This article originally appeared in Issue 1 of The Merseysider magazine. (For information on the 2014 Secret Gardens of Oxton event, please visit our Home page.)
OUT AND ABOUT IN OXTON
Patricia Rafferty enjoys exploring the Birkenhead village.
Oxton (a suburb of Birkenhead) is an area rich in historical interest and architectural character, full of elegant sandstone and brick built houses (many of them listed) built in an appealing variety of styles. It also has a vibrant village centre, with a decent mix of shops and an excellent choice of bars and restaurants. It’s small enough to explore on foot, and can be enjoyed in a couple of hours, but if you’re in the mood to delve further there’s plenty to warrant a longer visit.
Many of the houses in Oxton date from the 19th century, when it became a popular residential location for wealthy Liverpool merchants and shipowners. The Woodside ferry provided an easy commute across the Mersey and the village’s position on high ground afforded fine views of incoming ships (several houses incorporated towers specifically for this purpose). Frequent horse-drawn omnibuses and trams (the first in Europe) would carry passengers down to the river. Oxton’s quieter now, but its distinctive character remains, and was recognised in 1979 when Wirral Council designated it a conservation area. Around the same time local residents formed the Oxton Society, in order to protect the village and promote its sensitive development.
Virtually any road in Oxton is worth wandering down, but here are a few architectural highspots. Oxton Old Hall, a private residence on Talbot Road at the western end of the village, is Oxton’s oldest building. It dates from the mid-17th century and is thought to have been a shooting lodge for the Earls of Shrewsbury, who were Lords of the Manor of Oxton from 1521 to 1990. Along Rose Mount and Village Road there are some fine 19th century stuccoed Italianate houses. Holly Lodge on Village Road is thought to have been built around 1760 and to have been the Earl of Shrewsbury’s hunting lodge. Oxton Lawn on Rathbone Road is a good example of a shipping magnate’s house, now converted into apartments.
Fairview Road has several attractive houses, including numbers 31 and 33, which used to house the village school. Off Fairview Road (and some way down it) are Arno Road and Southbank Road, two unmade roads which provide a rewarding detour. Christchurch Road, leading down from the village centre, has houses with intriguing gateways, turrets and towers as well as Christ Church, a large red sandstone church with a tall spire and 19th century stained glass windows. At the opposite end of the village (on Bidston Road) is another large church, St. Saviour’s, which has a fine early 20th century interior. (If you’ve the time, the Oxton Society [www.oxtonvillage.com] have mapped out two comprehensive walks, the East Walk and the West Walk, each of which is about a mile in length.)
‘The Secret Gardens of Oxton’, organised by the Oxton Society, is an annual event (held in May) where a number of local houses (usually around thirty) throw open their gates and allow visitors to see behind their walls and hedges. Of course it’s also a chance to get a closer look at the houses (from the outside, at least) and has become hugely popular, attracting a few thousand visitors each year. Several of the houses have much larger gardens than you’d imagine and there’s always a variety of interesting and creative garden designs, including the spectacular garden that’s been hewn out of an old quarry, and others with attractive terracing offering panoramic views across to Liverpool. The whole occasion has a festival atmosphere, with craft stalls, art displays and entertainment in the centre of the village. In 2011 a rainy morning didn’t deter visitors and over £20,000 was raised for charity.
Oxton’s shopping area is the kind of village centre that’s generally either disappeared or at the very least is under severe threat. Despite the challenges, Oxton somehow continues to offer a range of shops large enough to satisfy all the essential needs of a community. There’s a greengrocer’s and general store, newsagent, post office, hairdressers, chemist and no less than two butcher’s shops. Aside from these core businesses there are also (amongst others) a secondhand bookseller sharing the post office premises and a shop that sells and repairs computers. You could easily live in the village and never set foot outside it.
One of the butcher’s shops, Adams Family Butchers, was established in 1909 and is now run by third and fourth generation family members: Rob Adams and his father David. Inside, awards and certificates for the shop’s acclaimed produce line the walls. Another village institution is Mike Baxendale, the local barber. He’s originally from London, but has been cutting the menfolk of Oxton’s hair for many years. His loyal customers have become good friends, who visit knowing they’ll get quality conversation as well as an excellent haircut. Next door to the barbers is The Drawing Room, a very attractive shop specialising in stylish gifts and interior furnishings. Stock includes antique and reproduction furniture, cushions and bedspreads, pictures, lamps and curtains. Upstairs The Dressing Room specialises in vintage jewellery, handbags, clothing and accessories.
Oxton’s also not short of pubs, bars and restaurants. The Shrewsbury Arms at the end of Claughton Firs is a traditional pub, with a split level main bar area and interesting wood-panelled nooks and crannies. The Oxton Bar and Terrace is at the other end of Claughton Firs, right in the centre of the village. It has a more contemporary feel, with a (mostly) younger crowd, regular live entertainment and an adventurous range of cocktails. Nearby is Halligans, a recently opened tapas bar/restaurant which has quickly proved a big hit with locals. The varied, inviting tapas menu means you can enjoy a small snack or share a more elaborate selection of dishes. Across the road, Home is a stylish and very popular café bar and restaurant.
Oxton also boasts Merseyside’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Fraiche. Proprietor Marc Wilkinson, whose family are from Wirral, opened Fraiche in 2004 after many years’ experience as a chef at restaurants in England, Wales and Canada. In 2011 Fraiche picked up another prize, when it won a BBC Olive magazine Alternative Restaurant Award. The judges commended Wilkinson’s ‘ability to singlehandedly conjure a stream of jaw-dropping avant-garde dishes for his guests’ and described Fraiche as a ‘gastronomic wonderland’.
As you’ll have gathered, Oxton may have a village atmosphere but it’s certainly not a sleepy one. I’ve not had time to mention the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum (on the edge of the village), or Oxton’s thriving arts scene, with its high concentration of painters, sculptors and poets. But as anyone who knows the village will confirm, the curiosities and pleasures of Oxton appear inexhaustible.