A Great British Weekend – Lichfield featured in the Times

Late last year Visit Lichfield (the council’s tourism team) hosted a visit from a Times journalist. Members of our tourism association (LDTA) provided complimentary food, accommodation and entertainment, including St John’s House, Ego, the Cathedral, Johnson house and more.

The resulting article was published on Christmas Eve in the Times Weekend section, and is copied below for your information:

A cathedral city by name, Lichfield is full of small-town charm and character, offering something of interest at every turn

Gill Duffell holds up a candle and a woman in a wimple smiles sweetly at us across seven centuries. Her carved head, wrinkles smoothed out by time, is a quiet highlight of this evocative candlelight tour of Lichfield Cathedral.

It’s a chilly evening and the building is lit only by a few dozen candles. They cast a mellow glow on the stonework. The pillars in the nave soar up to the vaulting, which soars farther still before disappearing into the darkness above. It’s like walking through a stone forest at night.

The triple-spired cathedral is one of the two big draws in Lichfield, a cathedral city by name but full of small-town charm and character. The other draw is Dr Johnson, born there 300 years ago, who described Lichfield as a place of “real civility” and “a city of philosophers: we work with our heads and make the boobies of Birmingham work with their hands”.

Aptly, then, I’ve arrived on a train from New Street station in Birmingham, a subterranean horror that could effortlessly illustrate a sermon on Hell. The train speeds under Spaghetti Junction, so you get two great blights of the British transport system in one half-hour journey: a collector’s item.

I step out of Lichfield station into a very different world. Across the road is the medieval St John’s Hospital with its row of eight high-rise Tudor chimneys, built in brick. Already there’s a sense that the people who came up with the city’s tourism slogan — “You’ll be amazed where you’ve never been” — knew what they were talking about.

I head past elegant Georgian town houses to the market square, where the heritage centre displays the helmet worn by the veteran soldier Richard Bagot at the Battle of Bosworth Field — history suddenly confronts you, literally, face to face. The square is dominated by a startling statue of Samuel Johnson. He slumps bulkily in a chair, brooding like a pensive ox, his books stacked on the floor beneath him. It has such presence and power that it draws me back several times over my visit. Oddly, the near by statue of his biographer, James Boswell, doesn’t gaze adoringly at the great man. He looks a fey little fellow with a ski-slope nose, poised to launch himself into a nifty Highland reel.

Across from Johnson is his Birthplace Museum, a floor-creakingly delightful place that draws 14,000 visitors a year and, says the attendant David Titley, “normally seems to leave them in a good mood”. Many are devout (“pious, religious, devoted to holy duties” in Johnson’s dictionary definition) admirers who come to climb the zigzagging staircases to devour (“to eat up ravenously”) the many exhibits: his teapot, shoe buckles, bib holder, portable writing desk.

Over the past few days visitors have come from Bucharest, Cape Town, Utah, Brisbane and Solihull. Some are members of the Johnson Society, which celebrates its hero in fine style with an annual dinner featuring punch and steak-and-ale pie.

“I don’t think there would have been a vegetarian option in Johnson’s day,” says Joanne Wilson, the curator.

Later, after a convivially Johnsonian drink (not punch) in the Queen’s Head pub, I skirt Stowe Pool, an attractive reservoir at the heart of Lichfield, and join the group of 12 taking the candlelight tour of the cathedral.

“Come carefully, come slowly,” Gill Duffell, our guide, says. “Get the feeling of what it was like to be in medieval times.” The candle flames catch the gold on screens and tombs and lend an extra magic to two of the building’s treasures: the beady-eyed 8th-century Lichfield Angel, discovered only in 2003, and Sir Francis Chantrey’s poignant Sleeping Children memorial to two sisters who died very young. They sleep entwined in each other’s arms, as if innocently dreaming.

“If people have sick children, they sometimes say a prayer here and leave flowers,” Duffell says. Outside, the Cathedral Close resembles a cosy West Midlands outpost of Barchester. Turn the corner into it and the cathedral’s West Front rears up, a cliff face of carved sandstone, which is stacked with statues. Medieval kings and old men with biblical beards stand in carved niches, like guards in sentry boxes.

The whole city offers something of interest at every turn. But then, as Dr Johnson almost said: “Sir, when a man is tired of Lichfield, he is tired of life.”

*****
Need to know

Where to stay
St Johns House (01543 252080, stjohnshouse.co.uk) is a luxury B&B that’s a favourite with guest speakers at the Lichfield Festival. Johann Popp, its attentive owner, has created four stylish bedrooms in the stable block of an 18th-century coaching inn, where he serves superb breakfasts. Doubles from £105, with breakfast.

Where to eat
Ego (01543 258234, egorestaurants.co.uk) has a fine city centre location and a bustling big-bistro atmosphere. Its pan-Mediterranean menu includes meze, tapas, tajines and pasta (main courses from £8 to £16; terrific risotto).

Further information
Visit Lichfield (01543 412112, visitlichfield.co.uk)

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