I believe Birkenhead has always suffered from being just across the Mersey from Liverpool – with the Beatles, scousers and two top football team. In contrast, Birkenhead doesn’t often hit the headlines and, when it does, it can be for the wrong reasons.
But Birkenhead, unlike Liverpool, can boast that it’s on the Wirral. Yes, ‘the’ Wirral because it’s short for the Wirral peninsula – the bulge across the water from Liverpool that’s bordered on three sides by the rivers Mersey and Dee and the Irish Sea. Then there’s the debate about whether its ‘in’ or ‘on’ the Wirral. In 2014, an online poll of Liverpool Echo readers showed that 73% of respondents would use the phrase “on the Wirral” in everyday conversation, as opposed to “in the Wirral” or “in Wirral”.
I was intrigued to see a recent piece in a national newspaper hailing some famous people from the Wirral, with one from Birkenhead. Half, in fact, were not from the Wirral. War poet Wilfred Owen is from Oswestry (not the Wirral), actor Daniel Craig is from Chester (not the Wirral). The late great John Peel was from Heswall on the Wirral, and Jodie Taylor (England and ex-Tranmere Rovers footballer) is a Birkonian!
And I am/was also a Birkonian. For the first 15 years of my life when I wasn’t away at boarding school I lived in Birkenhead. I have happy memories of those years, but have never really felt I belonged there. Despite return visits for family gatherings, including funerals, I’ve never thought I’d live there again. Of course, if the family business had survived I might have been destined for a career in textiles and my life would, undoubtedly, have turned out very differently.
If you don’t know Birkenhead, enough to say my mum said she spent 50 years trying to get away from the place; she used to say you never meet people going to Birkenhead – they have always come from there. To mis-quote comedian Sue Perkins “Birkenhead is less a place, more the punchline for a joke.”
But like the Therfield Heath jewel in Royston’s crown, Birkenhead has its own gemstone – Birkenhead Park – and with it, a place in the record books. I can do no better than the description by Bill Bryson (yes – him again) so I won’t try. It is a typical large Victorian City park, with playgrounds and playing fields, some woodlands, a picturesque lake with a boathouse and rustic bridge… It was a pleasant, wholly conventional urban park on a Sunday morning, but Birkenhead has one special feature; it is the oldest urban park in the world… purpose-built for the amusement of all people.
If Bill Bryson had visited the park on a Saturday morning he might have witnessed Birkenhead parkrun (yes, it’s a lower case ‘p’) – with over 300 runners lapping the park three times from 9am every week at vastly different speeds since July 2015.
Such public access and enjoyment would have delighted American journalist turned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted who, as Bill Bryson relates, built more than 100 parks across North America.
Olmsted’s most famous design was Central Park in New York – as Bob Harrison, a Birkenhead parkrunner, was proud to remind me when we bumped into each other (not literally) at Wimpole parkrun in south Cambridgeshire. Wimpole, a National Trust estate, is my local parkrun. As readers of an earlier blog in this ‘No Man’s Land’ series may remember, I spent 9 months of my life trying to set up a Royston parkrun on Therfield Heath but finally ran into a brick wall in the shape of the Heath Conservators (capital ‘H’, capital ‘C’)
Despite the appeal of Birkenhead Park, the Fab Four and various boyfriends, I think it’s fair to say that my three older sisters, like me, have never felt inclined to move back there, suggesting their sense of belonging was no stronger than mine. And my sisters went through primary and secondary education in the town so they had the opportunity to build even stronger ties.
Unlike my sisters, my exam results weren’t good enough for a free place in a local independent school so, when the possibility of going to a single sex boarding school in York came along, it seemed like the obvious thing to do. Getting away from girls, the extra help with my studies and, above all, making a canoe – I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
It would be churlish to criticise my parents for doing what they thought was best for their youngest child, but I now believe my secondary schooling had a massive, and not entirely positive, effect on the rest of my life.
For a well-observed and funny portrayal of Birkenhead, listen to Mark Steel’s in Town – Birkenhead https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEgPktmj9Tg