The Depths of Winter

Something happens to me once the clock strikes 12 on 25th December.  Maybe it’s a response to the sugar rush that comes from stealing the kids’ selection boxes, but my thoughts turn away from those Christmas lights to the darker side of local history.


I always take my ghost stories and legends with a decent pinch of salt and if they’re served with a measure of good humour too, so much the better. As such, I was delighted to discover a story in the Lichfield Mercury from Friday 2nd September 1932, called ‘The Haunted Secret Passage of Lilleshall’.

In what sounds like my ideal night out, a group of archaeologists and diviners congregated in a candle lit vault next to the so-called dungeon at Lilleshall Abbey. As they waited to hear if diggers had located an underground tunnel, ‘the sounds of the shovels and picks ‘awoke eerie echoes in the leper’s cell above’.  The reason for the gathering, according to the BBC’s Domesday Reloaded site, was that in 1928 a caretaker and his family had moved into a cottage on the site and heard ghostly moaning from beneath the Abbey. At first, they attributed the sounds to the men working at Lilleshall Colliery. However, when it was discovered that the mine didn’t extend as far as the Abbey, and the son reported seeing a shadowy figure and the sounds of the pages of a book being turned, they began to suspect a more unearthly cause. A £50 prize was promised by the estate agent to anyone who could locate the subterranean passage the noises were believed to be coming from and people began turning up to try and solve the mystery in a variety of idiosyncratic ways. These included a man with a hazel twig he manipulated between his fingers, a white bearded professor, who refused to communicate with anyone and ‘went around the ruins with a little toffee hammer, sounding the ground at various places’ and an old tutor of the Duke of Sutherland, whose family owned the Abbey until 1917, who was relying on his memory to tell him where the entrance to the tunnel was.

The ruins of Lilleshall Abbey

A psychic dental surgeon from Birmingham agreed to spend a night in the dungeon. Surely if anyone was going to find an old cavity, it would be him? However, as dawn broke the following morning, he was nowhere to be found, having fled in terror. Two young men who spent the night in one of the old Abbey cells reported ghostly footsteps and ‘a monk with a high-pitched voice saying prayers in a foreign language’. Although to be honest, that could just have been the frit Brummie dentist running away.

Lilleshall Abbey

The shenanigans also involved a Mr Noel Buxton, a member of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, who declared he was prepared to stay on-site until the tunnel was found. I didn’t see him when I visited with friends last summer, so perhaps that means it was… The reports at the time are ambiguous – in the Birmingham Gazette on Friday 26th August 1932 it was reported that in a vault next to a dungeon, a diviner received a violent shock which led to the discovery of an underground passage. However, the estate agent said it had not yet been decided whether or not it was the tunnel they were looking for.

Diviner: OMG I did it! I found an underground tunnel!
Estate Agent: Yes…but is it the right underground tunnel?
Diviner: Yes. It is a tunnel and it is underground. Now give me my £50.
Estate Agent: Yes but if it was the right tunnel it would have ghostly monks in and as you can see, this one is phantom friar free. Sorry old chap, better luck next time. Um, please put the stick down…

So, whilst the competition and the talk of haunted dungeons were a clever bit of marketing to attract tourism, it’s fair to say that the notion of a underground tunnel at Lilleshall was not entirely without foundation. As well as the diviner’s discovery, in June 1886, in Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire, and the Principality of Wales, a correspondent writes that his mother, then aged 75, visited the Abbey as a girl and remembered stories of an underground passage said to run from the Abbey to Longford Church, or Longford Hall,  and that once a heavy cart passing over Longford Fields broke into it, but ‘it was not explored on account of the air in it being so foul’. Was this the same tunnel that tuned up in the 1930s?

Lilleshall Abbey

I am genuinely fascinated by the idea of secret tunnels and subterranean passages because everyone else is so fascinated by them! As we’ve discussed before on the blog, Lichfield is apparently riddled with them (as is pretty much every city, town and village in the country) if the stories are to be believed. And that’s the £50 question – are they?


  1. Fascinating article here from November 2017 about how ten out of twelve water companies in the UK use water dowsing to find leaks and pipes
  2. I am available for secret tunnel hunting – you do not have to pay me £50 and I can supply my own toffee hammer too.




Midnight on the Hill


Borrowcop Hill is a place that doesn’t want to give up its secrets easily. What interests me about places like this is how gaps in our knowledge create a space where legends and folklore can grow unchecked. It’s not just a hill with a nice view. It’s the burial place of kings and martyrs, the site of Lichfield Castle.

to borrowcop gazebo

Stand at the summit and you’re standing at the highest point in Lichfield. Beacons have been lit here certainly for celebrations, possibly as warnings. The grammar school moved here from St John Street in 1903 and in 1971, merged with the adjacent Kings Hill secondary modern school to form the current King Edward VI School.  Interesting how the folklore was even referenced in the school name here. Another school on the site, the just as evocatively named Saxon Hill, was opened in 1979.

borrowcop sign

Christmas 1940

At last year’s Lichfield Discovered talk by Peter Young on Philip Larkin’s connections to the city, he told us that that whilst staying with relatives at Cherry Orchard in 1940, Larkin had written three poems. Only one, ‘Out in the Lane’, was published but all three were inspired by his temporary surroundings. Peter believes the arched field of ‘Christmas 1940’ refers to Borrowcop Hill. I’ve reproduced it here from a folio collated by The Philip Larkin Society for their celebration of his birthday in August 2001. I hope they don’t mind, but I can’t find it anywhere else!

The name ‘Borrowcop’ does hint that there was once something here. Its earliest written forms, Burwey or Burwhay, feature the Old English element ‘burh’,  suggesting a fortified place (1).  Whilst there are vague reports of Erasmus Darwin recovering bits of burnt bone from somewhere up here, according to the Heritage Environment Report, ‘more recent excavations have so far failed to recover any evidence for human activity’. Well, I went up there on Sunday and I found this:

borrowcop chair

And this:

"The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes"

“The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes”

And this:

borrowcop graffiti

Plenty of human activity in what Five Spires Live , the Lichfield satirist who also doesn’t give up his secrets easily, yesterday described as  “… the perfect setting for bit of Larkin”. See, as much as I like legends, I also like the real.  I like layers of history that celebrate everything a place is and not just what we want it to be. The way our own memories of a place form our own folklores. The title for this post is one I’ve appropriated from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. It’s summer nights, it’s cheap cider (or ‘energy and guava’, if you’d rather), it’s messing about with your mates in a space maintained by the council because you’ve nowhere else to go. It’s perfect. Borrowcop or not, we’ve all been there. And like it or not, that’s as much a part of history as those kings and castles are.

1) A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz,

The Odd Couple

According to Pevsner, the Church of St Lawrence features some of the most exciting Norman work in the county.  Here be dragons and other fantastical creatures, Saxon and Scandinavian influences, a green man and other ancient faces. There are no wolves though.

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Norman arch, Gnosall church

Carving at Gnosall

Carving at Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Possible Saxon stonework, Gnosall

Legend has it that the last wolf in Staffordshire was killed here in Gnosall in a pit near Brough Hall and that the effigy in the Lady Chapel is that of its slayer, Baron Brough  As much as I wish it were true, there is no evidence for this tale and no reason to believe the Baron ever even existed outside of Gnosall mythology. Several other names have been linked with the alabaster knight over the years, but his true identity remains unknown. Whilst such personal details are lacking, there is physical detail here in abundance, from the broken angel and the helmet at his head, to the lion at his now missing feet and experts have used these features to date the monument to the early fifteenth century. In recent years, the knight has been joined by the church’s only other effigy, taken from the recess on the opposite side of the church known as the Easter Sepulchre.

Two effigies at Gnosall church

Two effigies at Gnosall church

The unknown knight of Gnosall

Defaced – the unknown knight of Gnosall

Gnosall effigy belt

Even less is know about this second effigy, but due to its diminutive stature, it is often described as depicting a child. However, after visiting the church, words that I’d read in a paper by Dr Sophie Oosterwijk in relation to the famous Stanley Boy monument at Elford came back into my mind – “A small-sized tomb may deceive the beholder into thinking that it must commemorate a child, but there may be other explanations”. One of Dr Oosterwijk’s other explanations is that these tiny tombs may represent heart burials. It’s not only the size of the effigy that’s convinced me that someone left their heart here in Gnosall, but also the position of his or her hand over the chest, a feature it has in common with another example thought to be a fourteenth century heart burial at Coberley in Gloucestershire.

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Effigy possibly depicting a heart burial at Gnosall

Despite the abundance of surviving Romanesque architecture here, the church is missing its original font.  However, at nearby Bradley. and Church Eaton there are examples which date to the twelfth century and recall some of the patterns and themes found at Gnosall, perhaps giving us an idea of what the Norman font at St Lawrence may have looked like. Interestingly, the broken Church Eaton font was reinstated at St Editha’s after apparently being found buried in a garden, and so it’s possible that Gnosall’s is out there somewhere, awaiting discovery under someone’s lawn.

One of Gnosall’s most intriguing features can be found outside, high on the south side of the church where stonemasons (we assume) who extended the tower in the mid fifteenth century have carved a large chalice into the stonework alongside the belfry window.

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

South face of the church tower at Gnosall

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Chalice carving on Gnosall church tower (photo by Kenneth Ingram)

Less mysterious in origin, but still of interest, are the grooves along the wall, said to have been created by the sharpening of arrows when the grounds were used for archery practice.

Arrow grooves, Gnosall Church

Arrow grooves at Gnosall Church

There is also a rumour that this wall of the church bears the scars of target practice during the Civil War (Rodwell: 223). What we do know for certain about the church of St Lawrence and the civil war is that there are two soldiers buried here. The parish register records that on 1st October 1642, a tall young man known as John Bayne (or Bayle), ‘one of the King’s souldiers’, was buried here and that on 25th March 1643, David James, another of ‘the King’s souldiers’, was laid to rest. The date of the second may be especially significant, coming less than a week after the Battle of Hopton Heath, fought just ten miles away. Amidst the other burials and baptisms of the parish register, an interesting entry appears on an otherwise blank page. At some time between 20th March 1684 and 19th April 1685, an ‘unlettered’ hand has written the following:

Fere god and honour the King
Honor your parents at all times
Wimins tongues air like [unfinished]

Whether the writer of the verse was interrupted or simply ran out of inspiration is unknown, but we are left to draw our own conclusions on the nature of  ‘wimins tongues’. However, when it comes to singing the praises of this incredible building, I shall not be holding mine. See it for yourself on the weekend of 4th/5th July 2015, when the Church of St Lawrence, including the tower, will be open for tours as part of the G-Fest celebrations held in the village each year. Now that is exciting.

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall/

Tombstone in the graveyard at the Church of St Lawrence, Gnosall

With thanks to Norman and Sheila Hailes, for their tour and invaluable knowledge of the church, and to Kathleen Ingram and Cllr Kenneth Ingram and the other residents of Gnosall, for showing us around not once, but twice!


Rodwell,W. (2012) The Archaeology of Churches Stroud: Amberley

Oosterwijk, S. (2010)  Deceptive appearances. The presentation of children on medieval tombs Ecclesiology Today

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.


(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…

Daisy, Daisy

Recently, I’ve spent more time in churches than ever before in my life (with the possible exception of the Summer of 2004, when I went to so many weddings that I was able to recite 1 Corinthians 13 off by heart). When I was younger, history for me was all about the castles. Churches were boring. The only remotely interesting thing about them was that, with their crenellations, some of them looked a bit like castles. Now I know that they can tell stories just as good as any castle, but you just need to know where to look.


Before even stepping inside All Saints in Kings Bromley, there are plenty of interesting tales. ‘Lady Godiva’s’ cross in the churchyard, originally dates back to the 14th century, but was restored in 1897.


I was delighted but intrigued to see a reference to one of my childhood heroines here. The story I knew as a little girl was that Godiva pleaded with her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to reduce the taxes he imposed on the people of Coventry. Leofric tried calling her bluff by saying he would do so, if she rode through the marketplace in the buff. Unfortunately for him, his wife not only had compassion, but also really, really long hair which according to Roger of Wendover who first recorded the story, ‘covered the whole of her body like a veil’, as she climbed onto her horse and successfully carried out her legendary protest. The connection with Kings Bromley is that Godiva and Leofric had a summer residence or hunting lodge here, where Leofric died in 1057 and may well have been involved with an earlier church which could have stood on this site.


Unlike others I’ve seen recently, I’m pleased to say the church itself hasn’t been fully restored by those pesky Victorians, but has a range of architectural styles and features dating back to at least the eleventh century, but possibly even earlier than that – the HER description says that this is an Anglo-Saxon wall, and somewhere within it there is possibly even a Romano-British brick. On a buttress near to this ancient wall is a medieval scratch dial which, with the assistance of the sun, would once have helped the priest be on time for mass. On the buttress in-between the porch and the sixteenth century tower there is another carving, but unlike the scratch dial, no-one is quite sure of its significance.


The daisy wheel carving is described as a mason’s mark in the churches information sheet. Although this is the first I’ve seen, this symbol regularly crops up on old buildings, especially churches. Whilst some believe these carvings have a practical function, others believe they were carved for good luck or protection against evil spirits.


On a bit of a tangent, on the subject of childhood and daisies and folklore, I did wonder about some of the little rituals surrounding these flowers that we unthinkingly carried out as kids. The name is thought to come from the old English ‘Daes Eage’ meaning ‘day’s eye’, and refers to the way the flower opens and closes with sunlight. I’ve read that wearing daisy chains was thought to protect you from being abducted by fairies (must work, I’m still here!) and that one of its folk names is ‘Measure of Love’, from the game where you pull off the petals one by one, chanting, ‘He loves me, he loves me not’. Apparently, there is another less risky version of this game in which you chant, ‘He loves me, he loves me lots’. If only someone had told me this at the time, I wouldn’t have had to cheat so much.


Anyway, as it says in those half remembered lines from Corinthians, I’ve put away childish things. Well, most of them anyway….



Trent and Mersey Paradise

A beautiful ruin dating back in part to the twelfth century, with the base of a medieval weeping cross and the shrouded effigies of two sisters in the churchyard, the remains of the old church of St Augustine in Rugeley are a real treat.

three towers rugeley

Old tower, new tower, power tower

The chancel dates back to the 12thc

With the population of Rugeley rising in the early nineteenth century (in 1801 there were 2,030 inhabitants; by 1821 the population had risen to 2,667 inhabitants, many of whom were employed in the manufacture of felts and hats), the old church was outgrown and a new one was built on land opposite.

'New' church of St Augustine

The ‘new’ church of St Augustine

Consecrated on 21 January 1823, the new St Augustine’s was built on land belonging to Viscount Anson, the cost met from a variety of sources. According to some, stone from the nave of the old church was sold off to raise funds, leaving just an arcade of arches to connect the fourteenth century tower with the old chancel.



blossom rugeley

I understand that in the 1970s the church yard was landscaped (or possibly vandalised, depending on how you look at it), and the gravestones which once surrounded the church (as shown in a photograph from the 1860s here on Staffordshire Pasttrack) were broken up and used to pave what was once the nave and north aisle, creating a mosaic of carved names and epitaphs belonging to the old inhabitants of Rugeley.


The outline of the roof line traced by weather onto the tower



Others have carved their own names into the stone of the tower where bells once rang, but doves and (slightly less romantically) pigeons now coo.


How did H Parsons carve his name so neatly?

How did H Parsons carve his name so neatly?

Dove Rugeley

As already mentioned, one tomb that does remain in the churchyard itself is that of two women, Elizabeth Cuting who died in 1695 and her sister Emma Hollinhurst who passed away a year later. Effigies of the sisters tied into their burial shrouds are carved on top of the tomb. An information board nearby tells how this unusual monument gave rise to a local legend that that the women had been buried alive in sacks by Oliver Cromwell, despite Cromwell dying in 1658. Full marks for imagination but, if you are going to make up a story that you want people to believe, you should probably check your dates first.


Sisters tomb rugeley


The board also directs you to the remains of a fourteenth century cross, with a recess in one of the corners suggesting that it was a ‘weeping cross’ where penitents would once come to kneel in prayer.

Weeping Cross

As nosey as ever, I wanted to see inside as well as out and so I peeked through a a dirty window into the old chancel, and spotted some interesting looking stonework and signs that it still seems to be being used in some capacity.

Inside old church

I believe that at one time it was used a Sunday school and also a classroom for the now demolished Rugeley Grammar school which once stood next to the churchyard, where the Chancel Primary school now is. Incidentally, the school has the possibly the loveliest school library I’ve ever seen, in the form of its new Discovery Deck narrowboat, built in 2013 by Nick Thorpe in Hixon and painted over the Christmas holidays by staff and parents.

Unsuprisingly for a town with a canal running through it, this wasn’t the only narrowboat we saw.  As we crossed back over the Trent and Mersey  one was passing another of Rugeley’s ruins – an old canalside mill dating back to 1863. It seems that this part of the town’s industrial past may become apartments in the future and why not? Living in an old mill, alongside a canal, in a charming old town with the Staffordshire countryside on your doorstep? I can think of worse places to live…


Old buildings Rugeley

Oh and finally, somewhere in the churchyard I found an Easter egg.



History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Staffordshire (1834) by William White

Picturesque Views and Description of Cities, Towns, Castles, Mansions, and Other Objects of Interesting Feature, in Staffordshire by William West

Wolverhampton Wandering

I had to pop into Wolverhampton today. I knew from my search for an ancient cross in Lichfield a couple of years back that there was a Saxon cross shaft here and went to find it.  Unlike the Lichfield cross, I didn’t have to try too hard – it’s huge! Its size, and also the fact that it is made from sandstone not found in Wolverhampton, has led some archaeology types to suggest that it is probably a reused Roman column, possibly from Wroxeter or even just up the road in Wall.

Saxon Cross Shaft, WolverhamptonThe elements and pollution have not treated the shaft kindly but its still clear that this was an incredible piece of craftmanship – the Black Country History website describes it as, ‘one of the finest cross shafts in the Midlands’. The carvings of acanthus leaves which decorate the shaft alongside those of birds and beasts have given archaeologists some problems when trying to establish a date as they suggest different periods. The plaque accompanying the shaft in the churchyard has decided to go with the earlier date of the ninth century, whilst others believe late tenth century is more accurate.

Cross Shaft Wolverhampton

On the way out of the churchyard I noticed another stone with a good back story. Known as the Bargain Stone, its said to be where the good (and probably not so good) folk of Wolverhampton would agree sales and make deals by shaking hands through the hole. The nearby plaque suggests it is an old gargoyle and the hole is what remains of its mouth.


Talking of hands, why didn’t it occur to me to put my hands over the railings to take a better photo?

As if ancient crosses and stones weren’t enough of a treat, we also found Holden’s Brewery’s Great Western near to the train station. This is a proper pub – cobs on the bar, Holden’s Golden Glow (amongst other delights) on tap and really friendly staff. Although we were tempted to sit outside in the sun, the interior was so quirky and there was such a nice atmosphere, we sat inside.

Great Western

Wished I’d got the train. Definitely not driving next time.

The Great Western

The great Great Western

We walked off our pork baps with a little bit of a wander around the city streets. This building caught my eye, not only because it has no floors, meaning you can see down into the cellar, but also because of the handwritten sign someone had stuck to the window.

SAM_0045SAM_0046I’m not sure a traffic warden would be the person I’d turn to in a trapped bird scenario but maybe they do things differently in Wolverhampton.

Another perplexing sign is the one suggesting that the half timbered building on the junction of Victoria St and St John’s Lane was built in AD1300. It wasn’t and no-one knows the reason behind the claim – the best suggestions anyone has seems to be that it was some kind of joke to emphasise that it was a really, really old building! It more likely dates back to the seventeenth century when it was once an inn known as The Hand. These days its home to Wolverhampton Books & Collectables, where you can buy anything from an ancient tome on the history of Staffordshire to a souvenir 1950s Wolverhampton Wanderers hankerchief (which you may, or may not, wish to blow your nose on, depending on your allegiances…).



We took the scenic route back to Lichfield (not through choice but because I went the wrong way on the ring road), passing through Wednesfield, Sneyd, the intriguingly named New Invention and Brownhills before stopping off at Waitrose for a couple bottles of Golden Glow.