16 February 2018

A sad blow to an elegant
Regency hotel in Lichfield

A concrete column has collapsed at St John’s House after a car crashed into it early on Thursday morning (Photograph: Jennifer Latham, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

During my regular returns visits to Lichfield, I stay in many places, particularly in the hedgehog Vintage Inn on Stafford Road, where I stayed last month, and St John’s House, where I stayed shortly before Christmas and where I am planning to stay again in April, when I am speaking at the monthly lecture programme organised by Lichfield Civic Society.

I was recommending both places to a friend this week, shortly before I heard the news that St John’s House was badly damaged early yesterday morning [15 February 2018] when a car crashed into the front of it.

The red Ford Fiesta crashed into the classical-style columns supporting the portico at the hotel just after 1.30 am on Thursday, causing one of the columns to collapse and causing serious damage to a second column.

Police told the Lichfield Mercury that the car had driven out of Wade Street across St John Street and straight into this elegant, boutique hotel.

The male driver (33), from the Lichfield area, was arrested at the scene and was taken into custody. The Ford Fiesta was removed. The lane of St John Street immediately in front of the hotel was closed while the damage is assessed.

The owner of St John’s House, Dan Ralley, said: ‘I was called at 2.30a m and told a car had gone into the hotel head-on. The damage is huge – but I suppose the columns did their job. The car could have gone through a window.’

Later, he posted on the hotel’s Instagram page: ‘To all the drink drivers out there, one of your people has caused thousands of pounds worth of damage to our house and business that we have poured our life into. Thank God, no lives were taken, including the perpetrator. There never is and never will be a need or a reason to drink and drive, please pack it in.’

On his Facebook page, the previous proprietor, Johann Popp, described it as ‘a really sad day for me, I spent weeks restoring these columns with lime mortar.’ He added that, coincidently, ‘six years ago today I was awarded five AA stars!’

St John’s House … the four-bay colonnade is said to replicate the columns of the Tower of the Winds in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I first stayed in St John’s House eight years ago in March 2010, and I was interested to learn during my stay there at the end of November that the four-bay colonnade at the façade, which was severely damaged this week, is said to replicate the columns on the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

St John’s House is an interesting Regency or Georgian house and one of the oldest houses in the centre of Lichfield. It is a listed grade II* Georgian house, and has been listed since 1952.

Unusually for a house of this age, and despite two restorations in recent decades, it still has many of its original features – including the butler’s pantry (now the reception area), the servant’s bell pulls, the staircases, and the larder with the original pegs for hanging game.

The renovations and restorations have been entirely faithful to the original plans for the house, and any alterations have used modern materials to show the evolution of the house for future generations.

Johann and Sarah Popp bought the house in July 2003. At the time, they felt it was an extravagant outlay, and so they decided to finance their purchase by opening the house for bed and breakfast. Johann already had a passion for renovating Georgian and Victorian houses, using traditional methods. They planned to open for business within two years, and began renovating the house using traditional methods.

However, they soon realised that the house needed new drains, a new roof, there was a parapet wall that needed to be replaced, with fears it could collapse on pedestrians walking by below on Saint John’s Street.

After visiting German relatives were overheard describing the house as the ‘Ice Hotel,’ Johann realised the central heating system needed replacing too. In addition, all of the electrics had to be replaced, and for the first two years the girls’ toilets – where one cubicle had been turned into a shower – served as the only bathroom in the house.

Now the house has been totally transformed. Traditional and natural materials were used, such as lime, horse hair, reclaimed glass and wood – along with blood, sweat and a few tears!

St John’s House is a treasure trove. During his work on the house, Johann Popp came across many interesting items, including the original living room mantelpiece that had been buried in the garden. The former billiards room still has the old billiard cue holder in the corner and also has a Victorian open fireplace for winter months.

Part or all of St Johns House incorporates the former Bear Inn. During the renovations, hundreds of oyster shells were found in the garden, indicating the house was an inn at the time when oysters were eaten in large quantities in public houses.

The Bear Inn first appears in local records in Lichfield in 1698 and it is marked on maps of Lichfield since at least 1766. It stood opposite the entrance to Throgmorton Street, now known as Frog Lane.

The Bear Inn was one served by one of three Lichfield stage coach services. Giles Tottingham ran the Lichfield Flying Wagon from Anglesey in North Wales to London, using the Bear Inn as a staging post. The journey took only four days, and so the Bear Inn was once an important stage on the journey between Dublin and London in the 18th century.

Neighbouring inns and public houses in Saint John Street included the Lord Nelson and the Robin Hood, which stood on either corner of Frog Lane, opposite the Bear Inn. The Lord Nelson was incorporated into Lichfield Grammar School as part of the living accommodation in the mid-19th century, and later passed to Lichfield District Council; the Robin Hood was levelled within the last two decades.

The four-bay colonnade on the ground floor has columns modelled on those of the Tower of the Winds in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

When the Bear Inn ceased being a pub around 1815, the house was renovated extensively in the Regency style. The portico, with its columns and pillared cove, dates from this time. The site British Listed Buildings says the four-bay colonnade on the ground floor has columns modelled on those of the Tower of the Winds in Athens, with three pairs and a single columns to the ends, a frieze with wreaths over the columns and a cornice with a blocking course.

Other features from this time include the decorative stucco façade, including the pedimented windows on the first floor, where I was staying in the Victoria Room, and much of the cornicing and plaster-work.

The south wing was added in Victorian times, along with the stables, and some fireplaces upstairs were replaced. William East Holmes, who owned St Johns House in 1849, probably built the stables and one of the rooms in the stables is named after him.

Later, the house was owned by Frederick Simmonds, an iron merchant, and then by Archdeacon John Allen, the Master of Saint John’s Hospital, which is only a few doors away. He was followed by Mrs Susan Coyney, a Mrs Young, a Major Matthews, and Mrs Louisa Dawson, a haberdasher.

In 1902, a local colliery proprietor named Peake owned St John’s House. It was renamed Peake House and the Peake family lived here for over 50 years with their daughters.

Saint John’s Preparatory School was housed here from about 1958, but the school moved to Longdon Green in the early years of this century.

The colonnade at St Johns House, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Dan and Elly Ralley acquired St Johns House in August 2012. Having fallen in love with the building, they set about bringing the building back to life. This includes a rear extension, which is now the Pavilion Room, acting as the main function room at the house.

They have taken great care in restoring the features of the house and have combined contemporary furnishings with classic antiques to create a very stylish, warm and friendly place to stay. Elly is a self-trained chef with a real flair for home cooked cuisine which is very popular with customers, and Dan and the team run the place from a front of house perspective.

The accommodation includes 12 individually styled bedrooms, of which 11 are doubles and one is a single; eight are located in the main house and four in the stables across the courtyard from the main house. Many of the Victorian features have been restored, including the fireplaces and the encaustic tiles, perhaps by Craven Dunnill.

The damage to the columns and portico at St John’s House this week (Photograph: Lichfield Mercury/Birmingham Mail, 2018)

The names of the rooms reflect the history of the house, including Francis, Coyney, Tottingham, Holmes, Peake, Simmonds and St John’s Suite, as well as the Terrace, and the Victoria, Peacock, Cottage and Garden rooms. When I arrived on my most recent visit, Dan immediately upgraded me from the Holmes Room to the Victoria Room, with a view onto Saint John Street at the junction with Frog Lane.

I hope this week’s catastrophe is only a temporary setback, that the portico and columns can be restored to their original splendour, and that I can stay there again when I return in April.

St Johns House Bed & Breakfast is located on Saint John Street in Lichfield and further information can be found at http://www.stjohnshouse.co.uk/. St Johns House can be contacted at: 01543 252 080.

Hopefully the damaged columns and portico can be restored soon after this week’s incident (Photograph: St John’s House)

Following the Stations
of the Cross in Lent 3:
Longford 1, Jesus is
condemned to death

Station 1 in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford … Jesus is condemned to death (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each morning in Lent, as part of my meditations and reflections for Lent this year, I am being guided by the Stations of the Cross from three locations.

The idea for this series of morning Lenten meditations came from reading about Peter Walker’s new exhibition, ‘Imagining the Crucifixion,’ inspired by the Stations of the Cross, which opened in Lichfield Cathedral the day before yesterday, Ash Wednesday [14 February 2018], and continues throughout Lent.

Throughout Lent, my meditations each morning are inspired by three sets of Stations of the Cross that I have found either inspiring or unusual. They are the stations in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, at Saint John’s Well on a mountainside near Millstreet, Co Cork, and in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

In my meditations, I am drawing on a portion of the Stabat Mater, the 12th century hymn of the Crucifixion (‘At the cross her station keeping’) attributed to the Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi. Some prayers are traditional, some are from the Book of Common Prayer, and other meditations and prayers are by Canon Frank Logue and the Revd Victoria Logue of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia.

For the next two weeks, I am looking at the 14 Stations of the Cross in Saint Mel’s Cathedral, Longford, sculpted by Ken Thompson in Bath stone with chisel and mallet, with lettering inspired by the work of Eric Gill and haloes picked out in gold leaf.

He uses blue to give a background dimension that works almost like a shadow in itself, impelling the foreground figures into greater relief. The 24-carat gold leaf haloes establish not only the central image of Christ and also those of his mother or disciples.

Rather than using the traditional title for each station, the text at the foot of each panel is allusive. He has chosen two lines of scripture for each panel, cut them in lettering inspired by Eric Gill, and highlighted them in terracotta.

Station 1, Jesus is condemned to death

In this station, Christ is central figure, standing by a pillar in Pilate’s Court – perhaps this is the pillar at which he has been scourged, but the arches on each side give it a shape that reminds us that we are on the way to the Cross. Christ is holding a reed or rod in his hand, has a simple robe over his shoulders and has a crown of thorns on his head, all part of the ritual in which he was mocked and scorned after being brought before Pilate (Matthew 27; 28-30; Mark 16: 17; John 19: 2; cf Luke 23: 11).

Behind him, three figures are pushing him forward to face trial. Perhaps they stand in contrast to the three Wise Men who visited Christ at his birth.

Pilate is seated, washing his hands (see Matthew 27: 24) in a bowl held up by servile, kneeling slave. Pilate’s wife looks over his shoulder, as if to warn him not to be involved in this process, but by holding a towel over arm she indicates that she too is party to what is happening, however reluctant she may be (see Matthew 27: 19).

On the pavement below, are the initials INRI (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews,’ the inscription that Pilate had written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek and put on the Cross (John 19: 19).

Beside this Latin acronym, Thompson has carved a fish: the Greek acronym ΙΧΘΥΣ (ιχθυσ (ichthus) means fish and was the fish was used by early, persecuted Christians to symbolise the phrase Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).

The inscription in terracotta capital letters below the panel reads: ‘Truth Pilate Said To Jesus What is Truth’ – Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18: 38).

From Stabat Mater:

Lord Jesus, crucified, have mercy on us!
At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful Mother weeping,
Close to Jesus to the last.


Betrayed. Deserted. Alone. Jesus stands before an unjust judge. Dry palm branches crackle under the feet of the crowd. Soldiers rain down punches and crown him with thorns. Jesus is condemned to die.


Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world, you knew no sin and yet were sentenced to death. Assist me by your mercy to see the beam in my own eye and to remove it before I look to the speck in the eyes of others. This we pray in the name of Jesus, our crucified Lord, the King of Glory, the King of Peace. Amen.

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.
Because by your holy cross You have redeemed the world.

Jesus, you stand all alone before Pilate. Nobody speaks up for you. Nobody helps defend you. You devoted your entire life to helping others, listening to the smallest ones, caring for those who were ignored by others. They do not seem to remember that as they prepare to put you to death.

My Jesus, often have I signed the death warrant by my sins; save me by your death from that eternal death which I have so often deserved.

A prayer before walking to the next station:

Holy God,
Holy and mighty Holy immortal one,
Have mercy on us.

Tomorrow: Station 2: Jesus accepts his Cross.

Yesterday’s reflection

The Ichthus symbol remains discreetly unnoticed in the pebble mosaic of a courtyard in the former Church of the Annunciation in Kaş in southern Turkey … the church has been converted into a mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)