The Sheriff's Ride

Have you got a horse? Are you looking for a different kind of riding experience? Can you cope with riding 20 miles with eight hours in the saddle? Are you free in early September? Well, why not take part in the annual Sheriff's Ride to 'beat the bounds' of the City. All you need is 30 to enter if you have your own horse - otherwise 300 might be nearer the mark. There are some rules to obey, such as the need for appropriate riding attire and an adequate level of riding competence, but otherwise you could be one of the fifty or so riders that take part each year. All this we know, because John Haggett, Lichfield's Under Sheriff gave members a humorous, but informative talk on the topic at our October meeting.

It could be safely assumed that most Lichfield residents are aware of the existence of the Ride, but do they know more than that about it? John delved into the nooks and crannies of its antiquity which suggest that it may well date back to pre Norman times, when control of land was power and the assertion of one's boundaries vital, whether be it those of the lord of the manor or of a town or city. However, 1553 is the key date to remember. Queen Mary granted City and County status to Lichfield (possibly replacing an earlier charter), thus removing the City from the jurisdiction of the County of Stafford. Along with this early form of local government reorganisation, came the appointment of a Sheriff and a condition - "... that the boundaries of the City should be ridden by the Sheriff every year, on the Feast of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary". This falls on 8th September each year. At some stage, the date has "drifted" to the Saturday nearest to 8th September. Coincidentally, this is also the most appropriate time for the Ride, because the necessary access to farm land is easier after the summer crops have been harvested.

Organising such an event in the 21st century is no easy matter and John has been at the centre of planning the Ride for many years. Paperwork, routeing arrangements, refreshments and police liaison are all part of today's responsibilities. Equally crucial is the need to ensure that all landowners are willing to provide access across their land, for although public highways and other rights of way are utilised, there still is a need to cross private land too. Consequently, over the years, the route has had to be modified to tackle changes of ownership, new road construction and rider safety.

John took us on a 'virtual ride' around the City boundaries, so for those of you who would like to witness the Ride, but not necessarily join it, here is a brief synopsis. The chief riders escort the Sheriff from the Guildhall to join up with the main group who have started from the South Staffordshire College Lichfield Campus. From Bore Street, at around 10.30am, the riders head north along Beacon Street towards Stafford Road. Passing Abnalls Farm, the riders head down the A515 to Elmhurst and on to Apsley House, before heading south beside the railway line towards the City. Cutting east under the railway line, the riders arrive at Curborough Hall Farm around noon for a short break. A couple of miles or so brings the Ride to the A5127 and Trent Valley Station. Passing over the railway line, the Ride travels down Cappers Lane then parallels the A38 to cross it at Darnford Lane. After passing Marsh Farm, the Ride pauses for a well earned lunch at Freeford Manor at around 1pm. Over 2 hours are spent there having a well earned rest before setting off under the A38 and heading west for Whitehouse Farm, before a good gallop ensues to Pipe Hill. Moving on, tea is taken at Pipe Hall around 5pm before two vigorous laps of Maple Hayes Park are undertaken. Racing, once an essential ingredient of the Ride, has long since disappeared. Perhaps the Maple Hayes segment is the nearest that the Ride comes to that, reflecting that lost tradition. The last lap takes the riders back to Stafford Road and so towards the Cathedral Close where glasses of sherry are proffered to the weary riders at around 6pm in the evening by the Dean and Chapter. So the Ride is long and quite arduous and not one to be undertaken lightly. Yet it is still going strong after possibly one thousand years!

Roger Hockney
October 2012