Sunday, 27 May 2012

A quiet time in the ‘pleasant backwater’ of Vicars’ Close, Lichfield

Vicars Close in Lichfield ... once described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “a pleasant backwater” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

My weekends in Lichfield are essentially retreats, visiting the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, and following the daily cycle of worship in the Cathedral, two places that have been spirituality formative for me since my late teens.

Throughout this weekend, I have felt as though I am staying in a “Spiritual Spa.”

On Friday evening, I was in Lichfield Cathedral for Choral Evensong in the Lady Chapel at 5.30, led by the Precentor, Canon Wealands Bell. The full choir was present, and there was a group of visitors from Calke Abbey. The setting was the Short Service by Byrd, with Rose’s Responses, and the anthem, as we come to the close of this Easter, was appropriately, God is gone up by Gibbons, based on Psalm 47. The Psalm was 119: 73-104.

I was back in the Cathedral at noon yesterday [Saturday] for the Eucharist, in the Lady Chapel, celebrated by the Revd David Primrose, the Director of Transforming Communities in Lichfield Diocese. The warm welcome from an old friend who was present brought together both the cathedral and the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital.

The three spires of Lichfield Cathedral in the summer sunshine this weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I have awoken to a beautiful sunrise, the song of blackbirds and the sound of wood pigeons in the tress this morning (Sunday 27 May 2012), which is the Day of Pentecost or Whitsunday, and I hope to be in the Cathedral for the Sung Eucharist at 10.30. The Precentor, the Revd Canon Wealands Bell, is presiding, and the preacher is the Chancellor, the Revd Canon Dr Pete Wilcox. Pete is currently Acting Dean of Lichfield while the dean is on study leave, but he is about to move to Liverpool Cathedral where he succeeds Bishop Justin Welby as dean.

The setting very appropriately is Missa dum complerentur dies Pentecostes by Victoria, and we have also been promised Victoria’s Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes and Bach’s Komm’, heiliger Geist. We also have Psalm 104: 26-end and Hymns 179, 311 and 175.

A secret corner

The entrance to Vicars Close is through an archway hidden behind the corner of a house in the north-west corner of the Cathedral Close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the north-west end of the Cathedral Close, close to the Chancellor’s house, is Vicars’ Close, which I visit each time I’m here. Hidden behind the corner of a house creates a secret nook, a small archway leads into this quiet, undisturbed, and little-known corner of Lichfield.

This is one of my favourite places at this time of the year, when the boughs of the trees are full with leaves and buds, and the Tudor-style, black and white houses are seen at their best in the sunlight, with an array of colour in the flowerpots, on the pathways, on the ledges and on the lawn.

I was not surprised earlier this month when I received a lot of hits after changing both the banner photograph on my blog and the cover photograph on my Facebook page to a charming image from this sleepy corner that was described forty years ago by the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as “a pleasant backwater, reached by a narrow gangway through a house.”

It is still that “pleasant backwater,” and it has a story that dates back to the mid-13th or early 14th century.

In 1241, the first statutes of the cathedral decreed that there should be a corporation of Vicars Choral, both laymen and priests, who would be responsible for singing the daily offices on behalf of the cathedral canons or prebendaries.

In 1315, Bishop Walter de Langton of Lichfield gave the vicars choral of Lichfield Cathedral land at the west end of the Cathedral Close. The land had previously been held by one or two canons, and Bishop Langton made his grant, which excluded a dovecot and a barn, so that the cathedral musicians could live within the close.

Between 1315 and 1500, the vicars built their half-timbered houses in college style, in four ranges of houses, around a double quadrangle or two courtyards.

The Upper Courtyard

Sir Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Vicars Close as “a pleasant backwater, reached by a narrow gangway through a house” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The upper courtyard is still known as Vicars Close and the houses there, which have their own sequence of numbers, are all Grade II* listed buildings.

The first vicars to occupy the site apparently built their own chambers or houses, although the dean and chapter subsequently assigned the houses to new vicars and authorised exchanges.

The common hall, mentioned in 1321, had a solar at its north end in 1334. A common kitchen was recorded in 1329. However, the vicars continued as before to dine daily with the resident canons until their dining rights were withdrawn in 1390.

The earlier common hall had become too small, so they had to build a new dining hall. Within a decade, in 1399-1400, the vicars were granted the “new house” that King Richard II had helped to build in the palace grounds a year earlier.

Material from this house appears to have been used to enlarge the common hall, which was rebuilt. Soon after, the vicars’ houses were repaired at the charge of Thomas Chesterfield, a canon of Lichfield, between 1425 and 1452.

This later rebuilding, subdivision and amalgamation of the houses, has obscured the original structures. The most complete row of mediaeval buildings surviving from that period is along the north side of Vicars Close, where the timber-framed houses are all of one bay. They have overhanging jetties to the south and tall chimney-stacks against the north wall.

Looking out onto the Vicars Close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The houses on the east side of the courtyard and the eastern half of the central range are also timber-framed.

The vicars’ houses were left relatively undamaged after the Civil War in the mid-17th century left. A century later, in 1756, the vicars took down their common hall and built a new one at the west end of the central range. The new hall, 46 ft. by 25 ft. and 30 ft. high, was at first-floor level, approached by an oak staircase from the east, and had an oriel window facing Beacon Street.

The Vicars Hall seen from Beacon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The completion of the hall in 1757 was celebrated with a concert of music and dancing. The hall continued to be used for public assemblies until the late 18th century, when several of the Vicars Choral were regarded as musical celebrities. Dr Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, records that he was “very much delighted with the music” when he visited the cathedral in 1776.

By 1800, the common hall had been divided, and the west end was turned into flats. Part of the ceiling decoration survives, but the staircase was removed around 1979 when No 4, on the south side of Vicars’ Close, was remodelled. Pevsner says No 4 is of little architectural merit. This was once the vicars’ muniment room, where they kept their sheet music and instruments, and he suggests this house was once the entrance to the common hall.

The newest house in Vicars’ Close is No 5 in the west range, which was rebuilt in 1764. No 8 and No 9 were restored in 1990. I am told some of the cathedral’s vergers and vicars choral still live in these unique, picturesque houses.

The Lower Courtyard or ‘Nether Vicarage’

Lichfield Cathedral, seen from the archway leading into the Lower Couryard – what Pevsner called the “Nether Vicarage” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

An archway in the south-west corner of the Cathedral Close, between the Lichfield Festival Office at No 7, and No 8 where I stayed as a guest in recent years, leads into the second or Lower Courtyard – or what Pevsner called the “Nether Vicarage.” Unlike the houses in Vicars’ Close, these houses have numbers that follow the sequence in the Cathedral Close.

From the north side of the lower courtyard, it is possible to see the rear of No 2 Vicar’s Close with traces of mediaeval masonry and the rear of No 3 Vicars’ Close, with an over-sailing upper floor.

In 1474, Dean Heywood rebuilt the south side of the lower courtyard. The new work included a two-storey block comprising a chamber called “le drawth” for infirm vicars, a chapel where the vicars could study and pray and where infirm vicars could attend the liturgy, a muniment room and other small buildings.

The walls were plastered and the windows glazed. The block had its own entrance gate on the road from Beacon Street. Three timber-framed houses survive at the east end of the south range of the lower courtyard.

The gable end of a chamber over a latrine, on the north side of the west gate of the Close, survived into the early 19th century.

Of the 20 houses noted in 1649, only two in the lower courtyard near the gate of the Cathedral Close, together with the latrine, were described as completely ruined. The common hall was also badly damaged.

The houses along the southern range of the lower courtyard (on the left in this photograph) have been realigned so that they faced out onto the street leading into the Close from Beacon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In the early 18th century, most of the houses were considered to be in good repair. Half of the 20 houses recorded in the upper and lower courtyards in 1706 had tenants, living in them and theses wealthy tenants may have been responsible in the early 18th century for remodelling the houses in the lower courtyard in brick.

By 1732, this remodelling saw the houses along the southern range realigned so that they faced out onto the street leading into the Close from Beacon Street, instead of facing into the courtyard.

Two houses at the west end of that range (No 2 and No 3, The Close, which had once been one house, and No 4, The Close) were raised in height and given fronts of five bays. The eastern range of the courtyard was also remodelled, so that No 7 to No 10 now face the west front of the cathedral.

In 1758, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Dr Erasmus Darwin, converted a timber-framed house on the west side of the lower courtyard into a large brick house with a front facing onto Beacon Street. The house, now known as Darwin House, has a central doorway and Venetian windows and was originally approached from Beacon Street by a bridge across the ditch. A double flight of stone steps later replaced the bridge.

In 1988, the house at the south-east corner of the lower courtyard (No 7, The Close) was converted into offices for the Lichfield Festival. That year, the ground floor of No 9 opened as a bookshop and coffee shop, and it still serves as the Cathedral Bookshop today.

The eastern range of the courtyard was also remodelled, so that No 7 to No 10 now face the west front of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)
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A tradition continues

The Lay Vicars Choral of Lichfield Cathedral are still a semi-professional body of singers, although most of them have a variety of jobs in addition to their daily singing at the cathedral. The nine Lay Vicars are the heirs to an ancient tradition dating back to the 13th century.

An early 18th century glass goblet survives as a relic from the great days of the Vicars’ Close and is on display in the cathedral. Knows as a Rummer, it has a capacity of 2½ imperial pints, and it was originally used to measure a daily allowance of beer – part of the commons – for each vicar.

I am told that once a year, the Lay Vicars still fill this goblet with beer and pass it around one another, drinking a toast to the memory of past members of the choral foundation. But I have a feeling they’re not allowed to bring it out of the Cathedral Close to any of the nearby pubs. I must ask later today.