Dead Wood

One of the many upsides to doing whatever it is I actually do, is that people don’t feel the need to engage me in generic social chit chat about pleasant but dull subjects. Instead they come straight in with a tantalising bit of trivia or an anecdote they’ve heard about where they live. The most recent example of this was meeting the Mayor of Lichfield at an exhibition at the Library, where the conversation went a little like this.

Mayor: Hello!
Me: Hello!
Mayor: I’ve got some information for you! I was born at Gallows Cottage and when I was a child, I was told that the walnut tree outside was planted to mark the place where the gallows once stood.
Me: Hold my glass of rose, I’m off to the Shell Garage.

I’m exaggerating of course but naturally it refuelled my interest in the subject which I first wrote about back in 2011.  I roped in a mate to come and take a look with me and sure enough, on the patch of grass outside outside the garage, where the London Road, Upper St John St/Tamworth Road and Shortbutts Lane cross, was a walnut tree. Is this really the exact spot where forgers Wightman, Jackson and Neve met their end on 1st June 1810? It seems appropriate at this point to review the evidence.


Outside St Michael’s church is the relocated headstone of the last three men to be executed in the city. On 1st June 1810, Neve, Jackson & Wightman were taken by cart from the city gaol & publicly hanged for forgery at the city gallows. Interesting that at some point, the word ‘hanged’ appears to have been obliterated from the monument. Although this appears to be the only marker to executed criminals buried here, the church register records the names of others who were executed and buried e.g. John Wilson Sept 23rd 1583 and John Walle and Robert Hodgson described as prisoners executed and buried on 13 October 1587.

  1. We know that the gallows were somewhere in this vicinity. They are shown on John Ogilby’s fabulous 1675 map but look to me to have been on the other side of Shortbutts Lane, almost opposite Borrowcop Lane? Other evidence comes in the form of place names with Gallows Wharf and as we now know, Gallows Cottage, birthplace of the Mayor of Lichfield!
  2. We have a bit of confusing anecdotal evidence from ‘Staffordshire Customs, Supersitions and Folklore’ written in 1924,  where Frederick Hackwood tell us that at Gallows Wharf,  ‘half a centry ago, a decayed oak stump stood two feet out of the ground….and was said to be the remains of the ancient gallows-tree’. However, the description given in The History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14  tells us that,  ‘A gallows was built, or possibly repaired, at the bishop’s expense in 1532–3. In 1650 there was a gallows on the west side of the London road near its junction with Shortbutts Lane. The gallows there fell down c. 1700, its foundations undermined by people digging for sand, but it was re-erected’ which suggests to me that the city gallows were a purpose built structure, rather than a hangman’s oak.
  3. Of course, the Mayor’s information about the walnut tree is also anecdotal evidence and I have to confess that I do like to think that within any oral history or bit of folklore, there is always a kernel of truth. That said, such things do need to be treated with some scepticism as things can easily take root and be very quickly established as fact, when in actuality, the jury is still out.
Walnut Tree at the Shell garage on the London Rd and Tamworth Rd junction

The walnut tree outside the Shell garage

To sum up, I find myself wondering if the exact location of the gallows could ever be proved but I also find myself wondering why it matters. Yet somehow it does. For me, ‘somewhere in the vicinity’ just doesn’t hit the spot.  I’m not sure I can even explain why. Maybe I’m just a bit nuts…




Back on Track

Time, once again, is on my side. It was nearly a very short lived return to writing the blog as I had a close encounter with a Land Rover on a tight bend, whilst pondering whether part of a barn in Hammerwich had been plundered from the Roman remains up the road at Wall but brushes with death aside, it’s good to be back wandering and wondering.

I’m researching places with a connection to the Lichfield to Brownhills stretch of the disused railway track to Walsall for a project I’m working on. Hammerwich was my first stop, as back in the day, Hammerwich was the only stop between Lichfield City and Brownhills. The station opened in 1849 and closed to passengers in 1965 as part of the Beeching cuts, although the line continued to be used by freight until 1984. A plaque marks the site, although sadly has been damaged, possibly by the Vandals of Hammerwich (yes, that is a Morris Dancing reference and yes, I am proud of myself).

Judging by old newspaper reports, there was a vehicular crossing here until 1911, when Hammerwich Parish Council finally got the London & North West Railway Co to give permission for a bridge, something they’d been requesting for over thirteen years, on the basis that several potentially serious accidents had nearly taken place there, including one incident reported by the Lichfield Mercury on 3rd October 1902, where a group of school children ran out in front of an approaching goods train.

The now rusty bridge still straddles the overgrown tracks and the old station house still stands but on vanished platforms. No trace though of the pipe which ran alongside the track and carried clean water from Sandfields Pumping Station in Lichfield to the towns of the Black Country where it was in such short supply. A newspaper article from the Lichfield Mercury reports that in February 1896, the pipe fractured and flooded the lines here.

After my brief encounter with the railway station, I had a meander around the village. The most recent incarnation of the church was completed in 1873, although there is thought to have been one on the same site since Saxon times. Talking of Saxons, I think they found a bit of gold around here a couple of years ago?  I loved the board at Hammerwich Community Centre which explained that it had started out as a school and in the early days it shared the site with the village pinfold where stray animals had been rounded up (despite it being know as the triangle) since medieval times, and that the children would play with the animals before and after lesson times.

I have a bit of a thing about windmills due to significant exposure to Camberwick Green as a child and so, before heading back to the car, I went to see Speedwell Mill.  According to ‘The Staffordshire Village Book’, compiled by members of the Staffordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, Speedwell was apparently the largest working mill in the Midlands. Having once had a run in with the WI in Kings Bromley, I am not going to argue with them.  I’ve just discovered this chap called Karl Wood who spent thirty years travelling around the Midlands recording mills which is a life well lived if you ask me. Mr Wood visited Hammerwich Mill in June 1938 and you can visit his pen and ink sketch here.

More on the railway project soon…

Tiles of the Unexpected

There’s a long running gag between me and my mates about how dangerous swans are. Turns out it’s actually no joke. In William Pitt’s 1817 Topographical History of Staffordshire, he describes how a hardy dog at Handsacre was stunned by a swan’s wing and trampled under water, and how a lusty farmer attempting to cross the River Trent too near to a nest got unhorsed and ducked.


A swan in Beacon Park. Stay safe folks.

Now I’ve got that public service announcement out of the way, I can get on with the reason I was reading that book in the first place. I’m curious about the curious church of St Nicholas’ at Mavesyn Ridware and its collection of curios.


When my friends visited, the squirrel was holding a Kit-Kat. I swear I’m not making this up.

Pitt describes how in 1782, the old church was damp and in near ruins and so the majority of it was taken down and rebuilt. You’d never notice though, it blends in perfectly with the 14thc tower.


Another surviving section of the older church is the 13th Trinity Aisle or Cawarden Chapel, with tombs and memorials belonging to the Cawarden, Chadwick and Mavesyn families. Pevsner describes it as, ‘the fascination of the church’ (although for me personally, it’s the squirrel), where, ‘the family monuments are assembled and other ancestors celebrated in a somewhat bogus way’.


He is referring to a series of alabaster panels telling the story of how in July 1403, Sir Robert Mavesyn killed his neighbour and enemy Sir William Handsacre on the banks of the River Trent at High Bridge, before heading off to his own death at the Battle of Shrewsbury.


The High Bridge across the River Trent. This cast iron version dates to 1830 and replaced a stone bridge, which replaced a wooden bridge, which replaced a ford.

The site of the skirmish is said to have been alongside two ancient oak trees known as Gog and Magog at a meadow above the bridge. In 1916, Robert Naylor, who was walking from John O’Groats to Lands End, recorded in the chronicle of his adventures that only their huge decayed trunks remained. Squirreled away in a glass case, at the far end of Trinity Aisle are two brackets, with a fading label describing how they were made from the wood of those two ancient oaks. Also, inside the glass case are 14thc floor tiles discovered in the 1990s, but its the non-native tiles mounted on the wall near the chapel that I was most interested in.



This photo was in-between the two sets of tiles in real life. And to be honest, when real life is this odd, who needs fantasy?


Both sets are from Caen Castle, built c. 1060 by William the Conqueror. So how or why did they end up in the middle of Staffordshire? According to antiquarian journals, they were obtained by Charles Chadwick in 1786, after the partial destruction of the castle during the French Revolution, and are a reminder that the Mavesyns were Norman conquerors. Somewhat ironically, during the renovations to the church, whilst the Trinity Aisle was being fitted with neo-medieval monuments and imported tiles, it appears one genuine Norman furnishing was discarded. In 1879, the then 800 year old Norman font was found buried in a nearby  garden and restored to the church.


Alongside the quirky kirche is the 14thc gatehouse, where Cromwell’s men are believed to have lodged during the Civil War, and a 17thc Tithe Barn. Go and have a look for yourself. It’s a great place to go swanning around…

Mavesyn Ridware gatehouse.jpg


Angels and Demons

Built in 1750 on the site of the Talbot Inn, as a private residence for wine merchant George Addams, the Angel Croft was converted to a hotel in the 1930s. The name seems to come from another inn known as The Angel, on an adjoining site to the south. Since 2008, it has been vacant with the exception of the occasional urbexer and kids who have spent too much time watching scary movies and not enough time at school passing through.


If you want to create the illusion of black magic, make sure you can spell properly.  Anyway, Redrum would have been more apt. Kids these days!


Over the years, hopes have been raised and then dashed as several developers have come and gone whilst the Grade II* Listed Building continues to deteriorate. Earlier this month, I was delighted to meet with the current owner, keen to take on the challenge of saving this fallen angel and restoring it to glory. Should he succeed he shall undoubtedly be known as St Dan of Beacon Street and I propose that Peter Walker creates a statue of him holding a model of the hotel for the West Front of the Cathedral. You see, people care a lot about this building. We appreciate its Georgian good looks and there are also many Lichfeldians who have a personal connection with it.  Everytime I’ve posted about it here or on our Lichfield Discovered fb group, people have shared their memories of weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and the best Bakewell Tart in the city.  One particularly glamourous occasion involved Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh staying the night.


Dan very kindly invited me to have a look around to tell me about the plans he has for the building and its environs. I had seen photographs taken shortly after its closure when the furnishings and fittings were so intact that one of the bedroom radios was still playing.  However, eight years on it’s little more than a shell. The 1970s soft furnishings have been mercilessly ripped out, the windows are smashed, the floorboards sag and the walls run with water (admittedly, better than blood). Despite all this, the potential of the Angel Croft shines through and Dan tells me that in the new year, there will be a website to keep people up to date with the plans to convert the building to apartments and also any interesting discoveries history-wise.


Bothy or gardeners' house with remains of glasshouses and orangery at Angel Croft

Bothy or gardeners’ house with remains of glasshouses and orangery at Angel Croft

A building that’s probably far less familiar to all but the nosiest is the one behind Westgate House (used as a boarding house for girls from the Friary School between 1952 and 1981, according to Patrick Comerford and also earmarked for development by Dan and his company) and the former Probate Court (built on the site of David Garrick’s childhood home c.1856 and a rare example of a purpose built court and once used as part of Lichfield Museum and as I’m typing this, striking me as definitely worthy of further investigation in its own right). As one of the nosiest, I had noticed it and vaguely had an idea it may have been a ramshackle remnant of the brewery which stood nearby. A town plan of 1884 clearly shows a brewery behind Cathedral House (No 5 Beacon Street) and the Angel Croft (No 3 Beacon Street) and the County History tells us, ‘By 1848 the wine merchants John and Arthur Griffith had established a brewery in their Beacon Street premises behind Cathedral House. They had a malthouse to the south on the site of the later Lichfield library’. The library is now of course the Registry Office.



Now Dan and his team have stripped the ivy and cut back the undergrowth, a series of doors and windows on the rear of the building (visible from the car park behind the Registry Office), a decent bit of brickwork and two entrances on the front of the building, accessed via a fairly narrow passage, have been revealed.  Now, logistics isn’t my strong point, but it doesn’t seem the most practical set up for a building used for industry of some kind? My new best guess is that it is a garden building relating to Westgate House.  I’ve been told that are some very basic toilets inside, which may or may not hold a clue to its use(s)?  Ladies and Gentleman, I shall investigate further and hope to report back. And Dan…may the force be with you.



‘Lichfield: History to c.1500’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14, Lichfield, ed. M W Greenslade (London, 1990), pp. 4-14. British History Online

In Fradley Fields

RAF Lichfield, or Fradley Aerodrome as it was sometimes known,  was Staffordshire’s busiest airfield during the Second World War. At its peak, there were over 3,500 people serving there. Note I say people and not men. At Fradley, as at other airfields up and down the country, women made an enormous contribution.

RAF Lichfield memorial.jpg

Author: 66usual (taken from Wikipedia)

Some of the women associated with RAF Lichfield were Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilots, who delivered aircraft to and from the base.  It’s said that Amy Johnson was amongst them and that Johnson, the first female pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia, was the first person to touch down on the runway at when the airfield opened on 1st August 1940, and 51 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) took up residence. Johnson lost her life on one of the ATA ferrying missions, flying an Airspeed Oxford from Prestwich to RAF Kidlington.   After the war, the job of 51 M.U. was to break up aircraft. Although these were mostly recycled, according to David Mace of the Jet Age museum who contacted me early last year, some parts may have been dumped in the hedges and woodlands surrounding the airfield. Although nothing has turned up yet, several walks in the area have brought other new discoveries and so, I remain hopeful that some trace of the 900 Typhoons , 500 Liberators and 150 Fortresses broken up here might still remain in amongst the surviving hangars and other buildings.

RAF Lichfield Nov 16 2.jpgraf-lichfield-nov-16raf-lichfield-nov-5RAF Lichfield Nov 4.jpg


One of the most intriguing recent discoveries is this scribble on the wall of one of the buildings believed to have been used to store ammunition.

From 23rd April 1941, until the end of the war,  RAF Lichfield was home to 27 O.T.U which trained crews from mainly Australia (you may have noticed a bench in The Close with a plaque commemorating the many Australian airmen who served at Fradley) and other Commonwealth countries before they went on to join their squadrons. australian-airmen-plaque

Sadly, some didn’t get that far and many of those who were killed whilst training at Fradley are buried at the church of St Stephen in the village. They may have lost their lives but I’m determined that we don’t lose their stories, or the stories of the other ordinary men and women who were brought together at RAF Lichfield in extraordinary circumstances and loved and lived, laughed and cried here.   Later this month, we’re holding a community meeting in Fradley to discuss how best to carry on the work of the now defunct RAF Lichfield Association and continue to tell the stories of the airfield and its people. Together, we will remember.

If anyone would like to get involved, or has any stories or information to share regarding RAF Lichfield and those who served here, please do get in touch via the blog.

St Giles and St Michael

St Giles is the patron saint of lepers and surely it’s no coincidence that there was a medieval hospital at nearby Freeford caring for those unfortunates suffering from the disease.  Less readily explicable is the short lived name change at the end of the ninteenth century when, according to the Whittington History Society, the church was known as St Matthew’s for around twenty years, before reverting back to St Giles in the 1890s.

Whittington church

The church history guide, handed to me by two kind ladies who found me loitering outside and invited me in, condenses eight hundred (ish) years of history into four paragraphs. Quality not quantity. It tells how a church has stood on this site since the thirteenth century, built with red sandstone from nearby Hopwas Woods.

Hopwas quarry.jpg

The edge of Hopwas Woods as seen from the canal.  There is a suggestion that stone for ecclesiastical purposed was quarried from an area of the woods given the tongue in cheek name of ‘The Devil’s Dressing Room’

The only original part standing today is the base of the tower, with the nave being rebuilt in 1761 following a fire and the chancel added in the 1880s. The Jacobean oak pulpit, installed here in 1922, was originally donated to Lichfield Cathedral in 1671. One hundred and eighteen years later it was moved to St Peter’s at Elford  but was discarded when that church was renovated in 1848 and lay disused in the stables of Elford Hall until a new home was found at St Giles. Apparently, at some point in this game of pass the pulpit, the Cathedral made enquiries about getting it back but obviously nothing ever came of this.

Whittington stained glass

More recycling can be found in the north and south windows of the chancel, where there are fragments of medieval painted glass thought to originate from the Benedictine Abbey at Burton. Presumably it was brought here following the dissolution but exactly why and how I don’t know, so if anyone fancies looking into Whittington’s windows in more depth, please do.

Whittington organ

Then, up on the balcony, there’s an organ, paid for by public subscription as a memorial to sixteen villagers killed in WW1. The brass plate at the front is inscribed with the name of the fallen and was made from a shell case brought from Mons battlefield. The church registers also records other WW1 deaths, with several servicemen from the military hospital at the nearby barracks and one from Brocton Camp at Cannock Chase buried here in late 1918, their deaths possibly related to the Spanish Influenza pandemic of that year.

whittington graveyard

One unexpected celebrity burial here is Thomas Spencer, co-founder of Marks and Spencer, who came to live in Whittington to pursue his love of farming after retiring from the partnership which began on 28th September 1894, when he invested £300 into a business owned by Michael Marks. The church hall is named after him, built with funding from the retailer in 1984. Just as a bit of background, Marks had started out working as a pedlar selling wares from a bag and from this he went on to open a market stalls in Leeds, which became known as the Penny Bazaar. The stall featured the poster ‘Don’t ask the price, its a penny’. I suspect plenty still did, a tradition still carried on in Poundland today (other single price retailers are available but this one gets a mention as it started up the road in Burton).  The St Michaels brand was introduced by chairman Simon Marks to honour his father, who came to this country as an immigrant from Belarus with little money or English and founded a British Institution.

whittington thomas spencer hall.jpg

We can’t talk about St Giles without mentioning the hospice, established at the vicarage in 1983, when Reverend Paul Bothwell decided to do something to improve care for local people living with terminal illnesses.   In its first year, there were 167 patients, today it cares and support for around 500 people a week. The free nursing and medical care provided by St Giles costs around £9 million every year. Only a third of this comes from the government, the rest is down to us. Now, it just so happens that I know of two trainer botherers top people who took part in a fun run on Sunday to help raise funds for St Giles. Normally, all I ask for on this blog is for people to tell me if they’ve seen a bit of Fisherwick Hall lying around or for an explanation as to why there’s a fibreglass elephant in Cannock town centre (and, ‘Well that’s just Cannock for you’ will not suffice!). Today however I’m going to ask you to consider making a donation to this amazing local charity. They ran 5km, the only steps you need to take are to get your credit card out and donate a couple of quid here.

whittington church 2



Higher Ground

As these things go, the highest village in England is a decent title to have. Far better than being say the wettest place (1) or the most haunted village (2). Yet, it appears wherever there there’s a superlative at stake, there will always be controversy and more often than not a good story to go along with it.  Just ask the good people of Burntwood about their park.

Flash village sign

Someone at Visit Cumbria was presumably high on Kendal Mint Cake when they wrote that Nenthead  in their county was England’s highest village.  The title belongs to Flash, Staffordshire, 1,518ft above sea level, and they have the paper sign to prove it.  The official village sign goes one step further however, proclaiming Flash to be the highest village in Britain, a claim disputed by Scotland’s highest village Wanlockhead. However in 2007 the BBC One show intervened and declared the Staffordshire village was indeed the higher of the two and perfectly entitled to look down on its Scottish rival. (3)

Flash villageElsewhere on t’internet, you will see the bold statement that there is no doubt that the Methodist Church in Flash is the highest in the country. However, the chapel has been converted to a residential property (it’s rather lovely and currently up for sale). Is a deconsecrated church still a church? Perhaps we should ask the people in charge of the second highest Methodist Church in England what they think….

Flash methodist church.jpg
To even begin contemplating whether the New Inn at Flash is the highest pub in Britain, England or even Staffordshire, I’d need a stiff drink  but sadly on my visit, the pub was closed (although only for the afternoon). Instead I had to be content with Flash’s other watering hole i.e. the village well, dressed every year (the 2016 blessing will take place at 2.30pm on 18th June ) as is the custom in these parts.

Flash villag well

Flash’s well dressing tradition is a recent one, an addition to the annual and much older teapot parade, surely the highest teapot parade in the country. Ok, the only teapot parade in the country. It celebrates the village’s friendly society, established in 1846 to provide for residents who had fallen on hard times and only dissolved in the 1990s. The name is believed to derive from the vessel used to collect and hold the funds until someone needed them. There’s a fantastic write up and photographs here by the wonderful Pixy Led who attended the festivities in 2014.

Flash pub sign

New Inn Flash.jpg

Although several people have started singing this when I’ve mentioned the village name, the traditional or folk etymology relates to something rather less heroic. A villainous looking character appears on the pub sign, and represents the gang who supposedly set up presses here making counterfeit or ‘flash’ money.  However, in David Horovitz’s invaluable survey of Staffordshire place names, he suggests the place name likely derives from a Scandinavian word meaning a swamp, or a pool of water. As a folklore loving linguist I shall sit on the fence.  And if the fence is in Flash it might be the highest fence in Britain…ok, I’ll stop now.

Flash cat

The highest cat and the highest Kate in the country. Possibly.




(1) There is indeed a good story about this. Earlier this year, the village of Eglwyswrw in South Wales had had rain for 83 consecutive days and were just six days short of the record set by Eallabus, Scotland in 1923. It was national news. The Telegraph reported on it imaginatively illustrating an article on a wet place in Wales with an umbrella and a sheep and even had a timer counting down the days, hours and seconds until Eglwyswrw claimed the soggy crown from the Scots but it was not to be and so Eallabus retains the title.

(2) A title awarded by the Guinness Book of Records in 1989 as it has twelve ghosts. Or more accurately perhaps, twelve ghost stories.

(3) Whilst on the subject please let’s take a few moments to think about Bwlchgwyn which erected signs announcing it was the highest village in Wales, but later discovered it is only the third highest. And yes, the Telegraph, the Metro and numerous others have already done the ‘left feeling low’ pun. Bet they wish they’d made their sign out of paper…