john davies
notes from a small curate

    Monday, November 22, 2004
    Parish Walks #8 - Everyday English
     


    On the water fountain in the middle of West Derby village the inscription reads, 'Water is Best'. Across the road the adverts screaming from the windows of Bargain Booze suggest otherwise. West Derby village is contested space. Desirable postcode with a teenage drinks problem; ancient township choked up with schools traffic; gateway to Croxteth Hall, ancestral home of the Earls of Sefton, who ran a self-sufficient estate and never had that much to do with West Derby itself.

    Strictly speaking I am well out of my bounds, planning a walk through the heart of the Croxteth Hall estate, beginning here. This place is a good half-mile away from the nearest point in our parish; and in local consciousness it is a place far removed from our corporation estates. But our church still bears the moniker 'West Derby' in its title, because a century ago West Derby lands were vast. So this is a context-setting stroll, perhaps a walk into history.


    I set out between the lions rampant at the estate gates, alongside St Mary's, our mother church, rebuilt 150 years ago to replace the village's fourteenth century chapel, on a wide tarmacked path where a hazard sign bears a picture of a horse. All of a sudden, we're in riding country.

    The landscape is a gently undulating sweep of green, the tree-lined path peppered with dog-walkers on their after-breakfast stroll. Most of them friendly; most of them greet me. A gent with two large dogs engages me in a very English conversation about the weather (cool, sunny, prevailing winds, a blow the cobwebs off sort of morning), a middle aged woman wheeling a wriggly baby dressed in pink smiles warmly, a short man, like me buttoned up against the weather says 'hello'. This puts me in the mood to greet the more reluctant passers-by, which I do, and each one responds.

    Open space gives way to coppice, and here I reach a junction, where four ways meet. This point was at the centre of the map square I drew out of my box this morning to determine today's route. It is thus the epicentre of the journey, and feels like one, sheltered, relatively airless, a place of confluence.


    I want to walk all four ways this morning, if I can. To do so I first decide to satisfy my curiosity about the destination of the path to north-north-west. Which older maps suggest comes out to meet Meadow Lane, but older maps fail to show the new private estate in that corner of L12. The suspicions are that the path is now either a short cut to that housing cluster, or not in use at all. The latter is the case. Of the four ways, this is the only one not signposted. Though still tree-lined, the path stops sharply, the tarmac clinically severed as the boundary-fence of the new estate looms. On the fence, a sign makes clear this is no longer a public way: METROPOLITAN BOROUGH OF SEFTON - PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO TRESPASSING. I get a frisson of satisfaction photographing this, with the posh homes behind, and retrace my steps wondering why Sefton - we are in Liverpool here, and Knowsley abuts us. A link to the Earl of Sefton's estate, perhaps, but how does that work? Does the Earl own the Borough too? Well, the last Earl is dead - perhaps the occupant of the house behind placed the sign, filched from a Sefton Council workplace.

    The walk to the house runs past a coppice where some lovely highland cows enjoy their food, alongside Croxteth Lodge, which shows signs of habitation - that lovely winter warm glow of internal light. Under the grandly-gated Croxteth Hall Drive bridge, past the minature railway and the still green Statue Pond where at the far end, ducks doze.

    The Molyneux family, with homes in London and the Lancashire hills, used Croxteth for sporting occasions - entertaining guests during the Grand National and Altcar's hare-coursing season. When the Earl played host to Her Majesty the Queen for tea at a race meeting of November 1950, these also (among many others) were in attendence: HRH The Princess Royal, HRH Princess Alexandra, Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Lord and Lady Rothschild and family, Duke of Norfolk, Duke of Roxborough, Duke of Roseberry, Earl and Countess of Derby - Stanley family, Lord Leverhulme, Lord Caernarvon, Lady Blandford (Tina Onassis), Mr Errol Flynn and son, Sophie Tucker (singer).

    Thirty-two years since the last Earl died the place has been well-adopted by Liverpool City Council as a leisure and business area, as evidenced by an extensive children's play area, a gift shop on the corner of the house, a cafe (open and popular this morning), and - which I'd never seen before - busy offices and conference facilities around the back.



    Passing the house frontage dominated by a militaristic mural the pace quickens: I have left the ageing dog-walkers behind and suddenly all is youthful activity. People of teenage-and-twenties walk with purpose between buildings; estate staff drive vans down works tracks; one is employing a petrol-powered leaf-blower to clear a corner of a car park. I discover that Croxteth Hall is a base for Myerscough College , which offers courses in subjects including agriculture, countryside studies, animal studies, creative design, landscape studies, sport and recreation, horticulture, street cleansing, mechanisation, sportsturf and arboriculture; part time or full time, from entry to advanced level. The young people passing me here hold the future of our land - physically, literally - in their hands.

    So Croxteth Hall, which has always been a place of privilege, continues to be a centre for power. To reinforce this a sign outside a conference room reads, TESCO NEW STORE RESEARCH GROUPS. My guess this is a City Council convention to discuss the supermarket giant's proposals to site their biggest store in Europe on reclaimed land a mile north of here, on the inside edge of our parish. Feel like I should be in there with them, but press on.

    I try to continue north-easterly but all the paths beyond the house that way are blocked. This is the business end of the estate, old stables with mechanical activity going on inside them, closed doors marked CAUTION OPEN MAN HOLE BEHIND DOOR, smoking chimneys. I have to retrace and take a more easterly path, thinking I may still emerge where I'd hoped: on the loop of Fir Tree Drive, the road which circles the massive Croxteth Park housing estate. My plan had been to head right through that subtopian labyrinth to the very edge, the scrubland beside the M57. All of this once the Earl's.

    When I do emerge into the expected fancy houses, I am on Manor View. This is not Croxteth Park. This is the Deysbrook edge of the estate, south-easterly. Though it could be anywhere - clusters of fairly new detached homes, garages full of clutter, drives of fancy vehicles. The developers have barricaded the occupants out of the pleasant track from the country park; their homes peep over high fences bearing small signs in red ink: BEWARE RAZOR WIRE, and the awful steel stuff is everywhere. Evidently, the people who live in these homes like to get away from them - many drives accommodate caravans, motor homes and boats.



    At the corner of Coachmans Drive a driver gets out of his red taxi to post a letter. At the corner of Deysbrook Lane and Croxteth Hall Lane, signs of regeneration, needed and in place: a large hoarding advertising social housing providers Berrybridge, to whom more than 2,400 Liverpool City council homes have been transferred following a successful stock transfer ballot with tenants in 2002, their website says. "Berrybridge Housing has a local focus run by a voluntary Board with independent and tenant representatives. It plans to spend 47M on improving homes in the first five years after transfer, and more than 200M over the next 30 years." On the opposite corner, bold new signs on a very old shop: MR BOOZE - NEWS AND CONVENIENCE.

    The homeward walk begins here, on the narrow, busy Croxteth Hall Lane which cuts the estate in two. At the Home Farm exit an overpowered car twitches as the young male driver cuts through the gears. Into calm again as I approach the central coppice along the fourth path, back among dog walkers. The only incident to disturb the morning strollers occurs when gravity pulls a large branch from a tree in the centre of the land, and as it cracks on the ground a whole field-full of magpies rise together, screeching in shock.



    The light is generous, the sky large and the ground deeply green. Beyond the trees, all that breaks the line of the land is the tower of St Mary's Church. Five miles from the teeming Mersey, this is an everywhere-England rural view. More than any other place I know, with this view I am minded of Cambridge. But it is not Cambridge. I know this because, nearing West Derby village again, a cyclist passes me by. She is the one and only cyclist I have seen all day.