The Leomansley Witch Project

Imagine you’re watching a horror film. A woman heads into ancient woods which are shrouded in mist. And before long, she comes across a tree. With an eye stuck to it.

leomansley-mist

Chances are at this point in the film, you’d be shouting, ‘Don’t go in there. Run away!, whilst feeling smugly confident behind your cushion that you’d never be as stupid as to stay hanging around in mist shrouded woods where there are eyes stuck to trees. Well, I was in Leomansley Woods earlier this week. It was shrouded in mist and there was an eye on a tree. But did I leg it? No. And not just because I don’t do running under any circumstances.

woods-oct-16-2

If something wicked that way had come, I had Finn the swamp dog to protect me and my experience of fighting off a clown in Beacon Park earlier in the month to draw upon. Crucially though, I know and love these woods and consider the tokens and trinkets that have been appearing there since the summer more curious than creepy, possibly symbols of someone else’s affection for them.

finn-swamp-dog

Back in 2004, when I was a newcomer to these parts, I remember getting a call from my sister telling me to go and take a look in the woods as somebody, or more likely somebodies, had created works of art in amongst the trees. There were mosaics created from leaves and petals, clay faces sculpted onto the trunks of trees and brightly coloured papers hanging from their branches. For reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t take any photographs but I can clearly recall the sense of mystery and magic someone had created in the woods that day. We never discovered who or why and there was no encore. The seasons turned and the years went by and then, early this summer, we began to notice things. At first it was subtle. A pebble placed here, a strip of silver birch bark there. It was the first piece of pottery appearing lodged in the knot of a tree that convinced us this was more than the handy work of squirrels and our overactive imaginations. Dog walks took on a new dimension as every day seemed to bring something new. I’m sure at its peak, others were joining in and making their own contributions. And this time I did bring my camera.

woods-june-2016-3

leomansley-woods-june-2016

woods-june-2016-6

woods-june-2016-4

As the summer faded, the activity seemed to wane, and I’d assumed there would be no more. The other half took over the dog walks for a while but recently, for reasons involving a prolapsed disc, I took up the lead once again. Many of the original tree decorations had vanished but a handful of hawthorn berries, melted candle wax and a tickle of feathers (that’s genuinely and rather pleasingly the collective noun for them) had taken their place. Interestingly, others seem to be joining in once again, including the Leomansley contingent of the One Direction fan club.

leomansley-wood-berries

woods-oct-16-3

Woods Oct 2016.jpgwoods-oct-16

Once again, the who and why is a mystery, and perhaps that is how it should remain. Whether activity continues beyond the season of the witch or not, for me, Leomansley Woods will always remain a magical place.leomansley-cobweb

amelia-bluebellssun.jpg

 

 

Advertisements

Prior Engagement

Yesterday, I visited Hawkesyard, a place known to previous generations by a variety of names including Le Hawkeserd in Hondesacre, Armitage Park, Spode House and Hawkesyard Priory. The first house known to have existed here was a moated manor owned by the Rugeley Family, who appear to have had a variety of spellings for their own name. According to an article in the Lichfield Mercury on February 3rd 1950,  a document describing the funeral of Richard Rugeley, who, ‘…departed this mortal and transitory life on Saturday night, the 5th July 1623 at his house at Hawkesyard’, was signed by Symn Ruggeley, Thirkell Rugeley, Henry Rugley and Thomas Rugsley.

Information on the early days of Hawkesyard is sketchy but it’s thought the original hall, pulled down in 1665, was much closer to the River Trent, about half a mile to the west of Armitage Church. Nothing is thought to remain and nothing much more is known about Hawkesyard until 1760, when the estate was renamed ‘Armitage Park’ by Nathaniel Lister, who built a gothic style mansion on the sandstone hill above the site of the original hall. Beneath Lister’s new house was a plaque recording that, ‘These cellars were cut out of the rock by Richard Benton and Sons, anno Domini 1760, for Nathaniel Lister, Esq.’ Perhaps it’s still there?

Hawkesyard Hall, Armitage by Jason Kirkham

Hawkesyard Hall, Armitage by Jason Kirkham

From the 1840s, Hawkesyard was home to Mary Spode and her son Josiah, the fourth generation of the Stoke on Trent pottery dynasty, and the first not to work in the family business. Mary died in 1860, and Josiah’s wife Helen died eight years later. Both are buried at St John the Baptist in Armitage, the Anglican parish church where Josiah was the organ player and warden. Despite these strong links to St John’s, Josiah Spode converted to Catholicism in 1885, along with his niece Helen Gulson, who lived with him at Hawkesyard. On his death in 1893, Spode requested that Helen should continue to live at Hawkesyard until her death, after which the estate should be passed to the English Dominican Order of Friars. However, Helen decided to move out of the hall and into a cottage on the estate, allowing work on the new Priory and Church to begin almost immediately. Some say that this decision was inspired by a vision of the Virgin Mary appearing to Helen in the grounds of the estate, and that the altar of the new Priory Church of St Thomas Aquinas was supposedly erected over the site of this apparition.

The Priory Church at Armitage by Jason Kirkham

The Priory Church at Armitage by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by JAson Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

Priory Church by Jaosn Kirkham

Priory Church by Jason Kirkham

The Dominicans left Hawkesyard in 1988, but their benefactors and some of their brethren remain. Josiah Spode and Helen Gulson are interred in a small chapel within the Priory Church, and outside in the gardens, are the simple concrete crosses marking the graves of monks.

Monks' Cemetery, Hawkesyard

Monks’ Cemetery, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

As beautiful as the church is, it’s the gardens at Hawkesyard with their subterranean features, which have captured my imagination. They appear to have had the same effect on this reporter from the Lichfield Mercury, who visited in the Summer of 1935, and wrote the following description:

Down weather-worn and feet-worn steps, through charming little rockery glades, rich with lichens, ferns and its more wild brother – bracken- time and nature has made this wonderful spot more beautiful in its wildness. Some pathways lead down through fine old arches, gloriously hewn or erected deep into the bowels of the earth, or so it appeared; while others lead gradually upwards through narrow passages. Opening into a small glade we suddenly came across the entrance to the well-known underground passage which, descending steeply, rises just as abruptly in another part of the rockery, far remote from each other. Today this passage is awesome in appearance, the ground underfoot being feet deep with decaying leaves, and only the most venturesome pass out of the light of day into its unknown blackness. It was a curious and certainly thrilling experience to traverse this maze of paths. Another similar grotto housed a large shelter, carved in stone and the actual rock; a sort of summerhouse with a double archway entrance. In another we discovered some beautiful carving in white stone of three saintly figures, obviously beautifully carved, but decaying and rotting with age. We could not discover their identity or purpose, although they surmounted what could easily have been a small natural altar, secluded in the quiet of this wonderful grotto.

Eighty years later, there are no saints to be found in this wild part of Hawkesyard. Time and nature have now ravaged its beauty but have not diminished its curiosity. Several theories exist as to who carved these grottos and tunnels out of the rock and why, but as an investigation into the overgrown site in the mid 1990s concluded, ‘the function of all the above is not clear’. Any ideas?

Sunken Garden, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Sunken Garden, Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Hollow rock at Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

Hollow rock at Hawkesyard by Jason Kirkham

 

Sources

Photos by Jason Kirkham

http://www.hawkesyardestate.com

Hawkesyard, Armitage, Staffordshire: A Documentary and Field Assessment. Chris Welch

Staffordshire Parks and Gardens Register Review (1993-96). Parts I and II. Staffordshire County Council

http://www.armitagewithhandsacre.co.uk

http://www.staffordshiregardensandparks.org/images/Newsletter/Issue40

Lichfield Mercury Archive

A Lost Place

A couple of years ago, I learned that there had once been a place in Lichfield known as Bessy Banks Grave. Appearing on several old maps, the name is also referred to in a newspaper advertisement from 1914, but seems to have disappeared shortly afterwards. The plot of land was in The Dimbles area and I suspect that the name may have been lost when the council began building houses there in the early twentieth century.

Attempts to discover the story behind the name led to a poem written by Anna Seward for her friend Honora Sneyd, at the place known as Bessy Banks Grave, which Miss Seward refers to as ‘the grave of a suicide’.

“It suits the temper of my soul to pour
Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower,
Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears,
Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years,
Slung her dire cord between the sister trees,
That slowly bend their branches to the breeze,
And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form,
From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm….”

David Garrick also knew the place, adding that it was supposedly haunted and in 1805, John Jackson remarked that the spot was ‘once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy (sic) is said to have fallen victim to hapless love’.

After reading the original post, “Margaret” left a comment to say that she had found a poem called ‘The Circuit Lane’, in the 1859 book ‘Rustic Rhymes’, by Frederick Price. The Circuit Lane marked part of the boundary of Lichfield, as can be seen in the following extract which appears in several history books from the early nineteenth century:

“… and so along that little cross lands unto another lane that leadeth from Lichfield to King’s Bromley and then along that lane towards Lichfield unto a little lane lying between the Grange Ground and Collin’s Hill Field commonly called the Circuit lane unto the further end of it betwixt two fields the one called Hic filius and the other Piper’s Croft and so over across a lane that leadeth from Lichfield to Elmhurst and then into another little lane between Stichbrooke Ground and Gifforde’s Crofte and so along that little lane to a green lane at the further side of the Lady Leasowe being the land of Zachary Babington Esquire and down that lane to a brook called Pone’s Brook and so over that brook into another lane called Stepping stones lane…”

As well as painting a picture of a disappeared landscape, Frederick Price’s poem also refers to the lost story of Bessy Banks. The full poem is here, but I have included an excerpt below

Daisy, ladysmock, and kingcup,
And the broad-leaved flag so gay,
With which we in pride would prink up
Doorsteps on the first of May –
Where bright flies their wings are sunning
Where shells strangely marked are found
Where the rippling brook is running
In which Bessy Banks was drowned.

Pass we these, and onward pressing
Where o’er head tall elm trees wave,
‘Tween banks rich in Nature’s dressing
Till we come to Bessy’s grave:
Here four cross-roads meet; a green mound
Indicates her place of rest;
Few spots are more lone, I ween, found
On old England’s face imprest.

Hawthorn blossoms fall and slumber
O’er where the betrayed one lies –
One more victim to the number
Sung in great Hood’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’
The betrayer, in corruption,
Lies in fetid church-yard soil,
Where e’en earthworms meet destruction
Fit ‘last home’ for one so vile.

Hence the lane has been neglected
From that time : the rustic swain
Since that hour the road rejectes
Nor dare traverse it again
Burdocks, thistles, nettles, tansy,
And the nightshade flourish there;
But the primrose or the pansey
Scarce are known to blossom near.

You’ll notice that Price’s version of the story differs from the earlier one told by Anna Seward. Perhaps the clue to this lies in the reference Price makes to ‘Hood’s Bridge of Sighs’, relating to the poem by Thomas Hood, written in 1844 and said by the Victoria and Albert Museum to be a ‘classic stereotype of the harlot and her destiny‘?

 

 

Christ Church Open Day

I’m delighted to see that Christ Church, Lichfield is having an open day. On Saturday 9th March, between 10am and 4pm, visitors will be able to explore this wonderful Victorian building and its architectural features, including the lovely chancel ceiling, original Minton tiles and stained glass, with the help of local history enthusiasts.

The grounds are lovely at this time of year, and a quick check of my photographs from last March tells me that the wild garlic and daffodils should be coming through in the lane alongside the church, so don’t forget to have a look outside as well as in.  There are also the intriguing stone heads around the inside and outside the building, that I wrote about back in January and am still none the wiser about (although I did see some very similar ones at St Michael’s –  a church that Thomas Johnson the architect was involved in restoring a few years before her started work here at Christ Church)!

The open day is being run by the new Friends of Christ Church, a group whose aim is to support the preservation, conservation and enhancement of the church and its grounds. I understand that anyone who becomes a member will receive an annual newsletter with details of upcoming events and projects to get involved in, and also a copy of the excellent book “Christchurch: A History”, which tells the story of the church, and the associated buildings in the area such as Christ Church School, The Old Vicarage, the cottage in the churchyard and Beacon Place (gone but not without a trace….).

More information can be found at www.christchurch-lichfield.org.uk/events or by email friendsofccl@btinternet.com.

 

ExpLore – Lanes Around Leomansley

Walking is such a pleasure. I get seriously itchy feet if deprived for more than a day or so, and my spirits are always lifted after a good old trudge around. Exploring somewhere for the first time is fantastic, but I also love to walk around the places I know. It somehow gives me feel warm and comfortable feeling, like a favourite old cardigan. And of course, sometimes there can be surprises up even the most familiar sleeve…

I’ve decided I’d like to try and put some walks here so that people can get out and explore for themselves.  One of my best loved walks is of course around Leomansley, so here’s a walk around the lanes that I hope you’ll enjoy doing for yourself. Naturally,  I always encourage straying from the path to investigate something that looks interesting. Getting lost is part of the fun!

Lanes Around Leomansley

The map below gives a rough idea of the route, which is about 2km (depending on how many diversions you take!). I’ve marked some of the points that I think are of interest but of course there may be other things…….Below the map is a PDF with a written version of the route, giving information about each of the points. Hope you enjoy it, I’d like to hear how you get on!

Lanes Around Leomansley walk

 

An Inconstant Stream

According to place name expert Margaret Gelling, Leomansley Brook has a pre-English name. It’s thought the name could contain the Celtic word lēmo, meaning ‘elm’ (1) or lēme meaning ‘limetree’ (2).

1- Conduit Heads; 2 – Start of Leomansley Brook?; 3 Site of Leomansley Mill/House/Manor; 4 – Former Beacon Place fishponds, now Beacon Park boating lake

The brook rises near to the conduit heads at Pipe Hall Farm, Burntwood (at a place I’ve just noticed was also known as The Dimbles, just as the area near to the Circuit Brook is/was!), and crosses the Lichfield/Burntwood boundary, to fill a series of pools on the edge of Leomansley/Sloppy Wood before meandering through Pipe Green.

As mentioned in my previous post, Leamonsley Mill was built on the brook at the edge of Pipe Green in the 1790s. There are a few traces of the industry that was once here – ‘Leomansley Mill Cottage’ is a little further back down the track towards Christ Church Lane and there are also some possibly related brick structures. The second photo shows the place where the brook re-emerges to flow through Pipe Green, and is shown on some maps from the late 19th and early 20th century as a ‘Spout’.

Taken June 2011. On old maps, this is marked as sluice. This part of the watercourse was filled with water once again this weekend

Taken December 2010. Shows as spout on old maps.

I found a recollection by someone who spent the summer of 1984 at the old mill cottages then known as Leomansley House (which they have included a photo of!) producing the first and only issue of what they describe as a ‘local anarcho-DIY philosophy magazine’. In their description of the old house, they describe how Leomansley Brook ran past the front door.

The other stories I’ve found about the pool relate to changes brought about by nature. In February 1902, the frozen pool was used for ice skating.  The Lichfield Mercury reported that on the Friday after the freeze, the pool was quiet, but by Saturday a group of ‘horrid hockey people’ (as one unnamed woman described them) had discovered it and monopolised the best part of the pool.

Another Mercury story, from April 1976 when the artist Eilidh Armour Brown lived at Leomansley House, tells of a water shortage at the pool

Lichfield District Council Staff had been prepared to move fish from Leomansley Pool, after the water levels dropped to a dangerous level for the fish. The fish were to be transferred to Minster Pool until the water level at Leomansley had risen. Luckily a storm that weekend brought the much needed rain and it was no longer necessary.

Things couldn’t have been more different this weekend. The normally dry part of the course along the edge of the woods was full, and levels in the pools were high, as you’d expect.

Taken November 2012. This part of the brook is normally dry.

Taken November 2012. I was told there used to be a bridge somewhere near here for farm carts to cross into the adjacent field.

Taken November 2012

As you can see in the above photo, not only was the brook refilled,  but the water was also claiming parts of the path. I imagine that’s how the name Sloppy Wood came about!

From Pipe Green, the brook is culverted under the A51, and then flows through Beacon Park, filling what used to be the fishponds for Beacon Place (now the boating lake in the park), before finally ending up at Minster Pool.

November 2012 – Through Pipe Green

 

November 2012 – Looking back towards Leomansley House/Mill/Manor!

June 2012 – Leomansley Brook enters Beacon Park via a culvert under the A51. The reason the water looks murky by the pipe is that a little dog was paddling just before I took the photo!

June 2012 – Passing the play area in Beacon Park. This used to be a fish pond for the mansion Beacon Place (demolished 1964).

I don’t know anywhere near as much about streams and brooks as I’d like to but am really interested in them and their importance in the development of our landscape, e.g., the formation of natural boundaries and giving names to places that grew up along them. I’m also fascinated by our relationship with watercourses like these and our attempts to manage them, for better or for worse.

Sources

(1) ‘Lichfield: The place and street names, population and boundaries ‘, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 37-42.

(2) http://finds.org.uk/staffshoardsymposium/papers/mattiasjacobsson

Hidden Depths

Circuit Brook marks part of the northern boundary of the city and runs through the Christian Fields Local Nature Reserve.  Last week I went for a walk to find the brook and found a whole lot more besides.

Despite the blue lines on the map, water was scarce, although some evidence of its presence lingered on in the channels it had forged over the centuries.

For much of the walk, we were separated from the route of the stream by steep embankments and rampant nettles, and at particularly challenging points, both!  Concerned about both the possibility of broken limbs and the availability of dock leaves, I didn’t stray far from the path, and used the zoom on my camera instead. Not very adventurous I know, but at least I lived to tell the tale!

Steeper than it looks! No, really it is!

Zoom.

Amidst the nettles is this green post. Any ideas?

A little way into the walk, watery looking plants and a visible outline convinced us that we’d found the site of the well marked on our Ordnance Survey map.

The smell of mint is what first alerted us to what we think is a well

At the point where we lost the route of the brook altogether we retraced our steps back and tried to pick it up again further upstream. This time the route took us along a flat, public footpath with woodland and fields to our left and the busy western bypass and underpasses to our right,  reminding us that we were right on the fringe of the city here.

Bypass underpass

A footbridge gave us easy access to the stream here, but once again it was dry.

Had we not turned back, we’d have found ourselves in Elmhurst.  What I hadn’t realised at the time was that part of the route apparently dates back to Saxon times, and incorporates an archaeological feature known as ‘The Dimble’. It’s great that the name is still evident in the area today. I’d like to find out more about this ancient walkway (the information I’ve included here is pretty much all I’ve been able to find so far), and also clarify exactly what  a ‘Dimble’ is, as I’ve seen a couple of different definitions.

I was also unaware until reading up on it, that the Christian Fields LNR was a landfill site until the 1980s when it was capped. Twenty or so years of allowing nature (and volunteers) to reclaim the site, has resulted in a place reclaimed for people to enjoy and explore. So go and enjoy & explore!

Notes:

Big thanks to Brownhills Bob for providing me with a map of the site and information about the nature of water, especially the advice to keep an eye on that well…..

Information on Christian Fields LNR taken from http://www.lichfielddc.gov.uk/info/200029/countryside/83/site_management/4