Walking the Mersey: Oglet shore

Walking the Mersey: Oglet shore

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 former terminal building of Speke Airport

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 Beatles arriving at Speke Airport for the northern premiere of A Hard Day’s Night, 10 July 1964

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.

Speke Hall by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1870)

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.

Whistler and the Leyland Family in the Billiard Room, Speke Hall
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

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.

 

Gallery

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Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point

Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point

This is the first 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.

There’s a rough surface car park about half a mile down Dungeon Lane, much frequented by plane spotters who take up positions along the lane with folding chairs, flasks and binoculars, waiting for the planes coming in to land on the last minute or so of their descent to the runway.  I parked the car and set off down to the Dungeon.

Once the road ran all the way down to the foreshore here.  Now Dungeon is an abandoned and neglected place where rubble, broken bricks, and the remains of a sandstone quay suggest some kind of industrial past.

The name ‘Dungeon’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘dunge’ or ‘denge’, meaning marshland, or land that adjoins a marsh (think of Dungeness in Kent), rather than having any association with castles or imprisonment.  But this place does have some significance in Liverpool’s economic history, because it was here, after the discovery of rock salt in Cheshire in the 17th century, that a salt refinery was established, the remains of which are still visible in the crumbling stone work and overgrown sandstone jetty.

The development of the trade in salt from Cheshire was the catalyst for improvements in communications from the Cheshire salt fields and the Lancashire coal fields to the River Mersey and Liverpool, a process that boosted the town of Liverpool and the growth of the port. The first step in these developments was the transformation of the small fishing hamlet of Dungeon into a place of industry.  Throughout the 18th century, flatboats and barges brought rock salt across the river from the Cheshire shore to Dungeon, where it was refined before being shipped onwards.

The salt works closed in the late 1840s, and the quay was then used by a firm of ship breakers.  But by the early 20th century the river channels had begun to silt up, and the shipyard closed in 1912.  That was the end of industrial activity at Dungeon, and the little bay slipped once again into isolation and abandonment.

From Dungeon I turned to follow the broad sweep of the bay southeast towards Hale Point.  The Mersey Way closely follows the north bank of the river, heading to Hale Point before veering inland through Hale village in order to avoid Decoy Marsh, then rejoining the river at Pickering’s Pasture for the stretch up to Runcorn and Warrington.  The route in part is concurrent with the Trans-Pennine Trail.

This is a lovely stretch, with fields and wooded copses inland and the Mersey estuary opening out from the Runcorn gap in a series of broad, sweeping bays.  Once a filthy industrial wasteland, the estuary is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because the intertidal flats and saltmarshes provide feeding and roosting sites for large populations of waterbirds. During the winter the estuary is of major importance for ducks and waders, and in the spring and autumn migration periods it’s a crucial stopover for wader populations moving along the west coast of Britain.

The web page of the Mersey Estuary Conservation Group reports that dunlin, turnstone, teal, black-tailed godwit, redshank, pintail, and shelduck visit the estuary, while it is nationally important for wigeon, lapwing, curlew, golden and grey plover.  As the river continues to recover from industrial pollution, the range of fish species in the estuary has increased to over 50.   Sea bass, flounder and shoals of sprat are now common, and recent catches have included sole, dogfish, rays, mackerel as well as conger.   Salmon are probably breeding in the Mersey river system since juveniles were found in the river Goyt. As fish numbers increase, so to have sightings of  Cetaceans  (porpoises, dolphins and whales).  Seals, too, are regularly seen in the estuary, the most unusual and rarest being a Hooded Seal – a Greenland species – which hauled itself on the mud banks at Spike Island in 1997.

There are many Liverpudlians for whom this stretch of the river has provided a welcome opportunity to experience a quite wild and appealing area of countryside close to the city – not least for those who were rehoused on Speke Housing Estate in the postwar period, among them Paul McCartney.

In his biography of McCartney, Many Years from Now,  Barry Miles describes how Paul and his brother Mike, like thousands growing up on Liverpool’s new housing estates, were raised on the border of country and city:

For Paul and Michael, 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.

In the early fifties the McCartneys moved to another new house, surrounded by a muddy building site, at 12 Ardwick Road in the expanding eastern extension of the estate. It was not without danger. Paul was mugged there once while messing about with his brother on the beach near the old lighthouse. His watch was stolen and he had to go to court because they knew the youths that did it. […]

The little village of Hale was less than two miles away, with thatched roofs, home of the giant Childe of Hale who, legend has it, was nine foot tall. … The worn gravestone is still there, inscribed ‘Hyre lyes ye childe of Hale’. It was a favourite destination for a family walk. On the way back Paul’s parents and the two boys would stop at a teashop called the Elizabethan Cottage for a pot of tea, Hovis toast and home-made jam. It was a pleasant, genteel interlude, a touch of quality before they walked back to their very different life among the new grey houses and hard concrete roads of the housing estate.

‘This is where my love of the country came from,’ Paul said. ‘I was always able to take my bike and in five minutes I’d be in quite deep countryside. I remember the Dam woods, which had millions of rhododendron bushes. We used to have dens in the middle of them because they get quite bare in the middle so you could squeeze in. I’ve never seen that many rhododendrons since.’ Sometimes, however, rather than play with his friends, Paul preferred to be alone. He would take his Observer Book of Birds and wander down Dungeon Lane to the lighthouse on a nature ramble or climb over the fence and go walking in the fields: ‘This is what I was writing about in ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, it was basically a heart-felt song about my child-of-nature leanings’.

Speke was originally planned in 1936 as a complete town for 22,000 people, with an industrial estate, schools, a civic centre, a cinema, an ‘open-air music garden’ and a stadium and pleasure beach on the banks of the River Mersey. Unfortunately building work was interrupted by the Second World War and, though more homes were built in the postwar years, the gardens, stadium and pleasure beach never materialised.  Instead, social and community facilities and services were overlooked or inadequate.

1936 model of the planned Speke new town
1936 model of the planned Speke new town

The path to Hale follows the edge of farmland, skirting fields of barley, potatoes and carrots.

You can’t forget that the airport is nearby – on this stretch you walk parallel to the approach which aircraft make on their descent to the runway.  But the noise levels are not intrusive, apart from the brief roar of the reverse thrust engines as the planes touch down; for most of the time the only sounds are of rooks in the copse leading up to Hale village, or the calls of gulls and waders out on the mudbanks of the river.

Speke airport was constructed between 1930 and 1933, but until 1986 was located on a smaller site near Speke Boulevard (where the old terminal building is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel).  The major redevelopment of the 1980s saw the move to the new site near to the river at Oglet, and a transfer of ownership from Liverpool City Council to Peel Holdings, the company that now owns assets on both sides of the Mersey, from Liverpool to Manchester.  These include: the port of Liverpool, Birkenhead docks, the Manchester Ship Canal, the Trafford Centre, MediaCity UK at Salford Quays, and a great deal more.

The path follows the top of the low clay cliffs; between the path and the cliff edge is a strip of shrubs, reeds and saplings.  Flocks of hedgerow birds were exploiting the late summer seedheads; there were burdock (the dog came home with her coat festooned with the velcro-like burrs), teasel, and a delicate pink-and-white striped bindweed.

Walking on, the church tower at Hale was visible across the fields where a tractor was ploughing, pursued by a flock of seagulls.  Hale (the name is Anglo-Saxon again, deriving from ‘healh’ meaning promontary of land-  a reference to the village’s location on a bulge of land protruding into the Mersey. The village still retains something of its rural and farming character, the product of the rich and fertile soils hereabouts.

There are salt marshes between the village and the river which can flood at particularly high tides or during storms.  There used to be extensive osier willow beds around the marshes which gave rise to another village occupation, basket-making.  The industry died out long ago, but there are still remnants of the old willow beds marked on the Ordnance Survey map.  Along the cliff top and down on the foreshore there are dense reed beds: I imagine that in the past villagers  would have harvested the reeds for thatching (in fact, there are still a few thatched cottages in Hale village).

The walk ends at Hale lighthouse (top) which stands at Hale Head.  The first  lighthouse was built here in 1838, but the present building dates from 1906.  It ceased operation in 1958, since there was no longer any shipping on this side of the river. Since then it’s been a private residence. From here there are superb views of the hills at Frodsham and Helsby on the opposite bank.

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