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Sutton Coldfield Shakespeare Panorama Pt 2

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

The Sutton in the Time of Shakespeare panorama map is live, here it is in it’s entirety (minus it's numbered key)...

FOLIO Sutton Coldfield's large display panel was erected in the Gracechurch Centre over the weekend and will be on show until the end of April (if you're on Facebook there's a time-lapse of it's posting here). A slightly smaller version of the map is to be displayed in the library, while postcards, and limited edition prints and jigsaw are about to be released later this month (watch this space!). A more permanent display is also planned for the town.

You can't really see details on the low-res version here, but if you're not able to visit Sutton in person it's online here on the official website, with a close-up viewer and numbered key pointing to some of the historical locations.

As mentioned, this was an immensely involved project with a tremendous amount of research, drawing the artwork was only the last phase.

The first challenge was to decide how to include the most important locations. As the old centre of Sutton runs along a line running north to south along the Birmingham to Lichfield Road, I felt the best way to show the town was from the ‘side’, i.e. the West, with a view from Sutton Park, looking across Sutton’s High Street towards the East, where in the far distance Middleton Hall could just be included. This meant covering a wide area from the now lost village of Hill and the Bishop’s Stones near Canwell in the north, to the stone bridges built by Bishop Vesey at Curdworth and Water Orton and Shakespeare’s maternal ancestral home of Park Hall to the South. This is a broad distance, stretching nine miles north-to-south, and even more west-to-east.

Hill village was a substantial community, later abandoned after the new trunk road was built from Mere Green (a pond known as Mare Pool in Shakespeare's day). The trackway on the left is Butler's Lane, where I lived 370 years later.

The centre of Sutton Coldfield around Holy Trinity church is in the middle of the panorama, with the hamlet of Maney a short walk down the Birmingham Road, and the old royal former hunting grounds of Sutton Park fenced off at the bottom of the map to the West. Sutton (from the Anglo-Saxon south town or farm) was originally an outlieing settlement of the old Mercian capital Tamworth and a thriving market town in the middle ages. It fell into decline in the later medieval period after the War of the Roses, before it's fortunes were recovered by the town's benefactor, local boy Bishop John Vesey in the early 1500's. Vesey reinvigorated the town with stone houses and paving, by Shakespeare's day it was once more a growing community, separated from the agricultural villages along the river Tame by broad stretches of wild and dangerous heathland, the barren 'Cold Field' to the south, and High Heath / Roughley to the East. To the north lay satellite communities of Hill, Hill Hook (just off the map) and Little Sutton, plus a few cottages above the park close to four large oak trees that gave the area it's name (descendants of these trees still survive). Some modern road names hark back to this time, but later suburbs like Falcon Lodge, Fox Hollies, Boldmere and Walmley were just heathland in the early 1600's.

Langley Hall and the archery butts are lost to time, Falcon Lodge was for the future, but falconry did take place, brocks, hursts, foxes and hollies existed, and Bull Lane too, though probably named after a farmer rather than the animal!

From the beginning, I wanted to represent the area as accurately as I could, within the boundaries of this style of illustration, but at the same time it needed to be engaging, not just a cartographic record, we wanted to populate the map with contemporary characters and show the life of the region. Due to the large geographic area, buildings and figures are of course over-sized, but otherwise the essential locations of all the farms, lanes and other geographic features known to exist at the time were precisely plotted on a planning map, which was then turned, and perspective added to give a birds-eye view of the area, from which I then developed the illustration. The only other distortion is that the centre of Sutton Coldfield was slightly enlarged and pulled out in order to show some details of the town.

For me personally it was especially revealing to discover that nearly all the places I lived in Sutton were on roads and lanes that existed in some form in Shakespeare's day, of much greater antiquity than their present appearance suggests. Court Lane where I spent my earliest years was probably a track running by the Bald Mere lake, Mill Street where we lived above a shop for a while is right at the ancient heart of the town, and Butler's Lane where I spent most of my teen years was an access route to Wall field, one of the old medieval open fields of Hill village.

As far as possible, the architecture, the layout of the old medieval strip fields and fenced assarts and other enclosures are following historical documentation. The physical artwork is large, so was drawn and scanned in sections that were matched digitally to form the whole, then coloured.

"What is the city but the people?"
(Coriolanus, Act III. Scene I)

My instinct was to fill the landscape with people, but due to the size scaling of figures I felt overcrowding the map with too many people would obscure the topography, the panorama is, after all, meant to be instructive. However we wanted to include enough people to show industry and activities across the region, from agriculture, to stately houses, recorded archery butts, blacksmiths, sawpits and so on. Few occupations are matched to names in the historical records, and portraits are unknown, nevertheless we do have evidence of local industry, a few specific individuals are represented - e.g. the rector of Sutton Coldfield (Roger Elyot), Robert Smythe the park keeper, who was fined for letting his own sheep into the Park in 1601, widow Grace Bull who enclosed a poor farm behind the rectory, the Bow Bearer of Berwood, and local gentry like Robert Arden of Park Hall Farm, and Henry Sacheverell of New Hall.

Shakespeare's distant cousin Robert Arden of Park Hall on the right edge of the map. Medieval Park Hall had been replaced by a farmhouse by 1600, Arden curiously built it in the floodplain by the river - lush ground, but dangerous!

Some things on the map have long since disappeared - the 'cold field' has been built over in the expansion of Birmingham suburbs, Hill village was abandoned and became a side-road to Victorian-era Mere Green after the A38 Lichfield trunk road was built, Sutton's grandest house Langley Hall is no more, ditto the old Sutton Rectory. Bald Mere lake (bottom right corner) which gave Boldmere it's name was drained long ago, as was the mill pond in central Sutton, where the Gracechurch shopping centre (and the large panel of this map!) are now seen. But Sutton Park remains largely as it was, I'm really looking forward to visiting later this month for the height of the festival, and hopefully see some of the surviving locations I missed as a child!

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