Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A lovingly restored Georgian house in Lichfield

St John’s House ... newly restored Georgian house on Saint John’s Street, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

I’m back in Lichfield this week for my regular pilgrimage, following the daily cycle of services in Lichfield Cathedral, and visiting Saint John’s Hospital, where the chapel played an important part in the development of my adult faith from the age of 19.

I have been a regular visitor to Lichfield since 1970, and over the past 40 years I have stayed in a variety of places here, including hotels, pubs, guesthouses, B&Bs, and private houses.

But this week I’m staying close to Saint John’s Hospital, in St John’s House on Saint John Street. St John’s House is a newly-opened luxurious Bed and Breakfast house, yet one of the oldest houses in the centre of Lichfield. This is an ideal location … the house is beside Saint John’s Hospital, within a stone’s throw of Lichfield City rail station and bus station, and just a few minutes’ strolling distance from the city centre and Lichfield Cathedral.

Within a month of opening last September, St John’s House was awarded the AA’s ‘Highly Commended Four Star’ rating. And deservedly so … for this B&B is a delightful and fascinating place to stay.

St John’s House … awarded ‘Highly Commended Four Star’ rating, and a delightful and fascinating place to stay

Restoring a listed building

The house is listed grade II* Georgian house, and has been listed since 1952. Unusually for a house of this age, it has still many of its original features – including the butler’s pantry (now the reception area), the servant’s bell pulls, the staircases, and the larder with the original pegs for hanging game. The renovation work has been entirely faithful to the original plans for the house, and any alterations have used modern materials to show the evolution of the house for future generations.

The Terrace Room in The Stables, where I am staying in St John’s House, which has been restored lovingly by Sarah and Johann Popp

The B&B is run by Johann and Sarah Popp, who bought the house in July 2003. At the time, they felt it was an extravagant outlay and so they decided to finance their purchase by opening the house for bed and breakfast. Johann already had a passion for renovating Georgian and Victorian houses, using traditional methods. They planned to open for business within two years, and began renovating the house using traditional methods.

However, it soon dawned on them that the house needed complete new drains and a new roof. On top of that, the parapet wall looked as though it was about to collapse on any pedestrians walking by on Saint John’s Street below and needed to be replaced. After visiting German relatives were overheard describing the house as the “Ice Hotel,” Johann realised the central heating system needed replacing too. In addition, all of the electrics had to be replaced, and for the first two years the girls’ toilets – where one cubicle had been turned into a shower – served as the only bathroom in the house.

Now the house has been totally transformed. In renovating St John’s, Sarah and Johann have used traditional and natural materials such as lime, horse hair, reclaimed glass and wood, and – Johann claims – blood, sweat and a few tears!

The main house has four bathrooms and another four are being built. All food, where practicable, is sourced locally and organically grown or bred with as low air miles as possible.

Historical treasure trove

The Terrace, looking back at my room in St John’s House ... the house incorporates parts of the 17th century Bear Inn, once a popular coaching inn on the road between North Wales and London

St John’s House is an historical treasure trove itself. During his renovation work, Johann came across many interesting items, including the original living room mantelpiece that had been buried in the garden. The former billiards room still has the old billiard cue holder in the corner and also has a Victorian open fireplace for winter months.

He believes that part or all of St John’s House incorporates the former Bear Inn. During his renovation work, he also found hundreds of oyster shells in the garden, which indicate the house was once an inn, as oysters were eaten in large quantities in public houses.

The Bear Inn first appears in local records in 1698 and it is marked on maps of Lichfield since at least 1766. It stood opposite the entrance to Throgmorton Street, now known as Frog Lane. The Bear Inn was one served by one of three Lichfield stage coach services. Giles Tottingham ran the Lichfield Flying Wagon from Anglesey in North Wales to London, using the Bear Inn as a staging post. The journey took only four days, and so the Bear Inn was once an important stage on the journey between Dublin and London in the 18th century.

Neighbouring inns and public houses in Saint John Street included the Lord Nelson and the Robin Hood, which stood on either corner of Frog Lane, opposite the Bear Inn. The Lord Nelson was incorporated into Lichfield Grammar School as part of the living accommodation in the mid-19th century, and later passed to Lichfield District Council; the Robin Hood was levelled about ten years ago.

When the Bear Inn ceased being a pub around 1815, the house was renovated extensively in the Regency style. The portico, with its columns and pillared cove, dates from this time, along with the decorative stucco fa├žade, including the pedimented windows on the first floor, and much of the cornicing and plaster-work.

The south wing was added in Victorian times, along with the stables, and some fireplaces upstairs were replaced. William East Holmes, who owned St John’s House in 1849, probably built the stables and the Popps have named one of the rooms in the stables after him.

Later, the house was owned by Frederick Simmonds, an iron merchant, and then by Archdeacon John Allen, the Master of Saint John’s Hospital, which is only a few doors away. He was followed by Mrs Susan Coyney, a Mrs Young, a Major Matthews, and Mrs Louisa Dawson, a haberdasher.

In 1902, a local colliery owner named Peake owned St John’s House. It was renamed Peake House and the Peake family lived here for over 50 years, and Johann has collected many stories from people who remember the Peake family and their daughters.

Saint John’s Preparatory School was housed here from about 1958, but the school moved to Longdon Green a year before the Popps bought St John’s House.

Eco-friendly food

My bathroom at St John’s House ... lovingly restored and eco-friendly

Today, Lichfield is one of the top five environmental councils in Britain. And so I was not surprised to learn that the Popps help keep up this record, separating all the rubbish their guests produce, sorting and recycling all glass, plastic, paper and compostable items.

Breakfast is served in the dining room of historic St John’s House. As both chef and proprietor, Johann prides himself on his home-made sausages and bacon, which are sourced from the free-range, organic pig farm at Packington, halfway between Lichfield and Tamworth – and only a mile or two from Comberford Hall.

But this vegetarian has been promised lots of alternatives and is being well catered for.

Preserves are all home-made at St John’s or locally sourced, while the bread is baked less than 150 metres away at Hindley’s in Tamworth Street, where they have been baking in Lichfield since 1893.

St John’s House Bed & Breakfast is located on Saint John Street in Lichfield and further information can be found at Saint John’s House can be contacted at: 01543 252 080.

Photographs from the website of St John’s House