The river and more.
Once I was passed a certain age, the playground expanded. There was the promenade and the beach; such a vast expanse of traffic-free roadway stretching invitingly to New Brighton. The river was epic. It was both friend and foe. A friend for its size and sound. The rippling of the waves and the bubble of the gentle rollers, constantly changing in pitch and volume, gave a true sense of eternity. It was an enemy for its power. Countless times we would try to hold it back. No matter how thick or tall we built our barriers of sand, the river always won. On windy days it became a bigger enemy. Not in the sense of being the imaginary enemy but in the sense of becoming a threat to the land. Many a vehicle was battered and bullied by the brutal tide. Returning drivers, expecting to see the two neat rows of parked cars lining the Seacombe end of the promenade, found little more than a mess of bent steel and chrome. You can imagine their faces, peering cautiously out of the window towards the terminal. Despite the roughness of the crossing, everything looked to be in its place. The incoming tide was long gone and Wallasey was still there. Then as the ferry approached, the carnage came into view. Running up the walkway there would be a mixture of hope and panic. The reality would then stare back at their stunned, open-mouthed faces. There was always a reporter there, recording motorists’ reactions and taking spectacular photos soon to be emblazoned across the front of the local papers.
The Mersey destroyed New Brighton Baths. It ripped the heart out of its time honoured, slightly scruffy-chic elegance.
When I had to use the boat on such days, I would wait, watching from the landing stage as the ferry approached. Heaving and flexing like some tortured animal the pilot struggled to hold her parallel to the dockside. Frantic attendants scurried about the capstans in fearful reverence of the wounded beast as they tried give it some temporary solace from the incessant turbulence. Once a rope snapped. The sharp crack of gunshot echoed around the cold empty terminal. No-one moved. Only brave people were crossing that day. Then there was the final grinding push as the struggling boat made contact. I used to love watching the massive tyres as they squirmed and screamed against the side of the boat.
The Mersey was a big player. It gave me identity. During my teens the county authority of Merseyside was created. We were no longer living in Cheshire. It suited me. I liked living on the side of the Mersey.
When we first moved my dad was working at Standard Triumph in Speke. He had tales of taking the ferry on lonely cold Godforsaken mornings, with the soporific hum of the engines and lilt of the waves making it a struggle to stay awake. Once I went on a school trip to Speke Hall. That gave me an idea of how far he commuted, year in year out; through cold, relentless rain and angry winds, screaming their winter threat between the three graces. As I grew into my teens it was becoming clear that work was beginning to get him down. He looked around for other work but he thought better of it. He doesn’t really know why. Perhaps it was the thought of change. The family had gone through a lot of change. I don’t blame him for wanting some sense of permanence. But it was not permanent. There were strikes; loads of them. I don’t know how they did it. We were still sent to school all clean and tidy. They still paid for our school trips. some of the stoppages seemed endless. Once a week he would need to go in for a union meeting. It was then a decision would be made about the strike. Dad had a “yes we’re going back” face and a “no, we’re still on strike face.” Neither face was a happy face. But things were to change.
The river and prom were not the only parts of our extended playground. There was the Breck. I’d heard of the Breck at primary school. But we lived in Seacombe’ it was too far away for a midweek or weekend adventure. I had to wait until holiday times when I could go and visit a friend nearby and spend the whole afternoon finding different ways up Granny’s Rock. Sometimes a boy at school would turn up on a Monday morning with his arm or leg in plaster. Granny’s Rock would be blamed. It gave us hero status.
I always saw Central Park as some sort of escape. It was a haven from the torment of teenagehood. I had started growing some plants in the tiny garden at the front of our terrace and was keen to see more of the same. I thought the gardens in Central Park were wonderful. Spring was the best. Daffodils, wall-flowers and tulips would throw a refreshing splash of colour across the green close cut edges. I would sit on a bench and bathe in its glory. Of course, everyone else thought I was really odd. At the same time, I was learning the piano and cello and listening to classical music.
“He’s a bit weird that brother of yours isn’t he?” Both my brothers would quote their friends with great relish. They tended not to express the same sentiments themselves. I think my mum would have self-combusted; she loved her music too. I did not do myself any favours however. I liked being a bit odd. I often took myself off on long walks around the town. I wanted to know where every road or passageway led to.
At the age of twelve I discovered the docks. They were just down the road and I could wander freely around them. I enjoyed standing on the bridge by the level crossing, waiting for a steam train to flood me with its swirling toxic smoke. I never went further. That was Birkenhead. The buses were blue. Apart from the trains and bridges, there were the lock gates. I would stand in the middle of them trying to see if the water was rising or falling. The highlight was a raised bridge.
I’d get as close as I could to watch as the great hulk slowly rose into the sky, throwing off all manner of stray water and detritus. Then there was the great, silent parade of the passing ship, gingerly picking its way through the narrow strait. Faces would appear on the decks above. We would stare at each other: “Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What’s your life like?” We never spoke, but I was making my first real contact with people from another part of the world. That is the beauty of a port.
Finally, there was a time when I was returning home from Liverpool late one night. I had been to a concert with Mum and we were waiting at the Pier Head. As the Birkenhead Ferry was leaving, a rather drunken man asked my mum and her friend which boat it was. “Woodside,” came the reply, before they turned back to each other and continued talking. They never noticed; in fact, nobody noticed. I was the only person see him burst into action and dash towards the water’s edge before making a giant leap for the departing craft. He missed. He went in and the boat went off. I walked over and there he was, clinging to one of the chains under the tyres. Poor man. I received a letter of commendation from the Mersey Shipwreck Society for my vigilance. My name was mentioned on Radio Merseyside. A brief moment of fame!
End of part three.