25 May 2012

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 thisislichfield.co.uk was withdrawn last year. The newspaper no longer has its own website, and the old URL now redirects surfers to Northcliffe’s lichfieldpeople.co.uk 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.

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