It is time to say hello once again to Farewell. A little recap for those of you who did not binge read my blog during lockdown because there was, frankly, not much else to do. Farewell is named after a spring, which still flows near to the church. This ‘fair well’, if you will, would clearly have been the reason why the site was originally established as a hermitage by Bishop Roger de Clinton in the twelfth century. By 1140 it had been transferred to a community of nuns, and became a Benedictine Priory.
Women of God they may have been but there are suggestions they may not have been quite so pure as the spring water which gave the place its name. Two canonical visitations in the 14th century found that nuns would sometimes take a leisurely stroll down to Lichfield without the permission of the Prioress. Less nuns on the run, more nuns on the way to do a bit of shopping. Yes, I am showing my age with that reference. In fact, so bad were the nuns’ habits that the back door of the nunnery had to be kept locked as a result of ‘several scandals’ which I wouldn’t even like to speculate about. If you would like to, then you don’t have to Google too far afield to find similar stories. However, while we may laugh about naughty nuns and get all Carry on Convent about it, it is fascinating to think of this community of land-owning sisters doing it for themselves on the outskirts of Lichfield in the Middle Ages. I’m not claiming it was paradise but arguably there were worse options for medieval women than getting thee to an nunnery?
Of course, the Priory did not survive horrible Henry’s reformation and in 1527 the remaining nuns said farewell to Farewell and their lands were given to Lichfield Cathedral. We know the last prioress, Elizabeth Kylshaw, was transferred to the aptly named Nuneaton but her presence may still be in evidence here with a possible carving of her initials on an oak seat in the sanctuary. It seems that the church was then largely abandoned until the 17th century by when the Priory buildings had most likely been pilfered by locals for its stone, some of which you can see reused in local walls and houses in the lanes between Lichfield and Burntwood. The Church of St Mary was rebuilt in the 18th century and re-dedicated to St Bartholomew. During the restoration, a number of earthenware vessels were discovered built into the church’s south wall. Each lay on their side, their openings facing the church and covered with a thin layer of plaster. Their exact purpose is unknown but they may have been ‘acoustic jars’, used to improve the building’s resonance. I have heard of them being found elsewhere but, to the best of my knowledge, they are the only examples of this practice in Staffordshire.
All that survives of the Priory today, visibly at least, is the stone chancel of the chapel. In 1993, when installing a new toilet at the church, the remains of the other priory buildings were discovered. Unfortunately, the article in the Sandwell Evening Mail does not specify where but does include a brilliant quote from one of the archaeologists who said the discovery did not mean an end to hopes for a new toilet. Priory priorities eh? As such, I’m still trying to flush out exactly where the buildings would have been. I had read they were in the vicinity of where Farewell Hall now stands but that seems a long way to walk if you are caught short during a service. In August 1931, the North Staffordshire Field Club visited the hall and were shown the alleged blocked up entrance to a tunnel in the basement which led to the church but but believe me, since starting this blog, I’ve stood in enough cellars with supposed secret passages to think the majority of these stories are just pulling our chain.
Both the church and hall are now approached by a drive, but until relatively recent times, the only approach was via a farmer’s field. Local historian JW Jackson was once the organist at St Bartholomew’s in 1887 and writing in the Lichfield Mercury, described how to protect the right of way, the farmer would meet an approaching funeral to collect a few pence from the undertaker for bringing the hearse over his land. In another of his history columns, self-confessed supernatural sceptic Mr Jackson described how he was once playing the organ in a local church late at night when, ‘something impelled me to look around, and there in the dark part of the western end I distinctly saw what appeared to be the figure of a beautiful lady in a shining light’. Joining the dots here, it seems that this mysterious apparition may have materialised at St Bartholomew’s. It wouldn’t be the only uncanny encounter in these parts. Recently, I was told a story about someone picking up a distressed woman from Cross in Hand Lane, the old pilgrimage route running between Farewell and Lichfield. He dropped her off at a pub in Burntwood and then decided to go inside and check if she was ok. He was informed by those inside that no-one else had entered the pub for some time. Perhaps it was one of those nuns and she’d been hoping to hitch a lift to go shopping in Lichfield like in the old days instead?
Staffordshire Past Track
Sandwell Evening Mail 16 July 1993
Staffordshire Sentinel 21 August 1931
Lichfield Mercury 29 January 1943