Just been for a walk around Woolton, starting and finishing at my house. Up to Woolton woods. Good view of St Peter’s church (yes, the Eleanor Rigby one) on its hill site above the village, then past the wall where Cynthia lost her virginity to John, and, after a walk through the woods, a great view from Camp Hill out over the Mersey to the Clwyd hills with the Welsh hills beyond. Coming back down Manor Road I can see Norton priory on its hill site and the Frodsham/Helsby hills. Lower down the old Mersey bridge comes into view and then the new one, both with red lights, presumably to give warning to planes using Liverpool airport nearby. Turn into Manor Way and there’s Pex Hill. Nearby, on the field near Childwall Woods, you can see Knowsley Park behind the tower blocks at Huyton, and Prescot church on its ancient hill site (where the Shakespeare Theatre in the North is nearing completion). A half hour walk full of history and geography. I make a cup of coffee, sit at my PC and from my bedroom window I can see the white phallus of The Dream in St Helens on the former Bold colliery (yes Merseyside used to have coal mining). From another bedroom window there’s Fiddlers Ferry power station (coal-fired, catch it before it’s demolished – we get our power from wind turbines now).
Liverpool makes a great extra character in my novels. The cover of A Fair Wack shows the Pierhead, emblematic of Liverpool’s history as a great sea port. The cover of Time Lapse is based on a climber on Helsby Crag. Not Without Risk is based on the view from Woolton Hill out over the Mersey. And Pool of Life is based on the River Mersey itself – and Jung’s description of Liverpool as ‘the pool of life’.
So, my books are set in Liverpool, and the wider city region of Merseyside, my adopted home (for nearly half a century now), with some excursions to Middlesbrough, the city of my birth. To properly appreciate a city you need a good vantage point. Strangely, Liverpool and Middlesbrough both have these and they are strikingly similar; for Liverpool Helsby, and Middlesbrough Eston Hill – an outlier of the North York Moors. As a scouse comic used to quip ‘Middlesbrough is just like Liverpool, but with ALL the windows put through.’
Both hills have iron age forts and sandstone crags on their tops. I am a climber and learned to climb on Eston Nab – after being introduced to the sport at Scugdale and the Wainstones on the North York Moors. From Middlesbrough the moors are a brooding background, roller-coasting across the horizon; blue remembered hills. Eston Nab has been tagged as the worst place to climb in Britain and I must admit on one of my first visits a thrown bottle just missed my head. And you were at serious risk from being run over by trail bikers. The pic shows a proud English flag flying over the crag which appeared during the Brexit campaign. Smoggies – the nickname came from the pall of smog from the chemical and iron and steel industries which used to hang over the place, now long gone. The plot of A Fair Wack involves a plan to redevelop the resulting wasteland and corrupt politicians. Yes, I know you get the odd honest one but they’re more interesting when they’ve broken bad.
You get a fantastic view of Liverpool and Merseyside from Helsby crag – out over the chemical works, refineries and wind turbines to the river and estuary, with both cathedrals and Hale lighthouse easily identifiable. The crag is famous as the training ground in the thirties for pioneering climbers such as Colin Kirkus and Menlove Edwards. I’ve done a lot of climbing there – and messed my pants a few times. I used it in Time Lapse as a place for a crooked politician to meet a crooked lawyer (well it wouldn’t move the narrative along if they were both honest would it?). The main character is a climber with ambitions to climb the area’s testpiece called, you guessed it, Time Lapse.
I’ve also done a lot of climbing at Pex Hill on the other side of the Mersey. Great views over to Liverpool from here. In A Fair Wack, a crooked politician and a gangster use it as a meeting place where their conversation can’t be listened into easily. And in Not Without Risk a character gets impaled by a metal fence paling thrown by scallies (it’s not that dangerous, honest). I’ve used the Williamson tunnels, Liverpool Cathedral quarry and the river Mersey itself – for various drownings and a villain swept away by the Mersey Bore; yes, the Mersey has powerful currents and a bore. In Pool of Life I forayed into North Wales with an old aristocratic family threatened by a stalker obsessed with the family’s role in oppressing local slate workers in Victorian times and stealing Welsh water for use in Liverpool. And in the same book one of the themes stems from plans to build a barrage across the Mersey.
Liverpool, what a great character! And I haven’t even mentioned the city’s architectural heritage. Next instalment. Sense of place. Here’s Ian Nairn writing in the sixties:
’The scale and resilience of Liverpool’s buildings and people is amazing – it is a world city, far more so than London and Manchester. It doesn’t feel like anywhere else in Lancashire: comparisons always end up overseas – Dublin, or Boston, or Hamburg.’