After starting the day with a brisk walk along the seafront at Hoylake, we popped back into the car and headed to Ness Botanic Gardens located in Neston, Cheshire. The gardens are open daily from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. with standard admission £8.25
The gardens were founded in 1898 by Arthur Kilpin Bulley, a Liverpool cotton merchant with a passion for plants. In 1948, six years after his death his daughter gave the gardens to the University of Liverpool on condition they be kept open to the public as Botanic Gardens.
Entrance is through a large modern visitor centre with a gift shop, cafe and garden centre. After picking up a map we followed winding paths through the beautifully tendered gardens. Our visit was in August when the herbaceous borders were awash with colour, with clear labelling on many of the plants aiding identification.
The gardens are planted to provide interest at all times of the year from magnificent snowdrop displays in February through to azaleas and rhododendrons as the year progresses. Ness Gardens cover 64 acres and are home to more than 15,000 plants, many collected on expeditions to the Far East sponsored by its founder.
The Victorian potager garden looked delightful with its colourful array of flowers, fruit and vegetables. Produce from this plot is used in the Ness Botanic Kitchen Cafe, ideal for their homemade soups and desserts.
I liked the idea of the brightly coloured deckchairs scattered around the gardens and the large number of wooden benches to rest and take in the wonderful views over the Dee estuary towards North Wales.
The gardens are family oriented having a large adventure playground for young children and with plenty of room to run around and play, would make an ideal outing for a picnic. The wildflower meadows were also ablaze with colour and it was good to see so many bees and different varieties of butterflies there. I tried in vain to take a photo of the butterflies but, even with my camera on burst mode they were too quick at closing their wings before I could press the shutter.
Before leaving, we looked at some of the plants for sale and were surprised on returning to the car to find its large car park almost full. It was obviously a good idea to arrive shortly after opening time on such a sunny summer’s day, so this may be worth bearing in mind when planning a visit.
Our next stop was Port Sunlight, a place I’ve long wished to visit. The historic village is approached either from Liverpool via the Queensway Tunnel or from elsewhere by leaving the M53 at Junction 4. There is ample free parking available outside the Lady Lever Art Gallery which is clearly signposted.
The village was founded in 1888 by William Hesketh Lever famous for his Sunlight Soap, to house his factory workers in a 56 acre parkland setting. Port Sunlight contains more than 900 listed buildings which have now been preserved for future generations to enjoy as it is the finest surviving example of early urban planning in the U.K.
There’s a fascinating museum, renowned art gallery, village hall, church and beautifully manicured gardens to explore. Visitors are welcome to wander around the village and viewing the art gallery is free of charge. However, to make the most of a visit to Port Sunlight I suggest purchasing the Experience ticket (standard adult £8) as this allows entry to the museum, worker’s cottage and the new soap works exhibit.
Tickets can be purchased in the museum foyer so we decided to visit there first. An optional 25 minute film was just about to start so we settled ourselves down to learn about Lord Lever, the Port Sunlight village and his soap empire which has since become the multi-national Unilever business. The film takes visitors on a journey of some of the actual people who lived at Port Sunlight from the young teenager working in the packing area to the elderly man tending the allotments.
Looking around the museum, it celebrates the unique heritage of this magnificent, historic village with galleries covering its people, architecture, parks and gardens from its early beginnings to life in the village today.
As both an entrepreneur and philanthropist Lord Lever realised the economic benefits of investing in his workers’ well-being and for them to live in a healthy environment. To this end, he provided good quality housing, schools, and a cottage hospital. He also planned open spaces to encourage his workers to participate in sports and instigated recreational clubs for them to join. In terms of design, he did not wish the village to be of a uniform design so employed over 30 different architects to work on the project.
A separate house was built for each family with a parlour (living room), bedrooms and kitchen. The homes were innovative for their time as they had inside WC’s and bathrooms which most of the working class did not yet have access to, offering a high standard of comfort.
The Port Sunlight Village Trust took over the running of the village in April 1999 and it is now independent of Unilever with the original village, gardens and buildings remaining the same.
We learnt how Lord Lever made his fortune selling individually wrapped bars of soap and of the lives and leisure interests of his workers. There’s lots of nostalgia from vintage soap packaging to the story of Ringo Starr’s first performance with The Beatles, which took place in Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight in 1962.
On leaving the museum we headed next door to step inside a worker’s cottage and experience life in Port Sunlight in Edwardian times. The recreated home was formerly home to the Carr family who were long time tenants. The cottage was furnished as it would have been in the early 1900’s and must have been very comfortable to return home to after a day in the nearby soap works. The factory is still there today producing liquid soap, shampoo and conditioner for Unilever.
From there, we explored the village on foot, marvelling at the mix of architecture and the well tended gardens. Our stroll took us alongside the village bowling green, then onto the village church, where in the churchyard we viewed the elaborate black marble tombs of Lord and Lady Lever who died in 1925 and 1913 respectively.
Our Experience ticket permitted access to the new Soap Works exhibition in the old school room. Here, we were able to see some of the processes that went into the making of Sunlight soap and by using interactive devices we could find out what Unilever produce today. The Soap Works is aimed at school children but of interest to adults as well.
We then wandered around the village and through the central gardens to the Lady Lever Art Gallery near where we had parked the car. The gallery (admission free) is a real treasure trove with its collection of paintings, Chinese ceramics, tapestries and sculpture. Paintings on display include works by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Stubbs, and Turner to name but a few.
The building is an artwork in itself with its twin rotundas, Gothic pillars and elegant galleried landings. Lord and Lady Lever’s vast collection is remarkable and shouldn’t be missed.
This concluded our visit to Port Sunlight with its beautiful model village and fascinating museum. My visit had been a long time coming, but the wait was certainly worthwhile as, along with our visit to the Ness Botanic Garden it had been a day to remember. Do try and visit if you are visiting Cheshire or Liverpool.
Our short break was supported by Visit Wirral and its varied attractions.
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