06 June 2016

The ‘most English town’ in England is
‘smack bang in the middle of the country’

The Derbyshire countryside in the middle of England … not as bleak as the Guardian feature on Ripley may imply (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The United Kingdom goes to the polls in about two weeks’ time [23 June 2016] to determine whether to remain in the European Union or to leave. And as Britain debates its European identity, and as England debates its English identity, I have found myself right in the middle of England.

I am spending these three days at a conference in the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, near Alfreton, and I am less than two miles from Ripley, the Derbyshire town that was recently named by the Guardian as the “most English town” in England.

I passed by Ripley earlier in the day on my journey between Lichfield and Alfreton. According to the Guardian, a study by the University College London – admittedly carried out a decade ago – found that Ripley was the “most English” place in England.

The weekend feature, published on Saint George’s Day [23 April 2016], said Ripley is “smack bang in the middle of the country,” and has the highest proportion of residents with English ethnic origins – 88.6% – with nearby Heanor, also in the Amber Valley district of Derbyshire, not far behind.

The Guardian feature-writer wrote: “What makes the Amber Valley, wedged between Derby and Nottingham, such a hotbed of Englishness is a bit of a mystery – but don’t come expecting ye olde Morris dancers and chocolate box mead drinkers. This is the kind of quintessential England not found in tourist brochures.”

The Guardian’s research was criticised online by one reader who remarked: “You obviously have never heard of either of the two Morris Dancing teams from Ripley … Ripley Morris Men and Ripley Green Garters … So yes you really should expect to see Morris dancers lol do you (sic) research properly LOL!”

The Guardian writer urged readers to “think instead of redbrick terraces, suburban piles with pillars and electric gates, smashing chippies, 1920s semis, the odd tearoom, a Premier Inn, Lidl, Wilko and Wetherspoons, and a Friday night out that’s a sight to behold. This is not Downton Abbey (though Newstead Abbey isn’t far away). Ripley is ordinary England, in the best sense of the word.”

That may have been complimnary, in a back-handed kind of way. But, perhaps with an eye to Ripley’s reputation in the best for being home to a number of supporters of far-right and racist groups, the Guardian writer warned: “If [you] want cosmopolitan, you’re in the wrong place, though there is a Chinese [takeaway].”

A reader of the local newspaper, the Derby Telegraph, thought the Guardian had held back on the dark side of “Englishness,” with “a whole swathe of former Derbyshire and Notts coalfield badlands having sickening links with racially prejudiced pseudo-organisations.”

He recalled a television documentary in the 1980s or 1990s showing the terror inflicted on local shopkeepers in Heanor and neighbouring Langley Mill “for daring to be non-white.”

The nearest train station to Ripley is 10 minutes away at Alfreton, where I arrived this afternoon. From there, there are half-hourly trains to Sheffield (30 minutes) and Nottingham (20-30 minutes), and Ripley is 15 minutes to the M1, and half an hour from the Peak District, Nottingham and Derby.

One Ripley resident told the Guardian: “It’s an affordable place to live, with great access to the Peak District’s beautiful, wild scenery. Worst things: social/economical problems due to unemployment and poor opportunities.”

Another said: “It has always had a rough reputation. But it’s friendly, except on a Friday night when it’s best to keep your children away from the centre.”

Needless to say, I was much happier with how the Guardian described Lichfield back in 2007:

“The birthplace of Samuel Johnson is, as you’d expect from such a noble son, a ribald old place, as round, full-bodied and comforting as a steak and ale pie - and one that seems perfectly content to remain in its 18th-century heyday. The age of Asbos and iPhones seems curiously out of place on the gentle cathedral close. But, alas, Lichfield finds itself at Britain’s crossroads, blessed and cursed by handy commuter roads such as the M6, making it a tempting jewel for Birmingham commuters after a better price and all the advantages of a cathedral city. The cathedral, with its magnificent three spires. A distinctly provincial air.”

A summer afternoon in the green
and golden fields in Comberford

The beauty of the Staffordshire countryside at Comberford Manor farm (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

There is something in summer that makes the English countryside unique and impossible to match. I stayed overnight in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, on the northern fringes of Lichfield, with a room looking out over the rolling countryside of South Staffordshire.

I am on my way to the residential meeting of the trustees and council of the Anglican mission agency USPG in Swanwick, Derbyshire, and after attending the Cathedral Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral on Sunday morning [5 June 2016] I decided to take a long walk through the countryside between Lichfield and Tamworth.

It might be wrong to even describe Comberford as a village. It has no shop, it has no post office, it has no pub, and the small church was closed a few years ago to the dismay of many of the people who live in Comberford.

But this place has the feeling of ancestral heartland, and its landscape has called out to generations of my family, even if there have been misunderstandings in the past about the family’s origins and where the family came from.

I first visited Comberford almost 50 years ago, in 1970. But there is no reason for outsiders to want to visit Comberford. It is rural England at its best, but it is nowhere. The road north from Tamworth leads on to Elford and Burton on Trent, but you have to want to go to Comberford to get there.

And even then, the directions can be distracting.

Comberford Hall seen in the summer sunshine this afternoon, with lands sweeping down to the banks of the River Tame (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The first indication – although there is no signpost – that you have reached Comberford is the driveway leading up to Comberford Hall, the ancestral home of the Comberford family that my great-grandfather visited over a century ago, while the Peel family were living there.

Today, Comberford Hall is gated and inaccessible. The few neighbouring houses clustered around it are part of a centuries-old complex, but they are isolated from the rest of the village.

Welcome to Comberford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

About half a mile further north, a smallsign indicates that Comberford itself is a little to the west off the main road, squeezed between the road to Elford on one hand, and the railway line and the River Tame on the other.

In the beautiful, warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon sunshine, I made my way down Tollgate Lane to Comberford itself. It is such a small part of Lichfield District that it is not an administrative unit in itself – it is a part of Wigginton and Hopwas.

On Sunday afternoon, people were out washing their cars, cutting their lawns, or basking in the sunshine.

Comberford Manor farmhouse … built perhaps on the site of the original home of the Comberford family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

After walking around the deserted and desolate abandoned Church of Saint Mary and Saint George, and spending a little time in Comberford Millennium Green, I walked to the end of Manor Lane, where Comberford Manor farmhouse may be the original heart of the Comberford estate, and still stands at the centre of the principal farming activities in Comberford.

The house looks out onto fields and farmland, with the railway line and the River Tame within view.

The green and golden fields at Comberford in summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

One of the unique aspects of the countryside in England is the way in which footpaths are marked out for the rambler, the stroller and the walker. I walked through acre after acre of green and yellow countryside, along clearly marked footpaths, without meeting anyone. There was no-one to ask me my name, who I was, or what I was doing walking through this green-and-gold open countryside.

Walking through the fields and farmland at Comberford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

I have walked through this landscape countless times since I was a teenager. And on Sunday afternoon the only sounds I could hear were birdsong and trains in the distance running between Tamworth and Lichfield Trent Valley.

Many years ago, I was pointed to a depression in a field, and told that this was the site of the original Comberford Hall. But people who grew up in Comberford in the 1950s and 1960s believe this was caused by a stray bomb in earlier decades. I now think that Comberford Manor is probably the original site of Comberford Hall, and that the village has grown up over the centuries around the site of the original settlement.

The drive leading to Comberford Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

It was hard to leave such inviting terrain. Eventually, I walked back down the drive at Comberford Hall, and walked along the main road, past Orchard Cottage and back to Tollgate Lane, half a mile from Comberford village.

There is something in the soul and the heart that calls us back not just to ancestral places with their buildings and the houses with which we share names, but to the soil itself, the open fields, the trees and shrubs and the landscape. And it is easier to answer that call when the sun is shining and we return weather-beaten from the very soil that nurtured our ancestors.

The soil and the landscape call us back and back again (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Discovering an unusual religious
minority on a street in Lichfield

The Christadelphian Hall or ecclesia on Station Road, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

While I was researching my recent blog postings about Philip Larkin and the poems he wrote in Lichfield, I found myself on Station Road for the first time in many years, and for the first time noticed the small, redbrick Christadelphian Hall.

I have only ever known one former Christadelphian, and I started asking myself who are the Christadelphians, are they Christians, and when did they first come to Lichfield.

As a cathedral city, most visitors to Lichfield think of Lichfield Cathedral when it comes to thinking about places of worship, and was there this morning for the Choral Eucharist. But there are other Anglican churches throughout the city that are places of historical and liturgical interest, including Saint Mary’s, Saint Chad’s, Saint Michael’s, Christ Church and the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital.

Lichfield has a number of churches representing other traditions too. There are two Roman Catholic churches that form one parish in Lichfield: Holy Cross Church on Upper Saint John Street and Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s Church on Dimbles Hill.

The Quaker George Fox first visited Lichfield in 1651.In 1672, five houses in Lichfield were licensed for Presbyterian worship. The Congregationalists met in Tunstalls Yard in 1790, grew into the United Reformed Church in Wade Street, which is now both a United Reform and Baptist church.

Wade Street Church in Lichfield brings together the stories of the Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist traditions in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Although John Wesley visited the Lichfield area in 1755 and 1756, and again in 1777, he did not preach here.

A Wesleyan chapel in Lombard Street was registered in 1813 and was built in 1814 or 1815. A new chapel opened in Tamworth Street in 1892. The former chapel was in Lombard Street was 1980 sold it to the Jehovah’s Witnesses to use as their Kingdom Hall in 1980.

There was another Wesleyan chapel in Wade Street from about 1815, and from 1826 the New Connexion Methodists used a chapel in Sandford Street that had been used previously by the Congregationalists. They later moved to Queen Street but their chapel was sold in 1859, the congregation having disbanded. The Primitive Methodists also had a chapel in George Lane. This closed in 1934 and was a Salvation Army hall for some years.

A Pentecostalist church met in 1961-1969 in George Lane until 1969, when the Emmanuel Pentecostal church opened in Netherstowe. It later became the Emmanuel Christian Centre, and is now known as the Life Church.

On the fringes or the edges of Christianity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have met in Lichfield since at least 1956, and now have their Kingdom Hall in the former Methodist chapel on Lombard Street. They are a familiar site with the their stalls on the corner of the Market Place or on the sidestreets leading to the bus station.

There has been a Mormon or Latter Day Saint presence in Lichfield since 1861, when they had a meeting room in Sandford Street. The present Mormon church in Purcell Avenue was registered in 1972, and from 1972 to 1977, the Mormons’ English headquarters was in Lichfield.

However, the one of the less well-known groups in Lichfield may be the Christadelphians, with their small ‘ecclesia’ or church on Station Road, which blends in with the neighbouring redbrick houses and goes almost unnoticed by many despite its proximity to the centre of Lichfield.

Saint Chad’s School, Beacon Street, where the headmistress was forced to resign in 1870 because of her Christadelphian beliefs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The story of the Christadelphian presence in Lichfield dates back almost a century and a half to 1870, when the recently appointed headmistress of Saint Chad’s School on Beacon Street was forced to resign because of her Christadelphian beliefs.

A few years later, Thomas Sykes, who had formed a small Christadelphian community at Bourton on the Water in Gloucestershire, moved to Lichfield in 1874.

By 1885 eight Christadelphians were meeting in each other’s houses, and in 1890 a meeting room was opened above Thomas Sykes’s shop in Tamworth Street.

In 1902, the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Canon CN Bolton, denounced the Christadelphians as heretical. At the subsequent public meeting, the Christadelphians of Lichfield defended their beliefs. Their numbers increased, and from 1903 meetings were held in Saint James’s Hall in Bore Street.

After Saint James’s Hall was converted into a cinema in 1912, the group of over 40 Christadelphians in Lichfield built their own hall in Station Road. It opened in 1914 and was extended in 1959. The Christadelphians still meet there on Sundays to this day.

There are over 300 Christadelphian ecclesias in Britain and Ireland, and there are about 50,000 Christadelphians around the world. They resist calling their buildings churches, they are not part of Churches Together in Lichfield or other ecumenical groups, and some people ask whether they are Christians.

The Christadelphians are a millenarian religious group who are Unitarian in their systems of beliefs. The movement developed in England and in the US in the 19th century in response to the ideas and teachings of John Thomas (1805-1871), a surgeon from London who coined the name Christadelphian from the Greek for “Brethren in Christ.”

Christadelphians differ from mainstream Christianity in a number of doctrinal areas. They reject the Trinity and deny the immortality of the soul, believing these to be corruptions of original Christian teaching. Many of them are pacifists, and they generally avoid taking part in politics, the police and the army.

They held their most recent conference last week in the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, and coincidentally I am travelling there from Lichfield later today for the annual residential meeting of the trustees and council members of the Anglican mission agency USPG.

Christadelphian congregations traditionally use the name ‘ecclesia,’ from the New Testament Greek ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), meaning assembly or church, and they resist using the word ‘church’ because of its association with mainstream Christianity. To this day the Christadelphian building on Station Road in Lichfield, which I noticed on a recent sunny afternoon, is known as the Christadelphian Hall or ecclesia.