Around a year ago, restoration of the old church tower at Shenstone started, thanks to the fundraising efforts of a friends group founded in 2019. I recently visited for the first time since the work commenced and what a glow up there’s been.
One of the highpoints of the project, literally, is the installation of a staircase which will enable visitors to climb to the top of the tower and enjoy the scenery of Staffordshire and other less illustrious counties. Joking apart, it will be interesting to see just how far can be seen from the rooftop. On my visit I was lucky enough to have a sneak peek inside to see the new staircase. I say new, there was never actually an old staircase, instead the brave bell-ringers had to climb the rungs of a ladder to access the bell ropes. An alternative albeit accidental way to ascend the tower was via one of said bell ropes. The Derby Mercury reported on some high-jinks which occurred in July 1790 when Mr Brown, a Lichfield miller was amusing himself with the ringers at Shenstone Church and, ‘was overpowered by the great bell and carried up with great velocity by the rope to the ceiling of the Belfry, from whence he fell down on the floor upwards of thirty feet. He was taken up very much bruised and quite insensible, put into a bed and carried home in a cart but fortunately having the immediate aid of a surgeon there is a prospect he may recover, although it cannot at present be discovered whether or not he has any broken limb’. On another bell related note, I heard from a resident of Shenstone that raising money for the restoration work included selling off pieces of the old wooden bell frame from the tower. I love the idea but if I find out that they didn’t refer to it as a fundraising ap-peal then I’m going to be disappointed.
It’s referred to as ‘the Old Church Tower’ but just how old is it exactly? Evidence from excavations in the 1970s showed that the 13th century tower of the church of St John the Baptist had been built on Saxon foundations but, as I’ve said before, I suspect this site may have been sacred long before St Chad introduced Christianity to Mercia. A short distance from the church is a holy well, also dedicated to St John. Hope’s Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England tells us, ‘At Shenstone, near Lichfield, a little distance from the church, was a well called ” St. John’s Well,” after the saint in whose honour the parish church is dedicated. It was looked upon as sacred from the miracles or cures wrought by its waters on St. John the Baptist’s day, June 24. For this reason was a sanctity placed upon it by the faithful, who brought alms and offerings, and made their vows at it.’
We know there was some continuity between pagan sites and Christian ones and that a well thought to have healing powers would have been spiritually significant for followers of the old gods and the new one but I’m not going to dive into that subject anymore deeply here. Whatever the origins of the well, it’s wonderful to see it still survives in the garden of Ivy House, a 17th century property on the village’s Main Street. And I do literally mean see! The house is up for sale and there’s a photo of it included in the particulars.
Within the estate agent’s description, there is also a reference to a priest’s hole, which is even included on the floorplan and perhaps more tenuously, an underground tunnel. Obviously there is no photo of that but intriguingly I have come across an article in the Rugeley Times from 1939 which paints an interesting picture in relation to this subterranean selling point. It describes how three years prior, workmen repairing the pathway by the old tower ruins came across the entrance to what they believed to be a tunnel leading under the steep slope towards the old tower. There had been a tradition locally that there was a ready made shelter for Shenstonians beneath the church hill should the village ever require it and the workmen’s discovery did nothing to dampen these rumours. It’s also referenced in, ‘The Annals of Shenstone’, by the Rev Essington, vicar between 1848 and 1895, who said, ‘It was said there had been an underground passage between the house (the vicarage) and the tower, and the ex-vicar regrets he never tried to trace it’. Obviously, as it seems is so often the case, the vicar at the time the apparent tunnel was discovered instructed it to be filled in. Wait, there have been rumours circulating for centuries about some kind of mysterious underground feature in your churchyard and you have the opportunity to bring the truth to light but instead choose to keep it buried? Seems to me there’s something about this story that does not ring true…
Derby Mercury, 29th July 1790
Lichfield Mercury, 31st October 1947
The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, R C Hope (1893)
Rugeley Times, 4th March 1939