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.

 

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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).

Serving Time

Throughout the year, the Lichfield Discovered group has hosted some fascinating talks on a range of subjects from symbolism in cemeteries (we never did find out about the mackerel!) to urban exploration and we’ve visited pubs, the Cathedral Close, Roman forts, pill boxes and tunnels. Before we hang up our boots and put the lid back on the biscuit tin for 2014, we have two more events coming up, which I want to let people know about.

This coming Monday (10th November), we are delighted to welcome local author and journalist Joss Musgrove Knibb who will be taking a look at the previously unpublished letters of four Staffordshire Regiment soldiers who fought, and in some cases died, in the trenches of WW1. The vibrant letters of Alfred Bull of Lichfield, Sydney Norton of Tamworth, James Stevenson of Stoke-on-Trent and Jake Armes on the 1914 Christmas Truce bring the voices of these men vividly to life. With lots of photographs, stories and ‘trench humour’, it will be a thought provoking way of marking the centenary. The event takes place at 7pm at St Mary’s in the Market Square, Lichfield. There is no charge, but donations towards the centre are always appreciated.

First Lines by Joss Musgrove Knibb

First Lines by Joss Musgrove Knibb

The letters are part of Joss’ recently published book – First Lines. First Lines is published by Gazelle Press and is available to purchase across the region. Local outlets include WH Smiths (Three Spires Shopping Centre), St Mary’s Heritage Centre, The Cathedral Shop and the National Memorial Arboretum. First Lines retails at £9.99.

On Saturday 15th November we are meeting at the Guildhall at 2pm, where we’ll be exploring what remains of the city’s old gaol, first opened in 1548. After three hundred years, changes in the law meant that Lichfield’s prisoners were transported to Stafford after their trial, but a small number of cells were retained and used as the city lock-up. In 1847, the Inspector of Prisons visited the gaol and found that ‘the initials and names of many prisoners were cut deep into the wood work’. On our visit we’ll be attempting to locate and record this graffiti and have access to some of the cells which are not usually open to the public. Any names or initials that are discovered will then be compared with prison documents held by Lichfield Record Office at a later date. As it would be good to have an idea of numbers (it might get a bit cosy in those cells if there are too many of us!), please let me know if you would like to join us. We also need people to bring torches and cameras to help with the recording process.

prison door

We’re currently working on next year’s programme of events for Lichfield Discovered but so far we’ve pencilled in a visit to the Spital Chapel – one of Tamworth’s oldest and loveliest buildings, a talk on Holy Wells of the Midlands, a visit to the timber framed Sinai Park House (where there’s also a holy well!) and closer to home, an exploration of Beacon Park and Beacon Street. As ever, we are open to suggestions and so if there’s anywhere you’d like to visit, or anything you’d like to know more about, tell us and we’ll see what we can do! Dates to follow, so watch this space. You can also keep up to date by following us on twitter @lichdiscovered or liking us on Facebook.

Spital Chapel of St James, Tamworth

Spital Chapel of St James, Tamworth. During an archaeological dig in the latter half of the 20thc, to find any earlier structures on site, three skeletons were unexpectedly discovered in the area where the table is.

 

Well Wishers

I’ve written previously about how the appearance (and apparently, the actual location!) of St Chad’s well has changed over the years here, but I’ve recently found some contemporary accounts of the well’s previous incarnation – a ‘vertical tube built of engineering bricks, covered with a kind of gloomy sentry-box of stone’, which had apparently become so neglected in the 1940s that only a few inches of stagnant water covered in a green scum remained in the bottom of the pool. (1)

In November 1946, the Bishop of Stafford lamented that the well had once been a place of great pilgrimage but had fallen into a state of neglect and considerable disrepair and in April 1948, E Sutton, a former caretaker of the well, described it as having degenerated into a wishing well. A few weeks later, Mr Sutton submitted a further letter to the Mercury, advising, ‘I have again visited the site and found it in a worse state than on my visit there last Autumn. Then boards covered the Well. These are now removed and the Well is full of rubbish, among brick-bats and wood being a worn out coal bag! I noticed too, among the bricks and stonework lying around in wild confusion the ancient ‘St Chad’s Stone’, which the historian Leland, writing of his visit to the Well some four hundred years ago, states was then believed to be the very stone upon St Chad stood in the icy water as an act of penance, it then being the bottom of the Well. When the small building was erected over the Well in Stuart times, this stone was incorporated into the building, no doubt in order to preserve it. Many hundreds of hands have been placed upon it, mostly with reverence, since. It now lies among the rubbish, one corner broken. A fitting symbol of the ideals of 1948!’ (2)

St Chads Well

St Chad’s Well today

Saint Chad's c.1915. Taken from Wikipedia

Saint Chad’s Well c.1915. Taken from Wikipedia

I’m intrigued by this reference to ‘the ancient St Chad’s stone’. When James Rawson described the site prior to his restoration in the 1830s, he noted that, ‘the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed, which was described as the identical stone on which Saint Chad used to kneel and pray!’. Despite Rawson’s apparent scepticism about these claims, was he somehow persuaded to use this stone in his new well structure, thereby perpetuating the myth? I’d love to see what went on in those discussions and I’d really like to know what happened to this legendary stone. St Chad may not have been anywhere near it, but the fact that people believed he had should have made it worth saving for posterity’s sake.

Water in the well

Water in the well

Unfortunately for Mr Sutton, the restoration of the well did not put a stop to people using St Chad’s Well for wishes, as evidenced by the layer of coins that still glint beneath the water, tossed in at some point over the last half century or so. It’s often suggested that this is the continuation of a ritual that our ancestors were carrying out a long, long time before St Chad arrived in Lichfield. Some things change. Some stay the same.

Notes

(1) The octagonal stone well structure erected by Rawson in the 1830s, as described by the Lichfield Mercury on May 6th 1949!

(2) A little off topic, but it’s amusing to see that it’s not just nowadays that letters appear in the Lichfield Mercury suggesting that society is going to hell in a handcart. Once again, some things stay the same…

Shine On

Still curious about the old church of St John the Baptist at Shenstone, I did a bit more reading.  Inevitably, I’ve ended up even more curious than I was before.

In 1890, the Lichfield stone mason and sculptor Robert Bridgeman was appointed by a restoration committee to carry out work on the now disappeared pinacles of the tower. (You can see how the old church used to look, pinnacles and all, from drawings of the church in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century here on Staffordshire Past Track). At the time Mr Foulkes, an architect living at The Ivy House, in Shenstone, wrote to the committee saying,

I am anxious to assure the Restoration Committee how fully I concur in the steps they have taken to preserve the old tower, for both on practical and sentimental ground it should be upheld. The appointment of Mr Bridgeman as restorer is the best your Committee could make, and I know he will thoughtfully and carefully carry out the work entrusted to him.

Mr Foulkes then goes on to give some of the history about the old church saying,

The old tower so called is really not very ancient, except perhaps the internal base; the upper part boasts of no architectural feature of note, the details being of a debased character, and early in the present century there evidently existed a kind of central beacon flag-pole and vane combined. There were also diagonal shaped dials upon the tower. One other feature worthy of mention, and of which I fear no trace remains, was a stone hollowed out in the Romish times, for the reception of holy water. It formerly stood near the north door and over it was carved the figure of a lamb’.

It took a while for the last line to click but eventually I remembered reading about a carved stone in the report of the excavation of the old church in 1973 by Dorothy and Jim Gould of the South Staffordshire Archaeolgical and History Society. A note by Mr J W Whiston, appended to the SAHS report says that there is no reference to the carving in any published description of the church, but that, ‘although mutilated, the carving can be identified as the arms originally granted to the Merchant Taylors Company of London before, in the time of Elizabeth I, the chief of augmentation was added (a lion passant and guardanty). These arms were frequently used by provincial merchant-taylors’. It also mentions that there is a similar carving on the porch of St Michaels in Lichfield. When I checked back on my photos of St Michaels from last spring, I found it (which saved me a trip). Funny how you see things that you don’t realise the significance of at the time, but fit into the big jigsaw eventually.

St Michaels Carving

The carving at St Michaels, Lichfield

Not knowing anything about the Merchant Taylors’ Company I looked them up and found that their patron saint is St John the Baptist. As you can see from the above (sort of), their coat of arms features a pavilion with a mantle either side, with the Holy Lamb within a sun. Perhaps this is the lamb to which Mr Foulkes was referring? You can read more about the company here.

Bottom right hand side of door - is this the carved stone?

Bottom right hand side of door – is this the carved stone? Should have taken a closer look.

According to William Whites Directory of Staffordshire (1834), the annual feast or wake at Shenstone was held on the Sunday after St John the Baptist’s day. Something that’s not mentioned in the archaeology report, or the newspaper report as far as I can see, is the existence of a holy well somewhere in the churchyard. On the saint’s day (or Midsummer if you prefer), St John’s Well  was believed to be a place of healing and of miracles. I can’t see it on any of the old ordnance survey maps but I am hoping it’s still gurgling away and hasn’t dried up. On the subject of St John and Midsummer, I know I probably shouldn’t speculate about the place name Shenstone – bright/beautiful/shining stone or rocky place – but the idea of the sun and bonfires associated with the festivities of St John’s Eve and Midsummer has popped into my head and now I can’t get rid of it. Feel free to shoot me down in flames.

I’ll try and distract myself with another example of pieces of the jigsaw fitting together eventually.  In an account of ‘ Ancient Shenstone’ by Madge Rogers in the Lichfield Mercury in the late 1940s that I was reading, she mentions, ‘A Peat Moor once stretched highly polished stone was erected in the churchyard, and was the tomb of 25 year old Richard Burgess of Leicester who journey by stage coach to the Welsh Harp in Stonnall and there took his own life’.

I don’t really understand the bit about Peat Moor but the story of Richard Burgess sounded familiar.  I remembered that a while ago, when trawling the newspaper archive for something to do with pubs, I had read a story from the Derby Mercury, June 1754, about a young Gentleman who was travelling with the Chester Stage Coach, on his way to Ireland to be married. Apparently, en-route he had received a letter from his fiancee’s Father, telling him not to pursue his journey, as she would not marry him. When the stage coach stopped off at Noon at the Welsh Harp near Lichfield, the young man took his own life. Surely this must be the same tragic young man?

To think up until recently the only place I’d ever visited in Shenstone was the Tesco Express. What a fascinating place it is, and I haven’t even started to read about the prehistoric and Roman connections yet.

Sources

The History and Antiquities of Shenstone in the County of Stafford, Henry Sanders
South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions XV
Derby Mercury Archive
Lichfield Mercury Archive