Now a little-known backwater accessed via a dead-end lane, in the Middle Ages Shotwick was an important communication route sporting a church, settlement, manor and nearby royal castle. It was linked to Chester and Neston by road: the key artery of communication from Chester up to the westside of the Wirral peninsula.
Its particular significance, however, derived from it being on the Dee estuary. Before its canalisation in the early 18th century, a ford to Wales and port for travel to Ireland existed here. The former route was utilised by both Henry III and later Edward I in their respective military campaigns (Hartwell et al 2011: 583-584; Whitfield nd.). The ford was last navigated at the very end of the 18th century before slipping into disuse.
In this post, I wish to focus on the strikingly well-preserved historic churchyard: untouched in part because of the small size of the community and the relatively isolated situation, and how I caught it in fabulous light for photographs.
The church of St Michael, Shotwick, Puddington parish, Wirral, Cheshire, is a Grade I listed medieval church of mainly New Red Sandstone. It posses a 12th-century porch with chevrons and outer chequers. There is a Perpendicular Gothic tower of c. 1500, a two-aisled 3-bay south aisle nave and a 3-bay chancel of 14th-century date, with a 6-bay north aisle and chapel. It contains 18th-century box-pews and contemporary furniture including a three-decker pulpit. The church was restored in 1851.
Outside, the churchyard is a fabulous set of 18th-century and 19th-century tomb-chests and other funerary monuments packed on the south side of the church, including the tomb of William Briscoe (d. 1704), William Briscoe (d. 1723), Rev M Reay & 4 children (from 1767), James Phillips (1780), John Nevett Bennett (dated to 1787), Robert and Martha Ellison (1812) listed as Grade II.
Beyond these facts, published information I have accessed does not deal in any depth with the evolution of this small churchyard through the 18th to 21st centuries. While only a brief photographic sketch, blessed by strong oblique light, this photographic survey at least gives an impression of a rare example of a churchyard relatively unhindered by later clearance and reorganisation.
First, let me capture some of the striking 18th and 19th-century gravestones, including table tombs and tomb-chests. Due to the amazing light of my visit, a few years back before the lockdown it so happens, I was able to capture the textures, the moss and lichens, the incised texts, in a striking fashion. What a feast for funerary eyes! Just look at those tombs jostle and jumble!
Here are some more, showing the changing memorial traditions of the late 19th and 20th centuries.
As discussed previously on this blog (as for example here), Shotwick reveals the late 20th/early 21st-century tradition of adapting churchyards to receive the cremated dead. So as well as the relatively low 20th-century headstones on the north side of the church, there is a cremation burial plot against the northern churchyard boundary. A cenotaphic dimension to memorialisation is present through benches with memorial plaques. These are also picked out in the direct oblique sunlight, the shadows of the north wall alone obscuring those memorials closest to it.
What is also striking is the collective memorial dimension to this cremation burial plot: its memorial dedication! An inscription to mark and memorialise its stated subject, but all whose ashes are interred here.
A further memorial feature of Shotwick’s churchyard, inside the south-east main entrance, is the First and Second World War memorial. Given the small size of the parish, this two-step based cross with plinth containing two inset bronze plaques commemorates 6 names: five on the west face from the First World War, one on the north face from the Second World War. The specificity of this small number allows the entire north face to commemorate a single individual ‘Killed in Action at Arnhem, 18 September 1944’ (day 2 of Operation Market Garden). A relatively modest monument, but rendered impressive not only through its proximity to gate and path, but because it is situated in the raised churchyard – heightened through generations of burials – and thus looms over the adjacent lane beyond the churchyard wall.
Finally, close to the war memorial and just inside the main churchyard entrance, guarded by a pair of triad of cones – one large and two small ones stacked – is a memorial plaque commemorating the renewal of the path for the Millennium.
Of course, the cones themselves are a focus of interest on this blog, and so this provides another example of their role in contemporary churchyards.
This crude photographic sketch hardly does justice to the community of Shotwick and how this small but rich churchyard operates as a memoryscape for the community. Certainly, however, it is clear that, as with many churchyards, Shotwick’s is a microcosm of its community, its aspirations for memorialisation and for the afterlife, as well as for its own futurity. Moreover, on a relatively small scale, and given its relatively undisturbed character due in no small part to the isolated location of the churchyard, its role as a site of memory is intensified. Trends found more broadly are crystallised here. In the right weather conditions, and from a perspective of social memory, we can see death in a good light.
Hartwell, C., Hyde, M., Hubbard, E. and Pevsner, N. 2011. Cheshire. The Buildings of England. Yale: Yale University Press.
Whitfield, L. nd. The Church at the Ford: The Story of St Michael’s Church, Shotwick. Neston: Carson.