Overlooked by the government, Bootle retains its optimistic air
The town missed out on investment from the Levelling Up Fund, and has some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. But there is plenty of hope for the future
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By Joshi Herrmann
It’s grey and windy on Marsh Lane. This is the parish of St James, Bootle and the octagonal tower of the vast Gothic revival church looms over the neighbourhood from 120 feet.
On paper there are 500 members of this Catholic parish, but less than a tenth of them come to Mass most Sundays. The priest, Fr Brian McGraw of the Salesians of Don Bosco, comes from a sprawling Glasgow council estate that has many of the same issues as Bootle: low incomes, unemployment, problems with drugs. But he doesn’t want to talk to a journalist about it, lest he offend his parishioners.
This area used to be the scene of occasional sectarian violence. When the Orange Order marched down Marsh Lane, they would sometimes be pelted by bricks from the community’s mostly Catholic residents. The area was a “hotbed of tension on the Twelfth of July,” one historian notes.
In the Solly, a large pub on the crossing of Marsh Lane and Irlam Road, drinks offers are written on a William Hill betting slip, taped up behind the bar. Sambucas: 3 for £6. WKD: 2 for £5. Next to it is a placard of pub rules “for answering girlfriends/wife calls”. £1.50 for “He’s just left.” £7.50 for “He never comes in anymore.”
The music is loud, but sometimes the barmaid forgets to tee up the playlist and suddenly it’s very quiet, and you can hear the fridge whirring and the soft clinks coming from behind me, where a white-haired man is sitting at a table by the window, counting coins into his pocket and then taking them out again. He’s one of five drinkers in the pub.
A stocky man with cropped grey hair and a slightly wandering left eye calls out to me.
“Have you been waiting for Billy to come in?”
I say I'm not waiting for him.
‘A lot of very nice people’
The 25-minute stroll from the Bootle docks to the New Strand Shopping Centre takes you through one of the poorest communities in Britain. Five of the most deprived 250 neighbourhood units in the country, as defined by government statisticians, are packed in this neck of town abutting the Mersey, all easily visible to a bird sitting on the renovated tower of St James. One of them, an area next to the Solly, is the 55th most deprived.
“Bootle has a lot of very nice people but a lot of them struggle,” says a resident who lives near the church. Lockdown has made it even harder to survive and there are families unable to feed their kids and pay for heating, she says. When it comes to joblessness, she’s not sympathetic. “They don’t have enough ambition. They get too used to taking the easy way out.”
Last month, the town missed out on millions of pounds of funding from the government’s Levelling Up Fund, prompting fury from the leader of Sefton Council, who said he couldn’t fathom the decision. He said he hoped the government would take note of the situation facing families here. For now, Bootle is facing adversity on its own.
Most of the jobs here used to involve working on the docks or going away to sea. “Families, like my own, would experience months and months without fathers or husbands being present,” says the poet Brian Wake, who grew up here from the 1950s and 1960s. “Extended families would help each other where they could by providing childcare while mothers ‘went out to work’ to supplement the ‘allotments’ paid to the families by seafaring fathers.”
When Wake was growing up, Bootle was still recovering from devastating wartime damage. “Terraced streets still contained gaps where houses had been destroyed by German bombs,” he says. “Waste lands were everywhere and many of the people of Bootle had been allocated temporary accommodation after losing their homes. Prefabricated buildings were scattered right across the area and many became the permanent residencies of families right up until the 1960s.”
Despite the damage, Bootle kept hold of a sense of optimism. There were tennis courts in its three Victorian parks and bowling greens and bandstands and a swan-filled lake in Derby Park. The town had several cinemas, a theatre, two grammar schools, an imposing town hall and dozens of busy pubs and churches.
The asbestos prefabs have now gone and the docks operate with containers, with much less need of the dockers who used to drink in the Solly and elsewhere on Marsh Lane. These establishments are the last remnants of the Bootle Wake grew up in. “The sing-song pubs are closing by the hour,” he says.
Inside the tool shed
Eddy Flynn welcomes me to his Bootle Tool Shed, an innovative charity aiming to tackle social isolation, based in the lower floor of the Strand Shopping Centre. Milling around him are other middle aged men, making wooden flower planters, bird houses and garden furniture at workbenches. Some of those products are made to order, and others are sold in the little shop area out front, to fund the charity’s costs.
Researchers who have studied social isolation have identified the need for social groups to be created around common interests, and that’s the thinking here. “It’s being in a room full of like-minded people,” says Flynn. He used to be a landscape gardener (among other things), but now he runs this charity as a volunteer.
A lot of the men who work in the tool shed have said that if they didn’t come here, they would only see the postman. One of the men lost his wife a couple of years ago and used to spend hours every day at the cemetery. Now he’s found a new life here, spending large chunks of his time at the workbench. There are a handful of women members, but most of the regulars are men. At lunchtime, they sit and eat together at a long table in the break room.
Flynn’s parents grew up down by the docks, near the Solly, and he’s eyeing up an area right behind the pub for his next tool shed. He wants to create a social café there, where people can come in and help prepare food and drinks, as well as joining the workshop.
In the tool shed, the social problems of Bootle are chipped away at like a length of pine on a workbench, and Flynn names half a dozen other community projects that are trying to push the town forward. “The people are unbelievable, they really are,” he says about his fellow residents. “Bootle does get slated a lot throughout the country,” he adds with regret. “They focus on crime rates and horrible things that have happened in this centre.”
It was from the Strand that the toddler James Bulger was kidnapped by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in February 1993. The grainy shot of the 10-year-olds leading away their victim, caught on the shopping centre’s CCTV, was one of the most recognisable images of 1990s Britain, reproduced endlessly in the media as the case came to trial. Bulger had been brought to the Strand that afternoon by his mother Denise, who lost sight of him while shopping at A. R. Tym’s butcher’s shop on the lower floor.
Nowadays the centre mostly plays host to chains like New Look, Boots, Carphone Warehouse, Greggs, Iceland and JD Sports. It also features three bookies, branches of Admiral Casino and Cash Generator and a series of budget shops. Around 100,000 people come here to shop every month.
When it opened in 1968, the Strand was a massive signal of modernity and optimism in the town, and the Echo reported that it would help to transform Bootle into "one of the most dynamic areas of the North West". When Sefton Council bought it in 2017 after decades of decline, the shopping centre was once-again the repository of municipal hope, marking “a new era” for Bootle. Then the pandemic hit, and now the Strand is forecast to lose £3.6 million over the next three years.
“It’s most definitely not a market,” says Chris Lewis as he shows me around the Big Onion project on the Strand’s ground floor. “It’s a mall within a mall.” To Lewis, the word market connotes old-fashioned small-town commerce, whereas the aim of this 19-trader space (which he oversees for the Merseyside Expanding Horizons non-profit) is to be “boutique-ey”. In one of the mini retail units, Abbey Ready, 19, is selling witch-themed gifts. She’s a photography student in Bootle and hopes that she can establish her shop Pickity Witch here and then get a full-sized space elsewhere. Nearby a man called Martin is snipping someone’s hair in a tiny barber shop, right next to a stall selling coffees.
“What I’m trying to do is redefine the high street,” says Lewis, a lifetime management consultant who has a missionary zeal for helping small businesses in towns like Bootle. There’s only so much the public sector can do, he says, and his priority is tackling Merseyside’s unusually low “business density” (jargon for how many firms we have per head). He wants in-person shopping to be recognised for what it is: a social activity and a trip on which people can have a coffee, access community services and support their local economy rather than the giant retail companies that dominate online.
Independent businesses have been priced out of the high street by having to sign long and expensive leases, whereas in the Big Onion they can pay as little as £49 a week with a 28-day break clause – and get help with the things that often confuse new business owners, like business planning, marketing and tax. There are plans for five more of these “malls within a mall” across the city region.
Another surprising new tenant at the Strand is the theatre company Teatro Pomodoro, who are about to open a site-specific performance piece here. “You hear all these antiquated rumours about it being a bad area,” says Pomodoro’s Duncan Cameron, a thirtysomething actor from Canada who moved to Bootle with his Spanish wife Carmen in January, having lived in Liverpool for six years. “But once we started checking out, we realised there are a lot of artist communities moving up to Bootle.”
The trend he describes is interesting – the arts scene moving out of Liverpool in order to find cheaper spaces to rehearse and perform. “The centre of Liverpool is getting pretty pricy,” says Cameron, “and a lot of the grassroots people are moving north.” He cites the Kazimier moving to the North Docks, which has been populated by a string of arts organisations, while others are looking for new premises in Bootle. “There's a lot of opportunity for creativity and culture in Bootle,” he says. “There are a lot of empty spaces.”
Cameron’s Teatro Pomodoro has just unveiled a new show: Peep Show: Battle Royale. The show will take the form of a fictional reality TV game show, in which the fate of the contestants lies with a live audience whose votes can influence the outcome of the game. The show is described as “darkly comedic” and says the audience will sit behind windows looking in on a “twisted new world.”
The fate of Bootle is similarly undetermined — the subject of a tug-of-war between the weight of the past and the vigorous, energetic local people working for something better. There is no audience — the government isn’t funding regeneration in this town, and few outside its boundaries care which way things will end.
“Respice, Aspice, Prospice” is the town motto that used to be etched into municipal buildings and school uniforms here — “look to the past, the present, the future”. The Big Onion and the Bootle Tool Shed bustle in stark contrast to the quiet of the Solly and its surrounding streets. Huge advances will be required to pull these neighbourhoods out of the deprivation that has built up over decades. And yet, despite its struggles, Bootle retains what Brian Wake described from his childhood as “an optimistic air”. Which means that it’s a story well worth watching.