My husband grew up in the Highgate area of Walsall, where the malty aroma from the local brewery used to hang in the air and the local kids would tell stories about the mysterious ruined windmill. Thought to have been built in the late 1600s to grind corn, Highgate windmill has a fascinating history which you can read more about here in this article by Walsall historian and writer Stuart Williams. If you want to go and have a look yourself, go sooner rather than later. Once spring gets properly underway, it’ll be hard to see the mill for the trees.
Sadly, there’s not even a whiff of brewing in the air at the moment – the Grade II Listed Highgate Brewery hasn’t been operational since 2010 and stands unused behind the locked centenary gates (purchased and installed by the Friends of Highgate Brewery in 1998), its future uncertain at present.
Yesterday, as well as visiting the family, we went to have a look around the Art Gallery and the town. On the way back we passed the pub that we once knew and loved as the Brewery Stores & Vaults. Back in the late 1990s, it was one of the liveliest places in town but now, like the brewery whose name it bears, it stands empty, expect perhaps for the hooded figures and disembodied heads said to lurk in the cellars…
We continued our way back over the limestone hill where the church of St Matthew’s has dominated the Walsall skyline since at least the thirteenth century (although it has only been know by that name since the eighteenth century – it was previously ‘All Saints’). The first time we walked up this hill together, Mr Gomez told me that it was paved with medieval cobbles. I’m not sure if that is true but it’s something that has fascinated me ever since, as has the arched passage on the east end of the church, covered in graffiti and with curious niches on the east side.
As well as this overground passageway, there are supposedly underground tunnels running from here to the White Hart Inn at Caldmore, Barr Beacon and Rushall Hall. In a history section of the Walsall Council website, there’s a quote from a Mr G of Bath St who in the 1950s said one of the entrances to the tunnels was located at the bottom of some steps of a toilet which once stood on Caldmore Green. He also added that he had been told by some old women that during the reformation, some priests went down the tunnels to escape and were killed after they were filled in.
One of my favourite stories about St Matthew’s and Walsall is one I read recently in a book of Staffordshire folktales. Apparently, the church was originally supposed to have been built on a meadow at the ‘Churchery’, now known as the Chuckery. However, this was where the fairy folk danced and so, naturally, they objected to the plans and took matters into their own tiny hands, moving the foundations of the new church up the hill to the site where it stands today. In another version of the story, the church was moved by witches who had transformed themselves into white pigs.
We walked up a good appetite in Walsall and so we finished our day at the legendary Hargun’s Sweet Centre on the Caldmore Rd, intending to take some goodies back to Lichfield, although they never actually made it past Walsall Wood in the end. Anyway, what I learned today is not only that you can eat a lot of baklava in a twenty minute car journey, but also that once in a while, it’s good fun to explore what’s on someone else’s doorstep.
Walsall: Economic history’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17: Offlow hundred (part) (1976), pp. 180-208.
Staffordshire Folk Tales by The Journeyman