Tamworth, Staffordshire: petrification in the castle dungeon, bell ringing in the quirky church tower and falling out with the natives

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I went to Tamworth two Saturdays in a row this month when I learnt on my first trip that the unusual double spiral staircase in the church tower of St Editha’s would be opened up to the public the following week. It was always a goal of mine to climb up inside an ancient church tower and so I was counting off the days to my return.

Tamworth used to be the capital of Mercia, the principle kingdom of England where King Offa ruled from his local palace from 775 to 796. In 1773 Daniel Defoe the author of Robinson Crusoe called Tamworth “a small, but very handsome market town”. Today it is known as a poor relation to the nearby snootier city of Lichfield although these alms houses are the business:

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On my first visit I had not been in the town long when I had a set to with a security guard. My crime was to take a photo of this clock in the Ankerside Shopping Centre. As you can see due to poor lighting, it was hardly worth the trouble:

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The guard shouts and rushes himself for there is serious action to be taken with a middle aged woman in his fluorescent principality. No photographs allowed in the shopping centre I am told. Where are the prohibitive signs I ask. There are no signs. Well then how would I know I ask. I am here to tell you he said. You need a special licence. But there is no sign, and therefore you are telling me (and any others taking a liking to unusual timepieces) that I have to wait to be intimated by you (even though were at eye level, albeit tightly). It is just a ceiling clock I say. I am not taking photographs of any townsfolk’s children I add. You are not even allowed to take a picture of the floor in here he said, his colleague now coming to stand very close to us to offer additional security in the event of any ensuing physical fracas. The exchange descended into sarcasm on my part. I am going into the open air now – do I need a permit to shoot buildings?

Jumping ahead, on my second visit the following Saturday I returned to Ankerside  and defiantly photographed the same clock. Nobody came running. Nobody saw. And still my shot was of the same poor quality.

Here are the mechanically flying fish in action on You Tube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjU27INC0zY

Bristling with the craziness of society I headed off to the castle and made the café my first port of call instead of the last in order to recover from the telling off. Actually I increased my rebellion. I retrieved my Vego chocolate bar from my rucksack to have with my cup of tea next to a sign which stated “Do not eat your own food in here”. Despite my being the only patron, the waitress could not have cared less.

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William the Conqueror gave Tamworth to Baron Robert the Dispensator who after the Norman Conquest the original wooden castle in 1080.

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The last people to live in it were the Cook family in Victorian times. One of them gave birth to a square headed baby:

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I freaked out when I entered the dark dungeon alone. Maybe you will understand why. My heart was exploding and every hair in salute. Well he looked real to me:

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Runes were used by the Anglo Saxons between the 6th and 10th century. The word means “secret” or “mystery” and their letters were used to write messages or riddles or to carry around as a lucky charm. Today they are used as a divination tool. I bought a black velvet bag of them some years ago. You were supposed to put them under your pillow as you slept in order to bond with your new friends. Unfortunately I had the worst nightmares of my entire life and never used them again, believing them to be the devil’s Norse code. Here is my name in runes:

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King James I visited 3 times and would have slept in a bed like this:

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Medieval bearded guy small sculpture:

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In 874 Tamworth was invaded by the Danes and the original church here was destroyed. In 913 after fighting off the Vikings, Aethelfleda the Saxon warrior princess rebuilt the town. Her statue is in front of the castle, shown in an earlier photo here.

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She named the new church St Editha’s after her niece:

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The church tower was completed in 1420 and is 30 metres high, excluding the weather vane.

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St Editha’s is only one of two churches in England to have a double spiral staircase; the other is All Saints in Pontefract, West Yorkshire. The thoughtful design made it very easy for visitors getting up and down after taking in the magnificent views.

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The Snow Dome where I almost broke my jaw on the crash barrier in the late 90s whilst giving speed skiing my best attempt.

FullSizeRender-5 copy The castle:

the correct castleHigh rise living:

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The alms houses:

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On the way down from the tower I pulled the fluffy bell rope which I learnt is called a “sally”. The bellboy was reluctant to let me on it as word came though that “Graham up top does not have ear defenders on”. That was his problem. I had not waited all my life to go up a church tower only descend a bell ringing virgin. DONG! And it was all over. As I rang I called to mind an ex colleague who had taken up the art as a child only because it provided a legitimate reason for skipping dull church sermons.

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In the ringing room one tonne bells reside. “Change ringing” originated in the 16th century with the assistance of a full wheel turn which gave more control over each bell to make the best sound. It all started when bells that had survived the dissolution of the monasteries were rehung in churches with the new technology.

I was glad to see the ringing room understood “Safety first” in the event of lightweight members of the band rapidly rising up to kiss the ceiling.

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In synchronicity an hour later I found an article on “The Joy of Bells” in a second hand Reader’s Digest. It explained that no musical ability is needed for this sport, you just need to be able to count and then spend several weeks practicing the method of “handstrokes” and “backstrokes“. Bell ringing is touted as a free workout, using many of the bodies muscles plus it helps to keep the brain agile. Once a member of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR) you are welcome to ring in any tower in the land.

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Ever wondered why policemen often get referred to as “bobbies”? This is down to the Tamworth founder of the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829, Sir Robert Peel. Twice home Home Secretary, he created the Tory Party who he later parted company with over a Corn Law row. He reformed the brutal justice system and stated the police force should be unarmed in order to help citizens rather than suppress them. Here he is alongside his namesake pub:

And here is his top hat and statue:

 

William MacGregor was a vicar from a wealthy family who devoted his life helping the poorer people of Tamworth enjoy a happier life. He campaigned for every home to have clean water and sanitation despite opposition from the rich elite. Amongst his many acts of generosity he invited children and orphans from the workhouse into his home for holidays, built 2 churches, started a free library and coffee house for teetollers, purchased land so that children had a play area and had the bells at St Editha’s recast. At the end of his life having lived in Egypt for a while he donated his souvenirs to Tamworth castle. Here is the kindly soul in wooden format:

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Tamworth is a very vegan unfriendly place with no decent cafes or restaurants. On my first visit I had a few small vegetable spring rolls from a street vendor as I presumed the noodles contained egg. As I was served I learned they are in fact only wheat based so I said when I return to climb the tower I will have some after my excursion. I was given extra spring rolls for free.

Next week comes around and I am very much looking forward to my proper meal of spiced noodles and I am given more free spring rolls. I purchase my box and head off to sit with the over-friendly squirrels on the grass near St Editha’s. Oh what horror. After eating the spring rolls on top, I spy chunks of chicken lurking amongst the colourful plants. I march back to the stand and have it out with them. I demand a refund. How could this happen I ask. I have no idea says the owner, greatly apologising and immediately handing over 3 pound coins. It was his assistant who had shovelled up the food, a young guy who looked like he had enjoyed an entire night of chemical abuse. I was offered yet more free spring rolls but declined. As I left the assistant was receiving a dressing down which included the advice “When people request vegetarian, it means they don’t want meat!“. You think?

I rode the train back to Birmingham and gorged at my favourite vegan cafe, Natural Healthy Foods. There was no photographic evidence as I was famished by this stage but here is the weblink:

http://naturalhealthyfoods.co.uk

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