The Wake, the Stone Cross and the Chapel
by Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons
Thornes Hall and St Peter
This historical snippet might give us an insight into how and why St Peter became Stonnall's patron saint.
Thornes Hall was a mansion that, for several hundred years, had occupied a plot of land situated somewhat to the south of the Old Vicarage. It was huge. When the Hearth Tax was levied in the mid-1600s, this structure had more chimneys than any other house in Stonnall and Lynn. Incidentally, one of its principal businesses was the cherries of Cherry Orchard (the field immediately behind the Old Vicarage). Harvesting this fruit would have brought in substantial returns annually - and that was in addition to the mansion's other trading activities.
For Stonnall folk in the Middle Ages and later, going to church involved a fairly long trek to St John's in Shenstone. It seems that, based on Rev Ward-Davies's historical observation, the proprietors of Thornes Hall could afford the self-indulgence of building their own chapel to save time and trouble. Of course when the chapel was built, the matter of a patron saint for the new place of worship would have arisen. From Thornes Hall's perspective, who could have been a better choice than St Peter? Did its proprietors select him because he was none other than the Patron Saint of Harvesters?
Eventually, according to Rev Sanders, the chapel of ease was lost, allegedly dismantled at its original location and then re-erected as the south transept of Shenstone Church, where it was referred to as St Peter's Chapel or the Stonnall Chapel and used habitually by Stonnall residents. However, as we know, Stonnall's link with its patron saint remained, marked principally by the dedication of the village's church. As we will see, there was yet another manifestation of this relationship.
The Stone Cross
He then goes on to say:-
What is he telling us exactly and what can we deduce from it?
The first part is straightforward enough: there was once a stone cross in the middle of the road at Upper Stonnall and that, in his time, only the base of it remained in place. But where exactly was it located? Careful reading of the second part, together with a cross-reference to a long-lost annual Stonnall event, will solve this particular mystery.
The terms bounds and processioning are the keywords in this text: "When the parishioners examine their bounds in their processioning...". This undoubtedly is an oblique reference to Stonnall Wake, in which the villagers took part an annual procession around the boundaries of the village.
Rev Sanders goes on to say: "...the Gospel is read at this stone, and the usual ceremonies repeated". In other words, the villagers assembled at the cross - and later at its base when the cross was lost - for bible readings prior to "the usual ceremonies", that is to say, setting off on the procession.
Was this tradition so deeply entrenched that they met at the same place even after the structure's last remnant - its base - was also lost? This seems to be a virtual certainty because there was no reason to change what had been a long-standing tradition that had been repeated annually over very probably hundreds of years.
It follows therefore, that if we can identify where the villagers assembled for the wake, we can identify where the cross was located. But, other than Rev Sanders' all too brief mention of it, what is known about this annual event?
From a couple of eye-witness accounts dating from the early 20th century, we know also the route taken by the procession: from its starting point - of which more later - an assembly of horses, carts, pedestrians and cyclists would move up Main Street, turn left at Chester Road, turn left at Gravelly Lane, turn left at Church Road, bear left at Church Lane and then enter Main Street once again, where it would terminate (according to one witness at least) in one of the fields in central Stonnall, where a fair would be held. (See below for a map of the route and a map of the traditional village field names.) This route, to all intents and purposes, represented a circuit of the village boundaries, as reported by Rev Sanders.
The Purpose of the Wake
An attempt to answer these questions should first recall that, probably at a point in the Bronze Age when agriculture commenced in Britain, the community that arose in what we now know as Stonnall was primarily agrarian in character. People lived off the land and were completely dependent on its crops and cattle.
Thus, it should be of no great surprise that, at some time in the remote past, a communal procession, based on pagan ritual practice, was devised for the purpose of conferring good fortune on the farms and fields within the village neighbourhood. This would also explain why the procession involved a circuit of the village.
We cannot even guess as to the identity of the pagan deity who was invoked during this ritual, except that we can be certain that he or she was some kind of god of fertility and productivity. This might give us a further insight into the selection of St Peter as the village's patron saint. Was he, as the Patron Saint of Harvesters, the successor of the pagan God of Harvests when Christianity arrived in the area? Early Christian activists and evangelists are known to have tolerated pagan practices as long as they were adapted and realigned to conform to their message. This would in turn explain why passages of the Bible were read at the procession's assembly point.
This brings us neatly back to the next stage of our detective story.
The Location of the Cross
That does not mean to say, of course, that the procession had always assembled there. There are one or two good reasons for supposing that it had not - and that is another consideration that we will return to later. For the moment however, we will decide whether we can place the position of the cross even more precisely. To answer that question, we first need to consider this: what exactly was the cross doing there?
The Purpose of the Cross
To illustrate this point, we can point out a well-documented ancient feature of the village that still exists: the Stockhold Fields (also known as Stockhole, Stockhol' and Stockhoult). Conveniently close to Chester Road and providing a ready supply of drinking water from Pen Brook at their eastern boundary, these enclosures provided, as their name implies, overnight accommodation for cattle en route to the lucrative markets of southern Britain.
Their human attendants would also, of course, have needed accommodation, whether on their outward or return journeys, or indeed both. And what better a place for that than an establishment where the roasts and ale were plentiful? We know of at least three Upper Stonnall inns that cashed in on the trade that passed on Chester Road.
Almost inevitably, many such visitors found themselves waking up on a Sunday morning with a bit of a sore head - and what better a way to clear it than a short walk to a place of worship that offered the additional benefit of absolution for the excesses of the previous evening?
St Peter's Chapel
Realising that this might be a problem and intending to be as helpful as possible to visitors who were approaching from Main Street, somebody had the brainwave of placing an unmistakable marker on the road just where it was necessary to turn into the ancient footroad that extends from Main Street to Church Lane, where the chapel was immediately visible. That marker was the stone cross. Thus we can identify precisely why and where it was erected and note that its position was only a matter of a few yards away from where the Royal Oak would be built eventually.
As to who went to the expense of commissioning it, we can guess that they were the same people who had paid for the building of the chapel - the affluent proprietors of Thornes Hall.
The fate of its base may have been somewhat different. Alan Ramsell can remember a substantial stone at the base of the stile that used to be at the Main Street end of the footroad that we have been considering. Is that where the base ended up?
© Julian Ward-Davies 2014
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