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).

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

Elegy Written in a Lichfield Churchyard

Many churches dedicated to St Michael are found on hills. Lichfield’s St Michael’s of course is at Greenhill, on a sandstone ridge 104 metres above sea level.   It’s thought a church has been on the site since 1190, but that the surrounding churchyard is older. There are hints as to this earlier history of this site, but as far as I can see things are still very much at the questions, rather than answers stage. Many people believe the position of the church on a hill, and its dedication to St Michael may indicate a previous pagan site.   I hadn’t realised until reading that the crypt was liable to flooding, that there are natural springs on the hill. Is this relevant to the story, and if so, how?

The answers we do have were, of course, mostly provided by archaeology. Evidence suggests there may have been activity here in the mesolithic era. In 1978, an excavation in the South East corner of the churchyard discovered five flints (albeit not in a primary context).

Four years earlier, the building of a new vestry at the church gave archaeologists the opportunity to open a trench. Unsurprisingly for a churchyard they discovered human remains – forty nin complete or partial skeletons. Of these, all but two were buried in the customary Christian manner, with their head to the west. However the head of ‘Skeleton 21’, was to the east. Apparently, this can sometimes suggest that the remains of a Christian priest have been uncovered. By being buried with their feet to the west they were ready to rise and face their flock on judgement day, as they had done in life. However, the archaeologist noted the absence of a chalice and patten, objects that priests were often buried with (as was the case with the remains of the priest near the old leper hospital in Freeford).  ‘Skeleton 58’ also differed from the others being buried with his/her knees tucked under the chin. This crouched burial style is apparently more associated with Pre-Norman conquest burials, although I’m still doing some background reading to try and shed more light on what exactly this kind of burial is thought to signify in this context.

The archaeology report also mentions skeletons 2 and 8,  those of an adult, and a baby placed on the adult’s shoulder, and speculates this may be a woman who died in childbirth. It’s discoveries like this, I think, that remind you that these were real people with real lives (that were all too short in many cases).

By the mid 16th century, church records are kept (I’ve used those transcribed by Harwood), and begin to tell us a much more detailed story of the churchyard,  enabling us to gives names and identities to those laid to rest here. For example, this is the entry for 1560

– Recevyd for the ffyrst grasse of the Churche Yarde
– for the later Grasse of the Churche Yarde
– of gatherynge in Easter Wyke
– for light at the buryall of Jamys Bywater’s Wyffe and her Chylde
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roberte Walker
– for light at the monthe mynde of Roger Walker
– for light at the buryall of a Chylde of the Walle
– for light at the mynnynge of Mr Swynfen
– for light at the buryall of Roberte Cowper’s Wyffe

The church records also records costs for ‘killing molldiwarps’ in 1597, bestowing ‘on the workmen at several tymes in beare and ale’ in 1602, and money ‘payd for catching urchins’ in 1612 (urchins meant hedgehogs. I hope!).

While some things never change – a footnote tells how a person named Hollingbury was tried at Lichfield in 1612 for stealing lead from the church, others thankfully have – ‘William Key of Bliffeld and Nicholas Hatherton of Lichfield two prisoners condemned according to the Laws of this land and executed here at this Cittie were both buryed in one grave the 17th day of October 1592’.

There are still those buried at a later date whose names are not specifically recorded. An entry in the register says that for ‘From April 14 1642 to Feb 19 1645 were buried twenty five soldiers’, and I’ve either read or been told that victims of the plagues that struck Lichfield (51 per cent of Lichfield’s population died of plague in 1593-4, and 32 per cent, in 1645-6) were buried in pits here.

The majority of headstones seem to date from the 18th century onwards, although there may be earlier memorials here. I have seen examples of gravestones dating back to the early 1600s in other churchyards, such as this one at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire.

Examples older gravestones at Southwell Minster

Of course, some people, presumably those wealthy citizens of the city, even erected monuments like this well known one belonging to Chancellor Law, which used to have a clock in the centre.

As with many places, we might never get definitive answers about the origins of St Michael’s churchyard, but who knows? As we’ve seen before, one discovery can change everything. And in the meantime, it’s a fascinating part of the city to keep asking questions about!

Sources

Gould, Dorothy & Gould, J 1974-5 `St Michael’s churchyard, Lichfield, Staffs’ Trans S Staffordshire Archaeol Hist Soc 16 58-61 

The history and antiquities of the church and city of Lichfield by Thomas Harwood

 

Appeal of Bells

If you heard the bells of St Michael’s ringing out late yesterday afternoon, you were listening to the launch of a restoration fund for the bells, which are in need of essential maintenance work.

According to the churchwardens accounts, the bells have been rung in the past to mark important national occasions, and in the bell tower there are plaques commemorating some of these and more locally significant events.

The blue plaque commemorates the ringing of bells for the marriage of Charles & Diana; the brown one commemorates a farewell peal for the retirement of Prebendary P Howard in 1947

Bell Tower steps

After negotiating the narrow and windy staircase back down into the church, I had a look around the rest of this lovely building. According to the listed building description, although the church is thought to be 13th century in origin (with a 14thc tower), much of the building dates back to the restoration of 1842/3 by Thomas Johnson. However, the church history booklet (a snip at £1.50!) suggests that whilst the church had undoubtedly needed some restoration work at this time, much of this work was  unnecessary and things of historic interest may have been lost. The booklet goes on to say that some of the restoration work was undone at the end of the 19thc.

Royal coat of arms(1711) above the chancel

The royal arms, as seen above the chancel, are from 1711, and replaced an earlier version. I’ve read that after the reformation, anglican churches were encouraged to display the royal coat of arms somewhere prominent, reminding people that the monarch was also head of the Church of England. The custom of displaying the royal arms continued until Victorian times, but these days can be found in only around 15% of churches. You can read more about the Churches Conservation Trust’s guide to Royal Arms in English churches here.

Having previously read that the Marquis of Donegal had erected a spacious family mausoleum near the chancel, I have to confess I was a little disappointed to find no trace at all of the ostentatious Chichesters of Fisherwick Hall. However, the church booklet explained that the rabbit infested mausoleum had been replaced by a stokehold in the 1842/3 restoration, and the bones buried elsewhere. Seems like none of Donegal’s buildings were destined to last long….

The chap below fared a little better than Donegal. Whilst his bones also ended up elsewhere, his effigy survived the ‘restoration’ and is behind a bench in the chancel. It’s thought to be William de Walton who endowed the church with land and died around 1344. I particularly like the inclusion of the faithful dog watching over his master in death.

One man & his dog – William de Walton’s effigy

The church has several other monuments, including most famously, that of Samuel Johnson’s mother, father and brother.

Back outside in the churchyard,  a woman approached me and asked ‘Are you thinking the same as me?’. Actually I wasn’t, because whilst I was thinking about missing bones, the woman was thinking about missing apples. Apparently in previous years, rich windfall pickings were to be had from the trees growing alongside the footpath. This year it was hard to spot a single fruit.

Peals but no peel

One thing I read in the history booklet, which I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on,  is that around the year 2000, a pump was installed to keep the crypt from flooding. I read in an archaeology report that ‘St Michael’s is a low hill with natural springs’. Could this have anything to do with the flooding?  I’ll explore this ancient burial ground in a post of its own. In the meantime, perhaps we could get the University of Leicester involved in a hunt for William de Walton and the Marquis of Donegal. They seem quite good at that sort of thing…..

Part of the 9 acres making up St Michael’s churchyard

Sources:

St Michael’s Church. Lichfield – A Short History by Rev Carpenter 1947

A short account of the city and close of Lichfield – Thomas George Lomax, John Chappel Woodhouse & William Newling

Archaeological Desktop Survey OSA Report No. OSAO6DTO2 (Onsite Archaeology January 2006)

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