Thursday, 31 May 2012

Staying on the banks of the River Shannon in the heart of Ireland

Sunrise on the banks of the River Shannon in Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I voted in the referendum early this morning and later in the day I was at the funeral of a former colleague from The Irish Times, John Armstrong, in the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green.

There were moving tributes from John’s son and two daughters, his son-in-law, his friend Maria, and from many of his former colleagues in The Irish Times, including Niall Kiely, Eugene McEldowney and Renagh Holohan, and the service was co-ordinated by Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Association of Ireland.

Despite the circumsstances, it was good to see so many old friends and colleagues, and we stood around talking long after the funeral had moved on to Enniskerry.

Later in Dawson Street, I bumped into another colleague of a different sort, the Revd Marcus Losack, and we went for coffee on the corner of Dawson Street and Molesworth Street.

Marcus and I were students together at the Irish School of Ecumenics in the early 1980s, while he was a curate in Zion Parish, Rathgar. Later he worked for almost a decade in Libya and then Jerusalem, and since 1995 he has lived near Glendalough, where he is the Executive Director of Céile Dé, a resource centre for Celtic Spirituality.

This evening, I am in Athlone, staying at the Creggan Court Hotel about a mile from the town centre.

Athlone, at the southern end of the shores of Lough Ree, is in the heart of Ireland, and is the largest town on the River Shannon. I was last here over a year ago, in February 2011 for the Dublin and Glendalough clergy conference.

This is the geographical centre of Ireland, and Athlone stands in two counties – Westmeath and Roscommon – and in two provinces, Leinster and Connacht, with the Shannon running through the heart of the town.

There is much to see and explore here. Sean’s Bar, below the castle on the west bank of the Shannon, claims to be the oldest pub in Europe – dating from the year 900. Another pub in the town boasts that Count John McCormack was born there.

This is also a perfect base for exploring Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, the Ely O Carroll and Goldsmith Country and the Shannon basin.

I plan to go for a stroll around the town after dinner this evening. Who knows where I might go tomorrow?

The Creggan Court Hotel is about a mile from Athlone town centre

The Magnificat … a challenge to tradition and reaction

The Visitation … a panel in the 19th Century neo-Gothic altarpiece from Oberammergau in the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of the Church of Ireland, today [31 Mary] recalls the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth.

The story is told in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1: 39-56). When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, they are both pregnant – Mary with the Christ Child and Elizabeth with John the Baptist.

This feast day is celebrated in the Western Church on 31 May, and on 30 March in the Eastern Church.

On this day we recall how Mary, immediately after the Annunciation [25 March], leaves Nazareth and travels south to an unnamed “Judean town in the hill country,” perhaps Hebron outside Jerusalem, to visit Elizabeth. When she arrives, although he is still in his mother’s womb, John the Baptist is aware of the presence of Christ and the unborn child leaps for joy.

Elizabeth too recognises that Christ is present, and declares to Mary: with a loud cry: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1: 42-44).

Mary responds to Elizabeth immediately with the words that we now know as the Magnificat, one of the best loved canticles.

So we see, side-by-side, two women, one seemingly too old to have a child, but destined to bear the last prophet of the Old Covenant, of the age that was passing away; and the other woman, seemingly too young to have a child, but about to give birth to him who is the beginning of the New Covenant, the age that would not pass away.

The Russian Orthodox Gorneye Convent in Jerusalem is said to stand on the traditional site of this meeting.

Today’s feast dates back to mediaeval times, when it was first kept by the early Franciscans. In 1263, on the recommendation of Saint Bonaventure, it was formally adopted by the Franciscans. From them, it soon spread throughout the Western Church. In 1389, Pope Urban VI placed the Visitation in the calendar of the church on 2 July, the day after the end of the octave following the feast of the birth of Saint John the Baptist. Among Anglicans, this date passed into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

However, in 1969, Pope Paul VI moved the date to 31 May, which falls between the Annunciation (25 March) and the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June) – and chronologically a time when John the Baptist was still in the womb his mother, Saint Elizabeth.

The celebration of the feast day in the Eastern Orthodox Church is a recent innovation, introduced in the 19th century at the suggestion of Father Antonin Kapustin, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Mission in Jerusalem in the late 19th century.

On Father Antonin’s suggestion, Russian nuns built the Gorneye Convent in Jerusalem and began living there. The Church of the Meeting of the Most Holy Virgin Mary with Saint Elizabeth was consecrated at the convent on 30 March 1883, and this consecration led to the introduction of this feast to the Orthodox calendar.

So, Anglicans have been ahead of the Orthodox Church in placing this feast day in the liturgical calendar of the Church. It is sad, then, that Mary can be divisive for those in the Protestant and Catholic traditions, in the wider church and within Anglicanism.

There are numerous cathedrals churches in the Church of Ireland and throughout the Anglican Communion dedicated to Saint Mary, including the cathedrals in Limerick, Sligo (joint dedication) and Tuam, many of our cathedrals have Lady Chapels, and the Anglican-administered shrines in these islands include: Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, Our Lady of Pew, Westminster, and Our Lady and Three Kings in Haddington, Scotland.

The only possible interpretation of Article 2 of the 39 Articles is an affirmation of Mary’s title as Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God: “The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man …” And other interpretations quickly lead to Arianism, Nestorianism or Monophysitism.

The divisions among Anglicans over the place of Mary are probably founded on perceptions of Mariology within the Roman Catholic tradition. On the other hand, many of my neighbours who come out with statements that reflect what they have been told since childhood – such as “You don’t believe in Mary” – are surprised when they are told the canticle Magnificat is traditional part of Anglican Evensong ever since the Reformation.

Personally I prefer Mary of the Visitation to Mary of the plaster-cast statues, Mary of Magnificat who is revolutionary to Mary of the Rosary:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
who has looked with favour on his lowly servant;
from this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
God has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
The Lord has shown strength• with his arm
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel.
to remember the promise of mercy,
The promise made to our forebears,
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be for ever. Amen.


Zephaniah 3: 14 -18; Psalm 113; Romans 12: 9-16; Luke 1: 39-49 [50-56].


Mighty God,
by whose grace Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary
and greeted her as the mother of the Lord:
Look with favour on your lowly servants
that, with Mary, we may magnify your holy name
and rejoice to acclaim her Son our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious God,
who gave joy to Elizabeth and Mary
as they recognised the signs of redemption at work within them:
Help us, who have shared in the joy of this eucharist,
to know the Lord deep within us
and his love shining out in our lives,
that the world may rejoice in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Preening herons, a pair of swans and weeping willows on the riverbank

Weeping willows on the banks of the River Dodder in Rathfarnham this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I am back at work in Dublin after a refreshing, extended weekend in Lichfield.

Following my reinvigorating walks in the countryside and my strolls down Stafford Road and Beacon Street into the Cathedral or around the Minster Pool, I thought I would walk home from work along the banks of the River Dodder in the fading summer sunshine this evening.

I stepped down onto the banks of the river below the Ely Arch that once marked the entrance to Rathfarnham Castle estate.

A preening heron in branches above the Dodder behind the High School (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The delight of passing children drew my attention to a preening heron in the trees behind the High School. Mallards were brake-landing over the river and sliding along the surface.

In some places, the overhanging trees were reflected in relief in the water; in others, there was no reflection at all. Here the water was so still and quiet it was hard to to realise there are deep pools below; there the water was bubbling and babbling over the stones; and further up the river there was a cascade of water pouring over the weir beneath the bridge at Rathfarnham.

A swan glides on the surface of the River Dodder above the weir and below the bridge at Rathfarnham Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The waters above the weir were calm again. A pair of swans begged for bread from passers-by; two ducks pecked at the growth against the wall.

I crossed Rathfarnham Road, and soon crossed some stepping stone onto the north bank of the river. Clusters of willows dipped into the water; trees on one side formed an avenue with the former boundary wall of the Shaw family’s Bushy Park estate.

Behind the wall, near the bandstand, the pond was covered in a green sludge, but still looked attractive with the tallow-green branches of willow trees dipping into the green slime.

A second heron the turn of the river behind Rathfarnham Shopping Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I crossed again to the south side of the river below the hill behind Rathfarnham Village, and walked on behind Rathfarnham Shopping Centre, where a second heron was standing calmly on the rocks and stones on the turn in the river.

Walking on behind Butterfield Avenue, I noticed for the first time on the other side of the river, behind Templeogue Tennis Club, a tidy row of former farm labourers’ cottages enclosing a pleasant, mowed green crescent.

But the riverside walk came to a sudden stop at a large open area of green and yellow that looked like a sea of buttercups. Dodder Valley Park, a small housing estate off Butterfield Avenue, was jutting across where I imagined the path should continue. I tried to find my way behind this small cul-de-sac, but ended up in brambles and briars.

So much for the commitments of the Dublin councils to developing a Dodder linear park!

I retraced my steps back up to Butterfield Avenue, and walked on to the junction of Old Bridge Road and Firhouse Road.

Eventually, I found my way back onto the riverside path behind Saint Brendan’s, and continued on by the south bank of the Dodder.

Playful robins flittered by. Magpies pecked away at the ground. A rabbit crossed the path ahead of me. Was that another fox?

As I got closer to the weir at Firhouse, avove a coppice of trees I noticed that the moon – which had been a slim crescent when I was walking on the lane from Farewell back into Lichfield on Saturday afternoon – was now a half moon in the blue skies above the Dublin Mountains.

Some years ago, this walk would have taken only an hour or less. This evening it took over 100 minutes. Is my sarcoidosis slowing me down? Or was it just the delightful distractions of an early summer’s evening?

A half moon rises in the blue sky above the coppices in Firhouse and over the Dublin Mountains (Photgraph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A spell in the cells but not in the stocks

The former prison cells in the Guildhall in Lichfield tell a tragic tale and are now open to the public (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I was in jail last Saturday. Not that I had committed any crime or was suspected of any wrongdoing. But I was visiting the cells in the Guildhall in Bore Street, Lichfield.

The Guildhall was once at the centre of law enforcement in Lichfield, and has been at the heart of civic government in the cathedral city for over 600 years. In the past, it has been the meeting place of Lichfield Corporation but it has also served at different times as a court, prison, police station, theatre and fire station.

The story of the Guilhall in Bore Street dates back to at least the late 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Guildhall takes its name from the ancient Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, which had a hall on this site from very early times. The first Guildhall may have been built around 1387, when King Richard II confirmed the incorporation of the Guild which had been in existence for many years.

The Guild remained the effective city government of Lichfield from its incorporation by charter in 1387 until 1548, until the incorporation of the city by a charter from King Edward VI in 1548.

Four successive generations of the Comberford were admitted to membership of the guild and one member of the family was Master of the Guild, a position that was equivalent to that of Mayor. William Comberford, as “Will’s Combford,” was admitted to membership of the Guild in 1469. Within a few years, William’s son, John Comberford, as “Joh’s Cumberforde,” was admitted to membership of in 1476.

A third generation of the Comberford family became involved in the governance of the city when Thomas Comberford (ca 1472-1532) of Comberford, as M’r Thomas Cumberforth, was admitted to membership of the Guild in 1495. Humphrey Comberford was the fourth generation of his family to take an active role in the life of the Lichfield Guild. In 1530, as “Humfridus Cumberforde,” he became the Master of the Guild. In the same year, his sister-in-law, “Dame Isabella Cumberforde,” wife of Judge Richard Comberford was admitted to membership of the guild, indicating her strong commercial interests in the city.

A large stained-glass window at the north end of the main hall on the first floor of the Guildhall came originally from the north transept of Lichfield Cathedral in 1891 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The importance of the guild began to fade after 1548, when Lichfield was incorporated as a city under a charter from Edward VI. The lordship and manor of Lichfield, previously held by the Bishop of Lichfield, were leased to the Corporation of Lichfield, and the town’s government was vested in two bailiffs and 24 burgesses. Five years later, in 1553, Queen Mary made Lichfield a county separate from the rest of Staffordshire.

The Guildhall saw major rebuilding in 1707 and again in 1741, when it was said to be so ruinous that it was in danger of falling down. Most of the present ground floor, and the smaller rooms at first and second floor level at the back of the Guildhall date from that period.

A century later, the Guildhall was in a very poor state of repair once more. In 1844, the Conduit Lands Trust granted £2,500 “to put the Guildhall to rights once and for all,” and the Guildhall as we see it today was rebuilt substantially in 1846. During this restoration and remodelling, the gothic-style frontage to Bore Street was added and a magnificent panelled main hall was designed for the first floor.

Major refurbishment, restoration and repair works in recent years has provided improved facilities for civic, public and private functions.

The Main Hall in the Guildhall being arranged for a wedding on Saturday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The main hall is 26 metres long and 7.5 ft metres wide. With a high-pitched roof and hammer beams, it has a fine mediaeval appearance. At the north end is a large stone tracery stained-glass window, originally in the north transept of Lichfield Cathedral and moved to the Guildhall in 1891.

Other rooms include the Guild Room on the ground floor, the Ashmole Room midway between the first and second floors, the Whytmore Room and the Stonynge Room on the second floor.

In recent years, major refurbishment, restoration and repair works in recent years has provided improved facilities for civic, public and private functions.

The Guildhall is used for Lichfield Council meetings and civic events. The main hall and the smaller rooms are often used for public meetings, weddings, dances and as function rooms, with a seating capacity of 160 to 195. The Lichfield District Arts Association organises a lively programme of arts events and concerts, and on Saturday last there was an exhibition of paintings by local artists in the long Corridor Gallery on the ground floor, leading from the Bore Street entrance to the former prison cells.

The Corridor Gallery in the Guildhall ... often used for exhibitions by local artists and photographers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the end of the Corridor Gallery, the old prison for felons and debtors is at the back of the building and dates from 1553. From there, condemned convicts were taken to be publicly hanged at the gallows.

The cells tell the haunting tales of prisoners in the 18th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The cells were recently refurbished and were reopened by Lichfield City Council last month [11 April 2012] to mark the 400th anniversary of the execution of Edward Wightman. One of the best-known occupants of a Guildhall cell, he was the last man to be burned at the stake for heresy in England in 1612 and was brought to from his cell in the Guildhall to his death in the Market Square.

Now, once again, visitors can inspect the cells where prisoners were kept before being sentenced to public humiliations like flogging, or being sentenced to prison, to transportation or even to being executed or burned at the stake in the Market Square.

The Scold’s Bridle ... among the exhibits in the cells in Lichfield Guildhall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Two cells tell the separate but equally haunting tales of a woman and a man who were imprisoned in the Guildhall. In another cell the former uniforms of town criers are on display. Panels tell of the squalid conditions that were condemned after a prison by the penal reformer John Howard, and Scold’s Bridle is among the instruments of torture in the exhibition.

An annotated list of former crimes and criminals shows the severe punishments meted out to the poor and the lowly for petty crimes.

In a more light-hearted vein, the Guildhall continues to be used for the ancient Court of Arraye and Saint George’s Court.

The uniforms of former town criers on display in the former cells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Court of Arraye is a humorous assembly of men at arms and the traditional start of the Bower Festival. It starts at 10.30 on Spring Bank Holiday Monday – this year’s court takes place next Monday next [4 June 2012] at 10.30.

The origins of the Court of Arraye or View of Men at Arms are unknown, but people in Lichfield say the custom dates back to the 12th century. The statues of Arraye (1285) were repealed in the reign of James I but the court has continued to assemble, but in a light-hearted manner, when an assembly of men in mediaeval amour is inspected by the Mayor, Sheriff and City Officials who then hear the reports of the Dozeners on the state and preparedness of the defences of their area of the city. The Mayor, Sheriff and High Constables of Lichfield then join the Bower Procession through Lichfield.

The Court Baron and View of Frankpledge, or Saint George’s Court, is a light-hearted revival of the ancient manorial court, and takes place each year on Saint George’s Day [23 April]. The manorial rights of the Barony of Lichfield were transferred by a Charter from King Edward VI in 1548 to the Bailiffs, Burgesses and Commonalty of the City, which in today’s terms means the Mayor, councillors and citizens.

The Court still appoints the ancient officers of the manor: two High Constables, seven Dozeners (or petty constables), two Pinners and two Ale Tasters. The High Constables report on their work over the past year, and a jury is empanelled to impose fines on anyone who has rejected the summons to attend, after first hearing their amusing excuses.

The cells remain open on Saturdays until the end of September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The cells and the displays in the Guildhall are open from 10am to 4pm every Saturday until the end of September. To find out more about the cells telephone 01543 264972 or email . To find out more about hiring the Guildhall telephone 01543 309850 or email .

Monday, 28 May 2012

A bishop on a street of pubs and plaques

Bird Street Lichfield ... a street of prelates and philanthropists, pubs and plaques (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past three days I have walked up and down Bird Street more than a dozen times on my way into Lichfield from the Hedgehog, where I was staying for an extended weekend break at Pentecost.

Bird Street in Lichfield once had two hotels. The Swan has become a restaurant and apartments, but the George is still thriving. The street still has some wonderful restaurants, but it could well be described as a street of prelates and philanthropists, or a street of pubs and plaques.

The restaurants include: on the west side, Ask at the former Swan (No 27), the Wine House (No 27), Eastern Eye (No 19), Ma Ma (No 17) where the Lichfield Mercury once had its offices, the Thai Rainbow (No 15), Apres (No 13), Lal Bagh (No 9) and Green T (No 3); and on the east side: Ego, at New Minster House, Qmin (No 30), Sorrento (No 28), Jardin Punjabi (No 26), 3 Amigos, a new tapas bar at No 22, Damn Fine Cafe (No 16), formerly Doveston’s, and the Lounge on the corner or Market Street.

Bird Street was once home too to Soda Streat, the only Irish café that I knew of in Lichfield, but it closed about two or three years ago.

The newest cafe in the area opened last Tuesday – in the kiosk that was once the public lavatories on the corner of Beacon Street and Swan Street, opposite Ask and the former Swan in Bird Street.

The pubs on Bird Street once included the former Swan and still include the King’s Head (No 21), Apres (No 13), and the Gatehouse (No 1).

On the corner opposite New Minster House, there are plaques and a mosaic recalling the Lichfield-born writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), reminding us: “Dr Samuel Johnson Born in the City of Lichfield 1709 died 1784 this mosaic by John Myatt after a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds was donated to the Citizens of Lichfield in June 1976 by Lichfield District Arts Association and Berger Paints.”

A plaque on the wall of the former Swan commemorates the Road and Path Cycling Association (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

On the wall of the former Swan Hotel, a plaque commemorates the Road and Path Cycling Association. The King’s Head, at No 21 Bird Street, has a plaque recalling Colonel Luke Lillingston, who raised a regiment of foot in the pub on 25 March 1705.

Other plaques include one at the George Hotel (Nos 12-14) recalling George Farquhar (1677-1707), the playwright and author of the Beaux Stratagem, who lived in an inn on the site when he was a lieutenant in the Grenadiers in 1705.

The plaque above Temple Tree commemorating the Newton Brothers ... a bishop and a philanthropist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Further down Bird Street, on the shared wall at Temple Tree, a hair salon at No 11, and Lal Bagh, an Indian restaurant at No 9, a plaque commemorates Bishop Thomas Newton (1704-1782), who was born here, and his brother, Andrew Newton, the founder of Newton’s College. The plaque above No 11 and No 9 reads:

“Bishop Newton (Bristol) was born here. Born 1704 Died 1782 He was the brother of Andrew. The founder of Newton’s College in the city. Educated at Lichfield Grammar School.”

No 11 and No 9 Bird Street are Grade II listed buildings. These two were originally two two-storey houses, built in the early 18th century. Forty years ago, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in his guide to Staffordshire (1974) noted that at the back of No 11 here was a domed room with a shell mosaic.

Thomas and Andrew Newton were the sons of a Lichfield brandy and cider merchant who lived at No 11 Bird Street. Thomas Newtown was born here on 1 January 1704, and was educated at Lichfield Grammar School before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was later elected a fellow.

A biblical scholar and author, his published works include his annotated edition of Paradise Lost, with a biography of John Milton, published in 1749. In 1754, he published a large scholarly analysis of the prophecies of the Bible, Dissertations on the Prophecies. In1761, he published yet another extensively annotated edition of Milton’s works, including Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.

Newton famously regarded the “preservation of the Jews” as “one of the most signal and illustrious acts of divine Providence,” along with “the destruction of their enemies.”

He was consecrated Bishop of Bristol in 1761 and in 1768 he became the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. He died in London on 14 February 1782.

Further north, on Beacon Street, at the entrance to the Cathedral Close, is Newtown’s College, which was established by the bishop’s younger brother, Andrew Newton (1728-1806).

Despite its name, Newtown’s College is not an educational establishment. It was endowed with £20,000 by Andrew Newton in 1800 as an almshouse for the widows and unmarried daughters of clergy, particularly clergy who had served in Lichfield Cathedral.

Joseph Potter was the architect for the college, and the college buildings include a range of 16 dwellings with a central doorway designed by Potter and built in brick, with stone facings on the south side of the road from Beacon Street. Potter also designed a house at the south-west corner of the range in Beacon Street that provided four further dwellings.

In the course of the building work, the mediaeval west gate of the Cathedral Close was demolished. The first almswomen moved in towards the end of 1803, and Newton died just over two years later on 14 January 1806, aged 77.

The college trustees transferred the building to the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral in 1988. Although the former Bishop of Bristol, who was born in Lichfield, is remembered in the street of pubs of plaques where he was born, he is not commemorated in the cathedral. However, his brother Andrew Newton is commemorated by a monument designed by Sir Richard Westmacott.

Newton’s College (left) ... the lasting legacy in the Cathedral Close of Andrew Newton, who was born in Bird Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Sunday, 27 May 2012

The Fire of Pentecost in Lichfield Cathedral

Lichfield Cathedral seen through the gate behind Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Today has been the Day of Pentecost, the final hooray at the end of the Fifty Days of Easter. Tomorrow we return to Green as the liturgical colour for Ordinary Time, but this morning [Sunday 27 May 2012] there was an array of red in Lichfield Cathedral, in the colours of the chasubles and stoles of the altar party, the amices of the servers, and even in some of the clothing among the congregation – the choir members always wear red cassocks.

Very appropriately, the setting for the Eucharist was Victoria’s Missa dum complrentur dies Pentecostes. The president at the Eucharist was the Precentor, Canon Wealands Bell, and the preacher was the Chancellor and Acting Dean, Canon Pete Wilcox.

Pentecost is one of the great feasts in the calendar of the Church, and one of the great occasions in Lichfield Cathedral when the Saint Chad’s Gospel is used in the procession and for the Gospel reading.

This morning, the Gospel (John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15) was read by the cathedral curate, the Revd Nest Bateman, and Pete preached a wonderful sermon on the first Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-21), recalling that Pentecost is an inclusive feast, irrespective of ethnicity, gender or social background.

He noted how many times the words all and every are used in those three paragraphs in that New Testament reading: they were all together; the people in Jerusalem were from every nation under heaven; everyone heard in their own language, so that all were amazed and perplexed; Peter addresses all, promising that God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, without regard to gender, age or social background; and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

He reminded us that pouring out is an image of overflowing that is so much freer and generous than small doses, as in medicine, or small measures, as in shots of whiskey. God’s generosity at Pentecost is lavish, risky and abundant in its generosity.

Later, after the distribution of the Eucharist, we were invited to move to the North Transept for anointing and the renewal of baptismal and confirmation vows – an appropriate liturgical decision when we had just celebrated being blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

As the altar party was processing to the West Door, singing Hymn 175, Come down, O love divine to the Vaughan Williams tune Down Ampney – named after the vicarage in Gloucestershire where the composer was born – the organ went silent in the middle of the last verse, and we could hear the fire alarms.

Having celebrated the arrival of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire, we were forced to depart from the cathedral because of a fire alarm, and we gathered in small groups on the lawn at the west end of the Cathedral Close. We never heard the organist, Martyn Rawles, play the voluntary, Bach’s Kimm’, heileger Geist.

Lichfield Cathedral and summer sunshine on Minster Pool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Coffee in the College Hall was a time for meeting old friends, and even discussing the latest debates in the Church of England on the ordination of women to the episcopate.

There was time then for a short stroll along Minster Pool, to enjoy the reflections of the cathedral and the blue summer sky in the waters.

Later, Pete reflected that generous and lavish hospitality when he and his wife, Cathy Fox, invited us to lunch in their house on the north-west corner of the Cathedral Close.

There was time afterwards for another stroll in the sunshine through Vicars Close before returning along Beacon Street and Stafford Road to the Hedgehog.

With views out across the green and yellow Staffordshire countryside, this warm summer sunshine was perfect weather for a leisurely Sunday afternoon, sharing a pitcher of Pimms, talking about cricket, ... and rejoicing in the lavish and generous gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Vicars Close in the sunshine on the afternoon of Pentecost (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 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)
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.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

A walk along the quaintly-named Cross in Hand Lane

Cross in Hand Lane, from Lichfield to Farewell ... but where did it get its unusual and charming name (Photograph: Patriock Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Before his eventual exile in England, the German-born architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner visited England in 1930, and wrote home: “Englishness of course is the purpose of my journey.”

I am spending the weekend in the Hedgehog on the northern edges of the cathedral city of Lichfield, where Englishness is still to be found in late Spring, when, as the poet Housman wrote,

green buds hang in the elm like dust
And sprinkle the lime like rain.

Until earlier this week, the English rain was probably hanging on the buds and the hedgerows in rural Staffordshire. But the sun has come out in abundance over the last few days, and I am enjoying the early arrival of summer this weekend in Lichfield.

In his 1974 book on Staffordshire, Pevsner robustly defends this part of England against those who try to visualise Staffordshire as all Black Country and Potteries, and told his readers there was much more to Staffordshire.

The view from the grounds of the Hedgehog across the Staffordshire countryside and three spires of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From my room in the Hedgehog, on the corner of Stafford Road, Beacon Street and Cross in Hand Lane, there was a breath-taking view this morning south across miles-upon-miles of open, flat Staffordshire countryside.

From here, it is only a short stroll of less than half an hour into the cathedral and the centre of Lichfield. But there are many pleasant walks in the countryside nearby too.

This was an English afternoon for enjoying a jug of Pimms in the front of the Hedgehog, enjoying the warm sunshine. Later, as the temperature dropped slightly, I went around the corner this afternoon for a stroll along the quaintly named Cross in Hand Lane, which eventually leads to the delightfully named villages of Farewell and Chorley.

Cross in Hand Lane is a a quiet country lane ... was this once the main road to Stafford? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Hello to Farewell

According to the Victoria History of Staffordshire, Cross in Hand Lane was the main road from Lichfield to Stafford until 1770. Now it is just a quiet country lane, inviting you to stroll through fields and farmland, by country cottages, farmhouses and timber-framed barns and by babbling brooks before eventually saying hello to the small and delightfully-named village of Farewell, about 3 km north-west of Lichfield. The name, meaning “clear spring,” derives from the Anglo-Saxon name, frager, meaning “fair” or “clear” and wiell, meaning “spring.”

Farewell was not listed in the Domesday Book in 1086, but this had been an agricultural area even before then. The soil is a combination of gravel, clay and sand, particularly suitable for growing turnips, wheat and barley. Outside my window is a large field of rapeseed, but otherwise this landscape has probably looked the same for centuries.

The only blight on the landscape during this afternoon’s walk in the countryside was the distant sight of the cooling towers of the power station a few miles away at Rugeley, pushing above the horizon here or there.

Fields of green and gold along Cross in Hand Lane this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A monastic community

In the mid-12th century, Bishop Roger de Clinton (1129-1148) of Lichfield was instrumental in establishing a monastic community at Farewell, and the original grant included the site of the Church of Saint Mary and the surrounding woodland.

The first members of the community were hermits or solitary monks, but they were soon replaced by a community of Benedictine nuns. By 1140 the church at Farewell, and other lands had been transferred to nuns. The nunnery was originally established as an abbey but was later recorded as a Benedictine priory. Farewell Mill was part of the estate of the priory in the 12th century.

From Serena in 1248, we know the names of 15 prioresses until the Reformation. The Benedictine priory appears to have provided education for the local children. In 1367 Bishop Robert Stretton visited the priory and would only allow boys up to the age of seven years at the priory, stipulating that each nun could only teach one child, for which they needed the bishop’s permission.

By the 1370s, the nuns were farming, growing crops and keeping a substantial flock of sheep. Other farmers in the village at the time were also raising cattle.

The last prioress was Elizabeth Kylshaw, who became Prioress in 1523. The priory was dissolved in 1527, the lands around it, including the mill, were transferred to the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield in 1527, and the income was granted to the cathedral to support the choristers. The prioress said “Farewell” to Fraewell and moved to Nuneaton, while the last four remaining nuns were moved to different nunneries.

In 1550, the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield granted the lands of the former Farewell Priory to William Paget (1506-1563), Lord Paget of Beaudesert, a former MP for Lichfield and one of Henry VIII’s leading courtiers, who was busy at the time acquiring extensive grants of lands in Staffordshire, including Cannock Chase and Burton Abbey.

A church on a monastic site

Saint Bartholomew’s, the parish church in Farewell, dates back to ca 1300, and stands on the site of the original monastic church. A small section of masonry with a small window beside the pulpit and organ may have formed part of the original Church and Priory of Saint Mary.

Saint Bartholomew’s was largely rebuilt in 1745, with the exception of the stone chancel. During this later rebuilding, several earthenware vessels were found in the south wall. The altar rails are said to date from the 13th century, along with the east window and the 16th century misericords that charmed Pevsner almost half a century ago.

The initials ER or EH are carved on the oak seats in the sanctuary. If they read ER, they may refer to the reign of Edward Rex or Elizabeth Regina in the second half of the 16th century, as Pevsner suggests. But if the initials read EH, as others suggest, could they represent the last Prioress of Farewell, Elizabeth Helshawe.

There was further restoration work on the church in 1848, when it was re-roofed. A mixed school opened in 1877 for 70 children.

Farewell Hall was built in the late 17th century by John Wightwick, perhaps on the site of an earlier manor house owned by the Bagshawe family. John Wightwick died in 1703. A water corn mill was erected in 1856, and it was working until 1940 when it was destroyed by a fire.

Trying to solve a puzzle

Cross in Hand Cottage and a pretty corner along Cross in Hand Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

On the way back from on this quiet country lane from Farewell to Lichfield, we passed a wedding celebration at The Swallows. As a slim crescent moon began to rise and take shape above the green and golden fields, it was hard to imagine that this had once been a busy thoroughfare. So how did Cross in Hand Lane get its strange name?

The Victoria History of Staffordshire says Cross in Hand Lane was the road from Lichfield to Stafford from the late 13th century until 1770. It branched off to follow the lane running along the north-west boundary which was still known as the Old London Road in 1835.

Many historians say it was named Cross in Hand Lane because pilgrims or travellers on their way to Lichfield and wanting sanctuary at the Benedictine priory would use this route, carrying a cross in their hand. Others say the priory and a cross may have stood out as one of the last stages on the pilgrim route between Chester and Lichfield.

There are records of a mediaeval cross between Beacon Street and Cross in Hand Lane, but there are no traces of this cross today. The story goes that the cross with the hand that was standing at the fork in the road in the 15th century was simply a post to point directions.

In 1770, the course of the road was straightened to avoid the hollow way in Cross in Hand Lane, and the road was diverted to follow a new line to the east, now the present Stafford Road.

Some historians say a little hamlet once stood half-way between Lichfield and the old Benedictine Convent of Farewell, and this hamlet was called Cross-in-Hand, because of the frequent monastic processions between the nunnery at Farewell and the cathedral in Lichfield.

Was this cavern-like place part of the ‘little caverned village’ of bygome days? (Photograph: Patriock Comerford, 2012)

The cavern of a ‘caverned village’?

One local chronicler says there were two yews near “this little caverned village” – but this afternoon I could see no trace of the yew trees, the cavern or the little village. Was the cavern the hollow way on Cross in Hand Lane that forced the course of the road to be straightened in 1770?

I came across a cavern-like site beneath the grounds of the Hedgehog, about 200 metres from the junction with the A51. It is on the right-hand side, opposite a pretty cream cottage. Neither Kate, who blogs on Lichfield Lore, nor Cuthbert Brown, in his Lichfield Remembered, have an explanation for the cave.

Was stone once extracted here?

Is it a natural feature?

Was it a water fissure where softer rock has been washed out?

Was it the cavern or hollow way on Cross in Hand Lane that forced the course of the road to be straightened in 1770?

A map from 1887 shows two pubs, a brewery and maltings on the spot where this hollowed-out place is visible today – it must have been a busy place then.

A man who lives in the pretty white cottage across the lane believes it was a humble dwelling place and he pointed me to the holes that may have held wooden beams and the black marks from what may have been household fires in the past.

The Sheriff’s Ride

As I continued back into Lichfield, I was reminded from my visit to the Guildhall in Lichfield earlier this morning that this area was both the starting and finishing point of the Sheriff’s Ride, an annual pageant in Lichfield on the Saturday nearest to 8 September.

The Victorian historian, Thomas Harwood, recorded that the Sheriff’s Ride dates from Queen Mary’s Charter of 1553, when Lichfield was separated from Staffordshire and made a separate county with a right to appoint its own Sheriff. The charter commanded the Sheriff to “perambulate the new County and City annually on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 8th September.”

These days, the custom continues with the sheriff and a full mounted retinue assembling at the Guildhall. They are followed by 150 or more riders on a 16-mile perambulation of the city boundary. The northern and eastern boundaries are reached in the morning before arriving in the grounds of Freeford Manor for lunch. Races after lunch reach a climax with an open race for the “Sheriff’s Plate.”

The ride then resumes to finish the circuit of the boundary, stopping for tea at Pipe Hall on Abnall’s Lane. When the sheriff and riders return to Lichfield, they are met by the Sword and Mace Bearers at about 6 p.m. and escorted down Stafford Road to the Cathedral Close, where they are greeted by the Dean, before returning to the Guildhall.

I wonder whether the pilgrims who made their way from Farewell down Cross in Hand Lane were met with the same pomp and ceremony by the mediaeval deans of Lichfield when they arrived at the cathedral.

Later this evening, that slim crescent moon was high in the clear blue evening sky as I strolled back past the cathedral and had dinner in the Olive in Tamworth Street.

A weekend of celebrations in Comberford

Patrick Comerford

The jubilee celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's coronation seems to be dominating every aspect of life in England at the moment. I am not a royalist, but it looks as though many a good street party has been planned. The streets of Lichfield are decorated with flags and red-white-and-blue buntings and banners, and even the undertakers in Bird Street, has a lively and cheerful looking shopfront.

A cake in the shape of Buckingham Palace in the window of Sugar Surgeons in Beacon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

This looks like a planned celebration of English identity and a cheerful and confident expression of what it is to be English. This celebration will be strengthened here with the arrival of the Olympic Torch in Lichfield and Tamworth.

Hopefully, none of this is going to be hijacked either by the BNP and the far-right assert a nasty form of racist nationalism, or by Irish Republican extremists who think this is the opportunity to challenge the link between the British monarchy and British identity.

Preparing for a party ... a shop front in Dam Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Sixty years of village life provide the theme for a Jubilee event in Comberford this weekend. Comberford is within the Lichfield District, half-way between Lichfield and Tamworth, but while I am in Lichfield this weekend, I am unlikely to get to Comberford today or tomorrow.

For the next two days, they are holding a series of events in Comberford over these two days as they party away and celebrate the jubilee.

From 10 am this morning [Saturday, 26 May 2012] until 4pm this afternoon, there is a display of pictures from the past inside Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church, Comberford. I am told that in addition there is a tombola and a raffle, and that admission is free.

The celebrations continue tomorrow [Sunday, 27 May] between 3pm and 4.30pm, followed by a celebratory service in Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church at 6 pm.

A booklet, costing £3.50 is on sale too.

For more information, please contact: Janet Smith on 01827 708135.


Friday, 25 May 2012

Among the saints in the sunshine

Saint Chad, among the kings and saints on the west front of Lichfield Cathedral ... Bede says he travelled to Ireland as a monk after studying in Lindisfarne and before he was ordained as a priest(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)
Patrick Comerford

I am staying for the weekend at the Hedgehog in Lichfield, and the room I have been given, No 1, is called Saint Chad.

At Choral Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral this evening [25 May 2012], the Precentor, Canon Wealands Bell, reminded us that today we have been remembering the Venerable Bede, the Monk of Jarrow who is remembered as one of the earliest historians in England. And he told us how Bede is also our principal source for the life of Saint Chad, who is so intimately associated with the early story of Lichfield Cathedral and the Diocese of Lichfield.

Saint Chad takes centre place in the rows of saints and kings carved on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral. But, despite popular perceptions, he was neither the first Bishop of Lichfield, nor was he the founder of the diocese.

The Diocese of Mercia was founded 656 by Diuma, and he and the first four bishops were either Irish or were educated in Irish monasteries and by Irish monks.
Bede says the first bishop, Diuma (or Dwyna or Duma), was Irish and that he was one of the four priests introduced to Mercia in 653 by Peada, son of King Penda of Mercia. Peada had become a Christian, and after Penda’s death, Diuma was consecrated bishop after 655 by Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. But while he was Bishop of Mercia, he had his seat at Repton. We do not know the date of his death.

Diuma’s successor, Ceollach (or Cellach) was born in Ireland. He left the diocese or resigned, and moved to the monastery of Iona before his death.

The next bishop, Trumhere (or Thumhere), was born in England but was educated in Ireland. He was the first Abbot of Gilling , founded on land donated by King Oswiu of Northumbria as penance for the death of King Oswine of Deira. When Trumhere was chosen as Bishop of Mercia about 658, he was consecrated by a Celtic bishop. He died about 662.

The fourth Bishop of Mercia, Jaruman (or Jarumann), was from Ireland too, although he was educated at Lindisfarne. He was involved in several missions to Saxon tribes before he died in 669. Some scholars suggest his name inspired JRR Tolkien when he named Saruman in The Lord of the Rings.

Saint Chad ... a modern icon in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Chad was Jaruman’s successor as the fifth Bishop of Mercia, and he became the most prominent bishop in the history of the diocese. However, most of what we know about the saintly Chad comes from the writings of today’s saint, the Venerable Bede, who credits Saint Chad and his brother Cedd with introducing Christianity to the Mercian kingdom.

Bede tells us Saint Chad spent his early life as a student of Saint Aidan in the Celtic monastery in Lindisfarne, and Bede says the general pattern of Saint Chad’s ministry was shaped by the example of Saint Aidan, who was a disciple of Saint Columba and came to Northumbria from Iona.

Although Saint Chad was probably from an Anglo-Saxon family, he travelled to Ireland as a monk after studying in Lindisfarne and before he was ordained as a priest. Chad and Egbert were among a group of English scholars who went to in Ireland while Finan and Colmán were Bishops in Lindisfarne, so their arrival in Ireland was some time after Saint Aidan’s death in 651. So Saint Chad’s time in Ireland was between 651 and 664.

Saint Chad was the abbot of several monasteries, and then Bishop of the Northumbrians before becoming Bishop of Mercia. When Saint Chad became bishop in 669, he moved the seat of the diocese to Lichfield, and the diocese then took its name from the city. Saint Chad died on died 2 March 672.

In 691, the area was divided to form the smaller dioceses of Lichfield, Leicester, Lichfield, Lincoln, Worcester and Hereford. Later, Lichfield was briefly the seat of an archbishop from 787 to 799, with provincial authority in the Kingdom of Mercia and from the Humber to the Thames.

The bishop’s seat moved briefly to Chester in 1075, and then to Coventry in 1102, and from 1228 the bishops were known as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, with cathedrals in both places.

Lichfield Cathedral reflected in the sunshine this evening reflected in a window of the Cathedral Bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Some of the Deans of Lichfield from that time also had Irish connections: Stephen Seagrave (1319-1324) and Richard FitzRalph (1335-1346) later became Archbishops of Armagh.

At the time of the Anglican Reformation, Rowland Lee was said to have secretly married King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry’s six wives, on 25 January 1533. Ten days earlier it had been discovered she was pregnant with the future Elizabeth I. A year later, perhaps with little surprise, Rowland Lee was rewarded for his efforts and became the Bishop of Lichfield.

After the Reformation in the 1530s, the cathedral in Coventry was demolished, and from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 the bishop was styled Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry. In 1837, the diocese was divided once again – the Coventry area was transferred to Diocese of Worcester and later became a separate diocese. Since then, the bishops have been known simply as Bishop of Lichfield.

Although it is difficult to say that there is anything simple about ecclesiastical life in Lichfield.

After Choral Evensong, I strolled around the Cathedral Close, back up Beacon Street and up Cross in Hand Lane, before returning to the Hedgehog, where I sat out in the late evening sun for dinner.

Morning coffee with an old, old friend in Lichfield

Morning coffee with an old, old friend in Nero in Bore Street, Lichfield, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The sunshine is beautiful in Lichfield today. I sat outside Nero in Bore Street this morning with a double espresso and this week’s edition of the Lichfield Mercury.

I am staying in the Hedgehog at the junction of Stafford Road and Cross in Hand Lane, and after my morning coffee at Nero in Bore Street, I noticed the Lichfield Mercury has closed its former offices around the corner in Breadmarket Street, between the houses where Lichfield’s most famous writer, Samuel Johnson, and the antiquarian Elias Ashmole were born.

The Ma Ma Thai restaurant at No 17 Bird Street ... once the home of the Lichfield Mercury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Walking down Bird Street later this morning, I passed Ma Ma Thai Restaurant at No 17, close to the corner of Sandford Street, and opposite the George Hotel, I cast a wistful glance at the building that once housed the former editorial and advertising offices of the Lichfield Mercury.

Forty years ago, in the early 1970s, I was a freelance contributor to the Lichfield Mercury, its sister title, the Rugeley Mercury, and another local newspaper, the Tamworth Herald.

At the time, I wrote features on local historic families and was commissioned to write about local charities. It was mainly on the strength of those features and reports in the Lichfield Mercury that 40 years ago this summer Gerry Breen and the late Major Austin Channing offered me my first full-time job with a newspaper, and I joined the staff of the Wexford People in July 1972 as a sub-editor.

For a short time after, I continued to contribute occasionally to the Lichfield Mercury and to visit those premises in Bird Street – and the King’s Head, just two or three doors away.

No 17 Bird Street now houses the Ma Ma Thai restaurant, but this Grade II listed building remains an important part of the city’s architectural heritage.

This three-storey house was built in the early or mid-18th century in the Early Georgian style, with a symmetrical five-window range. The entrance has a door-case with architrave with triple key, panelled pilaster strips and consoled pediment, and paired two-panel doors. The two shop windows have panelled pilaster strips and consoled cornices, while the first floor has windows with panelled sills and shaped aprons, and shaped lintels with keys and cornices over 6/9-pane sashes with thick glazing bars.

Inside, in what was the front room of a once-elegant residence, there are end fireplaces, each with panelled pilasters and lintel with fluted key, breast with fluted angle pilasters. There is some tall fielded panelling with a panelled dado rail. The dog-leg staircase has cut string with column-on-vase balusters and a ramped handrail, with dado panelling.

This beautiful building was lovingly mentioned by the late Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in 1974 in his Staffordshire, in which he talks of its “nicely enriched window lintels and rather a wild door surround.”

By then, the Lichfield Mercury had gone over to what we called “photo-type-setting,” – an early form of computerised production of newspapers.

I was welcomed back in 1974 to see the process, and to learn about how the pages of the newspaper were designed and made up. I probably thought then that I was going to find a fulltime position with the Lichfield Mercury and return to live in this cathedral city. I never did, but I was always grateful for those opportunities and that generous sharing of skills and insights – they later proved useful when I was with The Irish Times.

For all its modernity, the Lichfield Mercury was an old newspaper with a long history. The Lichfield Mercury was first published in July 1815 by James Amphlett at premises in Boar Street, now Bore Street, and carried the very latest news – from the Battle of Waterloo – on the back page.

The former offices of the Lichfield Mercury in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Lichfield Mercury is now published by Tamworth-based Central Independent Newspapers, which are not independent at all but are owned by Northcliffe Media, the regional newspaper division of the Daily Mail.

The cover price of Lichfield Mercury today is 50 p, but most homes receive it as a weekly free-sheet tabloid. It is published on Thursdays and is delivered to homes in Lichfield and other towns in south-east Staffordshire, including Armitage, Barton-under-Needwood, Brownhills and Burntwood, and has a circulation of about 38,000.

Burntwood has its own local sub-edition, the Burntwood Mercury, but the Rugeley Mercury ceased publication in late 2010.

The Mercury’s website at was withdrawn last year. The newspaper no longer has its own website, and the old URL now redirects surfers to Northcliffe’s website, to which the newspaper contributes news.

But, despite cutbacks and a shaky market for newspapers, the Lichfield Mercury continues to keep producing a decent local product. I hope it’s still there in three years’ time to celebrate its bicentenary.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Enjoying Ballybur Caste in the sunshine

Ballybur Castle basking in summer sunshine today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

It was an early start this morning, but I was back in Kilkenny today for the second time this week, visiting Ballybur Castle, the Comerford ancestral home near Cuffesgrange, about 8 km south of Kilkenny on the road to Callan.

I travelled with Jim and Camilla Comerford from Atlanta, Georgia, and their son, Jimmy, who are visiting Ireland.

We were he guests of Frank Gray, who bought Ballybur in 1979 from the Marnell family for £20,000 and has spent over three decades lovingly restoring this 16th century tower house, bringing it back to its Tudor glory.

I first visited Ballybur in 1970, when the castle had become squalid and appeared to be facing certain ruin.

Looking down on the dining hall in Bally bur Caste from the minstrel gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As Frank brought us from room-to-room and up through each floor, Frank told us how he has painstakingly restored the castle, sourcing local timbers, stone and glass and slate from the Ponsonby home in Kilcooley Abbey, Co Tipperary.

Each room and each floor now has the feeling of elegance that my ancestors must have lived in when they lived at Balybur until they lost the castle with the Cromwellian confiscations of the 1650s.

Each room and each floor has a view across the surrounding countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We were brought from the entrance hall, where I remember visiting the Marnells, up to the banqueting hall with its minstrel galleries, to the chapel, the bedrooms, and the great hall, before climbing up to battlemented parapets, with views across broad sweeps of the countryside of Co Kilkenny, Co Tipperary and the borders of Co Carlow and Co Wexford, from Slievenamon to Mount Leinster.

Looking across the countryside from the battlements of Ballybur Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

We lingered for a while before eventually heading into the village of Cuffesgrange, where I showed my visitors the remains of a Comerford memorial from the early 17th century, rescued in the 19th century by Bishop Michael Comerford and placed in the corner wall of the parish church.

Back in Kilkenny, we had lunch opposite Kilkenny Castle in the Kilkenny Design Centre, and there we met more members of Camilla’s extended family, her brother-in-law and her niece.

After bidding our farewells, I strolled through the streets of Kilkenny, revisiting the Butterslip, where the Comerfords lived in the late 18th and early 19th century and Saint Mary’s Church where – at long, long last – the churchyard is being restored.

Kilkenny Castle, reflected in the waters of the River Nore this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

I stopped for coffee in a delightful but unnamed shop in John Street, beside the council offices in the former premises of Kilkenny College.

Opposite the train station, I visited Saint John the Evangelist Church, also known as the O’Loughlin Memorial Church, for the first time.

But that’s a story for another day.

The afternoon train journey back to Dublin was a summer’s joy, , through the countryside in Kilkenny, Carlow and Kildare, with fields of green and yellow, with horses, cattle and lambs, and with sun-filled blue skies.

A train journey through fields of green and yellow and skies of blue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)