When a sunny September Saturday follows the worst August I can remember, why not visit somewhere? And where better to go on my sunny September birthday than Lichfield? As the city’s favourite son, Samuel Johnson said: ‘I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield.’
Leaving the car in the Friary Car Park we walked past the site of the former Friary. ‘That’s a big entrance to a small park,’ Lynne remarked as we failed to notice the slabs in the grass marking the locations of the cloister and nave. Founded by the Franciscans in 1237, ruined by Henry VIII in 1538 and razed for the sake of the motor car in 1928, the minimal remains were ignored by us in 2017.Reaching the centre of the old city we continued down Bore Street, where Georgian buildings are considered ‘recent’, and paused for a cappuccino and a slice of Bakewell tart.
|Bore Street, Lichfield|
We turned left to the Market Place, where the market was in full swing.
Samuel Johnson called Lichfield a city of philosophers, but its 1,300-year history has inevitably involved darker moments. In this square in 1612, Edward Wightman had the dubious distinction of being the last person in England to be burnt at the stake for heresy. Johnson, born 100 years later in the Age of Enlightenment, overlooks the market with an air of serious concentration – or perhaps depression.
|Samuel Johnson looks down on Lichfield Market|
Samuel Johnson was born on 18th of September 1709 in the five-storey house opposite the market. The house, now owned by Lichfield City Council, is the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum.
Despite their large house (though the rooms are small)
the Johnson’s were what Theresa May might call ‘just about managing.’ Family
life was centred on the basement kitchen, though whether there was always a
zombie by the fire contemplating an apple is open to conjecture.
Michael Johnson, Samuel’s father, was a bookseller and
his office was on the ground floor.
The Dam itself forms Minster Pool. The end of the Dam
is known as a ‘speakers corner’ but we only saw a couple of buskers, a young
violinist and cellist competing stoically against the ringing if the cathedral
The best aspect of Minster Pool is the view across it
to the Cathedral.
Across the road from Minster Pool is Beacon Park. Sports
pitches and a golf course cover most of its 70 acres, but the Museum Gardens area has flowerbeds, seats and statues. Lichfield Parks department should feel
pleased with their floral display, but their 19th century predecessors could
have had a rethink about the ugly little satyr in the central fountain.
Beyond the flowers is a statue of Edward Smith,
Captain of the Titanic. It was well known that Smith was a native of Hanley
(the commercial centre of Stoke-on-Trent) and Hanley council commissioned the
statue but changed its mind when the Titanic sank; Lichfield had a park in need
of a statue and seized the chance to acquire one at a knock-down price. It is a
good story, but unfortunately untrue; the work of Lady Kathleen
Scott (widow of Scott of the Antarctic), the statue was commissioned by Lichfield City
Council in May 1912 as a memorial to Captain
Smith and all those who died.
The park is adjacent to the registry office and the
obvious place for wedding parties to take photographs. The former Probate Court
next-door occupies the site of David Garrick’s childhood home which was
demolished in 1858.
Almost opposite is the house of Erasmus Darwin.
Difficult to photograph, close behind a high wall and higher trees, it is an
independent museum dedicated to the remarkable career and progeny of its former
|Samuel Johnson's house, Lichfield|
|The Johnson's kitchen|
|Michael Johnson's office|
Samuel was born in a room on the first floor.
|The room where Samuel Johnson was born, Lichfield|
Like many of our PM’s ‘just about managing,’ the Johnson’s weren’t and the birth of a second child plunged them into debt. Samuel, however, managed to attend Lichfield Grammar School and proved an exceptionally able student. After school he worked for his father until in 1728 his aunt died and left enough money to send him to university. He spent just over a year at Oxford, again proving himself able, but the money would not cover his expenses and he had to leave.
He tried teaching, but getting a job without a degree was tricky, and when he succeeded his strange tics and gesticulations (posthumously diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome) did not help.
Johnson and Garrick exhibition, Johnson's House, Lichfield
In September 1734, his friend Harry Porter (so nearly a wizard!) died. In July 1735 he married Porter’s widow Elizabeth. He was 25, she was 46 and had three children, but fortunately she also had money. Johnson set himself upon in his own school, but it only attracted three students and quickly failed. One of those students was the 18 year-old David Garrick.
David Garrick by Johan Zoffany
(Zoffany seems to follow us around from India to Hemmingford Grey in Cambridgeshire)
Johnson and Garrick became friends and in 1737 they set off for London together to make their fortune. They survived many difficulties, Johnson narrowly avoiding debtor’s prison more than once, but eventually Johnson became the leading literary figure of his generation and Garrick the leading actor.
Dr Johnson's Dictionary
Samuel Johnson's House, Lichfield
The top two floors contain an exhibition on the life and times of Johnson and Garrick.We left Johnson’s house and the Market Square passing the statue of Johnson’s biographer James Boswell who has stood here since 1908. Johnson’s dictionary is only of historical interest, his writings, though once popular, are now rarely read, his plays little performed, and he seems best remembered by Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791). I read the first 80 or 90 pages of Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786) and gave, up partly because of Boswell’s convoluted prose, and partly because I could no longer stomach his hero worship; Johnson, it seemed, could not break wind without it being an act of wit and wisdom. ‘Get a life,’ we might say to Boswell today, but of course he did - Johnson’s.
|James Boswell, Lichfield Market Square|
We headed for Conduit Street and turned left into Dam Street, both reminders that Lichfield has enjoyed piped water since medieval times. Dam Street is pleasantly quaint, although some side streets resemble museum reconstructions - but they are real.
|Off Dam Street, Lichfield|
|The Dam, Minster Pool, Lichfield|
|Lichfield Cathedral across Minster Pool|
|Beacon Park, Lichfield|
|Captain Smith by Kathleen Scott (plus young wedding guest)|
|Lichfield's former Probate Court and the site of David Garrick's boyhood home|
|Erasmus Darwin's House, Lichfield|
Born 1731 in Nottinghamshire (so a generation younger than Samuel Johnson) Erasmus Darwin established a medical practice in this house in 1757, remaining here until his second marriage in 1781.
Not only an outstanding doctor – Darwin turned down an invitation from George III to become the king’s physician – he was a remarkable polymath, an inventor, scientist, social reformer and poet. The displays explore all aspects of his life with plenty of hands-on exhibits for younger visitors.
|Lynne gives Erasmus Darwin some wise advice|
The popularity of his poetry has not proved lasting, but his most important work, Zoönomia, a two-volume medical work dealing with pathology, anatomy and psychology contains ideas which his grandson Charles Darwin would develop more fully… ‘Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, …that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality…’
Darwin was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal dining club and learned society which met regularly, sometimes in his house in Lichfield, from 1765 to 1813. Being informal, there is no definitive membership list but the inner circle included Darwin, James Watt and Matthew Bolton, Joseph Priestley (the discoverer of Oxygen) and Josiah Wedgwood, while associates included the engineer James Brindley, the botanist Joseph Banks, American polymath Benjamin Franklin, astronomer William Herschel, printer and designer James Baskerville and artist Joseph Wright of Derby.
Lunar Society members and some of Erasmus' inventions
Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield
Erasmus Darwin was also an enthusiastic procreator, fathering 5 children by his first wife, two more by the governess he employed after his wife died and a further seven by his second wife - plus alleged unacknowledged offspring.
The Darwins intermarried with the Wedgwoods for several generations. Charles Darwin, was the offspring of Erasmus’ son Robert and Josiah Wedgwood’s daughter Susannah. Charles Darwin married a cousin, so both his wife and mother were Wedgwoods.
Erasmus Darwin's consulting room
and an exhibition covering his interests in geology and plant biology
Erasmus Darwin was also the grandfather, via Frances, a daughter from his second marriage, of Francis Galton. Galton was a great scientist and mathematician, inventor of the statistical concepts of correlation and regression to the mean, the founder of meteorology and the inventor of a method of classifying fingerprints. His reputation was posthumously ruined by his interest in eugenics (a word he coined), though he would have been appalled at what was done in the name of eugenics several decades after his death.
We left Erasmus Darwin’s house via his herb garden and emerged outside the cathedral, an ancient, if rather grubby, building with three spires, a distinction it shares only with Truro among British cathedrals.
The Kingdom of Mercia ruled central England (though with varying borders) from the 6th century until being absorbed by Wessex in the late 9th century. At first a pagan kingdom, King Peada accepted Christianity in 653 and in 669 Saint Chad established the episcopal see at Lichfield, some 8 miles from the Royal Capital of Tamworth. The first, wooden, church was built in 700 to house the relics of St Chad and replaced by a stone Norman Cathedral after 1085. The present structure was begun in 1195 and completed in 1330 (it was a long job).
I was impressed by the 113 statues on the façade (and no, I didn’t count them) and delighted to see one of them holding a model of the church, a sight common in orthodox churches but rare in western Europe. I was disappointed to discover that a) all but five original medieval statues were replaced in the 19th century and b) the figure below is King Henry III holding a model not of Lichfield but of Westminster Abbey.
|Henry III with Westminster Abbey, Lichfield Cathedral façade|
The nave was being prepared for a charity performance in the evening…
|Nave, Lichfield Cathedral|
…but the quire looked less purple.
|Quire, Lichfield Cathedral|
The Chapter House, completed in 1249, is an impressive circular building…
|Chapter House, Lichfield Cathedral|
…with one of Lichfield’s few remaining medieval frescoes.
|Medieval fresco, Chapter House, Lichfield Cathedral|
Outside the Chapter House, St Chad gospels are not on display. Dating from around 730, like the similar Lindisfarne gospels, the book has 236 pages, four of them illuminated. It also has some interesting marginalia – agreements and contracts had special force if written in a Holy Book – including the earliest known (8th century) writing in old Welsh. Periodically the book is closed to give it a rest from the muted light of the cathedral, so all I have is a photo of the binding which dates from 1962!
|St Chad Gospels, Lichfield Cathedral|
The shrine of St Chad is at the east end. Whether the saint’s bones are still there after 1,300 years and the destruction of the shrine by Henry VIII is a moot point.
|St Chad's Shrine, Lichfield Cathedral|
On the southern wall is a plaque commemorating Erasmus Darwin, though he is buried elsewhere. ‘His speculations,’ it says, ‘were mainly directed to problems which were afterwards more successfully solved by his grandson Charles Darwin, an inheritor of many of his characteristics.’ Which I think is faint praise; he was worth more than that, but at least it shows the C of E has no problem reconciling religion and evolution.
|Erasmus Darwin's memorial, Lichfield Cathedral|
And that ends our trip to Lichfield. From a handful of people in the seventh century to 4,000 by the time of Samuel Johnson, Lichfield now has around 30,000 inhabitants making it one of England’s smallest and least spoilt cities. Though it hides in a region which sees few tourists, it is well worth a look.