13 August 2011

Walking along Minster Pool beneath the spires of Lichfield Cathedral

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral reflected in the waters of Minster Pool, seen from the new Minster Pool Walk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

It has been a pleasure this week to see how the Minster Pool Walk in Lichfield has been revamped and reopened. The area beneath the cathedral spires has been transformed as part of the city’s Historic Parks Project.

The work carried out in recent months includes dredging the pool, repairing the south bank with local sandstone to create a new vertical edge, reinforcing the banks, installing new railings, new seating and benches, resurfacing the paths, planting and creating a new Speakers’ Corner. New trees have also been added to the ancient avenue of lime trees and up-lighters have been installed at the base of the trees.

The renewed Speakers’ Corner at the Dam Street end of Minster Pool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The restoration work began last year with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund.

Lichfield City Council owns and manages the Minster Pool Walk. The council leader, Councillor Terry Finn, who has said he is “delighted that Pool Walk is now open again,” says: “The quality of the restoration work to this popular area is outstanding. It will be a great boost to the city and I am sure it will be appreciated for many years to come.”

Lichfield District Council’s Cabinet Member for Development Services, Councillor Neil Roberts, has said: “We still have a few finishing touches to make, including improving the planting, which we’ll do in the autumn, as well as installing historic information signs.”

Minster Pool, which has a capacity of 28,000 cubic metres and a surface area of 8,700 sq m, is a reservoir between Bird Street and Dam Street in the heart of Lichfield, directly south of Lichfield Cathedral, and in the past it played an important part in the defence of the Cathedral Close.

Lichfield is built on both sides of a shallow valley. Leamonsley Brook flows from the west through Beacon Park, where it combines with Trunkfield Brook into a conduit under the Museum Gardens and they then flow under Bird Street into Minster Pool. The pool flows out through a pipe under Dam Street and Stowe Fields into Stowe Pool.

Bishop Walter de Langton built the first Causeway Bridge at Bird Street, linking the Cathedral Close and the town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Minister Pool was formed in the 11th century when a boggy stream was dammed at its eastern end to drive a mill on Dam Street. At one time, it was thought Minster Pool was formed in 1310 when Bishop Walter de Langton of Lichfield initiated the building of causeways on Bird Street and Dam Street to connect the Cathedral Close to the town. However, during dredging works in the 19th century, engineers discovered evidence that the pool is much older and that it was probably formed in a cavity created during quarrying for sandstone to build the cathedral around 1085.

According to the Domesday Book, the Bishop of Lichfield had two mills in 1086, one of which may have been on Dam Street and would have involved building the dam that formed Minster Pool.

In 1310, Bishop de Langton built a causeway on Bird Street, splitting a much larger pool into two. These became known as Bishop’s Fish Pool to the west and Minster Pool to the east of the causeway. At the same time, the bishop paved the streets and improved the fortifications at the Cathedral Close with high stone walls and towers on the north bank of the pool. At the same time, he may have improved and enlarged the dam at the east end of the pool.

Later, the south entrance to the Close, at the east end of Minster Pool on Dam Street, included a portcullis and drawbridge. The pool was a significant defence during the siege of Lichfield Cathedral during the Civil War in 1643-1646.

But the slow flowing nature of the streams caused a lot of siltation in the pool, but it was also used as a sewer for the Close. No wonder then that the pool became dirty and polluted.

In the 1720s, Daniel Defoe described how Minster Pool “parts Lichfield, as it were, into two cities, one is called the Town, and the other the Close.” In 1772 the pool was cleaned and landscaped by Lichfield Corporation. The poet and writer, Anna Seward, known as the “Swan of Lichfield,” lived in the Cathedral Close and was instrumental in landscaping the pool into a separate shape and developing a “New Walk” along the southern bank.

By the early 19th century, the narrow 14th century bridge built by Bishop de Langton on Bird Street was unable to carry coaches, and these had to be diverted around Stowe Pool and back onto Beacon Street. In 1816-1817, Bishop de Langton’s bridge on Bird Street was replaced with the current bridge. The new bridge was designed by the Lichfield architect, Joseph Potter (1756-1842), who was involved in repairing and restoring Lichfield Cathedral and designed nearby Newtown’s College and Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Upper John Street.

I have been interested in the past to note that AWN Pugin worked with Potter on Holy Cross Church, providing a rood screen, and in turn Potter’s entrance door, tower and spiral stairs had a marked influence on Pugin’s designs for Saint Michael’s Church in Gorey, Co Wexford.

Potter’s Causeway Bridge, built of ashlar stone, consists of three elliptical arches, a low parapet and iron railings with two pylons surmounted by lamp irons. Parts of Bishop de Langton’s original causeway were left below the new bridge, which could now carry the main London-Chester road.

By the mid-19th century, the pool was dirty once again and 5 ft of mud was dredged in 1855. During these works, cannonballs and shells from the Civil War in the 17th century were found in the mud.

The pool was used as a mill pond and fishery until 1856, when the mill was demolished. In 1857, the South Staffordshire Waterworks Co proposed filling in the pool and replacing it with a public gardens. But this proposal was very unpopular and the plans were changed to retain the pool.

Since then, Minster Pool has been a valued public amenity in Lichfield, with memorial gardens on both sides – the Garden of Remembrance was laid out on the north bank in 1920 after World War I, and the small memorial gardens that lie alongside Minster Walk were opened in 1955 following World War II. The waterworks company passed the ownership of the pool back to Lichfield District Council in 1968.

This week’s edition of the Lichfield Mercury reports the Lichfield Civic Society is objecting to the railings along the poolside walk, saying they are too high and significantly taller than those they replaced.But, tThe latest works by the council still enhance this area and have been an extra pleasure during this week’s visit to Lichfield.

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