Bath Time

Although the waters at the Roman Baths in Bath were once known for their healing powers (the mythological Prince Bladud and his pigs are said to have been cured of leprosy after wallowing here in 863 BC), the water is now considered unsafe and is strictly off limits. This didn’t bother me in the slightest as I’d much rather be issued with an audio guide with commentary from Dr Alice Roberts than a fluffy white bathrobe.

The Great Bath at Bath

The Great Bath at Bath

The great bath is fed by a hot spring rising here at the rate of 1,170,000 litres a day and a temperature of 46 degrees Celsius. For our ancestors, the warm water gushing from the ground was the work of the gods. Even though I know the cause to be natural rather than supernatural, there was still something magical about watching vapour swirling up out of the bubbling, green-hued water into a torchlit, grey November afternoon. And it seems I’m not the only one the place has that kind of effect on. When the Romans arrived, the local goddess Sulis was already being worshipped here so they named the place after her, and built a new temple honouring both her and her Roman counterpart Minerva alongside the sacred spring.

Alongside the curing, a fair bit of cursing went on. One hundred and thirty prayers inscribed on sheets of lead or pewter were thrown into the spring between 200 and 400 AD. Many invoke the help of Sulis Minerva in seeking justice and revenge for heinous crimes such as the theft of a bathing tunic or gloves. The majority are in vernacular Latin, but one as yet untranslatable text is thought to be the only surviving example of an ancient British language. I quite like the thought that the only physical trace of something spoken thousands of years ago was not left by kings or queens but by one of the plebs like us, most likely complaining that their swimming costume had been nicked.

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

Curse tablets found in the Sacred Spring at Bath

In 1727, the gilt bronze head of a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered yet it’s not the face of the goddess which has become the symbol of Roman Bath but the face of the ‘gorgon’ found on the pediment outside her temple. And I have the fridge magnet to prove it. Re-discovered in 1790, and debated ever since, the ‘gorgon’s head’ is surrounded by a sea of symbolism including Tritons, a dolphin head shaped helmet, a star, an owl and two Victories. The ‘gorgon’ interpretation derives from the association of Minerva with Medusa and the supposed presence of a couple of snakes in the beard. Yes this ‘gorgon’ has a beard, which highlights the main problem with this explanation – gorgons are female whereas this is obviously the face of a man. It might be another example of the Romans combining a local god with of their own e.g. a classical gorgon and a British water god or could perhaps even be Neptune or Oceanus.

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I'm not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

The so-called gorgon at Bath. I’m not convinced. But then I dropped Latin in the third year, so what do I know?

Other more easily identifiable gods found here include Jupiter and Bacchus whose images once formed part of the great altar where sacrifices were made. Post-sacrifice, the entrails of the animal were consulted by a haruspex (literal translation: gut-gazer) and we know there was one here in Aquae Sulis because the inscription on this stone reads ‘To the goddess Sul, Lucius Marcus, a grateful Haruspex, donated out of his devotion’. This is the only evidence we have of a priest in Britain who practised divination in this way, so it’s something of a rarity.  It has been suggested that whoever carved the stone wasn’t all that competent, originally missing out the ‘O’ from ‘Memor’ and also having to squeeze the letters ‘VSP’ after ‘the abbreviation HAR’. You’d think Lucius might have forseen these problems in the intestines.

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

The Haruspex Stone at Bath with the sacrificial altar behind

Hopefully, all this talk of Romans at Bath will have whetted your appetite for something a little closer to home but just as exciting. Not only does our Roman site at Wall have carvings every bit as mysterious as those at Bath, evidence of Christianity in the area prior to St Chad’s arrival (in the form of  bronze bowl with a Chi-Rho symbol which you can see and read about here) and even rumours of our own statue of Minerva said to have been as big as a man, but not a man as it had a bust but also not a woman because it was wearing a soldier’s helmet. Unfortunately, it was used to fix a drain. If it ever existed in the first place that is.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

Possibly one of the local gods at Letocetum. Found built into the walls of the Mansio at Wall.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don't know but it is fun speculating.

This may represent a skull in a niche a la Roquepertuse or it may be another local god. We just don’t know but it is fun speculating.

You can access the site of Letocetum all year round during daylight hours and the museum is open 11am to 4pm the last weekend of every month plus Bank Holidays between March and October. This Winter, the Friends of Letocetum have arranged a series of talks at Wall Village Hall starting on Wednesday 9th December with Dr Mike Hodder who will be talking about his own personal experiences as an archaeologist at Wall.

Further details of this and all other upcoming talks and events plus lots of other information about Letocetum can be found here on the website or there is a Facebook page here and you can follow @FndsofLetocetum on Twitter.

For anyone who would like to see the Gorgon’s Head but isn’t able to get to Bath, it will be coming to a lampost in Leomansley shortly along with a wobbly lobster. Details on request. And should anyone pinch it, I’ve got a curse ready.

Up Letocetum

Wall, located just two miles to the south of Lichfield, is an incredible place to visit at anytime of the year. This Sunday (19th July) however, the Friends of Letocetum will be bringing the remains of the Roman settlement here to life with their annual open day, held in conjunction with English Heritage and the National Trust.  Entrance is free and the event runs from 11am to 4pm, during which time you’ll be able to experience life as a Roman soldier, get creative with a Roman artist and explore what everyday life would have been like at Letocetum.  A group of Saxons are also setting up an encampment at the site and for literature fans there will be a Saxon book binder and storyteller.  Children can take part in a range of games and activities* and there will also be a stall selling Roman games, perfumes and beads.

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Roman style bootcamp at last year’s open day

John Crowe, chair of the Friends group and Wall Parish Council said, “Last year we welcomed over twelve hundred visitors. The whole village comes together each year for our annual open day, and we want people to come along and have fun, whilst learning more about the significance of this major Roman settlement, situated at the crossroads of two of the most important roads at the centre of Roman Britain. The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered just one mile to the west of the village, and other finds from the local area suggest that Christianity may have been established at Letocetum prior to St Chad’s arrival in Lichfield”.

Stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what's thought to be a shield.

This stone, one of several found built into one of the walls at Wall, is just one of the many fascinating artefacts on display at the museum. It is thought to be Romano-British and features two carved heads with horns and what has been interpreted as a shield.

“The church of St John, built in 1837 and designed by William Moffatt and George Gilbert Scott, will be open to visitors, and refreshments will be available in the village hall. There will also be volunteers on hand in the museum to talk visitors through the fascinating collection of artefacts discovered at the site, so please do come and join us for what will be an enjoyable and informative day”.

Life at Letocetum...se if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site...

Life at Letocetum…see if you can spot the two thousand year old (ish!) paw print somewhere on the site…

*there is a small charge for these activities to cover costs

The Watchers of the Wall

Wall is one of the most interesting, if unimaginatively named, villages around these parts. Of course, the Romans who built the eponymous walls knew the place as Letocetum, which may sound more exciting but is actually thought to translate as just another description of the surrounding landscape – a romanized version of a Celtic place name meaning ‘grey wood’.

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Every year, thousands of visitors come to explore the remains of the bath house and mansio at this former military staging post on Watling Street and discover some of the incredible archaeological finds in the on-site museum. This is only possible thanks to the Friends of Letocetum, a small army of dedicated volunteers who are hoping to swell their ranks for the 2015 season. If you are able to give a couple of hours a month, or even a year, or could help out during the annual open day on Sunday 19th July 2015, please get in touch with them via their Facebook site, email wallromansite@gmail.com or leave me a message and I’ll pass it on. Gratias!

 

Niche Interest

The origins of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance are hazy and in trying to make sense of this centuries-old tradition, the phrase ‘fertility ritual’ often crops up. Apparently, one of the most potent elements of the dance is coming into contact with the pig’s bladder on a stick, wielded by the fool (1). Sitting below the ha-ha, separated from the dancers performing on the lawn outside Blithfield Hall by a big ditch, seemed like a safe enough distance to watch from this year.

Waiting for the Horn Dance...

Waiting for the Horn Dance…

Pigs Bladder

Take a bow Horn Dance

Waiting for lunch...

Waiting for lunch…

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 1932. Taken from the 'The Birmingham Mail' via 'The Lichfield Mercury'.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance taking place in 1932. Taken from the ‘The Birmingham Mail’ via ‘The Lichfield Mercury’.

Once the performance had ended, the dancers bowed to those of us in the cheap seats and went for lunch inside the hall, which has been home to the Bagot family since 1360. Afterwards, they would head back to Abbots Bromley, to perform the dance through the lanes and outside the pubs of the village, returning the horns to the church of St Nicholas at around 8 o’clock that evening. I was heading back to Lichfield, but thought there might just be time to pay a visit to a church myself.  “St Leonard’s is just over there at the back of the hall…”, explained a man selling guide books from a stall “….but you can’t go that way unless you live there”. He did explain how non-Bagots could get to the church but on the way back to the car I got sidetracked by another stall selling honey, and so the church had to wait for another day.

The Church of St Leonards

The Church of St Leonard

Another day came at the start of October. The church door, beautifully decorated with autumn leaves, was unfortunately locked.

Blithfield church door

I had to break the news to my Mum that we wouldn’t be able to see Staffordshire’s only surviving pillar piscina, dating from the early twelfth century. Oddly, she didn’t seem too bothered….It turned out that being restricted to the outside of the church was actually a blessing in disguise as the exterior of St Leonard’s turned out to be a very interesting place indeed.

Built into the red-brick, eighteenth century wall which separates the churchyard from the grounds of Blithfield Hall is a gateway (also locked!), which looks ancient but actually only dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. This is clearly the Bagot family short-cut to the church that I had heard about at the Horn Dance. A little more difficult to find is a satisfying explanation for the circular feature, also built into the wall, which appears to have been added around the same time.

Blithfield Wall 1

A hole in the wall

A hole in the wall

According to a description in the Lichfield Mercury, as part of their 1891 series ‘Sketches in and around Rugeley’, it was, “formed for the purposes of seeing when the parson came to church so that the Squire might not be kept waiting longer than was necessary in a cold church”. I’m not convinced by this but it’s all I’ve got at present.

After looking through the round window, anyone over the age of twenty five may be quite excited to hear that there’s also an arch and a square here.  Anyone younger than that won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Anyway, as these are niches than windows, it’s more a case of looking into, rather than through them.

Effigy Blithfield

The arch is found on the south side of the church, sheltering the thirteenth century effigy of a priest. A comparison with this drawing of 1823 shows that sometime time can diminish rather than increase the lines on a face.

Blithfield tomb decoration

A late seventeenth century marble plaque with Latin script implores us to pray for the soul of Alfred, priest of Hulcrob. Records show that the words on the tablet were originally written around the arch in letters of gold but these have long since been erased by time. Faded painted patterns still remain on the interior curve of the arch though and it seems reasonable to assume that these would have been part of this decorative inscription? There are also several ‘graffiti’ marks carved into the stone here, at least one of which appears to be a ritual protection mark associated with the Virgin Mary.

graffiti blithfield Blithfield effigy arch

On the north side of the church, near to the tower, is the feature I’m calling a square but which the Lichfield Mercury article describes as, “a curious recess, the use of which it seems very difficult to determine. It could have had no communication with the inside of the church, for it is in the thickness of the wall of the nave, and being outside it can hardly been of any use as an aumbry“. In ‘Collections for a History of Staffordshire’ (1919), its similarity to an aumbry is also noted, leading the author to speculate that this may once have been an interior wall and that possibly there may have been an annexe or a anchorite’s cell here. All I can spy with my non-expert eye is that it does look as though it may once have been covered by a grille or a door, although I’m not sure whether the actual bits of rusty grate lying inside it are a clue or a red herring.

niche blithbury church wall

Alongside the various memorials belonging to members of the Bagot family (although many of these are inside the church itself) are those belonging to people who, like most of us, would have had to come the long way round.

headstones blithfield

Headston Blithfield

Blithfield Gardeners headstone

Allen headstone Blithfueld

I was always concerned that an interest in graveyards was a little morbid but the excellent talk David Moore did on symbolism in cemeteries for Lichfield Discovered recently reassured me that graveyards are as much about life as death. And not just human life either….

Lichen gravestone Blithfield

Blithfield red lichen

(1) Funnily enough, I understand that pigs’ bladders (amongst many other things) were also used as a form of contraception in times gone by. Perhaps it’s only the inflated ones you have to worry about…

Sources:

Blithfield: An Illustrated Guide and History by Nancy, Lady Bagot (1979)

http://www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk/

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/

Lichfield Mercury Archive

Collections for a History of Staffordshire (1919) Edited by The William Salt Archaeological Society

Heads and Tales

Just outside of Lichfield, in the village of Wall, are the remains of the Roman settlement of Letocetum, a latinized version of an Iron Age place name meaning ‘grey wood’. The foundations of the bath house and guest house (or mansio), established here to provide rest and recuperation and a change of horses to those travelling along Watling Street, are still visible.  As you’d expect, some fascinating archaeological finds have been unearthed at the site, giving us a glimpse of what life in Letocetum was like almost two thousand years ago. Many of these are displayed in the site museum, including my favourite – a carved stone, discovered built into the foundations of the mansio, along with seven others, which I suspect not many people even realise exist.

Stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what's thought to be a shield.

Carved stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what’s thought to be a shield.

The carving seems to show two horned heads facing each other, with a circular object, interpreted as a shield, to their right. Heads also appear on some of the other stones found alongside it.  One depicts a figure with a club in one hand, and a severed head or skull at its feet. Another features a head in what may be some sort of niche and a fourth has a head with an open mouth, that may suggest it is screaming.

Carved onto a fifth stone are two ‘warrior’ figures with shields, stood side by side. A pattern of sorts around their legs has been interpreted as representing water. A second pair of figures, enclosed in a frame or box of some sort lie at right angles to these ‘warriors’. Two further stones have inscriptions, or at least partial inscriptions CUINTI…CI and DDBRUTI, and on the eighth stone is a carving which resembles a Christian cross, although it may be a pagan symbol representing the sun.

All but one of the stones were built into the foundations of the mansio in an inverted position, and there is a theory that they were originally part of a Romano-British shrine dedicated to a native god or gods (the names of whom may be recorded on those inscripted stones), which was demolished sometime around the building of the mansio. The reason for the shrine’s demolition at this stage is unclear, but it has been suggested that it may have been replaced by a yet to be discovered temple dedicated to a Roman god built elsewhere on the site. Incorporating the stones upside down suggests that the native gods represented by the carvings were still respected, and perhaps even feared by the builders of the mansio – I understand that inverting an object was thought to neutralise its power.

There is also a ninth carved stone, found separately from the others, in a hypocaust in the north east of the mansio. It appears to depict a phallus, and was inserted after construction to provide additional protection for the building.

Unfortunately, the stone with the ‘cross’ has disappeared and no photographs appear to exist. The other stones are kept at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but photographs of them can be found in the eleventh report of excavations at Wall, included in Volume XXI of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society transactions for 1979-80. Along with all of the Society’s other transactions, this is accessible online to members (it’s well worth joining if you are interested in the area’s archaeology).  I haven’t got around to asking for permission to use the photographs here, and so in an attempt to stay on the right side of copyright law, whilst trying to give a better idea of what the carvings on the stones look like, here are some drawings I did of them. Apologies to archaeologists and artists everywhere.

Carved stone 1

carved stone 2

carved stone 3

carved stone 4

I’m not drawing the ninth stone. You can probably work out what that one looks like for yourselves….

This all fits quite nicely (albeit unintentionally!) with the theme of ‘Hidden Histories’ for this year’s heritage weekend in Lichfield (20th/21st September). If you are interested in finding out more about the story of Wall, and hearing about some of the other archaeological discoveries made here, there is free guided walk around the village led by the Friends of Letocetum on Sunday 21st September.  The walk is free and open to everyone, and will be starting out from the the village car park at 10.30am.

 Sources

Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions for 1979 -80 Volume XX1

The Road to Ruins

When they were excavating the Wyrley to Essington canal at Pipehill at the end of the eighteenth century, a 500 yard section of a Roman military barricade (or palisade) made from trunks of oak trees was discovered.It was thought to have originally stretched from Pipe Hill to the Roman settlement at Letocetum. Well, unfortunately I didn’t come across that (if it even exists anymore) on my walk from Pipe Hill to Wall and back. But here’s what I did find…

A lovely view of the city accompanied me for part of the way (although I can only count four spires. If it’s Five Spires you’re after, look here)

SAM_0896Not too far down the road, I peered over a bridge to see the disused railway line that runs from Lichfield to Walsall. You can get down to the track, although as I was on my own I didn’t risk it, the bank being steep and me being notoriously clumsy. I wonder how far you could walk along the overgrown rails? Rather than regurgitate a history of the railway here, far better is to direct you to the people who really know what they are talking about – the South Staffs Rail group. Their website, full of information, photographs and videos of the line, as it was and is, can be found here, and you can also find out about their campaign to have the line reopened.

Rail bridge Pipehill

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As I continued along Wall Lane, the wind was blustery and the sky dark and it almost felt autumnal. However, with bluebells and stitchwort along the roadside, hawthorn in the hedgerows and the swallows flitting over the fields of oilseed rape there was no real mistaking this was the merry month of May. I saw pheasants and rabbits and heard and saw all kinds of birds whose names I don’t know, but wished I did. However, all attempts to photograph them ended like this. I’m sticking to bricks and stuff that doesn’t move.

SAM_0879Up at St John’s in Wall, I was pondering what might have once stood here on the site of the modern(ish) church built in 1830. Some have speculated a shrine to Minerva, but my thoughts were interrupted by this graffiti on the church yard wall.

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I’ve got a real thing about names carved into stone anyway, but I really have to admire the chutzpah of B Thornton of Redcar in Yorkshire for leaving  practically a full postal address. Wish there was a date though… It seems he or she wanted people to know that that they’d been here but just what were you doing in this small, ancient Staffordshire village B Thornton of Redcar? Were you here to see the ruins too?

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Whilst I was taking this photograph of buttercups growing where Romans once slept, I remembered that bit of childhood folklore about holding one beneath your chin to see if you liked butter. If you’re interested in science stuff, the explanation for how buttercups make our chins glow is here. It seems appropriate to share its Latin name here – ‘Ranunculus acris’. I think the acris bit means bitter, and I wonder if the flower’s common name started out as bitter cup and got corrupted on account of its beautiful golden colour? Anyway, back to the ruins.

SAM_0940 SAM_0944Out of everything, it’s the remains of this small Roman street, with some of its cobbles still intact that gives me the strongest sense of connection with the past. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you are treading the exact same ground as those who walked here thousands of years ago? Or perhaps I’d spent too much time here, alone with my thoughts….

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Heading out of Wall, there’s a farmyard wall which I believe was built using stone robbed out from the Roman site. Oh and another little mystery – just how does a pair of pants end up in a hedgerow like this? On second thoughts, this is one I probably don’t want to know the answer to.

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On the road back to Lichfield, down Claypit Lane I came across another relic of the railway. On the Fosseway Level Crossing is a signal box, built in 1875. Once again, I shall point you in the direction of the South Staffs rail site who have more information on this small but wonderful part of our history, and some photographs of the interior here. Also, there is a fantastic article on the South Staffs blog from a few years back, which I remember reading via Brownhills Bob’s blog, on Emily, who worked and lived at this crossing from 1946. You really should read it  – it’s brilliant and it’s here.

Fosseway signal box

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I was just about to leave the crossing and carry on back to Lichfield down Claypit Lane when I saw this.

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I’d heard about the trail via a talk that L&HCRT very kindly did for our Lichfield Discovered group, but hadn’t ever got around to finding it and now here it was! Once over the stile, the path takes you past what is left of this stretch of the Lichfield Canal.

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As with the railway line, much of it has been reclaimed by Nature who has decided that if us humans aren’t going to use it, then she’ll have it back thank you very much. I don’t know much about wildlife and ecology, but even I can see that this corridor is an amazing habitat for all sorts of flora and fauna. What does remain of the canal itself is fascinating, and being able to see it like this, in all its emptiness, really made me realise what an epic task building these structures would have been. And how deep it was.

I finished the walk near to Waitrose, once again amazed and delighted at just how much history and beauty there is so close to home. I’m certainly going to do it again and I recommend that you do too – it’s an easy five miles walk and even I didn’t get lost!

Sources:

file:///C:/Users/Kate/Downloads/50e_App4-Archaeological_Desktop_Survey_By_On_Site_Archaeology_Lt%20(7).pdf

http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=304434

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.

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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…).

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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.

Sources:

http://blackcountryhistory.org/collections/getrecord/WOHER_MBL337/

http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/listed/lindylou.htm