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.

Ooops

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?

Notes

  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 https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/21/uk-water-firms-admit-using-divining-rods-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.

 

 

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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

Something Old, Something Neo

At the end of the summer I went with friends to visit the Bridestones. Admittedly, this Neolithic burial chamber is a fair few miles from Lichfield and technically is not even in Staffordshire but definitely worth an excursion both in real life and also, I hope, via the blog.

The Bridestones are thought to be somewhere between six thousand and four thousand years old. When you think that the estimate for the monument’s age alone covers a range of around two thousand years, you realise just how little we can be certain of and how vast the time scales are when it comes to ‘prehistory’. It’s an absolute wonder that these stones are still standing, and all the more remarkable when you read of their treatment in the past. Back in the eighteenth century, the site was regarded as a convenient quarry and was plundered for its stone, some of which was used to build local houses and some of which was taken to build the nearby toll road, as described in Henry Rowlands’ 1766 Mona Antiqua Restaurata

There was a large heap of stones that covered the whole an hundred and twenty yards long, and twelve yards broad These stones have been taken away from time to time by masons and other people for various purposes. And in the year 1764 several hundred loads were carried away for making a turnpike road about sixty yards from this place which laid it open for examination.

 

There are also rumours that some of the stone can be found in the ornamental gardens at Tunstall Park, which was opened to the public in June 1908. I’m a little sceptical about this but it does once again raise that interesting idea of recycling materials from older structures. The stones are said to have sustained yet more damage in the nineteenth century, both accidentally, when a fire lit at the site caused the stones to crack, and deliberately, when an engineer working on the Manchester Ship Canal supposedly demonstrated how detonation worked on one of the larger stones.

When trying to understand sites like the Bridestones, we look to archaeology to provide us with answers. The Stoke on Trent Museum Archaeological Society have a fascinating report on their website which contains drawings of what the Bridestones may have looked like back in the eighteenth century together with details of the archaeological investigations which have since taken place and what they can tell us about this ancient structure. You can read it here. However, as well as evidence provided by science, I also enjoy the folklore and myths that grow up around sites like the Bridestones. There are stories that they mark the resting place of a murdered pair of newly weds, a Saxon woman and her Viking groom. Others say weddings once took place here. Was the name ‘Bridestones’ given to the site to reflect these stories, or were they invented to explain an already existing name? I think it’s worth considering that stories were (and still are) ways of sharing and passing on information and that perhaps sometimes this information might yet be contained within such stories, however naive and implausible they seem upon first listen.

As I mentioned at the start, the Bridestones sit on the Staffordshire/Cheshire border, just inside the latter county. There’s a boundary stone very close by on the drive leading to the site and surely it was due to the presence of the Bridestones themselves that the border was established here in the first place, acting as a memorable boundary landmark. Why did our ancestors chose to erect their monument at this particular spot in the first place though?

Despite being ransacked and not looked after properly over the years, this is still an incredible place and you should definitely take the time to hop over the border and pay this old Cheshire couple a visit.