West Side Story

The view of the Cathedral as you turn from Beacon St into the Close, must be one of the most photographed in Lichfield. It’s stunning. However, if you can tear your eyes away from the spectacular west front of the Cathedral, there’s something else here that I think is rather special.

Remains of the West Gate.

Sandwiched between two houses are the remains of the West Gate, dating back to the early fourteenth century. The rest of the gate was demolished in 1800, as Thomas Harwood describes, “…that noble gate at the west entrance into the Close, a beautiful structure worthy of its munificent founder and which in April 1800 was with a barbarous taste, pulled down, and the materials applied to lay the foundation of a pile of new buildings for the residence of necessitous widows of clergymen”. (The new buildings Mr Harwood describes is Newton’s College opposite. If this is true it’s a bit more house old recycling!).

In the same book, Harwood mentions the gate again saying,”At the entrance into the close on the west stood the beautiful gate which was built by Bishop Langton in the early part of the fourteenth century. It was a very strong a double gate with portcullis of great strength and majesty. The strong tower over the gate was finished in the time of Bishop Northburgh, the successor of Langton. This noble structure which had unimpaired during the revolution of five centuries and had withstood the destructive ravages of civil war was pulled down in April 1800 to widen the road into the Close”

Personally I’m a big fan of crumbling, old bricks, but if the gate had remained then, we wouldn’t be treated to that amazing view. Whether the decision to demolish the gate was barbarous or not, all we have now are these remaining stones and the descriptions, together with some maps and drawings.  The rest is down to our imagination….

The Lichfield District Council flickr stream has this image.

Taken from Lichfield District Council flickr group

On the Staffordshire Past Track website, you can also see a view of the gate published in 1805. Still a ruin, but in slightly better repair than the previous image. There’s another image here , this time from further away showing how the gate fitted into the area around the Close. This ‘ancient view’ of the Close, seems to be an artist’s impression from 1805 to show how the Close would have looked surrounded by its protective walls, gates and towers. John Speed’s 1610 map also shows the defences, including the gate.

1610 map of Lichfield

I’d like to explore the other remaining fragments of the defences, but for now I’ve got enough questions about this part to be going on with! Why leave this portion of wall   – why not demolish the whole thing? On the wall itself, why do some of the stones have dimples on (I bet there is a technical term for this!) Were materials really used for Newton’s College?

And what about that door! What’s behind there? Who was the last person to go in there (and did they ever come out again!). Why is there a door there at all? To access the ‘strong’ tower in Harwood’s descriptions?  Most importantly, where do they keep the key and could they open it for the Heritage Weekend?!

Edit: Take a look at the comments section – some of the questions have already been answered by Nigel, Managing Director of Lichfield Lock & Key, up on Church St and Pat, who seems to know a thing or two about old bricks!


The History & Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield – Thomas Harwood

Lichfield: The cathedral close – A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 57-67. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42343

8 thoughts on “West Side Story

  1. I am Managing Director of Lichfield lock and key the door in the wall was last opend about 25 Years ago by my self we opened the lock and made keys for the lock all thats in there is a small little hole in the wall aparently the old night watchman for the Cathedral used to sit in there


    • Thank you so much Nigel – you’ve answered some of my questions far quicker than I could have hoped. Why did you have to make keys for the lock 25 years ago? Was a new door fitted? Nosey aren’t I!


      • No it was the original door just opend the exsisting lock and made keys so the Archaeologists could inspect it. Its a stable door top half opens then the bottom part


  2. Kate, The area of stonework you have photographed seems to contain portions
    of clay tile for infill the dimpled stone may have been dressed this way to take
    plaster,So this maybe recycled recycled stone from a earlier cathedral building
    It could be the only way to find out is carbon date the stone.


    • Oh I see – they make those marks on stone so that plaster will stick to it better? (I’m not very good at DIY as you can probably tell!). So that could mean the stone came from elsewhere rather than being specifically made for the gate. I tell you what Pat, you realise how many buildings have recycled parts when you start looking! Thanks so much for the explanation 🙂 I’m still working on my ‘I love bricks’ post by the way!


  3. Brilliant blog, makes me sad not to be back home…however
    There is not much left of the defences due to the 1646 Act of Parliament ordering the Slighting Of Lichfield Close ie defences torn down…totally!!!! This was the Roundheads way of removing all traces of rebellion.
    Lichfield and Oxford were the last two royalist strongholds to hold out. There was a national day of celebration (think 21st July…only say that as we had one of many historical pageants in the 70’s which celebrated this..great fun) What is left of towers, moat etc are seen from the Windings and lane leading from Stowe Pool, behind spite house and the Old Bishops palace now the Cathedral school, and the gate you are talking about at the West End. Minster Pool was also part of the moat, before ‘regeneration in to a pastiche of the Serpentine river.
    I suppose the rest was robbing of the piles of rubble left behind, including the gate. Right up to the time of Victoria many places were left to crumble being not in fashion. Some were just too big and the walls too thick to be moved or knocked down.
    As for the Bishops Newton seminary, the buildings opposite the west gate are the later buildings and the original and accommodation (used into the 60’s and 70’s) is adjacent to the Dam Street gate…look for the narrow tower, possibly the original stair case in the tower at that corner, dramatically rebuilt.
    Out of interest the Old Night Watchman’s door at the West End was not the only place used by him, also the little kiosk often used for ice Cream by the Deans House was the ‘modern’ replacement.
    There should be loads of stuff in the Local history section of the Library (or were when I was at school in the 70’s) or failing that track down a copy of the late Howard CLAYTONS ‘Loyal and Ancient City’, all about the close the Civil War and the families involved…There are brilliant illustrations by his son John (including the cover) to give you an insight to this time.
    Also see the painting of George FOX at the St Marys centre, which shows the ruined cathedral


    • Thank you! I’m working on a post about the rest of the defences. It’s funny how buildings go in and out of fashion. I always remember my Mum telling me that victorian terraces were sniffed at in her day but now they’re really popular (here in Lichfield at least). I know the kiosk you mean – I think it’s also part of the conduit that replaced the one NW of the Cathedral for a while? It’s been a while since I’ve been to the records office, I’ll have to get back down there!
      Best wishes, Kate


  4. Pingback: In defence of Lichfield | Lichfield Lore

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