LUNCH WITH A COLLEAGUE the other day led to happy conversation about our origins. He hailed from Devizes in Wiltshire, a county very dear to my own heart. And I from Claughton, Birkenhead (named after the birch forest on the headland – once a favourite hunting ground of English kings) on the Wirral Peninsula. I don’t have opportunity to go back there much these days but it’s always good to reminisce.
I remember cherry blossom and the scent of apple orchards in and around my childhood home. My parents’ house backed on to the apple orchard of the Northern Baptist Bible College (just down the road from St Aidan’s Anglican Theological College) and on summer nights I drifted off to sleep to the echoes of mighty preachers holding forth in the Missionary Convention Tent set up annually on the college lawns. The great hymn Will your anchor hold in the storms of life? was etched early upon a small boy’s memory and imagination. I wasn’t altogether sure mine would.
And St Andrew’s Road was home to no fewer than six clergy houses, of various denominations. It was an easy walk to any one of a dozen or more churches and I was an enthusiastic and eclectically interested regular visitor to most. The dear priest at St Werbergh’s, Grange Road, was one Fr John Lennon. “Lovely to see you here: but don’t forget now to go to your own Church as well, will ye?” School, too, was nearby and I’m still in touch with one or two who were my closest allies (one in Winchester, another in Plymouth), and grateful for what I think of as one of the finest Church (of England) Youth Fellowship Groups anyone could wish for. Though my Dad was one of the local policemen, and I was frequently asked whether I intended to “follow in his footsteps”, it was always the case, from the age of 8, that I yearned and hoped for the day to dawn when I’d be ordained a priest. Christian ministry of one kind or another was almost bound to be one of the options to be considered given the decidedly ecclesiastical surroundings in which I spent carefree boyhood days.
Perhaps when time allows, some day, I’ll write more of Wirral days. It’s only necessary for me to close my eyes to hear the doleful sound of fog horns in what was then the still very busy River Mersey. And I can smell the scent of strong coffee and cigarette smoke wafting about the decks of the Mersey Ferries. A tuppeny return North Circle bus ride got me and my pals down to Woodside Ferry Terminal from where, in our heads and hearts the ferries would transport us to India, China, the Americas, and the Isle of Man (!) – though, in unimaginative truth, they actually only went as far as New Brighton sands, or Liverpool!
Then, miraculously quickly given that we’d just sailed by Mersey ferry from Calcutta, home for sausages from Charles Dashley’s, and chips and beans. And my mother’s rhubarb pie. Rob McLaren and I must have lunch again soon. I’d be fascinated to know whether our time together set him thinking any more about similarly happy days in Devizes …