Find me in my field of grass,
Mother Nature's son,
Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun
(Mother Nature's Son, by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, 1968)
I'm just a child of nature,
I don't need much to set me free,
I'm just a child of nature,
I'm one of nature's children
(Child Of Nature, by John Lennon, 1968)
This is a continuation of my earlier post about Dungeon Lane and the Oglet Shore line, a favourite playground for Paul McCartney and his brother Michael, George Harrison, and their gang of mates growing up around Speke during the 1950s. I retrace their footsteps out of the Speke council estate into the open countryside towards the tiny township of Hale..
In his biography of McCartney, Many Years from Now, Barry Miles describes how Paul and Mike, like many of their generation living on the new Speke Housing Estate in the postwar period, were raised on the border of country and city:
For Paul and Michael, the best thing about living in Speke was the countryside. In a couple of minutes they could be in Dungeon Lane, which led through the fields to the banks of the Mersey. The river is very wide at this point, with the lights of Ellesmere Port visible on the far side across enormous shifting banks of mud and sand pecked over by gulls. On a clear day you could see beyond the Wirral all the way to Wales.
Paul: 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. (McCartney, Many Years from Now, Barry Miles)
Ellesmere Port, from Hale Head, "Paul and Michael", cyclists on the coastal path.
Paul and Mike would often cycle the two and a half miles along the shoreline to the lighthouse at Hale Head, where the river makes a 90-degree turn, giving a panoramic view across the mud and navigation channels to the industrial complex of Runcorn on the far side. These are lonely, cold, windy places, the distant factories and docks dwarfed by the size of the mud banks of the river itself.
It was not without danger. Paul was mugged there once while messing about with his brother on the beach near the old lighthouse. His watch was stolen and he had to go to court because they knew the youths that did it. One of them lived in the house behind the McCartney's.
Paul: They were a couple of hard kids who said "Give us that watch" and they got it. The police took them to court and I had to go and be a witness against them. Dear me, my first time in court. (McCartney, Many Years from Now, Barry Miles)
The scene of the crime. The control tower of Speke Airport is visible in the distance
Mike McCartney paints this picture of their times on the Mersey shoreline: We walked along the top of the cliffs with our bikes, entirely disregarding the magnificent view over the River Mersey to the Wirral and Welsh Wales, preferring to look down into the grass for any lost money. The top of the cliffs was the spot where loving couples met and did all that 'rolling round' on the ground.... (and not finding any money - it had been raining) .. we joined a gang of Garston lads playing "chicken" on their bikes. All one had to do was ride one's bike down the sheer cliff face and stay on. Evel Knievel would have been proud of the Evil McCartney brothers as they risked death numerous times. It was either that or get beaten up by the Garston "they play tick with hatchets" gang. (Mike McCartney, Thank U Very Much)
Sometimes, however, rather than play with his friends, Paul preferred to be alone. He'd carry his Observer's 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. He would later admit: 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. (McCartney, Many Years from Now, Barry Miles)
The Speke estate (top left) on the northern shore of the Mersey with the open countryside towards Hale on the right. Hale Head is bottom right (click to enlarge)
Liverpool has its own identity. It's even got its own accent within about a ten miles radius. Once you go outside that ten miles it's 'deep Lancashire, lad'. I think you do feel that apartness, growing up there (Paul McCartney, Anthology)
Living in Speke Paul didn't even have to travel ten miles. Whether cycling with his brother, or out on a family walk with Jim and Mary, a favourite destination was the picturesque township of Hale, where as if living beyond an invisible borderline, the locals spoke with a Lancashire accent, not a Scouse one. Leaving Ardwick Road and turning from Oldbridge Road onto Central Way, right onto Eastern Avenue and then left onto Hale Road they'd be out of the estate and surrounded by fields within a quarter of an hour.
Hale Road looking towards Hale from Speke
Often the McCartneys would take the coastal path, today designated "The Mersey Way", which closely follows the edge of farmland on the north bank of the river, heading to Hale Head, once the southernmost point in Lancashire, where they'd stop and look at the lighthouse.
The Lighthouse at Hale Head
The first lighthouse was established here in 1838; the original octagonal structure was superseded by the present taller round tower in 1906. Still a functioning lighthouse during the McCartney's time in Speke the light was discontinued in 1958 when there was no longer any shipping on the north side of the river. Today the building remains in use as a private residence.
I followed the McCartneys' walk inland from the lighthouse, heading for St Mary's Church, its tower visible across freshly ploughed fields, and the township of Hale with its many whitewashed cottages, thatched roofs and country gardens set against a backdrop of maturing trees.
The Runcorn - Widnes Bridge, viewed from Hale Head
Anybody walking up from the lighthouse today is afforded some great views of the industrial areas on the banks of this part of the Mersey, most of it built in the last 50 years.
Looking towards Widnes and Runcorn today the horizon is dominated by the bridge that links both towns, a replacement for the old Transporter Bridge built in 1901 and still in use until the start of the 1960s (see below).
Construction work began on the current bridge on 25 April 1956, five days before the McCartneys left Speke.
Building of the bridge itself commenced in March 1958 with the side spans completed by November 1959. The main arch was built by cantilevering steelwork from the side spans until it met in the middle in November 1960.
Main arch construction (1960)
From February 1960 approach roads and viaducts were being built on both sides of the river and the bridge was officially opened on 21 July 1961. The Beatles would use the bridge regularly until the end of 1963, Neil Aspinall driving them in their van to venues across Cheshire, South Wirral and North Wales.
Knowingly or otherwise, the McCartneys may have crossed paths with the Harrisons here. Like Jim McCartney George's father Harry was a keen gardener and in addition to growing vegetables in the Upton Green back garden the Harrisons had an allotment in Hale, most likely just off Carr Lane on the left of where the old Nurseries used to be on Morecott Lane*
It was here that George is said to have first felt the lure of horticulture - something he would later devote much of his time to. Hale is known for its rich and fertile soil and George would always remember the pleasant feeling he got from pushing his fingers into it.
St Mary's Church in Church End is now a designated Grade II listed building. The site was occupied by a chapel as far back as 1081 which later served as the burial place of its founder, John of Ireland, whose remains seem to have been transferred to the later building. The tower is the oldest part of the church that now stands on the site and dates from the 14th century. The walls of the nave date from 1758 but the interior is a 1980 recreation resulting from a devastating arson attack in 1977 which destroyed everything but the nave walls and the ancient tower.
The Church was a popular stop on a day out for the McCartney boys, the graveyard being the final resting place of Hale's most famous son.
According to folklore, John Middleton was one of the tallest men in history. Born in 1578, the 'Childe of Hale', as he became known, grew to a fantastical height of 9ft 3in (2.82m), if his epitaph is to be believed.
Surrounded by railings the worn gravestone is inscribed 'Here lyeth the bodie of John Middleton, the Childe - nine feet three'. Paul and Michael would stare at his grave in wonder. It certainly makes you think.
Sadly, no official record of John Middleton's true height exists to prove - or disprove - his gravestone's lofty claim.
It is thought that Middleton visited Brasenose College in Oxford with his patron, Sir Gilbert Ireland, who had studied there. Elizabeth Boardman, archivist at the college, said "The tradition is John Middleton left an impression of his hand on the wall - we know that Samuel Pepys saw that in 1668, but it doesn't survive anymore". At some point the span of the handprint was measured and was reputed to be between 15 and 17 inches (38-43 cm).
According to the Guinness World Records someone with a hand span of this size would have "a probable height of 7ft 9in (2.36m)" - somewhat shorter than the legend but impressive nonetheless.
Arguments about John's height continued even after his death. In 1768 his remains were removed from his grave by the schoolmaster and parish clerk and measured. Reportedly his thigh bones each stretched from the hip of an average sized man to his foot which would give him a height of around 9ft 3in. This is the figure the locals now appear to have settled on.
If you dig graves there are some other headstones of interest close to John Middleton's which you should look for. This one (left) lies alongside Middleton. I wonder if, like me, Paul and Mike saw the skull and crossbones and then crouched to examine the weathered inscription, hoping it would confirm a suspicion that this was indeed the grave of a pirate or buccaneer? I have since tried to establish what this symbol represents and have found various conflicting explanations. Pirates were said to be Liverpool's first great entrepreneurs, in the city with the permission from the Monarch to kill and plunder enemy vessels on the high seas but there appears to be no truth that a skull and cross bones marks the grave of a pirate. The primary reason for skulls appearing on a memorial or headstone was as a Memento Mori, a reminder of our own mortality.
At the rear of the church is this grave (left) which looks to receive special care, and rightly so. There are three other graves dating from the Great War in St. Mary's graveyard, and two from the Second World War.
When leaving the graveyard be on the lookout for this tomb which appears to have a doorknob. Again I can find no definitive explanation for what this might signify. Perhaps it is meant to represent a door to the afterlife, or a means for the deceased to return from the grave. Perhaps it's just somebody's idea of black humour - the occupant being deader than a doorknob.
This "life sized" wooden sculpture of the Childe Of Hale used to stand opposite St Mary's Church. It was carved from a diseased beech tree by the sculptor Philip Bews in 1996. Unfortunately in 2013 it had to be removed for safety reasons after the wood started to rot away, riddled with beetle bore holes.
The villagers of Hale felt that the Bews' sculpture had been quite a big draw to the village and they wanted a new one. It was replaced that same year by a bronze statue standing 3m tall created by local sculptor, Diane Gorvin.
The new statue can be found further along Church End. Explaining the piece Gorvin said: "I've depicted him as if he's just paused on a walk, leaning on a stick and looking across towards the cottage where he lives. It gives people the opportunity to stand next to him, hold his hand and look up to him. I'm hoping it will become an important part of Hale village.
The impressive property behind the statue is Hale Manor House, originally built as a vicarage in the mid 17th century and today a Grade II listed building. In the early 18th century it was refaced and partially rebuilt. It was used as a farmhouse during the 19th century and was known as Manor Farm. The last lord of the manor was Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh, an architectural historian who moved into the house with his family in 1947.
The house was the subject of a poem by Sir John Betjeman no less, imaginitively entitled:
The Manor House, Hale, Near Liverpool
In early twilight I can hear,
A faintly-ticking clock,
While near and far and far and near
Is Liverpool baroque
And when the movement meets the hour
To tell it, stroke by stroke,
“Rococo,” say the pendulum,
“Baroque, baroque, baroak.”
Encrusted vases crowd the hall,
Dark paintings grace the stairs
And from the wild wind’s harp withal
Sound soft Lancastrian airs.
On a bend sable three garbs or –
Th’ achievements hold my gaze;
Though fierce without the tempests roar
The banner scarcely sways.
O’er Mersey mud and Mersey flood,
Rust-red above the folly
How trimly rides the brick facade,
As flimsy as a folly
The Manor House, the green, the church –
From Runcorn to West Kirby
You will not Find howe’er you search
So sweet a rus in urbe
Within sight of Gorvin's statue, just across Church End from the Manor House is this lovely thatched cottage which was formerly the home of John Middleton. I paused and studied the two small upstairs windows on the gable end of the cottage, and wondered whether the McCartneys had known of the old story about John which says that owing to his enormous height he had to sleep with a foot poking out of each.
A plaque commemorating the former home of the Childe of Hale
Passing the Childe of Hale pub we reach the heart of the village where the impressive war memorial stands with a field gun as a relic of wars past. Ahead is Town Lane and Barry Miles writes that "On their way back the McCartneys would stop at a teashop called the Elizabethan Cottage on Town Lane for a pot of tea, Hovis toast and home-made jam. It was a pleasant, genteel interlude, a touch of quality before they walked back to their very different life among the new grey houses and hard concrete roads of the housing estate" (McCartney, Many Years from Now, Barry Miles)
I could find no mention of the Elizabethan Cottage or tea rooms on Town Lane. There are a number of older cottages which may have served as a tea room back in the 1950s but today they all appear to be private dwellings. Unable to turn up any information on line I sought assistance from the Visit Hale Village Facebook page, hoping a local historian might know.
Almost immediately I received this reply: Yes, there used to be Tea Rooms on Town Lane, it was next to the old Estate Cottages - these cottages are still there - opposite the Wellington Pub bus stop, but the Tea Rooms have long since been taken down, they were constructed out of wood. I have a photo of it in our archives. I will dig it out and send it over to you.
How's that for service?!
Stonehouse Teas, (far left) the tea rooms on Town Lane. The interior shot shows the tea rooms set up for a wedding reception, circa late 1940s early 1950s. Curiously nobody seems to recall the tea rooms trading as the Elizabethan Cottage. I wonder where Miles got the name from?
Refreshed, the McCartneys, if the mood took them, would cut through Hale Park and return to the cliff top for the walk back to Dungeon Lane. If they were in a rush to get home they'd walk the 2 miles back along High Street and Hale Road, perhaps catching sight of Harold Harrison making his way back to Speke after a few hours work on his allotment, eventually turning up Eastern Avenue.
Hale is officially known by the Post Office as Hale Village. But it's not a village at all. It's a township. And its chief citizen is not a chairman, or a mayor, but a full-blown Lord Mayor. This is not pretentiousness. Hale got its charter before Liverpool, even if only just. King John granted Hale its charter in 1203. Liverpool had to wait another four years, until 1207.
The entire area was historically in Lancashire and the residents of Hale may still speak with this accent rather than Scouse but today the township is actually part of Cheshire, despite still having a Liverpool area postcode (L24).
Whether John Middleton, the Childe of Hale, ever exceeded a height of nine feet - greater than the tallest human ever known - may never be confirmed. The Guinness World Records has only recorded 10 confirmed or reliable cases of humans reaching over 8ft in height. Robert Wadlow, from the US state of Illinois, measured 8ft 11in (2.72m) when he died in 1940 - the tallest man in medical history.
*Unless Harold had one of the burgage plots that use to be attached to each of the cottages on the High Street. These were long gardens near the Drill Hall as seen in the map above.
Much thanks to the Visit Hale Village Facebook page for their great assistance with this post.