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).

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…

Sweet Bells

One Saturday morning, as I sat reading in Lichfield Library, I heard a clip clopping in the street outside. Standing up to look out of the window, I saw a horse and carriage making its way up Bird St. It occurred to me that this was a sound and a sight that people would not have batted an eyelid nor an eardrum at in previous centuries, yet to my twenty first century ears, it was something so out of the normal it warranted me putting down a good book to have a shufty.

More often than not, when we explore the way our towns and cities have changed, it’s the visual changes that we concentrate on – old photographs, old maps, landscape features etc. Yet the sounds of places change too e.g. the pools at Leomansley are quiet and still now that the waterwheel of the mill no longer turns, the sounds of animals at the Smithfield have been replaced by those of cars and shoppers and Beacon Street hasn’t heard a blacksmith hammering metal in a long time. However, amidst the changes, there is also consistency in the sounds that surround us.

The tower at St Chad’s church houses four bells. Three of them were cast in the seventeenth century and the oldest of these three dates to 1625 with the inscription ‘DOMINO CANTICUM CANTATE NOVUM’. The second is from 1664 and declares ‘GOD SAVE THIS CHURCH AND REALM THE KING IN WAR, I.C.1664. Even the youngest of the three, featuring the names Ralph Low and Richard Grimley, is from 1670 meaning that the people of the parish and those who are passing by have heard these bells ring out for well over three hundred years. The fourth bell is even older still, although no one can agree on just how old. An article in the Lichfield Mercury in August 1936 described it as ‘England’s Oldest Bell’, and gives it a date of 1033. As it stands, the country’s oldest inscribed bell is believed to be the Gargate Bell at Caversfield Church, Oxfordshire, dating to c.1215AD and the country’s oldest dated bell (1245AD) is at Lisset Church in Easy Yorkshire. Therefore if this date of 1033AD were true, we would probably have a another Lichfield Entry in the Guiness Book of Records (to go alongside the largest curry ever, cooked by Abdul Salam of Eastern Eye on Bird St). Yet, the St Chad’s website itself casts doubt on this claim as there wasn’t a tower to put a bell in at the church at this time! Another date suggested for the bell is 1255 but the County History also disputes this and says that it was probably cast at Nottingham c.1500AD. There is an inscription on the bell +O BEATE MARIAA.A.R. and some numerals that no-one can read, hence the enigma. I’d love to see it. Not that I would be any help at all in solving the mystery but you know I’d just like to have a look at it. See I’m not satisfied with simply hearing it – there’s that visual dominance of history taking over again.

I have actually been at the other end of the bell rope. After I stumbled upon a practice session on another Saturday morning, I took up a kind offer to have a go at ringing one of the St Chad’s bells myself. Whilst at the time I was too terrified of having a campanology related mishap to fully appreciate the moment, afterwards I thought of all the people that had rung those bells in the past, and all those who had heard them and the message they were conveying. Next time, you’re passing, stop for a moment and listen too.

Sources:

Lichfield: Churches’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 134-155

http://saintchads.weebly.com/the-bells.html

Ferry Cross the Minster

Yesterday, the second of March, was the feast day of St Chad. In 669, Chad founded a monastery near to the site where the church named after him now stands, making Lichfield the new centre of the Diocese of Mercia (it had previously been Repton). Anyone interested in learning more about the life of Chad should read Patrick Comerford’s post here.

Statue of Chad at St Chad’s church, Lichfield

Around this time last year,  I wrote about the history of the well at St Chad’s and a little about the pilgrimage route between Lichfield and Chester. This year once again I found myself possibly following in the footstep of pilgrims, when I took a walk down Bird St.

The latest incarnation of St Chad’s Well

The view from St Chad’s. A question – why was the Saxon church built to house St Chad’s bones and later to become the Cathedral, built over there, and not at the site of Chad’s Monastery and Well?

An alley (or gully or ginnel depending on where you’re from) runs from Bird St, past the George Hotel and then takes a sharp turn towards Minster Pool. In the early fourteenth century it was called Wroo Lane, a name thought to be derived from the Middle English word ‘Wro’ meaning corner. Shortly afterwards, the lane became known as Cock Alley.  According to Thomas Harwood, this ‘new’ name came from a carpenter named Slorcock who once lived there. I’ve done my best to show the route I think the lane took but please also take a look at  it on John Snape’s wonderful 1781 map of Lichfield, which Brownhills Bob very generously shared here on his blog. Although these days it’s probably mostly used as a shortcut to the car park, the Collections for a History of Staffordshire (Volume Six) suggests that this was once an important thoroughfare, leading pilgrims to the ferry which would carry them across the water to the Cathedral.

Cock Alley. Or possibly Wroo Lane.

Looking back up towards Wroo Lane. Or possibly Cock Alley.

How did the pilgrims get over those big railings?

At present, I am unsure whether the existence of a ferry for pilgrim traffic is a theory or whether it has actually been confirmed by evidence. I shall keep looking for this and in the meantime, may I suggest that when walking around Lichfield you keep looking too. Remember, it’s not just buildings that have a history, but also the spaces between them.

 Sources:

‘Lichfield: The place and street names, population and boundaries ‘, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 37-42. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42340

The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield, Thomas Harwood

Collections for a history of Staffordshire Volume 6, Part 2, Willam Salt Archaeological Society

 

 

A View from the Bridge

A quick trip to the shop turned into a two hour walk, a good proportion of which was spend in the Stowe area of Lichfield. I found the plaque marking the approximate site of the old gate or barr into the city and then I remembered that the Cruck House was nearby.

Cruck House

 

Site of Stowe Gate, end of George Lane/Lombard St

Stowe Gate plaque

 I wanted to get over to Stowe Pool, to see if there were any water lilies this year and crossed over using the bridge,  something I hadn’t ever done in 8 years of living in Lichfield!

View from the bridge

 

The rooftops of Stowe

 

Willows

 

There were water lilies in the pool although possibly not as many as there were the same time last year. Whether this is because the sun has gone awol this year, I don’t know. I didn’t spot any nests amongst them either. This might be as they’ve chosen to move onto the specially built wildfowl islands built in the centre of the pool instead!

June 2012

 

June 2011

 

Back to the ward banners in the Guildhall and I think that Stowe’s is the one showing St Chad’s cross, relating to the fact that St Chad’s Church and St Chad’s well are found inside this ward.

Although the Stowe St gate is long gone,  I do get a sense of being outside the city here. It’s a wonderful place to explore and enjoy. One of the definitions I’ve seen for the placename Stowe is ‘meeting place’, and from my lookout point up on the bridge I saw children playing, people out for a walk and couples sat talking. If you ever get the chance to join them, you should.

Well Being

My visit to Farewell several weeks ago got me interested in finding out more about wells. Brownhills Bob showed me a map of the area around Farewell and it’s amazing to see how many other ‘well’ related placenames there are in that area alone e.g. Stoneywell, Cresswell, Coldwell, Nuns Well and my own personal favourite, Giddywell (wonder what was in the water there?!).

I’ll come back to these another time but for now I thought it would be interesting to find out a bit about what’s probably the most well known well in our area – St Chad’s Well here in Lichfield.

The well has changed a fair bit over the years. The earliest description of the well is said to come from Leland who visited in the 1500s and is quoted in a Lichfield history book published in 1819 as saying “…Stowe church on the east of the towne where is St Chad’s well a spring of pure water where is seen a stone in the bottom of it on which some say St Chad was wont naked to stand in the water and pray at this stone…”.

Today, St Chad’s Well looks like this.

 

 

 

Below is a picture of the well and church drawn by William Stukeley in 1736. As far as I know, it’s the oldest image of the well that there is.

However, James Rawson reported that by 1833 the well had ‘degenerated into a most undignified puddle, more than 6 feet deep’. He seems to dispute Stukeley’s drawing, saying that there was no outlet for escape of water and the brook was not near to the well as depicted above. The well basin had become ‘filled up with mud and filth’ which Rawson believed was due to drainage in the surrounding meadows. As a result an octagonal building was erected over the well, which remained in place until 1947, when I understand that the well was actually moved to its present position and took on its current form. It would be interesting to see if there are any first hand accounts of this?

St Chad's Well, 1915. Image from Wikipedia

 
At some point it seems people may have thought the water in the well was harmful to drink. In a volume of ‘The Antiquary’, published in 1889 a Rev C F R Palmer is quoted as saying “It is popularly believed that it is dangerous to drink of the water of St. Chad’s Well, as it is sure to give a fit of the ” shakes,” Yet, in spite of the attendant’s remonstrances, I took a good draught, and, instead of ague, experienced only great refreshment in a fatiguing walk on a sultry day”. Like Rev Palmer, the lad in the photo looks like he’s about to take a good draught and doesn’t seem too concerned!

In 1806, Thomas Harwood wrote that ” The superstitious custom of adorning this well with boughs and of reading the gospel for the day at this and at other wells and pumps is yet observed in this city on Ascension Day”.  According to St Chad’s church website, the tradition of well dressing (mostly associated with our neighbours over in Derbyshire) was revived in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Christian Aid. I think the last well dressing was in 2010 with a girl guide theme. I wonder if the custom will be revived again?

I had always assumed that the well and the spring were one and the same, but it seems that it was separate, or at least it became separate at some point. I don’t feel too bad about my ignorance though, as in 1923, the churchwarden Thomas Moseley said ‘no living person knew where the water came from’. In a book published in 1846, I’ve read that ‘The water of the well is sulphurated and near to it is a pretty iron pump giving water from a second well which is a superfine chalybeate’ and in an archaeological survey from 2006, it refers to a little brick building containing the spring. The survey was carried out as there was a proposal to build a visitors centre in the well’s vicinity. I understand that plans for the centre were abandoned in February 2008 but the survey makes for an interesting read and you can find it here.

Though plans for a visitors centre didn’t come to fruition, there is another project that will bring people to the well. On 1st April,  at 2.30pm the Bishop of Lichfield will be opening the first interpretation panel on the Two Saints Way, a pilgrimage route linking Lichfield Cathedral and St Chad’s Well with the shrine of St Werburgh at Chester Cathedral. I hope this is a success and I wish David Potts and all those involved……well!

Sources:

Some account of Croyland Abbey, read by JM Gresley by William Stukeley

A Short Account of ther City and Close of Lichfield by Thomas George Lomax, John Chappel Woodhouse and William Newling

The Gentleman’s magazine, Volume 217

www.saintchads.org.uk/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/parishprofile2011.pdf

www.stchads.org.uk

 The Wanderings of a Pen & Pencil by F P Palmer (1846)

The Antiquary Vol 22

http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/arch-841-1/dissemination/pdf/oxfordar1-50626_1.pdf