Soul Sister

Friend and well hunting expert Pixy Led described Nun’s Well at Cannock Wood as being, “…perhaps the most hidden of all the springs and wells I have investigated”, and it was only thanks to his post about the site on his brilliant Holy and Healing Wells blog that this well hunting amateur was able to locate it. Between Pixy’s and my visits, it appears the site has been tidied up considerably and this is my attempt to do the same historywise, purely to satisfy my own curiosity.  It’s much more appealing than sorting out the cupboard under the stairs. Or cleaning for the Queen.

nuns well board

Nun’s Well is a spring rising in a chamber cut from rock with a sixteenth century Tudor style brickwork arch. Legend has it that the well has healing powers, specifically for sore eyes, and takes its name from a nun who was murdered there. Centuries after she was pushed to her death, two farm labourers discovered her earthly remains in the sealed up well and her ghost materialised before them. As Pixy points out on his blog, however, two of the best known works on Staffordshire folklore don’t even mention the well let alone its resident spirit.  I have found a reference in Robert Garner’s 1844 Natural History of the County of Stafford, which also doesn’t mention the ghost story but does offer an alternative explanation of how the well got its name,

“To descend to more recent times we lately visited a spot where one of our early monastic institutions was placed, Redmore, from which the nuns were soon removed to Polesworth because the gay cavaliers riding that way to hunt on Cannock Chase spoiled their devotions. With some trouble we found the solitary quadrangular site not far from Gentleshaw in some low ground embosomed in a wood through which a brook flows now ochrey from the scoriae of an ancient smelting place above and here also is a well considered medicinal and still called the nun’s well”.

It’s still not an entirely satisfactory version of events though (although there’s something undeniably satisfying about seeing something described as being embosomed in a wood. Must be the logophile in me).

nunswell sign

There does appear to have to have been a monastic institution near to the well. Records show that in 1141, King Stephen granted land at Radmore or Red Moor to two hermits called Clement and Hervey and their companions. Frequent disturbances from passing foresters, rather than gay cavaliers, interrupted the quiet contemplations of Clement, Hervey and co, causing them to ask Empress Matilda if she could find them somewhere a bit quieter. It’s recorded that she agreed to this on the condition that their religious house be converted to the Cistercian order. It seems the hermits kept their part of the deal, and the retreat became a Cistercian abbey but according to the History of the County of Warwick, the foresters continued to cause problems. As soon as Henry II ascended the throne in 1154, the now Cistercian Monks petitioned him to transfer them to his manor at Stoneleigh. Henry did so and traces of the original abbey can still be found at Stoneleigh Abbey, now a grand country house.

Whether anything of the original abbey remains at Radmore is where things get really messy. Ordnance Survey maps of the area from the 1880s onwards show the site of a priory near to the well (see the 1949 map incorporated in Brownhills Bob’s post on Gentleshaw Reservoir here). According to Walsall place names expert and tricycle rider Duignan this is actually a muck up on behalf of the surveyors who, “… have mistaken furnace slag for ancient ruins (of the abbey)”.  What he found on the site was, “heaps of furnace slag, evidently of great antiquity, with 300-400 year old oak tress standing on and beside the slag”. It seems from the description of the site given by Historic England that that these could mark the site of a medieval bloomery or iron furnace. A medieval moated site also exists in the vicinity and there are suggestions that this is the site of a royal lodge established by Henry II shortly after the monks moved on to pastures quieter. As Staffordshire County Council’s Historic Environment Character Assessment report says, ‘the precise location of the abbey is unknown, but it is believe to have stood near Courtbank Coverts near Cannock Wood where a scheduled moated site and bloomery survive’.

nuns well fence

So, in the area we have a moated site, a hunting lodge, iron working and a short-lived abbey (somewhere) but how and where does the nun fit in to all this? Duignan suggests the name arose as the land was owned by the nunnery at Farewell. I read an interesting line in the History of the County of Stafford’s section on the Abbey at Radmore which says, ‘King Stephen granted Radmore, probably between 1135 and 1139, to Clement, Hervey, and their companions as the site for a hermitage…Bishop Roger de Clinton confirmed this grant and gave the hermits permission to follow any rule they wished and to receive and instruct any holy women who came to them after adopting a rule”. That suggests to me that there may have been holy women here at Radmoor…nuns? Hardly the most watertight of etymological explanations I know but then I don’t think Duignan’s is that convincing either. Is it? Although Nun’s Well is not technically a wishing well, please do feel free to throw in your two pence worth.

nunswell water

 

Sources:

G C Baugh, W L Cowie, J C Dickinson, Duggan A P, A K B Evans, R H Evans, Una C Hannam, P Heath, D A Johnston, Hilda Johnstone, Ann J Kettle, J L Kirby, R Mansfield and A Saltman, ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Radmore’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed. M W Greenslade and R B Pugh (London, 1970), p. 225 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol3/p225 [accessed 4 March 2016].

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1003750

‘Parishes: Stoneleigh’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6, Knightlow Hundred, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1951), pp. 229-240 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol6/pp229-240 [accessed 7 February 2016].

http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/stoneleigh.php

Tame Adventures

The Spring Bank Holiday weekend is almost upon us which means it’s Bower time again! If you’re a Lichfeldian, the Greenhill Bower needs no introduction. If you aren’t, then their website here will tell you everything you need to know.

Lichfield’s oldest community event takes place on Monday, but in the meantime there’s a brand new one taking place in Coleshill, which looks fantastic. On Saturday 23rd May, the first ever TameFest will be celebrating the heritage of the Tame Valley, between Coleshill and Tamworth, with a range of stalls and free activities including woodworking, willow weaving, bird walks, stone carving and ale tasting with Church End Brewery. Normally, it’s the latter of these would be the biggest draw of the day for me. However, I’m even more excited about the fact that my old mate Mark Lorenzo and his Museufy group will be there leading TimeHikes walks which explore the history of Coleshill through its hidden places. If the name sounds familiar, it may well be that you remember Mark’s brilliant ‘Tamworth Time Hikes‘ blog.

TameFest is taking place at The Croft in Coleshill between 11am and 4pm, and if you want to go on a free TimeHike, get yourself to the Museufy stand at 11.30am or 2.45pm. Further information on the event and the other activities taking place can be found here.

farewell

A little closer to home, on Sunday, we’re doing a walk along the hedges and holloways of Abnalls Lane, across to the spring and church at Farewell, and back down the pilgrims’ path of Cross in Hand Lane. Via a pub of course. We’re meeting at 10.30am in the car park next to the football pitches on the Western Bypass. There’s more information on the Adventures in Lichfield blog or on the Facebook page. If ‘adventures’ conjures up images of zipwires and sleeping in subzero temperatures for you, let me reassure you that our adventures are more teddy bears’ picnic than they are Bear Grylls.

The idea for Adventures in Lichfield came about after talking to another old friend about the importance of getting people together for no other reason than to have fun and enjoy themselves. We’ve got other adventures coming up including ghost hunting in Cannock Wood, paddling and a picnic on Pipe Green and we’re just working out the details of a wildlife walk at dusk. So please come along and join in – you have only your socks to lose.

Muddy SockWherever you end up this bank holiday weekend, have a good one 🙂

 

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

Fareground Attraction

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done a fair bit of walking in the lanes (and on one misjudged occasion, a potato field) around the Lichfield/Burntwood area. On one walk I was accompanied by my husband, on another I was alone. Well, I say alone, but actually you bump into others – cyclists, horseriders and of course other walkers, who generally smile and say hello, and exchange pleasantries. I like that a lot. On the walk I did alone, I made the mistake of trying to take a shortcut. It was a way marked path through fields and the views were great but it felt too lonely. I retraced my steps back through the potatoes and back to the lanes. I’ve realised that I’m not much of a fan of walking through fields. I prefer to be somewhere where others have been, and others are.

Anyway, in case anyone wants to do a similar walk themselves, here’s a suggested route. I think it’s about 5 and a half miles.  As you can see it’s pretty straight forward, and in fact you could do it either way around, but I’d been reading the book ‘Holloway‘ and liked the idea of walking from Farewell towards the Cathedral down Cross in Hand Lane, as pilgrims did in the past, and indeed still do.

On walks these days, I am torn between the joy of discovering the unknown, and the disappointment on getting home and finding that you were just minutes away from a Tudor gatehouse/CAMRA pub of the year/ancient burial site etc. I hope that including a couple of photos with suggestions of things to look out for won’t make it too prescriptive, but will give you a flavour of the walk.

In parts, Abnalls Lane cuts through sandstone, and tree roots grow above your head.

According to the Staffordshire Heritage Environment Record, there are a series of these holloways on the Lichfield/Burntwood border.

Walking through the potatoes, it felt like there was nothing else but fields.

I was glad to get back on the lanes and see signs of human life, like these old cottages at Spade Green, on Abnalls Lane before turning up The Roche.

Found lots of water around Cresswell  (except for the well itself!). This is part of an old mill race, seemingly all that’s left of Little Pipe corn mill.

The Nelson Inn shows up on the 1815 map, and the pub’s website says that there may have been a pub onsite since the 1500s (presumably with a different name?). The low building to the left (which I’ve practically cut off the photo!) was a smithy. In 1909, Clifford Daft advertised himself as a general shoeing smith, willing to undertake all kinds of jobbing and repairs to farm implements.

Looking at a series of old maps, there’s not just the one well around here but several. However, I didn’t find any of them, so I had to settle for a different form of refreshment. And a very nice pint of Theakston’s Lightfoot  it was.

We found the old Farewell and Chorley schoolhouse, but I haven’t been able to find out much more about Elizabeth Annie Page as yet.

An old farm at Chorley

The Malt Shovel at Chorley. Great pub.

A lovely babbling brook running alongside the path. Was tempted to have a paddle as it was hot and my feet were rubbing, but thought I’d never put my not entirely appropriate shoes back on again if I did.

In between walks, some of the wildflowers on the roadside verges had been chopped down which was a shame, but there were still pockets of them in places, including these incredibly late bluebells.

Farewell church, a church of two halves. Once the site of a Benedictine Priory and where some mysterious jars were found in the wall, during renovations….

…and somewhere beneath the greenery is the ‘pure spring’ that gives the place its name. You can’t see much, but you can sometimes hear it gurgling away if the water table is high enough (thank you Brownhills Bob for explaining away this mystery)

Down Cross in Hand land, past Farewell Mill. There’s been a mill here since the 12th century. It was apparently in operation until the 1940s (source: Staffordshire Past Track).

Past the sheep taking a dip in the sparkling water that flows along the lane.

Cross in Hand Lane, I understand, was once the old road to Stafford. As you reach these lovely white cottages set back into the sandstone, you are nearly back at the A51, which is of course the new road to Stafford…

Of course, if you don’t want to say farewell (ho,ho) to the walk just yet, somewhere around these cottages is an old track called Lyncroft Lane, which leads to Lyncroft House aka The Hedgehog!

Bricks & Water

With traces of snow on the ground, but the sun shining, I headed back to Farewell last weekend.  Following my previous visit, I’d had a look at some old maps and another extremely helpful conversation with BrownhillsBob on the subject of wells. I was hopeful that this time I’d be able to find the site of the well, that gave the place its name.

This description of the well is from ‘A Tale of Fairwell’, set at the priory in 1527 and published in the early 1800s  – ‘Exactly in the centre, the sparkling tide of a large well or rather fountain leapt from a carved stone basin and hurrying hither and thither amidst rich grass floated under an arch in the wall into the pool that supplied the mill.’ Whether there is any element of truth in this description or whether it’s completely imagined, I don’t know!

All I could find is this hollow, which is marked on maps ranging from 1884 to the late 1960s, as a pond. The maps also show a well or spring to the north east marked as ‘Well’ or ‘Fare Well’.

 Just down from this old pond, is a small brook in which there are some big chunks of stone. This brings me onto the next question! What remains of the priory of St Mary, initially founded as a hermitage but shortly afterwards converted into a nunnery?

The priory was dissolved in 1527. It seems that the old nunnery chapel was retained as a church but most of it was rebuilt in 1747 in brick,  leaving only the stone chancel.

The two different parts of the church.

Pat suggested that a nearby wall might contain some of the stone from the earlier building(s).

A brick wall has been built around the church yard, and this too seems to incorporate some older stone?

A archaeological resistivity survey carried out in 1992 located areas of higher resistivity thought to relate to demolition debris from structures associated with the church. Staffordshire Record Office hold the results of the survey which ‘revealed significant archaeological remains relating to the priory, including walls of buildings and the remains of the precinct wall’. I wonder whereabouts?

Until I can get my grubby mitts on a copy of this or any other real evidence, I’ll just have to be content that Farewell is a lovely place to speculate about!

Farewell Tour

From doing a bit of research on Cross in Hand Lane, I knew Farewell had been the site of Benedictine nunnery and also that the placename (sometimes spelt as ‘Fairwell’) refers to a nearby ‘fair or clear spring’. I had no idea what was left of either, the nunnery or the spring, so on the way home from Castle Ring, we stopped off for a look around.

St Bartholomew, Farewell

The most striking thing about the church is the mixture of  the two different building styles and materials. It seems the original church (which you can see here on the Staffordshire Past Track website) is thought to have contained parts of the nunnery which was dissoved in 1527.  Most of the old building was demolished & rebuilt in brick in 1745. However, the stone chancel remains. Below are a couple of photos  showing the contrast between the chancel and the rebuilt part of the church . I’m not sure but the bottom right corner of the older, stone built part of the building looks different again?

The two different parts of the church.

Have a look from a slightly different angle.

Whilst these renovations were being carried out, workman made a discovery. According to Richard Greene, in the south wall, six feet off the ground were three rows of earthen vessels. Each row contained vessels  of a different size (the smallest was 6 1/4 inches high) lying on their side, openings covered by a thin coat of plaster, facing towards to interior of the church.  All but three were broken in the process and one of them was kept at Richard Greene’s museum. You can see the picture here on the Staffs Pastrack website plus the letter written by Richard Greene to The Gentleman’s Magazine outlining the finds.

Initially, I found a couple of reference to the discovery of the Farewell Jars but no explanations or suggestions to why they were there.  Eventually, after a bit of searching, I came across a book on Church Lore (1), with a whole chapter devoted to ‘Acoustic Jars and Horses’ Skulls’ which specifically mentions the jars found at ‘Fairwell, Staffordshire’, describing how jars were used for enhancing the acoustics of a building. The idea is thought to date back to a Roman architect called Vitruvius. There are other examples of this idea throughout the country, and Europe, including St Andrews, Lyddington as below.

Acoustic jar in chancel wall, parish church of St. Andrews, Lyddington, Rutland 05/04/2009. Credit: Walwyn (taken from their Flickr photstream)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be wondering what the ‘Horses’ Skulls’ element of the Church Lore chapter title was about. Apparently, animal skulls were also used to improve acoustics in a building and examples have been found in various places. Although this is fascinating, I’m not going to go into too much detail here as it isn’t directly related to Farewell. However, it is worth noting that there is some debate as to whether these skulls and to a lesser extent, the jars relate to something altogether different. Something along the lines of foundation sacrifices…

I’d love to know what others think about this and want to look more into this acoustic jar business. I’m also wondering where the rest of the nunnery, dedicated to St Mary, is ? I’m not saying farewell to Farewell, just yet….

Sources:
(1) Thomas Firminger Dyer Church Lore Gleanings, Chapter VII,

(2) Ralph Merryfield Folk-lore in London Archaeology Part 2, The Post Roman Period

Staffordshire Places website http://www.places.staffspasttrack.org.uk/

William Dugdale Monasticon Angelicanum