The months drifted by, and to complete my plan to walk the Mersey from source to the sea I still had the section from Warrington down to Widnes to do. On what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far, four of us set out on a walk through 250 years of industrial history. Continue reading “Walking the Mersey: Along Sankey Brook to Widnes”
One Saturday morning some time in the mid-1980s, when home-grown art works and photographs were displayed for sale on the railings outside the Bluecoat Arts Centre, I bought this moody photo, taken in 1984, of the Seacombe ferry arriving at the old wooden landing stage at Pier Head. It’s either early morning or a late winter afternoon. Shot by a photographer who has signed the print, but whose signature I can’t decipher, this iconic image has hung in our hall since we moved in here some thirty years ago. Continue reading “Razzle Dazzle on the Mersey”
More than a year has passed since I completed the most recent stage of my project to walk the river Mersey from its source to the sea. I left the river at Sale in the south Manchester conurbation, where it crossed the Bridgewater canal. Now, looking at the map, I realised that it was going to be virtually impossible to walk the bank of the river from this point to Warrington since the Mersey is either surrounded by industry and inaccessible to walkers- or absorbed into the Manchester Ship canal. Only at Warrington, another ten miles or so downstream, does the river regain an independent identity and become accessible again to walkers.
So for this stage I decided to follow the Bridgewater canal through the broad valley that the Mersey shaped as it wended its way through the Cheshire countryside, aeons ago, long before humans settled here and thought of naming the place.
I got the train to Deansgate, and then the Metrolink tram out to Timperley, where I rejoined the Bridgewater canal. The tow-path walk forms part of the Cheshire Ring, a 97 mile circuit of canal paths through the county.
The Bridgewater Canal was developed in stages, taking more than 35 years to complete. Construction began in 1759 – the section I walked opened in 1766. It’s a ‘contour canal’ – so-called because it maintains the same elevation along its length. There are, therefore, no locks. The canal is named after the man whose idea it was: Francis Egerton the third Duke of Bridgewater who built the canal to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to the industrial areas of Manchester. The Bridgewater is Britain’s first real canal (rather than the canalised sections of rivers that heralded the age of the canal), so it is the forerunner of the network of canals that developed between the 1760s and the 1830s.
As a young man Francis Egerton, travelling in Europe, had been impressed with the canals on the continent, and this spurred him on to develop this means of transport to serve his collieries in Lancashire. He was 23 years old when he presented his first Bill to Parliament to compel landowners to cede land for the construction. He gained support from businessmen in Manchester and Salford with his undertaking to reduce the delivered price of coal in Manchester to no more that 4d per cwt. The first stage from Worsley to Castlefield in Manchester opened in 1761, and did indeed supply Manchester with cheaper coal.
For the first few miles of the walk the canal skirted the northern fringes of Altrincham, where Manchester’s suburban sprawl pushes towards Cheshire farm land. It’s been interesting on my canal walks to see how the growing popularity of waterside living has resulted in new canalside housing development, sometimes quite prestigious. There was an architecturally dramatic example on this stretch, with twin apartment blocks protruding above the canal like the bows of two ocean liners.
These days Altrincham is part of the south Manchester commuter belt, prosperous and often labelled ‘stockbroker country’. But Altrincham, and especially Broadheath, the area through I was passing now, was once industrial, with its own docks, warehouses and factories. In 1801 there were four cotton mills in Altrincham, part of its textile industry, although they had closed by mid-century. Later, the proximity to rail, canal and road links was attractive to companies making machine tools, cameras and grinding machines, and by 1914, there were 14 companies operating in Broadheath, employing thousands of workers.
One remnant of that industrial presence remains on the opposite bank – the fine Linotype Works building, dated 1897. The works utilized the Bridgewater canal for both receiving raw materials and distributing finished products – there once was a wharf here. Linotype also created 172 workers’ homes near the factory, that manufactured linotype printing machines.
Soon, though, the canal pushes out beyond the conurbation, into leafy suburbia and then open farm land. The canal side scene changes: along the banks up to Lymm and beyond are many enterprises dedicated to supporting the leisure craft that now ply up and down the canal, and several times I came upon long stretches of moored narrowboats, dreaming of weekend and holiday voyages.
Into the countryside, and it became clear what a good year it has been for berries and soft fruit – the wet, chilly spring followed by long, warm summer days full of sunshine has been ideal, apparently. We’ve seen it on our allotment, and in the park where the rowan trees have been resplendent with scarlet berries these past weeks. Along the canal, rowan, elderberries and blackberries offered a profuse bounty, and I met a few people out picking blackberries.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
– from ‘Blackberry-picking by Seamus Heaney
A mile or so of country walking brought me to Dunham Massey, where I broke away from the canal to take a quick look at the Dunham Massey estate, a National Trust property with a Georgian house set in a magnificent deer park. The place was first mentioned in 1323, but the present house was built in 1732 for George Booth who was descended from the first owner, Hamon de Massey.
I only had time for a quick look, strolling through the deer park that extends before the house, and where holidaying children were entranced by the deer (there’s a herd of around 150 fallow deer on the estate). I took a walk through the winter garden where I was impressed by the stands of silver birch.
The thing I was really here to see was the old corn mill that has stood here for 500 years and is the oldest building in the park. There is a long history of water mills on the Dunham estate, dating back to 1347. There were probably five medieval water mills on the River Bollin nearby, all leased to tenant millers. The present Old Mill was constructed around 1616, and would have been financially important to the Dunham Massey estate. ‘Soke rights’ meant that they could insist that all the corn grown by their tenants was milled here. From its construction until the 1860s, the Old Mill was a corn mill. It ground wheat, malt and barley for the House and for the local tenant farmers.
By the 19th century the mill was too small to cope with the amount of grain produced on the estate, and in the 1860s it was converted to a water-powered sawmill and was replaced by Bollington Mill half a mile away on the river Bollin, now converted into apartments.
The saw mill was used for processing tree trunks to produce fence posts, floorboards, window frames and other carpentry and joinery elements for the estate. In the early 20th century the mill was replaced by an up to date steam-powered saw mill located outside the park.
A short walk from the Old Mill brought me to the river Bollin. I grew up in a Cheshire landscape shaped by the Bollin and its own tributary, the Deane. At Dunham, an aqueduct carries the Bridgewater canal over the Bollin. The coming of the Bridgewater canal did not affect the Bollin, but the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal did. For a long stretch between Irlam and Bollin Point, the Mersey and the Ship Canal are one and the same. So now, instead of joining the Mersey as one of that river’s age-old tributaries, the Bollin now flows into the Ship Canal and its original confluence with the Mersey has been lost. Just beyond Bollin Point, the Mersey leaves the Ship Canal and follows its original course towards Warrington.
I stopped for awhile at the nearby pub, delightfully named The Swan with Two Nicks, Little Bollington’s old village pub. On the pub’s website there’s an explanation of how the pub got its name: it’s all to do with swan upping, the annual process of taking a census of swans on a particular river and marking them. These days, the birds are ringed, but in the past the two companies who have carried out the count under Royal Charter since the 15th century – the Vintners’ Company and the Dyers’ Company, two Livery Companies of the City of London – made their own marks on the birds’ beaks: one nick for a dyers’ bird and two for a vintners’.
From the medieval period into the twentieth century, the entire village of Little Bollington belonged to the estates of the Earls of Stamford and Warrington whose family seat was Dunham Massey. Each building in the village was given a number in the estate papers. In those days, the formal name of The Swan with Two Nicks was Bollington Tenement No. 17.
Having enjoyed a welcome pint of Swan with Two Nicks ale, specially brewed for the pub, I rejoined the Bridgewater canal and forged on towards Lymm and Warrington. Bridgewater decided to extend the Canal to the Mersey tideway at Runcorn to establish a link with the port of Liverpool. Despite opposition, the Duke’s third Act to make this possible was passed in March 1762. The need for an embankment and aqueduct over the Mersey at Sale Moor, and across the Bollin, coupled with disputes with landowners, delayed completion for many years.
Walking up to Lymm, I wondered why Bridgewater routed his canal through this pretty Cheshire village. I found the answer on an interpretation board by the canal in the village. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Lymm was a small industrial town, and the canal transported goods produced in Lymm, including the production of nails and metal hoops for beer barrels and fustian (a coarse cloth made of cotton mixed with flax to produce labourers’ clothing and sailcloth), as well as farm crops. One of the old canal warehouses still remains at Agden Wharf, a mile and a half outside Lymm.
One of the goods transported to Lymm was nightsoil from Manchester: in the days before sewerage systems, human excrement was collected from the city and transported into Cheshire to be spread on farmers’ fields.
Today, Lymm is a pretty village, noted for its historic buildings. But it’s a place that has stood four-square in the line of successive transport developments. Bridgewater’s plans for the canal divided the village, and opposition by local landowners held up its development. Nowadays, however, the canal provides a picturesque backcloth to village life as narrow boats cruise leisurely up and down.
Those who opposed the plans for the canal lobbied Parliament. A few decades later it was the canal owners who lobbied Parliament to oppose the construction of the railways. The railway came to Lymm in 1853 – a line long since closed and the track torn up, but leaving behind the track bed which would provide the last two or three miles of my walk.
Now a new railway is coming to Lymm and the locals are up in arms. As I walked through the village I encountered several posters rallying opposition to HS2 – the Manchester spur will cross the Bridgewater canal and the Bollin to the east of Lymm, and fears are growing about the impact on the local alndscape.
Ironically, for the next mile, as I walked along a bucolic stretch of the canal and then left it to join the Trans-Pennine Trail, the roar of traffic on on the M6 nearby was a constant presence. The noise grew as I approached the point where the Trail passes under the motorway, just south of the Thelwall Viaduct.
I branched off from the canal to join the Trans-Pennine Trail for the last mile or so to the Manchester Ship canal on the outskirts of Warrington. The trail follows the route of an old Garston to Timperley railway line that opened in 1853. with stations along the way at Dunham Massey, Lymm and Thelwall.
With the M6 behind me, the Trail was peaceful, a green tunnel that felt almost like walking through an ancient holloway.
I pondered the incongruity (at least these days) of a railway line from Timperley to Garston. Back then, I suppose, it linked the industries around Altrincham to the Garston docks, as well as giving the rural inhabitants of Dunham Massey and Lymm the opportunity to step on a train in their village and get off in Liverpool or Manchester.
Ownership of the line passed to LNWR in 1861 then the LMS in 1923, until the formation of British Rail in 1948. In the following years, however, the story of the line is one echoed across the country – an increase in car ownership led to a decrease in use of railways. The infamous Beeching Report recommended closure of the line, and passenger services ended in 1962. The line continued to carry freight for a further 23 years. But by then extensive repairs were required to the high level bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal at Latchford and the line was closed, the last train running in July 1985. The Trans-Pennine trail opened in 1993.
At Latchford the Trail leaves the railway embankment (the bridge would obviously defeat every risk assessment schedule you could throw at it). Passing under the bridge, I arrived at the Manchester Ship Canal. The last time I was here was on a blisteringly hot day in June 2009, sailing up the canal from Liverpool on one of the regular Mersey Ferries cruises.
I crossed the canal on the Barton Road swing bridge and looked east towards Latchford locks. Turning in the other direction, I saw a container ship approaching from the direction of Liverpool. As I reached the Warrington bank of the canal, warning bells rang and lights flashed, announcing that the swing bridge was about to close to allow the ship to pass.
I stood and watched as the bridge swung round on its massive cog to allow the ship to pass. An impressive piece of engineering that is now a grade II listed structure. Even more impressive, a little further downstream, is the Barton Aqueduct Swing Bridge that carries the Bridgewater Canal across the Ship Canal in the form of a giant rectangular metal box!
That was it, I was done for the day. I caught a bus to the train station, passing over the river Mersey on the way. Next time, I’ll walk the Mersey around Warrington.
- Walking the Mersey: from Stockport to Sale
- Seeking sea level: walking the Mersey from source to sea: links to all my Mersey walks
- Cruising the canal: Pier Head to Salford Quays
- The Duke’s Cut: complete text of book on the history of the Bridgewater canal by CJ Wood
- Lymm’s industrial history
Recently, when describing a Mersey estuary walk along the Garston shore, I wrote that, on arriving at the boundary of Garston docks,
this as far as you can go: Garston Docks and the private residential Grassendale and Cressington Esplanades prevent public access to the riverside. The docks I can understand, but as a freeborn Englishman I can’t understand the idea that a private estate should have the right to deny people access to a great river.
That’s not entirely true: although the long-distance footpath, the Mersey Way, comes to an abrupt halt here, the river front at Grassendale and Cressington Parks in Aigburth is accessible on foot, even if you can’t continue your walk through to the adjacent Otterspool promenade or onward to the Pier Head. A couple of weeks back, I went down to have a look.
Grassendale and Cressington Parks are 19th century gated private estates, built for wealthy Liverpool merchants in what was then open country. They were ‘carriage folk’ who had the means to travel to and from the city centre. Turn off the busy dual carriageway of Aigburth Road through the ornate sandstone gates and past the elegant sandstone lodge house and you enter a quiet enclave of Victorian mansions laid out in the early to mid 19th century along carriage ways both leading to an elegant riverside esplanade.
But beware! Don’t attempt to bring your car down here. These are still private estates and on every lamp post there are warnings that if you are not a resident with a parking permit and you dare to park your car anywhere on these deserted avenues you will be hit with a substantial fine (£85, if I recall correctly). So I parked on Aigburth Road and walked down leafy roads past detached Victorian villas, no two alike, each standing in their own grounds.
Grassendale and Cressington Parks, begun in 1845 and 1846, respectively, were the second and third of Aigburth’s gated riverside housing developments (Fulwood Park, which has the largest and most elegant houses, was the first). The residents even had their own railway station when the Cheshire Lines branch opened in 1861. Today, as a notice (above) warns, access to the station by non-residents remains a concession granted by the Trustees.
Restrictive covenants relating to the size of plots, building lines, external materials and other design features continue to be enforced by Trustees of the Parks. Cressington Park consists, mainly of solid, but not particularly outstanding, red-brick Victorian villas, though I did notice several plots where modernist post-war dwellings had been erected. Had these been empty plots, or were earlier buildings demolished?
The railway station is one of the most desirable features of Cressington Park. The Liverpool Heritage Bureau describes it as ‘a splendid complex of buildings with elaborate details such as pierced bargeboards, half-hipped roofs, and curious eaves brackets’. Renovated by British Rail back in the 1970s, the cast iron canopy is now under threat of being demolished, having fallen into disrepair.
Very few houses in the parks are of the same design, the most attractive being those built in the 1840s in Grassendale Park. Some have fine iron balconies and beautifully proportioned windows, doors and stucco details. The later Victorian and Edwardian houses are not as architecturally distinguished, but, as Pevsner has commented, ‘the whole area achieves unity and grace through a wealth of generous planting and mature trees’. As I neared the riverfront, I noticed that the parks also possessed a private tennis club. But perhaps what gave the parks their greatest exclusivity was having their own stretch of river promenade.
The view from the eastern end of Cressington esplanade is not so elegant: razor-edged fencing and floodlights mark the boundary of Garston docks. At its height, over 1000 people were employed at Garston Docks and on the miles of railways that serviced and connected them. Victorian Garston bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rural village had once been. Public health, hygiene, and living conditions were desperately poor, and the working environment was dangerous and hard. By 1937, there were 93 miles of railway sidings serving the docks, with 8 miles of these running alongside the quays.
The economic and industrial decline that afflicted all of Liverpool’s docklands in the 1960s and 1970s had a devastating effect on Garston as local industries and shipping declined. The docks have revived in recent years, with a new container terminal that handles a growing volume of freight, but which is much less labour-intensive.
The view west along Cressington esplanade.
Low tide on the Mersey, looking across to the Wirral shore.
The elegant Victorian terraces of Grassendale promenade.
Reaching the end of Grassendale promenade, Otterspool promenade is visible less than a hundred yards away, but there is no public right of way. Leaning over the metal fence that forms the boundary here, I noticed this mysterious culvert. I’ve since discovered that this marks the end point of a network of 19th century drainage channels laid down at the time the parks were established.
- Aigburth station canopy demolition plan halted after passenger protest: Liverpool Echo, 21 March
- South Liverpool: this page on the Allerton oak website has some history and pics
- Images of houses in Grassendale and Cressington parks: scroll down for examples of the variety of houses built here
- The ‘Lost Villages’ of Garston and Speke: article by local historian Ken Pye
Carol Rumen’s current Poem of the Week on The Guardian website grabbed my attention since its subject – Otterspool Prom – is the riverside walk and area of parkland by the Mersey where I often walk our dog. It’s by Peter Robinson who, I have to admit, is a poet I’ve not encountered previously, even though he grew up in Liverpool (he was born up the river in Salford in 1953). He has a distinguished career as a poet, critic, teacher, editor and translator, and this poem comes from his latest volume, The Returning Sky, published last year.
‘O cursed spite’
There’s a dazzle of sunlight on the low-tide river
and our far shore
has a silver-grey blur, bright as never, never,
You see it’s enough to bring tears to the eyes
by silhouetting trees,
winter boughs spidery on mist-like white skies
twitched in a breeze.
But then down the promenade its flyers release
their dragon-tailed kite;
frost on the pitches is shrinking by degrees;
a student’s words return, her going ‘England’s shite!’
and I’m like ‘Please
yourself’ in sunshine born as if to set it right.
17 February 2008
It’s an appropriate poem to post today: it celebrates a day in February, and this has been a day of glorious spring-like sunshine when the ‘dazzle of sunlight’ did indeed shine on the river, ‘bright as never, never, ever before’.
The photos here were taken on Otterspool Prom last month, and in other springs. There’s a full discussion of the poem by Carol Rumen here.
Every year, in the third week of February, there is a day, or, more usually, a run of days, when one can say for sure that the light is back. Some juncture has been reached, and the light spills into the world from a sun suddenly higher in the sky. Today, a Sunday, is such a day, though the trees are still stark and without leaves; the grasses are dry and winter-beaten.The sun is still low in the sky, even at noon, hanging over the hills southwest. Its light spills out of the southwest, the same direction as the wind: both sunlight and wind arrive together out of the same airt, an invasion of light and air out of a sky of quickly moving clouds, working together as a swift team.
– Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines
We’re still enjoying days of crisp, February blue skies, so when I had to get something from B&Q on Speke Retail Park, I decided to take our dog and walk a stretch of the Mersey estuary shore I hadn’t explored before. Two minutes drive from the bustle of the shops and the roar of traffic along Speke Road there’s a hidden pocket of wildness and Edgeland strangeness.
Speke-Garston Coastal Reserve is a haven of tranquillity carved out of the old Speke Airport site. It consists of a stretch of the estuary shore from Garston Docks to Speke Hall. The hi-tech office and warehouse blocks of the Estuary Business Park are never out of sight, but from the footpaths and cycle trails that wend their way through meadows and banks of tall reeds alongside the river there are fine views over the Mersey and the silence is broken only by the calls of sea birds and waders – and the occasional plane making its approach to John Lennon Airport.
This may be the edgelands, described by Marion Shoard (who coined the term) as a terrain of ‘rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland’. Raggedy, it may be, but it is peaceful, and the mix of saltmarsh, tidal mudflats, grassland, reedbeds, farmland and wildflower meadows attracts birds of great number and variety. No wonder the area is popular with bird watchers.
I could hear them (the birds, that is) – but, apart from the familiar cry of Oystercatchers, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. However, the RSPB and bird bloggers report that along this shore can routinely be seen plenty of the common wader species: Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Redshank, and Snipe together with Teal, Mallard, Shelduck, Grey Heron, and Cormorant.
I walked out from the car park at the roundabout on Blackburne Street where sandstone marker stones with plaques that announce the Coastal Reserve suggest ambitious plans a few years back when the Business Park first opened. If there were plans, it looks like they were abandoned soon after: the car park is deeply pot-holed and the the sandstone boulders covered in graffiti.
I walked southwest, towards Speke Hall. If you are walking the shoreline path (now designated the Mersey Way) in the other direction, this as far as you can go: Garston Docks and the private residential Grassendale and Cressington Esplanades prevent public access to the riverside. The docks I can understand, but as a freeborn Englishman I can’t understand the idea that a private estate should have the right to deny people access to a great river.
The boundary of the Garston docks is marked here by an old sandstone jetty and tin-roofed warehouse. The tide was out and the mud flats glistened in the brilliant sunshine. Inland, across the strip of rough grassland, the new low-level office blocks and company headquarters of the Business Park gleamed white and silver.
The path was fringed with tall reeds in winter colours of gold and brown. Across the river, the stacks of Stanlow oil refinery gleamed through the haze. There were few around apart from one or two people walking dogs and a couple of guys with a van beachcombing: hauling huge driftwood timbers up from the mud flats. But there were birds – lots of them, a constant background chorus of cries and calls.
It’s this haunting, slightly disorientating juxtaposition of the natural and the ordered, the sublime and the unlovely that marks out the edgelands. Here were mysterious concrete structures and piles of rubble – left-overs from the old airport site presumably – amidst the reeds and wild flower seed heads. Look one way, and the land had a half-abandoned feel; look the other way and there were the pristine new buildings of the Business Park.
This is the kind of landscape which Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness by Liverpool-born poet Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts celebrates. The two poets begin their book with this explanation of the attraction that these landscapes can hold:
For a long while – an entire childhood, in fact – we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early Seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground; to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course; an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land; to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever really felt like the countryside.
Anyone who has spent a childhood mooching around the fringes of four English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders, might have come up with the word “edgelands”. If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland; wasteland. If you know this underdeveloped, unwatched territory, you know that they have “edge”. We might have come up with it ourselves, but geographer Marion Shoard got there first. Her writing on England’s edgelands; her call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them and above all her naming of this ground, was the starting point for our study of these areas. […]
I think that one important aspect of the edgelands that Farley and Roberts identify is relevant here on the Garston shore: the mutability of edgeland territory. They write that the edgelands feel anything but timeless:
Revisit an edgelands site you haven’t seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements. Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands…
‘As difficult to pin down as poetry’ they write: decay and stasis, but also dynamic and deeply mysterious. ‘Edgelands are always on the move’: true here, where I’m walking on the landscaped rubble of the old 1930s airport (a few streets away, the elegant 1930s terminal building is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel), while behind me the clean lines of Estuary Park’s new office blocks coruscate in the low winter sun.
Some of the Park boulevards I drove along to get here are so new they don’t show up on Google Maps. The approach is landscaped in the way of business parks that aim to attract prestigious, high-tech companies: manicured lawns and reed-fringed lakes.
But, cheek-by-jowl with carefully-managed landscaping is a rough and ready wildness, a sense of entropy and decay, and slip-sliding disorder:
Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.
As Farley and Symmons Roberts note, it was Marion Shoard who coined the term, in an essay ‘Edgelands‘ published in Remaking the Landscape in 2002:
Britain’s towns and cities do not usually sit cheek by jowl with its countryside, as we often casually assume. Between urban and rural stands a kind of landscape quite different from either. Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. This peculiar landscape is only the latest version of an interfacial rim that has always separated settlements from the countryside to a greater or lesser extent. In our own age, however,this zone has expanded vastly in area, complexity and singularity. Huge numbers of people now spend much of their time living, working or moving within or through it. Yet for most of us, most of the time, this mysterious no man’s land passes unnoticed: in our imaginations, as opposed to our actual lives, it barely exists. […]
I walked as far as the lighting gantry that juts out into the Mersey and which, at night, guides the planes into John Lennon airport. This was the end of the last walk I did along the Oglet shore last August. Before I reached the gantry I passed the Liverpool Sailing Club, housed in a remarkable (and, I thought, quite beautiful) building shaped in the form of the billowing sail of a yacht. The Club’s concrete slipway provides the only access for sailing boats to the Mersey from the north shore.
I retraced my steps, entranced by a landscape which is, I think, magical, even though it is, in Marion Shoard’s words, ‘raw and rough’. The edge-lands, she said, do not conform to people’s idea of the picturesque :
On the contrary, they seem desolate, forsaken and unconnected even to their own elements let alone to our preferred version of human life. Tidiness is absent: here no neat manicured lawns with sharply demarcated edges are found. If there is grassland, it is likely to be coarse and shaggy. … swamped by a riot of wild, invasive plants that seem to over-run everything in their path: fragments of tarmac, wrecks of cars and derelict buildings.
There is a wild beauty here, something to be treasured so near to the city.
- Seeking sea level: walking the Mersey from source to sea
- Walking the Mersey: Oglet shore
- Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point
- Pickering’s Pasture: sunset on the Mersey
- A walk round Hale
This is the second of two walks that I took along a stretch of the Mersey Way, accompanied by our dog and starting at the end of Dungeon Lane, a road that runs, alongside the perimeter fence of John Lennon Airport, from Speke estate down to the river. Last time I headed southeast to Hale Point; this time I turned northwest to follow the Oglet shore parallel to the runways of John Lennon Airport.
This is a landscape of strange juxtapositions and incongruities: an airport control tower looms across a field of potatoes, wild banks of gorse share the view with the cracking towers and storage tanks of Stanlow oil refinery across the river, and a horse gallops through pasture as an aircraft passes low overhead.
The views are good today: across the estuary, the Clwydian hills with the distinctive peak of Moel Famau lie distant and blue. There may be an airport just a field away, but this is old country: Neolithic flint scatters have been found here, close to the Mersey shore. People may have lived here 5000 years ago, or simply come to the river to fish.
Walking northwest along the Mersey Way, it’s plain that, despite the airport and Speke housing estate, this is still farming country, and surprisingly rural. The path keeps to the bluffs above the river, skirting the edge of fields of barley and potatoes. But whereas, walking in the other direction towards Hale, the path is easy and clearly defined, here I found it overgrown and almost impenetrable – especially for a diminutive King Charles spaniel! As soon as possible I broke off the path and scrambled down to the foreshore. The tide was out and, at least for a time, the going was much easier along the sandy shoreline.
The estuary here is broad, with large areas of saltmarsh and extensive intertidal sand and mud flats, edged by boulder clay cliffs. It was low tide and looking out across the estuary to the Cheshire hills and Stanlow oil refinery, the river seemed, apart from a few meandering water channels, to be one long stretch of sands. Even so, it seems amazing to contemplate the idea of walking across the river here. Yet that is what Graham Boanas, a charity fundraiser, did in the summer of 2006. He walked from Ince Banks near Ellesmere Port to Oglet – a distance of two miles. Although he is a remarkable 6 foot nine tall, Boanas struggled against strong currents, treacherous mud and shifting sandbanks.
Walking the Oglet shore today, with its mud banks and washed up litter at the high tide line, it’s hard to imagine that, even into the 1970s, families would come here for a day out on the beach. In Speke Memories, Vinny Edwards recalls childhood days on Oglet shore after his family was rehoused to Speke in the late 1960s:
The summers seemed endless in those days …we would spend all day playing on the fields next to the airport runways …there was marshland where we would go fishing with nets for newts , sticklebacks and frogspawn….or we would go egging ….but we would leave the house with an old lemonade bottle of water…and we’d be back home for tea .
We would also go down Oggy Shore….does anyone remember standing under the planes as they landed? We used to throw stones at them as they flew to their landing a hundred yards further on down. We’d go down to Oggy and on those hot days we’d walk along to Hale lighthouse…..there used to even be a beach in those days and I have old black and white photos of us as a family on the foreshore at Oglet beach….
Looking at Oglet shore these days its hard to recognise as my old playground of 30 years ago. However, it is great to see how the wildlife has adopted my old stamping ground.
Similarly, in his excellent book Discover Liverpool, Ken Pye also recalls coming here with is parents in the late 1950s, skipping around the concrete pyramids on the beach (laid as tank traps during the War, and now reduced to rubble on the high tide line), and later, as a teenager in the 1960s, when he and his mates would bring girlfriends to steal kisses and swim in the river (risky before the clean-up, when domestic sewage and industrial pollutants were discharged directly into the river). Pye includes in his book this evocative photograph of youngsters having fun at Oglet back in those days.
The biography of Paul McCartney, Many Years from Now, by Barry Miles also recalls childhood days along this shore:
Speke was named after the swine fields that surrounded Liverpool; the Anglo-Saxon ‘Spic’ means bacon. The old village of Speke, together with the hamlet of Oglet, had only thirty-seven houses when construction began in 1936 of a ‘new model town’. Over 35,000 houses and flats were built, mainly to house people from the slums of the south end of Liverpool. Despite being well equipped with schools, clinics, parks and playing fields, it was a pretty soulless place. The idea of rehousing people in rural surroundings didn’t work. They missed the street life, the local pub, the corner shops and sense of community and felt that the council had taken them and dumped them in a field out of sight. The low, monotonous terraced houses, the lack of nearby shops or entertainment and the great distance from the city centre quickly combined to make it into a rough working-class ghetto, separated from the rest of Liverpool by an industrial estate and the airport. However, there were thick woods nearby, full of bluebells in spring, now engulfed by a Ford motor factory, and it was only a short walk to the River Mersey.
For Paul and Michael [his brother], the best thing about living in Speke was the countryside. In a couple of minutes they could be in Dungeon Lane, which led through the fields to the banks of the Mersey. The river is very wide at this point, with the lights of Ellesmere Port visible on the far side across enormous shifting banks of mud and sand pecked over by gulls. On a clear day you could see beyond the Wirral all the way to Wales. Paul would often cycle the two and a half miles along the shoreline to the lighthouse at Hale Head, where the river makes a 90-degree turn, giving a panoramic view across the mud and navigation channels to the industrial complex of Runcorn on the far side. These are lonely, cold, windy places, the distant factories and docks dwarfed by the size of the mud banks of the river itself.
I like the strange juxtapositions and incongruities of this landscape: the airport control tower looming over the fields of potato and barley, the modernistic, gleaming warehouse blocks of the terminal buildings alongside the old red brick farmhouse at Oglet.
What I didn’t like – and began to feel depressed by – was the way the shoreline is littered with industrial and domestic detritus – discarded bottles, crates, tyres, old shoes and wellies, road signs, buckets, and plastic, plastic, plastic. In one place a complete wooden bench – in good condition and of municipal design – had been washed ashore right way up, looking incongruously as if it had been placed there deliberately. The quality of the river water may be good again, and salmon have returned to breed, but this littered shore is evidence that the river is still regarded as a convenient place to dump rubbish.
Encountering this concrete pillar, original function unknown, I was reminded of the early hominids discovering the black monolith at the beginning of the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And we all know what that led to…
My walk ends just short of the airport light gantry that juts out into the river just below where the Tudor half-timbered Speke Hall stands, incongruously only a few yards from the runway and new terminal buildings of the airport. You can’t see the Elizabethan manor house from the shore because of the Speke Hall bund, created to conceal the runway from the house.
Liverpool Airport was a product of the craze for airport development that gripped Britain’s towns and cities in the inter-war years. It was built on land that once formed part of the Speke Hall estate. Following the death of Adelaide Watts, the last private owner of the house, ownership passed to Liverpool Corporation which saw Speke as an ideal site for airport development. The original Speke Airport was a large levelled grassed area to the other side of Speke Hall from the present airport. The first flight from the new airfield was in 1930, though the airport didn’t officially open until 1933. When it did it had the most impressive airport buildings in the country, including the Art Deco terminal building and control tower (now the Crowne Plaza Hotel) and two nearby hangars (one now a sports centre, the other the headquarters of Shop Direct).
The development of the original northern airfield required a large acreage of the former Speke Estate be converted from agricultural to aviation use. The resulting airfield was, however, compact and the majority of flights would take off over the Mersey. The redevelopment of the airport in the 1980s resulted in the construction of the new runway required for jet aircraft on the new site nearer to the river at Oglet.
The runway development of the 1980s swallowed up more of the Speke Estate and led to the southern part of Speke Hall’s ornate gardens being concreted over, effectively separating the Hall from the River Mersey. Though now surrounded by the airport and new industrial units, Speke Hall remains a stunning building: it always has always felt to me slightly surreal, encountering this a wood-framed wattle-and-daub Tudor manor house, built in the mid-16th century, amidst the hurly-burly of 21st century life reflected in airport arrivals and departures, industrial units and Speke retail park.
Speke Hall was built by the Norris family, and three generations lived there before the family’s Catholic faith led to them losing the estate after the Civil War, and the house being left in a state of neglect. In the late 18th century, Richard Watt, a merchant and slave trader, bought the house with profits made from Jamaican sugar plantations. He began much needed restorative work before leasing the house to Frederick Leyland who, from modest beginnings, had made his fortune in shipping.
There’s an etching of Speke Hall done by James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1870 that’s in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, as well as a rather wonderful oil painting entitled Whistler and the Leyland Family in the Billiard Room, Speke Hall.
The story behind these works is that Leyland was a great patron of the arts (sometimes referred to as ‘the Medici of Merseyside’,he was responsible for the superb William Morris wallpapers which are a special feature of the house), and especially of the Pre-Raphaelites and Whistler. Whistler eventually received an invitation to stay with the Leyland family at Speke Hall in 1871. Over the next five years, during many often extended visits he painted the whole family. During these visits, with Leyland at work in Liverpool and London, a strong affection grew between Whistler and Frances, the wife of his patron. The relationship deepened, was to last for the rest of their lives, and was instrumental in the breakdown of the Leyland marriage.
The oil painting (below) seems, whether intentionally or not, to hum with suppressed feeling. Frederick Leyland is on the far left, with his three daughters to the right. Seated in front of a desperately bored looking Whistler is Frances, deliberately picked out in scarlet. The depiction of the women, billiard cues at the ready, and especially of the woman on the left wielding her cue, is, I think, delicious.
All the land hereabouts was once part of the Speke Hall estate. Today, there are still a couple farms in Oglet (an Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘oak tree by a stream’) and, leaving the shore I returned up the lane to where the red brick Yew Tree Farm stood on the opposite side of the road.
Behind the farm, a horse grew restless as an Easyjet plane made the approach over the fields to the runway. Another odd juxtaposition.
At all seasons, at all states, the River was beautiful. At dead low water, when great sandbanks were laid bare, to draw multitudes of gulls; in calm, when the ships stood still above their shadows; in storm, when the ferries beat by, shipping sprays, and at full flood, when shipping put out and came in, the River was a wonder to me.
– John Masefield, in New Chums, 1944, his account of the time he spent from 1891 on HMS Conway at New Ferry training as a merchant seaman navigator before joining his first ship in 1894.
- Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point
- Speke Hall Estate archive: interesting old maps and documents
- Speke Hall: National Trust