Over to our right as we drove down the A38, the three graceful spires of Lichfield’s cathedral brought about a change of plan. As we had never been to Lichfield and were not in any hurry, we decided to make a diversion as Michelin Guides would have it, and spend a couple of hours exploring this historic city.
Even though it wasn’t early closing day, the city centre was almost deserted and we had no trouble finding parking space, which made us wonder, had we missed some unexpected disaster? But no, according to a local we chanced to ask, the place is usually quiet mid-week; even weekends don’t seem to attract all that many visitors. More’s the pity, because from the short time we spent there, Lichfield has plenty to offer, especially when one delves into its bygone history.
Although it is a city with around 32,219 population, technically Lichfield is classed as a civil parish, one of only eight in England with city status. Notable for its three-spired medieval cathedral, it was the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first authoritative Dictionary of the English Language. The city’s recorded history began when Chad of Mercia arrived to establish his Bishopric in 669AD. In 2009, the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest find of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, was found in a field to the south-west of Lichfield.
The city’s development was consolidated in the 12th century when Roger de Clinton fortified the Cathedral Close, laying out the town in a street pattern that survives to this day. Lichfield’s heyday was in the 18th century, when it developed into a thriving coaching city, serving routes between London, Birmingham and the North. This was a period of great intellectual activity, the city being the home of many famous people including Samuel Johnson, Erasmus Darwin grandfather of Charles Darwin, exponent of the theory of evolution and Anna Seward, eighteenth century romantic poet, known as the Swan of Lichfield.
The town centre with its varied selection of independent shops and small restaurants is built around its ancient market place where Samuel Johnson’s birthplace stands on one corner. Because of its importance as an ecclesiastical centre, industrial and commercial development has been limited, saving the original heart of the city, but without it looking ‘twee’. There are at least 230 listed buildings, mostly in the city centre.
Samuel Johnson was born on 18th September 1709 at the home of his bookseller father and his wife Sarah. The white painted three-storied house stands in Breadmarket Street on a corner of the old market square, overlooking a statue of Britain’s first lexicographer – dictionary compiler. The house has been converted into a museum in memory of Johnson who was a man of many talents, being also an actor, poet and journalist. The house has been left very much as it was in his lifetime, with pride of place given to a collection of first editions of his Dictionary of the English Language, compiled in 1755.
Johnson was something of a wit and his dictionaries are famous for the quirky entries he made; for example the entry for oats reads as follows:
A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
A narrow passageway with barely enough room for two people to pass, leads away from the square. Beyond a small car park at its far end, the view of the triple-spired cathedral opens above an attractive pond, the Minster Pool, home for several varieties of ducks and swans. The first cathedral was built on the present site in 700AD by Bishop Headda to house the bones of St Chad; they had become the centre of a sacred shrine the veneration of many pilgrims when he died in 672AD. The burial in the cathedral of the kings of Mercia, Wulfhere in 674 and Ceolred in 716, further increased the city’s prestige. In 786 King Offa made the city an archbishopric with authority over all bishops from the Humber to the River Thames: his first appointee was Archbishop Hygeberht. After King Offa’s death in 795, Lichfield’s power waned, but in 803 the primacy was restored to Canterbury by Pope Leo III after only 16 years.
During the 9th century, Mercia was devastated by attacks from Danish Vikings. As Lichfield was un-walled, the Vikings had little difficulty in sacking the place and burning the cathedral. For safety the then Bishop Peter moved the see to the fortified and wealthier Chester in 1075. At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Lichfield is recorded as being held by the Bishop of Chester; Lichfield was classed as a small village. It took until 1195 for work to begin on restoring the cathedral, raising the magnificent Gothic structure that drew our eyes as we drove down the A38.
It was Bishop de Clinton who was responsible for transforming the scattered settlements to the south of Minster Pool, creating the ‘ladder plan’ layout of streets existing today. Market Street, Wade Street, Bore Street and Frog Lane linked Dam Street, Conduit Street and Baker’s Lane on one side with Bird Street and St John Street on the other. Bishop de Clinton also fortified the cathedral close with a bank and ditch.
In 1387 Richard II gave the town its charter, allowing for the foundation of a guild dedicated to St Mary and St John the Baptist; this guild functioned as the seat of local government.
The policies of Henry VIII had a dramatic effect on Lichfield’s prosperity. The Reformation brought about the disappearance of pilgrim traffic following the destruction of St Chad’s shrine in 1538, which was a major loss to the city’s economy. That year the Franciscan Friary was dissolved, the site becoming a private estate. Things seemed to be looking up when Edward VI incorporated the town, making it a city. However, further economic decline followed the outbreak of plague in 1593, which killed over a third of the entire population.
In the Middle Ages, Lichfield’s main industry was making woollen cloth; there was also a thriving leather industry. Both industries were supported by farming based on open pasture in the surrounding area. By the 18th century, Lichfield became a busy coaching centre. Inns and hostelries grew to provide accommodation, and also industries dependent on the coaching trade, such as coach builders, corn and hay merchants, saddlers and tanneries began to thrive. Much of this coach-based economy went into decline when the railway network linked the city to the rest of the country. All that is left of this one-time prosperity are the graceful Georgian town houses and inns scattered around the city centre. In their midst are even older buildings, such as the black and white Tudor Café built in 1510.
A short passage off the cathedral close leads to a pleasant garden surrounded by elegant Georgian town houses. This is where, in the late eighteenth century Lichfield became the meeting place of great thinkers and inventors of the day. Founding what is still known as the ‘Lunar Society’, they met on the night of the full moon to discuss philosophical matters and expand theories of scientific interest.
The house which is open to the public, was owned by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin. Poet, inventor and botanist. It is a little known fact that he also published his theory of evolution, 60 years before his grandson, but his work never received the acknowledgement given to the younger Darwin.
Industrialists such as Matthew Bolton and James Watt, inventors of steam engines, Josiah Wedgewood, father of English fine pottery, James Keir who invented affordable soap, William Murdoch who used coal gas to provide illumination, all met with the likes of Matthew Bolton the industrialist and Joseph Priestly the scientist who first isolated oxygen and discovered carbon dioxide. Mathematician William Small, philosopher and mentor of the young Thomas Jefferson who became the third President of the United States of America was also a member, along with Doctor William Withering, a botanist who worked on early methods of curing heart disease by the use of digitalis – extract of foxglove. Many of the papers produced by these great men are on display along with models of their inventions in the museum dedicated to their memory.
There are several parks and open spaces in and around Lichfield, the most accessible to visitors to the city centre is the open space around the cathedral, where trees overhanging Minster Pool and its neighbour Stowe Pool create shade for the waterside paths. The Garrick Theatre built in 2003 commemorates the life of David Garrick (1717-1779), actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer who was born in Lichfield.
The Triennial Lichfield Mysteries claims to be the biggest community theatre event in the country and takes place in the Cathedral and Market Place. It consists of a cycle of 24 medieval-style plays involving over 600 amateur actors. Other weekend summer festivals include the Lichfield Folk Festival and the Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz and Blues Festival.