The Watchers of the Wall

Wall is one of the most interesting, if unimaginatively named, villages around these parts. Of course, the Romans who built the eponymous walls knew the place as Letocetum, which may sound more exciting but is actually thought to translate as just another description of the surrounding landscape – a romanized version of a Celtic place name meaning ‘grey wood’.

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Every year, thousands of visitors come to explore the remains of the bath house and mansio at this former military staging post on Watling Street and discover some of the incredible archaeological finds in the on-site museum. This is only possible thanks to the Friends of Letocetum, a small army of dedicated volunteers who are hoping to swell their ranks for the 2015 season. If you are able to give a couple of hours a month, or even a year, or could help out during the annual open day on Sunday 19th July 2015, please get in touch with them via their Facebook site, email wallromansite@gmail.com or leave me a message and I’ll pass it on. Gratias!

 

Hard Labour

Gnosall’s lock-up dates to 1832 and was designed and built by local architect James Trubshaw of Great Haywood. It’s one of only four remaining in Staffordshire (1). Originally it stood at the junction of High Street, Brookhouse Road and Stafford Street but in the 1960s, Staffordshire County Council suggested that the building be moved to the county museum at Shugborough in order that the junction could be widened. Understandably, the Gnosall WI were keen that the lock-up remain in the village and set about securing a piece of land where it could be re-erected. As if to prove the council’s point about the road being a bit narrow, a lorry ran in to it in 1969 but fortunately didn’t cause enough damage to prevent it being rebuilt on its current site on Sellman St in 1971.

Gnosall lock-up

Gnosall lock-up

Why was the lock-up built in Gnosall in the first place?  The English Heritage Listing says ‘…as a result of rising unemployment and low wages, Gnosall was plagued by unrest and poaching…. with the threat of the Swing Riots, a widespread uprising by agricultural workers in southern England, spreading northwards, it was decided to build a lock-up’. In Stafford Borough Council’s Conservation Appraisal of the area, they attribute it to ‘rising unemployment, poaching and agricultural riots in the south’.

The arrival of canal navigators in the village may also have influenced the decision to build a lock-up.  In November 1829, Aris’s Birmingham Gazette reported that two thousand labourers employed on the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal were living in the village (2). The Gazette suggested that the navigators were responsible for a spate of sheep and poultry thefts in the area and also reported that they ‘advanced from acts of midnight depredation to proceedings of a tumultuous and riotous description in the open day’. The most serious incident that I can find involving the navigators at Gnosall took place in March 1830 when it was reported that a labourer working on the canal was attacked in the Horseshoes pub at Gnosall by two men described as ‘navigators’, as they tried to steal his watch. A judgement of death was recorded against the prisoners, but their lives were spared (2). Apparently, these proceedings so alarmed the inhabitants of Gnosall and the neighbourhood that they applied for the appointment of a large body of special constables and were also ‘desirous that a small military force be stationed in the parish’.

Whilst some navigators may have found themselves on the wrong side of the law at times, the Truck System operated by some of their employers was nothing short of criminal. According to a report in the Staffordshire Advertiser in February 1830, ‘none of his Majesty’s subjects are more imposed upon by the infamous ‘Truck System’ than these said ‘navigators’ who are ostensibly earning large wages under their gaffers but instead of money they receive a ticket to a Tommy (3) shop where they are charged 8d per lb for cheese (which they might purchase with money in Stafford Market for 4d) and bacon, butter, beef, bread and coffee at extravagant prices. The master of the Tommy shop returns the gaffer five percent on the gross amount of his monthly bill’.

Sometimes it was not crime but death which brought the names of the navigators to the pages of the local press. Richard Barnett was injured by a quantity of earth falling on the lower half of his body and died as he was being conveyed home on a cart. In December 1830, the Staffordshire Advertiser reported on ‘The Navigator’s Funeral’. James Wheeler was helping to cut a tunnel through the solid rock when he fell to the bottom of Cowley Quarry in Gnosall and later died of his injuries.  One hundred of his colleagues each contributed one shilling to ensure he had a decent burial and when they discovered his coffin had already been nailed shut, demanded the lid be removed to check nothing was amiss.  Six of the men were under-bearers and the wives of six men supported the pall. Six overseers of the works followed as chief mourners and behind them came one hundred fellow navigators, two abreast. The report noted that whilst the mourners were not wearing black, they were decently attired and looked clean and respectable. The women wore their brightly coloured clothes, the men wore smock-frocks. During the burial, some of those assembled at the graveside expressed anxiety about the security of the corpse and assisted the sexton in filling up the grave. Afterwards, the mourners held a wake at the Roe Buck and the Advertiser expressed sorrow that many of them had stayed out until late and ‘finished up the solemnities of the day with a fight’. However, it also commended the navigators for their praiseworthy practice of not only subscribing towards the funeral expenses of their colleagues but of also clubbing together something out of their wages every week to support the sick amongst them.

Cutting north of Cowley Tunnel at Gnosall Heath, Staffordshire  © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cutting north of Cowley Tunnel at Gnosall Heath, Staffordshire © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

We are all familiar with the canals that run through our towns and villages, but what do we really know about the men that worked on the Shroppie in Gnosall and elsewhere?  Where did they live? Did they rent rooms or live in makeshift camps on the outskirts of the village? One of the newspaper reports shows that the men were accompanied by their wives, but what role in the community did these women play? Did any stay on after the completion of the canal? How much of what appeared in the papers was based on fact and how much was based on rumour and reputation? The navigators are part of our history but for the most part we seem to have cast them in a peripheral role as hard-working, hard-drinking, trouble-making outsiders. We need to dig deeper than that.

Notes

(1) The others can be found at Alton, Stafford and Penkridge. References to other lock-ups in Staffordshire appear in documents and newspaper reports but without further research it’s unclear whether these refer to purpose built structures such as those at Gnosall, or rooms in other buildings used as lock-ups. I understand that sometimes rooms were attached to public buildings such as the town hall and in other places there were rooms in some public houses which were used as lock-ups. This is not to be confused with lock-ins.

(2) I understand that this seemingly confusing sentence handed out by the judge related to the Judgement of Death Act 1823, where judges were given the discretion to pass a lesser sentence on the two hundred or so offences which carried a mandatory death sentence but still had to record a sentence of death.

(3) Tommy was a word for food.

(With thanks to Cllr Kenneth Ingram, Norman and Sheila Hailes and the other residents of Gnosall for their warm welcome and for showing us around the village on such a cold and damp day, More to follow!).

Broken Record

The ‘Heritage at Risk’ register for 2014 was published by English Heritage today. The Register includes grade I and II* listed buildings, grade II listed buildings in London, and all listed places of worship, scheduled monuments, registered parks and gardens, registered battlefields and protected wreck sites assessed as being at risk.

There are eight entries from around the Lichfield District this year, including scheduled monuments at Alrewas, Elford, Fradley and Streethay, the Fazeley and Bonehill conservation area and three buildings, namely, the Angel Croft Hotel on Beacon Street, the Manor House at Hamstall Ridware and the old church tower at St John’s in Shenstone.

Angel Croft Railings

The Angel Croft Hotel has been deemed ‘At Risk’ for many years, but there is now a glimmer of hope that Lichfield’s fallen Angel may be saved. This year’s entry notes that, ‘permission has been granted for conversion to apartments with an agreement to secure the repair of the gates and railings. Work should start in the summer’. Time will tell, but I really do hope that 2014 will be the last time that the Angel Croft appears on the register.

Whilst the plight of the decaying Angel Croft is well known in Lichfield, other local entries on the list may be less familiar, but no less worthy of salvation. Fazeley, according to Lichfield District Council, ‘represents a remarkably intact industrial community of the period 1790-1850. It contains all the principle building types necessary to sustain the community; terraced housing, mills, factories, a church, a chapel, public houses, a school and prestigious detached Georgian houses’. They go on to say that, ‘the waterways, pools and associated structures built by Robert Peel Snr are an important part of Fazeley’s industrial heritage and have archaeological significance. Their significance extends beyond just the immediate locality as they represent one of the most important water power systems dating from the early part of the Industrial Revolution. As a contrast to Fazeley’s industrial heritage, the appraisal tell us that, ‘the historic hamlet of Bonehill…. is an important remnant of the areas agricultural past and despite the developments of the twentieth century still retains a peaceful, rural feel. It has a direct association with the nationally renowned Peel family’.

Yesterday, Gareth Thomas, GIS Manager at Lichfield District Council, uploaded a number of photos from their archive to Flickr. It just so happens that alongside the reminiscence-tastic images of Lichfield shops and businesses, Gareth has uploaded a number of photographs of the conservation area at Fazeley and Bonehill, showing us just what is at risk here, hopefully inspiring us to pay a visit ourselves.

Taken from Lichfield GIS photostream, Flickr

Taken from Lichfield GIS photostream, Flickr

Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

Taken from GIS photostream, Flickr

Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

Taken from GIS Lichfield, Flickr

Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

Also making an appearance in both the Lichfield District Council’s photo collection and on the ‘At Risk’ Register, is the Manor House at Hamstall Ridware. The pictures speak for themselves – the condition of watchtower is so bad that it is deemed at risk of collapse. Perhaps appropriately for something that may not be long for this world, I first caught sight of it from the churchyard of St Michael’s and All Angels and managed to find out a little about its history here.

Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

That’s quite a crack! Taken from GIS Lichfield photostream, Flickr

Hamstall Ridware manor 3 Hamstall Ridware manor and church

Over in Shenstone, it seems there are ongoing discussions between the council, the Parish Council and the church regarding the old tower. At least for the time being, the structure is ‘considered stable’ – let’s hope that they all start singing from the same hymn sheet soon.

Old tower at St John's Shenstone, by Jason Kirkham

Old tower at St John’s Shenstone, by Jason Kirkham

Same time, same places next year folks? Let’s hope not…

 

 

Thanks to Gareth Thomas and Lichfield District Council for the archived photos of Fazeley and Hamstall Ridware, and to Jason Kirkham for his photograph of the old tower of St John’s at Shenstone.

All Alongside the Watchtower

At the church of St Michael’s and All Angels, in Hamstall Ridware I was greeted by four arms waving (a sword) at me from a tomb. It belongs to the splendidly named Thomas Stronginthearm, who left this small village for the bright candles of Chicago in 1803, before making a final journey back home home to rest in the Staffordshire soil which his family had toiled upon – according to the church booklet, the Stronginthearms were yeoman famers.

Stronginthearm

The name appears several times in the Hamstall Ridware parish registers, available online here, recording all those who were baptised, married and buried here between 1598 and 1812. There are also other snippets of information on life in the village, including an entry in June 1806 when the Rector Edward Cooper led twenty five parishioners on a procession around its boundaries, beginning at Gallows Green, going along the Yoxall Rd as far as Sutton’s Farm, and then proceeding towards the Trent. Later that Summer, Edward’s cousin Jane Austen came to stay with him for five weeks, and it’s believed that she may have used Hamstall Ridware as inspiration for the fictional ‘Delaford’ in Sense and Sensibility. http://www2.lichfielddc.gov.uk/hamstallridware/about/

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On the subject of baptism, there are three fonts here. Inside the church is the one that is currently used, which dates from nineteenth century and there’s the lovely Norman bowl which was relocated here from the church of St James at Pipe Ridware. Outside, and being used as a flowerpot, is the third, also said to be Norman. At the time of the Burton Scientific Society’s visit to the church in 1924, this font was on the vicarage lawn. One of the society members, a Mr Noble claimed that it was the relatively recent work of an Armitage mason who did a good trade in producing mock ancient stonework, for people with antiquarian tastes. However, the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland seem happy that the font is twelfth century, and presumably they know what they are talking about.

churchyard

There’s also the base of a medieval churchyard cross here to which a much later shaft and cross have been added, although a fragment of the original shaft remains nearby.  It was while I was having a look at this, that I noticed the ruins of a brick building, looming up behind the church tower.  This is the late 15thc/early 16thc watch tower, once part of the now derelict manor house, Hamstall Hall. When the Burton Scientific society visited, they climbed a wooden staircase to the roof where they enjoyed ‘a good view of the surrounding area’ – it’s said that you can see four counties from the top. Given that that the hall features on the ‘Heritage at Risk’ List and is considered to be at risk of collapsing, it’s probably best to take their word for it. There are other remains of the hall here too, which I missed, including a Tudor gateway, and the porch to the old hall.

watch tower

 

Showing St Michaels Church and the tower of Hamstall Hall in the background.   © Copyright Graham Taylor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Showing St Michaels Church and the tower of Hamstall Hall in the background.
© Copyright Graham Taylor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In June 1939, the Derbyshire Times did a feature on a ninety three year old woman known as ‘Grannie Shelton’, who worked as a parlour maid and nurse at the hall, and married her husband on 19th March 1863 at St Michael’s. She told the paper that she had never seen a ghost but had once, ‘been down amongst the dead men’ – when a member of the Squire of Hamstall Hall’s family died she entered the family vault to have a look around and saw six coffins inside, each covered by a black cloth but with the white face of each of the corpses visible through the glass. Mrs Shelton also once dressed up as a ghost to scare the pantry boy that she suspected of stealing fruit from the Hall, causing him to run for his life shouting ‘The Devil is in the pantry!’ The devil may not have been in the pantry, but apparently he was found in a small hollow compartment in one of the bedrooms of the old manor house in the form of a stone image, complete with horns, depicted as ‘shaving a pig with red skin’ (I swear that I haven’ t made this up!). The report suggests that the Hall was formerly a Nunnery, and this hollow would have been somewhere nuns would carry out penance for breaking the rules. I can’t see any reference anywhere else to hall being used as a convent and I can’t help but wonder if it could have been a priests’ hole?  The hall belonged to the Catholic Fitzherbert family from 1517 to 1601. Sir Thomas Fitzherbert was imprisoned in the Tower of London for thirty years until his death on 2nd October 1591. All pure speculation on my part.

Feel like I’ve only just dipped my toe into the (holy) water when it comes to the history of Hamstall Ridware…

Angel Delight

Inspired by Brownhills Bob’s love of the place and the inclusion of Holy Angels in Simon Jenkins’ list of England’s Thousand Best Churches, I finally visited Hoar Cross last weekend.

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As Nikolaus Pevsner says in his book on Staffordshire buildings,‘The story of Hoar Cross is well known enough’, but it bears repeating here. Work on the red brick, Jacobean style hall, now used as a spa resort, began in 1862, shortly before Hugo Meynell Ingram married Emily Charlotte Wood. The hall was completed in 1871, but in that same year Hugo was killed in a hunting accident. The widowed Emily employed George Frederick Bodley and his partner Thomas Garner to build a church in his memory, in the grounds of the home they had shared. Emily died in 1904, her remains interred near to those of her husband, whose body had been brought here from the parish church at Yoxall, after the dedication of Holy Angels in 1876. It’s said that Emily was never completely satisfied with her creation, but from what I’ve read it’s considered a masterpiece by all those who know their stuff architecturally. For what it’s worth, I think it’s beautiful too.

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If anyone wants to give me a lesson in how to take photos of windows & getting the light right I will be eternally grateful.

The contribution of Lichfield sculptor and stone mason Robert Bridgemans is acknowledge on thois tablet, decorated with a mallet, chisel and other tools.

You wouldn’t be able to tell, because the photo is so bad, but this tablet acknowledges the contribution of Lichfield sculptor and stone mason Robert Bridgeman and is decorated with a mallet, chisel and other tools.

However, as well as this story of love, loss and incredible architecture, I’m also interested in the earlier chapters in Hoar Cross’s history.  According to Horovitz’s Staffordshire place name study, the name of the village was first recorded in 1230 as ‘Horcros’ and is thought to refer to a grey cross or boundary cross. Whether this was a marker for the point where the four wards of Needwood Forest once met, or whether it indicated the extent of land owned by Burton Abbey in these parts, or whether something else entirely is a matter for ongoing speculation. Whatever its purpose, the cross that gave the place its name is long gone and now it is only the name that remains.

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There is another boundary marker on one of the grass verges in the village. It appears on a 1923 Ordnance Survey map as a ‘boundary stone’ and seems to mark a parish boundary – Hoar Cross sits between Yoxall and Newborough.

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I’d also like to know more about the original Hoar Cross Hall – the medieval moated house, known as the ‘Manor of the Cross’. According to Stebbing Shaw’s History of Staffordshire, the hall was destroyed in the 1700s and a farmhouse built on the site. According to the English Heritage Pastscape record, there is little in the form of maps or archaeology to back up this anecedotal evidence but the fact that there is an 18thc farmhouse known as Hoar Cross Old Hall suggests that Shaw was probably correct.

Meynell Ingram Arms

Despite not setting foot in the spa (not really my cup of herbal tea), my trip to Hoar Cross left my mind and spirit feeling indulged. Before leaving, I stopped off to indulge my body too, with a drink at the Meynell Ingrams Arms. Dating back to the seventeenth century, this former farm house became a coaching inn known as the Shoulder of Mutton. The name was changed in the 1860s, around the time of Emily and Hugo’s wedding, and the rebuilding of the Hall. Sadly, there was no sign of Basil, the horse who attracted media attention several years ago for actually walking into the bar and enjoying a pint of pedigree, but after a couple of hours at Hoar Cross, I had anything but a long face as I headed back to Lichfield.

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Sources:

Click to access Hoar%20Cross.pdf


Midlandspubs.co.uk
‘A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz, LL. B https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/397633_vol2.pdf
Lichfield Mercury Archive
http://www.patrickcomerford.com/2014/04/art-for-lent-36-two-portraits-of-emily.html
Staffordshire (A Shell Guide) by Henry Thorold
The Buildings of England – Staffordshire by Nikolaus Pevsner

The Road to Ruins

When they were excavating the Wyrley to Essington canal at Pipehill at the end of the eighteenth century, a 500 yard section of a Roman military barricade (or palisade) made from trunks of oak trees was discovered.It was thought to have originally stretched from Pipe Hill to the Roman settlement at Letocetum. Well, unfortunately I didn’t come across that (if it even exists anymore) on my walk from Pipe Hill to Wall and back. But here’s what I did find…

A lovely view of the city accompanied me for part of the way (although I can only count four spires. If it’s Five Spires you’re after, look here)

SAM_0896Not too far down the road, I peered over a bridge to see the disused railway line that runs from Lichfield to Walsall. You can get down to the track, although as I was on my own I didn’t risk it, the bank being steep and me being notoriously clumsy. I wonder how far you could walk along the overgrown rails? Rather than regurgitate a history of the railway here, far better is to direct you to the people who really know what they are talking about – the South Staffs Rail group. Their website, full of information, photographs and videos of the line, as it was and is, can be found here, and you can also find out about their campaign to have the line reopened.

Rail bridge Pipehill

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As I continued along Wall Lane, the wind was blustery and the sky dark and it almost felt autumnal. However, with bluebells and stitchwort along the roadside, hawthorn in the hedgerows and the swallows flitting over the fields of oilseed rape there was no real mistaking this was the merry month of May. I saw pheasants and rabbits and heard and saw all kinds of birds whose names I don’t know, but wished I did. However, all attempts to photograph them ended like this. I’m sticking to bricks and stuff that doesn’t move.

SAM_0879Up at St John’s in Wall, I was pondering what might have once stood here on the site of the modern(ish) church built in 1830. Some have speculated a shrine to Minerva, but my thoughts were interrupted by this graffiti on the church yard wall.

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I’ve got a real thing about names carved into stone anyway, but I really have to admire the chutzpah of B Thornton of Redcar in Yorkshire for leaving  practically a full postal address. Wish there was a date though… It seems he or she wanted people to know that that they’d been here but just what were you doing in this small, ancient Staffordshire village B Thornton of Redcar? Were you here to see the ruins too?

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Whilst I was taking this photograph of buttercups growing where Romans once slept, I remembered that bit of childhood folklore about holding one beneath your chin to see if you liked butter. If you’re interested in science stuff, the explanation for how buttercups make our chins glow is here. It seems appropriate to share its Latin name here – ‘Ranunculus acris’. I think the acris bit means bitter, and I wonder if the flower’s common name started out as bitter cup and got corrupted on account of its beautiful golden colour? Anyway, back to the ruins.

SAM_0940 SAM_0944Out of everything, it’s the remains of this small Roman street, with some of its cobbles still intact that gives me the strongest sense of connection with the past. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you are treading the exact same ground as those who walked here thousands of years ago? Or perhaps I’d spent too much time here, alone with my thoughts….

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Heading out of Wall, there’s a farmyard wall which I believe was built using stone robbed out from the Roman site. Oh and another little mystery – just how does a pair of pants end up in a hedgerow like this? On second thoughts, this is one I probably don’t want to know the answer to.

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On the road back to Lichfield, down Claypit Lane I came across another relic of the railway. On the Fosseway Level Crossing is a signal box, built in 1875. Once again, I shall point you in the direction of the South Staffs rail site who have more information on this small but wonderful part of our history, and some photographs of the interior here. Also, there is a fantastic article on the South Staffs blog from a few years back, which I remember reading via Brownhills Bob’s blog, on Emily, who worked and lived at this crossing from 1946. You really should read it  – it’s brilliant and it’s here.

Fosseway signal box

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I was just about to leave the crossing and carry on back to Lichfield down Claypit Lane when I saw this.

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I’d heard about the trail via a talk that L&HCRT very kindly did for our Lichfield Discovered group, but hadn’t ever got around to finding it and now here it was! Once over the stile, the path takes you past what is left of this stretch of the Lichfield Canal.

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As with the railway line, much of it has been reclaimed by Nature who has decided that if us humans aren’t going to use it, then she’ll have it back thank you very much. I don’t know much about wildlife and ecology, but even I can see that this corridor is an amazing habitat for all sorts of flora and fauna. What does remain of the canal itself is fascinating, and being able to see it like this, in all its emptiness, really made me realise what an epic task building these structures would have been. And how deep it was.

I finished the walk near to Waitrose, once again amazed and delighted at just how much history and beauty there is so close to home. I’m certainly going to do it again and I recommend that you do too – it’s an easy five miles walk and even I didn’t get lost!

Sources:

file:///C:/Users/Kate/Downloads/50e_App4-Archaeological_Desktop_Survey_By_On_Site_Archaeology_Lt%20(7).pdf

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=304434

Orange Peel

In the mid 1930s, the Lichfield Mercury ran a series of articles called ‘The Beauty that is England’, featuring local country houses – ‘what they are and have been’ – around Lichfield. Each article blends the author’s description of the house (if still standing) and grounds with a heady mix of folklore, hearsay, historic records and poor quality photographs. Taken with a pinch off salt, they make for fascinating reading. As well as describing the past, they are now the past, providing us with a snapshot of almost eighty years ago – a ‘Now and Then and Then’, if you like.

The Orangery at the old Fisherwick Estate. Just about.

The Orangery at the old Fisherwick Estate. Photo from the Lichfield Mercury July 19th, 1935.

I was delighted that number eight in the series was Fisherwick, the site of a once grand mansion built for the Marquess of Donegal in the 1760s, but torn down and sold off to pay family debts after barely half a century. It’s a place I know well and I recognise much of it from the description from the 1930s – the beauty of its woods, the old arched bridges, the River Tame meandering through rich and colourful meadows. Yet of course in eighty years there have been changes. The red brick of the now demolished Elford Hall can no longer be seen in the distance, Fisherwick Hall’s ice house, ‘a brick enclosed fissure, built into the side of the hill’, near Home Farm has since disappeared, as has the pub in nearby Whittington which took its name from Robert Peel who purchased some of the dismembered Fisherwick estate.

Still hanging on in there just is the Orangery, although its portico (just visible in the above image), supported by four pillars with carved ionic capitals and reached by four worn steps has vanished since the 1930s, as has the frieze around the walls, said to have been carved in white stone with goats’ or sheep skulls linked by flowers. It’s a miracle anything survives at all. Even eighty years ago the author described its ‘crumbling sandstone, rotting bricks and decaying beams’, noting how ‘the ravages of time and nature are playing havoc with the beauty it barely possesses’. Then, in the 1970s, Nature upped her game and the Orangery was struck by lightening and scheduled for demolition. Why this never took place, I don’t know but I’m pleased it didn’t. It gives us an idea of what the rest of the estate may have looked like, and has the added interest of carved graffiti – the author thought everyone in Lichfield had added their signatures, based on the number and variety of names scribbled all over it.

Orangery

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Fisherwick 016

The Lichfield Mercury article ends with a tantalising yet unsubstantiated snippet of a story, saying that, ‘in 1800, a fatal duel was fought at Fisherwick, where a suitable enclosure near the hall had been lent for the combat’. I don’t know who the two gentlemen were, or what their quarrel was over, but this is just one of the many tales which have weaved their way around this intriguing place.  If you’d like to hear more Fisherwick Stories and explore the Orangery and whatever else remains of the estate today, including the community farm which has grown up in and around the former walled garden, then you are more than welcome to join us on our Lichfield Discovered walk –  2pm on Saturday 5th April at Woodhouse Farm and Garden.

 

A Change of Scenery

Since visiting the new Christian Fields local nature reserve last year, I’d been waiting for an opportunity to return and follow the ancient route which runs from the reserve to the village of Elmhurst.

I was eager to see was whether the dry pool/well we thought we’d found last time had filled with water. Turns out it had, but not necessarily in the way I was expecting… When I went in September it looked like this:

Now (assuming I have got the right place!) it looks like this:

The reason for the change is that site is being developed with £100,000 of funding to attract wildlife (and members of the public!) to the site. As well as the new pond and dipping platform, there will also be picnic areas, wild flower meadows and information boards.  There were lots of tadpoles swimming about in the new pool, so it looks as though efforts to improve the site’s biodiversity may be starting to pay off. You can read more information on the project here.

After watching the tadpoles, we passed two women out dog walking.One was trying to disentangle herself from a bramble that had taken a liking to her, but it seemed the feeling wasn’t mutual. “Bloody nature!”, we heard her shout as we walked past.

We continued along the wooded path leading to Fox Lane, Elmhurst.  Interestingly, up until the middle of the last century, it seems that both the path and Fox Lane were actually a continuation of Dimbles Lane.  After brushing past wild flowers and negotiating tree roots on the narrow, winding path we emerged from the green corridor into the village. I would love to know how often this path was trod by past generations, but surely none of them have ever tried to take a motor vehicle up there. Have they?

I believe that ‘new’ name for the lane relates to a retired business man, George Fox, who bought Elmhurst Hall in 1875. Fox died in London from a chill in 1894 after moving from Elmhurst to enable the Duke of Sutherland to use the house to host the Prince of Wales on his visit Lichfield for the centenary of the Staffordshire Yeomanry.

The original Elmhurst Hall was built by the Biddulph family in the late seventeenth century and replaced by an Elizabethan style house in 1804, with building materials from the original house being offered for sale. I wonder where these parts of Elmhurst Hall ended up?

Source: Wikimedia commons

Source: Wikimedia commons

The second Elmhurst Hall was demolished in 1921. Its last owner was the brewer Henry Mitchell (as in Mitchells & Butlers). There are still remains of the estate in evidence including a walled garden which dates back to at least 1740 and a lodge built in the 1870s, in the same style as the main hall, known as High Field Lodge. There was also another earlier lodge on Tewnals Lane but I haven’t been to have a look and see if that still exists.

High Field Lodge

Walled Garden

Whilst at Elmhurst Hall, Mr Fox established a mission room linked to St Chad’s Church, Lichfield to compensate for a lack of a place of worship in the village. I understand that services were taken by students from Lichfield Theological College and  Mr Fox himself.

Wild garlic & a rusty barrow outside the Mission Room

As I was walking, I couldn’t help but think of Alfred Cleveley, a butler a Elmhurst Hall in 1914 and later a recipient of the Military Medal, killed in action in May 1917, who I wrote about here. I later found that Private Joseph Hall, aged 20 and a member of the Mission Room choir also lost his life during the war. Born in Elmhurst in 1897, on the 1911 census Joseph was an errand boy. It’s a sad thought that the names of Joseph and so many like him would not appear on another census but instead on war memorials and rolls of honour. However, there did seem to be some controversy regarding where names should be included.  Whilst reading through the newspaper archive on Elmhurst, I found a letter from someone using the pseudonym ‘A Mother’, wanting to know why her son, born at Elmhurst, who died making ‘the great sacrifice’ on the battlefield aged just eighteen years old, should not be eligible to have his name enrolled on the Lichfield memorial. Apparently, she was told after making a voluntary subscription that the lad did not belong to Lichfield. ‘Then where did he belong to I should like to know?’ ends her letter.

I imagine that both Joseph Hall and the unnamed soldier went to Elmhurst School, opened in 1883 on land given by George Fox who also sat on the board as chairman. A proposal to close the school on account of low numbers was rejected by parents in the 1930s, and the school remained open until 1980 when the building was taken over by the Elmhurst and Curborough Community Association and pupils were transferred to other Lichfield primary schools, including Christ Church.

The Lichfield side of Dimbles Lane now has a very different feel to the rest of the route which shares its name, although the former landscape is reflected in the names of some of the new closes and crescents built by the local authorities after the First World War and throughout the twentieth century – Bloomfield, Greencroft, Willowtree.  The building program meant that the population of Lichfield increased significantly, and it’s a good reminder that housing estates are just as much a part of our history as the old country estates such as Elmhurst Hall. This is something that is being recognised more and more these days with some great work on our recent past going on in other places. For now, I will try and put something together so that others can follow this walk for themselves.

Start of Dimbles Lane at the Lichfield city end

Dimbles Lane as it crosses Eastern Avenue and enters Christian Fields Nature Reserve

Edit: Oh look! There’s a story here on Lichfield Live about volunteering at Christian Fields LNR on June 3rd. If you go, say hi to the tadpoles for me!

Sources:

Townships: Curborough and Elmshurst’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 229-237

Lichfield Mercury Archive

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….

 

Watering Hole

On the way home from Tixall (of which more later), I stopped off at Longdon village and called into the Swan With Two Necks for a drink. I only had time for a very quick look around the village but even in this short space of time managed to find lots of interest, much of it water-related, which seems only natural in a place also known as Brook End. I hope to return to Longdon and the surrounding area (and of course the pub!) in the not too distant future. Amongst other things, I want to see if there are any nuggets of truth in an old ghost story I found about Lysways Hall….

The pub name Swan with Two Necks is apparently a distortion of ‘Swan with Two Nicks’, referring to the marks made on the birds’ beaks to denote ownership. More info here

Talking of ownership, the SWTN has been under the management of Mary McMeechan since 1st March 2013, the latest in a long line of landlords stretching back to 1755!

Brook End Mill dates back to the 1700s and appears on the Yates Map of Staffordshire.

The mill race still runs and you can follow it for a way up a public footpath.

This area is full of wells, some with brilliant names & legends attached. I think if I’d have carried on up past here, I’d have come to my all time favourite – Giddywell! Never mind, I did find this one near to the mill and there’s always next time…

I’m not sure if this pump is original. There are some other Staffordshire water pumps on this website, perhaps I should send them the photo and get their expert opinion?

These cottages are thought to be a 16th timber framed building that was divided up into separate houses at some point in the last half a millenium or so!

Over to the experts again, and this time John Higgins of the Mile Stone Society who researched Staffordshire Mileposts and found that in 1893, 335 posts were ordered from Tipton firm Charles Lathe & Co at a cost of 19s.6d each, including this one in St James’ Close