Stafford’s Market Square needs some love…

Work has begun on the Shire Hall. It’s going to become a ‘business hub’ and got a mention from Boris in the House a few weeks ago. As written previously I’d much rather have seen an arts venue or cinema or, better still, a place for people to play music, perform stand up comedy or poetry, in a safe environment. Towns like Stafford need to do so much more for younger generations if they’re not to leave for Birmingham, Manchester or London.

However, at least the building will be occupied as it’s been the focus of the town since 1795 and is beginning to look bedraggled. High Streets the length and breadth of the UK have suffered due to online trading, covid and other issues. There are cuts to budgets too. But Market Square is the town’s centrepoint and it is being neglected. For years the stones have been patched with black tarmac, giving the impression of a toothless grin or a broken old chess board. The phoneboxes are rusting, graffitied and scratched. There are weeds growing on the Shire Hall steps and pigeon poo all over the entrance and steps to the building. Market Square used to be a delight at Christmas or at the summer cycling events or concerts and it still scrubs up well when busy. But it badly needs some TLC as can be seen from the pictures below. I do see this elsewhere but I also see towns and cities – nearby Lichfield for example – looking much better. Perhaps we need a Transition movement and this has to be driven by communities.

I’d love to see the Market Square looking great again. Times are tough which is why it is more important than ever we take pride in our environment and heritage.

Slogans and logos and branding, and vinyls covering empty shop windows simply won’t do.

As an update there are plans to improve the square and North end of the town. Report here –

There are no concrete plans yet but hopefully this will address the recent neglect and enhance the attractiveness once more.

Shire Hall with banners
Banners announcing the Business Hub
The Square
Tarmac like missing teeth
Phoneboxes in distress
Aethflaed never let the grass grow beneath her feet
Pigeons toilet

Satnall Quarry and Hills

Sunday’s walk was the Satnall Hills, high ground on the edge of Cannock Chase close to the Shugborough Estate (once home to Lord Lichfield)

Quarry face

The car park is beneath the quarry face. There is still a large working quarry on the Chase but these smaller sites once provided sand and gravel. I think this was Nicholls’ quarry.

Quarry from the car park

Climbing through the trees we emerged in heathland marked with signs to keep dogs on leads to protect nesting birds. Beyond that was the forest below – oak and horse chestnut and beech and sycamore and newer commercial species. Hard to imagine this land in the 1930s without trees.

Wooded slopes
Image from the 1950s of the Chase at Satnall Hills courtesy Staffs Past

However, as we can see from this Staffs Past Track photo, this is how it once was. Nearby was Brocton Hall Golf Club before it moved to its current home the other side of the village. This has always been a popular part of the Chase due to its close proximity to Stafford. People would travel to Milford Common for days out. There are tremendous views through the clearings in the trees across the Trent Valley towards the Staffordshire Moorlands and Derbyshire.

Mighty horse chestnut

The hills were known as Satnall by Robert Plot, writing in the 17th century. Tim Cockin, writing in his informative and thorough The Staffordshire Encyclopaedia, suggests these hills were once topped with Scots pines planted by Thomas Anson to commemorate his brother’s world circumnavigation in ‘Centurion’ in 1740-44. Satnall Hill is highest at 475 feet or around 145 metres.

Tagged, numbered
View through the trees

On the high point there’s a covered reservoir, pictured below. It can take some finding as it’s surrounded by trees and gorse.

Covered reservoir
Gated entrance

Far underneath the edge of these hills lies the 710m-long Shugborough tunnel. High-speed trains pass through here at around 100mph. The tunnel was built, and the main road moved, to keep it away from Shugborough estate.

The Soup Kitchen

People have eaten at The Soup Kitchen in Stafford for hundreds of years, but under very different circumstances. It’s a popular place to meet friends or family and grab something to eat and drink. In an age where there are so many franchises on the high street it can be difficult to find independents, but the Soup Kitchen is well worth a visit.

Looking down Church Lane

It’s located in Church Lane, in Stafford, just off St Mary’s churchyard. Stafford town centre is quite small – it was once walled in – but this is the historic, well-preserved part. As well as the ancient churches of St Mary and St Chad, the Ancient High House and almshouses are nearby (and written about elsewhere on this blog).

The building is very old, dating back to the 16th century. In his book, The Ancient Town of Stafford, Alfred Middlefell writes that in 1881 number one Church Lane belonged to Joseph Griffiths and his daughter Margaret Owen, a dressmaker. Number 2 was the Soup Kitchen, opened by Lady Salt of Baswich House, who was devoted to looking after the poor.

Nursing care was provided and, Middlefell notes, a blanket club was run for the poor with around 150 blankets handed out each winter. By 1903 number 2 became a lodging house for actors at the nearby Playhouse. In 1920 it became an antiques shop before it became the Soup Kitchen once more. It is run by Duncan Sandy and has seating for around 300. The staff are very friendly and helpful and the food is great. More of that shortly. There’s more info here –

In such an old part of town, close to the churchyard, there may be some restless spirits or at least rattling crockery. BBC Stoke reported in 2014 that a ghost ‘affectionately known as Ethel’ would turn hot plates on and off and objects would fly from shelves. An apparition has also been reported in the entrance hall. It’s a fascinating building with booths and snugs and nooks and crannies. There are rooms that can accommodate many people – it’s popular for afternoon teas and family gatherings for christenings etc – but there are quiet, private tables and a small roof garden.

Branded teapot

They have branded teapots and cups, saucers and mugs which are popular with visitors. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon tea a few weeks ago and today stopped in for tea and cake. The Soup Kitchen can get very busy but it was quiet this afternoon and peaceful upstairs. We sat with views over the rooftops and The Swan hotel. It’s interesting to imagine who has lived here and sought refuge here in the last five hundred years. There are plaques on old houses in the town to commemorate soldiers who left their homes for the Great War. There is a plaque here as houses ran all down Church Lane.

Jammie Dodger Blondie

This is a new home-baked addition and was delicious.

Closeup of the Austin

Duncan drives this Austin in on weekends to help advertise the business (and provide a focus for selfies). I like it as it reminds me of the Anthill Mob, but perhaps it has Foyle’s War feel to it in keeping with the tea and scones. They also have a bicycle with a floral basket as part of the friendly, nostalgic feel which is a pleasant alternative to many coffee houses. I’ve been visiting the Soup Kitchen for decades and also enjoyed returning when I lived away. My in-laws love to go there when they visit from Scotland. I hope it remains as busy and enjoys many more years.

The Soup Kitchen car and Church Lane

There are some great photos and a write-up by BaldHiker here, which really capture the atmosphere.

The Soup Kitchen is open 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday.

Natural Born Worrier – a poem

What do you worry about? It might be work, or fire, or getting to interviews on time. Or it could be food going off or handbrakes being left off, or trains leaving before you get there, or not having the right change to park (yes, there are still cash-only meters).

I wrote a few lines about the things that might keep you awake in the wee hours. Natural Born Worrier.

Natural Born Worrier. I wake up sweating it’s half past four/There’s a creak upon the landing floor/I start another day of worry/There’s things to do I have to hurry/I’ll be stuck in endless traffic jams/I’ll lose my savings in online scams/What if I’m a victim of road rage/Or I’m called to sing upon a stage/ The hob’s on fire, the door’s unlocked/I’ll drop my wallet and the sink is blocked/Doctor, what’s that constant throbbing pain/What platform please for the London train?/My wheelie bin’s not out on time/Statistics say I’ll suffer crime/I’m worrying someone’s come to harm/And I’ll forget the morning clock alarm/I’ll get boxed in and I hate reversing/I’ll be picked for the play and I hate rehearsing/And buying stuff for birthdays, weddings/The wrong toaster, the wrong bedding/I’ll trip headlong in my new sandals/I’ll catch Covid from shop door handles/I’ll fail to parallel park the car/I’ll go and choose that cross-threaded jam jar/I’ll choose the jigsaw with a missing piece/I’ll be late for coffee with Denise/I want black dye, I’ll end up with blue rinse/ I’ll get emails from a Nigerian prince/I’ll transfer dollars and they’ll let him go/He’ll disappear with his Picasso/I’ll forget my name in interview/I’ll catch a train for Brum and I’ll end up in Crewe/The ham is off, but the handbrake’s on/I’ll lose my place, my money’s gone/They tell me I’ve got to sort it out/But if I did what would I worry about?

Bluebells on the Beacon

Yesterday, May Day, we climbed Beacon Hill. It’s not much of a peak but this part of Staffordshire is so flat it gives views across to Cannock Chase, the Wrekin in Shropshire and the distant M6 stretching away north.

I’ve written about Beacon Hill and it’s fascinating history before on this blog – – a Civil War battle was fought nearby.

I also set a short story here, inspired by the surroundings.

Avoiding sheep poo we made our way up to the hill summit. I didn’t want to go into the wood as it’s fenced here, so the pic isn’t great but gives an idea of the fantastic display of bluebells.

Bluebells in the wood
Down from the heath
Looking down to the Weston Rd from the heath

On top of the heath the fields are bursting with golden rapeseed. It was a short but beautiful walk on Staffordshire Day. I like coming up here, as I did a few years ago, to remind myself there’s much to be grateful for. And on our doorsteps.

Towards town from Beacon Hill