Orchard Wassail article on Worcestershire Life website

I have written a short article for Worcestershire Life about the tradition of the Orchard Wassail, it’s origins, and an example of a modern revival of this ancient ritual. You can read it in full here: http://www.worcestershirelife.co.uk/out-about/places/wassailing_in_worcestershire_s_orchards_1_3186119


The Shoe Stones of St. Stephen’s Chapel

Redditch, in Worcestershire, is widely thought of as a new town. Largely developed since Victorian times, many of the villages were swallowed up as the town spread. The 1960s brought the town many of its infamous roundabouts and landmarks, and much of “Old Redditch” was lost forever beneath dual-carriageways and a new shopping centre. Yet the town has a rich history.

At the north-east outskirts of the town, the ruins of Bordesley Abbey can be found, along with Forge Mill Needle Museum, and the Abbey’s visitor centre. The Abbey was founded in 1138 by the Cisterian Monks, who drained the marshy land, diverted the River Arrow, and built this centre of worship. The community thrived, but after the Reformation of King Henry VIII in 1538, the Abbey was torn down.

Reconstruction of Bordesley Abbey from the West; from a painting by F. Woodward, 1866 [1]
Reconstruction of Bordesley Abbey from the West; from a painting by J. M. Woodward, 1866 [1]
Some of the site was spared destruction. St. Stephen’s Chapel at the west of the complex and seen to the right of the illustration, was allowed to remain, as at that time it served as the local parish church. It remained in use until it was taken apart in 1805, when it was “relocated” to the centre of the town and rebuilt as St. Stephen’s Church at Church Green. The new church was built using many of the materials of the original chapel, but sadly not everything survived.

The graveyard at the site of St. Stephen’s Chapel was left alone, with several heavily weathered stones surviving to the present day. Some of the oldest graves in Redditch can be found here, dating back to the 17th Century. These gravestones were made from blocks of stone from the Abbey ruins. Besides these historic graves, there are two stones, perhaps originally one split asunder, with some rather odd markings.

abbey3I first came across these stones about fifteen years ago. What were the markings? They looked like skittles, or perhaps a leg. This mystery was a puzzle that needed to be solved. Finally, in 2013, I was able to find an answer, courtesy of the Curator of the Forge Mill Needle Museum and Bordesley Abbey Visitor Centre:

“Apparently there are two schools of thought about the ‘shoe’ gravestone. Firstly it is straight forward vandalism, a person in the 1800s put his foot on the gravestone and carved around it. (The square toe on the shoe indicates this date). Secondly it is an indication of profession, for example, a cobbler. But as with lots of these things nobody knows for certain. The stones in general look broken as they are ‘recycled’ from the remains of Bordesley Abbey.”

If vandalism was the answer, then I can only imagine that returning 19th Century visitors continued the trend of drawing around their shoes, as many shapes and sizes are recorded. The Abbey ruins would be a pleasant spot for a picnic, and it is possible that the stone was used by day-trippers wishing to leave a permanent mark of their visit as casual graffiti. I personally think that they could be marks left by religious visitors leaving their pilgrim’s footprint forever marked in holy stone. These blocks were from the ruins of the old Abbey itself so surely would hold some significance to Christians. Not only are the shoe outlines carved into the blocks, but great care has been taken to include the detail of the sole and heel on many of these footprints.

"A Monk of Bordesley in His Working Dress and in His Choir Habit" J. M. Woodward
“A Monk of Bordesley in His Working Dress and in His Choir Habit” J. M. Woodward

Perhaps even, these are the shoes of  R. S. Bartleet, J. M. Woodward, and their team, who excavated the Abbey ruins in 1864. Woodward published the findings in 1866 in “The History of Bordesley Abbey”, and planted the Wellington Pine that towers above the graveyard.

A clue into another possible significance of the shoe stone, is found from records of the activities of the Abbey. St. Stephen’s Chapel was attached to Bordesley Abbey’s fortified gatehouse, from which doles were rationed out to the poor. Woodward wrote in his publication:

“When a monk died, his allowance of food was distributed at the gate of the Abbey for thirty days, that the poor might pray for his soul; and upon the death of the Abbott, his allowance was continued during twelve months. And not only food was given but raiment also. On account of one of their benefactors, the Monks of Bordesley gave away one hundred pairs of shoes annually, during his life, to wit, at the feast of St. Michael, twenty-five pairs; on All Saints’ Day, twenty-five pairs; on Christmas Day, twenty-five pairs; and on the Day of the Purification of St. Mary, twenty-five pairs; and after his death, says the deed, we shall give away at our gate fifty-pairs. These shoes had wooden soles, and the upper part leather or felt.” [2]

Could these carvings in stone have been done to illustrate these deeds of charity by those benefiting from the generosity of the monks? Could they even be drawn by the laymen of the Abbey as a “sign post” that shoes were distributed here, or even be markers used as a template for making the wooden soles of these shoes? I can only speculate, and I am certainly no authority on historical footwear!

Whoever left their footprints, it is intriguing to see these markers from lives past, and makes for an interesting detour if you ever visit the Abbey Meadows.

[1] Bordesley Abbey, Redditch: An Introductory Booklet, by Philip Rahtz and Susan Hirst

[2] The History of Bordesley Abbey, by J. M. Woodward

Forge Mill Needle Museum & Bordesley Abbey Visitor Centre website can be found at http://www.forgemill.org.uk/

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