Interpreting the past in and around Stonnall
The Stonnall Mysteries
by Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons
At the western side of the valley, there is the particularly high ground of Castle Hill and Lazy Hill. At the eastern side of the valley, there is the high ground of Grove Hill and Church Hill.
The village is associated with the neighbourhoods of Thornes and Lynn.
This paper is not intended as a history, which may be the subject of another article. Rather, it draws on historical sources in an attempt to explain in what manner the village has changed and, indeed, how it has remained the same in a number of details.
The 1838 Tithe Map of the Parish of Shenstone
It should be noted here that the Tithe Map is orientated differently from modern maps such as the Ordnance Survey Map series.
The purpose of the map was to identify every property and feature of the landscape, including each field, house, road, footpath, etc and associate them with an owner or tenant in order to facilitate the valuation and, in turn, the collection of tithes, which were in that period taxes due to the state called the Statute Measure, and taxes due to the Church.
The map is large-scale and shows a considerable amount of detail. Every property is associated with a number which was entered into the Awards Book, which is a record of the accounts, and set against the name of every landowner and tenant. The amount of tax was calculated, entered into columns and added up by the scribes who maintained the accounts.
We will also refer to the following book, which was published in 1794.
Miscellaneous Antiquities, (in Continuation of Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica,) No 4, Containing the History and Antiquities of Shenstone
Rev Sanders, who died in 1785, was concerned principally with the families of the parish, establishing origins, legacies, pedigrees, births, marriages and deaths. He also sheds light on the various business transactions of the time, especially the sale or transfer of property. Shenstone's parish register provided him with all the raw material he required.
Although, as noted, he was mainly concerned with family lineage and property ownership, he relates a number of anecdotes that, as we will see, provide us with fascinating and sometimes amusing insights into life in Stonnall of 200 and more years ago.
His detail is a little short with regard to the exact location of a number of properties he describes, but several of the dwellings mentioned still exist, such as Lynn Hall, or their locations are well-known, such as Thornes Hall. Many of the locations mentioned are familiar to us, such as Wall Heath, Carter's Field and the Bosses. Others are less well-known or have been more-or-less completely forgotten. It is for this reason that reference to the Tithe Map is essential for us to achieve an understanding of his work.
Lastly, where there is lack of certain authority with regard to matters raised, I will state my own deductions and make it plain that I am so-doing.
The Hill Fort
We are standing next to a very impressive piece of work that would have required extensive planning, manpower and expense to bring it to a point of completion.
There can be little doubt that the hill fort was constructed by an Iron Age Celtic tribe that occupied the West Midlands and East Wales. We will have more to say about this tribe in a little while. Furthermore, I have collected all the facts, as far as they can be discerned, relating to the hill fort and constructed an historical theory based on them. This theory is online and can be viewed by clicking this link.
We now set off down the hill towards Stonnall and our next point of interest.
Chester Road, for its whole length, was once referred to colloquially as Welsh Road. The reason for this is that the Old Chester Turnpike Road was once a major route between London and Chester and hence to North Wales. Thus we may be certain that a very large proportion of the persons en route were of Welsh origin who were making their way to and from their homes. This fact is of great significance with regard to another mystery that we will encounter later.
We will now turn left and make our way to Shire Oak.
Rev Sanders explains the oak as the landmark of the boundary between the Parish of Shenstone and the Parish of Walsall, thus accounting for the use of the word shire. According to him, the oak still existed in the 1770s and was located "in the valley a quarter of a mile from the farm", ie near Walsall Wood, probably at Street Corner. This may come as a surprise to many of us who might have assumed that the oak stood next to the inn.
The oak of Shire Oak is noted by a traveller as still existing as late as 1846, but in a very poor state.
Incidentally, in the 1770s, the woodland of Walsall Wood had recently been cleared and Rev Sanders referred to its previous state as a "den of thieves".
We will now make our way through Brownhills - which, Rev Sanders noted, supplied coal to the surrounding villages, including Stonnall - and onward to our next point of interest at Watling Street.
Having recently encountered a number of attempts at explaining the mysterious use of the word knave in its placename, I now offer my own solution which, if correct, connects us with conditions that existed in this area 2000 and more years ago.
As noted, the hill fort at Stonnall was constructed by an Iron Age Celtic tribe and, it would seem, because of the proximity of their locations and their strategic situations on major roads, that Knaves Castle was constructed by the same tribe. That tribe is known as the Cornovii, sometimes written as Cornavii. Therefore, it seems entirely plausible to me that knave is a contraction and slightly corrupted version of that tribal name. Thus we may conclude that Knaves Castle means the Castle of the Cornavii. In support of this argument, we should also remember that the initial 'k' in words such as knave, knee and knight were once not omitted, but pronounced as in k'nave, k'nee and k'night.
We will have much more to say of the two hill forts, Chester Road and Watling Street in another article. For now, we must hurry back to Stonnall where there is more to be uncovered.
We now return to where we set off at the base of Castle Hill and enter Main Street from Chester Road. This is, of course, Old Chester Road, and it represents the route through the village that existed before the by-pass was constructed in 1920.
The Chester Road Triangle
Referring to the Tithe Map, we find that there were once two cottages located here and that around 1840 they were occupied by Mr Samuel Hathaway and Mr Thomas James. See below for a graphic which probably depicts the area as it appeared in the early 19th century.
Despite the construction of the by-pass in the 1920s, the cottages remained in use until they were abandoned and left derelict in the late 1930s*.
Now we may ask, how it was that an inn in the English Midlands took such a name. The explanation is, as I see it, the same as it is for the naming of the Irish Harp at Chester Road, Mill Green near Little Aston. As we have already noted, Chester Road was a major route between London and North Wales. Thus many of the people en route were not only Welsh, but there was also a very high proportion of travellers who were Irish people on their way to and from Holyhead, where there has always been a major connection to Ireland. Thus the Welsh Harp and the Irish Harp provided, supposedly, a home-from-home ambience for the straightforward commercial purpose of attracting more customers.
Stonnall was one of the major staging posts on the Old Chester Turnpike Road and, evidently, was very busy, because the original owner Mr John Smith, so Rev Sanders informs us, "raised a good fortune" from the business.
In the early 18th century, persons travelling to Chester and beyond began to favour a route through Birmingham and Wolverhampton and, consequently, trade on Old Chester Turnpike Road declined. As a direct result, the Welsh Harp ceased trading as an inn in 1762 and became a private residence.
The Stonnall Kink
Referring to the Tithe Map once again, we note that the village pond was located at this point. Thus we may be certain that the convergence of the two roads and resulting kink are ancient features that were caused by the necessity to obtain water, both for the Iron Age residents of the Old Fort and for travellers along Chester Road.
The Manor House
These are the facts concerning the Manor House as it was in the early 19th century. However, as we will see, the Manor House may not be what it seems to be.
The Swan Inn and its True Identity
Evidently, the Swan was an imposing structure, because Rev Sanders describes it as "a considerable farm" and a "very handsome and commodious" house. But where exactly was it and, moreover, is it possible that it still exists, albeit in a different guise?
There are three pieces of evidence that point to the inn's location and its true identity. Firstly, Rev Sanders informs us that it was situated "on the same road" as the Welsh Harp. As we know for certain that the Welsh Harp was on Old Chester Road, we may conclude that the Swan was too. Secondly, the choice of name Swan would seem to indicate a location near a pool: the village pond was located on Old Chester Road at the crossroads. Finally, the Yates Map of 1774 indicates the Swan Inn as a heavily marked rectangle to the left of Old Chester Road where the road turns at the focus of the kink (see above).
In terms of age, description, appearance and location, there is only one building that fits the available evidence. Thus, we may conclude that the house known as the Manor House is the original Swan Inn.
After the Welsh Harp closed down, an attempt to consolidate the trade from Old Chester Turnpike Road was made by the renaming of the Swan Inn as The Welsh Harp and Swan. Ultimately, this strategy failed. It is not yet known exactly when it closed its doors, but it was certainly before the Tithe Map survey took place in 1840.
The Village of Stonnall
Evidently, there was a significant survival of the pagan practice of Well Worship within the parish which, as long as it was expressed on Christian holy days, was tolerated by the Church. (We should note here that, similarly, the pagan ritual known as the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance was once performed on Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Twelfth Day.)
Rev Sanders describes it as: "...adorning such wells with boughs and flowers upon Holy Thursday especially, as was usual also at all Gospel-places, whether wells, trees, or hills. Upon such occasions the people frequently diverted themselves with cakes and ale, music and dancing, with other like sports and amusements; which were innocent enough...". He then adds, somewhat darkly: "...and tolerable in comparison of what had formerly been".
Rev Sanders informs us that there had once been a stone cross located in the middle of the street at Upper Stonnall but that, in his time, only the base of the pillar remained.
At the time of the Tithe Map survey, the property was noted as a public house, outbuildings, yard and garden owned by Mr Joseph Bagnall. The tenant was named, somewhat ironically, as Mr George Swan. Unfortunately, the Tithe Map did not mark the name of of this public house. However, it was the only public house in the village of Stonnall at the time.
We note from the Staffordshire Trade Directory of 1834 that the one and only pub in Stonnall was called The Harp and we can be certain that this was not a reference to the Welsh Harp because, as already noted, it had closed down as an inn many years before the Tithe Map survey.
Main Street and the Brook
Rev Sanders informs us that the stream was known as the Pen or Penk and describes its source as follows:
"The Pen or Penke, a pretty rivulet, rises in Upper Stonall, in the lands of Noel Hill, esq. called the Spring Pieces, most delightfully bubbling out of the earth in ten or twelve different places, nearly together. It runs in its channel for six or seven hundred yards, above that part of the Stonall road that leads to Aldrich [ie Lazy Hill Road]".
He goes on to say that "It continues its course upon the great road...", that is to say, Pen Brook flowed over Old Chester Turnpike Road, creating what was, in effect, a ford. Here we may note that when the by-pass was constructed in 1920, involving the creation of a new and raised causeway, the road engineers placed several conduits at the base of the causeway so as to allow for the continued flow of water that would otherwise have been obstructed.
The Well and the Wallongs
To the left of the footpath, we discover that this field in Rev Sanders' time, presently occupied by a row of shops, Westwick Close and Thornes Croft was known as the Wallong. Some 70 or so years later, we discover from the Tithe Map that the Wallong field had been sub-divided, so that the field presently occupied by Thornes Croft was known as Little Wallong.
For centuries, much of the Wallong area was a marshland which, at certain times of the year, would be susceptible to flooding that would extend as far as lower Church Lane, Main Street and Lynn Lane. Many of the residents referred to the area as 'the flood'. In winter, ice-skating was possible on the temporary lake that the flooding would create. The area was drained in fairly recent times, not many years before Thornes Croft was built.
It may be noted here that all the fields of the Wallong have produced crops within living memory, that they once featured a pool opposite the Old Smithy and that Westwick Close was named after the variety of blackcurrants that were once grown there.
Now, what are we to make of this mysterious name Wallong? It seems to be unique, because I have not been able to find a reference to it anywhere so far, except in the sources stated above. The first syllable might indicate a wall or a well, the latter being the most likely in the circumstances. However, the second syllable presents us with a problem: if it indicates the adjective long, then we might expect it to precede wall.
The key to this mystery lies in the Anglo-Saxon origin of the name. When Germanic incomers entered the territory in the Dark Ages, they would have encountered a marshy area with several pools and at least one stream. To them, the area was a source of fresh water and the features of the landscape that supplied this resource were known as waellen or waellan, the plural form of waelle, the word that gave us our modern word well. We may eventually conclude that it is related to another name that we will encounter in a little while and, thus, we will have a little more to say about it later.
Firstly, it should be noted that Cartersfield Lane is undoubtedly complementary to Barracks Lane and that they should be considered together as a single route.
Many of us will think of Cartersfield Lane as a way of getting to Lichfield Road, but a route through Hilton provides a better connection to Muckley Corner where there are more options. As a route to Brownhills or Walsall, it is clearly of not much use. We may think of it as a way to Chasetown when we consider it as an extension of Barracks Lane, but there is something much more important en route before we get that far - and that is Watling Street - the real destination of Cartersfield Lane/Barracks Lane.
So why, we may ask, was there a necessity in the old days for an alternative route to and from Watling Street when there was a very good connection via Chester Road? The answer lies in the topography of the area.
Chester Road does indeed provide a very good connection to Watling Street, but there is a problem with it: there is a large and prolonged gradient between Brownhills and Shire Oak. In times before the age of motorised transport, this may not have been much of a barrier for drovers, pedestrians and those on horseback, but for somebody driving a heavily-laden cart with a single animal, it would have been a formidable, if not impossible obstacle. Thus, Cartersfield Lane/Barracks Lane is no less than a by-pass that circumvents Shire Oak Hill.
Thus, in the old days, Cartersfield Lane would have been noted for the large number of carters who used it and, therefore, we may interpret its name as the lane that passes through an open area and which is used a lot by carters.
The Surface and General Appearance of Cartersfield Lane
The road surface consisted of three lines of cobbles: to the left and right for cartwheels, and at the centre for carthorses.
When the road surface required repair, labourers accessed cobbles that had been removed from the fields. These were collected by local people, who measured out a yard square, which was then built up into a pyramid structure with the stones. Road repair labourers raided these pyramids as necessary. Collectors were paid for their work.
The Mystery of the Carters
According to all the old maps we have, the Stonnall end of Cartersfield Lane used to sweep to the left as it meets Main Street and certainly away from the heart of the village. This proves that the outward and return journeys of most of the Cartersfield Lane traffic over many centuries did not pass through the village. There are several clues that indicate the real target of the traffic and, thus, we will have more to say about it later.
Fighting Cocks Farm - Another Mystery
It is placed very nicely at the junction of Lynn Lane and Cartersfield Lane where there was a lot of convergent cart traffic and hence there was the considerable potential for passing trade. Are we to believe that the owners of the house would have passed up this golden opportunity? And what, indeed, would be a better place for a public house? And what would be a better name for a public house than The Fighting Cocks?
Before we return to the Main Street end of Cartersfield Lane, we note that this end of Lynn Lane is referred to by local people, even to the present day, as Fighting Cocks Lane.*
The Original Course of Pen Brook
One of the mysteries associated with the brook is concerned with which side of the road it flowed along: was it the left-hand side or the right-hand side facing Lower Stonnall? This mystery can be solved with reference to an aerial photograph of the area from 1945. The brook's gully is clearly visible on the left of the road.
The whole of this piece of land on the left hand side of Main Street at this point, currently occupied by the surgery, school and a row of modern houses was, in the time of the Tithe Map, an arable field called the Croft.
Church Lane and Church Road
We discover from the Tithe Map that Church Lane and Church Road were once called Pound Lane and Thornes Hall Lane/Thornes Hall Road respectively. Pound Lane is easily explained as the way to the pinfold at the junction of Church Lane and Church Road. Thornes Hall Lane/Road took its name from the eponymous and long-demolished mansion, which we will be visiting, so to speak, a little later.
Wall Heath Lane and Lynn Lane
We may pause for a moment and consider the name Wall Heath. The second element is easily explained as "the place where heather grows", ie land that has been cleared of trees, but not yet put to any use, a wasteland.
The first element is not likely to be related in any way with the village of Wall, which is too far away to be of any relevance, and therefore we should expect that it is a form of the Anglo-Saxon word waelle for well. Thus, we may interpret the name as the place where a source of water flows through a wasteland. Clearly, the name is connected to Wallong: they both contain the same element and follow the same format,
Quebb Meadow and The Quakers' Graveyard
Eventually, just before we arrive at Mill Lane, we pass by a field to the right that is named in the Tithe Map Awards book - and mentioned several times by Rev Sanders - as Quebb Meadow.
Mill Lane and Lower Stonnall
We continue along Mill Lane and past the houses there. Again it was once necessary at this point to skip over Pen Brook as it flowed on towards Shenstone. In Rev Sanders time, this road was a quiet country lane, as it is in the 21st century. However, just after the Tithe Map was published in 1840, it was the scene of the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Stonnall. On the right, in the grounds of one of the houses, we would have encountered a steam-driven corn mill.
This was constructed by Mr Samuel Essington Brawn and featured a massive water reservoir that may still be observed in the grounds of the nearby house. A little later, the source of its water supply will become apparent. No doubt, it was fuelled by the coal mines of Brownhills. As to its power plant, we may speculate that it was driven by a Boulton Watt parallel motion steam engine of a type that had been manufactured in Soho, Birmingham since 1775. If so, the interior of his mill may well have looked like the scene depicted in the picture below.
The Brawns seem to have been a local family with interests in brick-making at the Bosses in Lower Stonnall. They are recorded in the Tithe Map Awards book as "James and George Brawn, brickyard, house and garden at New Barn Lane, Lower Stonnall". Some 50 or so years later, Kellys Directory of Staffordshire, 1892, appears to record their descendants, also named George and James Brawn as farmers at Sandhills and the Bosses respectively.
It is also recorded in The British Magazine: Volume 25 - Page 228 that in 1844 Rev James Downes, the first Vicar of Stonnall, of whom we shall say a little more later, married Maria, the daughter of Mr J Brawn of Shelfield, near Walsall.
Continuing our journey, just past the site of the mill, on the left we encounter a farm track that was once a short, but fully-fledged road that is marked on the Tithe Map as Twenty Acre Lane.
Footherley Lane and Mill Lane
We turn right and past the property with the namestone inscribed John Smith 1747 to our right. We might wonder whether this John Smith was connected in some way to John Smith, the first proprietor of the Welsh Harp who did, in fact, have a son named John.
The Mystery of St Peter's Chapel, Lower Stonnall
He goes on to state that he thought it had been demolished as a result of a law passed in 1545 which required the closure of any chapel that did not have sufficient income to maintain itself. He adds further:
"The South chancel of Shenstone church was built, it is said, of materials taken from Nether Stonall chapel, which is not unlikely, being different from the rest of that structure, and chiefly of brick-work; and, as that chapel was dedicated to St. Peter, there is a memorial of it in the work, namely, the keys which are generally given him."
The location of St Peter's Chapel, Lower Stonnall may no longer be a mystery, however. Please see the article In Search of the Lost Chapel of Stonnall for an update.
The Meandering Hedge
This area was once a marsh, or as it would have been expressed in Anglo-Saxon, a quebb, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Place-names. Thus the marsh took the name the Quebb and the stream that rose from it took the same name.
Evidently, in Rev Sanders' time, there was still a considerable amount of water left over from the time of the Lost Lake of Stonnall, not only at the Quebb, but also to the rear of the John Smith property, which was referred to as the Marshes or Smith's Marshes. Furthermore, there was a pool located in the Marshes, as indicated by the Tithe Map.
There is yet more evidence that this area at the end of Mill Lane was once very waterlogged. Firstly, as noted in the article referred to above, the entrance to Mill Lane is offset with regard to the end of Main Street, whereas a more direct connection would be expected. This indicates that travellers were obliged to avoid an obstacle when moving between Upper and Lower Stonnall.
Further, at the Quebb side of Mill Lane, there are some inlets leading from the roadside to a ditch that runs alongside the boundary hedge of the adjacent field. I believe that this is a very old feature that was constructed long before the surface of Mill Lane was metalled, as an attempt to drain a road with a very muddy surface. Indeed, it appears to be marked on the Tithe Map, as shown in the picture below.
Of course, Rev Sanders could have had no inkling that the combined flow of the Pen and the Quebb would eventually supply the water reservoir of the steam mill at Quebb Lane.
Thornes and Thornes Hall
Moving on, we arrive at the location of Thornes Hall, which was located approximately at the site of the Old Vicarage. The hall was a very old establishment and of such importance that its adjacent road was named after it.
Rev Sanders, without whom the place would be shrouded in mystery, has much to say of it, providing us with enough information to compose a reasonable history of it. Suffice for the moment to record his description of it as it appeared in his own time: "...the present part, now a farm in the tenure of Richard Farnell, is spacious and convenient, with a handsome court in the front placed high with brick, in the style of the house itself". In those days, the owner was Mr William Tennant, a substantial local landowner.
It is known that the south-west wing of the hall contained its kitchen, because the ground around it is full of broken sherds of quite high-class crockery. Evidently, the occupants had been in the habit of chucking out broken vessels into the yard outside from the kitchen door. In years to come, these sherds may be of considerable interest to any archaeologists who might care to examine the area.
At the time of the Tithe Map, Thornes Hall was owned by Mr William Leigh of Little Aston who was a major local landowner. However, the Awards Book notes no tenant, probably because it was in a serious state of disrepair.
White's Directory of 1840 states that Rev James Downes and Mr Leigh, attempted to refashion its structure to provide accommodation for the homeless of the village and also a free school. These efforts proved fruitless for whatever reason and the Hall was demolished. Shortly after, a new vicarage was built nearby and Rev Downes, the first Vicar of Stonnall, was its first occupant.
The new house was built on a plot that is offset slightly to the north relative to the site of the hall. This is because it may have been too much trouble to clear away the demolition rubble, and its wrecked outline remained for many years before most of it was finally cleared away. Even as late as the 1970s, bits and pieces of it remained visible above ground.
Thornes Hall and Cherry Orchard
Thornes Hall Farm
Thus what, if anything, was located at this place before Thornes Hall Farm was built? There are two pieces of evidence which indicate the previous use of the land.
The precise location of the Butts does not remain a mystery for very long, however, because the Tithe Map survey fills in the missing details. We find that the Thornes Hall Farm plot was known as Butts Head and an adjacent field was known as Butts Croft.
The National School and Sand Pit
Built in about 1835, this project was financed by public subscription, in effect, from the donations of local people. This was Stonnall's entry into the era of modern education. The school remained in use until 1874 when St Peter's Church of England School was built on the site of the present school. The National School wasn't demolished until the 1960s.
The National School was built on the site of an earlier feature, a sand pit, as shown in the picture above. The workings of the pit on the side of the hill can be easily recognised to the present day. The pit was owned by the Surveyors of Shenstone Highway and operated by John and Samuel Sidgwick. Evidently, the extracted materials were used for road maintenance.
Having now arrived at the top of the hill and looking west, in the distance we see the starting point of our journey, Castle Hill, and note how it dominates the area. In between, we note Grove Hill and its solitary tree. Grove Hill presents us with another mystery and we will be returning to it a little later on.
The Gravel Pit
Thornes and the Cartersfield Lane Connection
As we have already noted, this lane was a bypass to Shire Oak Hill for heavily-laden carts being driven to and from Watling Street. Also, the orientation of the Stonnall end of Cartersfield Lane proves that, over many centuries, the bulk of horse and cart traffic to and from Watling Street did not pass through the heart of the village of Stonnall.
Let us assume for a moment that most of this traffic proceeded via Church Lane, Church Road and Gravelley Lane. In these circumstances, the seemingly obvious target or source of traffic might have been the connection with Chester Road. However, this could not have been the case and we can be sure of this for two reasons.
Firstly, the Gravelley Lane side of Church Hill is very steep and just as unsuitable for horse and cart traffic as Shire Oak Hill. Furthermore, even if carters could manage this side of the hill, we can be certain that very few of them did so. This is because Church Road comes to a dead stop at Gravelley Lane: if carters were using Church Road as a means of connecting with Chester Road, Church Road would have continued on towards Little Aston but, as we know, it does not.
This can mean only one thing: the real target of the traffic was located somewhere between the end of Cartersfield Lane and the top of Church Hill. There is only one possible candidate and that is Thornes Hall.
This ties in neatly with the Hall's role as a trading centre. For centuries, it had been the target of countless collections and deliveries, generating so much traffic that a lane had been shaped by and named after the innumerable carters who plied their trade along it.
As far as commodities are concerned, we can largely rule out the bringing in of perishable items such as foodstuffs and beer. Stonnall was a farming community above all else and there is much evidence that brewing was a feature of the local economy, both as a formal business and as a cottage industry. So we are left with other possibilities, such as tools, earthenware, pots and pans, salt, clothing and so on. These things might account for some of the traffic, but they would not explain the importance of the connection to Watling Street.
To explain these mysteries, we should now take a look at the plan of Thornes Hall and note that the house appeared to have three large chimney breasts at the front. The associated fireplaces would have needed a good supply of fuel for at least six months of any year.
Thus, we can now deduce the identity of the commodity that was being delivered regularly and why the connection to Watling Street was so important. Many, perhaps even a very large majority of the carters were carrying coal from the open-cast mines of Brownhills and Cannock and delivering it to Thornes Hall. There, the carters may well have picked up other commodities, such as agricultural produce, to take back to their home communities. This scenario fits exactly the Hall's reputation as a trading centre.
We could even go a little further and describe Thornes Hall not only as a coal consumer but also as a coal stockist. We can imagine that one of the frequent chores in the winter months for many villagers was to cross the fields to buy a bucket of coal from the local coal depot, Thornes Hall.
The Carter Network
Groves's Leasow and Grove Hil
Looking to the left of the road, there are some fields and, referring to the Tithe Map, we note that one of them is called Groves's Leasow. The boundary of this field is directly opposite the boundary of the Grove Hill field on the other side of Chester Road. This may not be a co-incidence and we may speculate that these two pieces of land are related in some way.
Rev Sanders informs us that the Grove family were substantial landowners residing in Shenstone. And there is one other piece of land in Stonnall in Mill Lane, marked in the Awards Book as Grove Croft, located next to the John Smith property. Were they once owned by a person by the name of Grove? Even if they were, it would in no way explain the stranded tree, which is not marked on the 1838 Tithe Map, but the 1887 Ordnance Survey map displays it, including the grassy knoll that once surrounded it.
At this point we may ask: why did the Tithe Map not display the Grove Hill tree? There can be only three possible explanations for this: either the tree did not then exist, or it was considered too small or too insignificant to be included: the Tithe Map did not generally mark trees, unless they were recognised landmarks, such as the Shire Oak tree and the Old Chester Road crossroads tree, or unless they constituted a definite woodland area. Thus, of one thing we may be certain: there was not a dense group of trees, or grove, at the top of Grove Hill at the time of the Tithe Map, though there may have been a single tree or a small number of trees that the surveyors considered too insignificant to record.
Rev Sanders makes no mention of Grove Hill by name, but he relates the following anecdote when talking about Thornes Hall.
"Some persons of seeming veracity have affirmed to me, that there grew a thick wood of large timber near Thornes, upon the adjoining eminence, which, about the year 1718, was all blown down in one night by a strong wind. Others supposed, that it was occasioned by an earthquake, and observed, that the roots of the thickest and firmest trees were strangely torn up, and lay out of the ground."
Unfortunately, he does not identify the 'adjoining eminence', which could be Church Hill or Grove Hill or, indeed, it could be both. Even so, this could explain the origin of the name, in the sense that there was once a clump of trees, or grove, at the top of the hill. It could even explain the solitary tree, which might have been one of a few survivors of the strange incident he reports. However, we are still left with a difficulty. Can the tree really be around 300 years old, as implied by his anecdote? It has been suggested* that the trunk of the tree was broken off at some point and that this would account for its lack of height. It is possible that this damage was sustained as a result of the event which Rev Sander reports. If this is correct, then the tree could easily be 300 or more years old.
Another difficulty is this: why would generations of farmers tolerate a single tree and its associated grassed area taking up valuable space, not to mention the difficulty of ploughing around it? Could this be related to local folklore, which tells us that the tree marks the place of an ancient tumulus? Is it possible that farmers have known of this and sought to preserve the tradition?
My own theory is as follows: the top of Grove Hill is a tumulus and the tradition of it has been preserved for centuries. There was once a grove of trees at the summit which marked the burial ground and which gave its name to the hill. The grove may have been an irritation to generations of farmers, but its removal may have been inhibited, possibly by superstition or possibly by an overriding reluctance to break a tradition and an ancient feature of the landscape.
Then, as I see it, these are the possible scenarios. Either at some stage, a compromise solution was devised, whereby all the trees were removed except one. Or alternatively, after the incident reported by Rev Sanders, which removed all the trees in a freakish act of nature, a single tree was planted to continue the established tradition, or a surviving sapling was allowed to flourish for the same reason.
Until such time as more information comes to light, Grove Hill remains a mystery.
Along with some other names in the area, such as Lynn, we should consider Penn/Penk to be of Celtic origin, not forgetting that this area was once occupied by the Celtic tribe the Cornovii: pen means end or head, but in a topographical sense, when applied to a feature of the landscape, it means headland. Also, one version of the name ends with a 'k', which might indicate a lost syllable starting with that sound.
If this is correct, then the name might be reconstructed as Pencwm or, as it would be spelled in English, Pencombe. This hypothetical second syllable means valley. Together, these two elements match perfectly the topography of Stonnall and, thus, the implied meaning of the brook's name would be: the stream that flows from the headland of the valley.
© Julian Ward-Davies 2010
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