I loved painting the fields of Irby. They are old fields, and I have a deep attachment to them. They have names like Meckansedge and Old Smores. They are the space between my home village of Greasby, and the village where my grandmother lived in a road called Heathbank Avenue, on the edge of the heath. One of my earliest memories is jumping off the Crosville bus on Mill Lane and breaking from my mother, I ran into the wheat with a boy from the playgroup called Mathew Whitham… it was 1986. These were the same fields in which I cut my teeth as a painter.
These are the fields that lie on the edge of suburban Irby, to the north of the current centre of the village. They sit between two ancient highways and are spilt down the middle by Mill Lane – Sandy Lane is to the west and Limbo Lane to the east. Limbo Lane is supposed to be part of the Roman road linking Chester with the then sea port at Meols. Sandy Lane is even older, linking the farming communities of Thurstaston with Greasby.
It was here in the 1980s that a series of suburban gardens to the west of Mill Lane became the focus of a study which revealed them to be an archaeological site with a long history of human settlement.
In the early 1980s curators at Liverpool Museum were shown a near complete Roman pot which had been discovered in said garden during a ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign during the second world war and been kept in a powdered milk tin for the past 40 years. Whilst I was hoping on and off of buses and gleefully running through the summer wheat on one side of the road, on the other side a site was dug out by archaeologists from National Galleries & Museums on Merseyside and between 1987 and 1996 they found evidence of a long sequence of occupation from Mesolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Romano-British, early medieval and later medieval periods.
Irby had previously produced evidence of Romano-British activity after broaches and coins had been found in the area and in neighbouring villages. More Roman shards had been discovered in the same field to the north of the excavated site in November 1988 and a group of about 10 4th-century Roman coins were found buried together in the field boundary sometime later.
This is to the west of the site in the same field, known as Smoores. Sandy Lane, the old road from Thurstaston to Greasby sits behind the trees here. This was a glorious day, 23rd July 2010. I painted two oil sketches, this being the second, before retiring to the Irby Mill pub for a well-earned pint.
No Irby Mill in those days, but the site lies near the top of one of several sandstone ridges that cut along the Wirral Peninsular and on the slopes of the ridge the soil drains well and would have been easy to cultivate as well as to erect building structures in. The chance to exploit the local sandstone and other minerals would also have been a factor in the choice of location and may be one reason for the longevity of the occupation.
Time and time again…
Most of these paintings were done on a piece of the heath that sits alongside Limbo Lane to the east of the site. The field seemed to have been neglected and being uncultivated had a peace about it. The light was fantastic and it was a wide expanse in which to catch some great skyscapes and sunsets. It this quiet corner of Wirral the presence of the past is strong and I always try to lock into that ‘haven’t we been here before’ feeling and attempt to bridge the divide with those people lost in the mists of time that farmed the earth and made this land their home millennia ago.
Along with my personal affection for the area, these paintings were in some small way an effort to convey a sense of peace and continuity in these unassuming but as it turns out, very important group of fields.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Irby settlement can find it here http://www.archaeologyuk.org/cbanw/CBANW_ANW_1998_64-73.pdf
Irby Heath, looking west, 11th February 2011
Irby Heath, evening, June 2009
Irby Heath, September 2010.