“Come on Nicole, we’re all waiting for you.”
Nicole runs along Peasefield Road to join her classmates from Dovecot Primary School to perform an enthusiastic rendition of Silent Night and a few other Christmas favourites.
It’s 20th December, just before the Winter Solstice, and by 4pm the night is setting in; clouds scudding overhead look heavy with snow and cold stings the face. But the watching group — dads making their way home from work in hi-vis and knapsacks, mums corralling groups of kids that may or may not be their own and dogs yelping excitedly at the end of leads — give hearty applause and join in with abandon when Slade’s annual banker gets another run-out. “It’s Christ-maaaaaas!” yells one of the mums, in a surprisingly, even startlingly good impression of Noddy Holder.
Everyone is gathered outside the house of Frank McKenna who, along with Theresa Nuttie, has organised the carol service as part of the Peasefield Lights, a festive tradition that sees virtually all the houses on the east Liverpool street decked out with inflatables, Christmas scenes and fairy lights. Some 50,000 of them line the road, connecting houses adjacent and opposite one another. Move up the street and there’s something else to see in every front garden. Hi-tech and homemade sit side- by-side: there’s a rocking horse; here’s a rear-projected Santa; further along, a wreath made of disposable plastic cups.
Conceived during lockdown in 2020, Peasefield Road has been labelled Liverpool’s most festive street. The national press came to Dovecot — a ‘new-age village’ when built in the ‘20s and ‘30s — last year along with thousands of visitors keen to partake in socially-distanced lockdown festivities. £8,500 was raised for charity. But Frank and Theresa (along with neighbours Wayne and Helen) weren’t stopping there. 2021 has seen taxi driver Frank and retiree Theresa expand the scale and scope of the attraction, with the carol concert just one example.
“They got me at Silent Night,” admits Theresa, who has lived on Peasefield Road since 1977. Frank concurs as we chat inside Theresa’s cosy house. The pair have lived opposite one another for 20 years and began stringing fairy lights across the road at Christmas a few years back.
But in the depths of the first lockdown, Theresa had an idea: what if the street had a big bingo bash? Frank could be the caller, they could win prizes — and all in the fresh air. Then at Christmas, Theresa had another brainwave. What if the pair of them did Christmas lights for the neighbours?
Theresa Nuttie at the lights.
“The first week we did about five houses,” says Frank. “Within six weeks we’d done 45.” Neither could believe the response. The streets were log jammed with cars, packed with families who’d travelled for miles to see the lights. And then Peasefield Lights went global.
“We had messages from Canada, Australia, Spain, China, New Zealand, America,” Frank continues. “People came from Blackpool — Blackpool! — to see the lights. That’s the seal of approval isn’t it? They said they’d never seen anything like it.” The impact of Covid and lockdown meant the lights were a glimpse of normality in a world where social gatherings were banned — for some it was overwhelming: “We’ve had grown men in tears,” says Frank.
But what the festivities have done for the local community is just as important. “Before the lockdown, before our lights, I didn’t know anybody at the top of our street,” admits Frank, a dad-of-three and a grandad. Arguably he performs the same function to most of the street. “Now it’s such a community. Within 12 months, it’s like when we were kids. We all know each other’s names, what jobs we do.”
People who were born on Peasefield Road in the 1930s have come back and told residents about the area’s civic spirit. “They said even then there was something amazing here,” says Frank. “So we’re just carrying that one and trying to bring the community back a little bit.”
Theresa says the lights have brought back something of the road she knew when she came here with her family, 44 years ago. “When I moved here we’d only know the people around us. We all stuck together down this half and we were close when our kids were growing up. But slowly people moved away and I was left the only one still living here.”
It could have been a lonely time for Theresa, who lost her husband Alan eight years ago. But the new neighbours brought more friends and the advent of the Peasefield Lights seems like a new lease of life for her. “I love this,” she says. “I’m Mrs Christmas.”
Frank beams: “She’s a 70-year-old woman who does five hours a night, seven days a week!” but Theresa waves it away. “We’re just a couple of people from a local street.”
That might be true, but the pair — along with Wayne and Helen Murray and the residents of Peasefield Road — have raised thousands in donations for nearby baby hospice Zoe’s Place this year and last. It’s inspired all concerned to try for bigger and better things in years to come.
“We’ve worked through the snow, the rain and the wind,” says Frank, who strings the lights across the road. He says the work is hard (“really hard,” in fact) but adds that handing over the cash to Zoe’s Place makes it all worthwhile. “When we took the money in they had a few residents there, they clapped and sang Christmas songs… ah, mate, I’ve never cried like that before.”
Frank looks close to welling up again. “We’ve got the bug now, me and Theresa, to give something back to the community. I want to do it for 25 years — until I retire.”
Frank is eager to point out that he couldn’t do it on his own — neighbours Wayne and Helen have helped enormously too. As Wayne is posing for photographs beside an inflatable Raymond Briggs Snowman, Frank can’t resist a wisecrack: “How will you tell which is which?”
Wayne, who runs the Peasefield Lights Facebook page, lives a couple of doors down from Frank. He and wife Helen start work on tying the lights to ropes in September to prepare for Christmas, but acknowledges that it’s Frank who does the leg work. “I think he’s a bit of a local legend now. People come up to him now and say ‘are you that Frank McKenna?’”
Like Frank, Wayne has a busy job. He’s a team leader in a supermarket and days can be tiring. When there are several hours on the street with donation buckets to factor in, the winter days and nights are long, but camaraderie and team spirit go a long way. Sometimes the neighbours dress up; it helps the time pass more swiftly. Wayne is The Grinch; Frank, inevitably, is Santa.
Wayne outside his house
Wayne laughs: “He didn’t want to do it at first, but we made him!”
Wayne and Helen’s display is one of the biggest and brightest. He admits there’s a friendly rivalry between neighbours, but he’s philosophical about the attraction of the lights — and what it has done for the neighbourhood. “During hard times it was a bit of festive cheer for people. We’re much closer now. I’m not the most sociable of people but I’ve made friends for life up and down here now. I’ve heard stories about when my Mam and Dad were growing up, how neighbourhoods were so close to one another. So this is our little way of bringing our neighbours together.”
Frank concurs. “I think Covid has brought a lot of people and communities together. Before the pandemic I don’t think you would have had people checking on neighbours, asking if they needed any shopping. Now everyone’s looking out for one another.”
I walk down Peasefield Road later, taking in the displays. QR codes for contributing to the Zoe’s Place funds are strung to most fences and here and there are residents with buckets, braving the cold. Every minute or so a car crawls by, packed with families marvelling at the attractions: “Hello, Santa!” comes the cry of a young child from one, passing a large inflatable Father Christmas.
Mandy and Cath have brought the former’s grandchildren. They’ve come from Runcorn — a good 30 minutes drive in rush hour — to see the handiwork of Frank, Theresa, Wayne, Helen and the others. “The kids love it,” enthuses Mandy. “The lights are amazing.”
But it isn’t just about the lights, impressive as they are. They’re also the vehicle for a community that has rediscovered itself. Frank and Theresa have fostered a group of people who have become much more than people who happen to live next door to one another, reestablishing a bond in their neighbourhood with a sense of style and solidarity, pitched somewhere between a socialist parable, West End musical and episode of Brookie. It’s a very Liverpool Christmas.
So where next?
“Someone asked us if you could see our lights from space,” says Wayne with a grin, “so that’s the challenge now!”
• Originally written for the Liverpool Post – click here for the original: A very Liverpool Christmas – by Robin Brown – The Post