SUNLIGHT was in ample supply in the never-ending summer of 2013. Rubbing our eyes in surprise, we bathed in its constant glow. It’s a lovely invigorating word, anyway, Sunlight. You can understand why it shone as a great Victorian (and beyond) soap brand, the profits funding the legendary philanthropy of one doughty Boltonian, William Hesketh Lever. All based around the model settlement to beat all others – Port Sunlight, this year celebrating its 125th birthday.
'A health enthusiast, he slept in an outside bedroom with the roof open to the elements, and when he became deaf, kept a klaxon horn by his bed to wake him at 5am'
From his home town, the future Lord Leverhulme conquered the world and the epicentre was his vast soap works on reclaimed marshland on The Wirral. It’s still there churning out Persil, Comfort and Domestos for Unilever. And, alongside are the 700 or so listed dwellings that constitute the garden village. The product of 30 different commissioned architects unified by adherence to the Arts and Crafts Movement, the combined effect is still astonishing.
We only paid this revelatory first visit to Port Sunlight by chance. An invitation to a posh Asian wedding at Thornton Manor meant staying over nearby at the terrific five star boutique B&B, Mere Brook House (of which more anon), giving us a chance to explore The Wirral. As it happened, we hardly strayed beyond one small patch, riveted by links we kept discovering.
Take Thornton Manor. Leverhulme spent 25 years constructing the vast sandstone pile we see today. We experienced it in almost Subcontinental sunshine, with sitar and tabla players performing on the terrace overlooking acres of grounds. The walled gardens housed a vast marquee (the Manor is now a corporate events venue), which hosted the colourful, spice-laden wedding feast.
Inside the hall itself, it was gloomy and cold, shorn of its original furniture, auctioned off. I imagined the soap magnate living here as a widower aftre the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth Ellen Hulme in 1913 (when he became a Viscount, he linked her name with his).
He lived on until 1925. A health enthusiast, he slept in an outside bedroom with the roof open to the elements, and when he became deaf, kept a klaxon horn by his bed to wake him at 5am.
Much jollier is the estate village of Thornton Hough with its village green and smithy, two churches and still active Village Club and Leverhulme Bar – holding a food festival the weekend we visited. Sandstone is the ubiquitous building material (you find it in Bolton School, which Lever largesse built in his hometown), but there’s lots of half-timbering, too. This is the rural idyll, up a step from the workers’ dwellings of Port Sunlight, which share many of the trappings along with unprecedented amenities for workers’ housing.
Port Sunlight always sat cheek by jowl with the industry that funded it and today it is engulfed by suburbia. Only a short walk away lie the shopping outlets and industrial parks along the hellish dual carriageway of the A41 linking Ellesmere Port and Birkenhead. And yet... and yet, the village retains a Shangri-la feel. Broad thoroughfares, gardens, space, self-contained amenities and Architecture with a capital A (an A with curly flourishes). A standard of workers’ housing so radically different from across the water in Liverpool.
The parallel drives, King George’s and Queen Mary’s connect the monumental granite war memorial of 1921 – only the Cenotaph in Whitehall is bigger) to the domed Lady Lever Art Gallery, opened a year later in tribute to Elizabeth.
The best place to start a tour of the village is across the road at the Port Sunlight Museum. Designed by the village’s principal architect, JL Simpson, it was originally, a Girl’s Club. Lever discouraged unchaperoned mingling of the sexes. He kept tight rein on the “captive workforce”, who lived in his splendid housing. A teetotaller, he only granted the villagers a pub on site after allowing a public vote on the issue. The Bridge Inn still the only antidote to temperance here.
The Museum offers a 20-minute film that is a perfect introduction to the village story, plus some quirky exhibitions. I learnt that Ringo Starr made his debut as The Beatles’ drummer at the Hulme Hall (originally a 1,500 seater women’s dining hall and later a military hospital). The rock and roll occasion? Headlining the Port Sunlight Horticultural Society’s annual dinner dance on August 18, 1962.
There are guided tours every day from the Museum or you can pick up for a quid the Port Sunlight Trail leaflet and just ramble around, as we did. The Gallery is the place to finish off, especially if you are a fan of Victorian Art. There’s a lot of it here, including a current show of Edward Burne Jones’s drawings.
Wandering about the village was a mite eerie. We never saw anyone going in or out of a house, washing a car or doing the garden. I’d like to have gone inside one of the dwellings to inspect the mod cons provided by the far-sighted Lever – who also, during a brief tenure as an MP, created the old age pension – but most are privately owned nowadays. Just 250 are left under the PS Trust. You can indeed rent one as a holiday cottage.
We had no need because we had Mere Brook House, a most unusual bed and breakfast that deserves its clutch of awards. From the outside it’s a substantial Edwardian detached and separate Coach House in the countryside that springs up just four miles from Sunlight, west of the M53. Inside, dynamic owners Lorna and Donald Tyson rip up the B&B rule book, creating one of the best home from home experiences I can recall. Very unhotel-like. There are no set check-in times and you can book via twitter. See this link.
The Tysons still run a nearby dairy farm, leased from the Leverhulme Trust, handling 260 cows and running an online beef semen business (don’t ask), but the attention to detail in decor and add-on treats is terrific. Much is down to former agriculture lecturer Lorna’s marketing background.
Their quirky website should have been warning enough. As “The Country House is situated less than 1 mile from the practice of the internationally known dentist Ian Buckle.” Well, the Tysons do serve a lot of complimentary home-made cake. As well as leaving lots of beer, wine, cheese and locally sourced tidbits around free for guests. Mere Brook honey from their own hives is exceptional. Breakfasts and wedding feasts aside, they don’t do meals, though.
There are four rooms in the main house and four more in the recently converted Coach House, where we stayed. Both boast their own sitting rooms and kitchens, giving a superior holiday cottage feel. I particularly loved the ancient oak panelling in the main house and the lovely water gardens, set in four acres of private grounds.
Mere Brook is close to Raby Mere, a lake set so deep among woods you wouldn’t imagine it was so close to the M53. Raby village proper, three miles away, is home to The Wirral’s most historic pub, The Wheatsheaf, which was rebuilt after a fire in 1611 and has its own resident ghost, Charlotte, who perished in the blaze. It’s a characterful, low-slung place with excellent food and cask ales (perhaps a chance to taste the local Brimstage beers – Trapper’s Hat is particularly good).
The Montgomery at Eastham is nowhere near as ancient, but its setting opposite the village church is glorious, as is the transformation inside wrought by new owners New Moon Pub Co. It’s the fourth in the upmarket Cheshire chain that includes The Lord Binning (Kelsall), Old Sessipns House (Knutsford) and The Hanging Gate (Weaverham). They are the brainchild of Living Ventures co-founder Paul Newman and award-winning chef Dave Mooney, once of Knutsford’s Belle Epoque.
The Montgomery may well be the prettiest yet. Rustic chic, stripped wood, blue and white stripe walls give an intense Mediterranean , almost New World feel. Mooney’s food is similarly vibrant. Big portions, big flavours. I’d recommend the Planks, which are terrific value, great for sharing. Most expensive was our starter pick, “The Coastal” at £15.95, but for that you get Mojito crayfish, locally smoked salmon, blackened Cajun salmon fillet, chop shop fish and mushy peas, grilled sea bass fillet and pomegranate couscous and excellent bread.
The wine list is excellent and from the cask selection I’d go for any ales from Birkenhead’s new wave micro brewery Peerless.
Best known for being the starting point of the Manchester Ship Canal, surprisingly picturesque Eastham is on the Mersey side of the peninsula. You can look across to big brother Liverpool from the nearby Country Park, 100 acres of broadleaf woodland.
Birdlife’s good here but it’s even better all along the western, River Dee coastline. We encountered the Wirral Country Park on a Bank Holiday Monday with day-trippers flocking to unspoilt Thurstaston Beach and the former railway line converted into the Wirral Way footpath. Breezy West Kirby looked inviting but was even more thronged, so we headed home. With enough incentive to return check out to the Wirral bits Leverhulme didn’t own.
Mere Brook House offers eight rooms, priced from £75, see www.merebrookhouse.co.uk, www.twitter.com/MereBrookHouse, or call 07713 189949 for more information. It is just 50 miles by car from Manchester via the M56 and M53 and a mere four miles from Port Sunlight.
The Montgomery, 47 Stanley Lane (A41), Eastham Village, Wirral CH62 0AG. 0151 328 1151, www.themontgomery.co.uk.
Wheatsheaf, Raby Mere Road, Raby, Wirral CH63 4JH. 0151 336 3416, www.wheatsheaf-cowshed.co.uk.
Port Sunlight www.portsunlightvillage.com.
Thornton Manor www.thorntonmanor.co.uk.
Wirral tourism information www.visitwirral.com.
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