Encrypted

I first heard of the crypt beneath St Editha’s in Tamworth town centre a couple of years back when Mark from Tamworth Time Hikes visited and wrote about the place (see here). A recent article in the Tamworth Herald reminded me of its existence and so with an hour or so to kill in the town before an appointment, I went to take a look for myself.

St Editha's from Tamworth Castle

St Editha’s from Tamworth Castle

Exisiting stonework shows that the church dates back to at least 1080 but it’s thought the Normans may have built on the site of an existing Saxon church. It’s a wonderful mixture of architectural styles, with some beautiful stained glass and monuments to the great and good (and probably not so good) of Tamworth, plus a rare double spiral staircase in the tower. However, with only limited time, all of these wonders would have to wait for another day as I wanted to focus on the crypt.

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In the 1860s, the entrance was apparently down through a trap door and along a narrow passage. These days the crypt is reached via a flight of steps, making it far more accessible, but perhaps a little less atmospheric, especially as what looks like a Mothercare stairgate has been installed to prevent people tumbling to their doom.  Rightly or wrongly, I’m not the sort of woman who goes around opening stairgates without first seeking permission and so I went over to the bookshop to ask.  Here, I got a little distracted from the task in hand and ended up buying a book on ‘The Castles and Moated Mansions of Staffordshire’ (within which I’m sure lie the beginnings of many future wanderings) but soon got back on track and asked about going down into the crypt. Luckily for me, the church guide was sat in a nearby pew reading a newspaper and he offered to take me down there and tell me all about its history.

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One theory is that seven hundred years ago the crypt was part of a stand alone chapel, that may even have been Saxon in origin. At some point in the fourteenth century it was incorporated into the main church. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it started to be used as a charnel house to accommodate the old bones that were disturbed when new graves were being dug in the churchyard. This remained its purpose until 1869, when the crypt was needed to house a boiler and the bones were returned to the churchyard, reburied in the north east corner. I nearly fell off my plastic chair when we were told that there was a plague pit beneath our feet and coffin lids in the roof above our heads, including one thought to have belonged to a crusader and on which faint carvings can still be seen.

You can just about make out the carvings on what is said to be the stone coffin lid of a crusader

You can just about make out the carvings on what is said to be the stone coffin lid of a crusader

I’m assuming the coffins themselves were destroyed during the Victorian renovations, although one does survive in the main body of the church, near the entrance to the Comberford chapel.

One of the stone coffins can now be found outside the Comberford chapel

One of the stone coffins can now be found outside the Comberford chapel

When Mark wrote about the crypt he included this brilliant drawing of it from a Victorian account of Tamworth by Charles Ferrers Raymund Palmer.

According to Ferrers, when he entered the crypt, the bones were stacked up in very regular order and occupied the whole of the east end, where local folklore had it that a passageway ran from here to the Castle. In trying to find this passageway, Ferrers says he made a path through the bones by ‘carefully piling them aside’ but found ‘nothing there, except the remains of the ancient altar; the stone slab of which is gone’. He was unable to examine the floor at the base of the altar as there was nowhere to store the bones, which were ‘so rotten, that they crumbled to pieces beneath our feet’ as ‘in spite of all our efforts, they returned to our feet, and their dull clatter seemed a reproach to us, for disturbing their long and quiet repose in the sacred place’.

Ferrers is clearly made out of sterner stuff than me. Stood in near darkness with the bones of ancient Tamworthians rolling around his feet he even stayed down the crypt long enough to examine an ancient Latin inscription on the wall. Still visible today, the verse is thought to date back to the fourteenth century and is now protected by glass. Apparently it translates as:

O Lord of wealth and power
Thou shalt not live for evermore
Do well whilst life thou hast
If thou should live when death is past

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Crypt Tamworth

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All the guide wanted in return for his time and knowledge, was a comment in the visitor book. So, if you ever go, and I really hope you do because it’s such an incredible place, don’t forget to sign it on the way out (you may notice a comment from a very enthusiastic and delighted Kate Gomez of Lichfield…)

Sources:

The history of the town and castle of Tamworth by Charles Ferrers Raymund Palmer

A Short History and Tour of St Editha’s Church, Tamworth by Stan T Parry

http://tamworthtimehikes.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/the-crypt/

 

Blue Sunday

My second ‘starting off at pub, and exploring the surrounding area’ type walk of the week, but this time with real life swans with just the one neck.

The sunny beer garden at the Red Lion was busy and I couldn’t help but feel that those who chose to remain inside the pub were missing out.  They were, and it wasn’t just the just the sun but also the wonderful sight of a pair of swans gliding down the canal with their eight cygnets. At one point the young ones were startled by a barking dog on one of the moored boats and darted back to huddle around one of their parents.

We began our walk by crossing the Lichfield Road Bridge (aka the Tummy Bridge in my house) to get to the towpath on the opposite side of the canal to the Red Lion. The next bridge along is the Hopwas School Bridge. As the name suggests it is near to the village school, named after founder Thomas Barnes. A lovely example of the local lad made good story, Thomas is said to have been abandoned as a baby, and discovered in a barn by villagers who gave him a surname to represent his humble beginnings. Educated and cared for by the villagers, Thomas became a successful London merchant. Had I walked a little to the right of the school, I would have seen the original schoolmaster’s house with a plaque reading ‘This house was built at the charge of Mr Thomas Barnes native of this place and a citizen of London in the year of our Lord 1717 for the dwelling of a person to teach the children of this village to read English’.

Instead, we kept on walking under the bridge and along the tow path. Something I did wonder about but couldn’t think of any explanation for at the time was the small door in the bridge itself. After doing a bit of post-walk googling it seems it might be a storage place for stop planks, used to block off part of the canal when maintenance work needs to be carried out. I think.

There was also some machinery on the other side of the tow path that looked interesting but again, I’m not quite sure of its purpose.

This, however, I did recognise to be one of the well documented pillboxes that stand in this area, defences against an invasion that thankfully never came.

Growing alongside the pillbox was a hint of what was to come in those infamous and ancient woods about which I’ve heard so much but seen so little, only ever passing by in the car. I’m pleased to say that Hopwas Woods lived up to my expectations, with a display of bluebells that put even my beloved Leomansley Wood in the shade. I attempted to capture it in photos, although they could never do it justice.

From then on I saw blue everywhere – the boats, the sky over the distant towers of Tamworth, a piece of pottery by the side of the canal and, after a big lunch and this short walk, a hammock at the water’s edge that looked very inviting indeed….

 

Dig Days of Summer

Dig the Abbey is a community archaeology project, running over two consecutive summers, where volunteers (many of them local people) are excavating the site of Polesworth Abbey alongside professional archaeologists.

I went along to a Dig the Abbey 2011 tour last summer, not knowing what to expect. I found it so interesting that I was really looking forward to going again this year & took some friends, to see what kind of new discoveries had been made. We weren’t disappointed. Despite the rain, community archaeologist Tim Upson-Smith gave us a great tour of the site and answered all of our many, many questions (they weren’t just about just about the dig at Polesworth but they did all relate to archaeology!).

Amongst other things, we saw in situ medieval floor tiles, a medieval toilet (and learned what a useful find this is!) and a vessel (on which you could see the thumbprints of the potter that crafted it) lifted from the earth just that day. We learned a little about the procedure for the discovery of human remains and how they are dated. We heard about how the discovery of some structures in the trenches has answered questions about how the Abbey would have once looked, but how the discovery of others has created yet more questions.   We were made really nice cups of tea while we waited for the rain to give over a little!  We were so enthralled we forgot to take any photos! Luckily, the dig has its own regularly updated website, with photographs of the finds, maps of the trenches and news reports.

We’re definitely going back again towards the end of the dig. It hardly needs to be said but, if you have an interest in history or archaeology, I highly recommend going and taking a tour yourself. It took us around 30 minutes to get there from Lichfield (but that included unintentionally taking the scenic route through Tamworth town centre!).

Tours run every day of the dig at 2.15pm (1) The final tours will be on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th of September, to coincide with the Open Heritage weekend (2). For more information, visit www.digtheabbey.co.uk

Notes:

(1) Monday to Friday (until 7th September) Saturday (25th August and 1st September)

(2) Please note that the heritage weekend here in Lichfield takes place on 22nd -23rd September, to coincide with the Johnson Birthday celebrations. I don’t want to confuse anyone!

 

Elford Revisited

The estate that Mr Paget handed over to Birmingham City Council in July 1936 was made up of over 600 acres, including the Hall & associated gardens, Home Farm inc. the Park, Cottages, Woodland and part of the River Tame. You can see Elford Hall circa 1790 to the left of the Chruch in the above picture and there are more recent photographs of the Hall on Staffordshire Pasttrack

According to the 1936 Estate Agent’s report, the Hall obtained water from various wells, although water was pumped to the ground floor of the house via a petrol engine (South Staffordshire Water Co was in the process of laying pipes in the village at the time and the agent recommends that the Hall be connected). Sewage was collected in cesspits. Lighting in the Hall’s 16 bedrooms and other rooms was still from oil lamps and candles, although a public electricity supply had recently arrived in the village.

One thing I’m interested in is the relationship Elford Hall & its owners had with the rest of the village. What effect did the unexpected decision to hand over the estate to a public body have on the villagers?  Perhaps a small hint of the role played by the Pagets can be seen in the meeting notes of the Elford Hall Committee held at Birmingham Council House on 17th Februrary 1937. It says:

“A communication was submitted from the Chairman of the Elford Village Hall Committee asking for a contribution from the council towards the coronation celebrations in Elford Village. The Chairman undertook to communicate with Mr Paget as to his action on the occasion of the silver jubilee. Decision deferred.”

Another thing I’ve been wondering about is what would have happened had Mr Paget kept Elford Hall? The England’s Lost Country Houses site lists over 50 demolished country houses in Staffordshire alone. Most disappeared after the First World War. Although of course eventually demolished in 1964,  Elford Hall is one of the longest surviving on the list. Would retention by the Paget family have ensured its survival or hastened its demise?

I’m off to one of Staffordshire’s surviving country houses on Tuesday. Shugborough Hall – offered to the National Trust in lieu of death duties on the death of the 4th Earl of Lichfield in 1960 and managed by Staffordshire County Council.

Elford, Fisherwick, Beacon Place, Drayton Manor or Shugborough – I’m finding the world of country houses and the families that dominated our area fascinating. The social and political changes that led if not to their complete demise, to a change in their use. And of course discovering the remaining fragments of those disappeared estates.

Actually, I am now regretting not watching Downton Abbey as research….

Drayton Manor

A few years ago, on a visit to Tamworth Castle, I discovered that Drayton Manor had been the home of former Prime Minister and founder of the modern police force, Sir Robert Peel. The story of Peel and his achievements and that of his descendants, who frittered away the estate until pretty much only the ivy-covered bell tower remained now holds far more appeal for me than any theme park but it wasn’t always that way…….

Pretty much all that remains of Peel’s Manor

Growing up in the West Midlands, Drayton Manor featured quite a lot in my childhood.  From a little girl, to going with my friends as a teenager on the Drayton Manor bus I have lots of memories of the place, but not all of them are happy…… I remember being aged 5, and really hating the Jungle Cruise, crying on my teacher’s lap after a hippo reared its ugly plastic head out of the water. Ten years later I was crying again, this time in my friend’s lap on the Skyflier, with people’s shoes and coins flying past me. It was probably themepark karma though as up until that point a group of friends and I had continuously shouted ‘Where are we?’ ‘Drayton Manor Park and Zooooo!’, as a homage to the TV advert of the time featuring Tommy Boyd (Wacaday?). We, and I suspect we alone, thought we were hilarious.   Everyone probably thought that the sound of me bawling my eyes out was preferable.

Buffalo Coaster 

I seem to recall spending a good proportion of the early years at Drayton Manor on the car park. We’d get about 5 ride tickets each (which equated to not much more than a go on the snake train) and when they were gone and we’d had a wander around the zoo, my Mum, to our disgust, would pop into the plant nursery, and then we’d have to spend the rest of the day making our own fun. Don’t be mistaken, if this sounds like one of those ‘ah, when I were a lass’ happy nostalgia trips, it’s not. I wanted more tickets and more goes on rides, not a game of swingball. Actually, what I really wanted was a wristband.

Not a family heirloom but a recent acquisition

Incidentally, Drayton Manor is said to be haunted by a gentleman said to be ‘Sir Bobby’, who according to a Drayton Manor press release can be seen standing looking woefully into the distance. Last time I went I did see a man in a top hat and old fashioned clothing walking about, but it was the Fat Controller from Thomas Land.

Maelstrom. Too scary for me, but not my little sister