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

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.

Beaming

You’ve probably heard about the exciting developments in the Lichfield Waterworks Trust’s campaign to save Sandfields Pumping Station for the community. If you haven’t a) where have you been all weekend? and b) please take a look at chairman Dave Moore’s recent announcement here and a great post from the ever supportive Brownhills Bob here.

Sandfields Pumping Station. If you still don't know where this amazing place is, tell me and I'll take you there myself.

Sandfields Pumping Station. If you still don’t know where this amazing place is, tell me and I’ll take you there myself.

You probably won’t be surprised that I want to add my two penn’orth. For all its tangents and diversions, this is essentially a blog about Lichfield history and to be able to write a post saying that we are now going to be actively involved in preserving and promoting one of the most important architectural, industrial and social heritage sites in the city (and indeed country)…well, let’s just say I’ve had to pinch myself a few times.

One of the three waterwalks arranged by the Lichfield Waterworks Trust or the Heritage Weekend 2015

One of the three waterwalks arranged by the Lichfield Waterworks Trust for the Heritage Weekend 2015

On 19th September 2015,  the Trust took part in the Lichfield Heritage Weekend with three water themed walks around the city and a display in the museum at St Mary’s. We wanted to share the story of how Lichfield supplied clean drinking water to the Black Country during the cholera epidemics of the mid-nineteenth century and to highlight the heroic role Sandfields Pumping Station and its now unique Cornish Beam Engine played in this. Rather fittingly, the theme of the 2015 weekend was ‘Making History’ as here we are just five weeks later, in a position to do exactly that.

Our display of photos on the theme of Lichfield Water contributed by members of the public during Summer 2015.

Our display of photos on the theme of Lichfield Water contributed by members of the public during Summer 2015. (Photo by J Gallagher)

I’ve been grinning from ear to ear since I heard the news. Congratulations, thanks and respect must of course go to chairman Dave Moore and the other members of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust for their tenacity, dedication and hard work but also their optimism, vision and ability to talk me into wearing a boiler suit in public. Thanks also though to those of you came who came on a water walk, sent us a photo of a Stowe Pool sunset, visited John Child’s amazing model of a Newcomen engine at our stall in the Festival Market, lent us your name in support, picked up a leaflet, got really excited when you heard about the Hanch tunnel running below your feet, chucked your two penn’orth worth in our bucket during the Bower Procession and showed us in many other ways that you cared deeply about not only the past but also the future.

Some of the Waterworks Trust Gang collection during the Lichfield Bower 2015

Some of the Lichfield Waterworks Trust gang collecting during the Lichfield Bower 2015

As David and Bob both rightly say, the real hard work starts here and we’ll need your ongoing support as we embark on a new chapter in Lichfield’s water story. I’m hoping it’s going to be ‘Sandfields Pumping Station – built for the community and saved for the community by the community’. Sounds like a great way of making history to me.

A beaming Gill on last week's Arts & Heritage procession. She carries the boiler suit look off much better than I do.

A beaming Gill from the LWT on last week’s Arts & Heritage procession (she carries the boiler suit look off much better than I do).

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.

 

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…

Know Your Boundaries

I’d wondered about this curious sandstone block, embedded in one of the gate posts of the Garden of Remembrance on Bird St, but it wasn’t until I read a newspaper article on the unveiling and dedication of the war memorial that I learnt that it is apparently an ‘ancient’ boundary stone. The article in the Lichfield Mercury, dated October 22nd 1920, describes how a high wall running along Bird St was demolished and replaced by the stone balustrade that now runs along the edge of the garden. Prior to its demolition, the boundary stone was originally incorporated into this wall, but whether that was its original location, or was an earlier effort to preserve the stone, I don’t yet know. It seems to be marked and I’m wondering whether this is deliberate or not (or if I’m imagining it!). Also, just how ancient is ancient?

Boundary stone embedded in lower part of right gate pier of Lichfield’s Garden of Remembrance

Close up of the ‘ancient’ boundary stone

A newspaper report from May 1936 describes how the Cathedral Choristers observed the tradition of ‘Beating the Bounds’ each Ascension Day. Accompanied by members of the clergy, the boys would start opposite St Mary’s Vicarage and stop off at places were there was, or had been, a well – ‘midway between the pool and Gaia Lane’, the Bishop’s kitchen garden, the Dean’s kitchen garden, Milley’s Hospital, the boundary stone on the Minster Pool Bridge and the Verger’s house in the corner of the Close before finally gathering at the old pump to the North West of the Cathedral, to which water from the Conduit Heads up near Maple Hayes once flowed along a lead pipe. The boys would carry elm boughs, and at each of the stop off points there was a reading from the scriptures and a verse of a hymn was sung. In 1936, the elm boughs were brought inside the Cathedral and laid on the font. An account from 1910 describes how choristers would collect boughs from the Dimbles and then return to the Close where they would decorate the houses before commencing their perambulation. I understand that these days Ascension Day is marked by the choristers singing from the roof. It’s interesting that elm boughs used to play a part in the custom; it makes me think of old traditions related to the Lichfield Bower which takes place in the same month.

‘Beating the bounds’ apparently dates back to a time before maps and was a way of ensuring that the knowledge of where the boundaries of an area, or a parish, lay was passed on. The tradition in The Close seems to have been centred around wells and water, but in other places boundaries were also marked by other natural features.  A Gospel Tree is marked on OS maps of Gentleshaw up until the 1930s and Gospel Oak is a common place name, found all over the country.

On the subject of maps, there’s a great version of John Snape’s 1781 map on BrownhillsBob’s Brownhills Blog here. I think that the boundary of the Close, similar to that described above, is shown clearly on this map in the form of a dotted line running around the Close.

There’s a lot more to be said on boundaries and their markers, including the exciting possibility (for me at least!) that if this one is still here, there just might be others preserved somewhere in or around the city. In fact, we may even have located a couple, purpose as yet unknown.

Edit: Just had one thought myself actually! In many places it seems boundary stones and trees were actually hit with sticks (as can be seen here in Oxford) or physically marked in some other way, as people passed by them on their perambulation. Is it possible the marks on our boundary stone are evidence of it being ‘beaten’ over the centuries?

 

 

 

Forge and Ford

As the afternoon’s weather in Longdon was not quite warm enough for basking in the beer garden of the Swan with Two Necks, I took myself off for a little wander. The pub has a late 19th century map mounted on the wall, and it shows that the building next door was once a smithy. I’ve always had a soft spot for these simple buildings, softened even further by the discovery that one of my ancestors was an innkeeper with a sideline in blacksmithing. One of these days I’ll stop romanticising about it and actually get around to visiting Cirencester to see whether the forge is still there.  For now though, back to Longdon, where in May 1918, the then blacksmith, a Mr T Broadhurst had decided to give up the business and was selling the tools of his trade. On offer was a grindstone on a iron frame, two circular double blast bellows (nearly new), a treadle drilling machine, two black staple vices and other useful tools. The building remained a forge until 1938 and now is home to the WI.

Something else that appears on the pub’s map is a ford, which as the name suggests, is at the end of this lane. I had a walk down and within minutes found myself alongside the Shropshire Brook. I stood for a while on the little footbridge watching tiny yellow birds flit between the trees and the water’s edge. Interestingly, on earlier maps this seems to be called the How Brook.

Fords “shine in the memory” according to the writers of England in Particular

I don’t know much about fords, other than they are a way of crossing streams and rivers, presumably at their shallowest points. Whilst reading up on them at home, I came across a surprising account of an event that seems to have taken place here or very nearby (1).

Sir William Wolseley … lost his life about the beginning of the last century* in a very singular manner. He went to Lichfield one morning about nine miles from his house in his coach and four and on his way passed a little brook which runs across the road at Longdon and which is so shallow that a foot passenger can easily step over it the water being kept up by a mill dam at some distance from the road. When Sir William Wolseley reached this brook on his return home in the evening the mill dam just at that instant suddenly gave way the water rushed across the road overturned the carriage and drowned Sir William with his horses. The coachman was thrown off the box into a tree and escaped.

*July 8th 1728 according to the inscription on the monument to Sir William in Colwich church

Could this these gently flowing waters really have caused such devastation? It’s hard to imagine. A reminder, I suppose, that whether it’s the fire of the blacksmith, or the water turning the mill wheel, we can manipulate the elements of nature, but we are never fully in control.

Sources

(1) – A topographical and historical description of the Parish of Tixall in the County of Stafford, Sir Thomas Clifford and Arthur Clifford Esq, 1817.