A day in…Lichfield

By | Category: Travel destinations
herringbone, Tudor archtiecture in the middle of Lichfield. To the left is Tudor Lane with boutique shops

herringbone, Tudor archtiecture in the middle of Lichfield. To the left is Tudor Lane with boutique shops

Walk in the middle of the Staffordshire city of Lichfield and sometimes you can forget that you are in the twenty first century. Much is pestrianised which, given the width of the streets, makes you wonder how cars travelled up there side-by-side without scraping wing mirrors. Many buildings are Tudor styled and really go back to the Tudor period whilst others have Georgian fronts. Modern houses can be found on the outskirts or away from the city centre. Even the modern shopping area – Three Spires – is tucked up streets away from the tourist centre but  still designed in a single story, market street style of shops. That is apart from Debenhams which rises to three storeys and has a convenient multi-storey car park for you to drop your car off before you start your Lichfield exploration.

Some say that Lichfield is dominated by its unusual cathedral, unusual for the fact that it has three spires which you can only see if you are standing in certain places as one spire can block out the others. (Now you know how the shopping centre got its name!) In their times, locals like Samuel Johnson and David Garrick, (the local theatre is named after him) Joseph Addison and Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles) might have worshipped at the cathedral. And the city was known as the city of philosophers. Today it might be called a city of culture although Tony Christie – another local lad – might not have had such a hit with “Do you know the way to Lichfield” rather than Amarillo. It doesn’t quite sound right.

the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral

the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral

The playwright, George Farquhar, set “The Recruiting Officer” in the city and he was actually based here for a short time as he drummed up recruits for the army. The literary and musical heritage is reflected today in the Lichfield Festival which begins this coming weekend and in other events occurring throughout the year.

How the city attracted so many famous people must be due to the cathedral and its importance in the Midlands. At once stage it was an Archbishopric but only for ten years and that was a thousand years ago. Its fame came because St Chad travelled here to become bishop. For three short years before dying his influence remains strong because one of the oldest written works is the Gospel of St Chad which can be seen today in the Chapter House of the cathedral along with some original pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard, found only a few years ago as Just about Travel readers will know from the appeals we made to help raise money to purchase the hoard and keep it in the area it was found rather than removing it to London. Those speaking Welsh might be surprised to know that the information guide is in both Welsh and English as the Gospel is also knows as the Gospel of St Teilo and there are margin comments in Welsh, some of the earliest Welsh writing known to exist. The comments say that the gospel was sold for the price of a “best horse” which must have been  quite a bargain.

part of the agel sculpture

part of the angel sculpture

Two other features in the cathedral stand out. The first are the stained glass windows that were replaced in the nineteenth century when 16th century glass from a Flemish monastery was sold to the cathedral to replace that lost during the civil war over a century earlier. The Herkenrode glass windows are claimed to represent the greatest collection of unrestored 16th Century Flemish glass anywhere in the world.

The other feature is a more modern acquisition. During a dig in 2003, three separate limestone fragments of an angel were found face down in the ground under the nave of the cathedral. These are thought to have formed the corner of a shrine chest, possibly that of St Chad. These can also be found in the Chapter House. Some of the carving is very fine in places showing that some very able craftsmen were around in what many people still call the Dark Ages.

Like the majority of our cathedrals, it dates back almost a millennium but with additions and enhancements over the years some not entirely applauded by other generations. Charles II supported the church but Queen Victoria was determined not to play second fiddle to her predecessor so his statue has been removed to near a side entrance where it is protected slightly from the elements which is more than Victoria’s statue is.

Charles II looking the worse for for wear after all these years in his new location after objections from Queen Victoria

Charles II looking the worse for for wear after all these years in his new location after objections from Queen Victoria

A street from the side of the cathedral, Para Dam, takes you down into the middle of the city which takes you all of seven or eight minutes to walk if you gaze at the buildings and the plques on them but just a couple otherwise. But as you do so, you will pass the oldest street, Quonians, which combines some quaint looking buildings that date back to Tudor times with a building at the end which has huge modern stained glass above the first floor! Heading towards the market square down any of the streets nearby and you will find many buildings recording the past of the city but what you won’t find is a sign outside the Wheatsheaf – now a wine bar – which is where the last black slave was sold in England. You will see a plaque that notes that the head of the parliamentary forces in the civil war, Lord Brooke, stuck his head up to see what the royalists were doing and was promptly killed by a sniper. It was one of his successors, who sold for the price he paid for them, the Herkenrode glass to the cathedral in 1802.

It is at another religious house, the much smaller, Chapel of St John the Baptist without the Barrs (Barrs being another word for gates) that you will find more modern stained glass. Behind the altar stands a John Piper window that was placed there in the 1980’s. Below the floor are twelfth-century cellars that remind visitors that buildings evolve. In the middle ages as the religious complex stood outside the city walls, late travellers stayed overnight before entering Lichfield in the morning. Entering from the courtyard inside, each room had its own chimney (eight in all) and you can still see these from the outside today suggesting that the complex must have provided some of the most well heated accommodation for the time. For those who arrived when all the beds were taken a small window can be seen – the dole window – through which food and drink would have been “doled out” to passers-by. But stand across the road and look at the building and you might be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at a nineteenth century northern mill.

Quonians

Quonians

It is a far cry from the typical Georgian home owned by Erasmus Darwin. Little-known compared to his famed grandson, his house and medicinal gardens are open to the public and reveal what a prolific thinker he was. He was a slave abolitionist, a believer in education for women and foreshadowed the evolution ideas that his grandson would propound. On top of that he developed a steering mechanism that was the foreunner of the modern system, wrote poetry, fathered eighteen children from two wives and at least one mistress as well as rejecting on three occasions the honour of being surgeon to George III.

His house is just away from the middle of the city. What you find in the centre are supermarkets or some of the big brands that you might expect to see on any high street. Yes, there is a Boots and a Smith’s, even a Macdonald’s but nothing overwhelms, nothing is too big and that keeps in with the feeling that this small welcoming city offers.

Welcome to Lichfield says HSBC

Welcome to Lichfield says HSBC

How often, for example, would you see a sign above a bank that welcomes you to a city? But HSBC does just that. The middle remains compact and walkable with a lot of coffee shops, wine bars and restaurants.

Outside one shop, you will see a sign saying that this was Dame Oliver’s school where a five year old Samuel Johnson was taught English and maybe this is where he gained his interest in words leading him to produce the famed dictionary. He would, as a little boy, no doubt wish that the shop that is there today – Truly Scrumptious! Ice cream and Fudge shop – was part of the school in his day for when a man is tired of fudge and ice cream, surely he is tired of life!

Dr Johnson’s house is open to the public at no cost as are the majority of attractions in the city. It is just across the road from the tourist office and the market square where statues of Johnson and his biographer and long-suffering companion, James Boswell are to be found.

What a 5 year lf Dr Johnson might have coveted - sweets in class!

What a 5 year-old Dr Johnson might have coveted – sweets in class!

It is from here that at least three guided walks of about 90 minutes each start that will take you around the city. Ian – my guide – has been guiding tours for sixteen years but it still seemed out-of-place to hear a Scottish accent lauding the benefits and stories of this very Midland place! But then, aren’t the biggest supporters of anything, those that have been converted by the attractions themselves?

 

For more about Lichfield, click here.

With thanks to Ian Clark, who guided me around Lichfield

 

 

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