john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Towards an Urban Theology of Land

    A paper for Liverpool Diocese UPA Clergy seminar
    15 February 2005


    Last March I moved to the Church of the Good Shepherd West Derby, into the nascent team ministry also embracing St Christopher's Norris Green and Christ Church Norris Green. And one of the first questions I asked myself on arrival was, how do I get to know my new place?

    My growing interest in contemplating an urban theology of land has emerged from the programme I undertook in trying to answer that question. It is a programme with two strands:

    Active listening on pastoral visits, in places of contact, during involvement in community groups, to representatives of agencies active in the area;

    Parish walks, using various methods and routes, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied. Around the area covered by all three parishes together, quite a large area of outer estate embracing most of Norris Green and some of Croxteth. This I regard as active walking; mentally engaged walking, with the intention of recording my observations and impressions gained en-route, to help build a picture over time, of the parish and the relationship of the people and the place. A foundation for theological reflection.

    In both cases I journal my observations, in the case of walks I use my website to share what I've seen, inviting readers' comments back.

    In football parlance, what I want to present to you today is a talk of three halves. For the first ten minutes I will read to you a transcript of one of my walks, from last summer; then move into the area which I would roughly call methodoloogy - talking about some of the people who have influenced my approach to urban walking and resourced my reflections on the walks, and then to move on to investigate some theologians working in the area of land and place, which are closely linked, and offer some proposals about the directions in which an urban theology of land might go.

    I should point out now that this is a presentation at the start of a process, so I will be offering signposts, pointers, suggestions rather than finely-honed theories today. But I anticipate a creative discussion in the second part of this morning as we tease out some of these things together.

    1. A Parish Walk - Bringing in the Bacon; Saturday, July 24, 2004 [1]

    Saturday afternoon - perfect for a stroll around Broadway, the area's main (some would say only real) shopping area. I'm doing a figure-eight, out along Broad Lane and back along Lorenzo Drive.

    It's fairly warm but blowy. Which has brought the children out: two little girls making games for the teddy which is as big as them, at the front of a house with the door wide open to the living room, and an older boy slumped alone at the base of a wind-blown tree, playing with his fingers. Further on a woman helps her grandson take his first wobbly journey on a bike with stabilisers.

    As the road sweeps upwards round the back of Norris Green Park it is obvious why this is called Broad Lane; though it is not the original ancient route. This stretch of road came in with the new estate in 1930. Some of it appears to be ready to wind up its history altogether. The nearer the centre of the figure-eight, the roundabout where Broad Lane and Lorenzo Drive intersect, the more empty houses there are and the more nature has begun to reclaim the land.

    This indicates the edge of the present-day City Council's failed experiment in the Boot Estate, a sorry story of urban mismanagement. Gaps between the houses to the right, all along here, show a wild green vastness where not long ago whole communities had been. Some hold on to the hope they will be relocated there again: the adverts are up for new houses, though there's little sign of building work beginning as yet.

    The roundabout is overlooked by St Christopher's - the Children's Church: built with the help of over 3,000 raised by the youngsters of the twelve Rural Deaneries of Liverpool Diocese. On the Broad Lane side of the church bold red iron gates protect the lovely Children's courtyard between the sanctuary and the hall; if we had our way (which we might) this would be an open cafe area on future summers days like this.

    Signs by the church hall: SLIMMING WORLD MONDAYS FROM 10 - 5.30PM. McCabe Chemists. Langbank Medical Centre - Dr M.N. Metha, Dr S. Muthu, Dr N.M. Patel, Dr A. Arain. A woman passes struggling with a wheelchair: "Ar ey Laurice, ang on, I can't push ya."

    Just past the Private Day Nursery is the back entrance to Sayers bakery. My question about who round here can afford private childcare seems to be answered - I guess, those who work at Sayers.

    The Co-op is busy, and as Broadway approaches, as expected, things look up. The local economy is solvent, it seems. Pevsner's description says: "Completed in 1929, two-storeyed, on a curve, and punctuated with gables. Poor detail of the shopping canopy". Broadway's fifty-or-so establishments seem to be dominated by bookies , florists, card shops and chippies.

    Smell of vinegar, paper swirling around (recalling Bill Bryson's wry observation on alighting from Lime Street, "The citizens of Liverpool are holding a festival of litter.") But the main impression - people; all sorts and ages, alone and together, mostly at ease, mainly at leisure. I stop to talk to a couple of parishioners, he, terminally ill, determined to take the afternoon air. And then to watch a car doing a terrible job of reversing into a rare parking space, to then discover that it is my neighbour, who is a long-distance lorry driver.
    Broadway feels good; I sneak down Back Broadway to take notes, where all is razor wire. Clubmoor Conservative Mens Club hides behind strong wire here: TETLEY, intercom entrance, hardly welcoming.

    Out onto Utting Avenue East where the corporation builders in 1930 created a pleasant residential crescent and where today this is punctuated by a building site, for a Sure Start centre. Out of one front doorway spill four women, family, four generations chatting and laughing together. I turn right at the lights onto Lorenzo Drive.

    This is a famous Liverpool road, but it's not clear who Lorenzo was. In 1796, city father and slave trade abolitionist William Roscoe published his Life of Lorenzo de' Medici. Florentine statesman, sportsman, musician, patron of the arts, his contemporaries called him Lorenzo the Magnificent (il Magnifico). However he was a failure at business. Unsuccessful banker and bad debtor - odd that it is on the road named for him (perhaps) that Norris Green's largest employers are based.

    Whistlers Farm looks anything but rural. A large brown corrugated shed behind cast iron railings, revealing nothing about the purpose of its business. Except two small signs, carrying identical messages. In a language I later discover to be Danish, which roughly translates,


    It turns out that Whistlers Farm (est. Dec 1998) moved to Lorenzo Drive in February 2000, a purpose built unit formerly owned by Clarks Quality Meats. They are meat wholesalers and number amongst their customers Weddal Swifts, Towers Thompson and - here we are - the Danish Bacon Company. Denmark being the world's biggest exporter of pork.

    In my mind I connect Whistlers Farm with Sayers, the famous Liverpool bakers, whose factory is next door. For, if you put these companies' produce together then one of life's loveliest treats is formed: bacon butties. In the middle of Norris Green I am at the epicentre of Yum.

    Nothing outside Sayers' shoddy-looking factory reveals that they are now a subsidiary of Lyndale Foods, one of Britain's three largest Bakery chains (behind Greggs and Three Cooks), which, according to a trade report, is expanding well. 50 of the company's shops have been rebranded with a bright new corporate image, it says. I'm left wondering why such a successful company cannot think to 'rebrand' the flaky frontage of its flagship factory.

    Detour on the home stretch - avoiding the easterly Lorenzo Drive (the original Broad Lane) I cut a course through Broad Square (which is named as it is shaped) from Circular Road West to Circular Road East (ditto). And on the playing field at the heart of Circular Road West, a municipal vision epitomised - the wonderful sight of a group of small children playing football between corporation-maintained goalposts, overlooked by their families' tidy homes. I sense this is a place of security for them. An urban planners dream realised. Rare and lovely to feel.

    Circular Road East encircles an adult playground - The Circular Road Bowling Club, surrounded by a tall hedge. Forbidding externally, inside its green and gardens are well-maintained. Surprising to see it all locked up on a summer's afternoon, nevertheless it is another well-intentioned municipal experiment which has survived well over seventy years.

    Broad Square School, on the other hand, is a sign of a different time. A new building looking like a pharmaceutical factory, with the school sign behind high metal fences displaying a public-private partnership: The City of Liverpool and Jarvis: The Headteacher (Mrs Spencer) and the Emergency Contact (Jarvis Helpdesk). I don't know the school so can't comment on how this partnership is going. But in the physical centre of this municipal dream the contrast is sharp.

    I return home to discover on my map that a straight line connects Broad Square School (education in thrall to capital) with Croxteth Hall (old money, absentee lairds) via the site of Norris Green House (built by Arthur Heywood in 1830 - slave trade banker family, now subsumed into Barclays).

    Before that, though, the walk's end. Where Circular Road East meets Lorenzo Drive a mum teases her little son about how far he's ridden his new trike today: "Fifty-four miles," he insists. And a young man helps his young lady into his vehicle; out together for the day in the works van.

    READ ON TO 2. Getting to know my place

    [1] Adapted from original walk journalled here