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In which Gawton’s Well fails to cure my rosacea, but the grove lifts my spirits

Knypersley Pool from the dam

Knypersley Pool from the dam

 

I recently made a spur of the moment trip to Greenway Bank Country Park, near Biddulph. It’s been many years since I was last there and I couldn’t resist calling in when I was in the area.

The 114-acre country park used to be part of the landscaped grounds of Knypersley Hall and includes a castellated folly known as the Warder’s Tower, masses of squirrels and the peaceful Serpentine Pool (which feeds the neighbouring reservoir Knypersley Pool), as well as a possible dolmen and the mysterious Gawton’s Well.

My first mistake was parking at the visitors’ centre car park instead of the one beside the pool, my second was setting off at 3pm with the light already starting to fail and the third was not wearing wellies.

Greenway Bank Country Park sign

Greenway Bank Country Park sign (I’m trying not to think about all those missing apostrophes)

I whizzed round the Serpentine Pool expecting to come to the Warder’s Tower any minute and probably failing to appreciate much of the beauty around me. When I finally reached it, I panted up the steps for a cursory look before ploughing ahead to find the well. I hadn’t realised that the Landmark Trust‘s plans to restore the Tower had fallen through due to bats roosting in the building and it seemed in a bit of a sorry state.

Taking a left fork I squelched through mud until I spotted an inviting gap in a low stone wall, through which you enter an oval grove of yew trees. The incredible atmosphere in this sanctuary-like glade more than made up for the muddy feet and aching legs.

Gawton's Well grove

Gawton’s Well grove

The air was so still in the grove, no sounds except the trickling of water flowing into a series of stone basins and cascading into a stream.  And it was dark – but not gloomy – with the overhanging branches forming a natural ceiling.

Gawton's Well basins

Gawton’s Well basins

Gawton's Well stream

Gawton’s Well stream

On the trees around the spring were hanging dozens of “clooties” and tributes to lost loved ones, including a photo album full of memories of one particular chap, Frederick Brammer, who passed away in April 2014. I’d love to know more about the people remembered here and what made the place so special to them and their families.

Gawton's Well clooties

Gawton’s Well clooties

Tribute at Gawton's Well

Tribute at Gawton’s Well

Frederick Brammer's photo album at Gawton's Well

Frederick Brammer’s photo album at Gawton’s Well

Legend has it that the well was used for healing – Gawton was said to be a resident hermit cured of a skin disease by the waters.

The Biddulph Museum website (which also describes the site as a “Druid Grove”) tells this story:

Gawton / Gorton was one of the servants of Knypersley Hall when he became ill with the plague. Due to everyone thinking they would fall ill he was forced to leave. He left and went to live in a cave (Gawton’s Stone) near Knypersley pool.

Nearby was a spring which is known as Gawton’s Well which is where he bathed every day. He also used the spring for his drinking water. The spring was believed to have the power to heal skin diseases by the locals and apparently cured Gawton of the plague.

Even though he was now healed he continued to stay at the cave and lived there till his death.

I tried washing my face in the water but it didn’t help my rosacea (although this report suggests it may help with eczema!).

I could have spent a long time absorbing the energy of this magical place but I was very conscious that dusk was approaching and decided to save visiting Gawton’s Stone – variously described as a dolmen, natural formation or Victorian folly, depending on where you look – for another day.

Unusual sign on the dam - mole infestation!

Unusual sign on the dam – mole infestation!

I crossed the dam and walked back on the other side of the Serpentine Pool feeling spiritually uplifted and full of energy. There was hardly anyone around and it felt like another world.

The grave of Knypersley Estate Cairn terrier, Gene

The grave of Knypersley Estate Cairn terrier, Gene

This site was named the most spiritual place in Staffordshire in a 2003 BBC poll and it’s  worth taking the trouble to find and experience it.

Greenway Bank Country Park sunset

Greenway Bank Country Park sunset

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Beautiful ThingsA team of volunteers from America is coming to Staffordshire next month (JUNE) to work in the community and stage free family fun events.

The 60-strong choir from Shades Mountain Baptist Church in Alabama will join forces with members of CreateChurch:Cannock and Stafford’s Rising Brook Baptist Church to revamp Cannock’s cinema and help families with light DIY or gardening projects.

At the end of the week-long event, dubbed Beautiful Things, there will be free family fun activities in Stafford and Cannock.

The team will spend Wednesday, June 12, working in the Electric Palace Picture House in Cannock, replacing seats, painting walls and tiling toilet facilities.

They will then move on to the Bevan Lee estate in Cannock where they will help households with activities such as gardening, painting and cleaning. Flyers will be distributed to the estate beforehand and people can opt in to receive assistance if they wish.

The choir will also be visiting primary schools in Cannock and Hednesford to teach the children songs which will be performed at the fun day on Saturday, June 15, when families can take part in free activities such as face painting, bouncy castle and a football cage, as well as enjoying a free American-style barbecue.

Sponsored by solicitors Pickering and Butters, who have offices in Stafford and Rugeley, the fun day will take place at the Signpost Centre, Highfields, Stafford, from 10am to 1pm, and at Cannock Park from 3pm to 6pm. All are welcome.

Steve Graham, church leader at CreateChurch:Cannock, said: “We are really excited to be partnering with our friends from the States. The whole purpose of this week is to help the local community and let them know that the church is interested in both the people and the town. There are lots of people out there that believe Cannock is a great place and we hope this week will show our belief in that.”

The Staffordshire churches became partners with Shades Mountain Baptist Church thanks to Alabama couple Richie and Denise Bruce, who live in Stafford and attend CreateChurch:Cannock.

Michael Adler, worship pastor at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, said: “We already have many UK friends whom we have grown to love during the planning process of this trip. In just a few short days we will be able to board the plane for Stafford and Cannock, see our friends face to face and join together to serve the community.”

  • CreateChurch:Cannock is a friendly new church meeting every Sunday from 10am at the Electric Palace Picture House in Cannock. See www.createchurchcannock.co.uk for more information.

ENDS

Contact me for any further information.

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My mum took my little boy for his first visit to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley today. I was so excited to hear about their visit! Apparently his favourite part was the Spitfire gallery – he had to be almost dragged away. We’ll take him again and again over the years, I’m sure. I love it there too.

Their visit made me think of this feature that wrote for the August 2008 edition of Staffordshire County Magazine (no longer published). It was before the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, which now forms a key part of the museum’s exhibitions, but I expect most, if not all, of the items I mention are still there five years on. I hope they are.

Hannah Hiles returns to one of her favourite childhood haunts to see whether the magic is still there 20 years on….

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley can be summed up for me in a few words: rabbit; skeleton; boat; cows; whippet; and plane.

While they may sound like entries from an ABC book, they represent the highlights of the museum as seen through my childhood eyes – and, it turns out, my adult ones too.

My parents and I used to go to the museum every Sunday. I don’t recall this routine ever being boring – I never tired of stroking the stuffed rabbit, or feeling a pleasurable shiver down my spine looking at the skeleton, or marvelling at the Spitfire, for example. But would I still feel the same all these years later?

Having been given some information sheets by the very helpful staff on the reception desk, I headed straight for the natural history gallery on the ground floor.

One thing that struck me straight away is that it seems like today’s children want more than to look at exhibits – they need dressing up boxes, drawing paper, stuffed toys and such like. Maybe we were easier to please 20 years ago.

My late bunny friend was still there, but protected from inquisitive child-hands by a glass case, along with all sorts of other familiar and forgotten wonders. A mummified cat! A six-banded armadillo walking on tiptoes! A tarantula, a badger, boxing hares and a barn owl catching its prey!

While the checked petals of the Fritillary looked as exotic as ever, I was getting so excited about getting to the archaeology section that I had to restrain myself from running straight to the skeleton.

This section describes sites and finds representing 12,000 years of local settlement, and includes treasures such as gold torcs, a cup-and-ring marked stone and what is known as the Staffordshire Moorlands pan – a 2nd century AD Roman artefact currently on loan to other museums, but returning to Hanley in 2010. It is amazing – and eye-opening – to see how many historical objects have been found in Staffordshire.

I was delighted to see that an old favourite, the log boat from Abbey Hulton, was still there, and that the skeleton was still grinning his toothy grin. “I’ve missed you, old chap,” I murmured under my breath.

Moving on into the Community History area, the Arnold Bennett exhibits were enlightening – as well as seeing his bag and slippers, I learned he had been in charge of propaganda in France in World War One – and the Miners’ Strike memorial, carved from Hem Heath coal, was a poignant addition to the gallery.

The two men in the reconstructed pub scene were still playing their interminable game of dominoes while their whippet looked on. According to the board, the dog is called Billie and “he has a special story to tell”. Dog lovers should look for the additional information sheet to find out more about brown-eyed Billie, but should make sure they have a tissue to hand.

After the home scene, chemist shop, fire engine, classroom and fish and chip shop, I came to the room at the museum’s heart – the Spitfire Gallery. The plane last flew in 1952, but still looks every inch the “incredible, immortal combat vehicle”. Reading the tales of bravery of local men on the boards around the room I felt choked up in a way that my childhood self would never have imagined. I couldn’t agree more with the visitor’s comment on the wall: “You are in the presence of greatness”.

Needing a little light relief after the intensity of the Spitfire Gallery, I looked in on You’re History, a gallery featuring trends from the past few decades, and popped downstairs to see the temporary exhibition about the cartoons of Dave Follows, creator of the May Un Mar Lady comic strips.

I must confess that I whizzed quite quickly round the first floor, just as I used to as a child, glancing at the world-class ceramics displays (including Clarice Cliff, Minton and Wedgwood masterpieces), art gallery and Changing Fashions exhibition – but as I did as a child, I paused at the cow creamers and frog mugs, and Ozzy the Owl, a 17th-century slipware owl jug, who was “discovered” on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow in 1990 and subsequently bought by the museum.

It was also interesting to see a more recent addition to the collection, a thought-provoking Grayson Perry piece called “Video Installation” which is actually a ceramic vase, listing 10 sorts of work Perry feels have become clichés in contemporary art.

Having visited the British Museum in London just the previous week, I have to say I enjoyed my trip to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery even more. While this can be partly put down to nostalgia, I was also surprised to find just how proud it made me to be from Staffordshire, where so many amazing things have been created over many hundreds of years.

As I enjoyed bacon and cheese oatcakes and a pot of tea in the cafe where I used to have a glass of milk and a ring doughnut, I found myself hoping that there are still children visiting the museum every week, laying the foundations for a lifelong interest in the world around them – and that they too will come back in 20 years’ time, and have to hold themselves back from running to see the skeleton…

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The Former WorldThis review also appears on the Staffordshire Newsletter website, accompanying a profile of Jessica Grace Coleman

Insomnia is never welcome but I had good company on my sleepless nights in the form of Jessica Grace Coleman’s debut novel The Former World.

In fact, the first book in the Little Forest series gripped me so much that it kept me awake and turning the pages, wanting to know what was going to happen to heroine Beth Powers next.

When the book opens, she has just turned 21 and is desperate to leave her small village, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. After a colleague is found dead and her lifelong best friend unexpectedly cuts her off, Beth finds her usually predictable life turned upside down.

As she delves deeper into the village’s sinister secrets alongside loyal ally Will and enigmatic stranger Connor, the plot moves effortlessly between murder-mystery and paranormal suspense without ever missing a step. A creepy scene set in a cinema and its dramatic aftermath are so chilling that I almost get goose pimples just thinking about them.

From the first page the characters are so well-written that you feel you know them. And the dialogue, which is deceptively hard to write and often a clunky let down in early novels, is natural and believable throughout.

For local readers, there is the added intrigue of spotting the Staffordshire connections, as the village of Little Forest is loosely based on Jessica’s upbringing in Little Heywood. Beth’s friend Will Wolseley, for example, owes his name to nearby Wolseley Bridge, and local band Poison Prescription are surely inspired by the notorious Rugeley poisoner Dr William Palmer. Shugborough Hall also makes an appearance in the novel as Chillingsley Hall, scene of a pivotal night in the Little Forest calendar.

While many loose ends are tied up in the novel, there remains plenty to wonder about. Why was Detective Chief Inspector Rick Wood roaming the woods in the early morning? What will Beth learn next about her family? And what other secrets is the village concealing?

I’m just glad that there are two sequels already available – and that Jessica has plans for a total of eight Little Forest books. It’s surely just a matter of time before this self-published series is picked up by a big publisher, so get in there early and spread the word. I for one can’t wait to find out what Beth Powers does next.

* The three Little Forest novels are currently available for just £1 each on Amazon Kindle, and are also availabale in paperback. See the Jessica Grace Coleman author page on Amazon for more information.

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We went to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance today (10/9/12) and joined the crowds at Blithfield Hall for the first time. It made a very impressive backdrop to the dance, although compared to watching in the village it seemed like it was all over quickly. My favourite spot to watch from is Rugeley Turn – you can get quite close to the dancers and then follow them into the village and up a farm drive where they dance on some lucky person’s lawn! [UPDATED 2/9/14: Having watched from Blithfield Hall for the past two years, I think that’s now become my preferred spot – especially with a lively toddler in tow!]

It seems like a good opportunity to post a feature of mine that originally appeared in Staffordshire County Magazine (no longer produced) in June 2008, along with some photographs from today’s dance. Please contact me if you would like to use any of the words or photographs.

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

For 364 days a year six sets of reindeer antlers are kept in the Hurst Chapel of St Nicholas’s Church in Abbots Bromley. But on the first Monday after the first Sunday after the fourth of September the antlers are brought out for a day-long celebration that is one of the oldest traditions in Britain. Hannah Hiles finds out more.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance – which this year [2008] falls on September 8th – draws visitors from around the world to this attractive 13th century village between Uttoxeter and Burton upon Trent.

While the first recorded reference to the dance is in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686, it is said that it was first performed at the Barthelmy Fair to celebrate St Bartholomew’s Day in August 1226. However, whatever the origins of the dance itself, one set of antlers was found to date from the 11th century when carbon-dated during repairs in the 1970s.

The dance consists of 12 dancers, six carrying reindeer antlers weighing between 16lbs and 25lbs, accompanied by the hobby horse, a jester, Maid Marian, a boy carrying a bow and arrow, a musician playing an accordian and a boy playing the triangle keeping the beat of the music for the dancers.

After collecting the horns from the church at 8am, the dancers perform at locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs – although never leaving the parish – until the horns are returned to the church at around 8pm.

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

The leader of the dance, Tony Fowell, has been involved with the tradition since his first appearance as a triangle player at the age of seven or eight.

“I don’t like to think too much about when I started dancing,” he says. “It seems like I have been doing it forever sometimes, but it would have been 1957 or 1958. My grandfather was the dance leader at the time, and my father was also a dancer. The dance is not only a historical tradition, but also a proud family tradition, so I suppose it was a natural thing to be brought in as a position became available.

“The tradition is important because it is unique. It is, to my knowledge, the only one of its kind to have survived, anywhere in the world. Even the two world wars, which probably caused the demise of many other British traditions, couldn’t stop it. In my own view, the dance has earned its own place in our history. It’s a living, breathing thing that goes back hundreds of years and there is nothing else like it.”

Tony’s nephew Michael, who created the dance’s website [UPDATED 2/9/14: link removed as no longer working] last year aged just 13, is also very aware of the power of the tradition – and made his debut at the age of seven with the bow and arrow.

“My mother used to push me around in my pram while my father, uncles and grandad all danced,” he says. “I remember saying the first time I danced that ‘I have waited all my life for this’, which gave my family a good laugh as I was only seven years old. It means a lot to my family and it makes me very proud.”

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

While the origins of the dance have been lost in the mists of time, Tony and Michael favour the theory that it was a fertility ritual designed to bless the farms with good crops each year. But, for the dancers as well as the audience, the mystery is part of the appeal.

“Some historians tell us that it is likely to be an ancient fertility ritual with pagan roots,” says Tony. “I like that theory. It sort of fits in with the feel of the dance, especially when performed at dusk, or night. But, I suppose it could just as easily been started by a bunch of ancient local jokers at the village fair. The truth is, we don’t know. I believe that it’s the ‘don’t know’ that’s so intriguing. That’s what gets people’s interest. Each time you think you have an answer, it simply raises another question.

“We discovered that at least one of the horns is over a thousand years old. So, as reindeer have been extinct in this country for longer than that, where did they come from? And so it goes. How, and why, the dance started is interesting, but the important fact is the dance was, and still is, danced.”

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

You can find more information about the dance, as well as a schedule of the day, at http://www.abbotsbromley.com/horn_dance.

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