Sunday, 22 March 2009

A retreat in the cathedral city of Lichfield

Lichfield Cathedral, from Dam Street, close to the Bogey Hole

Patrick Comerford

Lichfield is a small cathedral city, with a population of about 30,000 people. It’s easy to get there from Dublin – my flights with Ryanair last week cost only one cent each way, and the train from Birmingham International Airport takes about an hour, including the change at Birmingham New Street.

I first visited Lichfield in 1970, in my search for the Comerford and Comberford family roots, and I have been a constant visitor ever since. For a few years, I was a freelance contributor to the Lichfield Mercury, even after I joined the staff of the Wexford People, and it was in Lichfield, at the age of 19, that I had my first adult experience of the love and light of God in my life.

And so, on a regular basis, I return to Lichfield, for a retreat or pilgrimage, giving thanks to God for his abundant blessings in my life and his outpourings of grace. I always find time to pray in the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, where I first had that experience in 1971.

Last week, I was back in Lichfield again, attending the daily cycle of prayers and liturgy in Lichfield Cathedral, including the daily Eucharist and Choral Evensong, and commemorations of Saint Joseph and Thomas Cranmer.

The Bogey Hall, Dam Street ... a Grade II Listed House where Derrick and Pauline Duval offer the warmest of welcomes

I stayed in the Bogey Hole, a large Grade II Listed House at 21-23 Dam Street, a pedestrianised walkway between the Market Square and Lichfield Cathedral. This beautiful house has been lovingly restored by Derrick Duval, an architect and former Mayor of Lichfield, and is run as a guest house by his wife Pauline Duval.

Part of the house dates back to the early 18th century, and Derrick’s restoration has exposed the original oak beams and gives some interesting glimpses of the early structural work. Pauline, who is a most welcoming host, is also a creative artist in her own right, dedicating much of her time to needle and quilt work.

Behind their house, a beautiful walled garden looks across the Minster Pool towards the cathedral. At the front, Dam Street is filled with a delightful array of houses, shops, and historic buildings, including Brooke House, which played a curious role in the English Civil War in the 17th century; Dame Oliver’s School, where Samuel Johnson was first invited to delight in the pleasures of the English language; the Truly Scrumptious sweet shop; and the Causeway coffee shop. Off Dam Street are Quonian’s Lane, with Bridgeman’s shop and some fine Tudor houses. And on the corner with Market Street is the Staffs Bookshop, perhaps the best and most curious second-hand bookshop in England.

Two anniversaries

The rest of England this year is celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, but in Lichfield they are commemorating the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson, and recalling with pride the fact that Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was once one of Lichfield’s most celebrated residents.

The Johnson Birthplace Museum ... Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield 300 years ago in 1709

The Johnson Birthplace Museum, a Grade I* Listed Building on the corner of Breadmarket Street and the Market Square, houses a museum dedicated to Samuel Johnson and his life, with another marvellous second-hand bookshop.

The museum houses a large range of Johnsoniana and a very comprehensive library of works by, and about, Johnson and his age.

On Friday and Saturday, I also strolled through the Market in the Market Square and traditional market, which takes place every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

Dr Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield 300 years ago on 18 September 1709. Each year, Dr Johnson’s birthday is celebrated in Market Square on the Saturday following 18 September. At noon, the Mayor and Sheriff of Lichfield, with their civic party, accompanied by the President and members of the Johnson Society and staff and pupils from King Edward VI School – Dr Johnson’s old school – walk in procession from the Guildhall on Bore Street to the Johnson statue on the Market Square, facing the Johnson family’s former home.

The Mayor lays a laurel wreath on the statue and the choir sings a setting of Johnson’s Last Prayer, followed by appropriate hymns. The Mayor and dignitaries then return to the Guildhall to toast “the immortal memory of Dr Johnson.”

Johnson spent his first 27 years in the large, imposing house overlooking Market Square, and went to Dame Oliver’s School in Dam Street and the Grammar School opposite Saint John’s Hospital.

Despite a troubled childhood, literary obscurity for most of his life, and lengthy periods of financial poverty, Dr Johnson eventually achieved renown and success, and is best remembered for his Dictionary of the English Language. It is not so well known that he never completed his degree at Oxford, and he first became known as Doctor Johnson because of the honorary degree he received from Trinity College Dublin.

Lichfield remained close to his heart throughout his life, and he loved this cathedral city so much that he once wrote: “I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield.” He returned to Lichfield frequently until shortly before his death in 1784.

A warm welcome

In the past week, I turned myself loose on Lichfield once again last week, and enjoyed the genuinely civilised life, including the cathedral, the churches, the bookshops, the museums, and the restaurants – including the new Ego in Bird Street, overlooking the Minster Pool, Ask Restaurant across the street in the old Swan in Bird Street, the neighbouring Ristorante Sorrento, and the Olive Tree in Tamworth.

Lichfield is also richly endowed with coffee shops – including the sixteenth century Tudor CafĂ© in Lichfield House on Bore Street, and Arco, in the Corn Exchange in Conduit Street, which was voted Winner Best Small Business 2008 and Winner Best Fairtrade Outlet 2008 by the people of Lichfield; and friendly, traditional-style pubs – such as the King’s Head in Bird Street, the Queen’s Head in Stanford Street, and the Earl of Lichfield Arms in Conduit Street.

Lichfield was fully booked out for the weekend, with the Friends of Cathedral Music holding a conference in the Cathedral. But the welcome was as warm and as attentive as ever. It’s hard to believe that this cathedral city is so close to Dublin, but so few people in Ireland know and appreciate its charms.

Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.