Perhaps the biggest faux pax you can commit about the place that gave the world Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson is to spell the name incorrectly. Outsiders, please note that these days the only acceptable ‘T’ in Lichfield comes with biscuits and/or cake. The other way to wind up a Lichfeldian is to refer to Staffordshire’s premier heritage city as a town. En-route to the Guildhall Cells, perpetrators of this crime are taken past our central railway station to illustrate just how wrong they were.
Once they are in the stocks, heretics are then read to from the charters, currently held at the museum in St Mary’s, which include Queen Mary’s declaration of 1553 that Lichfield was not only to be a city, as granted by her brother Edward five years earlier, but also a county in its own right.
This is the charter which gave rise to the annual Sheriff’s Ride (and its much more recent and considerably shorter spin-offs), a twenty mile perambulation of the current boundary of Lichfield. I had often sat and wondered whether at any point, the boundary was physically marked in someway (I do need to get out more) and just recently found an article written in the late nineteenth century which says it was, “formerly marked by wooden posts, but they have much deteriorated and in some instances disappeared. A renewal in iron of the most important has recently taken place”.
Descriptions of the boundary of the City of Lichfield date back to the late 1700s. Back then it was only a sixteen mile round trip. Although in 1806, local historian Harwood said they were based on ‘ancient writings’, I understand there is no earlier written description of exactly what constituted Lichfield. However, there are piecemeal records showing some of the boundary changes over the centuries. And there must have been a fair few changes to get from a medieval town you could walk around in an hour to a city with a circumference of sixteen miles.
Last week I spent a sunny morning trying to trace the boundary of what would have been the medieval town. With the help of John Snape’s 1782 plan of Lichfield, it’s actually fairly easy to do, even for someone as illiterate at map reading as me. Bishop Roger de Clinton surrounded the south part of the new town he had laid out in the late twelfth century with a bank and ditch and fortified the shared northern boundary of the town and Cathedral Close. Apart from a couple of inconveniently placed walls, you can pretty much walk the whole way around.
Thanks to archaeological investigations, we know that the town ditch in the St John’s Street area was about five metres wide, two metres deep and inevitably, was also used as a public tip.
When a section in the Council House car park was excavated in 2008, archaeologists discovered the sole of a woman’s shoe from the twelfth century, part of a medieval jug and the remains of a medieval dog’s head.
Snape’s plan also marks the gates, or bar(r)s, at the main entrances into and out of Lichfield, and there are plaques at each of the locations, with the, hopefully temporary, exception of the Sandford Street gate. The building it was mounted on has recently been demolished but I’m sure the plaque is being kept safely somewhere….
Perhaps the best known of the gates is the one at St John Street which is still recalled in the name of St John the Baptist without the Barrs. You know, the place with all the chimneys. As the name indicates, this stood just outside the gate and started out as a hostel for those arriving when Lichfield was closed for business for the night, many of them pilgrims on their way to see the shrine of St Chad at the Cathedral.
On the subject of names, the section of the ditch running from the gate on Tamworth Street, to the gate near St John’s Hospital was known as Castle Ditch, and this, alongside hard evidence in the form of stones turning up nearby and evidence of a slightly more fluffy nature in the form of myth and folklore, has caused endless speculation as to whether Lichfield ever had a castle proper alongside the fortified Close with its towers, turrets and strong walls.
So, plenty of opportunities to get out more here. I think the two mile-ish walk around the ditch will make an excellent Lichfield Discovered adventure. I would also happily walk sixteen miles to find one of those old iron boundary markers although I may be on my own with this. It’d also be interesting to see how Lichfield has burst its boundaries over the years gobbling up all of the surrounding settlements, so much so that it’d take you six hours and twenty four minutes to perambulate the current perimeter, according to this walking calculator I’ve found. And that doesn’t even include getting distracted by other things or stopping off at the pub. It’ll have to wait though, as right now I’m off on an expedition to Borrowcop to see if I can capture Lichfield Castle.
1) If we’re doing names, then I have to mention that Bakers Lane was once known as Peas Porridge Lane. Just because.