Putting history in its place – Lichfield

Anyone who has been schooled in the dark arts of garden history by Professor Timothy Mowl will be aware of how vital it is that you visit the place on which you are working wherever possible. Sometimes this is just to get the scale of the landscape, or its relation to other features within the wider area, or just to view it within its local context. Occasionally there will be historical clues relating to the place and its owners in the local church or in its proximity to another nearby landowner. I would argue that this is a lesson that can be applied more generally to other areas of history outside of landscape studies and I was reminded of this fact when I visited Lichfield recently.

I have had an interest in Dr John Floyer of Lichfield and his promotion of cold bathing as a healthy activity for some time. However, it wasn’t until this last trip to Lichfield that I quite understood the significance of Saint Chad in Floyer’s interest in water. This is not to say I am the first person to note the connection (this website does an excellent job of that- the spas directory), but, to my shame, I had not really taken this into account in my own brief research into the subject. After I wrote a short piece on cold bathing as a route to health in the eighteenth century, Susan Kellerman, herself an expert in this area, quite rightly mentioned that the one area I had overlooked was the relationship between religion, particularly Catholicism, and the health giving properties of water. I agreed but it wasn’t until I was in Lichfield I realised my extent of my omission. On visiting Lichfield cathedral where the St Chad’s gospels are kept (http://lichfield-cathedral.org/Cathedral-Treasures/st-chad-gospels.html) I learnt of the importance to Lichfield of this particular saint in the seventh century, and it started to become clear that St Chad’s well, which was recommended to the people of Lichfield by Floyer in the seventeenth century, and his mention of St Chad in his text on the importance of cold bathing, were rather more than just slight connections.

A trip to Erasmus Darwin’s house and Samuel Johnston’s birthplace confirmed the network of doctors and other intellectuals  in Lichfield at the time. But it was only on popping into a pub before catching the train home the real importance of where Floyer had lived hit home. Now I have mixed feelings about Wetherspoon’s pubs but one thing they often have are historic photographs and titbits of information on the walls. On one particular board in this pub they narrated how St Chad supposedly used to stand naked in the water to pray. I have since learnt that St Chad as a saintly figure for the curative power of water is often used in relation to wells and spas across Britain. So Dr Floyer, practicing has he did in Lichfield, would have known this story. The fact that he enclosed a well named after St Chad, demonstrates his direct relationship to this earlier Catholic tradition. Of course, one could always argue that if I had conducted more reading in this area I might have come across this relationship. However, I felt that this was a strong reminder of the importance of getting out and seeing where things took place as it can help to draw the lines between the dots of information and put history in its place.

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