Wall, located just two miles to the south of Lichfield, is an incredible place to visit at anytime of the year. This Sunday (19th July) however, the Friends of Letocetum will be bringing the remains of the Roman settlement here to life with their annual open day, held in conjunction with English Heritage and the National Trust. Entrance is free and the event runs from 11am to 4pm, during which time you’ll be able to experience life as a Roman soldier, get creative with a Roman artist and explore what everyday life would have been like at Letocetum. A group of Saxons are also setting up an encampment at the site and for literature fans there will be a Saxon book binder and storyteller. Children can take part in a range of games and activities* and there will also be a stall selling Roman games, perfumes and beads.
Roman style bootcamp at last year’s open day
John Crowe, chair of the Friends group and Wall Parish Council said, “Last year we welcomed over twelve hundred visitors. The whole village comes together each year for our annual open day, and we want people to come along and have fun, whilst learning more about the significance of this major Roman settlement, situated at the crossroads of two of the most important roads at the centre of Roman Britain. The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered just one mile to the west of the village, and other finds from the local area suggest that Christianity may have been established at Letocetum prior to St Chad’s arrival in Lichfield”.
This stone, one of several found built into one of the walls at Wall, is just one of the many fascinating artefacts on display at the museum. It is thought to be Romano-British and features two carved heads with horns and what has been interpreted as a shield.
“The church of St John, built in 1837 and designed by William Moffatt and George Gilbert Scott, will be open to visitors, and refreshments will be available in the village hall. There will also be volunteers on hand in the museum to talk visitors through the fascinating collection of artefacts discovered at the site, so please do come and join us for what will be an enjoyable and informative day”.
Life at Letocetum…see if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site…
*there is a small charge for these activities to cover costs
Borrowcop Hill is a place that doesn’t want to give up its secrets easily. What interests me about places like this is how gaps in our knowledge create a space where legends and folklore can grow unchecked. It’s not just a hill with a nice view. It’s the burial place of kings and martyrs, the site of Lichfield Castle.
Stand at the summit and you’re standing at the highest point in Lichfield. Beacons have been lit here certainly for celebrations, possibly as warnings. The grammar school moved here from St John Street in 1903 and in 1971, merged with the adjacent Kings Hill secondary modern school to form the current King Edward VI School. Interesting how the folklore was even referenced in the school name here. Another school on the site, the just as evocatively named Saxon Hill, was opened in 1979.
At last year’s Lichfield Discovered talk by Peter Young on Philip Larkin’s connections to the city, he told us that that whilst staying with relatives at Cherry Orchard in 1940, Larkin had written three poems. Only one, ‘Out in the Lane’, was published but all three were inspired by his temporary surroundings. Peter believes the arched field of ‘Christmas 1940’ refers to Borrowcop Hill. I’ve reproduced it here from a folio collated by The Philip Larkin Society for their celebration of his birthday in August 2001. I hope they don’t mind, but I can’t find it anywhere else!
The name ‘Borrowcop’ does hint that there was once something here. Its earliest written forms, Burwey or Burwhay, feature the Old English element ‘burh’, suggesting a fortified place (1). Whilst there are vague reports of Erasmus Darwin recovering bits of burnt bone from somewhere up here, according to the Heritage Environment Report, ‘more recent excavations have so far failed to recover any evidence for human activity’. Well, I went up there on Sunday and I found this:
“The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes”
Plenty of human activity in what Five Spires Live , the Lichfield satirist who also doesn’t give up his secrets easily, yesterday described as “… the perfect setting for bit of Larkin”. See, as much as I like legends, I also like the real. I like layers of history that celebrate everything a place is and not just what we want it to be. The way our own memories of a place form our own folklores. The title for this post is one I’ve appropriated from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. It’s summer nights, it’s cheap cider (or ‘energy and guava’, if you’d rather), it’s messing about with your mates in a space maintained by the council because you’ve nowhere else to go. It’s perfect. Borrowcop or not, we’ve all been there. And like it or not, that’s as much a part of history as those kings and castles are.
1) A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz, https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/397633_vol1.pdf
Without wishing to state the obvious, this blog is called Lichfield Lore. Sometimes I’m worried that I might go too far (in a geographical rather than controversial sense) but although I’ve overstepped the Lichfield boundary from time to time, I have at least remained in Staffordshire. Until now.
Last month, a group of us from Lichfield Discovered, crossed the border into Derbyshire to visit Repton which, between the seventh and ninth centuries, had been one of the main residences ofof the Mercian royal family. In 653AD, Peada, son of the pagan King Penda converted to Christianity in order to marry Alhflæd (sp?), the daughter of King Oswy of Northumbria. To help him to convert the rest of the kingdom, he employed four monks from Lindisfarne – Adda, Betti, Cedd and Diuma, the latter of whom would become the first Bishop of Mercia (1). However, Peada and Alhflæd do not appear to have been a match made in Heaven nor Neorxnawang. The Venerable Bede reported in his Historia Ecclesiastica that Peada was murdered in 656AD “wickedly killed by the treachery, as is said, of his wife during the very time of celebrating Easter”.
Church of St Wystan, Repton. Photo by David Moore
Rather fitting then that it was death which brought us to the ‘cradle of Christianity in the Midlands’. Although Peada is not buried here, the eighth century Anglo-Saxon crypt beneath the church was used as a mausoleum for later members of the Mercian royal family, including King Æthelbald ( ‘treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards’ says Bede), King Wiglaf (cause of death unknown) and his grandson Wigstan (murdered by a family member, who he objected to marrying his widowed mother. Seems his concerns were well-founded). The exact place where Wigstan was scalped is not known (Wistow in Leicestershire and Wistanstow in Shropshire both have claims) but wherever it was, it’s said that on the anniversary of his death each year, human hair grows from the earth at the spot where his blood was spilt (2). This supposed phenomenon and other miracles, led to the canonization of Wigstan, who became known as St Wystan. The crypt became a place of pilgrimage and the church above it took his name.
The crypt at Repton. Photo by David Moore.
In the early eleventh century, King Cnut ordered the holy bones to be moved to Evesham Abbey and in the centuries which followed, the entrances to the crypt were sealed and its existence forgotten until 1779, when someone digging a grave for the headmaster of Repton School broke through the vaulting and fell into it. We made our entrance in a rather more conventional way.
Down to the crypt and into the eighth century. Photo by David Moore.
From Repton, we headed to the Anchor Church, four connected caves alongside the River Trent, which both nature and humans had a hand in forming. I confess that the time I should have spent on the logistics of the trip was instead spent at the Whippet Inn, and so it took a bit of finding with just a postcode to guide us. However, when we did finally arrive we were pleased to see that, although thick with mud, the often flooded path that would take us to the ‘church’ was just about passable.
Inside the caves. Photo by Andy Walker.
Legend has it that in the sixth or seventh century, the caves were occupied by a hermit, who spent his time here going to the river to pray. Later, the caves were supposedly inhabited by a monk called Bernard who spent his last days here, repenting for his part in the deception which persuaded returning crusader Hugh de Burdett that his wife Johanne had been unfaithful. The story goes that Hugh cut off her left hand, leaving her to bleed to death over the altar cloth she’d been embroidering for him using her own hair (what’s with the hair obsession around here?). On a more cheerful note, in the eighteenth century, Sir Francis Burdett (presumably one of Hugh’s descendants) used the caves and riverbanks as a venue for picnics, as shall we when we visit again in the Summer.
The Anchor Church near Ingleby. Photo by David Moore.
On our way back to the cars, there was a blood-curdling scream. Had one of our party met with the ghost of Johanne searching for her lost hand or had they lost their footing and fallen victim to the mud? No, Carol just had something in her shoe. One of those funny at the time but you really had to be there moments admittedly, but I mention it because this is what I remember first and most fondly when I think of our trip. I love places for their stories and their connections to the people of the past, but even more so for the memories made by visiting them with people in the here and now.
Looking for pirahanas in the River Trent. Photo by David Moore.
(1) In 669, Chad, brother of Cedd and the fourth Bishop of Mercia moved the See from Repton to Lichfield (phew, it is relevant to Lichfield after all!)
(2) There’s another Lichfield Discovered trip right there. Who is free on the first of June? We’ll have to split up though, gang….
(3) Another Lichfield link – in 1364 an armed mob at Repton attacked the Bishop of Lichfield and the Prior. Actually, finding places with a tenuous link to Lichfield could be a whole blog post in its own.
I’ve written previously about how the appearance (and apparently, the actual location!) of St Chad’s well has changed over the years here, but I’ve recently found some contemporary accounts of the well’s previous incarnation – a ‘vertical tube built of engineering bricks, covered with a kind of gloomy sentry-box of stone’, which had apparently become so neglected in the 1940s that only a few inches of stagnant water covered in a green scum remained in the bottom of the pool. (1)
In November 1946, the Bishop of Stafford lamented that the well had once been a place of great pilgrimage but had fallen into a state of neglect and considerable disrepair and in April 1948, E Sutton, a former caretaker of the well, described it as having degenerated into a wishing well. A few weeks later, Mr Sutton submitted a further letter to the Mercury, advising, ‘I have again visited the site and found it in a worse state than on my visit there last Autumn. Then boards covered the Well. These are now removed and the Well is full of rubbish, among brick-bats and wood being a worn out coal bag! I noticed too, among the bricks and stonework lying around in wild confusion the ancient ‘St Chad’s Stone’, which the historian Leland, writing of his visit to the Well some four hundred years ago, states was then believed to be the very stone upon St Chad stood in the icy water as an act of penance, it then being the bottom of the Well. When the small building was erected over the Well in Stuart times, this stone was incorporated into the building, no doubt in order to preserve it. Many hundreds of hands have been placed upon it, mostly with reverence, since. It now lies among the rubbish, one corner broken. A fitting symbol of the ideals of 1948!’ (2)
St Chad’s Well today
Saint Chad’s Well c.1915. Taken from Wikipedia
I’m intrigued by this reference to ‘the ancient St Chad’s stone’. When James Rawson described the site prior to his restoration in the 1830s, he noted that, ‘the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed, which was described as the identical stone on which Saint Chad used to kneel and pray!’. Despite Rawson’s apparent scepticism about these claims, was he somehow persuaded to use this stone in his new well structure, thereby perpetuating the myth? I’d love to see what went on in those discussions and I’d really like to know what happened to this legendary stone. St Chad may not have been anywhere near it, but the fact that people believed he had should have made it worth saving for posterity’s sake.
Water in the well
Unfortunately for Mr Sutton, the restoration of the well did not put a stop to people using St Chad’s Well for wishes, as evidenced by the layer of coins that still glint beneath the water, tossed in at some point over the last half century or so. It’s often suggested that this is the continuation of a ritual that our ancestors were carrying out a long, long time before St Chad arrived in Lichfield. Some things change. Some stay the same.
(2) A little off topic, but it’s amusing to see that it’s not just nowadays that letters appear in the Lichfield Mercury suggesting that society is going to hell in a handcart. Once again, some things stay the same…
I had to pop into Wolverhampton today. I knew from my search for an ancient cross in Lichfield a couple of years back that there was a Saxon cross shaft here and went to find it. Unlike the Lichfield cross, I didn’t have to try too hard – it’s huge! Its size, and also the fact that it is made from sandstone not found in Wolverhampton, has led some archaeology types to suggest that it is probably a reused Roman column, possibly from Wroxeter or even just up the road in Wall.
The elements and pollution have not treated the shaft kindly but its still clear that this was an incredible piece of craftmanship – the Black Country History website describes it as, ‘one of the finest cross shafts in the Midlands’. The carvings of acanthus leaves which decorate the shaft alongside those of birds and beasts have given archaeologists some problems when trying to establish a date as they suggest different periods. The plaque accompanying the shaft in the churchyard has decided to go with the earlier date of the ninth century, whilst others believe late tenth century is more accurate.
On the way out of the churchyard I noticed another stone with a good back story. Known as the Bargain Stone, its said to be where the good (and probably not so good) folk of Wolverhampton would agree sales and make deals by shaking hands through the hole. The nearby plaque suggests it is an old gargoyle and the hole is what remains of its mouth.
Talking of hands, why didn’t it occur to me to put my hands over the railings to take a better photo?
As if ancient crosses and stones weren’t enough of a treat, we also found Holden’s Brewery’s Great Western near to the train station. This is a proper pub – cobs on the bar, Holden’s Golden Glow (amongst other delights) on tap and really friendly staff. Although we were tempted to sit outside in the sun, the interior was so quirky and there was such a nice atmosphere, we sat inside.
Wished I’d got the train. Definitely not driving next time.
The great Great Western
We walked off our pork baps with a little bit of a wander around the city streets. This building caught my eye, not only because it has no floors, meaning you can see down into the cellar, but also because of the handwritten sign someone had stuck to the window.
I’m not sure a traffic warden would be the person I’d turn to in a trapped bird scenario but maybe they do things differently in Wolverhampton.
Another perplexing sign is the one suggesting that the half timbered building on the junction of Victoria St and St John’s Lane was built in AD1300. It wasn’t and no-one knows the reason behind the claim – the best suggestions anyone has seems to be that it was some kind of joke to emphasise that it was a really, really old building! It more likely dates back to the seventeenth century when it was once an inn known as The Hand. These days its home to Wolverhampton Books & Collectables, where you can buy anything from an ancient tome on the history of Staffordshire to a souvenir 1950s Wolverhampton Wanderers hankerchief (which you may, or may not, wish to blow your nose on, depending on your allegiances…).
We took the scenic route back to Lichfield (not through choice but because I went the wrong way on the ring road), passing through Wednesfield, Sneyd, the intriguingly named New Invention and Brownhills before stopping off at Waitrose for a couple bottles of Golden Glow.