Conjuring lost lives from the sands of Lunt Meadows

Conjuring lost lives from the sands of Lunt Meadows

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

A few miles to the north of Liverpool, on a sandy spur of land on the floodplain of the river Alt, is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Britain. At Lunt Meadows, Ron Cowell, Curator of Prehistory at the Museum of Liverpool, has been directing excavations on a patch of land where some 8000 years ago bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers would regularly pitch camp at different times of the year. Buried deep for thousands of years, the traces left by those people are suggesting new interpretations about the way people of the Mesolithic era organised themselves, and the beliefs that bound them to the natural world and to each other.

One morning this week, as part of this year’s Festival of Archaeology, Ron Cowell showed a group of us around the Lunt Meadows site, spending a generous four hours explaining the significance of his team’s findings and answering questions. Continue reading “Conjuring lost lives from the sands of Lunt Meadows”

Another day at Another Place: looking to the horizon in silent expectation

Another day at Another Place: looking to the horizon in silent expectation

Another Place 26

Friday was a glorious day here in the north-west. The November sun shone in a cloudless sky of brilliant blue.  An old friend was visiting, back in Liverpool for the first time in years.  She had never seen Anthony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby beach so we took her there, happy to return no matter how many times to a public art work that has grown in the affections of the public on Merseyside, and – along with Capital of Culture year in 2008 – helped to put Liverpool and Merseyside on the tourist map.

It was a perfect morning to see the installation – crisp and clear, with views across to the Wirral and beyond to the Welsh mountains.  In three hours it would be high tide, and the estuary was busy with traffic taking advantage of the high water – ferries leaving, container vessels moving up-river.

Another Place 6

We walked the length of the beach, from the low numbers to the high: Another Place consists of 100 cast-iron, life-size figures, each one numbered, spread out for about two miles along the shore, with some figures situated nearly half a mile out to sea. The figures were each made from casts of the Gormley’s own body.  They stand on the beach, all of them looking out to sea, staring at the horizon in silent expectation.  Gormley once said:

I think there’s that thing in Another Place of looking out.  It’s what we all do: that’s why people go to the seaside, to see the edge of the world, because most of us spend most of our time in rooms.

Another Place is now a permanent fixture on Crosby beach.  But we nearly lost it.  The work had previously been installed at Cuxhaven in Germany, Stavangar in Norway and De Panne in Belgium before it came to Crosby in 2005 with the benefit of funding from the Mersey Waterfront Programme, the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and Arts Council England.

Another Place 12

However, Sefton Council had only granted temporary planning permission that was due to expire in November 2006. Despite the work attracting huge interest and drawing 600,000 visitors in 18 months, it looked as if it was destined to leave Merseyside for New York state.  A second application was made extend planning permission for four months, to allow time to raise the £2.2m needed to buy the work from Gormley and maintain it thereafter. The application was rejected because of representations made to the authority that ‘several people had had to be rescued after being caught by the tide when walking out to see the most distant figures’.

Another Place 28

But the tide of support in favour of the work’s retention was substantial: so much so that in March 2007 Sefton borough council finally announced that permission had been granted for the work to remain in place permanently.  Since then Another Place has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and now regularly features in Liverpool tourism promotional material.

Another Place 31

Another Place 34

Visitors engage positively with the figures, dressing them with wigs, bikinis, hula skirts, Liverpool and Everton football shirts, seaweed dreadlocks and costumes of every description.  People photograph each other with the iron men in all sorts of poses. And they pause awhile, contemplating the meaning of this artwork’s dramatic intervention in the broad sweep and big skies of the estuary landscape.

Another Place 14

Another Place 11

Each person leaves the beach with their own sense of the work’s meaning. For Gormley, Another Place was a poetic response to the individual and universal experience of emigration: sadness at leaving, and the hope of a new future in another place. He was interested in the motivations that link contemporary migrants, such as those who risk their lives making the perilous sea crossing from from north Africa seeking a home in Europe.  He suggests that in an unequal world in which we accept the massive mobility of monetary instruments across borders, we seem to have difficulty in accepting the movement of living people.

If the work was envisaged as a response to the theme of migration, the complex administrative negotiations and arrangements in locating it here – and then ensuring it could remain – raised issues about the impact of a public artwork on the landscape. Gormley has said that the struggle over Another Place:

Illustrated that no landscape is innocent, no landscape is uncontrolled. Every landscape has a hidden social dimension to do with both its natural usage and the politics of territory. I like the idea that attempting to ask questions about the place of art in our lives reveals these complex human and social matrices.

Another Place 8

Visiting Another Place now, nearly seven years after its installation along this shoreline, the work seems to be becoming inexorably an organic, barnacle-encrusted element in the landscape.  This was Gormley’s intention: he saw the work as harnessing the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature, asking what it is to be human:

The seaside is a good place to do this. Here time is tested by tide, architecture by the elements and the prevalence of sky seems to question the earth’s substance. In this work human life is tested against planetary time. This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal, just the industrially reproduced body of a middle-aged man trying to remain standing and trying to breathe, facing a horizon busy with ships moving materials and manufactured things around the planet.

Another Place 9

The construction of Gormley’s Angel of the North in 1998 was a watershed moment in the recent story of public art; since then, Another Place has joined a lengthening catalogue of public art installations.  But the public funding of art works in public places is not without its critics.

Projects such as Another Place generate a great deal of enthusiasm among local authorities (keen to promote regeneration through tourist numbers) and the arts world (keen for commissions), but sceptics believe they leave the intended audience – the public – feeling a mixture of bemusement, indifference and outright hostility. Is public art rarely more than a vanity project for those involved, reducing art to the same bracket as other civic amenities? Should genuinely public art be funded by voluntary subscription rather than tax-payers’ money? Or does state-funded public art provide a vital function in engaging those who rarely venture into galleries and enliven otherwise drab public spaces?

Gormley, when asked, ‘What’s the point of public art?’ responded simply, ‘To make the world a little bit more interesting’.

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 Gallery

Another Place … another day.  I took these photos of the installation at sunset on a March evening in 2010.

Crosby beach December sunset

Crosby beach December sunset 2

Crosby March 2010

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Now I know that Spring will come again. Perhaps to-morrow?

Now I know that Spring will come again. Perhaps to-morrow?

Spring snow 1

Yesterday the first day of spring, today blizzards in a north-east wind.  Winter hasn’t let go this year: we’ve been stuck with anticyclonic conditions for three weeks, and this has sucked in cold air from Scandinavia.  For a while the weather was crisp, then it turned cold, damp and murky.  Today, an Atlantic weather front pushing in has met that cold air from the north-east and, here on Merseyside, we’ve had heavy, wet snow swept along in blizzard conditions. Not what you expect in late March, least of all in Liverpool.

Yesterday the Guardian, in an article on the unseasonal weather, noted that

One hundred years ago, on the official first day of spring, the Anglo-Welsh poet and naturalist Edward Thomas set off from Clapham Common in London to cycle and walk to the Quantock Hills in Somerset. The record of his journey, called In Pursuit of Spring, became a nature-writing classic, telling of exuberant chiffchaffs and house martins, daffodils and cowslips in full flower and ‘honeysuckle in such profusion as I had never before seen’.  Had Thomas taken the same route today, he might not have seen very much wildlife – and could well have frozen. Mist and fog, rain, a bitter north wind, and temperatures just above freezing are forecast for , the first “official” day of spring.

Certainly not much sign of honeysuckle around these parts, and the daffodils and crocus are only just starting to show.  This time last year it was very different: a heatwave and barbecues in the park. But, as Edward Thomas was well aware, it’s not unusual for winter to hold on through March; he wrote a poem about it:

Now I know that Spring will come again,
Perhaps to-morrow: however late I’ve patience
After this night following on such a day.

While still my temples ached from the cold burning
Of hail and wind, and still the primroses
Torn by the hail were covered up in it,
The sun filled earth and heaven with a great light
And a tenderness, almost warmth, where the hail dripped,
As if the mighty sun wept tears of joy.
But ’twas too late for warmth. The sunset piled
Mountains on mountains of snow and ice in the west:
Somewhere among their folds the wind was lost,
And yet ’twas cold, and though I knew that Spring
Would come again, I knew it had not come,
That it was lost too in those mountains chill.

What did the thrushes know? Rain, snow, sleet, hail,
Had kept them quiet as the primroses.
They had but an hour to sing. On boughs they sang,
On gates, on ground; they sang while they changed perches
And while they fought, if they remembered to fight:
So earnest were they to pack into that hour
Their unwilling hoard of song before the moon
Grew brighter than the clouds. Then ’twas no time
For singing merely. So they could keep off silence
And night, they cared not what they sang or screamed;
Whether ’twas hoarse or sweet or fierce or soft;
And to me all was sweet: they could do no wrong.
Something they knew–I also, while they sang
And after. Not till night had half its stars
And never a cloud, was I aware of silence
Stained with all that hour’s songs, a silence
Saying that Spring returns, perhaps to-morrow.

I’ve remarked here before that I revere the Country Diary written by Paul Evans in the Guardian. Go here for the full text, but this is part of the entry he wrote yesterday:

Today is the vernal equinox: equal day, equal night, a moment of balance poised between the cold grey of winter and the green fire of spring.

Watching the budget on the news, I wait for George Osborne’s primavera moment, when zephyrs blow flowers through the halls of Westminster and birdsong drowns out the hectoring. Hope over experience, eh? He’s only going to frack it up so I switch off and walk outside where spring should be champing at the bit.

This time last year was sunny and warm, I saw butterflies and bees and at dusk bats flying under a strangely fat moon. What have they done with the spring? We had a day of it a fortnight ago and since then it’s been snow, hail, rain, fog. The ground is unyielding, greasy, sullen. Wallflowers and polyanthus are stunned by frost. A few sulky daffodils peer earthwards. Snowdrops are hanging on like a pillow burst of feathers from a peregrine kill, beautiful and pointless. […]

I stand under a dishwater sky, bone cold, cold as charity. Geese honk, hens cluck, small birds whistle without passion. The buds hold, tight-fisted, their little hopes. Between yesterday’s hail and tomorrow’s rain, the gutters run. I rummage through rattley hedges for that still point, the moment of balance where light and dark are equal, life and death cancel each other out. It’s a new beginning of sorts. Even though spring still feels as though it’s stuck up to its axles in mud, there is an urgency in the voices of birds. We agree.

It’s the birds I notice too on my morning dog walks through the park.  The other day I was astonished when a pair of scuffling male blackbirds flew out of a shrubbery and continued their mid-air wing-flapping sorting out of the pecking order at shoulder height just an arm’s length in front of me; they only gave up and flew off after I had reached out an arm. There’s a song thrush that always singing loud and sweet in the same tree by the Palm House every morning, and a heron that stands, shoulders hunched like an old judge, staring at the stream. The nuthatch whose song I was pleased to identify last year is back in the same tree, making the same electronic, staccato call.

After this morning’s walk in the park with the dog, at breakfast we watched for some time as a fox poked around the back garden, sniffing at the fat balls hanging for the birds, and scrounging some fallen bird seed.  The cold making for hunger, I expect.  Yesterday there was a different fox on the back wall; that one had a tail like a broom: smooth for most of its length, but ending with a furry flourish.

From Earth, Light: back to Sutton Manor’s Dream

From Earth, Light: back to Sutton Manor’s Dream

I’m writing this on a morning when the seasons seem to have shifted on their axis.  Summer heat came late to these parts this year: we had to wait until September for the warmest days.  Last night I lay in bed listening to the pounding of a terrific rainstorm, and this morning a brisk breeze is blowing, the temperature has dropped by ten degrees, and it is raining hailstones.

So uploading these photos taken only last Saturday feels like looking back to another season.  I had some business to attend to in St Helens, so I thought I’d take the dog with me and go for a walk afterwards up to Dream at Sutton Manor.  It’s been more than three years since I last went up there – soon after Jaume Plensa’s sculpture had been installed following the successful pitch by a group of former miners to Channel 4’s Big Art competition.

It was a hot afternoon – it felt like the hottest this year – as spaniel and me wound our way along the paths that wind uphill through the 230 acre site where once there were enormous slag heaps.  Now it is an evolving park of young woodland managed by the Forestry Commission.  At the summit there are expansive views across to the Pennines and the Clywdian hills.  Plensa’s elegant, luminous sculpture stands at the centre of Bold Forest Park, itself part of the Mersey Forest, the evolving network of woodlands and green spaces being created across Merseyside and North Cheshire.  The paths wander through maturing woodland and wild flower meadows (apparently, in spring, there are great displays of Bee orchids).

Sutton Manor Colliery was the only St Helens pit to be opened in the 20th century, and it was the last to close. The first shaft was sunk in 1906, followed by a second, with the mine fully functional by 1912.  Driving along the newly built M62 motorway into Liverpool in the late 1970s and 1980s, the great slag heaps and winding wheels of Sutton Manor were a visible marker that you were nearing your destination.  The mine’s closure came abruptly in 1991, leaving a great amount of coal still underground, and only a year after it had reached its all-time productivity record.  A year later, the buildings were knocked down and equipment removed.  The land became a bare wasteland. Many of the miners had to leave the village to find new jobs. It was the end of an era.

Plensa’s sculpture honours the human heritage of a site where miners toiled and many died deep underground for nearly a century.  But the artwork also symbolises the optimism that spurred a group of ex-miners to visualise the post-industrial transformation of the site, which has now become something of an iconic landmark which it is hoped will generate economic and environmental benefits, help preserve a community’s collective memory, and enhance local pride.

At the time of its installation, there were some who grumbled that Plensa’s sculpture didn’t literally represent the mining past. In fact, Plensa’s first design, thankfully rejected by the miners themselves, was for a giant illuminated miner’s lantern. The design they chose represents something more powerful and inspirational: a young girl reflecting, perhaps, on the past, but also looking to the future.  At the time, Jaume Plensa commented:

My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance.

But since I was last here new artworks have been installed across the site: six flame-like structures grow from the ground, containing poems dedicated to the memory of miners past and present who worked at the pit at Sutton Manor. Entitle From Earth, Light, the flames, which start close to the old colliery gates can be seen at various locations.  They were created by pupils from Sutton Manor Primary School, in collaboration with local artists Collette and Bernadette Hughes and the Shining Lights Heritage Group.  It all dates back to 2006 when the primary school successfully applied for a £34,000 Heritage Lottery Grant to produce a project about the former colliery. They immediately involved a small group of ex-miners and borrowed a wide variety of artefacts which were exhibited at the school in June 2007. Two DVDs were produced that featured ex-Manor miners being interviewed by the schoolchildren about their lives in the pit.

Older voices echo deep
in this world-within-a-world
And in stone dust and darkness
We trace and retrace
The footsteps of our fathers

Where shattered men no longer drink
A flask of tea, or have a sleep;
Where the birds have fallen silent
We remain, and we remember
And blink the dust from our eyes.

Beneath us there’s a labyrinth
A tangle of forgotten pathways.
We walk alone in dreams
Among the twisted, rusted shapes
That litter memory’s lanes.

We make our own pathways
They disappear into serenity and sunlight
For beneath this world lies another
Filled with dreams and scattered memories
The footsteps of our fathers.

There is wisdom in our bones,
In our aching backs and blistered feet.
We blink the dust from our eyes
Every time we awake
And because we remember, we remain.

The former motto of St Helens and Sutton Manor was ex terra lucem – ‘from the earth comes light’. The miners dreamt of seeing the light again at the end of their long shifts working underground. Dream represents the idea of dreaming of a new future for the site and for the area.

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Norton Priory: monks, a saint, a water-goddess and open-arses

Funny how you can live somewhere for forty years and never know that there’s something interesting on your doorstep.  Looking for somewhere with a walk gentle enough for the elder of our party, I remembered reading something about a sculpture trail at Norton Priory near Runcorn.

So, on a grey, damp and chilly Bank Holiday Monday, we moseyed over to see what was there was to see.  The sculpture trail is nothing special, but the remains of the Priory were a big surprise: as a result of archaeological excavations conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, this is one of the most extensively investigated religious foundations in Europe.

Founded in 1134, the Priory remained active until its dissolution in April 1536. Within eight years of the dissolution, it was sold to the Brooke family, who owned it for over 400 years. In 1966, the site of the Priory, by then in a state of considerable decay, was given to the Runcorn Development Corporation by Sir Richard Brooke. Very little of the medieval priory remained visible, and it was decided to excavate and display the ruins as a public amenity.

The excavations revealed the foundations and lower parts of the walls of the monastery buildings and the abbey church (above). A viewing platform (with audio commentary) now enables visitors to gain a clear impression of the scale of the site.  There were other important finds during the dig, including a Norman Romanesque archway, now placed at the entrance to the Undercroft – a finely carved arcade with a floor of medieval  mosaic tiles, the largest floor area of this type to be found in any modern excavation (below).

The Undercroft (below) was built in the late 12th century as a storage area for the Priory and used to store food, drink, cloth and plate. In 1868 Sir Richard Brooke turned part of the Undercroft into an impressive entrance hall to the family home.

Also discovered during the excavation were the remains of the kiln where the tiles were fired; a bell pit used for casting the church bell; and a large medieval statue of Saint Christopher, thought to date from 1391. It is made from sandstone, but in medieval times would probably have been brightly painted in many colours. The medieval belief was that anyone who saw St Christopher would be saved from death for that day – comforting at a time when roads were beset by thieves and crossing the river Mersey was dangerous.

The presence of the statue at Norton Priory is almost certainly related to the fact that the canons received one tenth of the profits from the ferry that crossed the Mersey at this point. The Priory was established on the south bank of the River Mersey where the river bends and narrows to form the Runcorn Gap. At the time this was the only practical site where the Mersey could be crossed between Warrington and Birkenhead (it’s significantly narrower here than at the point where the Runcorn Bridge now spans the Mersey).

After dissolution in 1536 the statue was sold as part of the property. It’s unusual that the statue survived, given that a large number of images of saints were destroyed during the Reformation or, later, in the Civil War. Somehow, this statue escaped destruction, and was used as a garden ornament by the Brookes, finally being abandoned in the gardens after the 1920s.  In the 1960s the Brooke family gave the statue to the Liverpool Museums, which carried out some conservation work before returning it to Norton Priory on permanent loan.

The monastic drain

The Priory ruins are a now a scheduled ancient monument and have been designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building. They are considered to be the most important monastic remains in Cheshire.  They consist of the Church (where the St Christopher statue was probably displayed), the Cloister, Chapter House and Dormitory, and the latrines.  Monasteries and priories were one of the few places in medieval England that would have had toilets.  Those at the Priory would probably have been drop toilets – simple holes which opened straight onto the sewer. Water would flow along the drain at the bottom, regulated by a sluice. Kitchen waste and water from the roof would also pass into the drain which would eventually be washed into the mill pond.

In early October 1536, commissioners arrived at the abbey in order to close it down during the dissolution of the monasteries. A riot ensued, with the commissioners being menaced by around 300 local people. After barricading themselves in a tower, the commissioners were eventually relieved by the local militia. The abbot and four of the canons were arrested and imprisoned in Halton Castle, the ruins of which can be seen from the Priory viewing platform.

Nine years later the surviving structures were purchased by Sir Richard Brooke, who built a Tudor house on the site, incorporating part of the abbey, which became known as Norton Hall.  This engraving shows the Tudor Hall in 1727.

Engraving of the Tudor house from the west by the Buck brothers, dated 1727

At some time in the next 30 years the Tudor house was demolished and replaced by a new house in Georgian style. The ground floor of the west wing of this house retained the former vaulted undercroft of the west range of the medieval abbey, and contained the kitchens and areas for the storage of wines and beers (below).

Norton Priory  - the Georgian house before 1868

Today the site is bounded to the west by the Bridgewater canal and bisected by the Daresbury Expressway. New transport technology began to encroach in the mid-18th century, when Sir Richard Brooke was involved in a campaign to prevent the Bridgewater Canal from being built through his estate. Sir Richard did not see the necessity for the canal and opposed its passing though his estate. In 1773 the canal was opened from Manchester to Runcorn except for 1 mile through the estate, so that goods had to be unloaded and carted around it. Sir Richard eventually capitulated, and the canal was completed by 1776.  In the 19th century, new railway lines were built across part of the estate, while in 1894 the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal meant the northern part of the estate could only be accessed by a swing bridge.

The Brooke family left the house in 1921, and it was almost completely demolished in 1928. Rubble from the house was used in the foundations of a new chemical works. In 1966 the present Sir Richard Brooke gave Norton Priory in trust for the benefit of the public.  The site was opened to the public in the 1970s. It includes a museum, the excavated ruins, and the surrounding garden and woodland, with the sculpture trail. In 1984 the Georgian walled garden was restored and opened to the public.  Yesterday, at the end of summer, it was looking a little faded, but there were still some colourful displays, alongside autumnal berries, hips and haws and seed heads (above).

Among the most striking pieces on the sculpture trail are Gate by Diane Gorvin (set in one of the perimeter walls of the walled garden) and The Kneeling Monk by Thomas Dagnall (below).

On the woodland trail, standing in a slow-moving stream, we found Coventina by Philip Bews (below).  I learned that Coventina was a Celtic goddess of wells and springs, revered for healing and renewal.

In the woodland area there is an old orchard where pears were grown in the early 20th century, not for eating but for the juice which was used to dye khaki cloth. There are also over 20 varieties of quince trees. The quince (below) is a pear-shaped fruit with a greenish-yellow skin and a spicy scent. It is not eaten fresh but can is boiled with sugar to produce quince jam or jelly.

Alongside the quince I found some medlar trees.  It’s a strange and rather unappetising-looking fruit (below), one of the rose sub-family that also includes apples, pears and quinces.  Because of the appearance of the fruit, which retains the sepals and has a hollow crowned appearance, it was once used euphemistically to refer to the anus (‘open-arse’) or  female genitalia (‘open tail’).  Which explains this, from Romeo and Juliet:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

An open-arse and thou a poperin pear!

(The tapering poperin pear being a euphemism for the penis.)

The things you learn from a ramble in the Cheshire countryside!

Storm over the Mersey

Storm over the Mersey

A lightning bolt hits the River Mersey

The Daily Post today has a couple of great images of the electrical storm over Liverpool late on Friday evening.  We hardly ever get thunderstorms in Liverpool, and I was puzzled about why we had one that evening.  It hadn’t been an especially sunny day and certainly wasn’t hot:  I always thought that lightning occurred when rising warm, moist air met colder air.

Nonetheless, for about an hour or so there were some impressive lightning flashes and peals of thunder – and some of the heaviest rain we’ve had for a long while.

The photo above was taken by Donovan Hyde from his apartment on the eighteenth floor of the Unity Building on  Rumford Place.  The one below, of lightning striking the Liver Building, was captured by Karl Scanlon.

Given that New York was subjected to its own storm this weekend – when hurricane Irene swept through – it seems appropriate to quote Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon who has a studio apartment in New York City.  His poem ‘The Thunder Shower’ evokes the interwoven sounds, natural and human, as a storm breaks over the city streets:

A blink of lightning, then
a rumour, a grumble of white rain
growing in volume, rustling over the ground,
drenching the gravel in a wash of sound.
Drops tap like timpani or shine
like quavers on a line.

It rings on exposed tin,
a suite for water, wind and bin,
plinky Poulenc or strongly groaning Brahms’
rain-strings, a whole string section that describes
the very shapes of thought in warm
self-referential vibes

and spreading ripples. Soon
the whispering roar is a recital.
Jostling rain-crowds, clamorous and vital,
struggle in runnels through the afternoon.
The rhythm becomes a regular beat;
steam rises, body heat—

and now there’s city noise,
bits of recorded pop and rock,
the drums, the strident electronic shock,
a vast polyphony, the dense refrain
of wailing siren, truck and train
and incoherent cries.

All human life is there
in the unconfined, continuous crash
whose slow, diffused implosions gather up
car radios and alarms, the honk and beep,
and tiny voices in a crèche
piercing the muggy air.

Squalor and decadence,
the rackety global-franchise rush,
oil wars and water wars, the diatonic
crescendo of a cascading world economy
are audible in the hectic thrash
of this luxurious cadence.

The voice of Baal explodes,
raging and rumbling round the clouds,
frantic to crush the self-sufficient spaces
and re-impose his failed hegemony
in Canaan before moving on
to other simpler places.

At length the twining chords
run thin, a watery sun shines out,
the deluge slowly ceases, the guttural chant
subsides; a thrush sings, and discordant thirds
diminish like an exhausted concert
on the subdominant.

The angry downpour swarms
growling to far-flung fields and farms.
The drains are still alive with trickling water,
a few last drops drip from a broken gutter;
but the storm that created so much fuss
has lost interest in us.

Along the Mersey: Eastham

Along the Mersey: Eastham

Yesterday we explored the banks of the Mersey at Eastham, one of the oldest villages on the Wirral Peninsula, inhabited since Anglo Saxon times and site of a ferry crossing from the early 14th century.

Eastham Ferry, first recorded in 1357, was once a vital river crossing but ceased operating in 1928. The early ferries were operated by monks from the Abbey of Saint Werburgh, the patron saint of Chester. By the late 1700s, up to 40 coaches each day arrived at a newly built pier, carrying passengers and goods for the ferry.  In Victorian times it was a popular destination for day trippers. The 1857 ticket office (below) and part of the 1874 pier (above) can still be seen today.

Ferry routes from the Wirral to Liverpool across the River Mersey operated from various places, including New Brighton, Egremont, Seacombe, Woodside, Monks Ferry, Birkenhead, Tranmere, Rock Ferry, New Ferry, Eastham, Ince, Frodsham and Runcorn.

In 1724 Daniel Defoe in his book, A Tour Through England and Wales, wrote: “This narrow strip of land, rich, fertile and full of inhabitants, is called Wirall, or by some Wirehall. Here is a ferry over the Mersey, which at full sea is more than two miles over”.  An account from 1750 also mentions using the Mersey ferry: “Here is a ferry over the Mersee…. You land on the flat shore on the other side, and must be content to ride through the water for some length, not on horseback but on the shoulders of some Lancashire man who comes knee-deep to the boat’s side to truss one up …”.

In the early 18th century it took a day to travel to Liverpool and back, via Eastham, but the rise of Liverpool and the emergence of Parkgate as a resort and harbour for Ireland demanded better roads into and across Wirral. The roads to Parkgate and the Mersey ferries were turnpiked in 1787 and also offered a main route from Liverpool to the south.

Eastham Ferry Hotel

Paddle steamers were introduced in 1816 to replace the sailboats, but the demand for a service declined in the 1840s with the opening of a railway link between Chester and Birkenhead Woodside Ferry. In 1846, the owner of the ferry, Thomas Stanley, built the Eastham Ferry Hotel, one of two pubs that remain today. Soon after, the Pleasure Gardens were added to attract more visitors.

Eastham Pleasure Garden entrance

The entrance to the Pleasure Gardens was through a magnificent Jubilee arch which stood next to the Eastham Ferry Hotel and was built in 1897 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The gardens were landscaped with rhododendrons, azaleas, ornamental trees and fountains. Attractions included a zoo, with performing bears, lions, monkeys and antelope, an open air stage, tea rooms, bandstand, ballroom and boating lake.  The bear pit is still there, along with the remains of three fountains, once part of the 19th century zoo.

One performer who once appeared at the Pleasure Gardens was Blondin, the legendary tightrope walker. During one act he is said to have pushed a small boy in a wheel barrow across a tightrope at a great height.  The Pleasure Gardens eventually fell into disrepair during the 1930s and the iron pier and Jubilee Arch were later dismantled.

In its heyday Eastham Ferry was known as the ‘Richmond of the Mersey’, he ferry could cross the river in 20 – 45 minutes and moored at Liverpool.  But its popularity declined during the 1920s and the last paddle steamer crossing took place in 1929.  The Pleasure Gardens fell into disrepair during the 1930s and the iron pier and Jubilee Arch were later dismantled.

Eastham Pleasure Garden Jubilee Arch

Then…

And now…

Today the site of the Pleasure Gardens forms part of Eastham Country Park, with pleasant woodland walks where you may encounter pieces sculpted from fallen trees by local sculptor, Bill Welch.

The early Eastham village clustered around St Mary’s church, which has been a place of worship since Anglo-Saxon times – a  timber-framed wattle and daub chapel was in existence before the Norman conquest.  The churchyard contains an ancient yew (below) which was reported to have been in existence in 1152, and estimated to be at least 1500 years old.  A  plaque  by the tree reads:

“When in 1152 the abbot and monks of St Werburgh received the manor of Eastham at the hand of Earl Randall of Chester, the villagers of Eastham; entreated the new owners ‘to have a care of ye olde yew’ .

In 1854 the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, whilst in Liverpool as United States consul, visited Eastham and declared it to be “the finest old English village I have seen, with many antique houses, and with altogether a rural and picturesque aspect, unlike anything in America, and yet possessing a familiar look, as if it were something I had dreamed about.”

Eastham old yew

In 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal was opened by Queen Victoria, bringing added prosperity to the area.  Eastham Lock (below) forms the western end of the Manchester Ship Canal, and is the largest lock in the UK.

The view from Eastham upriver towards Runcorn.