diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 11, 2015

Gold Card day out: LICHFIELD

Now that the Gold Card discount zone has been extended, for those of us with annual season tickets, a large chunk of the Midlands and East Anglia is suddenly much cheaper to get to. Pick your train and time right and you can even reach Birmingham for under £20 without the need to book anything in advance.

So, Lichfield... a cathedral city in south Staffordshire, just north of Birmingham, and 116 miles from London. It's on the West Coast mainline so has a decent service from London, travelling via London Midland rather than Virgin Trains. The fastest trains to Lichfield Trent Valley take only an hour and a half, which is damned impressive for such a distance. From there a swift change and one more stop gets you to Lichfield City, which is better placed for the town centre, so is the best station to ask for on your ticket. An off-peak return's £37, which we Gold Carders get at one third off (ie nearer £25) so long as you travel after 0930 or at the weekend. But there's also a Super Off-Peak ticket, which costs even less, so long as you get the terms and conditions right. Departure from London must be after 1030, even on a Saturday, and you have to avoid a return train leaving between 1630 and 1930. But that still allows you to reach Lichfield before noon, and depart after four, which is plenty long enough to see the major highlights. And for £17.15, a bargain.

Lichfield Cathedral
Before Birmingham took the mantle of Midlands top dog, responsibility was held (at least briefly) by See of Lichfield. Bishop Chad based himself here in the long-ago year of 669, while the Cathedral itself began as an early Norman affair. The building suffered enormously during the Civil War, substantially demolished during three sieges by Parliamentary fire. But reconstruction was swift, and restoration under Sir George Gilbert Scott a Gothic triumph, maintaining the three trademark spires as an unmissable landmark on the local skyline. Good news - entrance is free. Perhaps less good news - you can't get in (outside service times) without passing a cassocked official stood by a strategically placed table making subtle noises about donations. The building has the feel of a very typical cathedral, perhaps not especially outstanding, but with a lovely wholeness all the same. All the stained glass windows at the far end are in the process of being restored and replaced, so the view from the High Altar is mostly scaffolding at present, but they'll be sorted soon and a rededication service is planned. Tucked in one corner is the white marble sculpture of The Sleeping Children ("oh just Google it", according to the verger on the door). The cafe's outside in the Close, which is also archetypally attractive, and adjacent to which is...

Erasmus Darwin House
You may know his grandson Charles much better, but Erasmus was Lichfield's go-to polymath and aesthete in the 18th century. Ostensibly a local doctor, though with skills of national renown, he also found time to be a skilled botanist, inventor and poet. As a member of Birmingham's illustrious Lunar Society his scientific acquaintances included Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgwood, even on one occasion Benjamin Franklin. And his life is explored in some detail in his former Lichfield home, now a museum (open Thursdays to Sundays, should you come visiting). Again admittance is free, but expect to be nudged even more than at the cathedral to consider leaving an entrance-fee-sized donation. Mocked-up inventions on display include a horizontal windmill and an automatic water closet, and there's also a room focusing on Zoonomia, Erasmus's seminal biological treatise which hinted at the theory of evolution long before young Charles clarified everything. An audio tour is available, though on fairly basic equipment requiring an awkward amount of fast-forwarding if you insist on walking round in the wrong order. But by the end of your visit you'll know a lot more about Lichfield's second most famous son, the first being...

Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum
England's foremost lexicographer was born in 1709 in a large townhouse overlooking the Market Square. Samuel Johnson grew up as the son of a bookseller, so the words thing was always there. A bright boy, his time at Oxford was cut short through lack of financial resources so he threw himself into journalism, schoolteaching and translation. A move to London eventually led to a commission to compile a dictionary, and it's for this mammoth task, and his witty repartee, that Doctor Johnson is best known. The museum tells his story well, and with some degree of charm, helped not a little by the period nature of the accommodation. There are twisty stairs to climb, and restored rooms to explore, and plenty of paraphernalia in cabinets and on the walls. On the first floor is a not-too-long video to watch, while a couple of well-thumbed copies of his dictionary are available to flick through upstairs. Most charming of all, the first room downstairs is a proper second hand bookshop, well worth a browse, and entirely appropriate for both the great man and his childhood home. If you fancy a look around without actually visiting, you'll likely enjoy this virtual tour. And finally...

Lichfield Heritage Centre
Not all of the spires on the skyline belong to the cathedral, one is that of St Mary's parish church by the Market Square. The altar end survives as a small chapel, but the remainder of this large building has been filled with a different kind of attraction. In the former nave are a gift shop, the city's tourist information centre and fairly bland cafe. Pay some money and you can climb the stairs to a museum which tells The Lichfield Story - the usual sequential narrative from the Celts to the present day. It's packed with detail, in a town that's seen more than its fair share of history, but also a little low key and I hoped I'd enjoy the experience more. I also found it most odd walking around floors inside the body of a church, but there is a bonus to this, which is the (occasional) availability of tours up the spire to look out across the whole of Lichfield. I may not have given the city a large allocation of my time, but there was plenty to cram in, and back in London again by six, result. [3 photos]

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