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.

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

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

 

Up Letocetum

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.

Wall-Open-Day-

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”.

Stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what's thought to be a shield.

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...se if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site...

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

The Words and the Bees

I had an hour to kill down in Lichfield and it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never looked to see if there was any graffiti, medieval or otherwise, on or in Lichfield Cathedral.

Cathedral graffiti 2 Cathedral graffiti

cathedral graffiti 3

The exterior of the south door turned out to be a rich source of names and initials, some dating back to the mid-eighteenth century. Nearby there’s a daisy wheel, a compass drawn symbol which appears in churches, but also in secular buildings, all over the country. There’s a lovely and much clearer example up the road at All Saints Church in Kings Bromley. Although some believe daisy wheels were used by masons for practical purposes, the general consensus is that most of them were intended to be ritual protection marks. Our Lichfield Cathedral example is faint, and as you can see, barely visible on the photograph. Far better to go and take a look yourself (and try to spot some more graffiti whilst you are there of course!).

Daisy wheel Lichfield cathedral

As well as being a graffiti magnet, the Cathedral also seems to attract bees. I remember last year, Denise Peters took a photo of a swarm of honey bees in The Close for day sixty one of our one hundred days in Lichfield project and there was of course the masonry bees eating the Cathedral drama of 2008. I am assured that the two dozen or so I saw this afternoon are of the honey rather than masonry variety.  Perhaps they were there looking for daisies too?

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Brideshand Revisited

Last Summer, I wrote about the ‘Bride’s Hand’ carved into the stonework of the south porch of St James the Great at Longdon. It’s an old tradition that brides arriving at the church would place their own hand against it, in the hope that it would bring good fortune and fertility to their impending marriage. Apparently, some twenty-first century Longdon brides-to-be still partake in this ritual.

The 'Bride's Hand' Carving, St James the Great, Longdon

The ‘Bride’s Hand’ Carving, St James the Great, Longdon

Yesterday, I was idly scrolling through Twitter when two hands, similar to the one at Longdon, grabbed my attention. The image had been taken from Timothy Easton’s article on symbols which appears in the Winter edition of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings‘ magazine (1), and the carvings themselves are to be found on the south doors of two churches in the neighbouring Gloucestershire villages of Ampney St Mary and Ampney Crucis.  Until now, I wasn’t sure whether the Bride’s Hand was just a quirky bit of history unique to Longdon but the appearance of similar symbolism, in a similar position, at churches one hundred miles south of here suggests not. Timothy Easton believes that the carvings were added to send a very definite ‘Stop!’ sign to any evil spirits attempting to sneak inside.

South porch of St James, Longdon where the carving can be found.

South porch of St James, Longdon where the carving can be found.

As anyone who follows the Medieval Graffiti project will know, these hands are just one of the many types of markings that can be found in our churches. Some were an attempt to ward off evil spirits and no doubt some were an attempt to ward off boredom. St James the Great may be filled with beautiful carvings but I can’t help being drawn to these ones that aren’t really supposed to be there. For me, a crudely etched protective symbol and Joseph Nevill’s graffiti trump the Forster family’s weeping cherubs and marble tombs. Hands down.

Longdon graffiti

Graffiti at St James the Great, Longdon

Longdon carvings

The Stoneywell Chapel, used as a private chapel between 1520 and 1944, by families including the Ormes and the Forsters, former owners of nearby Hanch Hall

Longdon graffiti 2

Graffiti at St James the Great, Longdon

The tomb of John Forster, Hanch Hall

The tomb of John Forster, Hanch Hall

(1) Which their press officer very kindly sent to me after I sent an excited tweet telling them I’d seen one just like that.

The Odd Couple

According to Pevsner, the Church of St Lawrence features some of the most exciting Norman work in the county.  Here be dragons and other fantastical creatures, Saxon and Scandinavian influences, a green man and other ancient faces. There are no wolves though.

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Carving at Gnosall

Carving at Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Legend has it that the last wolf in Staffordshire was killed here in Gnosall in a pit near Brough Hall and that the effigy in the Lady Chapel is that of its slayer, Baron Brough  As much as I wish it were true, there is no evidence for this tale and no reason to believe the Baron ever even existed outside of Gnosall mythology. Several other names have been linked with the alabaster knight over the years, but his true identity remains unknown. Whilst such personal details are lacking, there is physical detail here in abundance, from the broken angel and the helmet at his head, to the lion at his now missing feet and experts have used these features to date the monument to the early fifteenth century. In recent years, the knight has been joined by the church’s only other effigy, taken from the recess on the opposite side of the church known as the Easter Sepulchre.

Two effigies at Gnosall church

Two effigies at Gnosall church

The unknown knight of Gnosall

Defaced – the unknown knight of Gnosall

Gnosall effigy belt

Even less is know about this second effigy, but due to its diminutive stature, it is often described as depicting a child. However, after visiting the church, words that I’d read in a paper by Dr Sophie Oosterwijk in relation to the famous Stanley Boy monument at Elford came back into my mind – “A small-sized tomb may deceive the beholder into thinking that it must commemorate a child, but there may be other explanations”. One of Dr Oosterwijk’s other explanations is that these tiny tombs may represent heart burials. It’s not only the size of the effigy that’s convinced me that someone left their heart here in Gnosall, but also the position of his or her hand over the chest, a feature it has in common with another example thought to be a fourteenth century heart burial at Coberley in Gloucestershire.

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Despite the abundance of surviving Romanesque architecture here, the church is missing its original font.  However, at nearby Bradley. and Church Eaton there are examples which date to the twelfth century and recall some of the patterns and themes found at Gnosall, perhaps giving us an idea of what the Norman font at St Lawrence may have looked like. Interestingly, the broken Church Eaton font was reinstated at St Editha’s after apparently being found buried in a garden, and so it’s possible that Gnosall’s is out there somewhere, awaiting discovery under someone’s lawn.

One of Gnosall’s most intriguing features can be found outside, high on the south side of the church where stonemasons (we assume) who extended the tower in the mid fifteenth century have carved a large chalice into the stonework alongside the belfry window.

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Less mysterious in origin, but still of interest, are the grooves along the wall, said to have been created by the sharpening of arrows when the grounds were used for archery practice.

Arrow grooves, Gnosall Church

Arrow grooves at Gnosall Church

There is also a rumour that this wall of the church bears the scars of target practice during the Civil War (Rodwell: 223). What we do know for certain about the church of St Lawrence and the civil war is that there are two soldiers buried here. The parish register records that on 1st October 1642, a tall young man known as John Bayne (or Bayle), ‘one of the King’s souldiers’, was buried here and that on 25th March 1643, David James, another of ‘the King’s souldiers’, was laid to rest. The date of the second may be especially significant, coming less than a week after the Battle of Hopton Heath, fought just ten miles away. Amidst the other burials and baptisms of the parish register, an interesting entry appears on an otherwise blank page. At some time between 20th March 1684 and 19th April 1685, an ‘unlettered’ hand has written the following:

Fere god and honour the King
Honor your parents at all times
Wimins tongues air like [unfinished]

Whether the writer of the verse was interrupted or simply ran out of inspiration is unknown, but we are left to draw our own conclusions on the nature of  ‘wimins tongues’. However, when it comes to singing the praises of this incredible building, I shall not be holding mine. See it for yourself on the weekend of 4th/5th July 2015, when the Church of St Lawrence, including the tower, will be open for tours as part of the G-Fest celebrations held in the village each year. Now that is exciting.

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall/

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall

With thanks to Norman and Sheila Hailes, for their tour and invaluable knowledge of the church, and to Kathleen Ingram and Cllr Kenneth Ingram and the other residents of Gnosall, for showing us around not once, but twice!

References:

Rodwell,W. (2012) The Archaeology of Churches Stroud: Amberley

Oosterwijk, S. (2010)  Deceptive appearances. The presentation of children on medieval tombs Ecclesiology Today

http://www.gnosallweb.org.uk/articles/stlawren.htm