Monday, May 7, 2012

Lichfield, why didn't I know about it?


As I write (as I do) my thousands of pages about British music in the nineteenth century, I glibly roll out the names of the cities of England (and sometimes Scotland, Wales and half of Ireland) and their cathedrals, which housed such an important part of professional music-making in those times. But they are just academic words … I , alas, have never been inside most of England’s great cathedrals.
So when brother John suggested, for my pro tem last day at Coalville, that we take a daytrip to Lichfield and its cathedral, I was most enthusiastic. By the time we returned, I was even more enthusiastic. What a lovely town/city is Lichfield. And what a history! It drips with celebs – REAL celebs, not the Poorla Abdul, Princess Matchinsky and Paris Hilton type – at every corner…

Even the drive there, across Leics and Staffs was lovely, and though I got the momentary hump from a very un-user-friendly car-park, overpriced and with machines that charge you 2.70 .. and don’t take notes or cards or give change, as we dove into the streets of old Lichfield I was immediately captured. It’s a very bright and alive town of today – and this was market day too – but at every turn you find beautifully kept or restored ancient buildings, like this one, built in 1510 and refurbished in 1975

I don’t know why the world feels so in awe and enamoured of old buildings. I don’t know why I do. But I certainly do. A 17th century cathedral – and I’m not even a christian – can inspire me to very pleasant emotions, and elderly house with narrow stairs and uneven floors is (as long as one doesn’t have to live in it) is much more attractive than anything 20th century. It just is.
In the main square – where Lichfield’s Dr Johnson watched a heretic or was it a murderer, being burned at the stake – I snapped my first celeb. Who else but Boswell, watching over his friend. And no, that’s not the cathedral behind. That’s St Mary’s, the vast Guild Church.

The Cathedral is few hundred metres away, its triple spire looming as the feature of the city …

Many cathedrals are Just Too Much. Too lush, too decorated, one nobleman or churchman vying with another in buying God’s favour or Man’s remembrance with a monument or gift in a mass of gilded chapels and scrolly tablets and statues, too many garish stained windows, too much of everything. Not this one. It was destroyed by Cromwell’s gang in the C17th, and rebuilt by Charles II (not personally) with the most glorious tact. Pieces of the original mediaeval fabric intertwine with restoration in a fashion that Lichfield seems particularly good at. John had fun spotting the mediaeval bits, I being less knowledgeable, just looked. Our favourite spot was a little chapel which you had to climb many wooden steps to get to …

I came in to my own, however, when we reached what seemed to be ‘Celebs Corner’. I didn’t know that David Garrick was brought up in Lichfield! But there he is, in effigy, donated by his wife.

Lady Mary Wortley is there, not in ashes (she died in London) but in a votive plaque, donated in 1789 by one Henrietta Ince, concerning her promotion of innoculation against small pox

And at last I came upon a pair of stones relevant to my writings. Alas, not one celebrating Samuel Pearsall or other stalwarts of the Lichfield choir in the 19th century, but two slightly earlier vicars choral. I will investigate them immediately. They must have been real long-servers to be commemorated there alongside Garrick and all those military heros and slain aristocratic soldier boys of bygone ages.

It was a lovely cathedral. One of my favourites ever. But one thing nearly spoiled it for me. As we entered, and dropped our mite in the visitors’ box, we were literally leaped upon by a middle-aged lady or three, hectoringly offering us tax advantages in exchange for donations. I was wearing damp turkish baggies and a duffel coat. Did I look like a millionaire in disguise? The bad taste left by this horrid harpy encounter (in a church!) was only wiped away by the sweetness of the elderly volunteer gent overseeing the Treasure, who tried to help me set my camera to ‘no flash’. We did it, and consequently my picture of the Lichfield Angel, the most lovely artefact in the cathedral, didn’t come out.
I had to make do with a picture of my favourite artefact outside: this votive statue to Charles II saying ‘thank you for the restoration’. I’m pretty sure he didn’t look quite as neolithic as this, but it was a nice gesture.

Our biggest Celeb we saved till last. Dr Johnson was born in Lichfield, and lived in a four-storied house on the corner of the main square. The house has been beautifully cared for, and/or restored, tactfully not-too-filled with memorabilia relating to him – oh, to actually be able to hold in one’s hands a volume of the famous dictionary! – the whole thing was splendidly unpretentious and ‘real’. And entered by way of a delicious bookshop which made me wish I still collected Victorian books.
I photographed the not exactly physically attractive Doctor ..

and, on the top floor, I photographed John, in a wig and tricorne, kept I feel for rather younger visitors than us! Didn’t have to be snobby … we were plain enjoying ourselves!

But it was time to leave lovely Lichfield, and hurry home for the FA cup final. Even more fun than a burning heretic. Sometimes. So after a quick visit to the local Bakery for some travelling sustenance, we bade farewell to Dr Johnson and his Boswell, to Garrick, Mary Wortley, Mrs Ince, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of), Samuel Pearsall (he’s there somewhere), King Charles the neolithic and the Lichfield Angel, and headed back through the green green lanes and pretty villages of Staffs and Leics to Wembley-sur-Television …
A grand day out, and I will never write “Lincoln Cathedral” again without remembering it.

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