The city of Lichfield, Staffordshire

Defying the winter weather, Mike Smith crosses the county line in pursuit of strawberries and cream...

For this month’s walkabout, I have crossed into Staffordshire and headed for Lichfield, the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson, the famous lexicographer and man of letters. Johnson often made the same journey in reverse, in order to meet up with his lifelong friend, Dr John Taylor, who lived in Ashbourne. During his visits to Derbyshire, he got to know and love his neighbouring county. In a letter of 1771, he wrote, ‘Let not the barren name of the Peak terrify you; I have never wanted for strawberries and cream.’

Hoping to repay these complimentary remarks about Derbyshire, I set off from a small car park in Beacon Street to explore the city where Johnson was born. On my way to the cathedral, I was confronted by a ghostly eighteenth-century figure looking out of the first-floor window of a beautiful Palladian mansion. This was not Dr Johnson checking up on me, but a very white, life-size effigy of Erasmus Darwin, who lived in the house from 1757 to 1780.

Erasmus was a noted physician and also had an extensive knowledge of botany, physics, chemistry, geology and meteorology. He was a founder member of the Lunar Society, a group of innovators, which included James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood, that met for discussions on the nearest Monday to the full moon, so that their journey home would be illuminated. Far from being lunatics, these men were a driving force behind the industrial and scientific revolutions of the time. For his part, Erasmus came up with early ideas on evolution, which would be fully developed and given scientific credence by his grandson, Charles Darwin.

The Palladian mansion, now known as Erasmus Darwin House, contains a collection of some of the earliest writings on evolution, together with many other fascinating displays in newly refurbished exhibition spaces. Behind the house there is a beautiful herb garden, whose aromatic attractions are matched by its wonderful setting in a walled enclosure that is surrounded by half-timbered buildings and overlooked by the graceful western spires of Lichfield Cathedral.

The approach to the cathedral along the adjacent street is stunning, not only because the great west front unfolds gradually as the road approaches the cathedral close, but also because the street is flanked by superb buildings, with stone-built Newton’s College on one side and brick-built houses, with their entrances raised above street-level, on the other side. The road terminates in a half-timbered building, where the view suddenly opens up to reveal a quintessentially English cathedral close, with a harmonious mixture of fine buildings from many different periods.

The west front of the cathedral is awesome. Two graceful spires soar above tier upon tier of statues, including figures of prophets, angels,saints, bishops and 24 kings of England. The fact that most of the 113 statues are nineteenth-century replacements of the originals cannot detract from the amazing detail on the life-like sculptures and the overall beauty of the fa�ade – quite possibly, the most magnificent west front in England.

Most Read

I was welcomed into the cathedral by Meryl Hewitson-Groves, one of 400 volunteers who give their time to this great church. As well as being an official ‘welcomer’, Meryl sings in the choir and is treasurer of the Flower Guild. Her husband, 92-year-old George, is a multi-tasking assistant verger and the oldest of all the volunteers. Meryl offered to show me three of the cathedral’s greatest treasures and to tell me about a fourth, which is currently under wraps.

In the Chapter House, I was shown the Lichfield Angel, an Anglo-Saxon carving found during excavations below the east end, and the Chad Gospel, an eighth-century manuscript containing the entire Gospels of Matthew and Mark and part of Luke’s Gospel. Moving to the south aisle, we stood silently before Sir Francis Chantrey’s tender memorial to two young sisters, who are shown asleep in each other’s arms. The fourth of the cathedral’s most prized treasures is hidden at the present time because it is being restored. It comprises 400 panels of sixteenth-century painted glass, brought to the cathedral in 1803 from Herkenrode Abbey in Belgium, by Sir Brooke Boothby of Ashbourne Hall (famously painted by Joseph Wright of Derby). It is said to be the finest Renaissance glass in England.

The road leading into the city centre from the cathedral is known as Dam Street. It runs past the Minster Pool, from where there is a superb overall view of the cathedral, which is the only medieval cathedral in England with three spires, thanks to the re-building of the central spire, which was destroyed in a fierce battle in the Civil War.

An inscription on Brooke House recalls that the original spire served as a vantage point for a Royalist sniper who shot dead Lord Brooke as he surveyed the action from Dam Street.

This fine street also contains the site of Dame Oliver’s School, where Johnson was a pupil, and there is a coffee house named after another famous Lichfield resident, David Garrick, the Shakespearian actor. A shop known as ‘The Place’, which occupies two separate premises on Dam Street, is a wonderful emporium that is packed with gifts, crafts, cards, decorations, fabrics and hand-made paper. Most of its goods are made locally or bought from Fairtrade sources by the owners, Yorkshire-born Paula Smith and her Scottish-born husband David, who have lived in Lichfield for over 30 years.

Dam Street’s bookshop, housed in a building that dates back to 1500, has been drawing bibliophiles into its warren of book-filled rooms for 70 years. The present owners, Tony Slater and his step-daughter Stephanie Hawkins, a 29-year-old English graduate, are looking to sell the business, but they fervently hope that it will remain a bookshop. On an equally old building, in an alley known as Quonians, there is a sign inscribed ‘R Bridgeman & Sons, architectural and ecclesiastical craftsmen in wood and stone’. The business has now been acquired by the Linford Group, who still work on restoration projects and are a reminder of the tradition of local craftsmanship that produced those wonderful statues on the west front of the cathedral.

Dam Street leads into the Market Square, a large open space that is framed on one side by St Mary’s Church. A large part of the church is now used as the Lichfield Heritage Centre, comprising: displays of chalices, goblets and various other treasures of ecclesiastical, civic and military origin; the Staffordshire Millennium embroideries, which were designed and created by Sylvia Everitt; a collection of 6,000 photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and several tableaux that bring the history of the city to life. There are discovery trails for young visitors and two audio-visual presentations: one covering the Civil War and the other spanning 2,000 years of Lichfield history.

St Mary’s was described by Pevsner as ‘a stately Victorian building with a steeple that holds its own against the spires of the cathedral’. According to gift shop manager Marguerite Barber, first-time visitors arriving in Lichfield from the south are often fooled by that lofty spire into believing that St Mary’s is the city’s cathedral. However, she is happy to put them right by offering them the opportunity of ascending the steeple for a grandstand view of the real cathedral.

Within the Market Square, there are statues of Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell. Johnson’s monument stands close to his birthplace, an imposing early eighteenth-century house with a recessed ground floor decorated with Tuscan columns. Now known as the Birthplace Museum and Bookshop, the building has five floors of imaginative displays devoted to the life and times of the great man. The story is also told in a series of delightful quotations scattered throughout the house. When Johnson was asked to account for his encyclopedic knowledge, he said, ‘Sir, in my early years I read very hard; I knew almost as much at eighteen as I do now.’ On the completion of his dictionary, he remarked, somewhat immodestly, ‘I knew very well what I was undertaking and very well how to do it, and have done it very well.’

David Titley, who was on duty at the time of my visit, told me that Johnson finished his dictionary in 1755, by which time his wife had died and he was almost ruined financially, and would remain so until George III granted him a pension in 1762. The house, which was built in 1707, was inherited by Johnson from his father when he was just 21. To commemorate the building’s 300th anniversary, David wrote and directed a series of dramatic monologues spoken by actors stationed on the various floors of the building.

Johnson met many of his friends in the Swan Inn, now converted into apartments and a restaurant. The former inn is situated in Bird Street, near to the George Hotel, described by Pevsner as ‘one of the best late eighteenth-century buildings in the land’. Bird Street forms a junction with Market Street, which runs westward from the Market Square and is lined with a variety of retail outlets. Breadmarket Street, adjoining the eastern end of Market Street, contains the birthplace of Elias Ashmole, founder of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum – Lichfield has been the home of so many great men!

Conduit Street connects Market Square to Bore Street, where the red-brick, eighteenth-century Donegal House and the stone-built, nineteenth-century Guildhall stand side-by-side. On the day of my visit, the Guildhall was hosting a show of superb hand-crafted photographic collages by Bob Russon and a collection of very accomplished, highly atmospheric paintings by Carole Baker. Both artists live locally, but, somewhat surprisingly, take most of their inspiration from coastal locations.

Lichfield’s excellent shopping area extends along Bore Street into Baker’s Lane, which evolves into the Three Spires Shopping Centre. An arcade leads to a large square that is overlooked by the Lichfield Garrick Theatre, built in 2003 on the site of the old Civic Hall. Although this uncompromisingly modern structure is located in a position where it does not detract from the beauty of Lichfield’s Tudor and Georgian buildings, the theatre’s massive multi-gabled fa�ade, with its complex collage of rectangular windows, square grids and tile-hung panels, is seen by some as an inappropriate intrusion, but I love it!

The building contains a main theatre, equipped to host opera, ballet and musicals, as well as a studio theatre for more intimate and experimental productions. In addition, there are four levels of gallery space, a bar and a caf�. As home to the Lichfield Garrick Rep Company, the Lichfield Players, the Young Rep Company and the Garrick Rep School of Acting for 11 to 19 year olds, the Garrick is more than entitled to carry the name of the great Shakespearian actor.

The ground floor of the building contains a tourist information centre, staffed by tourist officers who are rightly enthusiastic about the many charms of their city. They suggested that I should return to Bore Street via Tudor Row, a shop-lined alleyway that would bring me to The Tudor of Lichfield, a restaurant and chocolate shop housed in a beautiful half-timbered building dating from 1510. The Tudor’s chocolatiers boast that they can, and do, make almost anything in chocolate, from chess sets, golf clubs, mobile phones and computers to replicas of several cathedrals, including Lichfield, of course.

One of the specialities in their restaurant is Strawberry Surprise, comprising strawberries and clotted cream, covered with strawberry sauce, fresh cream, coloured sprinkles and a chocolate and sugar curl. Like Dr Johnson on his visits to Derbyshire, I never wanted for strawberries and cream during my trip to Lichfield!

TOP TIPS FOR A VISIT TO LICHFIELD• The great three-spired Cathedral with its many treasures and fabulous west front.• The house of Erasmus Darwin, celebrated polymath and grandfather of Charles Darwin.• Samuel Johnson’s Birthplace and Bookshop, which tells the story of the lexicographer’s life and times.• The Lichfield Heritage Centre, with its tableaux and discovery trails for families.• The Garrick Theatre: a state-of-the-art theatre with productions to suit all ages and tastes. • The Tudor restaurant and chocolate shop – “We can, and do, make almost anything in chocolate”.

Comments powered by Disqus