Tuesday, March 28, 2017

And now for something completely different

Writing retreats, artists' dates, creative away-days ~ whatever we call them, these free-flow open-ended sessions are brilliant to re-energise and recalibrate the 'writers' voice' within, and great fun. Hazel Stewart, my writer friend (and one-time performance poetry partner) has joined me on these short adventures for the last few years, in venues from Barcelona to Manhatten, and this year for a change we each took a train to meet in Port Sunlight, on the Wirral.
It's not actually a port at all, it's a history lesson, and it really, really, needs the sunlight. Fortunately, last weekend the sun obliged and we wandered this model-village-in-aspic under cloudless greek-blue skies, marvelling at the Ladybird-book houses and the Lady Lever treasury of art. Also, eventually, wondering how to get something to eat that wasn't either super-posh-costly or Flamin' Grilled. There are no shops in Port Sunlight, not even the single Co-op built by its founder Lord Leverhulme, so after advice from locals we went out to the real world for a bus-ride to an Asda so we could snack in our room for our third night.
Lord Leverhulme might have been the tyrant some of his workers claimed but he was a reformer too, one of the few employers in 19th Century England who saw his workers as people not 'hands' and believed they deserved a better quality of life than the industrial slums. The idealist lord employed around 30 architects to design his workers' houses, each costing around £250 to build (four times as much as usual in those days) with bathrooms and gardens, and he provided education for the children and art for all.  He built them a church as well, designed to be multi-faith although his personal bible was Samuel Smiles' Self Help dogma. He wasn't pushy about temperance either, accepting the result of a ballot on the sale of ale at the inn although it went against his personal preference for abstinence.
The Bridge Inn, where we stayed, is still the only pub - and still sells a lot of ale.
Unlike Titus Salt's Saltaire Village in Yorkshire, workers' homes here are surrounded by greenery and blossom, with winding walks among trees and flowers, sculptures and fountains. And you can venture off-site to the 'River Park', a mound of industrial waste beyond the factories which gives amazing views all along the Mersey.
 But, magnolia and skylarks aside, Port Sunlight's USP is undoubtedly its soapy history, contained within, and expounded by, both the museum and the art gallery. The museum makes the most of its single theme, adding filmic reconstructions, interactive games, the recipe for scouse, and life-sized images of the Beatles (also visitors, back in their Love Me Do days.)
The art gallery is incredibly grand, with a main room large enough to include a concert hall, and over thirty more rooms crammed with paintings and sculptures. Bubbles is there of course, Millais' iconic image forever associated with the a soap advertisement (Pears soap, ironically, as Sunlight's big rival had the idea first) and pre-Raphaelites feature strongly, but Lord Leverhulme didn't stop there, continuing to add art from across the ages and around the world ~ the Chinese room is particularly impressive.
In short, a fascinating place, a mini-kingdom from another era with no need of roots in contemporary life, thriving as a miniature industry created by the industry of the past. And an ideal place to unhook from the present too. What with constant glorious sunshine in the 'model village' by day, and the curious lack of activity in the evenings, we both found Port Sunlight an excellent place for a writing retreat.

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