The first story in The Children’s Own Wonder Book 1947, a fairy tale, turns out to be set in Parkgate, on the Wirral. It’s called The Price of Shrimps, and was written by Olive Dehn.
It was the illustrations that caught my eye. I knew nothing about Olive Dehn, until I Googled her, but I had visited Parkgate.
Some years ago, Ruth, Rachel, my dog Zoe, and I, shared a house near Lark Lane in Liverpool. Zoe, possibly the most anthropomorphic dog I’ve ever met, swopped from country-life to city-living seamlessly, but we humans were prone to cravings for more open landscapes. We wandered in and out of the city, between essays and classes.
I don’t think we’d have found Parkgate on our own. It was the culmination of a mystery trip organised by Ray, who designating himself as our native guide, took us to a range of intriguing locations.
Mostly, probably because it was term-time, our destinations were wind-swept, and deserted. That afternoon, as we drove along the marshland road the wind seemed to drop and the sky cleared. By the time we arrived, Parkgate was bathed in balmy sunshine.
What I remember is an impression of improbability. One side of ‘The Parade’ was a row of traditional Georgian houses, all immaculately coated in pastel paint. The tall, narrow buildings belonged in a harbour scene, but instead of facing yachts at anchor, and beached skiffs, the opposite curb of the road held back acres and acres of marsh. Shimmering grasses seemed to stretch to the Welsh coast, just visible through the haze.
We bought ice-creams, and tramped footpaths leading into the sea of greenery. There was a time-slip quality to the juxtaposition of that silted-up estuary with the neatly maintained street. It seemed that someone had transposed two opposing scenes on top of each other.
Dehn’s story, set ‘long, long ago, when Birkenhead was a cottage and Liverpool conisisted of two shops and a church…‘ and ships docked at Parkgate, conjures a picture of a busy port, visited by such famous luminaries as Jonathon Swift, and his friends Mr Addison and Mr Steele.
Those were the days when the coaches rattled through Parkgate at nine miles an hour, and smugglers met on moonless nights in the cellars of the Boathouse Inn.
From 1610 to the 1830s, Parkgate was the place to catch the ferry for Ireland. It was a town, with a sea-wall, fashionable shops, and lots of visitors.
At some point (in the 1720s probably), seven year-old Rebecca Mapletop, the seventh child of a fisherman, runs across the sands looking for cockles, and gets caught by the Witch of the West. She’s held captive for seven years, looking after the Witch in her cave at the bottom of the River Dee estuary.
When Rebecca outgrows her clothes, the Witch allows her a visit home, to borrow some new ones.
“You may go, but for one day only. I shall be on the quayside at twelve o’clock tonight. I shall call you as the clock strikes midnight, and if you do not answer” -the Witch’s voice took on a blood-curdling note – “WOE BETIDE YOU.”
“And if anything should happen to you – if you should forget to call me, what then?” asked Rebecca.
“Forget!” said the Witch. “ME? Don’t be impertinent. Well, if I did forget, you would be free. the spell would be broken, that goes without saying. But it is a foolish question,” said the Witch of the West, “because I never forget – NEVER!”
The unhappy girl is saved from return through a clever intervention by Dr Swift and his two friends, but when the Witch realises how she’s been tricked, she is maddened with rage.
…she jumped astride her broomstick of shrimps’ whiskers and shrieked and howled and yelled and screamed up and down the sands of Dee for seven days and seven nights like one possessed…she brewed and baked such storms in her cauldron that the meadows were flooded from Chester to Hoylake, and when at last her fury had abated, it was found that the Dee had silted up and it was no longer possible for ships going to and from Ireland to dock at Neston and Dawpool, at West Kirby and Parkgate.
Those days in Liverpool were long enough ago for me not to remember how many times we visited the silted harbour. Probably not many. What mattered, was that feeling of crossing a boundary, which happened each time we turned onto The Parade. Maybe it was a feeling that belonged to that period of my life. I hadn’t forgotten the place, but it took Dehn’s story to transport me back to that feeling again.
Fiction, it’s just magic.
Illustrations by Trefor Jones.