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1st September 2020

By Tony Grist - Photographer's own files, Public Domain,

Arnold Bennett opens his 1908 novel Old Wives’ Tale describing the “natural, simple county” surrounding his Five Towns – a quiet countryside containing “everything that England has”, from hideous industry to Arcadian tranquillity. Staffordshire, he emotes, “is England in little, lost in the midst of England, unsung” – and all the better for being unsung. Seven decades later, Henry Thorold restated the syndrome in his Shell Guide to Staffordshire

'Except to the initiated, Staffordshire remains a mystery. Even to the initiated it reveals its secrets slowly…Its cathedral is under-estimated, its parish churches unknown. Its castles are unheard of, its great houses and gardens too little visited.'

As in 1908 and 1978, so still.

Part of the ‘problem’ is physical geography. Staffordshire is landlocked, its boundaries marked by rivers in the north and east but elsewhere less obvious, surrounded by more celebrated counties, and at its southern end eliding into industrial West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton, that tranche subsumed in 1974 into the bland new ‘West Midlands’. Insofar as Staffordshire impinges on wider awareness, it is often in unedifying connection with Stoke-on-Trent, long sadly synonymous with mismanaged decline, or the Alton Towers theme park. But this underrated “England in little” has made many contributions to England in big.

Below the industrial and post-industrial, the county is quietly rural, sometimes archaically so. Palaeolithic axes, bone tools, Neolithic barrows, Bronze Age jewellery, and hill-forts suggest human habitation predated the last Ice Age. The dominant Celtic tribe was the Cornovii (probably meaning “People of the Horned One”), and they resisted Romans pushing slowly north through forbidding terrain, its gloomy physicality suggested by the Romans’ name for Lichfield – Letocetum, derived from a Celtic word meaning “grey wood”. “People of the Horned One” rings true as ethno-descriptor, as one of the most evocative sights to be seen anywhere in England takes place every September in Abbots Bromley.

Although written accounts only go back to Robert Plot’s 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is unquestionably older. A twelve-strong troupe – six men bearing reindeer antlers, Robin Hood astride a hobby horse, Maid Marian, the Jester, a boy with a bow and arrow, a triangle-player, and a musician – take the antlers from the parish church early in the morning and spend the day making an exhausting eight-mile perambulation with many halts to dance at villages and houses, gathering money along the way for local good causes.

The horns, which have been carbon-dated to circa 1065, are mounted on carved wooden heads and supported by hand-staffs that rest on the shoulders. Support is necessary; the largest pair, borne by the lead Dancer, weigh 25 pounds and have a span of 39 inches. The antlers are also weighed down with ancienter connotations – divinity from Cerunnos and Pan up to the horned Moses, fertility, nobility, pride, power, protection, wilderness – psychic reverberations from the old impenetrable forest associated with Gawain and the Green Knight.

The totemic advances and retreats and sideways steps of the Dance, as the boy affects to fire arrows, are probably a pre-Norman reminder of the rights of the men of Needwood Forest. It was not only commoners who wished to conserve the trees; one impecunious Georgian Lord Bagot, asked why he would not sell £50,000 worth of oaks, replied proudly ”The Bagots are not timber merchants”. Other eighteenth century luminaries were less sentimental, and the Forest had almost all been enclosed and grubbed up by 1804, this process rationalised piously –

'An extensive forest is not favourable to the virtue and industry of its poorer inhabitants; it affords temptations to idleness and dishonesty.'

There is one extant tract, Bagot’s Wood, and descendants of its one-time defender still reside at Blithfield Hall, their coat-of-arms featuring appropriately another horned ungulate, the Bagot Goat, probably brought from the Rhône by a crusader Bagot, which persists in farm parks as a designated rare breed. The family’s motto is apposite – Antiquum Obtinens (“Possessing antiquity”).

Needwood still rustles in local toponymy, suffixed in Barton-under-Needwood, acknowledged at Marchington Woodlands, and honoured in absentia at Hanbury Woodend. Did Uttoxeter-born Henry Yevele (1320-1400), master mason at Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, have vague memories of Needwood leviathans in mind as he upreared Perpendicular columns to branching fan vaults?

Like the Romans, Anglo-Saxons battled through trees to conquer Staffordshire, taking it for Mercia. At first worshippers of Wotan – remembered in Wednesbury and Wednesfield – later they built churches at Ilam, Lichfield, Stafford, and elsewhere, and a frequently used palace at Tamworth. An estimation of seventh century importance can be gauged from the Staffordshire Hoard, found in 2009 near Lichfield, 3,500 pieces adding up to 15 pounds of gold and silver, the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered in England – a notably martial assemblage of bosses, buckles, gems, panels, rivets, studs, sword hilts, pommels and scabbards, and wire. But they were unable to resist the following century’s Danish “Great Heathen Army”, which captured and long kept central and northern Staffordshire, while the rest was subsumed into Wessex.

War passed across again – Wessexers-becoming-English against Danes, these new English against Normans, the rebellious shire feeling twice the mailed malice of the Conqueror, only becoming inured after 1070’s dread “Harrying of the North”. The Normans too transmuted, emblematised by the knight Ralph de Toeni’s rechristening as de Stafford, his descendants destined to play prominent parts in national history from the Hundred Years’ War on, marrying, supporting or subverting claimants or kings. By 1640, the heir to the earldom of Stafford had fallen into “a very mean and obscure condition”, and sold his title to Charles I for £800. Charles created a new viscountcy, but its possessor fell under suspicion during 1680’s “Popish Plot” hysteria, and was beheaded.

Between 1640 and 1680, there had of course been civil war, and Staffordshire’s religious divisions were complex. There had been sturdy resistance to Elizabethan reforms, imposed through such means as the 1588 martyrdom of Robert Sutton, who was (according to a local diarist) executed

' a most villainous Butcherley manner by one Moseley who with his axe cutt of his head (while he had yet sence and was readye to stand upp) through his mouth.'

As late as 1620, Bilston was “much infected by popery and infested with popish priests”, while in 1624 Wolverhampton, hyperventilated a Puritan preacher,

'Rome’s snaky brood roosted and rested themselves more warmer and safer and with greater countenance…than in any other part of the kingdom.'

But the county had also been an early centre of dissent. Edward Wightman, the last heretic burned at the stake in England (1612), came from Burton-on-Trent – and there were strong Presbyterian, Baptist and Unitarian presences. George Fox visited Lichfield in 1651, and in his Journal recorded a vision he had, of blood flowing through the streets while he went up and down crying “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield”.

Peers were naturally royalists, but the Protestant gentry leaned towards Parliament, while rank-and-filers followed the leads of landlords. A mob of desperately poor moorlanders armed with fowling pieces and clubs, and led by someone styling himself “The Grand Juryman”, failed to dislodge Stafford’s royalist garrison in February 1643. All were preyed upon and plundered by King and Parliament alike, and churches were desecrated, most notably at Lichfield, whose ancient three-spired church in red sandstone was captured in March 1643 by Parliamentary troopers, after a siege during which their leader Lord Brooke was killed, shot through the eye by a deaf-and-dumb sniper on the spire, appropriately on St. Chad’s Day (Chad is Lichfield’s patron saint, and an eighth century copy of his Gospels is still used for special services). Revengeful Roundheads subsequently

'...broke up the pavements, polluted the choir with their excrement, every day hunted a cat with hounds throughout the church, delighting themselves in the echo from the goodly vaulted roof, and to add to their wickedness, brought a calf into it, wrapped in linen, carried it to the font, sprinkled it with holy water and gave it a name in scorn and derision of the holy sacrament of baptism.'

Following the Battle of Hopton Heath near Stafford later that month, Prince Rupert recaptured the city – the first use of a land mine in an English battle – and the King held it thereafter until the end of the war.

The end of the first phase was in 1648, its scene Uttoxeter, where the last major Royalist force in the field, commanded by the 1st Duke of Hamilton, surrendered to Parliament’s General John Lambert. Hamilton had always been more interested in Venetian paintings than British battles, who confessed he was “To Much Bewiched with Thoes Intysing Things”, owning 300 by 1643. It would have been better had he been less dilettantish; he was decapitated in 1649, and some of the Royalist volunteers captured with him were impressed into military service for the Republic of Venice, an ironic twist they could doubtless have dispensed with. In 1651, a Stafford man named Izaak Walton played a powerfully significant role after the Battle of Worcester, entrusted with custody of Charles II’s “lesser George” jewel, which he helped convey to the exiled monarch.

Two years later, Walton published an utterly un-military masterpiece, The Compleat Angler, the second most reprinted book in English. Walton, who had already attained celebrity as biographer of Donne and Wotton, and knew Aubrey, Browne, Evelyn, Jonson, Milton, and Pepys, kept editing and reissuing the book for 25 years. The consolidated text starts in the Home Counties, its protagonist (Piscator) stretching his legs “up Tottenham Hill” to strike up conversation with a falconer (Auceps) and a huntsman (Venator). They dispute good-naturedly about the merits of their pursuits to delightful effect, retreating into rusticity as antidote to 1642-1651’s horrors. Walton’s advice is often of doubtful utility, but as literature it is priceless; as Venator remarks to Piscator, 

'Your discourse seems to be music, and charms me to an attention'.

In Part II, the scene shifts to the River Dove, “one of the purest crystalline streams you have ever seen”, which delineates the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border. The Dove, famous for trout and grayling, was also haunted by Walton’s young friend Charles Cotton, who raised a Fishing Lodge on its brink, with his and Walton’s initials intertwined above its door, and contributed a section on fly-fishing to the expanded Angler. Walton had in 1644 bought land at Shallowford, on the Meece Brook near Stafford, although he had to spend much time in London (and would be buried in Winchester). His house, which he left to the people of Stafford, its rent to be used for the poor, burned twice but was restored by the town. It is now a museum dedicated to the biographer’s own life, and the history of fishing, its sequestered appearance sadly affected by the rush of trains running between Stafford and Stoke – urgency at odds with his limpid placidity.

Staffordshire’s most brilliant product was an admirer, engaged by Walton’s personality, struck by his skill, and sympathetic to his politics. Samuel Johnson emerged disconcertingly silently into life in Lichfield on 18 September 1709, and was baptised hastily at home in case he did not live. Soon his bookseller father and doting mother realised their son was not only physically resilient, but even a child-prodigy.

Johnson was bored by his father’s trade – so absorbed in perusing the books that he ignored customers, and on one occasion refusing to man his father’s stall at Uttoxeter market. This pricked at his conscience for decades, as he confided in 1784, impelling him to make a solitary penitential journey to Uttoxeter, around 1780, where he stood in the market square for several hours, hatless with his head down in heavy rain, seemingly oblivious of public curiosity and impervious to the elements. Did the goggling locals know that the large, ungainly lunatic was “Dictionary Johnson” of European fame, doyen of English letters?

Whatever his feelings about his father’s business, Johnson returned to Staffordshire after Oxford, to open a school at Edial. One of his three (!) pupils was another Lichfielder, David Garrick, who persuaded Johnson to swap provincial pedagogy for a wider stage. But Johnson often returned, and retained his accent; Garrick would mimick him, Boswell relates,

'…squeezing a lemon into a punch-bowl, with uncouth gesticulations, looking round the company and calling out, "Who’s for poonsh?"'

It is also surmised that the Happy Valley in Rasselas was inspired by Dovedale. Lichfield is proud of him, his birthplace a museum, outside which is a bronze of Johnson seated as if enthroned, with plinth panels showing him at mythologised moments – the three year old on his father’s shoulders listening fixedly to firebrand Cannock clergyman Henry Sacheverell, raised on other shoulders as scholar, by admiring classmates, and in 1780 at Uttoxeter, when for a change the world weighed heavily on him. I bought a secondhand Oxford University Press Greek-English Lexicon in his birthplace’s bookshop, provoked by Johnson’s parapsychological proximity into some vain hope of self-improvement.

As Johnson was setting the way we spoke, smoke came to Stoke. Pottery had always been made thereabouts (there are Bronze Age beakers in Stoke museum) thanks to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal. But now, Stoke and nearby villages started to become an entity, “The Potteries” – a choking sprawl of grimy factories and bottle-shaped chimneys issuing an endless variety of crockery, from naive earthenware flat-backs for cottage mantelpieces to exquisite neo-classical designs coveted by royalty.

These latter were produced by Burslem-born Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), capitalising cleverly on the 1760s revival of interest in classical antiquity, combining romantic retrospection with new materials and glazes, and pushy sales techniques. His Etruria works poured out boxes, bowls, candelabras, cups, dishes, plates, reliefs, and vases in generic Hellenic vein on a variety of materials, famously ‘black basalt’ and jasper, and plaques representing “Illustrious Moderns”, including Johnson. (A less modern claim to fame was the White Rabbit of Etruria, a ghostly lagomorph that was seen in a secluded grove, accompanied by human cries for help – popularly supposed to be the revenant of a murdered 14 year old.) Many of Wedgwood’s designs stemmed from Sir William Hamilton, art-obsessed ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, husband of Nelson’s Emma – and distant relative of Charles I’s equally aesthetic Duke of Hamilton.

The fortune Wedgwood amassed cascaded down descendants, and would allow a grandson, a certain Charles Darwin, leisure time to formulate his ideas. Entangled in here are faint echoes of cauldrons, pots and vessels, ancient symbols of life – and clay, from which men were once thought to have come. There were revolutions rather than evolutions when we visited – a young man was performing parkour in the centre of town, as oblivious to passers-by as Johnson had been at Uttoxeter, they as unheeding of the daring athlete as the peasants of the dying aeronaut in Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Trentham near Stoke must be the only place in England where one can walk among Barbary macaques, 140 of them living semi-ferally among tangled trees at the edge of a Capability Brown dreamscape, disconcerting as monkeys always are in their similarity to and utter difference from us. Where monkeys now search each other for lice or look dignifiedly into futurity, was once a ducal palace, home to Leveson-Gowers from 1540 to 1907, rebuilt by Houses of Parliament architect Charles Barry – “in its own way architecturally as important”, concedes the difficult-to-please Nikolaus Pevsner. Trentham’s owner, the Duke of Sutherland, was so rich that in 1873 the Persian Shah told the future Edward VII, only half-humorously “you’ll have to have his head off when you come to the throne”. Yet by 1907, the house was unliveable, because of the stench from the industry-defiled Trent, a victim of Stoke’s success. The family decamped, the contents were sold, and most of the structure demolished, leaving a great emptiness in manicured space – and on the Stoke road a great gateway to nothing, and an 1807 mausoleum in the severest Greek style, a suitably Wedgwoodian coda.

More everyday evolutions than Darwin’s were seen in Tamworth, where Sir Robert Peel was M.P. from 1830-1850. His 1834 Tamworth Manifesto is credited with reviving the Tories after the 1832 Reform Act – a politic blend of accepting reforms with restated antidisestablishmentarianism and opposition to what Peel called “a perpetual vortex of agitation”. Peel was calming the country – the opposite objective of Shakespeare’s Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII), in King Richard the Third, who while encamped outside Tamworth, exhorts his “Fellows in arms, and my most loving friends, / Bruis’d underneath the yoke of tyranny” to rise against the “foul swine” occupying the throne. Peel was interested in actual swine – the Tamworth pig, whose bloodline the two-time P.M. oversaw in rare spare time at Drayton Manor.

Even more unusual animals are reported from Cannock Chase, a 26 square mile expanse of heathland southeast of Stafford – lonely despite the proximity of large villages, traces of centuries of mining, grazing and army training, and many visitors. When I traversed it, for hours I saw no-one, and had long silent moor tracks, soughing Scots pines, odd rock formations, brown ponds, small valleys, and seven foot high bracken to myself, two dogs, and fallow deer (thoughts of Abbots Bromley). In under suffocating bracts and contorted trees, I found a ‘face’ in birch bark. Signs warn of “sudden mining subsidence” and names like Camp Field, Dumps Covert, Dark Slade, Cold Man’s Slade, Dick Slee’s Cave, Gospel Place, and Deadmans Walk suggest crepuscular history.

There is shadow indeed – a model World War I battlefield constructed by prisoners-of-war and briefly exposed in 2013 before being reinterred, a German cemetery, a Katyń memorial, and the ruins of the Pagets’ aptly named Beaudesert. There is also folk horror, oddly comforting eeriness – the wolves that padded here into the 1280s transmogrified into werewolves and Gabriel Hounds, tales of the Wandering Jew, big cats, black-eyed children, a mini-Sasquatch called the Man-Monkey (thoughts of Trentham), will-o’-the-wisps, knockings in mines, spaceships, murders, satanism, vanishings and appearances – like at the Four Crosses, hyperbolised by the Daily Star in 2014 as “The haunted pub everyone’s too scared to buy!”

Postmodern creepypastas, premodern leitmotifs of belonging and loss, old wives’ tales and Prometheanism – I thought as I walked through a net-curtain of rain that Staffordshire was neither “natural” nor “simple”. But Bennett was right that it could stand for all England – anomalous, engaging, indeterminate, wrapped up in irony and understatement.

This article first appeared in the journal of the Royal Society of Saint George, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

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