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.

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