At night, the industrial sprawl of Ellesmere Port on the Wirral Peninsula seems both glamorous and demonic. Lights in impossible numbers glitter like some sci-fi city, at once focusing and disorientating. Smoke pours out of funnels and factory chimneys spout eternal flames. "Home of the Astra," shrieks a neon sign, as light catches the masts of ships moored at the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum and nameless hoots and shunting sounds carry through the car windows.
This makes it all the more confusing to wake up the next day and find yourself in the cheery toytown surroundings of nearby Port Sunlight, where bricks and flagstones, leaded lights and porthole windows present a clean, scrubbed face to the world. It may be just five miles away as the crow flies, but it feels like a different planet. Port Sunlight is the village built by Lord Leverhulme in 1888 to house workers from his soap factory. It was, as its breezy, optimistic name implies, considered to be a model village built by a model employer, and today it occupies the middle ground between living community and museum.
There is usually a show home on display somewhere in the village. When I last went it was in Greendale Road, where Judith Smith - representing the local estate agents - was doing her knitting and showing people around. "Actually it was sold last week," she said. "They'll have to find me another one now." She was brought up "on the village", in the days when everybody knew everybody because they all worked for Lever Brothers. Her father was one of the company firemen. "The village police - they were paid by Levers - were two retired firemen, Mr Ryan and Mr Green. We were petrified of them. Kids these days aren't scared of real policemen, let alone pensioners dressed up as policemen."
That explains some of the attraction of Port Sunlight, both to tourists and to prospective buyers (the first houses went on sale to non-Levers employees in 1979). It creates a convincing illusion of safer, more certain days. It still looks like the sort of place where children can run around safely and where nothing stays secret for long. If your front door warps or a road sign is broken, you still ring Levers' managing agents to come and sort it out. Until very recently crime in Port Sunlight was someone vandalising your roses, or letting your tyres down, and "Sunlighters" (the villagers) were happy to keep it that way.
In the Heritage Centre, among reproductions of the famous Pears posters and a stern advertisement reading "Why Does A Woman Look Old Sooner Than A Man" (I never did find out), there were village trail leaflets for doing your own guided walk. I set off through strangely car-free streets - the service alleys behind the houses are wide enough for cars to be tucked out of sight - through a sampler of suburban architecture. The 30 architects employed by Leverhulme to realise his dream had a go at everything: Tudor beams, pargetted gables, walls of brick, plaster and pebble dash. Every street has a different look and some of the details - bowed front doors, for example, or quaintly shaped windows - are fiendishly difficult to maintain.
Strolling past the Gladstone Theatre (formerly the men's dining room) and Hulme Hall (formerly the women's dining room - and later venue for Ringo's first ever appearance with The Beatles), I found myself unable to believe how life has changed. Was it truly less than a century ago that the male and female soap workers went to work five minutes apart, so they couldn't fraternise on the way, and that girls under 16 actually had their partners for the annual dance chosen by the village committee? Could it really be such a short time since Lord Leverhulme's insistence on indoor bathrooms, front lawns and allotments for every house were seen as radical town planning?
There were also leisure facilities for the 900 or so workers that lived here. There were bowling greens and gardens, an open-air swimming pool, a landscaped dell for picnics. Port Sunlight even likes to say that it has its own Taj Mahal, in the form of Lady Lever's Art Gallery, built in memory of Leverhulme's much-loved wife. It stands at the end of a long vista of lawns and roses and houses an eclectic collection of paintings and decorative arts (not to mention a very good restaurant), including the nostalgic Victorian pictures which were used to such effect in Lever Brothers' advertising.
When King George V and Queen Mary laid the foundation stone in 1914 (they did it by remote control, and a light came on saying "STONE WELL AND TRULY LAID") they stunned the crowd by passing through the barriers. "We have come to look at your cottage!" said the King, to the owner of No 20, Bolton Road. "Welcome, Your Majesty!" said the stunned inhabitant. There is a plaque there to prove it.
Things have changed a lot since Leverhulme's death. Village houses sell on the open market for up to pounds 80,000 a throw. Young Sunlighters escape manicured lawns and head for naughtier suburbs like Bromborough and the Croft Retail Park, with its multiplex cinema, bowling alleys and nightclubs. After a day in the land of the Women's Helpful League and the Boys' Brigade, of 27,000 trees and 10,000 rose bushes and row after row of perfect houses, I felt rather like being naughty myself. Then I remembered Mr Green and Mr Ryan, and thought better of it.
For more information about Port Sunlight, contact the Heritage Centre, 95 Greendale Road, Port Sunlight, Wirral, Merseyside L62 4XE (0151 644 6466). Opening hours: 10 am-4 pm in winter, weekdays only, and at weekends as well from April to October.
The Bridge Inn Hotel (0151 645 8441) is the only B&B in Port Sunlight. Midweek, rooms cost pounds 57.50 for a double and between pounds 27.50 and pounds 42.50 for a single. On Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights, a double is pounds 46 and a single pounds 27.50.
Lady Lever's Art Gallery (0151 478 4136) has been recently refurbished. Entry costs pounds 3 for an adult, pounds 1.50 for concessions, and includes entry to other Merseyside galleries for 12 months.Reuse content