My Twenty Favourite Staffordshire Places

David Williams took us on a gentle exploration of some of the largely hidden nooks and crannies of Staffordshire in our June talk. Starting unusually by saying what he was NOT looking at (Lichfield Cathedral, Shugborough Hall etc), it soon became evident that David was going to delve into the history of some of the County's lesser known historic places.

Chartley Castle launched the talk. Seen from the Stafford-Uttoxeter road, these ruins remain in private ownership. Built by Ranulph Blundeville, Earl of Chester, in the early thirteenth century, they eventually came into the ownership of Earl Ferrers and suffered two sieges in the civil war. Evidence of the round keep on the motte (hill) survive, together with two, out of five, of the round towers. Perhaps this is best described as a romantic ruin. David's second choice was Tamworth Castle; but he only drew our attention to the fascinating herringbone stone masonry below the present entrance. It is some of the earliest surviving Norman herringbone masonry. Then off we went to Rushton Spencer near to the Leek-Macclesfield road, to look at photographs of St Lawrence's Church. Of wooden construction and weather-boarded, it is hard to date, possibly before the seventeenth century. It is equally hard to find, set on its own in fields! Your writer took a look at Pevsner's entry for this in his Staffordshire survey; "It's hard to take seriously" sums up the architecture.

More conventionally, St Chad's Church in Stafford was rebuilt by the eminent Victorian architect Giles Gilbert Scott, who sensitively retained its Norman core. So it's well worth visiting for its pristine carved Norman arches. Off we then went to Little Onn Hall near Penkridge. A thirteenth century domestic building with Victorian additions, its great interest lies in the fact that it was once one of the many moated manor houses that would have existed in Staffordshire. Littywood (near Bradley and Penkridge) is a timber manor house encased in brick with a c1400 great hall. Also, curiously, it was previously encircled by two concentric moats. Why? nobody knows. Haughton Old Hall near Stafford is yet another thirteenth century hall house which once had open fires to the ceiling prior to rebuilding around 1680. Milwich near Stafford revealed a former timber-framed thatched cottage - before we had a look at the well-known Rock Houses at Kinver. These are now in the ownership of the National Trust and well worth a visit. David reminded us that they are not unique. These was a similar use of caves for homes at Tinkerborough near Salt. Their name gives away their use.

His choice of Tixall Gatehouse was perhaps predictable. The surviving gatehouse to the long gone Tixall Hall, it was erected in 1575 for Sir Walter Aston. Its massive scale certainly makes the statement that was intended. Not far away, close to Shugborough Hall lies Essex packhorse bridge, at the confluence of the River Trent and River Sow. Only four feet wide, it was probably constructed in the sixteenth century. Originally, it had forty-three arches, now thirteen. Next stop was St Mary's Church, Ingestre. Close to the Hall, it is attributed to Christopher Wren and built in 1676. It certainly exhibits many of the features we associate with Wren's churches - unfussy with clean lines. In contrast, St Giles Roman Catholic Church at Cheadle is Pugin at his most visually eloquent. A riot of colours covering every internal surface.

Then we arrived at Sandon Park to view the Perceval monument. This sandstone shrine to the assassinated Prime Minster was erected in 1812 and consists of a four arch alcove let into the hillside. Sandon Park is also home to the Trentham Tower, being the surviving Italianate tower of the long demolished Trentham Hall, which migrated to the park as a free standing feature. Drawing to a close, we called in briefly at Biddulph Grange gardens where David singled out the China Garden as his favourite. John Bateman started his gardens in 1845. They are now rescued from obscurity and cared for by the National Trust. The restored water-powered flint mill at Stone was his next choice, followed by a stone built engine house in a disused quarry, beside the Stafford-Uttoxeter road. Unfortunately, the steam-powered pumping engine was scrapped many years ago.

The talk drew to a close with views of the castellated portals of Shugborough railway tunnel. No modern utilitarian tunnel mouths these, but highly detailed, castellated entrances as befits a railway line passing through a great estate. Doubtless they were the price the Anson family extracted for allowing the railway to "bespoil" their land.

You may not agree with David's choices; you may have your own twenty favourite places in Staffordshire. What we can all agree on is that the county holds a host of hidden gems, each with a story to tell. We just need to pause and look around us.

Roger Hockney
June 2019