Thursday, 5 January 2017

Blowing away the flu-blues in the Wirral.

And so it came to pass that a planned day trip over the Christmas break to see the Picasso linocuts at Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight became a three day convalescing break in the Wirral. New Year’s Eve boredom led to internet searching for a B&B by the sea to blow away lingering Christmas flu and soak up affordable positive coastal ions before a return to the long slog of the freelance artist’s reality of looking for paid work.

Great reviews on top booking sites are initially useful but rarely state whether somewhere is ‘gay friendly’. You would think that with the significant and important changes to the laws, and an apparent shift in attitudes, that it shouldn’t matter, but I always have that slight fear of turning up with my wife and our collie Flynn will open a can of worms that I really don’t want to deal with on an unfamiliar doorstep.  A quick phone call and a well-practised conversational outing does much to gauge opinion, and after a friendly easy conversation with Helen from ‘Dunsandles' Guesthouse in New Brighton we confirmed our 2 night booking with the top hit in the dog friendly, discounted offers.

New Years Day was spent in the usual Winter break prep of ensuring favourite jeans and woolly jumpers are clean and packed alongside lots of thermal under layers because, no matter how hard we try, it seems that indecision and a lack of trust in weather forecast ensures we take enough clothes for a fortnight. Add photography, reading, writing and drawing equipment, dog paraphernalia and a bag of special dietary requirements for us and suddenly the car boot is full!

We arrive at Port Sunlight in cold sunny weather that catches my breath and results in an exhausting extended coughing fit while we stretch Flynn dog’s legs around the village. It’s years since I’ve visited the beautiful Lady Lever Gallery, which houses the eclectic collection of arts assembled by a wonderful philanthropist who recognized the possibility of art as a positive experience for everyone. Perhaps those so keen to measure the ‘value’ of art alongside other ‘more important’ services could take notice of the gallery’s regularly quoted and inspirational words below from Lord Lever’s gallery opening speech in December 1922:

“Art has always been to me a stimulating influence; it has always taught me without upbraiding me; elevated me without humbling me; and appealed to me because of the fact that only the best and truest in art survives…

Art can be to everyone an inspiration. It is within the reach of all of us…”

You may not necessarily agree that art has the same quality, place or values in modern Britain but it is interesting that so many people still get so much from visiting these originally private collections funded on the back of industrial activity. Just as they were intended to benefit the cultural life of the workforce and the wider public in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries we are still reaping the rewards despite constant threats of closure. Even as a contemporary photographic artist generally preferring post war modern art, I value the importance and beauty of the Lady Lever Gallery’s collection and recognize it as essential contextual referencing for my personal practice. As well as being inspired by the Picasso linocuts and promising myself I will progress my previous experiments with printmaking, I surprise myself with an emotional response to a classic and moving painting of a poacher and a dog awaiting sentencing, and the Wedgwood collection. 

Detail from 'Fidelity' by Briton Riviere, 1869

My early career as a photographer started at the Josiah Wedgwood factory in Barlaston, and until recently attending poetry workshop with Staffordshire poet laureate Bert Flitcroft in the museum there, I had never been back. I’m not sure whether it is nostalgia, or an improved sense of history that comes with age and distance from an experience, but I do seem to be developing a new respect and understanding for Josiah who shared some similarities with Lord Lever in understanding the value in bringing arts and crafts into people’s lives. Not sure the gallery shop is upholding the principles of quality and value but i guess commercialism is the key? Another debate for another day though, as we are keen to arrive in New Brighton in daylight and grab a late afternoon dog walk on the beach before booking in…

We immediately felt welcomed by Alan and Helen and at home in our room at ‘Dunsandles’ and, after the longest day away from the tv and front room at home in two weeks, I collapsed onto the very comfortable bed for a rest before dinner. An hour or two later we ventured 5 minutes walk down the hill to our favourite main eating place in New Brighton, The Marino Lounge, not least because they are dog friendly. We first discovered this great fact in the Faro Lounge in Lichfield and were delighted to discover that the service and food in both lounge bars  we’ve visited to date has been excellent. We love the décor too and have now played many games of scrabble, drunk the excellent coffee and sampled various dishes from the menu, my own favourites being the tapas and the chicken, bacon and avocado burger. They even have gluten-free options, a range of teas and dog treats making this the perfect venue for all three of us!
Detail of the great reclaimed wood panelling in the snug at Marino Lounge in New Brighton. Thinking about playing with this idea at my studio or even in in the hall at home!

An early night, a sound sleep on the very comfy bed despite my cough and the alarm set to ensure that we had time to take Flynn out before breakfast meant we could make the most of our only full day in New Brighton. The seaside themed breakfast room with many personalized creative touches from the multi skilled Helen, and quality pale blue and white Royal Doulton tableware was a pleasant surprise. A choice of cereals and fruit followed by perfectly cooked full English breakfast and copious tea and toast ensured we were set up for the day; Alan had even cooked and wrapped Flynn a sausage for a later treat!

New Brighton Beach looking towards Wallasey Town Hall(?)
 The weather was dry but dull and I have to confess that so was I for much of the the two mile walk along the promenade towards Seacombe, lost in the effort of dragging my tired, flu-dogged body one slow step in front of the other. The views of the Liver buildings and the docks, however, are wonderful from here, and the walk was full of surprises as we discovered parks, beaches, pirate ships and various other nativity themed community artworks whilst also dreaming of owning one of the huge old houses with their stepped gardens down to the promenade.

I finally refuse to move from the bench at Egremont Ferry, complaining of a full bladder and needing a bus timetable. At the very moment of me turning this into a domestic spoiler, the staff from The Ferry pub rescued us by bringing out a large ‘dog friendly’ and ‘open’ sign, As we have now found in most places near here, we walked into a warm friendly welcome for us and Flynn from the staff, and best of all, clean toilets and hot drinks. We sat in the comfy armchairs and were entertained by the staff who raved about the quality of the food served in the pub, leaving half an hour later rested, warmed and with a dinner reservation! We returned that evening to eat in the restaurant and whilst we enjoyed the spectacular night views of the Liverpool skyline we were slightly under-whelmed by our meals having been full of expectation from the rave online reviews and burger eating boasts. I’m sure we must have been unlucky, and I seem to have hurt the staffs’ feelings with my polite honest feedback as they didn’t engage with us again or offer us any apology for my over-cooked chewy chicken, boring veg or curled sparse fish and cold chips. However, I am sure we will return to hopefully experience an improved service and food quality as per the reviews?

Back to the afternoon though and strolling back we stopped briefly in Vale Park to eat our tired left over ‘journey’ sandwiches and watched as a dog ran itself ragged round and round, the owner oblivious to its whereabouts as he never looked up from his mobile phone. We guessed that this was a usual routine as the dog returned several times to the same tree near us to check for squirrels- something Flynn would possibly have joined in with had he not been fixated on the potential of falling crusts.

Cold and in need of further sustenance we eventually fell into Driftwood Café on Victoria Road, only to discover another New Brighton gem. The friendly welcome from the staff for both us and Flynn, was only outdone by the huge pots of tea and fresh hand-baked scones accompanied by generous pots of jam and cream.  With that scrumptiousness its hardly surprising that we returned the following day for lunch and chose to share a cheese sandwich on beautiful soft thick bread with chutney, coleslaw and salad on the side followed by fresh homemade lemon drizzle and tiffin cake. It was hard to decide as we could have chosen from a large menu that included home-made soup or quiche, but we were not disappointed and were impressed by the quality and quantity of the food. We will definitely make this a regular feature of our future trips to New Brighton.

Wednesday morning and we open the curtains onto a sea view with promising skies for our last day in the Wirral.  After another fab breakfast, a lovely chat with Helen before checking out, we decide to take a walk on our favourite part of the beach before heading off to explore more of the coast towards West Kirby. The light is in its Winter sun glory and I spend most of my day taking photos purely for the pleasure of using the glorious light and, thinking that the lighthouse and Fort Perch might translate into linoprints, focus on creating compositions that might work for that purpose. 

I also become obsessed with recording clumps of seaweed where plastic waste and sea life have been washed up together, a reminder of a current series of photographs I’ve recently been creating nearer home.On my regular walks along the River Sow in Stafford I have been recording the sad and neglected by-product of the town’s new commercial area. The detritus of the town is ending up in river dams formed by neglected fallen trees and waste packaging less than a mile away. It makes me sad that we fail to recognize what we are doing to our precious waters and landscape, but I do realize that we are trapped in the imperfect balance between need, cost and packaging. Maybe I can do as many other photographers have done before me, and use these images to remind people of our responsibilities?

Whether they think about these things in West Kirby too remains to be discovered, but as a haven for watersports on the Marine Lake I would hope that they care.  However my thoughts now turn to light again as I am captivated yet again by the amazing view of the late afternoon Winter sun disappearing down to the horizon through the clouds. The mist on the hills across the water is magical and the act of taking photos becomes inexplicably addictive. It is only the numbing cold that drags me away to the nearest dog friendly café, Hannah’s Cafe in Acacia Grove is obviously popular with families having plenty of room for pushchairs and an area for pooches and their owners.  We thaw out over tea and coffee before catching the last twenty minutes of opening time in the town to wander around and get a sense of the place.

After three days of discovering new places in what we thought was a familiar area I am increasingly drawn to the welcome we have had on the Wirral, and we have yet to venture over the Mersey! I know we will be back here soon to revisit new favourites and explore more. Who knows, we may even have found a possible seaside re-location. Off to write to the TV programme for some help!

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