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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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The King's Touch

This Christmas, for the first time ever, I watched the Queen’s Speech. I’d read somewhere that there had been a flurry of bets on the Queen abdicating and though sceptical, I interrupted a FIFA match between Walsall and Barcelona to seize momentary control of the television just in case. Of course, it had been nothing but a rumour and Charles remains a king in waiting.

Earlier that week, I’d been to visit a house associated with another King Charles to be. Following defeat at the Battle of Worcester on 3rd September 1651, Charles Stuart had fled north to Shropshire, hoping to sneak across the border into Wales and sail from there to Europe. The Parliamentarians were one step ahead of him and were closely guarding the River Severn crossing places and ferries, thwarting this plan. In the early hours of 8th September 1651, Charles arrived at Moseley Old Hall in Staffordshire, looking for a place to hide and a new escape route.  He was met at the back door by owner Thomas Whitgreave and the family priest John Huddleston (1), who gave up his four poster bed (2) and shared his hiding place with the future King when Cromwell’s soldiers came seeking him.

Moseley Old Hall as it was....

Moseley Old Hall as it was…. taken from ‘The Flight of the King by Allan Fea (1908)

....and as it is today. Well, last Sunday anyway.

….and as it is today. Well, last Sunday anyway.

The house which hid the King is now hidden itself behind a Victorian redbrick facade. As we waited outside, making jokes about standing under the mistletoe, the guide informed us that we were about to enter the hall through the very same door as the King had, and told the assembled children to let their teachers know about it. Mine were only here because I’d promised they’d be able to toast some bread over an open fire at the end but they seemed suitably impressed (3). One little lad wanted to know if there was going to be a ride. I suppose in a way there was.

The back door through which Charles entered Moseley Olf Hall on 8th September 1651

The back door through which Charles entered Moseley Old Hall on 8th September 1651

As everyone knows (4), before the King came to lie low at Moseley he’d been hiding high at Boscobel, nine miles away on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border. A tree house inspired by the Royal Oak, the most famous of all the places the King found refuge, is a recent addition to the King’s Wood at Moseley.  There are signs warning of peril, and whilst the element of danger here is not quite on a par with that of a man with a thousand pound bounty on his head hiding in a tree, it’s enough to get overprotective parents like me muttering, ‘Be careful!’, as if it were a charm to invoke protection.

The Moseley Old Hall Tree House

The Moseley Old Hall Tree Hide

The Royal Oak in 2011, Boscobel House, Shropshire by The Royal Oak in 2011, Boscobel House, Shropshire  Uploaded to Wikipedia  in May 2011 Sjwells53 by  CC BY-SA 3.0

The Royal Oak in 2011, Boscobel House, Shropshire
Uploaded to Wikipedia in May 2011 Sjwells53 CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve yet to visit Boscobel, owned by English Heritage. I understand that today’s Royal Oak grew from an acorn of the original tree which was destroyed by visitors in the seventeenth century who, in the absence of a gift shop, took away branches and boughs to fashion into souvenirs. In his book ‘Boscobel’, Thomas Blount described,

‘this tree was divided into more parts by Royalists than
perhaps any oak of the same size ever was, each man
thinking himself happy if he could produce a tobacco
stopper, box etc made of the wood.’

These trinkets still turn up at auctions. In 2012, a snuff box sold at Bonhams for almost £7,000.  Another prized relic at the time of Charles’ great escape was a rag he’d used to mop up a nosebleed. Father Huddleston passed this ‘bloody clout’ to a Mrs Braithwaite who kept it as a remedy for the King’s Evil, another name given to the disease known as scrofula. Since the reign of Edward the Confessor, it had been thought that the disease could be cured by a touch from a King or Queen. Of all the royal touchers, Charles II was the most prolific. The British Numismatic Society estimate he touched over 100,000 people during his reign. The tradition was continued, somewhat reluctantly, by King James II who carried out a ‘touching’ ceremony at Lichfield Cathedral in 1687 (5). The last English Monarch to partake in the ritual was Queen Anne, who ‘touched’ a two year old Samuel Johnson at one of the ceremonies in 1712. The touch piece or coin which the Queen presented young Samuel with, which he is said to have worn throughout his life, is now in the British Museum.

John Huddleston's room now known as the King's Bedroom

John Huddleston’s room now known as the King’s Bedroom from The Flight of the King by Allan Des (1908)

By the mid twentieth century, Moseley Old Hall was suffering from neglect and subsidence. This ‘atmospheric Elizabethan farmhouse that saved a King‘ was itself saved by the National Trust, when they took over in 1962. Every year, thousands of people pass through that door to see that bed and hiding place. Seems that three hundred years on the King hasn’t lost his touch. Or maybe they are just here for the toast?

Moseley Toast

Notes

(1) As the king lay dying in February 1684, Huddleston was said to have been brought to his bedside with the words, “This good man once saved your life. Now he comes to save your soul”.

(2) The bed at Moseley is the original one the King slept on top of. It was bought by Sir Geoffrey Mander of Wightwick Manor in 1913, but was returned to the hall in 1962 by his widow, Lady Mander.

(3) It seems the King’s victory was only short-lived. One of them just asked what I was writing about and when I told them it was Moseley Old Hall they replied, ‘Oh yes, the place with the toast’.

(4) If you didn’t know, take a look at this great map from englishcivilwar.org which plots all of the stages on the King’s journey from the Battle of Worcester to his arrival in Fécamp, France

(5) More information can be found in ‘Touching for the King’s Evil: James II at Lichfield in 1687’, in Volume 20 of the The Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society transactions.

Sources: 

Moseley Old Hall, National Trust Guidebook

Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions Volume XL

http://www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v17n40a13.html

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/d/dr_johnsons_touch-piece.aspx

Know Your Boundaries

I’d wondered about this curious sandstone block, embedded in one of the gate posts of the Garden of Remembrance on Bird St, but it wasn’t until I read a newspaper article on the unveiling and dedication of the war memorial that I learnt that it is apparently an ‘ancient’ boundary stone. The article in the Lichfield Mercury, dated October 22nd 1920, describes how a high wall running along Bird St was demolished and replaced by the stone balustrade that now runs along the edge of the garden. Prior to its demolition, the boundary stone was originally incorporated into this wall, but whether that was its original location, or was an earlier effort to preserve the stone, I don’t yet know. It seems to be marked and I’m wondering whether this is deliberate or not (or if I’m imagining it!). Also, just how ancient is ancient?

Boundary stone embedded in lower part of right gate pier of Lichfield’s Garden of Remembrance

Close up of the ‘ancient’ boundary stone

A newspaper report from May 1936 describes how the Cathedral Choristers observed the tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ each Ascension Day. Accompanied by members of the clergy, the boys would start opposite St Mary’s Vicarage and stop off at places were there was, or had been, a well – ‘midway between the pool and Gaia Lane’, the Bishop’s kitchen garden, the Dean’s kitchen garden, Milley’s Hospital, the boundary stone on the Minster Pool Bridge and the Verger’s house in the corner of the Close before finally gathering at the old pump to the North West of the Cathedral, to which water from the Conduit Heads up near Maple Hayes once flowed along a lead pipe. The boys would carry elm boughs, and at each of the stop off points there was a reading from the scriptures and a verse of a hymn was sung. In 1936, the elm boughs were brought inside the Cathedral and laid on the font. An account from 1910 describes how choristers would collect boughs from the Dimbles and then return to the Close where they would decorate the houses before commencing their perambulation. I understand that these days Ascension Day is marked by the choristers singing from the roof. It’s interesting that elm boughs used to play a part in the custom; it makes me think of old traditions related to the Lichfield Bower which takes place in the same month.

‘Beating the bounds’ apparently dates back to a time before maps and was a way of ensuring that the knowledge of where the boundaries of an area, or a parish, lay was passed on. The tradition in The Close seems to have been centred around wells and water, but in other places boundaries were also marked by other natural features.  A Gospel Tree is marked on OS maps of Gentleshaw up until the 1930s and Gospel Oak is a common place name, found all over the country.

On the subject of maps, there’s a great version of John Snape’s 1781 map on BrownhillsBob’s Brownhills Blog here. I think that the boundary of the Close, similar to that described above, is shown clearly on this map in the form of a dotted line running around the Close.

There’s a lot more to be said on boundaries and their markers, including the exciting possibility (for me at least!) that if this one is still here, there just might be others preserved somewhere in or around the city. In fact, we may even have located a couple, purpose as yet unknown.

Edit: Just had one thought myself actually! In many places it seems boundary stones and trees were actually hit with sticks (as can be seen here in Oxford) or physically marked in some other way, as people passed by them on their perambulation. Is it possible the marks on our boundary stone are evidence of it being ‘beaten’ over the centuries?

 

 

 

Concrete Evidence

Due to a vague notion I had that canals had to follow a straight line, my previous attempt to follow the route of the Wyrley & Essington canal from the London Rd bridge to Sandfields Pumping Station had not been a resounding success. Determined to find the stretch of the Curly Wyrley (the canal’s nickname derived from the way it, ahem, doesn’t follow a straight line) that I’d missed,  I had a walk along the Birmingham Rd. Near to the Duke of Wellington, half a canal bridge and two modern street names – ‘Wyrley Close’ and ‘Essington Close – confirmed that this had once been part of the route of the canal between Shortbutts Lane and Sandfields.

Canal where?

Essington Close and Wyrley Close to the left as you look at the photo.

Standing in Essington Close looking back up the line of the canal towards the bridge.

In fact, I’d already been over the bridge plenty of times before but just never taken any notice of the clues staring me in the face. My excuse is that my head is always turned the other way, ready to look out for the old Maltings on the other side of the road.

Lichfield Maltings

One of my first friends in Lichfield used to live on the site.  One of our favourite topics of conversation, inevitably, was the history of the building we could see from her house, especially on those occasions when my friend had chatted with one of the employees and was able to regale me with tales of burning buildings, footsteps and orchards.  Through these chats and a bit of reading, we discovered that the malthouse had belonged to The City Brewery Company (Lichfield). In October 1916, a fire destroyed most of the brewery leaving only this building, and the red brick brewery manager’s house and offices (see my earlier post on the fire here). Shortly afterwards, Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries took over the site.

What we didn’t appreciate enough at the time is that as we were scouring the archives for events that took place nearly a century ago, history was also happening right there under our noses – in 2004, this was one of only six remaining operational floor maltings in the country.The following year, it closed and the building was eventually purchased by a propery developer. Thanks to a Historic Building Assessment and photographs from urban explorers, the architectural features of the building have been documented. However, I wish we’d have talked to more people and asked more questions and recorded the first hand experiences of people doing a job that would very shortly cease to exist, in a building that would soon no longer be used for its primary purpose. You live and learn….

After standing unused for several years, scaffolding now surrounds the malthouse, and the adjoining modern shed has now gone. This could be an indication that the building’s transformation from industrial to residential use is now underway.  It seems to me that giving new life to an old building like this is a good way to balance the need to protect the past and the need to look to the future.  I hope that wherever possible the old features that tell the story of the building’s old life are retained, as recommended by the Historic Building Consultant’s assessment.

On the opposite side of the road to the Maltings, I followed a drive that lead under a railway bridge to some rusting gates. Until I got home and looked at an old map, I had no idea that this had formerly been a concrete works. Back in 1986, the Domesday project recorded that this was once the site of Bison Concrete. Unlike the canal and the maltings, I can see no reference to the site’s recent history. Maybe the time when we celebrate concrete is still to come…

I think that those of us that don’t have the nerve to explore & photograph the inside of derelict buildings or the necessary funds to pay for the physical restoration of a building, do have another weapon that we can employ in the defence of our history – the ability to listen.

The three places I visited above are all a part of Lichfield’s industrial heritage. On my way over to them, I passed a fourth – Sandfields Pumping Station. David Moore is gaining a lot of support for his campaign to safeguard this overlooked yet important part of our social and industrial history. You can listen to what he has to say by visiting his blog here!

Notes

I think my research could also be described as a bit ‘curly wurly’ as I never seem to be able to resist taking the scenic route instead of going from A to B. When I was on the Domesday site, I read some of the other entries for the Birmingham Rd area and the one that especially caught my eye was ‘Shire Horses – Lichfield’, with an accompanying photograph of said horses emerging from stables on the Birmingham Rd. Does anyone know anything about these in addition to the short description here?

On a final curly wurly note, this tree on the Birmingham Rd looks like it has teeth.  The one next to it doesn’t, so I’m not sure why…

Bark worse than its bite?

Sources:

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/maltings

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

 

Features and Reviews

Hopefully, anyone reading the blog recently has found the old graffiti interesting. I know that Gareth and I, and (for a few days at least!) a large broadcasting corporation did. After all of the excitement, I thought it was time for a bit of musing….

The discoveries (or perhaps rediscoveries is more accurate) in the Lichfield District Council offices got me thinking about the potential for other ‘unseen’ history out there. There’s unseen in the sense of being hidden away from view –  in attics, down pub cellars and down the bottom of the garden. However, I also think that something in plain view can be unseen –  people may pass by everyday, but no longer see what’s actually there or the potential of it, due to familiarity. During discussions about the graffiti, someone said to me, “I’ve walked past that graffiti loads of times and never even thought about it”.

The bread oven above is in the house of someone I know. I remember them buying the property years ago and excitedly telling me after their first viewing with the estate agent, “It has an old bread oven!”. When they moved in we all keen to peer inside but prior to taking the photo, it was last interacted with as part of an Easter Egg hunt.  However, taking the photo to show a friend, sparked a whole new conversation about the oven. Was it original? If so, would this have been the kitchen? Wasn’t it once divided into two houses? How was it laid out back then? Why was the house built in the first place? And so on….My point is, sometimes, we need to look with a fresh pair of eyes to see what’s in front of our nose.

I don’t think that the history in question even has to be a specific feature like the bread oven. I find the traces of people’s everyday lives fascinating. I visited a house in The Close last Christmas. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had nearly enough mulled wine to pluck up the courage to ask if I could take photos, so I’ll have to describe it. There were stone steps down into the cellar, worn away in the centre by centuries worth of footsteps. There were attic beams with layers of fading wallpaper still clinging to them up in the attic. To describe the place as ‘lived in’ would be an understatement.  The next question inevitably is ‘lived in by who’? Actually, photos wouldn’t really have done the place justice anyway because it was more than a visual thing. You wanted to touch, as well as see. ….

I’m really hoping that Lichfield District Council open their offices up for the next heritage weekend, so that people get to look around what was one the Old Grammar School for themselves. I’m not suggesting people throw the doors of their homes open to the public, but perhaps if we want to explore the history of the city and all its inhabitants, we sometimes need to look at the ‘normal’ buildings and places, where people lived and worked, and still do! I’m by no means detracting from those special, extraordinary buildings like the Cathedral, just saying that sometimes it might be worth looking again a little closer to home.

One of these terraced houses in Leomansley still has a tall chimmney at the back. An old washroom?

A wall brace on Greenhill. Does that say R Crosskex? Who was that? See edit below.

 

A selection of objects found in the garden Of Vicky Sutton’s Nan’s house near to Beacon Park (not including the pink flowery plate!).

The remains of a cherry orchard can still be found near…Cherry Orchard!

Edit:

After I woke up properly, I realised this actually said R Crosskey. I found a book about Henry William Crosskey, a geologist and Unitarian minister from Lewes (1) and found that his younger brother, Rowland Crosskey came to Lichfield as an apprentice ironmonger. He emigrated to Australia for a while and then,  after he returned to England, he started a business in Birmingham. Afterwards, he took over the Lichfield firm where he had served his apprenticeship. In 1868 he became Mayor of Lichfield and donated a civic sword to the City (Is this the one still used in processions today?).  He died in 1890. From census records, it looks like his home and business premises were initially in Market St. In 1888, he was in Bore St, trading as a ‘Military Camp and Store Furnisher’ with premises on the Burton Rd in partnership with Charles John Corrie. Also, just as a point of interest, Rowland was his Mother’s maiden name.

 

(1)Henry William Crosskey, LL.D., F.C.S. : his life and work by Richard Agland Armstrong; with chapters by E. F. M. MacCarthy and Charles Lapworth. http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/e-f-m-maccarthy-richard-acland-armstrong.shtml

(2) London Gazette 1888

 

Tree following: Midsummer

Even though it feels as if it’s barely begun, it’s already Midsummer and the lane next to the church is now green and leafy. Lovely as it is, this is probably the least interesting time for the lane.

Fallen elderflowers and other petals lie scattered like confetti from nearby Christ Church.

Alongside them are Midsummer reminders of Autumn.

The holes in the tree still hold a fascination for me. I put my hand in and took some more photos of the inside, with irrational thoughts of the Boca della Verita at the back of my mind.