Until the 1930s the old village of Speke, together with the hamlet of Oglet had only 37 houses and a population of around 400. From 1936 construction began on a "new model town" intended to rehouse people living in the slums of Liverpool's south end. Work stopped temporarily upon the outbreak of the Second World War but by the end of the 1950s more than 25,000 people were living in the area including Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
In his biography of McCartney, Many Years from Now, Barry Miles describes how Paul and his brother Mike, like thousands of Liverpudlians growing up on Liverpool’s new housing estates, were raised on the border of country and city - not least those who were rehoused on the Speke Housing Estate in the postwar period. With its close proximity to the river the children who grew up here during the 1950s and 1960s were gifted an opportunity to experience a quite wild and appealing area of countryside right on their own doorstep. Even today, despite the airport and the housing estate, this is still farm land, and surprisingly rural once you pass the runway.
One lovely summer day in 1953 Mum asked Paul and me, with a twinkle in the proverbial eye, to skidaddle for a couple of hours. Sensing something was afoot we readily agreed. So, jumping astride our drop-head, 3 speed Raleigh sports bikes, we headed for the rhododendron woods near Speke shore. Wondering how we could stretch out TWO whole hours until the coming surprise, we soon got fed up with swinging through the rhododendron bushes with Tarzan and headed for “the Oggie” (Oglet) shore cliffs. ***** Mike McCartney – Thank You Very Much
Cycling together or with friends, Paul and brother Michael could be in Dungeon Lane in a matter of minutes, making their way through the fields and past the cottages to the banks of the Mersey.
I remember going off to Oglet Shore in a gang, those poor people in the cottages were continually being harrassed all day and all summer long "please can we have a bottle of water". Oglet shore was the nearest bit of seaside that many of us saw..... The fear of walking onto the sinking sand (mud) to disappear for ever, and of course we all knew someone that did. There was the orchard that was raided constantly. Okay we couldn't build sand castles but if the tide was in we could risk life and limb swimming about in the sewage (Memories of Speke website)
The Oggie? Well I’ve lived in south Liverpool all my life and have to confess I‘d never heard of it. Intrigued I found a few old photographs on-line including one showing what looked like WW2 coastal defences – concrete pyramids to impede any invading armoured vehicles attempting a beach landing – lining the shore behind the runway of Liverpool John Lennon airport. As it’s less than 10 minutes drive from where I live it seemed enough of an excuse to get everybody out of the house one Sunday afternoon for a bit of fresh air.
Old cottages on Dungeon Lane (now demolished)
Not knowing quite what to expect, this turned out to be the first of (to date) two walks that we have taken along the Oglet Shore.
Driving past Paul McCartney’s old house on Western Avenue to Hale Road on the edge of the Speke estate we came to Dungeon Lane, a pot-holed road that runs alongside the perimeter fence of John Lennon Airport, neglected by all except those that park their cars half way down the lane to observe the planes coming in to land on the last minute or so of their descent, and those like us wishing to reach the banks of the river. In the 1950s the local kids would stand under the planes as they landed, throwing stones at them as they touched down on the old runway. Paul and Michael McCartney and George Harrison were no doubt among them.
There are farm fields past the runway, still growing vegetables, some with horses who must now be oblivious to the regular roar of the jets coming in to land and taking off almost on top of them. Continuing along Oglet Lane we found some old farm buildings and one, Yew Tree Farm house, still in use as a family home. Parking the car outside we set off down the path opposite.
Emerging from the trees and bushes onto the shoreline was breath-taking. Not only for what we could see, but what we couldn’t.
On a clear day you can see across the River to the oil refineries on the Wirral estuary and beyond there the welsh hills and the peak of Moel Famau, but we could see nothing of this. With only water on the horizon we felt like we were standing on a beach, staring at the sea.
One of the first things we did notice was how crystal clear, and clean, the river was, like a great lake. The Mersey was once heavily polluted from all the factory waste being pumped into it but over the last 25 years North West Water and its successor United Utilities have spent around £8 billion cleaning up the sewage that flowed into it. As a result of their sterling efforts the restoration of the River Mersey won the inaugural World Thiess River prize in 1999 for the best river clean up anywhere in the world. Since the clean up began, wildlife has steadily returned and the Environment Agency has recorded Minke whales, porpoises and dolphins near the mouth of the river, along with octopus, squid, cuttlefish, crabs, jellyfish and shrimps. Seals have been seen as far upstream as Warrington and in June 2015 a humpback whale was seen in Liverpool Bay for the first time since 1938!
I had no idea where the tank traps where so I guessed, turned right and headed north-west, following the shoreline parallel to John Lennon Airport in the direction of Liverpool...
I know Garston docks were not far away to the right as you used to walk down to the shoreline . As kids we used to wander down Oglet lane and go egging along the pathway that used to run behind and under the runway lights up to the back of the Dove and Olive (pub)…we used to get Thrush , Blackbird , Linnets and Chaffinch eggs down there for our collections…we also used to wander up and down Bailey's Lane …looking at the houses there and wondering what it'd be like to be so rich that you could afford to live there . I remember the farmers fields down the side of and behind the Dove and Olive…there was a big field and then there was a garden nursery on the far side of it . I remember getting caught egging in there once and the guys who worked there caught us and threatened to call the police…but then decided to let us go…it makes me laugh now when I remember how scared we were with the threat of the police being called …kids don't seem fazed by that sort of threat these days do they? (Vinny Edwards, Speke Memories)
This was a popular place for families to come for a day out on the beach and remained so well into the 1970s. The tide was out so we made our way along the foreshore stopping now again when something interesting caught our attention. In addition to WW2 finds I had read that fossils and flint from the Neolithic age had been found here and we were sure we would be lucky enough to find something. We didn't of course but what we did come across was piles of rubble. Was this all that was left of those tank traps?
Close by was a concrete pillar which I've since read is an old sewer vent to allow methane gas to be released into the air. What I don't know is why it was here. Was it part of something military during the last war or is it a civilian piece? Was it meant to be here or is this just where it was dumped?
I concluded that these regular piles of broken concrete were all that remained of the tank traps, and additional constructions (perhaps a bunker?) which had been smashed over 70 years by the ebb and flow of the river. The path had become very muddy and waterlogged. Fearing the Mersey was starting to reclaim the shore again and slightly disheartened, we decided to turn back before we reached the airport light gantry that jutted out into the river ahead of us.
Vinny Edwards and his family were rehoused to Speke, a decade after the McCartneys and Harrisons in the late 1960s. Now resident in Australia, he retains fond memories of growing up here: 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…. (Speke Memories)
Airport Control Tower, Liverpool John Lennon Airport (above) and views of the Oglet shoreline looking towards Hale point and Widnes.
We decided to call it a day and returned up the lane to where we had parked outside Yew Tree Farm. Fascinating exploring somewhere hitherto unknown, right on my doorstep where two of the Beatles played as kids. Frustrating about those tank traps though!
Remember the two little cottages where the road divided to go down towards the back of the airport runways ..? to the farm that lay down there…there was, I think, a dog kennels. as we always used to hear lots of dogs barking down there… The best fun we had down Oglet Shore though was riding our bikes down the hills from the top level down towards where the wall is…we used to get up to some speeds…it's a sign of the times I guess but the last time I went there in 2001 there were kids of the same age riding motorbikes up and down those hills…when I told them we used to ride our " Raleigh Choppers" down them same hills , they laughed and said we were mad…!! (from Speke Memories)
Three years on we made a return visit to Oglet. I'd been looking at Google Maps, focusing on the Oglet shoreline when a series of photographs appeared at the bottom of the screen. As I zoomed in closer on the map arrows sprang from the photos pinpointing precisely where on the map they had been taken. One of the photos showed a pile of tank traps and the arrow pointed to the very end of Dungeon Lane, somewhere we'd not reached on our previously walk. As soon as we had a free afternoon we were all back in the car...
Dungeon Lane / Oglet Lane and the runway for Liverpool John Lennon Airport with the village of Hale to the right (click to enlarge) (Google Maps).
On our first trip we parked in front of the buildings at the end of Oglet Lane and walked down the path immediately in front of them to the area of trees bottom left just before the shoreline. On our second visit we parked at the end of Dungeon, just before it turns right into Oglet Lane and made our way through the trees to the shore top right, which is where we found the wall and those elusive tank traps.
Does anybody remember the great big giant triangular concrete blocks that scattered the shoreline near the wall...? we used to believe that they were tank-traps left over from the war….does anyone know if this was true..? In fact does anyone know why the wall was there…was it an old wharf in days gone by..?
(Vinny Edwards, Speke Memories)
The name ‘Dungeon’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘dunge’ or ‘denge’, meaning marshland rather than having any association with castles or imprisonment. There may not have been anything here as exciting as a Castle but site was important because it was here, after the discovery of rock salt in Cheshire in the 17th century, that a salt refinery was established and the small fishing hamlet of Dungeon was transformed into a place of industry. Throughout the 18th century, flatboats and barges brought rock salt across the Mersey from the Cheshire shore to Dungeon, where it was refined before being shipped onwards. Some remains of the refinery are still visible, most notably the sandstone jetty (the wharf Vinny refers to).
When the saltworks finally closed in the late 1840s the jetty was then used by a firm of ship breakers which itself closed in 1912 when the river channels began to silt up.
The remains of the sandstone quay today. The drop from the edge to the shoreline below is about 10 feet, a lot more than it looks!
1912 saw the end of industrial activity at Dungeon, and once again the little bay slipped into isolation and abandonment and probably remained so until it was rediscovered by the young residents of the massive new housing estate which was rapidly expanding during the 1950s.
In his book Discover Liverpool author Ken Pye recalls coming here with his parents in the late 1950s, skipping around the concrete pyramids on the beach, and then as a teenager a decade on, when he and his mates would bring girlfriends to steal kisses and swim in the river (risky before the clean-up, what with all the domestic sewage - yes, poo - and industrial pollutants flowing unfiltered directly into the river). Ken's book includes this 1950s photograph of youngsters having fun at Oglet.
Determined to have some fun of our own we followed the pathway leading from Dungeon Lane and there at the end was the remains of the sandstone quay (remember, don't fall off it) and scattered either side of it the tank traps I'd read about. Scores of them.
I'd imagined the "Dragon's Teeth" pyramids had been lined up along the coast in multiple rows as I'd seen in photographs from World War 2. Obviously this isn't the case today but I wonder whether they were ever actually in situ here. I've read that they were originally sited elsewhere in the city (perhaps nearer the original airport) and in the post-war clean up they were all simply dumped on the beach. There's loads of discarded house-bricks too and a similar stack of building rubble said to be the remnants of bombed houses can be found along the northern part of Crosby beach, perhaps put there to strengthen their coastal defences against the sea, rather than any anticipated attack by the "Nasties".
No matter how or why they got on the beach, I expect the pyramids featured in many childhood games played by Paul and Mike McCartney, George Harrison and their respective mates at the time.
John Quinn remembers it well: I had many a happy time on the Oglet shore. Paul and George would have remembered the concrete pyramid tank traps that littered the new part of Speke during the early 1950s.
The tide of the river recedes some distance here and at low tide a large expanse of mud-flats and sand banks are exposed. Following the river clean up these flats and saltmarshes provide feeding sites for a large population of waterbirds and as a result this estuary is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Fifty years earlier, those brave enough would swim in the polluted river when the waters returned. Despite the fear most kids had of walking onto a patch of sinking sand and disappearing for ever (just like that somebody who knew somebody did) it was rare if a summer went by without at least one child getting into difficulty or drowning.
George Harrison would later recall: We were just a stone's throw from Widnes. I used to go all the time down to Oglet, the shoreline of the river. The tide would go out miles and the riverbed would be all mud. People would go up and down it on motorbikes. I would walk for hours along the mud cliffs of the Mersey and through farm fields and woods. I liked the outdoors. (George Harrison, Anthology)
George (right) and brother Peter on their bikes.
Oh, the memories are flooding back again! Oggy shore, blimey there was a huge tree down the shore to the left and there was a rope swing there and we would swing out even when the tide was in! We took so many risks....I also remember those triangular concrete blocks as well, my mam said it was to keep the Germans out....I like you still don't know if that was true or not! We used to get biscuits and pop and go down Oglet lane on our bikes and stop by the railings of the runway as the aeroplanes flew over head to land on the runway, it was so loud we thought it burst our eardrums, but we loved the whole experience... Oh, and there were three, or four little cottages on the left hand side near the bottom of Oglet lane going down to the shore they were so pretty and nice....I wanted to live there when I got married! Didn't though! We used to go everywhere on our bikes we would go on the 'small' hills by the runway and go up and down them and in the little ditches we would get rotten dirty! And then get battered for it when we got home! Good times.
(Angie Barton, Speke Memories)
When our interest in the dragon's teeth had worn off (well, their's, not mine) we decided to continue walking, heading in the opposite direction to our previous visit. If you head southeast (turn left at the Mersey) you are heading towards Hale point and the lighthouse, a favourite destination of Paul McCartney:
This is where my love of the country came from, 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. (Paul McCartney talking to Barry Miles for his book, Many Years From Now)
In the same book, Miles would write:
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 (Paul McCartney talking to Barry Miles for his book Many Years From Now)
Views looking towards Hale. The Lighthouse, in the centre of the photograph (below) stands at Hale Head and was a popular destination for Speke families on a day out.
Those fancying a walk could do worse than to follow in George's footsteps and head for the lighthouse at Hale Point. The route along the beach and on top of the cliff, follows the north bank of the river and is now part of the Mersey Way which veers inland to Hale Village, where the McCartneys would often visit. George too as his Dad owned an allotment there, and is perhaps the place where the seeds of his passion for gardening were first sown.
The light house at Hale Point
A separate post on the village of Hale will follow shortly....
**** So why did Mary McCartney want Paul and Mike to make themselves scarce that afternoon? So they could set up their new television set, the first in the street, whilst the boys were out, and surprise them upon their return!
Some of the text for this post was inspired by this blog by Gerry on
Many Years From Now - Barry Miles with Paul McCartney
Thank You Very Much - Mike McCartney (photo of Paul also taken by Mike)
Anthology - The Beatles
Tune In - Mark Lewisohn