This article by Deborah Mulhearn originally appeared in Issue 4 of The Merseysider magazine. You can also read a report on the new statue of John Middleton, the legendary Hale Village giant, by clicking here.
Hooray for Hale!
It could be one of those fiendish quiz questions in the Saturday Guardian: what links Sir Winston Churchill, the poet Sir John Betjeman, and a Tudor “child”? The answer (of course you knew it) is Hale Village.
The sleepy village of Hale, close to the Mersey shoreline between Liverpool and Widnes, is best known for its thatched and whitewashed cottages and its famous “Childe of Hale”. This Tudor child was in fact the gentle giant John Middleton, a local man reputed to have grown to 9’3” and whose full-length portrait can be seen in nearby Speke Hall.
The chemical industry that grew up on either side of the Mersey did not touch Hale, and it remains much as it was in the mid-20th century when Churchill and Betjeman visited, except for the occasional sulphuric whiff and lurid skies emanating from the remaining petro-chemical complexes.
Betjeman’s and Churchill’s links with Hale are perhaps lesser known. Betjeman wrote a wistful poem about the Grade II* listed Manor House in Hale, where he describes its sequestered setting ‘O’er Mersey mud and Mersey flood.’
Churchill stayed with the Ireland Blackburne family, owners of Hale Hall, at the now demolished 17th century mansion. A new historical interpretation board in Hale Park, which occupies part of the former Hale Hall estate, will soon record this little-known connection.
‘Churchill was such an iconic, important statesman and historical figure in the annals of recent British history that his links with Hale Village should be celebrated,’ says Heather Charles, Hale’s official Heritage Champion.
Heather’s job is to promote Hale Village as a heritage destination. Her post is funded partly by Halton Borough Council and partly by the Heritage Lottery Fund, whose £634,000 grant has enabled drastic improvements to Hale Park over the past few years.
The park, which was bought by the local council in the 1970s for public use, has been transformed from a rather neglected open space with few facilities to a pleasant local amenity with new play equipment, benches, paths and a new wildflower area around the water drainage feature.
‘The improvements to the park have lifted the whole village, and recently more people have joined the Friends of Hale Park,’ says Heather. ‘The Friends volunteer to help look after the park but also work together to make our parks safe and enjoyable places to spend time, for local people and visitors alike.’
Heather also helps to organize the village’s annual carnival, a commemoration of the Battle of Britain which has been taking place since 1951. Held in the second week of June, it’s the village’s main event of the summer and regularly attracts around three thousand visitors.
John Middleton, the ‘Childe of Hale’, was born in 1578 and lived in Hale until his death in 1623. His thatched cottage has recently been restored and will be let as a holiday cottage, and a new bronze statue has been commissioned to replace an old sculpture carved from an elm tree trunk, which became diseased. (This was recently unveiled – see photo and click here for more details.) During the 2012 Heritage Open Day weekend in September the cottage was opened to the public free of charge. The event was a great success, attracting nearly a thousand curious visitors.
Middleton was employed by local landowner Gilbert Ireland, an ancestor of Robert Ireland Blackburne, as his bodyguard. The local legend is that he grew to his great height after tracing a huge figure in the sand on the shore and falling asleep inside it. When he woke up he had grown to fill the outline.
In 1617 King James I knighted Ireland at Lathom in Lancashire, where the King was resting on his way home from Scotland. The King invited Middleton to his court for a wrestling match against his own champion wrestler. Middleton won and was rewarded with £20, but he was robbed on his way home to Hale.
Middleton’s grave is in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Hale’s second Grade II* listed building. It’s easy to spot – it’s the oversize one surrounded by railings, with the inscription: ‘Here lyeth the bodie of John Middleton the Childe. Nine feet three. Borne 1578. Dyede 1623.’
But the rather sad and exploitative story of John Middleton tends to obscure the much older history of Hale.
The name Hale derives from the Anglo-Saxon word halh, meaning nook or corner of land, and anyone looking down from one of the many planes that fly low over the village to and from Liverpool Airport would see why. The screech of passenger planes would pierce the peace that Betjeman craved, but it does still feel like a quiet, almost forgotten, corner.
Its history reaches back to before the Norman Conquest, and is closely entwined with nearby Halewood. Hale with Halewood was one of six outlying estates, of the manor of West Derby, where Edward the Confessor had a castle and hunting lodge. St Mary’s may already have existed as a chapel.
William the Conqueror granted his knight Roger de Poitou the land described in the Domesday Book as ‘between the Ribble and the Mersey’, and this would have included Hale. In 1203 King John granted the village of Hale to Richard de Meath, a clerk of the Exchequer. Hale was then fought over by Richard’s illegitimate children and their mother Cecily de Columbers, the “Lady of Hale”, and his brother Henry de Walton.
The Norris and Holland families also coveted the village, and after many disputes Hale eventually passed in the fourteenth century to Adam Austin de Ireland. The Ireland and latterly the Ireland Blackburne family retained ownership of the village and then the Hall until the 1930s.
Hale lies where the Mersey bends towards Widnes and Runcorn, on the marshy flatlands that have been claimed by both Lancashire and Cheshire. Nowadays it’s part of Halton Borough Council, so strictly speaking in Cheshire, though it’s on the north bank of the Mersey and has a Liverpool postcode. Betjeman wisely sidestepped the issue by calling his poem The Manor House, Hale, near Liverpool.
The river was fordable at this point and for centuries (up until the Manchester ship canal was built in the late 19th century) people regularly walked or rode across Hale Ford. There was a ferry in regular service between Hale and Weston on the Runcorn side until the reign of King John, and people braved the strong tides to cross with animals and perishable goods such as Cheshire cheeses.
Some didn’t make it – parish records and the gravestones in St Mary’s churchyard show that drowning was a frequent occurrence. John Walley of Runcorn took two horses laden with fish from Formby across in 1423. The horses made it, but John drowned. William Parte, who sailed the Mersey Flats, or barges, across the river, drowned in 1607, and John Maddock’s gravestone records that he drowned in the Mersey in 1819, aged 35 years.
During the Civil War troops crossed with their horses and there were skirmishes to take control of what was a major crossing point. As late as the 19th Century a local vicar rode his horse-drawn buggy across.
The atmospheric Hale Head Lighthouse was originally built in 1838 and its stack made taller in 1907. It was decommissioned in 1958 and is now a private residence, its lenses removed to the Merseyside Maritime Museum.
From the lighthouse the footpath stretching along the coastline is part of the Mersey Way, with wonderful views over to Helsby and Frodsham, the Wirral Peninsula and beyond to the Clwydian Hills in North Wales.
Turning right from the lighthouse takes walkers past the lost hamlet of Dungeon with its small bay, along the sandstone outcrops and low cliffs above the grassy foreshore towards Speke and the airport. To the east the Runcorn road bridge and the industrial landscape of Runcorn and Widnes are visible.
It’s a perfect place for bird-watchers and walkers. Thousands of birds including dunlin, teal, heron, shelduck and redshank enjoy rich pickings from the Mersey mud, and the river has been cleaned up to a vast degree over the past twenty years. Even salmon and swordfish have been known to risk the Mersey waters in the late 20th century.
The ducks did not always lead such peaceful lives. Along the road towards Widnes is the Hale Duck Decoy, probably built in the 17th century to capture thousands upon thousands of ducks and wildfowl for food, harrassed into pipes and nets by dogs. It’s now a scheduled ancient monument that has been restored and can be visited by appointment.
Photographs by Vincent Phillips (except the Childe of Hale statue, courtesy of Halton Borough Council.)
For more information on Hale Village, visit www.visithalevillage.co.uk
If you are interested in staying in the cottage formerly occupied by John Middleton (the “Childe of Hale”), bookings are now being taken. Visit www.childeofhalecottageholidays.co.uk or www.cottages4you.co.uk