A Very Liverpool Christmas

“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.

Frank McKenna

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.”

Theresa’s house

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.

Theresa’s house

“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

How Aigburth Cricket Club Beat The Odds For Another Five Years

It’s September 2021 and the sun is going down as the cricketers bring in the scoreboard. Joe McLarnon shakes his head when asked if there will be a big party to mark what could be Aigburth Cricket Club’s final match of its 133-year history. “A little get-together tonight. We’ll just be telling stories.”

Telling stories is arguably what sports clubs are best for and Aigburth CC has had plenty over the years. But it looks like the final chapters are being written. The club — which also hosts crown green bowls teams, darts, chess and bridge alongside art classes and a brass band — has not heard from its landlord, PR Investments, all year, beyond receiving a notice to vacate the premises by November 2021. Joe and Mark “Billo” Bagot — both playing today in the club’s first X1 — are not optimistic about the chances of an extension.

“It was only when I sat down today to think about it that I felt sad,” says Joe. “I’ve been here 13 years and I’ve never been in a school, a job, or a house for that amount of time. I’ve never been committed to something for so long — not sure my wife would like to hear that…”

Aigburth Cricket Club’s First XI following the final game of the 2021 season against Birkenhead St Mary’s.

Billo agrees, shaking his head. “We never actually thought it would come to this point.” Both seem resigned to their fate, but for Joe it’s not the cricketers who will feel the brunt of the club’s closure but the people for whom the club is a community asset.

“That’s who I feel sorry for,” he continues. “There are people down here five or six days a week. People who depend on the place, live by themselves, will be hurt the most. I’m like a pup compared to some of the people who come here and even I won’t know what to do with myself.”

Club secretary Peter Pearcey is more hopeful, but strikes a realistic tone. “At the moment we have to assume that November 21st is the last day. On the 22nd we could turn up here and find the gates padlocked, but I still think we’ve got a chance.”

Peter gestures around the cast of people who have turned up to what might be the last day’s play at Aigburth, faces from around Liverpool’s sports community who have played here over decades. Arthur Blayes is here, who played for Aigburth in the ‘50s. The cricket club itself has been going since 1888, with crown green bowls at the club since 1911.

Thoughts are turning to fond memories as members contemplate one final close of play at the ground, hemmed in by a train track, allotments and new housing, built on the site of the Liverpool Garden Festival in 1984.

“When I first joined there were no trees here,” recalls Peter. “There were massive oil tanks 30-40 feet high in the area between here and the river (the so-called Cast-Iron ‘Cazzy’ Shore of iron works, slag and shipwrecks, memorialised in The Beatles’ Glass Onion) — people used to try and hit them during a game. The sound of a cricket ball striking them was like a church bell ringing on a Sunday morning.”

Back then the pavilion was an old wooden hut, reputedly built as a snack bar for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. “That was the pavilion here for nearly 100 years,” chuckles Peter. “When we were raising money for the new pavilion we’d put a big marquee up full of beer and food. We had to do tours of duty all through the night, sleeping in the old pavilion, to ensure it wasn’t pinched!” He squints across the ground. The view stretches for miles down the river towards the city centre. “Can you imagine this view disappearing?” he says. “It would destroy me, to be honest.”

Sam Palmer has played cricket at ACC for three years. With son Asher sat in the crook of his arm, he reflects on the role beyond sport that such clubs offer the community. “South Liverpool has lots of nice bars but proper community-focused places seem to be disappearing. This is a place where people can come and do activities: cricket, bowls, bridge, darts — but not everyone socialises with alcohol. This is a place for all people and all ages. Yes it’s a cricket club, but it’s a lot more than that.”

Billy Pinto and John Stead will attest to that. The pair have been friends for the best part of 70 years and joined Aigburth 50 years ago, having met on the streets of Toxteth. They sit down with pints, facing the pitch, and commence a great old scouse tradition: reminiscing, joshing and teasing. They weave a tapestry of pubs, cricket, people and places — some long gone. Gary Ablett played at Aigburth; Ken Dodd was a frequent visitor (at his first turn he opened with the words “I’ve played in some places but never in a Wimpy hut”); Arthur Askey played tennis here.

John Stead and Billy Pinto.

Many of the stories Billy and Steady tell are frequently hilarious: often unrepeatable; possibly libellous. A story involving a toilet, built for the Wavertree Show, Princess Margaret and a French polisher will certainly never see the light of day in print.

“I heard him before I met him,” says Steady, of Billy. The pair are a garrulous, familiar and well-loved double-act on the south Liverpool circuit. “We were at school together,” adds Billy. “We’ve been together most of our lives. We’re still together.” “Two rag-arses” is how Steady describes the pair when they turned up. In their first game, back in the ‘70s, Steady put two car windscreens through with some big hitting. Billy courted his wife here.

Back in those days Aigburth was something of an upstart in the Liverpool cricket leagues, bringing in lads from the streets of nearby Toxteth. “Ours is a proper cricket club because it’s a working-class cricket club,” says Billy. “Kids came here because they couldn’t afford to go to big clubs.”

In the trophy room, Billy scans the old pictures, full of familiar faces, some no longer with us. Billy is distinguished among his peers by always appearing clean-shaven on the team photos. “That’s the celebration of us winning the cup. Happy days up there…”

We wander outside. The game has ended in defeat for Aigburth, but it seems like small beer, given the context. The greyish cloth strips on the sight screens have been taken down and the scoreboard packed away. There’s a good chance cricket will never be played here ever again.

Billy Pinto looks out at the pitch, populated now only by magpies.

“One for sorrow, two for joy…” he muses. “I’m gutted. I hope that it doesn’t go.”

‘It’s their way or the highway’

In late November Peter Pearcey is summoned to a meeting with the landlords. With days left on the remaining lease (the club had to go to court in 2015 to pursue an application for the grant of a new tenancy, which it received in late 2016) and against all hope, the club wins another five-year lease. When he later tells members that they’ve won another lease, the place erupts.

Peter reflects on what seems like an unlikely turnaround in fortunes: “Everyone was very despondent, very down: the cricket finished, we played the last few bowls matches, everybody felt it was going to be gone next year. On the 21st November we would have had to lock the gates.”

“Massive relief” is how Peter describes his feelings, but he’s mindful that the club may have to go through the same process again in five years’ time. “Hopefully, I won’t be dealing with it by then…” he chuckles.

Peter Pearcey guarding the gates of Aigburth Cricket Club.

The club’s players and members are grateful above all. And they’re not the only ones.

Green Party councillor Tom Crone, who represents St Michael’s, says Aigburth’s survival is great news for the community too. But he strikes a note of reality when it comes to the ground’s owners, the enigmatic PR Investments. The company also owns the Olive Mount “Manweb” playing fields in Wavertree, also seemingly stuck in limbo but known to be a target for development for successive owners (the Manweb Sports and Social Club burned down in 2014).

Crone says that while the lease extension is welcome, Aigburth needs a lasting result if its survival is to be guaranteed. “The lease extension was a relief,” he says, “but we still don’t have that long-term solution.” He likens the situation to a football manager taking a win but instantly moving on to planning for the next game. “PR Investments don’t really want to engage in a dialogue, so we are left hanging. There’s no negotiation, no discussion, no kind of flexibility about what the future might look like. It’s their way or the highway.”

Crone says PR Investments has a business model of acquiring land and increasing its value, often through development. Certainly the view of some at the club is that the company wants to sell the land for development, not aided by the fact that the 2014 notice to quit was so the landlord could demolish the pavilion. Aigburth CC has offered what it believes is a fair price for the ground, based on an independent valuation; PR Investments refused the offer. The change-of-use that would be required for the development of the land to proceed seems unlikely, but Liverpool City Council’s options for protecting the club are restricted. Club and landlord seem stuck with each — for now at least.

Another five years

It’s the first day of the 2022 season. For the cricketers, the moment is tinged with joy and disbelief. Joe McClarnon and Billo are donning whites once again. The latter, not renowned for his batting, sees his stumps cartwheeling upon the very first ball of the Aigburth innings. He doesn’t care. There’s cricket again in St Michael’s.

I ask Billo how he felt when he heard the news that the club had won another five- year lease: “Oh God, another five years playing cricket!” he replies, with a laugh. He’d planned to do an umpiring course and had resigned himself to the end of his weekly commute down from Anfield. But the game, the club, the camaraderie always pulls old players back in, just when they thought they were out.

While the Second XI folded last year, as players drifted away due to the likely closure, there is a healthy First XI — and the Second XI should make a comeback. Social membership is at 400. New players have turned up to play this year and a recent crowdfunder raised £5,000 to reinvest in the ground. There’s a real sense that the community has realised what an asset it has on its doorstep — and how close it came to losing it.

“The only way I thought we’d still be here playing cricket is if we were squatting!” Billo admits. But now the club is looking forward. “I’ve been coming down here for 25 years and I’m seeing more and more faces than I’ve ever seen before,” he says. “That’s really positive for the future of the club.”

• Written for the Liverpool Post. Click here to read the original: ‘The sound of a cricket ball striking them was like a church bell ringing on a Sunday morning’ copy