Sunday, 13 June 2010

A day in the Heart of England

Uttoxeter in the heart of England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

My search for Pugin churches in mid-Staffordshire yesterday took me through some beautiful countryside. Lichfield is about as far in-land as you can get in England, so my bus journeys through the heart of England made for a day that was very different day from my usual weekend beach walks in Dublin.

It’s only about 30 km from Lichfield to Uttoxeter and another 12 km from there to Cheadle. But the buses passed through the villages and communities of Elmhurst, Armitage, Handsacre, over the Trent and Mersey Canal, through Hill Ridware, Blithbury, and Abbots Bromley, by the shores of Blithfield Reservoir, Bagot’s Bromley, Newton Hurst, Dapple Heath, Upper Booth and Lower Booth, over the River Blithe to the Blythe, and on past beautiful views down onto Kingstone Wood and Bagot Forrest, through Kingstone and Blount’s Green into Uttoxeter. And from there it was on to Cheadle through Beamhurst, Fole, Checkley, Lower Tean, Upper Tean, Teanford and Mobberley.

Many of these villages have thatched cottages, timber-framed houses, village greens, and historic churches. There was little traffic on the narrow, tree-lined side roads, apart from the adults on horses, children on ponies and the occasional pair of cyclists. The rolling countryside has large dairy farms and fields full of grazing cattle, as well as horses and sheep.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance Day is a colourful event that has been taking place at the end of August or beginning of September each year since 1262. The interesting buildings in the village include the half-timbered Church House, the Goat’s Head Inn, which local people say is the original town hall, and the Butter Cross, in the middle of the triangular village green, which some say dates back to the 13th or 14th centuries, although others say it is a 17th century building. One house in the village is actually called Toad Hall.

Abbots Bromley has a history that dates back to 942, when the manor of “Bromleage” was given to Wulfsige the Black, and Abbas Bromley is recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086-1087 as Brunlege.

For many Irish people, Uttoxeter is merely a name on racing card or in the sports pages of newspapers, or it is a place to pass through on the way to Alton Towers. Most people pronounce the name as “you-tox-eat-er,” but local people call it “ut-cheat-er.”

But then Uttoxeter has had 79 spellings since it was first mentioned in the Domesday Book as “Wotocheshede.”

As I strolled through the town on Saturday afternoon, the High Street was closed because of the market. Two years ago, Uttoxeter celebrated the 700th anniversary of the 1308 Market Charter, which sets out the terms of the markets on Saturdays, Wednesdays and festivals.

The Johnson Memorial in the Market Place in Uttoxeter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The most famous event in the history of Uttoxeter was the penance of Samuel Johnson. The Lichfield writer’s father ran a bookstall in Uttoxeter market, and young Samuel once refused to help out on the stall. When he was older, Dr Johnson repented and stood in the rain without a hat as a penance for failing to help his father. This sad but moving event is commemorated by the Johnson Memorial in the Market Place.

Another writer, Mary Howitt, the Quaker author of the poem The Spider and the Fly, lived in Uttoxeter for much of her life. Howitt Crescent, off Johnson Road, is named after her, and other writers commemorated in street names here include George Eliot.

Saint Mary’s Church in Balance Street was Pugin’s first church design. A number of windows in Saint Mary’s Church recall the Bamford family. One member of this family, Joseph Cyril Bamford (JCB), gave his name to the JCB Empire, but started out with a small business in a small garage in the town. JCB is still the main employer in the town, alongside Fox’s Biscuits.

Cheadle too is a market, town with Anglo-Saxon roots, and the High Street was closed on Saturday for a market. When I arrived in the afternoon to photograph Saint Giles’s Church, Pugin’s most famous building, it was joyfully full for a First Communion.

Ye Olde Talbot on a sunny day in Uttoxeter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In all these towns and villages, Pugin’s patrons, the Talbot family, the Earls of Shrewsbury, have left their mark, in pub names and signs, street names, and even the Talbot First School in Kingstone.

Unlike poor Dr Johnson, I found it was still a sunny afternoon when I got back to Uttoxeter. Opposite the Johnson Memorial stands Ye Olde Talbot, one of the few timber-framed buildings to survive a 17th century fire in the town. It is a charming old timber-framed building, and I sat in the sunshine, sipping a glass of wine in the warm sunshine before catching the bus back to Lichfield.

After such a beautiful day in the countryside and in the small towns of rural Staffordshire, it was a joy at Choral Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral to find the appointed Psalms of the day were Psalms 65, 66 and 67, including these lines:

Thou visitest the earth and blesses it: then makes it very plenteous
the river of God is full of water: thou preparest their corn, for so thou providest the earth.
(Psalm 65: 9-10)

say unto God, o how wonderful art thou in thy works ...
For all the world shall worship thee.

(Psalm 66: 2-3)

I was back in the cathedral this morning for the Sung Eucharist, when the Dean, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, presided, the Chancellor, Canon Pete Wilcox, preached, and the setting was the Missa Brevis by Kodaly.

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