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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, April 29, 2004
    From the place of wild beasts
    WEST DERBY got its name from 'deor-by' - the place of wild beasts; the West was to distinguish it from Derby in the Midlands. The beasts are still there, cattle and other farm creatures out back in Croxteth Country Park. Now swallowed up in the city, it's one of the oldest villages around this part of England, once the administrative centre of S.W.Lancashire, an area between the Ribble and the Mersey known as the West Derby Hundred.

    When we stood together on West Derby village green on Good Friday, folks who'd processed from churches up to two miles away, I got one of those feelings we were at the centre of things. Four or five miles from the Mersey but at the very point from which the city grew. In Domesday, The riverside was largely uninhabited, Walton was the largest township in the area, but - right here, at this green, West Derby was the "mother church".

    The part of West Derby I'm in only emerged seventy years ago. And it has rapidly crumbled. On the fringe of the Country Park, cruel outsiders say that L11 is a place where other sorts of wild beasts roam: in humanoid form, shell-suited, emitting nasal whines when confronted, making the routine circuit between post office, tote and pub, violent, lazy beasts. These caracatures sidestep deep realities which strike at the core of what causes a place's rise and fall.

    Questions of economics, largely: like how the area has always been dependent on international finance. Croxteth Hall was the home of the Earls of Sefton whose family name was Molyneux, French Normans sent over by Duke William of Normandy after 1066 to control the area. As Britain ruled the waves the area provided craftsmen and sailors to service the agencies of Liverpool's international trading preeminenece. Then, as Empire and the country estate faded and the housing estates rose, the descendents of the Earls' workers would be employed instead in factories run from London or Detroit. And since the multinationals pulled out of the city their grandchildren's underemployment has been tempered by short-term project work paid for by injections of Objective One money from Brussels.

    Illustrating - what? That there is nothing new here; ordinary folks have always depended on big money for their bread-and-butter. And Liverpool has always looked outwards for sources of income: whether as an agricultural base, Gateway to Empire, industrial satellite, Euro-pauper or now Culture-Capital-exploiter. Which makes its people vulnerable to change: one generation essential to the nation's GNP, the next cast-offs in a shrinking marketplace.

    And I'm just wondering, though it's four or five miles from the main regeneration action (a city centre revitalising with blue-chip businesses in anticipation of 2008), whether the reality of the changes we're currently going through might be best observed from the area's ancient historic centre. Here, under the cross on West Derby green; here, on the ripped-up estates of L11; here, in the place of wild beasts; here - we'll get to see how the new money flows, and know, as we've known so often, who truly reaps the benefit.

    [Visit BBC Liverpool Local History for more on the area's villages]