road, Upper St John St/Tamworth Road and Shortbutts Lane cross, was a walnut tree. Is this really the exact spot where forgers Wightman, Jackson and Neve met their end on 1st June 1810? It seems appropriate at this point to review the evidence.


Outside St Michael’s church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Wightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows. Interesting that at some point, the word ‘hanged’ appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others who were executed and buried e.g. John Wilson Sept 23rd 1583 and John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

  1. We know that the gallows were somewhere in this vicinity. They are shown on John Ogilby’s fabulous 1675 map but look to me to have been on the other side of Shortbutts Lane, almost opposite Borrowcop Lane? Other evidence comes in the form of place names with Gallows Wharf and as we now know, Gallows Cottage, birthplace of the Mayor of Lichfield!
  2. We have a bit of confusing anecdotal evidence from ‘Staffordshire Customs, Supersitions and Folklore’ written in 1924,  where Frederick Hackwood tell us that at Gallows Wharf,  ‘half a centry ago, a decayed oak stump stood two feet out of the ground….and was said to be the remains of the ancient gallows-tree’. However, the description given in The History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14  tells us that,  ‘A gallows was built, or possibly repaired, at the bishop’s expense in 1532–3. In 1650 there was a gallows on the west side of the London road near its junction with Shortbutts Lane. The gallows there fell down c. 1700, its foundations undermined by people digging for sand, but it was re-erected’ which suggests to me that the city gallows were a purpose built structure, rather than a hangman’s oak.
  3. Of course, the Mayor’s information about the walnut tree is also anecdotal evidence and I have to confess that I do like to think that within any oral history or bit of folklore, there is always a kernel of truth. That said, such things do need to be treated with some scepticism as things can easily take root and be very quickly established as fact, when in actuality, the jury is still out.
Walnut Tree at the Shell garage on the London Rd and Tamworth Rd junction

The walnut tree outside the Shell garage

To sum up, I find myself wondering if the exact location of the gallows could ever be proved but I also find myself wondering why it matters. Yet somehow it does. For me, ‘somewhere in the vicinity’ just doesn’t hit the spot.  I’m not sure I can even explain why. Maybe I’m just a bit nuts…




Back on Track

Time, once again, is on my side. It was nearly a very short lived return to writing the blog as I had a close encounter with a Land Rover on a tight bend, whilst pondering whether part of a barn in Hammerwich had been plundered from the Roman remains up the road at Wall but brushes with death aside, it’s good to be back wandering and wondering.

I’m researching places with a connection to the Lichfield to Brownhills stretch of the disused railway track to Walsall for a project I’m working on. Hammerwich was my first stop, as back in the day, Hammerwich was the only stop between Lichfield City and Brownhills. The station opened in 1849 and closed to passengers in 1965 as part of the Beeching cuts, although the line continued to be used by freight until 1984. A plaque marks the site, although sadly has been damaged, possibly by the Vandals of Hammerwich (yes, that is a Morris Dancing reference and yes, I am proud of myself).

Judging by old newspaper reports, there was a vehicular crossing here until 1911, when Hammerwich Parish Council finally got the London & North West Railway Co to give permission for a bridge, something they’d been requesting for over thirteen years, on the basis that several potentially serious accidents had nearly taken place there, including one incident reported by the Lichfield Mercury on 3rd October 1902, where a group of school children ran out in front of an approaching goods train.

The now rusty bridge still straddles the overgrown tracks and the old station house still stands but on vanished platforms. No trace though of the pipe which ran alongside the track and carried clean water from Sandfields Pumping Station in Lichfield to the towns of the Black Country where it was in such short supply. A newspaper article from the Lichfield Mercury reports that in February 1896, the pipe fractured and flooded the lines here.

After my brief encounter with the railway station, I had a meander around the village. The most recent incarnation of the church was completed in 1873, although there is thought to have been one on the same site since Saxon times. Talking of Saxons, I think they found a bit of gold around here a couple of years ago?  I loved the board at Hammerwich Community Centre which explained that it had started out as a school and in the early days it shared the site with the village pinfold where stray animals had been rounded up (despite it being know as the triangle) since medieval times, and that the children would play with the animals before and after lesson times.

I have a bit of a thing about windmills due to significant exposure to Camberwick Green as a child and so, before heading back to the car, I went to see Speedwell Mill.  According to ‘The Staffordshire Village Book’, compiled by members of the Staffordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, Speedwell was apparently the largest working mill in the Midlands. Having once had a run in with the WI in Kings Bromley, I am not going to argue with them.  I’ve just discovered this chap called Karl Wood who spent thirty years travelling around the Midlands recording mills which is a life well lived if you ask me. Mr Wood visited Hammerwich Mill in June 1938 and you can visit his pen and ink sketch here.

More on the railway project soon…

Tiles of the Unexpected

There’s a long running gag between me and my mates about how dangerous swans are. Turns out it’s actually no joke. In William Pitt’s 1817 Topographical History of Staffordshire, he describes how a hardy dog at Handsacre was stunned by a swan’s wing and trampled under water, and how a lusty farmer attempting to cross the River Trent too near to a nest got unhorsed and ducked.


A swan in Beacon Park. Stay safe folks.

Now I’ve got that public service announcement out of the way, I can get on with the reason I was reading that book in the first place. I’m curious about the curious church of St Nicholas’ at Mavesyn Ridware and its collection of curios.


When my friends visited, the squirrel was holding a Kit-Kat. I swear I’m not making this up.

Pitt describes how in 1782, the old church was damp and in near ruins and so the majority of it was taken down and rebuilt. You’d never notice though, it blends in perfectly with the 14thc tower.


Another surviving section of the older church is the 13th Trinity Aisle or Cawarden Chapel, with tombs and memorials belonging to the Cawarden, Chadwick and Mavesyn families. Pevsner describes it as, ‘the fascination of the church’ (although for me personally, it’s the squirrel), where, ‘the family monuments are assembled and other ancestors celebrated in a somewhat bogus way’.


He is referring to a series of alabaster panels telling the story of how in July 1403, Sir Robert Mavesyn killed his neighbour and enemy Sir William Handsacre on the banks of the River Trent at High Bridge, before heading off to his own death at the Battle of Shrewsbury.


The High Bridge across the River Trent. This cast iron version dates to 1830 and replaced a stone bridge, which replaced a wooden bridge, which replaced a ford.

The site of the skirmish is said to have been alongside two ancient oak trees known as Gog and Magog at a meadow above the bridge. In 1916, Robert Naylor, who was walking from John O’Groats to Lands End, recorded in the chronicle of his adventures that only their huge decayed trunks remained. Squirreled away in a glass case, at the far end of Trinity Aisle are two brackets, with a fading label describing how they were made from the wood of those two ancient oaks. Also, inside the glass case are 14thc floor tiles discovered in the 1990s, but its the non-native tiles mounted on the wall near the chapel that I was most interested in.



This photo was in-between the two sets of tiles in real life. And to be honest, when real life is this odd, who needs fantasy?


Both sets are from Caen Castle, built c. 1060 by William the Conqueror. So how or why did they end up in the middle of Staffordshire? According to antiquarian journals, they were obtained by Charles Chadwick in 1786, after the partial destruction of the castle during the French Revolution, and are a reminder that the Mavesyns were Norman conquerors. Somewhat ironically, during the renovations to the church, whilst the Trinity Aisle was being fitted with neo-medieval monuments and imported tiles, it appears one genuine Norman furnishing was discarded. In 1879, the then 800 year old Norman font was found buried in a nearby  garden and restored to the church.


Alongside the quirky kirche is the 14thc gatehouse, where Cromwell’s men are believed to have lodged during the Civil War, and a 17thc Tithe Barn. Go and have a look for yourself. It’s a great place to go swanning around…

Mavesyn Ridware gatehouse.jpg