john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, May 04, 2005
    Parish Walks #9 - Dog and Gun rogation

    Rogation or observation? My first parish walk this year posed a dilemma. See, I know the place better now from having been here a year, and while there's still an enormous amount to learn there's also an awareness of priestly duties, while wandering about. Especially on a Rogation day. One of those special days in a year where parishioners walk their patch praying for a fruitful season on the land. So, rogation or observation? If you follow me on this walk, you'll probably get a bit of both.

    I set off from Dog and Gun Post Office, so far a survivor of profitability-cuts, and a hub of human activity at a major road junction. Lower House Lane, an ancient route, dissected by the vast boulevard and tram route Utting Avenue East, when the corporation estates went up in the 1930s. Heading north-west along Lower House Lane I pass the popular Jem Centre, selling all manner of building materials, its windows displaying the range: delicately-patterned coving sitting alongside a massive lump hammer, brass-look light switches beside calor-gas equipment. Vans outside; men shifting heavy bags out of the yard.

    Alongside the brash builders merchants, some modest old cottages, remnants of a past when this would have been a gentle route between Dingle Brook and Lower House Farm. Gore's Directory 1906 lists the various occupants as gardeners, wheelwrights, monumental masons, book keepers and a carter. All probably living off the immediate land - employed either by the Croxteth Hall estate or by West Derby Cemetery. Today, I suspect, their occupants may work further afield.

    Next, an unexpected treat - the gates of the Jewish Cemetery are open. So I wander in. Only having spent a few minutes reading the corporation notice do I realise I'm being watched by two corpy grass-cutters, taking a break by the trees. I check with them, and yes, it is only open because they're there; it's usually locked. But they generously invite me to have a look around. It's quite a sad place, many stones damaged and down, a very stony cemetery, very little space for new graves, very little grass besides the patch near the entrance, the concrete of Storrington Avenue Fire Station on the other side of the railings. I remember that Woody Allen said "I do not believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear," but I'm unsure if this is a representative Jewish view of death. Feeling a bit of an intruder, and sad about the violence which has been wreaked on these stones, I thank the workmen and move on.

    I'm down here because I want to check my maps - the A to Z displays a path which cuts directly through from Lowerhouse Lane to Stonedale Lane, which would be a great route, the OS details paths within West Derby Cemetery but no thoroughfare. Should have known the OS would be right, but there is evidence (an overgrown gateway) that there may once have been a through route. Perhaps when they built St John Bosco School they took the path away. It's one of the many Roman Catholic institutions in the area so I don't know it very well. Looks impressive from the outside - the 'outside' in this case being inside the cemetery. And while two women lay flowers at a grave alongside the dividing fence, on the other side a class take instructions in the yard. Through their thin playground railings the girls of St John Bosco are exposed to death each day. Through the thin cemetery railings mourners are reminded that life, health, youth, continues.

    I cut through edges seeking a short-cut out of the cemetery, stopping at a lonely WW2 memorial to note that of around 40 men commemorated here, 29 were privates, 3 drivers, and 2 sappers. Plenty of gaps in the fence bordering the entertainment complex previously walked here. I emerge from the cemetery's grassy expanses into field of concrete. The gala Bingo, fast-food outlets, and Showcase cinema are patronised by car-users and the leisure sheds are surrounded by car park space. Full of chrome at night, I find it has other uses during the daytime. Primarily, its is an ideal practice area for learner-drivers from Norris Green Driving Test Centre a mile along the main road. This morning, three cars weave around the expanse, their drivers getting a feel for the wheel perhaps for the first time; instructors keeping an eye on the others to avoid costly collisions. It is also a short-cut for Croxteth shoppers nipping over to Kwik Save. I thought I would be on my own wandering this vastness; there are a lot of people passing through here.

    Standing at the corner of the car park, looking back over the leisure park, I consider I'm at a place of transformation. In the daytime, novices leave this place as first-time drivers; and at night, each week hundreds emerge from the palace of screens enriched or enraged or in some other way moved and changed by the film they've just seen, the night they've just had. On this tract of concrete, for many people, things may never be the same again.

    And things may never be the same again at Altbridge Park, the triple-tower-block community which dominates the air on this corner. The work of the Housing Action Trust is done: the residents are moving out, into new, local homes. An interesting exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool Life told the HAT's story:

    Liverpool HAT managed 5,332 properties in 67 tower blocks. It was given twelve years and 260m of government money to create sustainable housing and communities and bring in private finance. In 1996 a study by the HAT estimated that it would cost 299 million to refurbish the city's tower blocks. This led to a major consultation exercise with tenants in all blocks to look at the best options. The result was a decision to demolish 54 blocks and build new homes on their footprints for the tenants, plus to retain and refurbish 13 tower blocks. After demolition, new build and refurbishment Liverpool HAT has transferred a number of homes to its Housing Association partners who will manage them into the future.

    The next half-mile displayed some of this work in progress. First, besides the tidy gardens of Stonedale Crescent, much building activity, with bungalows emerging in the shadow of the heights. And further on, Meadow Court - the first Housing with Extra Care scheme in the city, and one of four to be built by Liverpool HAT. These seem nice places for elderly folk to live; inbetween, church land has been utilised to build similarly-pleasant Bosco Court and Mansion Drive. This too, an area of transformation. And across the road, the wildness where not long ago Croxteth Comprehensive School stood. That's on a new site now, and soon, if proposals are adopted, this wasteland will become the site for a massive Tescos, sports centre, more houses, new beginnings.

    Further on, past Our Lady Queen of Martyrs (doors open - busy presbytery - bustling social club: our RC brethren know how to do church), the Dog and Gun is in need of transformation. The pub which gave its name to the area has closed. Drugs trouble last year brought on its demise. Police Armed Response teams and dog patrol officers raided it in January, 2004. A pub built to indulge the thirsts of hunstmen, shut down by officers bearing dogs and guns.

    Around Dog and Gun, plenty of activity in and out of shops, food outlets, launderette, off-licenses. Next to a massive William Hills, a tiny kiosk very popular with pupils of De la Salle, just up the road: those who want to supplement the dinners served them by Wayne Rooney's mum and her colleagues. Across the way from Stanley Bet, a shop called Pat a Dog - "turning dog grooming into a fine art", their sign says. I wander down to the end of Mace Road to a piece of land which the OS map suggests may once have been a sports field or track of some sort. It's just a tatty clearing now, adding to a sense that Dog and Gun is a centre of human activity which seems to have lost something just now. It may well rebuild, and just further on is another place of transformation, where a gap opens onto the new posher houses of Meadow Croft. Not a croft, but built on a meadow which used to be publicly-owned. The Dwerryhouse fields are much diminished by new-build on three sides and, retracing my steps to pass by them, I see they're much-neglected too.

    Carr Lane East is another ancient route, and some tiny old cottages with names like 'Primrose' still exist. The Sefton Arms is still there (another pub built before the corporation estates populated the area - afterwards it wouldn't have been allowed), but the old school has gone. De La Salle dominates the south-west end of the lane, another RC establishment, all boys, renowned for nurturing young Wayne and his less-celebrated ex-Everton teammate Franny Jeffers, whose high-profile careers lend some perspective to the school's prayer:

    Together as brothers and sisters
    God our Father,
    extend our horizons,
    widen our vision,
    and remind us how inter-connected we are
    as your sons and daughters.
    Breathe your Spirit into us
    that we may live more truly
    as brothers and sisters
    of one another.

    As I pass the Good Shepherd Vicarage, boarded-up awaiting a sale or tenancy, I reflect on how inter-connected we are: a decision I took (to live in the smaller, safer, more neighbourly ex-curate's house) impacts on the lives of the hundreds who pass by the vicarage each day. I nip into church where it is lunchtime and the folks are bringing in food from the chippie next door. I scrounge sausage and chips and tea, much-needed after a hot May morning's walk.