Saturday, 7 June 2014
D-Day in Penkridge, stories of ‘Green Men’
and a book launch at Lichfield Cathedral
The 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Normandy landings was marked throughout Europe yesterday [6 June 2014], and with particular poignancy and memories throughout Britain.
I had not planned to be at any of these events, and so was pleasantly surprised to come across one, low-key, quiet but deeply moving local event while I was visiting Penkridge in South Staffordshire during the morning.
I was there to take photographs at the parish church, Saint Michael and All Angels, and some other buildings in Penkridge for a paper I am researching on the role of mediaeval Archbishops of Dublin as Deans of Penkridge, and was being given a guided tour of the church by the Rector, the Revd Greg Yerbury, and local historian John Linney, when I realised the churchyard and the local war memorial were the focus of attention.
It was a low-key event, with a handful of be-medalled veterans and two or three dozen other people present, and was a dignified and solemn occasion marked mainly by prayer and reflection, and by the laying of a poppy wreath.
The whole town was welcoming. People stopped me in the church and in the churchyard to ask me why I was there and then continued on in friendly conversation, pointing out things of interest they thought I might miss. When I knocked on doors asking permission to take photographs, I was greeted with warm welcomes and curious questions, and told tales of archers sharpening their arrows on church walls and stone-carvers who left their mark and their initials.
From Penkridge, two of us caught a local bus through Dunston into Stafford, where we stopped at Saint Mary’s Church before visiting the Ancient High House in Greengate Street, which is the largest timber-framed Elizabethan building of its kind in England.
The house now serves as a local museum – defaced by two shops at ground floor level. But, appropriately, part of the museum is currently housing a D-Day themed exhibition.
The High House was built in 1594 by the Dorrington family, from local oak, said to have come from the Doxey Wood. Many of the original timbers bear carpenter’s marks indicating that the frame was pre-assembled on the ground and the joints numbered to aid the on-site construction.
During the English Civil War in the mid-17th century, this house was the home of the Sneyd family of Keele Hall, and Charles I stayed at the High House on 17 and 18 September 1643, not long after raising the Royal Standard at Nottingham, the act that marks the start of the English Civil War.
Local lore says that while Prince Rupert was walking in the garden of the High House with King Charles, the prince fired two shots through the tail of the weather vane of Saint Mary’s to prove to the king the accuracy of his continental horse pistol. But the weather vane was removed from Saint Mary’s later, so the story cannot be verified.
From the High House, we crossed to visit Saint Chad’s, the oldest church in Stafford. Outside, its Romanesque façade by Sir George Gilbert Scott gives this church a 19th century appearance. But inside is a 12th-century interior, dating from around 1150.
High on one of the towers, an inscription proclaims: Orm vocatur qui me condidit, “The man who established me is called Orm.” And we were told of legends of the “Green Man” associated with the church, and stories of stone-carvers from the east.
We strolled through the Market Square, with its elegant Victorian buildings, before catching the 825 local bus from Stafford, through Walton-on-the-Hill, Milford, Little Haywood, Colwich, Shughborough House and along the edges of the forest of Cannock Chase and the Trent and Mersey Canal, and by the banks of the River Sow and the River Trent, and through Wolseley, Rugeley, Brereton, past Spode House and the former Hawkesyard Priory, an on through Armitage and Handsacre to Lichfield, for a late lunch – and a jug of Pimm’s – at the Hedgehog, where we were staying on the northern edge of the cathedral city.
After Choral Evensong in Lichfield we were invited to the Cathedral Bookshop in the Close and the launch of Paul Spicer’s new biography of the composer Sir George Dyson. On D-Day there were inevitable stories about Dyson’s little-known expertise in grenades during World War I.
It was still a bright summer evening when we got back to the Hedgehog, and we sat out in the garden, close to the trees and surrounded by birdsong, allowing dinner to linger as evening turned to dusk.