Midnight on the Hill

borrowcop

Borrowcop Hill is a place that doesn’t want to give up its secrets easily. What interests me about places like this is how gaps in our knowledge create a space where legends and folklore can grow unchecked. It’s not just a hill with a nice view. It’s the burial place of kings and martyrs, the site of Lichfield Castle.

to borrowcop gazebo

Stand at the summit and you’re standing at the highest point in Lichfield. Beacons have been lit here certainly for celebrations, possibly as warnings. The grammar school moved here from St John Street in 1903 and in 1971, merged with the adjacent Kings Hill secondary modern school to form the current King Edward VI School.  Interesting how the folklore was even referenced in the school name here. Another school on the site, the just as evocatively named Saxon Hill, was opened in 1979.

borrowcop sign

Christmas 1940

At last year’s Lichfield Discovered talk by Peter Young on Philip Larkin’s connections to the city, he told us that that whilst staying with relatives at Cherry Orchard in 1940, Larkin had written three poems. Only one, ‘Out in the Lane’, was published but all three were inspired by his temporary surroundings. Peter believes the arched field of ‘Christmas 1940’ refers to Borrowcop Hill. I’ve reproduced it here from a folio collated by The Philip Larkin Society for their celebration of his birthday in August 2001. I hope they don’t mind, but I can’t find it anywhere else!

The name ‘Borrowcop’ does hint that there was once something here. Its earliest written forms, Burwey or Burwhay, feature the Old English element ‘burh’,  suggesting a fortified place (1).  Whilst there are vague reports of Erasmus Darwin recovering bits of burnt bone from somewhere up here, according to the Heritage Environment Report, ‘more recent excavations have so far failed to recover any evidence for human activity’. Well, I went up there on Sunday and I found this:

borrowcop chair

And this:

"The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes"

“The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes”

And this:

borrowcop graffiti

Plenty of human activity in what Five Spires Live , the Lichfield satirist who also doesn’t give up his secrets easily, yesterday described as  “… the perfect setting for bit of Larkin”. See, as much as I like legends, I also like the real.  I like layers of history that celebrate everything a place is and not just what we want it to be. The way our own memories of a place form our own folklores. The title for this post is one I’ve appropriated from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. It’s summer nights, it’s cheap cider (or ‘energy and guava’, if you’d rather), it’s messing about with your mates in a space maintained by the council because you’ve nowhere else to go. It’s perfect. Borrowcop or not, we’ve all been there. And like it or not, that’s as much a part of history as those kings and castles are.

1) A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz, https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/397633_vol1.pdf

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My Bloody Valentine

For those of you who aren’t feeling the love for Valentines Day, here’s some black magic. And I’m not talking chocolates. In his Lichfield Mercury column ‘Historical Gleanings – Lichfield Over a Century Ago’, JW Jackson recalled the following article in a local paper from 1836,

“On Saturday, the sexton of a certain church observing an elegantly dressed female walking mysteriously up and down the churchyard, watched her secretly, when he saw her rake up the earth with her foot and, after depositing something in the ground, cover it up. Induced by curiosity he opened up the place and found a hare’s heart in which 365 pins were stuck buried there. It was an old superstition in this county that if a person who had been foresaken by one professing love for her shall bury a hare’s heart full of pins near a newly made grave in the churchyard, as the heart decays, so the health of the faithless swain will decline, and that he will die when it has mouldered to dust. The fair deceived one had been instigated by revenge to this act of folly and credulity.”

 

Getting revenge on a faithless swain. Sweeter than a whole box of Thorntons. Frederick William Hackwood also mentions a similar practice in his Mercury column on “Staffordshire Superstitions’ (1923), ‘Among the lingering superstitions are present-day memories of an old woman given to witchcraft sticking a bullock’s heart full of pins with the vicious intent of piercing the heart of some deadly enemy with whom she had quarrelled beyond all hopes of forgiveness or reconciliation”.

Luckily, a defence against these dark arts did exist.  In a book published by the Folklore Society in 1890, Alexander M McAldowie tells of two witch brooches which his brother Robert found in Staffordshire.   One was discussed in a section of the 1896 Journal of the British Archaeological Society called ‘Notes on North Staffordshire’ and is described as being heart-shaped with unequal sides, little more than an inch in height and made of silver with eighteen crystals. Apparently, these talismans were often bought alongside wedding rings and would keep the wearer safe from harm. In a post on witch brooches, the Spyders of Burslem blog includes the notes given to the North Staffordshire Field Club in 1891 by Robert McAldowie. What’s extra interesting for us here is that he mentions a witch brooch he got in Lichfield from a jeweller who had bought two of them from an old servant of a family once living near the city but had melted one down for silver.

I’ve not managed to track down the whereabouts of any the Staffordshire brooches yet, assuming they even still exist. There is a Victorian one for sale on a vintage site here if you want a belated present that looks pretty and has the added bonus of protecting your beloved from witches and evil in general.

Antique Victorian Witch Brooch. Image from rubylane.com

Antique Victorian Witch Brooch. Image from rubylane.com

However, if it’s a hare’s or bullock’s heart you’re after, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Try Waitrose.

Sites for Sore Eyes

Springs and wells are sources not only of water but also of folklore and legend. There are healing springs and fortune telling wells. Some are associated with saints, others with spirits.

St Chad's in Lichfield. Photo by Lichwheeld

St Chad’s in Lichfield was believed to cure sore eyes (photo by Lichwheeld)

On Monday 9th February, Ross Parish, author of the Holy and Healing Wells blog and a series of books on the subject, will be giving a talk to our Lichfield Discovered group. Ross will be telling us about some of the sites we have here in Staffordshire and some of the traditions and stories associated with them. The talk starts at 7.30pm at St Mary’s in the Market Square (where there was a once a well of the same name at the west end!) and there is no entry charge, although voluntary donations towards the running of St Mary’s are always welcome. After the talk, people are invited to stay behind to discuss the future vision of the county’s archive and heritage service, over a cup of Staffordshire water (plus milk and teabag).

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.

Niche Interest

The origins of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance are hazy and in trying to make sense of this centuries-old tradition, the phrase ‘fertility ritual’ often crops up. Apparently, one of the most potent elements of the dance is coming into contact with the pig’s bladder on a stick, wielded by the fool (1). Sitting below the ha-ha, separated from the dancers performing on the lawn outside Blithfield Hall by a big ditch, seemed like a safe enough distance to watch from this year.

Waiting for the Horn Dance...

Waiting for the Horn Dance…

Pigs Bladder

Take a bow Horn Dance

Waiting for lunch...

Waiting for lunch…

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 1932. Taken from the 'The Birmingham Mail' via 'The Lichfield Mercury'.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance taking place in 1932. Taken from the ‘The Birmingham Mail’ via ‘The Lichfield Mercury’.

Once the performance had ended, the dancers bowed to those of us in the cheap seats and went for lunch inside the hall, which has been home to the Bagot family since 1360. Afterwards, they would head back to Abbots Bromley, to perform the dance through the lanes and outside the pubs of the village, returning the horns to the church of St Nicholas at around 8 o’clock that evening. I was heading back to Lichfield, but thought there might just be time to pay a visit to a church myself.  “St Leonard’s is just over there at the back of the hall…”, explained a man selling guide books from a stall “….but you can’t go that way unless you live there”. He did explain how non-Bagots could get to the church but on the way back to the car I got sidetracked by another stall selling honey, and so the church had to wait for another day.

The Church of St Leonards

The Church of St Leonard

Another day came at the start of October. The church door, beautifully decorated with autumn leaves, was unfortunately locked.

Blithfield church door

I had to break the news to my Mum that we wouldn’t be able to see Staffordshire’s only surviving pillar piscina, dating from the early twelfth century. Oddly, she didn’t seem too bothered….It turned out that being restricted to the outside of the church was actually a blessing in disguise as the exterior of St Leonard’s turned out to be a very interesting place indeed.

Built into the red-brick, eighteenth century wall which separates the churchyard from the grounds of Blithfield Hall is a gateway (also locked!), which looks ancient but actually only dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. This is clearly the Bagot family short-cut to the church that I had heard about at the Horn Dance. A little more difficult to find is a satisfying explanation for the circular feature, also built into the wall, which appears to have been added around the same time.

Blithfield Wall 1

A hole in the wall

A hole in the wall

According to a description in the Lichfield Mercury, as part of their 1891 series ‘Sketches in and around Rugeley’, it was, “formed for the purposes of seeing when the parson came to church so that the Squire might not be kept waiting longer than was necessary in a cold church”. I’m not convinced by this but it’s all I’ve got at present.

After looking through the round window, anyone over the age of twenty five may be quite excited to hear that there’s also an arch and a square here.  Anyone younger than that won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Anyway, as these are niches than windows, it’s more a case of looking into, rather than through them.

Effigy Blithfield

The arch is found on the south side of the church, sheltering the thirteenth century effigy of a priest. A comparison with this drawing of 1823 shows that sometime time can diminish rather than increase the lines on a face.

Blithfield tomb decoration

A late seventeenth century marble plaque with Latin script implores us to pray for the soul of Alfred, priest of Hulcrob. Records show that the words on the tablet were originally written around the arch in letters of gold but these have long since been erased by time. Faded painted patterns still remain on the interior curve of the arch though and it seems reasonable to assume that these would have been part of this decorative inscription? There are also several ‘graffiti’ marks carved into the stone here, at least one of which appears to be a ritual protection mark associated with the Virgin Mary.

graffiti blithfield Blithfield effigy arch

On the north side of the church, near to the tower, is the feature I’m calling a square but which the Lichfield Mercury article describes as, “a curious recess, the use of which it seems very difficult to determine. It could have had no communication with the inside of the church, for it is in the thickness of the wall of the nave, and being outside it can hardly been of any use as an aumbry“. In ‘Collections for a History of Staffordshire’ (1919), its similarity to an aumbry is also noted, leading the author to speculate that this may once have been an interior wall and that possibly there may have been an annexe or a anchorite’s cell here. All I can spy with my non-expert eye is that it does look as though it may once have been covered by a grille or a door, although I’m not sure whether the actual bits of rusty grate lying inside it are a clue or a red herring.

niche blithbury church wall

Alongside the various memorials belonging to members of the Bagot family (although many of these are inside the church itself) are those belonging to people who, like most of us, would have had to come the long way round.

headstones blithfield

Headston Blithfield

Blithfield Gardeners headstone

Allen headstone Blithfueld

I was always concerned that an interest in graveyards was a little morbid but the excellent talk David Moore did on symbolism in cemeteries for Lichfield Discovered recently reassured me that graveyards are as much about life as death. And not just human life either….

Lichen gravestone Blithfield

Blithfield red lichen

(1) Funnily enough, I understand that pigs’ bladders (amongst many other things) were also used as a form of contraception in times gone by. Perhaps it’s only the inflated ones you have to worry about…

Sources:

Blithfield: An Illustrated Guide and History by Nancy, Lady Bagot (1979)

http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Collections for a History of Staffordshire (1919) Edited by The William Salt Archaeological Society

An Old Wives' Tale

Inside the south porch of St James the Great at Longdon, above the inner door which leads in to the rest of the church, there is a Norman archway. There’s a Green Man (more information on him and his mysterious origins here) here, carved onto one of the capitals, and below this is the ‘Bride’s Hand’, a rough carving of a hand, with a heart in its centre. According to the church’s visitor guide, the name relates to the old tradition that women arriving at the church to be wed would place their own hand on the carved one, in the hope that it would bring happiness and fertility to their marriage. Apparently, some Longdon brides still observe this custom.

Until I did some reading on the subject,  I had no idea how much the rite of marriage has changed over the centuries. I understand that until the Reformation, the majority of the wedding ceremony, including the exchanging of rings and vows, would take place here at the doors of the church and it seems it was only after the couple were husband and wife that they would enter the church, for a nuptial mass.

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The Bride’s Hand

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Inner door of south porch with Norman arch

 

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Green Man at Longdon

The Staffs Past Track site has a photograph of the ‘Bride’s Hand’ taken in 1950 and as well as mentioning the above custom, the caption also says that it is believed to be a talisman against the evil eye. Until a fortnight ago, I knew nothing of the symbolism that could be contained within a hand. In Hoar Cross, I came across a hand shaped door knocker, something I assumed meant nothing more than a quirky taste in door furniture. However, when Joss Musgrove Knibb, of the Lichfield Gazette, told me that a similar style of knocker was popular in the Mediterranean, I did more reading. I know that jumping to conclusions about ancient beliefs based on an hour of googling is not advisable. But I’m going to do it anyway.

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Door knocker at Hoar Cross

It seems that the symbol of a hand predates the three Abrahamic religions, but that it appears in all three. In Islam, it is the ‘Hamsa’, sometimes known as ‘the hand of Fatima’ and in Judaism it is known as ‘Hamesh’,or ‘the hand of Miriam’. Although the symbol seems less popular in Christianity, it is apparently known as ‘the Hand of Mary’.

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Madonna’s Head in between the arches of the Stonywell Chapel, inside the church

So, it seems this symbol is associated with women, and I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of times, although admittedly only on Wikipedia and a couple of other non-academic sites, that it has connections to fertility and pregnancy.  I’ve also read that an eye was sometimes added to the centre of the palm, to make its power to avert the evil even stronger. Here at Longdon, in place of an eye, we have a heart. Don’t we?

Of course, the hand at Longdon may ‘just’ be a bit of graffiti, that’s been adopted as a bit of superstition, but who carved it here at Longdon, and when and why? I’ve been to a fair few churches, and have never come across this before. The positioning and the known use of the hand as a protective symbol, does make you wonder….gives the concept of a ‘hand in marriage’ a whole new perspective!

Sources:

The Parish Church of St James the Great – A Guide for the Visitor

For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present by John R. Gillis

http://voyseyandjones.wordpress.com/tag/fatima-hand-door-knocker/

http://israelity.com/tag/archeology/

 

 

Wolverhampton Wandering

I had to pop into Wolverhampton today. I knew from my search for an ancient cross in Lichfield a couple of years back that there was a Saxon cross shaft here and went to find it.  Unlike the Lichfield cross, I didn’t have to try too hard – it’s huge! Its size, and also the fact that it is made from sandstone not found in Wolverhampton, has led some archaeology types to suggest that it is probably a reused Roman column, possibly from Wroxeter or even just up the road in Wall.

Saxon Cross Shaft, WolverhamptonThe elements and pollution have not treated the shaft kindly but its still clear that this was an incredible piece of craftmanship – the Black Country History website describes it as, ‘one of the finest cross shafts in the Midlands’. The carvings of acanthus leaves which decorate the shaft alongside those of birds and beasts have given archaeologists some problems when trying to establish a date as they suggest different periods. The plaque accompanying the shaft in the churchyard has decided to go with the earlier date of the ninth century, whilst others believe late tenth century is more accurate.

Cross Shaft Wolverhampton

On the way out of the churchyard I noticed another stone with a good back story. Known as the Bargain Stone, its said to be where the good (and probably not so good) folk of Wolverhampton would agree sales and make deals by shaking hands through the hole. The nearby plaque suggests it is an old gargoyle and the hole is what remains of its mouth.

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Talking of hands, why didn’t it occur to me to put my hands over the railings to take a better photo?

As if ancient crosses and stones weren’t enough of a treat, we also found Holden’s Brewery’s Great Western near to the train station. This is a proper pub – cobs on the bar, Holden’s Golden Glow (amongst other delights) on tap and really friendly staff. Although we were tempted to sit outside in the sun, the interior was so quirky and there was such a nice atmosphere, we sat inside.

Great Western

Wished I’d got the train. Definitely not driving next time.

The Great Western

The great Great Western

We walked off our pork baps with a little bit of a wander around the city streets. This building caught my eye, not only because it has no floors, meaning you can see down into the cellar, but also because of the handwritten sign someone had stuck to the window.

SAM_0045SAM_0046I’m not sure a traffic warden would be the person I’d turn to in a trapped bird scenario but maybe they do things differently in Wolverhampton.

Another perplexing sign is the one suggesting that the half timbered building on the junction of Victoria St and St John’s Lane was built in AD1300. It wasn’t and no-one knows the reason behind the claim – the best suggestions anyone has seems to be that it was some kind of joke to emphasise that it was a really, really old building! It more likely dates back to the seventeenth century when it was once an inn known as The Hand. These days its home to Wolverhampton Books & Collectables, where you can buy anything from an ancient tome on the history of Staffordshire to a souvenir 1950s Wolverhampton Wanderers hankerchief (which you may, or may not, wish to blow your nose on, depending on your allegiances…).

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We took the scenic route back to Lichfield (not through choice but because I went the wrong way on the ring road), passing through Wednesfield, Sneyd, the intriguingly named New Invention and Brownhills before stopping off at Waitrose for a couple bottles of Golden Glow.

Sources:

http://blackcountryhistory.org/collections/getrecord/WOHER_MBL337/

http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/listed/lindylou.htm