Wednesday 10 April 2024

Dis-easter: Or, What I did on my holidays.


I thought it may be pleasant this Easter to visit my family and then head off to Lichfield, as my last visit had been nearly ten years ago. The plan was to visit Johnson’s Birthplace Museum, see some of the other sites of Johnson’s childhood and to visit the grave of Sarah, Michael and Nathaniel Johnson - partly out of interest and partly because it would help with the preparation of my novel about Samuel and Nathaniel.

My difficulties started early. My coach to go see my sister usually takes about three and a half hours. However, we had got near Luton airport and the coach pulled into the hard shoulder, then the driver got out. We sat for a little while, wondering what was happening and then a policeman came in, said the driver was ill and we needed to wait for a new one. We were loaded on two other passing coaches and taken to Luton airport. While Luton airport isn’t the most salubrious place to spend two and half hours, it was a beautiful day and the sky was lovely. 

The part with my family was very nice, then I boarded a train to Lichfield via Birmingham. Everything was fine until Birmingham, but then I had to get a rail-replacement bus to Lichfield City.  While this took twice as long, it was actually pretty great. The bus weaved in and around all the small towns and cities between the two and I saw a number of places that played a part in the Johnson’s early life. I also overheard a man on a phone asking if Deidre had received her Gretchen-chicker-shitter yet… I have no idea what one of those is, but the phrase has lingered with me.

I jumped off the bus and immediately came across St John’s Hospital, the chapel of which, Sarah, Michael and Nathaniel went to church when the roof of St Mary’s was being fixed. The chapel is newer than the one they knew, but it was still worth going to see. I wandered about, seeing Bore Street, where Michael had grown up, having moved to Lichfield as a young boy from a place called Cubely. Using the map from Young Samuel Johnson, I also discovered that his friend, Edmund Hector’s house is either now an Oxfam Bookshop or a Greggs - I hope it’s the Greggs, it’s the romantic in me.

I walked into the Birthplace Museum, to find that is is shut till the middle of April and only the bookshop was open. A little put out, as that was the main purpose of my visit, I made the best of things, having a nice chat with the volunteer there and comparing volunteering stories from the two Johnson houses. I then went across to St Mary’s church. The church itself is, again, not the one Samuel would have known, he’d have known it even less now, it’s become a public library. This is the point where my memory mixed up and I should have checked my notes. I assumed that the Johnson family were buried in their local church of St Mary’s, but actually they were buried in the slightly further away church of St Michael’s. Not remembering this yet, I searched the ex-church in vain.

Still trying to make the best of things, I headed to the Cathedral, had a lovely revisit of Darwin’s house, and then decided to look for the signposted item I simply couldn’t find on my previous visit, Micheal’s Parchment Factory. I couldn’t quite understand how it was still standing, as Samuel described it in a pretty ramshackle state when he was there… but there was a signpost. I wandered around the pool, saw ‘Johnson’s Willow’, St Chad’s church and well but not even a plaque to say where the parchment factory had been. This is where I had some luck. The woman I asked about it happens to live in a house named after the factory and on the original site. She took me down a little un-named alley, which she said is one of the oldest routes in Lichfield, and showed me the place. Score a little success.

Lichfield not being much of a twenty-four-hour city, I had a few drinks in the Angel before tucking myself in at my hotel - The George, the same coaching inn I’d stayed in on my first stay. On waking, I packed my little green rucksack, putting an un-drunk can of beer at the bottom and went my merry way. I carried on, ticking off streets and areas I wanted to visit and having a coffee in a place with quite the most hideous picture of Samuel Johnson I’ve ever seen. One halloween, three years ago, the staff put a bat on him as a bowtie and it’s been that way ever since.

I went an put my body back together by enjoying a fry up at ‘The Cosy Nook’, a very nice and affordable cafe in a seventeenth century building on Dam Street, the street where Sam learnt his ABCs. I then thought I’d knit the soul and visit Lichfield Cathedral. 

Dedicated to St Chad, the cathedral is a beautiful space, filled with characterful carved heads. I visited the ‘Chad’s Head Chapel’, a small chapel built into the upper walls of the cathedral, filled with painted angels, where pilgrims used to file up and pay their respects to St Chad’s sparkly, jewel encrusted skull. I also enjoyed the Chapter House, containing a range of fascinating books and a painting from the 1240s. It was sitting there, listening to a small service being played over the tannoy that I smelt something strange. The Chapter House smelt of beer… no, I smelt of beer. The can at the bottom of my bag had burst and the beer was leaking into my clothes, my coat and my bag. 

I had to shuffle back to the front of the church where the volunteer was. Luckily, I’d already been talking to her (and a fine example of a Lichfield Jacobite she’d been) so she helped me unpack my bag, flash my now beer soaked underwear to Lichfield Cathedral and sort myself out. By now, I was done with this disastrous trip, so decided to go back to London earlier than planned.

The city centre train station being closed, I had to walk to the one further towards the edge of town. As I walked along, I saw a church, St Michael’s, and it clicked - so I went inside, saw where the other members of the Johnson family were buried and paid my respects, even if I stank of stale beer. This was a great result for the purpose of my trip but it did mess my timings up and I got onto the platform just as the train I wanted left without me, leaving me sitting for an hour in the cold and drizzle for the next train. The next train I caught should have taken me home, but the next guard hadn’t come to work, so the train had to stop at Rugby, leaving me waiting on that station for another hour, before finally catching the train home. Then, my coat got caught at the ticket barrier and I was stuck till the next person could free me.

So, my spring-soaked, intellectual wander around the childhood neighbourhoods of Samuel Johnson turned into a beer-soaked, drifting around a fairly average small English town - with a few more pictures of Samuel Johnson on the wall. However, as Samuel himself said, "The pain of miscarriage is naturally proportionate to the desire of excellence.”

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