Life in the Victorian village that people travel for miles to visit

A village of chocolate boxes that people travel for miles to visit is older than the town itself.

West Derby Village is steeped in history dating back to 1086 when it was first mentioned in the Domesday Book. However, it was during the Victorian period that the village underwent a real transformation and was largely rebuilt by the 4th Earl of Sefton, William Philip Molyneux, whose family had lived in Croxteth Hall for generations.

If you walk through the village today, much of that charm and character remains, from Yeoman’s House to the Manor House Courthouse and the red brick cottages surrounding the entrance to Croxteth National Park. In recent years the area has become a nightlife destination, with a host of independent bars and restaurants attracting visitors from across Merseyside and beyond.

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To learn more about the changing face of one of Liverpool’s oldest suburbs, ECHO traveled to the village this week to speak to the people who live and work there.

“It has a sense of history and a sense of place”

Stephen Guy, 74, is the chairman of the West Derby Community Association and was born and raised in the area. The charity and community center is based in Lowlands, a Grade II listed building on Hayman’s Green, which once housed the basement Pillar Club.

Stephen Guy, chairman of the West Derby Community Association outside the Lowlands

A range of ‘Mersey Sound’ bands played at the Pillar Club in their early days in the 1960s, from the Beatles, or the Quarrymen as they were then known, to Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Hollies.

It is this vibrant musical history that helps attract tourists to the village to visit Lowlands and the Casbah Club across the road, where The Beatles later became the resident band. For many people who live in the area, Stephen said the Lowlands was like their second home and hosted 20 different clubs as well as private functions.

Stephen told ECHO: “It’s a big part of the Mersey Beat scene. My mum and grandma used to come here and for a lot of people it’s an escape because you can come here to the clubs.

“It’s mostly older people, we have a few younger people as well, but it’s mostly older people who see this as their second home.”

Grade II listed Lowlands in West Derby where the Beatles played in their early days
Grade II listed Lowlands in West Derby where the Beatles played in their early days

West Derby has “a sense of history and a sense of place”, which Stephen says helps attract visitors to the area, but it has also changed in many ways over the years.

What was once the West Derby Plaza cinema on Almond’s Green, where Stephen watched several films as a child, later became a showroom for Bell & Nicholson after the cinema closed in the 1960s, before changing to hands for several different supermarkets.

Today the building houses a crèche which is currently being transformed in a bid to replicate the historic 1920s cinema facade. The influx of independent bars and restaurants into the village, which Stephen says began after the relaxation of Sunday licensing laws in the 1990s, has accelerated in recent years.

Chris Ehlen, book manager at West Derby Village
Chris Ehlen, book manager at West Derby Village

One such independent is The Book, a bar and restaurant that opened on Mill Lane in 2018 and later expanded to neighboring former butcher shops. The Book’s duty manager Chris Grice, 30, told ECHO: “I think it’s a little different to anywhere else here. A lot of people say it’s a bit of a hidden gem.

“It’s a nice little area. I think it’s already well established in the village now, people are going out of their way to come here.”

Leanne Graham, 51, is co-owner of Almonds Green Village Flowers in West Derby Village which she has run with her family, including her sister Melanie, mother June and father Billy, for 25 years. Leanne grew up in the area but recently decided to move to Roby due to how the village has changed.

Melanie Graham, of Almonds Green Village Flowers in West Derby Village
Melanie Graham, of Almonds Green Village Flowers in West Derby Village

Leanne said: “The village has changed and I don’t necessarily think it’s for the better. It’s sad because a lot of businesses have disappeared.”

Among the businesses that have closed in the area over the years are the village tea rooms, the greengrocer, the butcher and two banks. Leanne said there are no longer any major supermarkets in the village either, apart from the local Tesco Express, adding “it’s sad, especially for older people who have to go further to get their races”.

She said: “It’s tough in business, we’ve been here for 20 years and you have good days and bad days. We have lots of good customers, long-term customers – even when we moved from Stockbridge Village , they moved with us.”

Despite the changing face of the main street, Leanne said the village has always been home to a “good community” and “people care about each other”. She said: “It’s a good community, we were brought up here and there are a lot of nice people in the village.

“You get to know people, it’s sad too – people you know are dying now. You see the little ones growing up, going to school, having children of their own because we’ve been here so long .”

Les Clare, owner of Mill Lane Garage
Les Clare, owner of Mill Lane Garage

Another business owner who has witnessed West Derby Village change over the course of his career is Mill Lane Garage owner Les Clare. The 69-year-old, from St Helens, has worked at the garage for 52 years, having completed his apprenticeship there as a teenager.

Les is set to retire at the end of this month and plans are underway to turn the premises, which have already been sold to a new owner, into a restaurant. Les told ECHO: “It’s changed a lot since I got here. Everywhere you look it’s either a betting shop or a bar now. I have no objection to that, it’s is like that.”

Les said he has built up a loyal customer base at the garage over the years, with about 90% of customers returning to him on a regular basis. As he prepares to retire, he would like to thank all of his clients for their “customers and good relationships”.

Phi Thai Restaurant in West Derby Village
Phi Thai Restaurant in West Derby Village

Surachit Sattapanya, originally from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, is the owner and chef of Phi Thai on Almond’s Green. The restaurant has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with Surachit having recently submitted a planning application with the aim of expanding the restaurant into the former Opticians next door.

The 54-year-old said the range of different bars and restaurants in Almond’s Green and surrounding streets helps him attract new customers, each having a ripple effect on the other.

Surachit said: “I think it’s good for Thai food here. People sometimes come from Scotland, Manchester and Wales to eat here. [after reading] Five star Google reviews.

“On Friday and Saturday, customers – we don’t have a table for them because each time it’s full.”

After speaking to local business owners like Surachit, it’s clear that the rise in the number of self-employed people in West Derby Village has been driven by changes in social habits over the years.

And with a number of bars and restaurants set to open or expand in the coming months, this is definitely an area to watch.

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