This article on Liverpool’s Woolton Village originally appeared in Issue 2 of The Merseysider magazine.
Liverpool’s sandstone gem
No, not the Anglican cathedral, but the village where the stone used to build it came from. Alison Sullivan explores Woolton.
Woolton Village attracts visitors from all over the world, and residents are used to camera-wielding American or Japanese tourists asking for directions. The explanation of course is the area’s association with the Beatles, with John Lennon’s childhood home on Menlove Avenue and numerous other sites of interest such as the grave of Eleanor Rigby (about which more later) in St Peter’s churchyard. But, as these same residents would tell you if asked, Woolton has considerably more to offer than that. Spend a couple of hours exploring the village and you’ll soon understand why Woolton is one of Liverpool’s most desirable addresses.
For a start it really does have a pleasantly self-contained ‘village’ atmosphere. This may have something to do with the fact that it’s surrounded by green spaces, and was not officially part of Liverpool until 1913. The village’s housing (much of which dates from the 19th century) is an interesting mix of large detached villas and smaller terraced houses, unified by the frequent use of red brick and local sandstone. Evidence of the quarries which once dotted the area is not hard to find, not least in the aptly named Quarry Street, where the huge rockface of Walton’s main quarry (which supplied sandstone for Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral) can be glimpsed behind the terraced cottages.
Several of the village’s finest houses are on Church Road. At the village end of the road are listed terrace houses, some with attractive latticed porches, while further up are grander early 19th century houses built by James Rose, who established Woolton Quarry and was known as ‘the King of Woolton’. These include his own house, Beechwood, and Rosemount, built for his mother. Off Church Road is Reynolds Park, which has several interesting features, including a walled garden and sandstone steps and shelters. The park originally formed the grounds of a large house, now demolished.
The church which gives the road its name is St. Peter’s, built in 1887 and with an impressive tower which dominates the village’s skyline. Opposite is the church hall where John Lennon met Paul McCartney on 6th July 1957. John had formed a skiffle group which were called the Quarry Men – because, as fellow member Pete Shotton later explained, ‘our native Woolton was packed with sandstone quarries, and most of us attended Quarry Bank school.’ On that July afternoon the group played outdoors at the St. Peter’s summer fete, then again in the evening at the church hall, where Paul was introduced to John by a mutual friend; within a few weeks he had joined the group. George Harrison later joined as well and the line-up that included three of the future Beatles performed at the Village Club (a building in the centre of the village) in 1959.
A pretty lychgate at the side of the church leads into the churchyard, where Eleanor Rigby is famously buried. The grave is a must-see for Beatles pilgrims, though Paul McCartney once told an interviewer he got ‘Rigby’ from the name of a shop and ‘Eleanor’ from the film actress Eleanor Bron, who’d appeared with the group in ‘Help!’ If the grave really is nothing to do with the song, it’s certainly a strange coincidence….
Not far from St. Peter’s is one of Woolton’s other notable churches, St. Mary’s. The church itself is part of an impressive group of 19th century buildings, which also includes the Presbytery (designed by the distinguished architect Edward Pugin), the Woolton Institute, St Mary’s Parish Centre and St. Mary’s Hall. Together the buildings are another important landmark in the village.
The village centre has many other sights, such as a Grade 2 listed ornate Victorian street lamp and the Village Cross, which is thought to be over 400 years old. On Mason Street is Woolton Picture House, which first opened in 1927. The Guardian more recently named it one of the twenty best film venues in Britain, describing it as an ‘art deco gem’. The auditorium originally comprised rows of wooden benches, accommodating up to 800 people. The seating arrangements are now much more comfortable, but the cinema still has many original features and considerable period charm. As well as the latest mainstream releases, the cinema regularly shows classics from the golden era of film, such as High Noon and Alfred Hitchcock’s North by North West. It also has its own Beatles connection: John Lennon and fellow Quarry Men band members nicknamed it ‘The Bug’, and the Picture House featured in the 2009 Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy.
Woolton’s also a very enjoyable place to shop, drink and eat. Notable independent businesses include the Liverpool Cheese Company on Woolton Street. The shop’s premises were once a dairy and form part of a group of farm buildings dating back to the 17th century. The shop is run by Ian Tomlinson and Vickie Anderson, and when you enter you’re immediately won over not only by the enormous array of cheeses but also by the enticing smells of ground coffee and freshly baked bread. Needless to say, the shop has a comprehensive selection of artisan cheeses, including many from Cheshire and Lancashire, but it also has more unusual lines, including ‘wedding cakes’ made from cheese.
A recent arrival on Allerton Road and already proving very popular with locals is Ellie Benson Flowers. Proprietor Ellie White runs the business with the help of her father Tony. The shop has a modern, contemporary look and the displays of (surprisingly reasonably priced) flowers are beautifully presented. Ellie loves Woolton Village and was delighted that so many of the local shopkeepers called in to welcome her when she opened in December. Next door to the flower shop Fletcher’s Tea Rooms does a roaring trade in breakfasts, sandwiches, cakes and other hot and cold snacks. The walls of the bright, airy restaurant are decorated with photographs of Liverpool by Frank Minghella.Also new in the village is the upmarket Bubble Bar on Woolton Street. This restaurant bar boasts an elegant, high class interior and serves quality (though quite high priced) food. Nearby is the Elephant pub which offers more traditional fare. The elephant’s head on the outside wall is a Woolton icon, although sadly it’s not the original, which was removed when the pub was refurbished in 2007. A public outcry led to the installation of a replica. Pubs which have remained relatively unchanged include the White Horse further along the road and the Victoria on Quarry Street. The Village Inn, also on Quarry Street, is now closed but the building itself is of interest as it was once sculptor Arthur Dooley’s home and studio.
Local resident Nola Baldwin, who I chatted to during my wander around the village, neatly sums up Woolton’s appeal: ‘It has the ambience of a small historic village but you can easily get into Liverpool by bus or by train. There are parks all around, the cinema’s lovely and there are plenty of nice places to eat. I feel lucky to live here.’