Legends and Literature

According to some, Wirral is the original Land Where the Bong Tree Grows. Edward Lear, who wrote The Owl and the Pussycat, the poem from which the phrase originates, was once employed as tutor to the children of the Earl of Stanley, from whose house in Knowsley Park the Wirral shore at Eastham is visible. Look at the illustrations to the poem, also by Lear, and you’ll find that the picture of the Land Where the Bong Tree Grows from which the Owl and the Pussycat set out, resembles it very closely.

 

That is a matter for conjecture; there is no concrete evidence to support the idea. However, it is more certain that Lewis Carroll found inspiration in Wirral. Son of a Cheshire parson, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, to give his real name, Oxford don, mathematician and pioneering photographer, is on record as visiting Brimstage. In his dairy, he commented on the Cheshire Cat that he saw in the vault beneath the old manor house – a carving on the wall in the form of a cat’s grinning head. Certainly the phrase “Cheshire cat” and its association with smiling, predates the publication of Alice In Wonderland by many years. Until its license was revoked by the then Lord Leverhulme, the village hall was a pub called the Red Cat, a common Cheshire pub name that is connected with the legend of the grinning Cheshire cat, which long predates Alice. One theory says that the Red Cat was the badge of the Barons of Halton, one of the noble families of medieval Cheshire. Originally intended to represent a red lion, the badge looked more like a grinning red cat; hence the popular pub name and hence the Cheshire cat. And it is said to be the Cheshire cat in Brimstage that inspired the cat appearing in the works of Lewis Carroll.

 

Another children’s writer – another Lewis, in fact – was Clive Staples (CS) Lewis. Also an Oxford don, he was a member of the famous writers’ group The Inklings which numbered JRR Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green among its members. The latter was lord of the manor at Poulton Lancelyn, and his widow June often regales people with tales of breakfast with Tolkien and Lewis, who were frequent visitors. 

Near the vault of the Lancelyn Greens in the churchyard at St Andrews, Bebington, a church about which entire cycles of legends revolve, there is an old-fashioned lamppost, very much like the lantern by which Lucy encounters the faun Mr. Tumnus, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Local legend has it that this lantern was Lewis’s inspiration.

 

The last literary legend connected with Wirral is that recorded by Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies and Hereward the Wake, in his poem Mary Call the Cattle Home. Kingsley, who was canon of Chester Cathedral, heard a ghost story about the girl who had drowned while calling home her cattle ands till haunts the ‘sands of Dee,’ It inspired him to write what must be his most famous poem:

 

Mary, go and call the cattle home,

And call the cattle home,

And call the cattle home,

Across the sands of Dee.

The western wind was wild and dark with foam,

And all alone went she.

 

The western tide crept up along the sand,

And o'er and o'er the sand,

And round and round the sand,

As far as the eye could see.

The rolling mist swept down, and hid the land,

And never home came she!

 

O is it weed, or fish, or floating hair?

A tress of golden hair,

A drowned maiden's hair,

Above the nets at sea;

Was never salmon yet that shone so fair

Among the stakes at Dee.

 

They rowed her in across the rolling foam,

The cruel crawling foam,

The cruel hungry foam,

To her grave beside the sea!

But still the boatmen hear her call her cattle home

Across the sands of Dee.

 

A warning to anyone who treats lightly the tides of the Dee estuary!

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