Churchtown - this picturesque suburb of Southport is full of fascinating stories
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 February 2014 | UPDATED: 20:55 21 October 2015
For a small place Churchtown is packed with history. Not the history of battles and kings, but of cottages, comics and carts. Whitewashed buildings and thatching give the place a rural feel, a perception helped by its plentiful independent shops, historic properties and picturesque pubs.
Those of a certain age will also note that this was the birthplace of The Eagle comic and its most famous character, Dan Dare. There’s a plaque on an old bakery that was once Eagle HQ. It has become a small shrine for grown-up schoolboys.
Churchtown is a suburb of Southport, but it could have been other way around. ‘Churchtown was the main settlement but it got swallowed up by Southport,’ says Gladys Armstrong, chairwoman of the Civic Society. Had it become the dominant partner its character today would be very different. ‘It would have been spoiled,’ she concludes.
Penwortham Abbey and later Evesham Abbey once controlled the land – but before them, the Vikings settled it. Back then, the sea came right to the edge of the village - the remains of a fishing wharf were found beneath what is now a main street.
‘The area was in the Domesday Book as Otegrimeles, which is its Scandinavian name,’ says Gladys. ‘We know Vikings landed here about 940, so lots of local place names are of Scandinavian origin. There has been a church on the site since the 12th century.’
The Hesketh family are thus relative newcomers, if you call Tudor times recent. They own many properties in the village still, and Meols Hall at its heart is their private residence. These days nuptials in the beautifully converted barn help pay for the upkeep of hall and grounds.
‘The best year we had was 74 weddings,’ says Pam Whelan, who coordinates the events at the venue. ‘They come from all over – I’m about to meet a lady from Australia, the first wedding in 2013 was for people from Dubai, and we get quite a few Americans. They love the fact the place is 400 years old – older than their country.’
Although the surrounding area appears quite built up, the hall has 2000 acres of tenanted farms and 100 acres of park and woodland.
Three years ago another impressive local landmark, the Botanic Gardens, was saved from closure by local petitioners and fundraisers. ‘There were cutbacks planned by Sefton Council,’ says Martin Sutcliffe who heads the gardens team. ‘Originally all the nursery staff were to be made redundant, they were going to close the fernery, and I’m not sure what would’ve happened to the aviary.’
A clever support mechanism was found. ‘The volunteers found sponsors, so we grow the plants for the sponsored beds, and get paid for them.’ The gardens are a history lesson in themselves, as Gladys explains. ‘They opened in 1874 and it cost fourpence to get in to keep the rabble out! That was Southport and Churchtown Botanic Gardens Ltd, run by workmen who got the money together to buy the land from the Hesketh estate.
‘The company went bankrupt in 1932. There were plans to put a housing development on the ground, but Southport Corporation saved it. Déjà vu. The ludicrous situation three years ago was the threatened fernery had just been voted the best in England.’
One element not saved was the site’s museum. ‘It was mainly Victoriana and a lot of local history. Perhaps the saddest thing is the loss of all that local material,’ says Gail Settle who runs the Botanic Gardens cafe with her brother Stephen. The elegant bridges in the park, the fernery and aviary keep the Victorian flame burning, with some creative help. ‘We held a very successful Victorian Gala in August. We hope to make it an annual event,’ says Gail.
The museum’s contents have been dispersed: an ancient fire-engine went to Mersey Fire Brigade’s collection; material from the 1886 lifeboat disaster also found another home, as did a historic shrimping cart that told a tale of how the sea’s bounty was important here, and not always in the most obvious fashion.
‘There’s a story that somewhere up in Banks a ship ran aground hundreds of years ago, and its cargo of potatoes, the first in the country, came ashore here,’ says Eddie James, chef proprietor of restaurant and bakery Claude’s of Churchtown. Sourcing, though still very local, is more conventional now. ‘Most of the veg we use comes from a farm in Banks, and we get meat and eggs nearby.’
The fishing industry may be almost gone, but architectural reminders remain. Down Churchgate the roofs of beautiful old cottages low to the ground hint at their origin. ‘They’re fishermen’s cottages, 90 per cent of which were built using an upturned boat,’ says Gladys. ‘When no longer seaworthy, boats would be used for building – look at the roofs of the older ones and you’ll see they follow the shape of the hull.’ Many have Grade II listing and it’s no surprise the village has Conservation Area status.
Another link to the past, the village smithy, is being restored by master ironsmith George Thierens. ‘It’s a hobby for me, as well as a business. I’m trying to make it part of the village again. It had fallen into disrepair and I want it to be an attraction,’ he says.
Once they visit Churchtown they’ll want to return because it’s such a fascinating place. There is also the odd mystery such as the gravestone at the lovely St Cuthbert’s Church. The inscription reads: ‘Here lies the body of Thomas Rimmer, mariner, who was held captive in Barbary 16 years 6 months and who died in January the Year of Our Lord 1716.’