Tuesday, 7 June 2016
A walk in the countryside near Lichfield
to the site of an old Benedictine priory
My treks through the English countryside continued yesterday morning [6 June 2016], with a good brisk walk along Cross in Hand Lane, which starts at the back of the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, where I was staying for the weekend.
This is one of my favourite walks in the area around Lichfield, and it marks the beginning – or the end – of the pilgrim route between the shrine of Saint Chad in Lichfield and the shrine of Saint Werburgh in Chester Cathedral.
Today, this pilgrim route is marked out as the Two Saints’ Way. And little has change has taken place in the landscape along this route since mediaeval times. The road twists and turns, rises and falls, with countryside that has changed little over the centuries.
On Monday morning, the fields were green and golden under the clear blue skies of summer. There are horses in paddocks here, or cows there, and most of the land is arable or being used for grazing.
The window cleaner at one cottage called out a cherry morning greeting, and there was a warm hello from one farmer in his farmyard. The occasional car or van passed by slowing down to acknowledge my presence on the narrow lane, I met one other walker and two cyclists. All offered a cherry greeting or an acknowledgment, and twice, complete strangers offered a lift. Otherwise, the only sounds were birdsong, the humming of the English countryside, and a babbling brook.
Although farming patterns have changed in the last 30 years or so, these fields may not have changed in shape or altered in their use for centuries, and even the names on new-built houses can reflect names that date back to a period in the 12th to 14th century.
Apart from the occasional passing car or van, one other walker and two cyclists, the only hints of modernity are the overhead pylons, the smoking towers of the power station in Rugeley that can be glimpsed in the distance, and the odd tiny shard of glass here and there where a wing mirror must have been brushed as two cars tried to pass each other on the rutted laneway.
Often as priests, we think we should be filling the silent spaces in time with intense prayers and thoughts about sermons and services that need preparation. But sometimes we need to just let go and empty our minds, or thoughts – even our prayers. We take everything else to be recycled as we clear out spaces in our houses, our offices and our studies. But we seldom give time to clearing out the clutter in our inner spiritual spaces, allowing them to benefit from recycling.
This morning walk was an opportunity to clear out this cobwebbed corners of my brain and (hopefully) my soul, and to allow myself time to enjoy this walk as this walk and as nothing more.
I stopped to admire the shapes and patterns of the fields and the trees. I stopped in silence at the babbling brook. I stopped to look at Farewell Mill. The local historian Kate Gomez suggests the name has nothing to do with saying goodbye and points out that the alternative spelling of ‘Fairwell’ refers to a nearby ‘fair or clear spring.’
Eventually, at the top of Cross in Hand Lane, I had reached Farewell, about 2½ or three miles north-west of Lichfield.
I stopped briefly to look at Farewell Hall, and wondered about its history, before making my way down the path to Saint Bartholomew’s Church.
The story of this country parish church dates back to a small Benedictine nunnery was founded here by Bishop Clinton of Lichfield ca 1140.
The Priory of Farewell was founded at Farewell, 2½ miles north-west of Lichfield, by Roger de Clinton (1129-1148), Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, (1129-1148), who endowed the place with several episcopal estates. Bishop Roger’s original grant gave to the church of Saint Mary at Farewell and the canons and lay brothers there the site of the church and important tracts of neighbouring land.
The Benedictine Priory was a stopping point on the pilgrim route between Lichfield Cathedral and Chester Cathedral that gives its name to Cross in Hand Lane.
Although it began as a foundation for monks or hermits, Farewell soon became a nunnery. Around 1140, the bishop made a new grant to the nuns of Farewell at the request of three hermits and brothers of Farewell, Roger, Geoffrey, and Robert, and with the consent of the chapter of Lichfield.
He gave the nuns the church of Saint Mary at Farewell, with a mill, a wood, pannage, the land between the stream of ‘Chistalea’ and ‘Blachesiche,’ and six serfs (coloni), formerly his tenants, with their lands and services. In addition, at the request of Hugh, his chaplain, and the canons of Lichfield, he granted the nuns large swathes of lands and woods in the area.
Bishop Roger’s charter was confirmed by his successor, Bishop Walter Durdent (1149-1159). Later, the nuns received a charter from Henry II, probably in 1155, along with lands in the forest at Lindhurst within the royal manor of Alrewas. The nuns were to hold their lands free of all secular service, and the charter was confirmed by King John in 1200.
By 1283, Farewell Priory had acquired a house in Lichfield but assigned the rent to the fabric fund of Lichfield Cathedral. Other priory lands were in Curborough, Chorley, Hammerwich, Abnalls, Ashmore Brook, Elmhurst, Longdon, and ‘Bourne,’ with farms at Farewell, Curborough, and Hammerwich, where the nuns were engaged in sheep-farming and arable farming by at least the 1370s.
But, as the nunnery prospered, all was not well in Farewell. Reports from 14th-century episcopal visitations found incidents of nuns left the nunnery and put aside their habit, that nuns were sleeping two in a bed and with young girls in their beds.
The bishops’ reports recommended that no secular women over 12 years of age were to live in the house unless they were going to become nuns, and only women of good fame and honest conversation were to be employed. Indeed, the door at the back of the garden leading to the fields was to be kept locked because of several scandals.
The nuns were forbidden to keep more than one child each for education in the priory, and no boy over seven years of age was allowed. The nuns were not to go into Lichfield without leave of the prioress, each nun had to be accompanied by two other nuns, and there was to be no ‘vain or wanton’ delay.
The priory did not survive the general Dissolution. When Cardinal Wolsey carried out a visitation of Lichfield Cathedral in 1526, he discussed the suppression of the priory with Bishop Blythe. In 1527, Richard Strete, Archdeacon of Salop, and Dr William Clayborough, a canon of York, were given a commission to dissolve the priory and to disperse the nuns.
The prioress and the other four nuns at Farewell were moved to other Benedictine nunneries, and their property was to go to the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral for the support of the cathedral choristers.
At the dissolution, the vast priory estates included the Manor of Farewell and property in Chorley, Curborough Somerville, Elmhurst, Lindhurst, Alrewas, Hammerwich, Ashmore Brook, Lichfield, King’s Bromley, Water Eaton (in Penkridge), Pipe, Abnalls, Cannock, Burntwood, Rugeley, Brereton, Handsacre, Oakley (in Croxall), Tipton and Longdon.
In August 1527, the Chapter of Lichfield was granted all the possessions of Farewell Priory, including the house and church, which were assigned to the 12 choristers of Lichfield Cathedral.
By the 18th century, the Parish Church of Saint Bartholomew seems to have been the only surviving part of the priory buildings. This church was rebuilt in brick in 1745, and the only mediaeval portion now surviving is the stone chancel at the east end. There was further restoration in 1848 when the church was re-roofed.
Saint Bartholomew’s Church is now a mixture of two different building styles and materials. The church is a Grade II* listed building for its surviving mediaeval fabric and fittings.
The square, plain topped west tower now serves as a vestry, with kitchen and storage space, but the bells are no longer used. The churchyard is well maintained and is bordered by brick walls and some hedging.
Farewell itself is small, and covers only 1,049 acres. A mile further on is the small village of Chorley, so the church in Farewell is not the focal point of village life. Today Farewell and Chorley form a civil parish, but the parish council is a joint one with Curborough and Elmhurst, all within Lichfield District.
I could have spent all the morning here. But I made my way back to the Hedgehog and Lichfield along this mediaeval pilgrim route. I had a train to catch for the opening of the annual residential conference of the Anglican Mission agency, USPG, which I am taking part in this week at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.