Parkgate - A Personal View
|Published: 6th April 2008 11:42|
So what makes Parkgate different to any other seaside village? Well, there's no sea. Yes, you did read that correctly - there's no sea! Rumour has it that the elderly residents complained about the noise of the tide, so it stopped coming in! But no, the truth is, in years gone by Parkgate was both a busy port and bathing resort, but due to the nature of the tides in the Dee estuary the sea now only comes up to the sea-wall at Parkgate a handful of times a year. These days (High Tide days) are well celebrated in the area, with an already well-visited tourist spot becoming mobbed by the curious, the birdwatchers and the ice-cream lovers.
Back in the 1500's, access by sea to the Port of Chester had become virtually impassable, due to the vagaries of the Dee tides causing a massive build up of silt. A number of Chester merchants bandied together and petitioned the Kings Council to allow for the siting of a new quay at what is now Parkgate. Throughout the 1600s the Quay became increasingly important as a cargo drop-off point for Chester and the surrounding areas.
In the 1700's Parkgate was a renowned terminal for packet ships carrying passengers to and from Dublin. Travellers would have to wait for a favourable wind, and so small businesses built up along the front, to accommodate their wining and dining needs. Also in this century, the turnpike road connecting Chester to the Neston and Parkgate area was opened, along with a further road connecting Neston to the villages of Birkenhead and Tranmere, and the Mersey Ferries. Around this time, as sea bathing became a fashionable pastime, Parkgate took on the mantle of a holiday resort - one of the best-known bathing places in the country at that time.
Notable visitors to the area include one Mrs Hart, who later achieved notoriety as Nelson's mistress, Lady Hamilton. She had been born locally, in Ness (home of the famous Ness Gardens - the Kew Gardens of the North West of England). Evidently Mrs Hart returned to the area from London at the age of 21 in order bathe in the sea at Parkgate to ease a skin complaint. The artist J M Turner also visited, and it is rumoured that some of his sunset pictures were painted here, but sadly no proof exists.
Nicholls Ice Cream Parlour
The boom period for Parkgate as a resort and quay came to a fairly abrupt end in the early 19th century, when the continuous silting of the estuary made access too difficult for the ferries, which diverted their trade to Liverpool. The end was hastened by the creation in the 1730s of a canalised section of the Dee around Chester, to allow barge-access to the city. This scheme was great for the barges, but sadly also had the effect of diverting the course of the river to the Welsh side of the estuary, away from the Wirral. When you look out "to sea" from the Parade at Parkgate now, you generally see marshland. Miles of grass instead of sea and sand. When the tide does come up, it creeps slowly up to the sea-wall, and you can still see the tops of the grass waving in the wind above the water. However, about twice a year, when weather conditions are favourable (i.e. stormy!) the water has been known to lap over the wall, causing much excitement. On even rarer occasions, the waves have crashed over the wall, across the road and up to the doorsteps of the pubs and ice-cream parlours. Most local businesses proudly display black and white photos of such events. These pictures evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, a longing for how things must have been when the area was a booming seaport and resort.
I read in a book recently (author Jeffrey Pearson) that a Mrs Delaney of Dublin wrote a letter in 1754 in which she described Parkgate as "a most agreeable spot: such a constant moving picture of ships, sea plants on the beach, seaweed and beautiful shells." It's hard to believe that, now, when all you see is marsh, but if you close your eyes, you can imagine it.
So, what of the Parkgate that exists now? Well, as I said at the outset, it is remarkable for it's beautiful buildings and features. There are many of note, but I will select just a few to whet your appetite for a visit.
The most imposing building is the Mostyn House School, a private school owned by generations of the Grenfell family (yes, as in Joyce). Originally the site of the George Inn, whose landlord advertised in 1779 that his new bathing machine was fitted with a "modesty hood," in which "ladies may bathe with the utmost ease and secrecy." The building went through various incarnations of the hostelry variety before, in 1855; it became a school, under the auspices of one Edward Price, who transferred ownership to the Grenfells (close family of his) in 1862. The name Mostyn House was a nod to the family of the same name who at one time owned the entire village. In 1821, the last baronet, Sir Thomas Mostyn, reduced the rents of all his tenants by 25%, as he "considered them all of one family, and if they suffered, he suffered too." (Courtesy of Geoffrey Place, local historian).
At the Neston end of the Parade, by the Old Quay pub is a house called Nelson Cottage. Home, in the early 19th century, to Albin Burt, a Chester artist, whose 9 yr old son (also called Nelson) drowned after falling overboard from a paddle steamer between Liverpool and Chester during a storm. The grieving Mr Burt set his son's name in black pebbles in the earth outside the cottage. This has since been preserved in cement, and can still be seen today.
The sea wall itself was constructed (around 1810) mainly as a promenade for fashionable folk to stroll up and down between bathing, to show off their fancy clothes and pass the time of day with one another (you can just picture them, can't you!). One section of this promenade is wider than the rest, and is known as the Donkey Stand. In the 19th Century, children could ride donkeys from this spot, but originally it was the site of the only building ever to have stood on that side of the road. It housed seawater baths and was also the first Assembly House (not simultaneously!) Nowadays this is where my family and I sit and enjoy our ice-cream cones, purchased from Nicholls of Parkgate the famous home-made ice-cream shop.
The Red Lion pub is the oldest surviving public house in Parkgate. It is a very traditional, low-beamed-ceiling pub, with nooks and crannies to sit in, and until recently boasted a resident parrot.
Balcony House, dating from the late 18th century is recorded as having been the Billiard Room (gentlemen only) and latterly the Assembly Room (ladies were allowed entrance). There is an amusing story about one Mr George Harrison (no relation to the Liverpool lad) a lively character who was master of said Billiard Room. Apparently in 1801 he was reported to have "married Widow Grimes, head bathing woman to the ladies who frequent the place. He was a married man, a widower and a bridegroom within three weeks."
As I've said, Parkate boasts many lovely features, and the best way to appreciate them is to take a long, leisurely stroll along the Parade. Stop off for fresh prawns or cockles at one of the seafood shops on your way; maybe call in at the Marsh Cat for lunch (a renowned restaurant in the North-West, featured in many best restaurant guides), or perhaps you might fancy the newly refurbished Boat House (an excellent gastro-pub with fantastic views of the marsh). Or how about Mr Chow's? This is a fantastic Chinese restaurant that is housed in another olde-worlde building, and they host a great Chinese New Year banquet every year, with dancing dragons and fireworks (kids welcome!). Once you've enjoyed the fresh sea-air (yes, it does smell salty, even at low-low tide), you can stroll back towards your car, stopping off for one of those famous ice-creams and a quick rest at the Donkey Stand, before falling gratefully back into your car for your homeward trip.