A sense of place

An author guest blog by Morgan Cheshire

When writing historical fiction set in an urban environment, with both gentlemen still living with their families, it can be quite difficult to find a suitable location to forward their romance.

ALWAYS WITH US is set in Victorian Liverpool, with its many hotels, but that meant there was always the risk of being recognised. I needed somewhere away from the city, that Harrison had legitimate reason to visit, which had suitable accommodation, and could provide a reason for not returning home. Enter the village of Eastham, across the river Mersey.

Eastham is one of the oldest villages on the Wirral and has been inhabited since Anglo Saxon times. The oldest part of the modern village is to the east of the A41 and is centred on St Mary’s church, the scene of the funeral of one of Harrison’s clients. There has been a ferry service between Liverpool and Eastham since the Middle Ages, originally operated by monks from the Abbey of St Werburgh.

A large increase in traffic in the 1700s led to a new pier being built and there could be forty coaches a day, both passenger and goods, arriving to cross the river to Liverpool. In 1816 paddle steamers replaced sailing boats, but it was less than thirty years before demand for the ferry service declined after the opening of a rail link between Chester and Woodside Ferry, Birkenhead.

The village had now spread to the west, on the other side of the main road, and to get to the ferry itself you had to drive down through farmland. To increase his profits the owner of the ferry, Thomas Stanley – the Stanleys are an old Cheshire family – built a hotel adjacent to the pier at Eastham Ferry. To attract more visitors to the hotel he also decided to build an adjoining Pleasure Garden and charge admittance. It was a big undertaking and must have required quite an investment of time and money. The landscaped gardens included ornamental trees and fountains, and in the spring Azaleas and Rhododendrons made a colourful display.

The gardens became a popular choice for a day out, especially attracting visitors from the city who came to enjoy the fresh air strolling among the flower beds. There was, however, more to see and do than admire the intricate planting. There were tea rooms to rest and enjoy cakes and sandwiches while listening to music from the performers on the band-stand; theatrical productions also appeared on the open-air stage – presumably ‘weather permitting’, although I have attended an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where it rained solidly and there were some very sodden fairies – but luckily the audience was under cover.

For the energetic there was a ballroom to enjoy, a boating-lake, and a water-chute. One of the major attractions was the zoo; lions could be seen in wheeled cages that were drawn around the park, monkeys and an antelope had their admirers, and then there was the bear-pit with its two occupants.

As a child wandering around the overgrown woodland and finding uneven stone steps, slippery with moss, that led down to a strange stone-lined pit felt like finding a place out of a fairy tale – especially as the sun never seemed to penetrate the leaves of the Rhododendron trees. It wasn’t until much later that I found out it had originally been a bear-pit, and given that the original occupants would not have had a very good life perhaps the gloom was a fitting memorial. In its day the bear-pit was a highly popular place, though, and an iron-work dome meant that people could stare at the bears in complete safety.

In the summer entertainers performed in the gardens; these included Blondin, a famous tightrope-walker, who once wheeled a local boy across a high wire in a wheelbarrow. I wonder what Health and Safety would have to say if he tried that today?

Another visitor, in 1854, was the United States Consul in Liverpool, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote admiringly in his journal about the antique houses and picturesque aspect of the village itself.

As the Gardens prospered so did Thomas Stanley. The Manchester Ship Canal was opened by Queen Victoria in 1894, just before the events of ALWAYS WITH US, and in 1897 an archway was built at the entrance to the Gardens to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee.

The popularity of the Pleasure Gardens was not to last, however.  Eighty years after it was opened it was in decline, and the last paddle-steamer made the river crossing in 1929. The following decade saw the gardens neglected and falling into disrepair; the iron pier and Jubilee Arch were dismantled, and except for local dog-walkers the place was forgotten.

In 1970 it was designated a Woodland and Country Park and visitors returned to stand on the truncated pier and look out across the river to Liverpool, to watch tankers going past before they entered the Ship Canal which would take them to the oil refinery at Ellesmere Port and the docks at Manchester.

Thankfully the hotel remains, and it is possible to have a meal in the restaurant. There are no flower beds but the bluebells can be admired in the spring, and a bird-hide attracts both people and birds. A lot of the rhododendron growth has now been removed and it is possible to wander the paths and find hidden steps, including those that lead to the bear-pit.  However I doubt if many people realise what a thriving centre the Pleasure Gardens once were; indeed I would not have known myself if I had not been searching for the ideal place for Harrison and Daniel to further their relationship!

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