Finding the plot with Shropshire Archives – a guest post by Marie Kreft8th January 2019
When I began researching my Shropshire guidebook, I didn’t realise how much I’d grow to love churches. Trying new pubs and tea rooms was always going to be fun. I knew exploring hillforts, castles and forests would feel exhilarating. And I think most writers would find inspiration in old maps and local stories. It was a wonderful assignment.
But churches – their architecture and artefacts – captured me in a way I hadn’t expected.
Knights’ tombs in pristine marble, leering gargoyles, lepers’ windows. Shropshire churches are particularly rich in old treasures. I remember staring at the sandstone font in St Mary’s Church in Acton Burnell, thinking how the first babies to be baptised in it would now be over 600 years old. An even older tympanum in St Mary’s in Stottesdon is presided over by the spooky carving of a bearded and elongated face. While only a fraction of such oddities made it into my final draft, I filled several notebooks with scribblings about them, swept away by little histories. My first draft was a nightmare to edit.
Churchyards hold fascination for me too. I love passing through a mossy lychgate (creepily, the word lych comes from the old English lic for corpse) to discover the tranquillity and tributes within. That’s how I became aware of Caring for God’s Acre, admiring its gentle influence in areas of churchyards left deliberately unmown to encourage wildflowers, grasses and minibeasts. Like many CfGA supporters I love the way life continues among cracked urns and weathered headstones, the soil nurturing thousand-year-old yew trees (such as the gnarled and drooping beauty in Hope Bagot), or welcoming carpets of snowdrops as winter gives way to spring. (For an impressive snowdrop display visit Stanton Lacy church in February – and read the sordid story of Reverend Robert Foulkes, hanged in 1679 for murder). Lichen thriving on stones and walkways are often nature’s sign that the surrounding air is pure. I was so enchanted by an inventory of species recorded in the churchyard of St Margaret’s in Ratlinghope, which read like a witch’s spell, I couldn’t resist quoting from it in my book: ‘hairy lady’s mantle, smooth hawk’s beard, cat’s ear, nipplewort, devil’s bit scabious . . .’
Talking of Ratlinghope, do look up the story of England’s last sin eater, who is buried there. Richard Munslow’s grave is just one of many remarkable resting places in Shropshire. There are celebrities (John Osborne is buried at St George’s in Clun; Clive of India at St Margaret of Antioch in Moreton Say) and there are mysteries. If you can, find the grave of I.D., an ‘unknown native of Africa’ who in 1801 was buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Bishop’s Castle. There are unsung heroes (Dr Anna Bonus Kingsford, interred at St Eata’s in Atcham, was one of the first English women to graduate in medicine) and there are appalling tragedies. At St Michael’s in Madeley, nine miners are buried in an iron-topped communal plot, having plunged to their deaths in a mine shaft in 1864. The youngest were only 12 and 13.
When I heard CfGA was running a workshop – ‘Discover the stories behind the stones’ – as part of its Beautiful Burial Ground programme, I couldn’t wait to sign up. The half-day course, free to participants, was held at the Shropshire Archives building on Castle Gates in Shrewsbury, and facilitated by Mary McKenzie, Acting Museums & Archive Manager.
Until the workshop I’d harboured a secret worry that enjoying burial grounds meant I was somehow ghoulish. But meeting the other attendees allayed my fears. Here was a bright and lively group of outdoor volunteers, family historians, local researchers and council officers, united by a love of people and their stories.
The course didn’t focus on individual headstones or churchyards, but gave participants tools to conduct our own research using Shropshire Archives’ facilities. We gained insight into accessing catalogues, baptism and burial records, locally and nationally published volumes and newspapers. It was dizzying to learn that Shropshire Archives holds five and a half miles’ worth of shelving, preserving local material dating back to the twelfth century.
We saw original documents up close: funeral expenses from centuries past, grotesque skeleton illustrations. We were privileged to be shown the environmentally controlled strong rooms below the building, and meet volunteers and employees painstakingly cleaning, binding or photographing documents. It was exciting and enlightening. I’ve just started work on a second edition of Slow Travel: Shropshire, due to be published in 2020, and feel fortunate to have Shropshire Archives at my fingertips. I suspect, as a result, my next manuscript will be even more diabolical to edit. But that’s a good problem.
During the workshop I kept thinking about the parallels between CfGA and Shropshire Archives, both existing because of the simple fact that human life is finite; both preserving and conserving for future generations. Just as it’s uplifting to see bees returning to churchyards, it’s life-affirming to think of people busily cataloguing and digitising centuries’ worth of letters, photographs, maps, plans, drawings and other material – all those physical trails and traces we create, kept for posterity. Thank you, Caring for God’s Acre and Shropshire Archives.