With ‘Heritage at Risk’ the theme of our Lichfield Discovered meeting this month, I was having a flick through the English Heritage At Risk Register to see whether there were any other buildings in the district keeping the Angel Croft Hotel company on the list. It seems much of what’s considered ‘at risk’ in these parts is landscape features – a causewayed enclosure and settlement sites in Fradley/Streethay, a round barrow at Alrewas and a site near Elford, although built heritage does appear in the form of the walls and gate piers at Colton House, the ruined remains of an old manor house at Hamstall Ridware and the old church tower at Shenstone. The inclusion of the latter was of particular interest as I’d been there for a nose just days before.
When the present church of St John’s was built in the 1850s, the existing church was partly demolished leaving just the tower and the south door visible. Time and nature are doing their best to finish the job the Victorians started – English Heritage have assessed it as being category A meaning that it is at ‘Immediate risk of further rapid deterioration or loss of fabric; no solution agreed’.
As you’d expect, many of the village’s old residents are to be found here in their eternal rest. According to William Pitt, at least one of them did not go gentle into that good night – Susannah Southwell of Shenstone was married at the age of 112 (although he doesn’t record how old the groom was nor how long it was until death did them part). The Wikipedia entry for Shenstone says that a 2007 survey found that it was one of the ten worst places in England for finding single women. Perhaps that’s always been the case?
Local sandstone was used to build both new and old churches and it’s this geology that caused David Horovitz to question whether the place name Shenstone really does mean ‘shining stone’, suggesting that sandstone could “hardly be described as ‘bright, shining or beautiful'” (although anyone who has seen Lichfield Cathedral glowing in the late afternoon sunshine may well disagree). Mr Horovitz has suggested that Shenstone may instead refer to a personal name, or even to stone monuments left behind by the Romans (remains of a villa have been discovered on the outskirts of the village and Wall is only around a mile away).One of the reasons I love the study of place names is that it can give us a glimpse of somewhere as seen through the eyes of people who once lived there hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. The view can be a little hazy though and sometimes we can only guess at why our ancestors chose the descriptions they did.
Whatever the true meaning may be, it is the ‘shining stone’ theory that inspired Jo Naden’s steel sculpture for the village’s Lammas Land in 2002, described by the invaluable PMSA website as follows, “(The artist) chose to site her sculpture in the Black Brook, which runs through the Lammas Lands used by the Celts as a site for harvest festival rites, in order to make a connection with Celtic culture. Trees, held sacred by the Celts, are reflected in the mirror finish of the stainless steel, while the text inscribed on it* is taken from the words of an unknown ninth-century Irish author. The placing of the stone at a point near where a bridge built on a north-south orientation crosses a stream running from west to east would have been considered sacred by the Celts because it symbolised the meeting of polar opposites”.
*A flock of birds settle ….. the green field re- echoes where there is a brisk bright stream
I stood on the little footbridge watching the swollen Black Brook flow over the sculpture for a few minutes until I was ordered off by a toddler clutching a handful of twigs ready to make an offering of pooh sticks to the water at this sacred spot.
A Landscape Survey of the Parish of Shenstone, edited by Richard Totty for The Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Lichfield 2009
A Topographical History of Staffordshire, William Pitt
‘A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’
by David Horovitz, LLB