Bath Time

Although the waters at the Roman Baths in Bath were once known for their healing powers (the mythological Prince Bladud and his pigs are said to have been cured of leprosy after wallowing here in 863 BC), the water is now considered unsafe and is strictly off limits. This didn’t bother me in the slightest as I’d much rather be issued with an audio guide with commentary from Dr Alice Roberts than a fluffy white bathrobe.

The Great Bath at Bath

The Great Bath at Bath

The great bath is fed by a hot spring rising here at the rate of 1,170,000 litres a day and a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius. For our ancestors, the warm water gushing from the ground was the work of the gods. Even though I know the cause to be natural rather than supernatural, there was still something magical about watching vapour swirling up out of the bubbling, green-hued water into a torchlit, grey November afternoon. And it seems I’m not the only one the place has that kind of effect on. When the Romans arrived, the local goddess Sulis was already being worshipped here so they named the place after her, and built a new temple honouring both her and her Roman counterpart Minerva alongside the sacred spring.

Alongside the curing, a fair bit of cursing went on. One hundred and thirty prayers inscribed on sheets of lead or pewter were thrown into the spring between 200 and 400 AD. Many invoke the help of Sulis Minerva in seeking justice and revenge for heinous crimes such as the theft of a bathing tunic or gloves. The majority are in vernacular Latin, but one as yet untranslatable text is thought to be the only surviving example of an ancient British language. I quite like the thought that the only physical trace of something spoken thousands of years ago was not left by kings or queens but by one of the plebs like us, most likely complaining that their swimming costume had been nicked.

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

In 1727, the gilt bronze head of a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered yet it’s not the face of the goddess which has become the symbol of Roman Bath but the face of the ‘gorgon’ found on the pediment outside her temple. And I have the fridge magnet to prove it. Re-discovered in 1790, and debated ever since, the ‘gorgon’s head’ is surrounded by a sea of symbolism including Tritons, a dolphin head shaped helmet, a star, an owl and two Victories. The ‘gorgon’ interpretation derives from the association of Minerva with Medusa and the supposed presence of a couple of snakes in the beard. Yes this ‘gorgon’ has a beard, which highlights the main problem with this explanation – gorgons are female whereas this is obviously the face of a man. It might be another example of the Romans combining a local god with of their own e.g. a classical gorgon and a British water god or could perhaps even be Neptune or Oceanus.

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I'm not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I’m not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

Other more easily identifiable gods found here include Jupiter and Bacchus whose images once formed part of the great altar where sacrifices were made. Post-sacrifice, the entrails of the animal were consulted by a haruspex (literal translation: gut-gazer) and we know there was one here in Aquae Sulis because the inscription on this stone reads ‘To the goddess Sul, Lucius Marcus, a grateful Haruspex, donated out of his devotion’. This is the only evidence we have of a priest in Britain who practised divination in this way, so it’s something of a rarity.  It has been suggested that whoever carved the stone wasn’t all that competent, originally missing out the ‘O’ from ‘Memor’ and also having to squeeze the letters ‘VSP’ after ‘the abbreviation HAR’. You’d think Lucius might have forseen these problems in the intestines.

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

Hopefully, all this talk of Romans at Bath will have whetted your appetite for something a little closer to home but just as exciting. Not only does our Roman site at Wall have carvings every bit as mysterious as those at Bath, evidence of Christianity in the area prior to St Chad’s arrival (in the form of  bronze bowl with a Chi-Rho symbol which you can see and read about here) and even rumours of our own statue of Minerva said to have been as big as a man, but not a man as it had a bust but also not a woman because it was wearing a soldier’s helmet. Unfortunately, it was used to fix a drain. If it ever existed in the first place that is.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don't know but it is fun speculating.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don’t know but it is fun speculating.

You can access the site of Letocetum all year round during daylight hours and the museum is open 11am to 4pm the last weekend of every month plus Bank Holidays between March and October. This Winter, the Friends of Letocetum have arranged a series of talks at Wall Village Hall starting on Wednesday 9th December with Dr Mike Hodder who will be talking about his own personal experiences as an archaeologist at Wall.

Further details of this and all other upcoming talks and events plus lots of other information about Letocetum can be found here on the website or there is a Facebook page here and you can follow @FndsofLetocetum on Twitter.

For anyone who would like to see the Gorgon’s Head but isn’t able to get to Bath, it will be coming to a lampost in Leomansley shortly along with a wobbly lobster. Details on request. And should anyone pinch it, I’ve got a curse ready.

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Beaming

You’ve probably heard about the exciting developments in the Lichfield Waterworks Trust’s campaign to save Sandfields Pumping Station for the community. If you haven’t a) where have you been all weekend? and b) please take a look at chairman Dave Moore’s recent announcement here and a great post from the ever supportive Brownhills Bob here.

Sandfields Pumping Station. If you still don't know where this amazing place is, tell me and I'll take you there myself.

Sandfields Pumping Station. If you still don’t know where this amazing place is, tell me and I’ll take you there myself.

You probably won’t be surprised that I want to add my two penn’orth. For all its tangents and diversions, this is essentially a blog about Lichfield history and to be able to write a post saying that we are now going to be actively involved in preserving and promoting one of the most important architectural, industrial and social heritage sites in the city (and indeed country)…well, let’s just say I’ve had to pinch myself a few times.

One of the three waterwalks arranged by the Lichfield Waterworks Trust or the Heritage Weekend 2015

One of the three waterwalks arranged by the Lichfield Waterworks Trust for the Heritage Weekend 2015

On 19th September 2015,  the Trust took part in the Lichfield Heritage Weekend with three water themed walks around the city and a display in the museum at St Mary’s. We wanted to share the story of how Lichfield supplied clean drinking water to the Black Country during the cholera epidemics of the mid-nineteenth century and to highlight the heroic role Sandfields Pumping Station and its now unique Cornish Beam Engine played in this. Rather fittingly, the theme of the 2015 weekend was ‘Making History’ as here we are just five weeks later, in a position to do exactly that.

Our display of photos on the theme of Lichfield Water contributed by members of the public during Summer 2015.

Our display of photos on the theme of Lichfield Water contributed by members of the public during Summer 2015. (Photo by J Gallagher)

I’ve been grinning from ear to ear since I heard the news. Congratulations, thanks and respect must of course go to chairman Dave Moore and the other members of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust for their tenacity, dedication and hard work but also their optimism, vision and ability to talk me into wearing a boiler suit in public. Thanks also though to those of you came who came on a water walk, sent us a photo of a Stowe Pool sunset, visited John Child’s amazing model of a Newcomen engine at our stall in the Festival Market, lent us your name in support, picked up a leaflet, got really excited when you heard about the Hanch tunnel running below your feet, chucked your two penn’orth worth in our bucket during the Bower Procession and showed us in many other ways that you cared deeply about not only the past but also the future.

Some of the Waterworks Trust Gang collection during the Lichfield Bower 2015

Some of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust gang collecting during the Lichfield Bower 2015

As David and Bob both rightly say, the real hard work starts here and we’ll need your ongoing support as we embark on a new chapter in Lichfield’s water story. I’m hoping it’s going to be ‘Sandfields Pumping Station – built for the community and saved for the community by the community’. Sounds like a great way of making history to me.

A beaming Gill on last week's Arts & Heritage procession. She carries the boiler suit look off much better than I do.

A beaming Gill from the LWT on last week’s Arts & Heritage procession (she carries the boiler suit look off much better than I do).

Take Me to Church Mayfield

On my recent explorations of the North, I exchanged SatNav Woman for my Mum and a map. It’s a swings and drive several times around the roundabout looking for the right exit approach. SatNav Woman doesn’t get excited by finding places like ‘Gallows Green’ on the map or stopping to ask directions from bonny locals who call you ‘Me Duck’ (ok, that was both of us), but then she doesn’t send you text messages from the car when you’re having a moment with a thousand year old font or leave her wet socks to dry on the dashboard either.

Mum's Socks

From Croxden Abbey we headed to Mayfield, and specifically, Church Mayfield as I wanted to see the early sixteenth century tower at St John the Baptist. Completed by Thomas Rollestone in 1515, he added the inscription ‘Ainsi et mieux peut etre’. I don’t speak French but I understand this translates to something like ‘thus it is and better it could be’ and appears to be a variation on the Rollestone family motto. Some have interpreted this as an indication that Thomas thought he could have done a bit of a better job on the tower. My maths is as bad as my French, but I can just about work out that this year was its 500th anniversary and at the celebrations in April, someone made an edible replica of the church in gingerbread, something so brilliant that surely neither perfectionist Thomas Rollestone nor Mary Berry could find fault.

Tower door, Mayfield

Tower door, Mayfield

The door to the tower is peppered with holes and the story goes that on 7th December 1745 the retreating army of Bonnie Prince Charlie passed through Mayfield, murdering an innkeeper and a man who refused to hand over his horse before turning their muskets on the church door, behind which the terrified villagers had barricaded themselves. Although I came in peace, the door was also locked to me and so I had to be content exploring the churchyard.

Holes in the door

Holes in the door

Underneath a yew tree there’s a medieval wayside cross moved here in the mid nineteenth century from Middle Mayfield, where it stood at a junction opposite a house known as ‘The Hermitage’ (an inscription on the door lintel reads ‘William Bott, in his old age, built himself a hermitage 1749).  Something else in the churchyard which I’ve never seen before but is so simple and effective that I’m not sure why, is a tree stump timeline, marking events in the church, village and the world during the lifetime of the Lebanese cedar which was one hundred and seventy seven years old when it was felled in 2008.

Tree time line Mayfield

En-route to our next destination (Cheadle),  we tried and failed to find the Hanging Bridge, spanning the River Dove, and also the Staffordshire/Derbyshire boundary. It was rebuilt in 1937 but, as you’ll see from the photo I’ve pinched from elsewhere, the arches of the original fourteenth century packhorse bridge are still visible. The name is said to refer to the executions of the Jacobite rebels which took place here following the trouble at Mayfield. However, as much as I’m a fan of folklore, I’m also a lover of linguistics and my suspicion the story was derived from the bridge’s name, and not vice versa, was confirmed by David Horovitz’s epic research into the place names of Staffordshire which reveals that the structure was first recorded as Le Hongindebrugge in 1296, nearly 450 years before Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops are said to have met their end here. Of course that only raises more questions about what ‘hanging’ actually refers to here. I’ve been thinking about it for over an hour and now I’m handing it over to you, as the best I can come up with is a rope bridge. Ainsi et mieux peut etre….

Hanging Bridge, Mayfield by John M [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Hanging Bridge, Mayfield by John M [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sources:
http://www.mayfieldparishchurch.org/history-churchyard.html

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/397633_vol2.pdf

‘Discovering Mayfield’ leaflet 2012 produced by Mayfield Heritage Group

Abbey Road

I was still feeling the effects of the lunar eclipse in the early hours of Monday on Tuesday morning. Not in a spiritual way, I was just knackered from staying up. However Croxden, the first stop on my rambles around the North of the shire last week, was a sight for my sore eyes. The tiny village is dominated by the ruins of a Cistercian Abbey founded in 1176 by Bertram de Verdun of Alton Castle (1) for the souls of his predecessors and successors.

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdon. Not open to the public. As I found out...

Remains of 12thc Alton Castle founded by Bertram de Verdun.

What is left of the semi-circular East end of the abbey church, unusual in England and probably inspired by the French designs the Abbey’s patrons would have known, lies to one side of the road that someone decided to cut through the site. The nave, south transept and other monastic buildings lie on the other and you can see a plan showing what is still visible above ground and what has been lost here. In 1288, a priest from Walsall called William de Schepisheved, was given the task of chronicling life inside and out of these Abbey walls.  He worked backwards to 1066 and contemporaneously until 1320 when the entries in his hand stop, although the chronicle continues until 1374.

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn't see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

Blood Moon. Just in case you didn’t see one of the three million photos of it shared online,

We tweeted and shared our photos of the lunar eclipse. William the Chronicler recorded the celestial events he witnessed in the annals. Understandably for him and those of his time, eclipses were considered bad omens, often linked to any conflict, pestilence or bad weather that occurred. William records a solar eclipse in July 1330 and connects it to the floods and unseasonable weather which occurred two months before and for three months after, resulting in a late harvest, “…they had scarcely reaped the last of their corn with the greatest toil on the feast of All Saints and they had at last collected their peas into barns and outhouses on the feast of the blessed apostle Andrew. And what is so remarkable to see and hear, on the feast of All Saints and of St Martin fresh peas in their shells were given to the convent in the refectory instead of pears and apples”.  Another notable event in July 1301 appears in the Abbey’s annals describing how, “on the day of the Blessed Mary Magdalene, about the sixth hour, a great earthquake took place, to such an extent that all the persons in the convent, being at their first refection, were dismayed with a sudden and unlooked-for trembling”.

The chronicle also documents a connection between the abbey and Lichfield. William recorded that on Easter Eve in 1313, the great bell of the Monastery was broken by mischance and a man called Henry Michel came from Lichfield with his youths to cast another. It was reported that his first attempt failed but he started afresh and completed by the Festival of All Saints. It seems likely that this was Henry the Bellfounder who granted Lichfield’s Franciscan Friars the springs near Aldershawe which would later supply water to the whole of the city.

Plaque on Lichfield's Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

Plaque on Lichfield’s Clock Tower, the base of which was once the water conduit which stood near the Friary.

As well as life at the abbey, Death inevitably also features in the chronicle. There are the descriptions of the burials of the Verdun family including that of Lady Joan Furnival, eldest daughter and heir of Theobald de Verdun, who on October 2nd 1334, “was taken by untimely death in childbirth; for on the day she died she was only thirty years and almost two months” and was “buried near her ancestors between Lord Nicholas de Verdun, son of the founder, and her ancestor and Lord John de Verdun, her great-grandfather”. Their now empty stone coffins can be seen alongside the ruins at the east end of the church.

DSCF0302

Stone coffins at Croxden.

The entry for 1349 simply and bleakly says, ” There was a great pestilence throughout the whole world.” Nothing more. No indication of how many succumbed to and how many survived the plague here in Croxden.  The following year, 1350, another single sentence notes, “This year was a jubilee” (2), and then there is nothing until the harrowing entry made in 1361 which records, ” A second pestilence took place, and all the children that were born since the first pestilence died.” In the absence of detail, I did a little reading between the lines. After ten years, plague had reared its ugly head again and although overall mortality rates were lower than in the first outbreak, the disproportionate number of deaths amongst the young in this second wave led to it being known as ‘the Children’s Plague’. Was this was because those who had survived the plague the first time around had some sort of immunity that the children born subsequently did not? I don’t know. I’m not sure that anyone does for sure. In 1369, another ‘visitation’ is recorded.

West front of the Abbey Church

Five years later the Chronicle ends but not before recording two further natural disasters affecting the Abbey – a flood destroying all the grass growing near the water together with all the bridges across the River Churnet, and a tempest which took the lead off the dormitory, infirmary, and abbot’s chamber, throwing down half the trees in the orchard. Plague and poor harvests took their toll and by the end of the fourteenth century, the Abbey was in decline.

DSCF0278

One thing that doesn’t seem to appear in the Chronicle is the ‘fact’ that King John’s Heart is buried at Croxden. Possibly because it isn’t. I first came across the claim in Arthur Mee’s guide to Staffordshire and since have found several other sources saying the same, including William White’s Directory of Staffordshire (1851), Samuel Lewis’ Topical Directory of England (1831) and The Gentleman’s Magazine (1823). Trouble is other, more reliable sources say it’s at Croxton, Leicestershire including the Charter Roll of 1257. I’m sorry to say, I think we have to concede this one to our foxy neighbours.

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from "HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

A drawing of the effigy of King John in Worcester Cathedral from “HISTORY OF ENGLAND by SAMUEL R. GARDINER

The King’s bowels were also said to have been removed at the time of his death and buried somewhere in Croxton, and to quote Simon Schama, their removal left John, ‘as gutless in death as he was said to have been in life’. The majority of John’s body rests in Worcester Cathedral, although more in pieces than at peace. When the tomb was opened in 1797, it became apparent that the bones had been disturbed, with the jaw lying by an elbow and all but four of the teeth and most of the finger bones missing – the King’s hands presumably having fallen into the hands of souvenir hunters.

The end of the road for Croxden came on 7 September 1538 when Dr. Thomas Leigh and William Cavendish received the surrender of the abbey and the roof was removed to prevent the Abbot and resident six monks from continuing to use the site. Although Croxden Abbey has been privately owned since then, it has been under state guardianship since 1936. Today, the ruins are cared for by English Heritage and it’s absolutely free to go and explore them (although I’m sure they’d appreciate a donation). Unlike staying up all night to watch a lunar eclipse, I can highly recommend it. More information on visiting and directions here.

Notes

(1) I had no idea there was a castle at Alton until I went to Alton with a friend and saw a sign for it. As we found out, it is not open to the public.

(2) I suspected that a jubilee in this context did not mean what I thought it did so I of course googled it and discovered that jubilee years had been started by Pope Boniface in 1300, and to be celebrated every hundred years thereafter. However, Pope Clement VI later amended this as people’s average lifespan was too short and so many would not live to see one. Plus there was money to be made from pilgrims. Pope Paul II later amended the frequency of jubilee years to be every twenty five. For anyone interested, the next one will be in 2025.

Sources:

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/094-2009web.pdf

Self-representation of Medieval Religious Communities  Anne Müller, Karen Stöber

CROXDEN ABBEY: ITS HISTORY AND ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES.

BY CHARLES LYNAM )(North Staffordshire Field Club)

The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, Volume 89, Part 2

Capturing The Castle

This year’s Heritage Open Days are now in full swing and yesterday a friend of mine took me on a grand day out to Astley Castle in Warwickshire. I’m sure I could find a tenuous link to Lichfield if I looked hard enough, but why be parochial when there’s an opportunity to share a stunning example of how even our most neglected historic buildings can be given a sustainable future? Even if it is in Warwickshire. Anyway, I really like castles.

Astley Castle exterior - new bricks built into ancient stones

Astley Castle exterior – new bricks built into ancient stones

I’ve never seen one quite like this though. Actuallly, it’s more fortified manor house than castle, but it has crenellations and a moat and has been associated with three English queens so let’s not quibble too much over nomenclature. The fortified manor house castle has fallen into varying states of disrepair at various points throughout its seven hundred year history but it was a fire in 1978, and the subsequent vandalism, theft and collapse, that rendered Astley a complete ruin. In the late 1990s, the Landmark Trust (1) attempted to rescue the property using conventional restoration and conversion methods but it was financially and technically impossible. However, the Trust refused to give up on Astley and returned to the property in 2005. Accepting that parts of the building were now beyond repair, they held an architectural competition with a brief to create a four bedroomed house to sleep eight people at the castle. Ideas ranged from building an new house in the grounds, which would have made the castle itself the world’s grandest garden shed (“Have you seen the tool box, love? Think it’s in the Jacobean wing, next to the hosepipe”.) to building a new house behind the retained facade (2). The design that won the competition, and went on to win the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize was created by Witherford Watson and Mann architects. In my very humble opinion, it blends and bonds the ancient and modern together magnificently. I’ve seen it described as a reinvention rather than a restoration and perhaps that is the way forward. After all, as one of the project architects said, when you have a building that has been continually altered to meet the needs of its inhabitants over a span of seven hundred years, which point in time do you choose to restore it to?

A room with a view

A room with a view

astley castle ruins from windown

Another one

Of course, following our visit I now really want to stay there (I don’t have a bucket list but I am going to start one so I can put ‘have a bath at Astley Castle on it’). I’d say that about anywhere with a bed and a bit of history though. What’s different about Astley is it’s possibly the first historic building I’ve visited where ideas about the present and the future have captured my imagination more than stories about the past. At a place where those stories include that of the fugitive Henry ‘father of Lady Jane’ Grey hiding in a nearby hollow oak, being betrayed by a servant and executed at the Tower of London, and returning afterwards to haunt his former home minus his head, that’s quite an achievement.

Immerse yourself in history

Immerse yourself in history

(1) The Landmark Trust is a conservation charity which rescues at risk historic buildings by restores them using traditional techniques and makes them available for holiday lettings.

(2) Bingo! There’s our tenuous Lichfield link. I’m sure I remember this being proposed (and subsequently rejected) as an idea for the Victoria Hospital.

astley castle exterior

On the Rocks

Lichfield is about as far as you can get from the sea. Somebody once wrote to the Guardian to say there was a plaque somewhere in the city making this claim but I’ve never seen it. However, being stuck in the middle of the country has not prevented the formation of the Lichfield Lighthouse Company, a group who meet at the Kings Head to sing sea shanties each month. It also didn’t stop me from heading out to look for shells in the city centre yesterday.

I’d read about the London Pavement Geology project over breakfast and I persuaded the other half to put his geology degree to good use and help me find out what Lichfield is made of, other than the ubiquitous sandstone (lovely though it is).

Lichfield Cathedral on Martyrs Plaque, Beacon Park

Lichfield Cathedral on Martyrs Plaque made from sandstone

Our first port of call was another of landlocked Lichfield’s nautical links. Unless you live under a rock, you’ll probably be familiar with Beacon Park’s statue of Captain Smith which someone from Hanley in Stoke on Trent tries to appropriate whenever there’s a new chapter in the Titanic story, due to the mistaken belief that the statue was originally intended for their town. On this occasion, it wasn’t the bronze captain but the plinth he was stood on that interested me. The nearby plaque told me it was Cornish Granite, a material which has also been used at the Titanic Memorial in London and the memorial at Belfast. I wonder whether there are any symbolic reasons for choosing this stone alongside the practical and aesthetic ones?

Captain Smith plaque, Beacon Park

Captain Smith plaque, Beacon Park

Not far from the Captain, King Edward VII stands on a base made of Hopton Wood stone. Get up close and you can see that the limestone is full of fossils including (and please correct me if I’m wrong) corals, crinoids and brachiopods from around 350 million years ago when the area that was to eventually become Derbyshire was under water. Lichfield wasn’t always so far from the sea!  It seems a similar stone has been used for the plinth Samuel Johnson sits on in the Market Square, as that too is full of fossils.

Samuel Johnson statue, Market Square, Lichfield

Samuel Johnson statue, Market Square, Lichfield

Fossils in Dr Johnson statue Fossils in Dr Johnson statue 2Of all the building materials we saw on our travels, the most unusual were to be found in a wall on Christchurch Lane. According to a booklet on the history of Leomansley compiled by the Friends of Christ Church, it was built by Cloggie Smith who used anything suitable that he had in his yard at the time. So, no Portland Stone here, just two Belfast Sinks. Are there any other examples of unorthodox construction materials used in and around the city?

Wall mounted Belfast sink

Wall mounted Belfast sink

You’ve probably guessed that I am way out of my depth when talking about geology, but the point is that after eleven years, seven months and two days here in Lichfield, someone made me look afresh at things so familiar that I barely saw them any more. Sometimes, the most amazing things are right under your nose. Or, in this case, under Dr Johnson’s and King Edward VII’s noses.

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King Edward VII statue Lichfield Fossils in King Edward VII statue Lichfield

 

Not All About that Bass

Last Sunday, I had an appointment at Burton upon Trent and wanted to make an afternoon of it. However, it seemed unfair on my designated driver to make him explore the town’s famous brewing industry without being able to sample a drop of ale and so I thought we’d base our trip on water instead, and whilst doing a bit of research for this, I found a great story about air.

Winshill tower

Winshill Water Tower, also known as Waterloo Tower as it stands in front of woodland planted in 1815 to commemorate the battle, was built by the South Staffordshire Water Company in 1907 to improve water pressure in the area. Since the 1990s, the 50,000 gallon capacity tank has been empty and the tower’s only practical purpose has been to host communications aerials and masts on its summit. It’s a much loved Burton landmark though, supposedly visible from wherever you are in the town. (1)

Winshill water tower

During Burton Aviation week, held from 26th September to 1st October 1910, flags were flown from the tower to signal to the crowds gathered on on Bass Meadows (1) whether flights had been suspended due to wind or whether another flight was imminent. An advertising poster for the event announcing that Helene Dutrieu (2) would be one of the seven fliers and carrying passengers can be seen here.

Helene Dutrieu (image from wikipedia)

Helene Dutrieu, pioneering aviator and much, much more. Image from Wikipedia

Due to high winds, nothing much happened on the first day of the show. On day two however, things got very exciting, and not just for people gathered on Bass Meadows. News had reached Lichfield that some of the pilots would be flying around the Cathedral in an attempt to win a cup given by the Marquis of Anglesey for the fastest round trip. Large crowds assembled around Minster and Stowe Pools, in the Cathedral Close (it was even reported that there were people up the central spire) and on the Burton Road. At quarter past five in the afternoon, Julien Mamet whirred into sight on his Bleuriot plane, swept around the north side of the Cathedral, flew south over Christ Church and the Bowling Green and headed back for Burton where he arrived at fourteen minutes later. There was a lot of cheering and waving of hats and hankies (what would we wave nowadays? Nothing probably, we’d be too busy trying to record it on our phones). An hour later, a shout went up as another Bleuriot, this time piloted by Paul de Lesseps, was spotted. The Mercury reports that although De Lesseps lost his bearings by following the wrong train line somewhere around Wychnor Junction, he managed to find them again, approaching the city from the South and flying parallel to Bird Street above the heads of the crowd.

By this time it was dusk and De Lesseps, deciding he would be unable to reach Burton before dark, landed his aircraft in a field belonging to Grange Farm on Wheel Lane, clipping the tail on a fence (it was later reported that De Lesseps had only narrowly missed the roof of the farmhouse). As darkness fell back at Bass Meadow, the mood changed from excitement to concern. Mamet had flown up to meet his rival, but saw no sign of him.  As spectators lit bonfires, flares and lamps in the hope they would guide De Lesseps safely back to Burton, a search party set off in the direction of Lichfield. Eventually, they found De Lesseps in the field, signing scraps of paper for a crowd of autograph hunters by matchlight. The damaged plane was taken charge of by the police, and De Lesseps was taken to the George Hotel, where he informed a crowd gathered at the steps that he hoped to fly back to Burton at four the following afternoon, once he had made the necessary repairs.

Well, that was the plan anyway. Flying back to Burton, however, in an attempt to break the record for flying at high altitude, De Lesseps missed the town altogether.  There was another anxious wait for the crowd who had seen De Lesseps flying over at a great height before disappearing in the direction of Derby. Eventually, a message was received that he had landed safely at Colwick Hall near Nottingham.

De Lesseps’ return journey to Burton had was also not without drama. As he flew over Meadow Lane, where Notts County were playing Bristol City, he caused such a sensation that the match had to be stopped for a for a few minutes as the crowd, players and officials gazed upwards.  Unfortunately, the referee, a Reverend Marsh, forgot to adjust his watch, blew his whistle four minutes too early and had to call the players, some of whom had already started to get changed, back out out of the dressing rooms to finish the match. As if this wasn’t a memorable enough occasion already, it was apparently also The Magpies’ first victory at their new ground (where’s this guy when you need him?).

Aerial view of Meadow Lane (and City Ground. I did not realise how close they were!) Wonder how much has changed since De Lesseps saw it from a similar perspective?

Aerial view of Meadow Lane (and City Ground. I did not realise how close they were!) Wonder how much has changed since De Lesseps saw it from a similar perspective?

Mamet may have taken the prize for the out and home Burton to Lichfield flight, but De Lesseps definitely stole the show.

Notes

(1) On my next trip, I plan to take the bus and check whether it is really visible from everywhere, including several beer gardens.

(2) Bass Meadows was an area of land owned by the brewing company and used to provide sports facilities for their employees.

(3) Helene Dutrieu was a racing and stunt cyclist, a racing car driver and a pioneering aviator. During the First World War, Dutrieu became an ambulance driver and director of a military hospital and later become a journalist. More about her incredible life here.

Sources:

Lichfield Mercury Archives

http://www.burton-on-trent.org.uk