Hot Spring

Apparently, this is likely to be the hottest early May bank holiday on record. It’s so warm that even the birds in my garden were sunbathing yesterday. It’s something they do to keep their feathers healthy  but I think this one might have needed a bit of factor 30, as it seemed a bit red in places.

Sunbathing robin

This beautiful weather coincides with the blooming of the bluebells at my beloved Leomansley Wood. The trees which are now coming into leaf are relatively youthful but the soil here is ancient. Along with lesser celandine and wood anemones, those bluebells signal that this is a plantation on a much older site. In England, the definition of ancient woodland is land that has been continuously wooded since 1600. Given that the name Leomansley pre-dates England and indicates that there were once elm or limetrees here, this site could have been continuously wooded, well, since forever.

Leomansley Wood bluebellsWood anemones

Leomansley Brook trickles around the edge of the wood, into Leomansley Pool in the grounds of what once was Leomansley Mill, and out again through a culvert on Pipe Green.

Mill culvert

Leomansley Mill culvert, Pipe Green

Once upon a time, on hot days like these, the brook would be full of kids paddling as can be seen in this clipping from a 1937 edition of the Lichfield Mercury.

Lichfield Mercury 1937 Pipe Green paddling

I’ve been paddling there with my kids (and without them!) but I’m seemingly in the minority, something I’ve always found strange given the close proximity of a primary school. With the exception of the occasional hot dog, the brook is usually as calm as the millpond it once flowed out of.

Leomansley Brook May 2018

Those still waters run deep however. To the right of the pipe, you can see some of Lichfield’s many springs emerging from the sandstone aquifer far beneath the brook’s bed.

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The pipe itself is currently the source of speculation between myself, the fantastic Jane Arnold of the Pipe Green Trust and others. Local historian J W Jackson talks of a pipe which ran from the well at Maple Hayes, which emptied its icy-cold water into the brook. He recalls how people would take bottles to be filled as the water was said to be highly beneficial for bathing eyes. Presumably this is the pipe he mentions but which well at Maple Hayes? Could he have been referring to Unetts Well, said to be the coldest water in Lichfield, where Sir John Floyer built a bath in 1701, later incorporated into Erasmus Darwin’s botanic garden?

I’ve always thought of natural history as having not much to do with local history but I’m beginning to see more and more how the former shapes the latter. Think its time to go and contemplate this a little more in the sunshine over a glass of water to which barley, hops and yeast has been added. It’s what Mr Worthington the brewer who once owned the Maple Hayes estate (which appears to have incorporated most of Leomansley at one point) would have wanted.

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Bath Time

Although the waters at the Roman Baths in Bath were once known for their healing powers (the mythological Prince Bladud and his pigs are said to have been cured of leprosy after wallowing here in 863 BC), the water is now considered unsafe and is strictly off limits. This didn’t bother me in the slightest as I’d much rather be issued with an audio guide with commentary from Dr Alice Roberts than a fluffy white bathrobe.

The Great Bath at Bath

The Great Bath at Bath

The great bath is fed by a hot spring rising here at the rate of 1,170,000 litres a day and a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius. For our ancestors, the warm water gushing from the ground was the work of the gods. Even though I know the cause to be natural rather than supernatural, there was still something magical about watching vapour swirling up out of the bubbling, green-hued water into a torchlit, grey November afternoon. And it seems I’m not the only one the place has that kind of effect on. When the Romans arrived, the local goddess Sulis was already being worshipped here so they named the place after her, and built a new temple honouring both her and her Roman counterpart Minerva alongside the sacred spring.

Alongside the curing, a fair bit of cursing went on. One hundred and thirty prayers inscribed on sheets of lead or pewter were thrown into the spring between 200 and 400 AD. Many invoke the help of Sulis Minerva in seeking justice and revenge for heinous crimes such as the theft of a bathing tunic or gloves. The majority are in vernacular Latin, but one as yet untranslatable text is thought to be the only surviving example of an ancient British language. I quite like the thought that the only physical trace of something spoken thousands of years ago was not left by kings or queens but by one of the plebs like us, most likely complaining that their swimming costume had been nicked.

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

In 1727, the gilt bronze head of a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered yet it’s not the face of the goddess which has become the symbol of Roman Bath but the face of the ‘gorgon’ found on the pediment outside her temple. And I have the fridge magnet to prove it. Re-discovered in 1790, and debated ever since, the ‘gorgon’s head’ is surrounded by a sea of symbolism including Tritons, a dolphin head shaped helmet, a star, an owl and two Victories. The ‘gorgon’ interpretation derives from the association of Minerva with Medusa and the supposed presence of a couple of snakes in the beard. Yes this ‘gorgon’ has a beard, which highlights the main problem with this explanation – gorgons are female whereas this is obviously the face of a man. It might be another example of the Romans combining a local god with of their own e.g. a classical gorgon and a British water god or could perhaps even be Neptune or Oceanus.

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I'm not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I’m not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

Other more easily identifiable gods found here include Jupiter and Bacchus whose images once formed part of the great altar where sacrifices were made. Post-sacrifice, the entrails of the animal were consulted by a haruspex (literal translation: gut-gazer) and we know there was one here in Aquae Sulis because the inscription on this stone reads ‘To the goddess Sul, Lucius Marcus, a grateful Haruspex, donated out of his devotion’. This is the only evidence we have of a priest in Britain who practised divination in this way, so it’s something of a rarity.  It has been suggested that whoever carved the stone wasn’t all that competent, originally missing out the ‘O’ from ‘Memor’ and also having to squeeze the letters ‘VSP’ after ‘the abbreviation HAR’. You’d think Lucius might have forseen these problems in the intestines.

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

Hopefully, all this talk of Romans at Bath will have whetted your appetite for something a little closer to home but just as exciting. Not only does our Roman site at Wall have carvings every bit as mysterious as those at Bath, evidence of Christianity in the area prior to St Chad’s arrival (in the form of  bronze bowl with a Chi-Rho symbol which you can see and read about here) and even rumours of our own statue of Minerva said to have been as big as a man, but not a man as it had a bust but also not a woman because it was wearing a soldier’s helmet. Unfortunately, it was used to fix a drain. If it ever existed in the first place that is.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don't know but it is fun speculating.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don’t know but it is fun speculating.

You can access the site of Letocetum all year round during daylight hours and the museum is open 11am to 4pm the last weekend of every month plus Bank Holidays between March and October. This Winter, the Friends of Letocetum have arranged a series of talks at Wall Village Hall starting on Wednesday 9th December with Dr Mike Hodder who will be talking about his own personal experiences as an archaeologist at Wall.

Further details of this and all other upcoming talks and events plus lots of other information about Letocetum can be found here on the website or there is a Facebook page here and you can follow @FndsofLetocetum on Twitter.

For anyone who would like to see the Gorgon’s Head but isn’t able to get to Bath, it will be coming to a lampost in Leomansley shortly along with a wobbly lobster. Details on request. And should anyone pinch it, I’ve got a curse ready.

Beaming

You’ve probably heard about the exciting developments in the Lichfield Waterworks Trust’s campaign to save Sandfields Pumping Station for the community. If you haven’t a) where have you been all weekend? and b) please take a look at chairman Dave Moore’s recent announcement here and a great post from the ever supportive Brownhills Bob here.

Sandfields Pumping Station. If you still don't know where this amazing place is, tell me and I'll take you there myself.

Sandfields Pumping Station. If you still don’t know where this amazing place is, tell me and I’ll take you there myself.

You probably won’t be surprised that I want to add my two penn’orth. For all its tangents and diversions, this is essentially a blog about Lichfield history and to be able to write a post saying that we are now going to be actively involved in preserving and promoting one of the most important architectural, industrial and social heritage sites in the city (and indeed country)…well, let’s just say I’ve had to pinch myself a few times.

One of the three waterwalks arranged by the Lichfield Waterworks Trust or the Heritage Weekend 2015

One of the three waterwalks arranged by the Lichfield Waterworks Trust for the Heritage Weekend 2015

On 19th September 2015,  the Trust took part in the Lichfield Heritage Weekend with three water themed walks around the city and a display in the museum at St Mary’s. We wanted to share the story of how Lichfield supplied clean drinking water to the Black Country during the cholera epidemics of the mid-nineteenth century and to highlight the heroic role Sandfields Pumping Station and its now unique Cornish Beam Engine played in this. Rather fittingly, the theme of the 2015 weekend was ‘Making History’ as here we are just five weeks later, in a position to do exactly that.

Our display of photos on the theme of Lichfield Water contributed by members of the public during Summer 2015.

Our display of photos on the theme of Lichfield Water contributed by members of the public during Summer 2015. (Photo by J Gallagher)

I’ve been grinning from ear to ear since I heard the news. Congratulations, thanks and respect must of course go to chairman Dave Moore and the other members of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust for their tenacity, dedication and hard work but also their optimism, vision and ability to talk me into wearing a boiler suit in public. Thanks also though to those of you came who came on a water walk, sent us a photo of a Stowe Pool sunset, visited John Child’s amazing model of a Newcomen engine at our stall in the Festival Market, lent us your name in support, picked up a leaflet, got really excited when you heard about the Hanch tunnel running below your feet, chucked your two penn’orth worth in our bucket during the Bower Procession and showed us in many other ways that you cared deeply about not only the past but also the future.

Some of the Waterworks Trust Gang collection during the Lichfield Bower 2015

Some of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust gang collecting during the Lichfield Bower 2015

As David and Bob both rightly say, the real hard work starts here and we’ll need your ongoing support as we embark on a new chapter in Lichfield’s water story. I’m hoping it’s going to be ‘Sandfields Pumping Station – built for the community and saved for the community by the community’. Sounds like a great way of making history to me.

A beaming Gill on last week's Arts & Heritage procession. She carries the boiler suit look off much better than I do.

A beaming Gill from the LWT on last week’s Arts & Heritage procession (she carries the boiler suit look off much better than I do).

Water Slides

Ross Parish has been researching holy wells since the 1980s and has published several books on the subject.  Ross is currently working on a Staffordshire volume and a couple of weeks back, we were delighted to have him at our Lichfield Discovered meeting to share his research with us. Ross took us through the history of holy wells, and some of the customs associated with them, pouring cold water on some of the popular views that have sprung up around them. At the risk of firing up inter-county rivalry, you’ve heard the saying ‘The best bits of Derbyshire are in Staffordshire’?. Well, Staffordshire is also a bit hard done by when it comes to the tradition of well dressing. Google it and you’ll find claims aplenty that it’s ‘unique to Derbyshire’. Try telling the people of Endon and Mayfield that. Interestingly, we also went through a phase of decorating St Chad’s well here in Lichfield for a time, but this tradition seems to have dried up in 2010.

St Chad's Well Lichfield,  only decorated by nature these days.

St Chad’s Well Lichfield, only decorated by nature these days.

With so many fascinating sites to chose from,  we forgave Ross for not including St Chad’s in his top ten list of Staffordshire wells. You can discover the ones that did make it, along with an abundance of other fascinating information, on the slides of the talk that Ross has very kindly shared with us online here.

If you’ve a thirst to know more about holy wells and sacred springs, here in Staffordshire and further afield, please do check out Ross’ blog here and also take a look at the Facebook group he’s involved in here.

 

Sites for Sore Eyes

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

St Chad's in Lichfield. Photo by Lichwheeld

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

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

Objects of My Affection Pt 1

Our next Lichfield Discovered meeting is fast approaching (7pm on 10th March at Lichfield Heritage Centre) and this time round we’re having a bit of a show and tell. We’ll be having a go at telling one hundred years of Lichfield History in twelve objects and we want people to get involved by bringing along their Lichfield related objects to show us all.

There are loads of objects that I’d love to be able to bring along with me, but can’t, either because they’re lost, immovable or I’d be arrested. So instead, over the next week or so, I’ll share some of them here instead.

First up, the earthenware jars found in the south wall of Farewell Church during its partial demolition.

Farewell Church

St Bartholomew’s in Farewell was once the site of a Benedictine Nunnery. The place name refers to the ‘pure or clear’ spring which still flows here. The original church incorporated material from the nunnery, but much of it was demolished and rebuilt in brick in the 1740s.

Trust me, there is a spring beneath here.

Trust me, there is a spring beneath here.

In my opinion, it takes something pretty special to top an ancient spring, but here at Farewell, the most interesting thing for me is the discovery of three rows of different sized earthenware vessels in the south wall of the church at the time of the renovations. The jars were lying on their sides, their openings facing inside the church, covered with a thin coat of plaster. Sadly most were broken during the work but one of the jars found its way to Mr Greene’s Museum of Curiosities on Market St, Lichfield. Its whereabouts is now unknown but luckily, someone did make a woodcut engraving of it, as seen here on Staffordshire Past Track. The purpose of the jars remains a bit of a mystery. The accepted explanation is that they were ‘acoustic jars’, used, as the name suggests, to improve the acoustics in the church, based on a theory from a Roman architect called Vitruvius. However, others have suggested that they may be related to the idea of votive offerings (interesting article here).

It’s a good example of how important is it to not to separate objects from their stories . Without knowing the context in which it was found, the jar becomes just another piece of pottery and without being able to examine the jar itself, the real reason why (and when) it was placed in a church wall in Farewell centuries ago may never be known.

When Spring finally does arrive, do try and visit Farewell via Cross in Hand Lane, the old pilgrims route & former road to Stafford. It’s a lovely walk to a lovely place with the banks of the ancient holloways covered in flowers and the Ashmore Brook running alongside if you fancy a paddle.

farewell

The Two Towers

With ‘Heritage at Risk’ the theme of our Lichfield Discovered meeting this month, I was having a flick through the English Heritage At Risk Register to see whether there were any other buildings in the district keeping the Angel Croft Hotel company on the list. It seems much of what’s considered ‘at risk’ in these parts is landscape features – a causewayed enclosure and settlement sites in Fradley/Streethay, a round barrow at Alrewas and a site near Elford, although built heritage does appear in the form of the walls and gate piers at Colton House, the ruined remains of an old manor house at Hamstall Ridware and the old church tower at Shenstone. The inclusion of the latter was of particular interest as I’d been there for a nose just days before.

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When the present church of St John’s was built in the 1850s, the existing church was partly demolished leaving just the tower and the south door visible. Time and nature are doing their best to finish the job the Victorians started – English Heritage have assessed it as being category A meaning that it is at ‘Immediate risk of further rapid deterioration or loss of fabric; no solution agreed’.

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The tower had a wooden ladder but no staircase

The ruins are thought to incorporate Norman features and possibly some Anglo-Saxon masonry.

As you’d expect, many of the village’s old residents are to be found here in their eternal rest. According to William Pitt, at least one of them did not go gentle into that good night – Susannah Southwell of Shenstone was married at the age of 112 (although he doesn’t record how old the groom was nor how long it was until death did them part). The Wikipedia entry for Shenstone says that a 2007 survey found that it was one of the ten worst places in England for finding single women. Perhaps that’s always been the case?

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Local sandstone was used to build both new and old churches and it’s this geology that caused David Horovitz to question whether the place name Shenstone really does mean ‘shining stone’, suggesting that sandstone could “hardly be described as ‘bright, shining or beautiful'” (although anyone who has seen Lichfield Cathedral glowing in the late afternoon sunshine may well disagree). Mr Horovitz has suggested that Shenstone may instead refer to a personal name, or even to stone monuments left behind by the Romans (remains of a villa have been discovered on the outskirts of the village and Wall is only around a mile away).One of the reasons I love the study of place names is that it can give us a glimpse of somewhere as seen through the eyes of people who once lived there hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. The view can be a little hazy though and sometimes we can only guess at why our ancestors chose the descriptions they did.

Whatever the true meaning may be, it is the ‘shining stone’ theory that inspired Jo Naden’s steel sculpture for the village’s Lammas Land in 2002, described by the invaluable PMSA website as follows, “(The artist) chose to site her sculpture in the Black Brook, which runs through the Lammas Lands used by the Celts as a site for harvest festival rites, in order to make a connection with Celtic culture. Trees, held sacred by the Celts, are reflected in the mirror finish of the stainless steel, while the text inscribed on it* is taken from the words of an unknown ninth-century Irish author. The placing of the stone at a point near where a bridge built on a north-south orientation crosses a stream running from west to east would have been considered sacred by the Celts because it symbolised the meeting of polar opposites”.
*A flock of birds settle ….. the green field re- echoes where there is a brisk bright stream

I stood on the little footbridge watching the swollen Black Brook flow over the sculpture for a few minutes until I was ordered off by a toddler clutching a handful of twigs ready to make an offering of pooh sticks to the water at this sacred spot.

SAM_9843SAM_9842Sources:

A Landscape Survey of the Parish of Shenstone, edited by Richard Totty for The Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Lichfield 2009

A Topographical History of Staffordshire, William Pitt

‘A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’
by David Horovitz, LLB