This is the final part of my car park trilogy and I know you’ve all been desperate to find out where this multi-story ends. Will it be Bunkers Hill, with its supposed civil war connections or the Friary Inner or Outer which always makes me think of bellybuttons? I felt it only right to end at the home of civic car parking in Lichfield. Buckle up, we are going to the Council House Car Park (Saturdays and Sundays only).
Back in 2008, there was an article in the Birmingham Mail about how archaeologists investigating the car park had discovered part of the ditch which ran around the city from around 1130AD. The section they found here contained broken medieval pottery, leather and animal bones, including a medieval dog’s skull, confirming anecdotal accounts that it had doubled up as a public tip. Rather than being a defensive structure, the ditch is believed to have been dug to stop traders entering the city without paying a toll at one of the five gates – Bachunneswich (Beacon St), Sandford St, Stowe, Tamworth St and Culstubbe (St John’s St). It’s ironic that that the excavations which uncovered the section of the ditch which has been used as the town dump, were undertaken as part of the preparation for Friarsgate, which was of course intended to bring traders into the city but ended up being a load of rubbish.
This section of the structure was known as the Castle Ditch. Back in the early 1800s, when digging the foundations for long disappeared cottages in Gresley Row, another section of it was discovered filled with the horns, skulls and bones of large quantities of cattle. Local lore has it that these are the remains of the two thousand oxen supposedly enjoyed by Richard II and guests during his Christmas food festival at Lichfield Castle in 1197. I’m guessing the bones are still there? We may not have kings under our car parks but we might have the remains of their dinner under the local branch of Argos.
In their ‘Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield’, Lomax and Newling noted land adjoining this newly erected street was known as Oxenbury field, which may or may not be a coincidence. I’ve been trying to find out more about Oxenbury, including where exactly it was. Well, still is but we just don’t know it by that name any more. There are a few clues to be found. One account by J W Jackson in the Mercury in December 1945 describes it as being to the south of St John Street and stretching as far as Aldershawe and on John Speed’s 1610 map, he has drawn two giant Oxen on what I think must be the site of Oxenbury Field, which may or may not be a coincidence.
According to the Staffordshire HER there is documentary evidence of a cross of Bishop Walter (Langton?) in the area to the south of St John’s Hospital which I think might be the same one referred to in Harwood’s History and Antiquities as, ‘a cross in the hand at the end of Aldershaw or St John’s Lane, anciently Schoolhouse Lane’. The same HER entry also says there is documentary evidence of a duelling ground in the same area and so it seems that Oxenbury, or at least part of it, may have been used as a tournament field in medieval times. According to an article on Lichfield place names in the Mercury in September 1972, an area of land near to Chesterfield Rd was known as Soldiers’ Field and a John Jackson article from June 1944 says Oxenbury was used for military exercises and was also where archery was practised. I’m fighting to resist making too much of all this until I’ve managed to put a bit more flesh on the bones of it all but it’s certainly worth a bit more digging.
By the mid-16th century, Oxenbury Field became known as Castle (Ditch) Field. We know this because Leyland visited Lichfield and said something like, ‘There hath been a castle of ancient time but no part of it standeth. The place of the ditch is seen and it is yet called Castle field’. In an advertisement in the Mercury in June 1888, building land known as ‘Castle Ditch Ground’ or ‘Cherry Orchard’ was to be sold at auction at the Smithfield Hotel or as it became known a hundred years later, the Sozzled Sausage. Sadly I never got around to visiting to sample the boozy bangers before it was closed. The building has now been demolished but stood near to where the entrance to Tesco car park (two car parks for the price of one you lucky things!) and, as you may have guessed from the name, it was connected to a livestock market. Wonder if they sold oxen?
Understandably, place names such as Castle Ditch and Castle Field have given rise to speculation over the centuries that Lichfield did have some sort of castle on the south of the city in addition to the Cathedral Close, fortified by Bishop Clinton in the 12th century. A little further afield, we have Castle Croft near Chesterfield and the Roman settlement at Wall and I’m starting to suspect that the legendary Lichfield Castle may in fact be Letocetum.
D Horovitz suggests that ‘Ancient names with castle often mark what was, or was thought to be a castle in the conventional sense (e.g. Castle Church referring to Stafford Castle and Castle Croft near Chesterfield, named from substantial walls of Roman date), but often a prehistoric or later earthwork, from OE and OF castel, but sometimes from OE ceastel, ‘heap of stones’, often with archaeological interest. Hang on, a heap of stones with archaeological interest? That brings us nicely back to the car park and the Friarsgate, sorry, Birmingham Road site.
If you enjoyed the trip please do join me next time when inspired by Christopher Biggins and some old charity records (the archives kind, not the “Is this the way to Amarillo?’ by Tony ‘I was Waitrose’s most famous customer called Tony until someone saw that bloke from Spandau Ballet in there’ Christie & Peter Kay kind), we will be going on safari.
Sources: ‘Lichfield: The 19th century’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990) Lichfield Mercury Archive https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/archaeologists-find-historic-ditch-in-lichfield-60115 The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield, Rev T Harwood A Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield, Lomaz and Newling Staffordshire HER Records A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz, LL. B https://www.thecaterer.com/archive/not-such-silly-sausages