06 January 2015

Hale and hearty

A strong and bitterly cold wind was sweeping in from the Irish Sea and up the river from Liverpool the day I visited Hale but that didn’t cool my warm opinion of this charming little village.  

There has been a settlement in this windswept place since before the Norman Conquest and, though I labelled the place a village, it is in fact a town, with a royal charter dating from 1203, and so is governed by its own Lord Mayor.

Though suffering from the noise pollution of flights coming in to land at Liverpool’s John Lennon airport, just a couple of miles away as the jet flies, and with outskirts bordered by modern-day ribbon development, Hale is still a delightful rural oasis that seems proudly to have embraced its mostly peaceful tranquillity and its history – there are signboards placed strategically about the place to inform the visitor.

Hale’s main claim to fame is a famous son who lived 600 years ago and stood 9 feet 3 inches tall! John Middleton, known as the Childe of Hale, was born in 1578 and died on 23 August 1623. His grave is located on the south side of the cemetery that surrounds the Church of St Mary, and bears the inscription: ‘Here lyeth the bodie of John Middleton the Childe nine feet three. Borne 1578 Dyed 1623’.

The local signboards tell some of his story:

King James I had heard about the Hale village giant, who was the servant and bodyguard of Sir Gilbert Ireland, and invited both men to attend court. A costume was specially made for John and when he was presented he created a sensation.

The king’s champion challenged Middleton to a wrestling match and courtiers placed bets on the champion but Middleton defeated him, dislocating his thumb in the process. The king was in a difficult position, and, not wanting to offend his courtiers, he sent Middleton home with a payment of £20, a considerable sum in those days.

Travelling north, Ireland and Middleton called at Brasenose College, Oxford, where Sir Gilbert had graduated in 1578 and where he remained a senior member of the College. During their visit, two life-side portraits were painted of Middleton. One now hangs at Speke Hall, near Hale, the other still hangs in the College. When the College Boat Club was established in 1815, the story of the Childe of Hale was an inspiration to the oarsmen and he became the mascot of the club. The First VIII still wear the Childe’s colours of red, purple and yellow.

Unfortunately, during his journey home, Middleton was robbed of his winnings. A contemporary source notes: ‘He was coming down into the country, his comrades rob’d him of what he had, so that he was oblig’d to follow the plow [sic] to his dying day’.

Except for the portraits mentioned above, few contemporary likenesses of John Middleton exist but, in recent times, two notable sculptures have been created in the village. The first, known as the History Tree, was carved in 1996 by sculptors Phil Bews and Geoff Wilson from the trunk of a dead beech tree. When this structure was eventually removed, due to the ravages of nature, a replacement life-size bronze was created by Diane Gorvin and unveiled by the Mayor of Halton on 11 April 2013.

Middleton's former house

He looks a gentle giant, smiling benevolently down on visitors and passers-by from his patch of green in front of a very impressive Queen-Anne-era manor house. The house was not his (it was built as the parsonage and later inhabited by local squires) – appropriately enough for a labourer and plough-man, the Childe lived in a small thatched cottage, though how he managed to get through the door or even stand up inside is a mystery!

The park's impressive gatehouse (left) and an Easyjet heading across the park towards Liverpool airport (right)
We strolled briskly around the town park (briskly due to that icy wind), peered in at the site of old hall (sadly, demolished in 1981 – see more here), inspected the Childe’s statue, house and grave, and ate a rather tasty lunch in the pub named after him, the Childe of Hale.

It was a very pleasant outing and I’m happy to recommend a visit, though perhaps on a warm summer’s day.

The well-maintained church yard, with Runcorn Bridge in the background