Monday, 30 August 2010

Hell-hole, Bishop's wood.

I lives in a small village on the Staffordshire/Shropshire border from the age of 12. My mother had made friends with local gardeners, including an elderly woman named Joan, who had an interest in local folklore and customs. She told me that the woods opposite our house contained a gravestone that she'd never been able to locate but gave me rough directions as to where she thought it might be. The story she told me relating to the gravestone was that a local man in the last century had taken a second wife after his first had died and at her insistence he and she had drowned the two children in the river and buried the children in the woods.

I took the story for granted till some years later when I decided to make a renewed effort to find the gravestone. Based on what I discovered my guess is the woods she directed me to have receded over the many years past since the murders and the memorial is more likely in someone's back garden, or long since lost. The myth of the murderous step-mother also proved false. The children were slain by their own mother - whether this was a deliberate corruption as it was told to me or just the archetypal repetition by which mythologies become born over time, I do not know.

Ann Wycherley lived a poor, cold and violent life by all accounts. She was born in Market Drayton and lived there in the workhouse on Shropshire street. At 28 she was unwed and had two children, aged 2 and 4. She left the workhouse to elope with a lover that December and drowned her oldest child, a toddler, in Chipnall Mill pond, the side of the Bishop's woods known as Hell-hole, having walked the three miles out of Market Drayton, crossing the staffordshire/shropshire border.

 Bishop's wood is a lonely place, the sloping banks of trees seem to distill any available light to the barest of shade. The medieval glass houses would have been abandoned years before Ann stood with bloodied rock in hand but the ancient track-ways through the trees were the only route onward to Cheswardine. The snow would have been deep, the winters of 1835-38 were particularly harsh and unforgiving, the workhouse rags would not have afforded much warmth. Her inevitable capture some 8 miles further west at Baldwin's gate, enroute to Newcastle under Lyme, gave no mention of her companion although much was made of the fact she was simple and coerced into slaughtering her child by this shadowy figure.

In March she was tried by Judge Baron Gurney where she claimed to be pregnant to delay her execution but as it became clear she wasn't with child she was hung outside Stafford Gaol, May 5th 1838.

I spent much of my teenage years looking for the memorial, apparently a stone erected in the memory of the child at the spot where she left her in the snow that day, but I never found it. Ann Wycherley was buried in the gaol grounds at Stafford, the infant river Sow flows down from Bishop's wood to where she lays.