The Stonnall Tree at Grove Hill
For decades, the solitary tree at Grove Hill, Stonnall, has been the cause of endless fascination and speculation among residents, visitors and passers-by alike, to the point in which it has long since acquired iconic status. But what, exactly, is known about it?
The purpose of this paper is to gather any discernible facts, documents, research, circumstantial evidence and folklore associated with the tree which, in turn, might help us to tease out a few clues that point to its history and significance.
Firstly, we will examine the facts, such as they are.
- The word grove comes from the Old English word graf, meaning copse or small wooded area.
- The tree is a beech, probably an example of Fagus sylvatica, a native British species.
- It shows signs of damage, which was probably inflicted early in its life.
- Its age is uncertain, but a single tree at the present location has been displayed in Ordnance Survey maps for over 100 years.
- It may or may not be the last representative of a group of trees that once comprised a grove at the hill top, of which more below.
- The tree is stranded in the sense that it obviously never was part of a hedgerow.
- It was once surrounded by a grassy knoll, of which more below. This feature was ploughed away in the 1980s.
- The grassy knoll, at some stage, had a horseshoe shaped, 2 - 3 foot-deep trench cut into it around the tree. There are two, quite different, plausible explanations for the trench and these are discussed below. It disappeared when the turfed area was ploughed away.
Early map references to Grove Hill
The earliest known map references to Grove Hill by name are contained within three documents, all dating from the early 19th century. This, at least, is strongly indicative that the name had become well-established by the time these items were produced.
The very first Ordnance Survey map of the area, which was issued in about 1830, displays a group of five trees where there is now only one (see fig 1). The present tree may or may not have been one of them, but on a balance of probabilities discussed below, it probably was not. The group of trees undoubtedly gave rise to the name Grove Hill. The area is marked up as Grove Hill on this map.
The name of the enclosing field is recorded in the Estate Map (1818) (see fig 2) and in the Tithe Map Book of Awards (1838) as Grove Hill , although no tree or set of trees is marked on either of these maps at this location. That does not mean to say, of course, that there was no tree or trees there at the time of the surveys. The surveyors might have considered that the feature was too trivial to bother with.
The evolution of Grove Hill
This was the last remnant of the original grove
A possible newspaper reference
A contemporary report in a local newspaper stated that, after St Peter's Chapel of Ease had been completed and consecrated in 1823, the parishioners of Stonnall erected a tent on the 'nearby hill' in which to hold a celebration. This may well be a reference to Grove Hill, as the report could not have been referring to the hill on which the chapel was built, which would have been the same hill and not the nearby hill.
A certain newspaper reference
An extract from an article in Walsall Free Press and General Advertiser , dated Saturday, 28 May, 1859, states:-
Friday, May 20th, was fixed upon by the friends of the Stonnall National and Sunday Schools for the treat annually given to the children. A hilly field near the school, called Grove Hill, admirably adapted for the purpose, was kindly lent by Mr. Wright. A plentiful supply of buns, cake, and tea was dealt out by Mrs. and the Misses Downes, and a number of ladies and gentlemen.
These incidents might yield clues relating to the practical significance of the hill, which we will try to elaborate on later.
The origin of the grove of Grove Hill
Shortly after the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, this part of the West Midlands was covered in woodlands that stretched from Cannock Chase to Sutton Coldfield.
After the introduction of agriculture during the Bronze Age, more and more space for growing cereals, other crops and pasture was required. A piecemeal process of deforestation took hold and, over hundreds of years, great swathes of woodland were cleared, with the vacated areas turned over to farming.
Thus, the grove of Grove Hill was a remnant of the woodland that once covered the Stonnall area.
Why was the grove retained when the rest of the woodland was cleared?
In fact, during the period of deforestation already mentioned, it was not at all uncommon to leave a group of trees on a hilltop - especially when the area was thought to be an ancient tumulus or burial ground.
This might seem to offer an explanation for the mystery of Grove Hill, but as we will see as this story unfolds, things will get a bit more complicated than that.
What happened to the grove?
Whether the Grove Hill field was used originally as arable land or pasture, it is difficult to see how the grove could have regenerated over time because of the activities of the plough or cattle. It is likely that the trees died back one by one and that their remains were removed as necessary.
This process took place probably over several hundred years and, indeed, we can detect a transitional phase from one of the OS maps: in the 1883 edition, it appears that there was still one representative of the original grove still in place a few yards away from the present beech tree (see fig 3).
Was the single tree part of the original grove?
According to Wikipedia, Fagus sylvatica has a typical lifespan of 150 to 200 years, although sometimes up to 300 years is possible.
If the present tree was part of the original grove, it would be well over 200 years old by now. Judging by its girth, that seems unlikely, although its exposed location together with the damage it suffered in its early life might have contributed to its lack of bulk.
Another possibility is that, far from being a self-set accident of nature, it was planted deliberately for a particular reason. It does seem to be located very precisely at the apex of the hill, which might indicate human intervention, of which more later.
What was the grassy knoll for?
When the decision had been made to make provision for a single tree, a roughly rectangular, slightly raised space consisting of turf, about 30 foot square, had been placed around it.
While this was undoubtedly a means of protecting the tree's root system and its trunk from accidental damage that might otherwise have been caused by impacts from farming equipment, such as ploughs, as we will see, there may well have been another practical reason for the creation of this feature.
A feature to be cared for
The fact is, therefore, that there must have been a very compelling reason as to why the tree was kept and protected. This is undoubtedly of great significance and we will try to elaborate on this later.
The single tree under threat of removal or damage
About 50 years after the disappearance of the grove, a Grove Hill landowner and farmer reportedly intended to "plough up" the Grove Hill feature. Whether the target of this plan was merely the grassy knoll or, indeed, the whole thing including the tree is unclear, but unsurprisingly, this caused considerable local consternation, controversy and news coverage.
Landowner-farmer, Mr Ikin, made clear publicly his intentions, apparently shortly after he had purchased Manor Farm, which included the Grove Hill field, in 1945.
By the way, it has been suggested by Val Powell that he was dissuaded from this course of action by Harry Jones of Primrose Cottage in Footherley Lane, Footherley.
This abandoned plan is really only worthy of mention because of what happened afterwards.
Following Mr Ikin's decision not to proceed, a response in the form of a letter was published in the Walsall Observer. It was written by Mr J W Poxon of 104, Lichfield Road, Walsall Wood and was collected by Stonnall history activist, Eric Fisher, in the 1970s.
The full text of the letter:-
"I was very interested in the article in last week's Observer on the mystery of Grove Hill, Stonnall and I am pleased that Mr Ikin has decided not to plough it up. Without doubt it has a history.
"For hundreds of years, legends about it have always captivated the schoolboy's mind and many like myself have conjured up pictures of what happened there and of the kind of people the people who inhabited the surrounding country.
"It was often stated that a battle was fought here and the dead [were] buried on the hill. Some said the battle was between the Romans and the Britons; others said between the Saxon and Dane. It was not impossible for both to have happened, seeing the road nearby joins the Watling Street at Brownhills West.
"At one period in our history, the Watling Street was the dividing line, the Danes living on the north side and the Saxons living on the southern side. It could easily have happened that a scouting party of Danes could have run into a party of Saxons and a skirmish took place. I have not read of a major engagement here such as at Wednesfield or Tettenhall, but whether these things happened or not it has been recorded that the hill is the tumulus of an old Celtic chief of which there are many in the district.
"It was opened in 1824 and contained a sword, dagger, battle-axes, lance butts and sword pommels, so this proves at least it is of historical importance and should be preserved.
"Nearby is another interesting relic of the past - Stonnall Castle mounds. Many people have asked why there are no remains of stone, but they are wrong in their premise for it was not a stone-built castle but, in fact, a fort with a mound, moat and stockade. It is over 2,000 years old.
"Long before the coming of the Romans, this district was inhabited by Cangi, a tribe of Celts or Ancient Britons as we call them. These were herdsmen who hunted for wild meat and lived in settlements all around the Cannock Chase of which this area used to be part. Similar forts were built on many parts of the Chase.
"At times, these hill forts were a source of trouble to the Romans. In Saxon times, Ethelfleda daughter of King Alfred the Great refortified some of these old hill forts with wooden castles as a defence against the Danes. And so one could travel on through history.
"All around Shire Oak Hill there is evidence of it having been inhabited in the remote past. There is the tumulus at Catshill, Brownhills and the wooden piles at Pipe Hill. Over 2,000 years ago there was a settlement at Vigo, Walsall Wood.
"It is a pity that there has not been closer scientific investigation in this area. Present-day developments in housing and industry may destroy much historical evidence. I would urge that such steps should be taken to survey the whole area for what a story could be pieced together for our history books.
"Further, I would urge that landowners should preserve anything to which a legend is attached, for it may be very important."
What can be gathered from this letter?
Are we any the wiser?
At first glance, the letter appears to be a goldmine of information. However, if we ignore as irrelevant the several suggestions, speculative statements and various assertions regarding general historical events, we are left with a few supposed facts: Grove Hill had been the tomb of an Iron Age Celtic warrior; that it had been excavated in 1824, with various objects having been found; that it had captivated schoolboys' minds for hundreds of years.
The obvious problem here is that Mr Poxon does not state how he knew about any of these things.
Moreover, as we will see, it is possible that he conflated and confused the suggested Grove Hill investigation with another local archaeological discovery that we know beyond any doubt to be a factual certainty.
A Bronze Age discovery
In 1824, the same year in which Grove Hill was supposedly excavated, the field's landowner was William Tennant, Esq, who was based at Little Aston Hall. He owned an enormous amount of land in the Parish of Shenstone, including many of its farms. One such property was Gainsborough Farm, less than a mile away from Grove Hill.
While working near the Gainsborough farmhouse in the year in question, some labourers happened upon an ancient grave (now interpreted as a Bronze Age burial) and several items were recovered from it.
The point here is that the range of these excavated materials was identical to that described by Mr Poxon as having been discovered at Grove Hill.
Two archaeological discoveries in a single year? The same items found? Half a mile from each other? The same landowner? All these things are possible, but could this be just a bit too good to be true? Is it the case that Mr Poxon got things a bit mixed up?
The problem is that we just don't know. Unless evidence emerges that supports what he said in his letter, unfortunately, Mr Poxon's claims about Grove Hill must be taken with a big pinch of salt.
As to the fate of the items recovered at Gainsborough Farm, it seems that they were placed in the custody of the Tennant family, after which History lost track of them. An account of this discovery and the subsequent events and circumstances surrounding it can be viewed in this article.
But could this explain the trench?
As mentioned, the trench was horseshoe-shaped but, significantly, it was dug quite clearly around the present tree, presumably to avoid its root system. If the tree had been there at the time of a supposed 1824 excavation, it would now be nearly 200 years old - and that seems most unlikely, based on its size at least. Clearly, the trench had been dug after the tree had achieved a degree of maturity.
The hill and folklore research
In the early 1970s, a student, Judith Higgs of Stonnall, conducted a research project on folklore in the Stonnall area as part of a university assignment. Naturally, one of the items of interest was Grove Hill and, in the course of her work, she received several responses on the subject.
These stories included the supposed facts that it was the tomb of an Iron Age warrior who, when dug up, had been found wearing a suit of golden armour; and that the ghost of a Roman centurion haunted the place on midsummer nights.
Perhaps the least sensational and possibly the most telling comment was collected from Mr Ikin, with whom we have already met, as it were, about 30 years previous to Judith's research. When asked why the solitary tree of Grove Hill had been left as it was, he is said to have replied that it would be bad luck to pull it out - and that had also been the attitude of his father.
A deeply entrenched folk-memory?
Here it appears that Mr Ikin invoked superstition, in the sense that if a certain action were to take place, a bad consequence would be the result. In this case in other words and by implication, interference with the tree and the hill would violate in some way an ancient attribute of these features.
Furthermore, Mr Ikin is said to have reported that this attitude had been transmitted down two generations of his family. Are we to believe that this had started with his father, or was it possibly the direct consequence of a long-established folk-memory?
The Ikins undoubtedly had contact with their immediate predecessors at Manor Farm, the Smiths, who undoubtedly had contact with their predecessors, the Wrights - and this takes us back to when the grove disappeared and the single tree was left to mark a spot.
There was, therefore, every opportunity for a folk-memory to be handed on, family to family, tenant to tenant, parent to child, over a long period of time. But, if it ever existed, just how deeply-seated was that folk-memory? Could it have been transmitted over numerous generations for hundreds or possibly even thousands of years?
Going back in time
Returning to the Poxon letter, let us for a moment, then, give its writer the benefit of the doubt and remind ourselves of one of the things he said: "For hundreds of years, legends about it have always captivated the schoolboy's mind...".
So if, as he claimed, there had been a long-established tradition of folklore associated with Grove Hill, which was perfectly possible, especially in the light of what Mr Ikin had said, we should be able to find references to that tradition in the work of some eminent local historians and antiquarians in preceding centuries:-
Dr Robert Plott's Stonnall visit
In 1680, a professor of chemistry at Oxford University, Dr Robert Plott, visited Stonnall to investigate the hill fort at Castle Hill. We know that he had at least one local informant, Mr Brown (who was in all likelihood one of the Brown family of Thornes Hall and Footherley Hall). If Dr Plott had been informed of an Iron Age tumulus at Grove Hill, we would most certainly have expected him to mention it in his account because it would have been additional confirmation of prehistoric activity in the Stonnall area.
Reverend Henry Sanders' curacy and book
A couple of generations later in the mid-18th century, Reverend Henry Sanders was a curate in the Parish of Shenstone. As a parishioner for many years, he knew Stonnall intimately and his knowledge and experience of the village would eventually be recorded in his book The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Shenstone. In this book, he described in great detail all the local landmarks and any and all folklore associated with them. If he had known that Grove Hill was reputed to be a tumulus, he would most certainly have written as much in his book.
Reverend Stebbing Shaw's survey
Finally we come to Reverend Stebbing Shaw. His book, A Survey of Staffordshire, was published in about 1800. Although his coverage of Stonnall was less detailed than that of Rev Sanders, he covered all the local historical landmarks and we would therefore expect him to report a supposed Iron Age monument at Grove Hill.
What did they say about Grove Hill?
The fact is that, as far as Grove Hill is concerned, all three men are completely silent.
As non-residents, Dr Plott and Rev Shaw could be forgiven for an act of omission in failing to give notice to Grove Hill, if there ever was anything to give notice about, that is. But the same could not be said of Rev Sanders. As one of the parish clergymen, clearly, he had travelled the roads and footpaths around the village. He had definitely visited nearby Thornes Hall in Church Road and, although we don't know it for a fact, probably on at least one occasion he had walked or ridden to the top of the hill to admire the views. He must have known Grove Hill.
So why did he fail to mention it? There really can be only one reason. Since no-one had reported any stories associated with it, as far as he was concerned, Grove Hill was a good viewpoint but an otherwise unremarkable hill with a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable group of trees on top of it. In short, it simply was not notable enough to exercise his writing hand. Ditto Dr Plott and ditto Rev Shaw.
Is this the end of the story?
From this we can conclude that there appears to have been no current local folklore pertaining to Grove Hill in quite a long period, extending from the late 1600s to the early 1800s.
Moreover, if we are to consider folklore as valid in any way, that is to say, that it relates to actual events and cirumstances of the remote past, we would expect it to be reported continuously in an unbroken chain. Clearly, in this case and over an extended period of time, it was not.
And therefore, unfortunately, we can conclude that Mr Poxon's claims were fanciful.
For the same reason, we can conclude that any and all stories associated with the tree and the hill, such as those collected by Judith Higgs, are recent fabrications, or - to be blunt - groundless myths.
Nevertheless, there must be an explanation for the single tree and the grassy knoll. This leads us to a reconstructed narrative of the story of Grove Hill, taking into account everything we have discussed and noted so far, which will solve its mystery once and for all.
The story might have begun over 2,000 years ago when the hill fort at Castle Hill projected the power and prestige of an Iron Age tribe, the Cornavii. If ever there was an associated local hero deserving of a very special location for a final resting place, Grove Hill would certainly have been such a place.
About 1,500 years later, when most of the hill's tree covering was removed, a grove was left behind, possibly in a superstitious response to a half-forgotten folk-memory of an ancient burial.
The grove was incapable of regeneration because of farming activities and it gradually died away over the succeeding 300 years or so. Over this period, all associated folklore, if ever there was any, appears to have been forgotten. The last representative of the grove disappeared in the late 19th century.
Even before that event, the landowner of the time in the mid-19th century, who was certainly one of the Wright family of Manor Farm, took action that would result in the creation of the feature we still recognise today. Why did he do this?
As we have seen, Grove Hill was probably the location for the celebration following the opening of St Peter's Chapel of Ease in 1823 and certainly the location of a children's party in 1859. These incidents give us a clue as to how the hill was regarded by Stonnall people in the Old Days. Bearing in mind that there was no public space in the village until the late 1960s, it seems to have been used for public gatherings occasionally. it is also very likely that Grove Hill was the place to which people would take a walk and admire the views for a while, especially after harvest time. Stonnall people had probably been doing this for hundreds, possibly even thousands of years.
From the newspaper report of 1859, we have seen how the landowner "admirably adapted" the hill "for the purpose" of holding a children's party. This adaptation must surely be a reference to the laying of the turfed area on top of the hill.
In recognition of the fact that the hill was a semi-public place, the turf served as a platform for visitors to stand or sit on and helped to prevent wear and tear to the hilltop. Recognising also that the last remnant of the old grove would soon be lost, at about the same time, the landowner placed a beech tree at the apex of the hill.
Thus, what we see now, what we remember of the tree and the grassy knoll and what we see in old photos is the result - no more and no less - of a slightly eccentric but wonderful piece of landscape gardening.
Perhaps a few years after the tree was planted, the upper part of its trunk was broken off, probably as a result of vandalism. Nevertheless, the tree survives to the present day, but with the damage still clearly visible during the winter months.
At some stage, a trench was cut into the grassy knoll. As noted, there are two plausible anecdotal explanations for this:-
- The trench was dug by archaeologists who believed that the single tree marked a tumulus.
- The trench was dug by the Home Guard during the Second World War (as related by George Clarke).
There is no direct evidence for either of these explanations and yet the trench was dug by somebody for a particular reason.
If it was the result of the activities of archaeologists, it must have been dug some years after the tree was planted and the surrounding turfed area was laid. However, archaeologists always backfill their trenches and this would seem to rule out professional archaeology at least.
The wartime Home Guard was based in the first floor of the former Kennings Garage at Shire Oak. It is said that they dug the trench to enable them to use the hill as a look-out point. It is certainly true that the horseshoe-shaped trench overlooked the whole village.
There can be no real doubt that it was George Wright (b about 1827) of Manor Farm who arranged for the tree to be planted on his land at Grove Hill, directly in line with his house. Indeed, the tree is placed so precisely on the horizon relative to the Manor House that we can be absolutely certain that instructions for its exact placement were indicated from the house at the moment the tree was planted.
When did this event take place?
The tree appears on an 1883 OS map (fig 3), showing that the feature was well-established during the years of survey that preceded the map's publication. We have seen how Mr Wright adapted the hill top in 1859 for a children's party. That the tree was planted at the same time as the turf was laid would be a fair guess, but either of these features could have been forethoughts or afterthoughts relative to each other.
If we allow for a window of opportunity of 10 years straddling the adaptation event, the tree was planted at a point somewhere between 1855 and 1865. This would age it as between 150 and 160 years old at time of writing.
© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons 2015
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