June 24, 2022
In The Face Stone, Jack Sangster pursues Michael Le Conte and his secrets across towns and countryside in England's North West, and many of the places Sangster encounters on this journey can be found in the area, some little changed from 1969.
Sangster's search is mainly in the Wirral Peninsula, particularly around the National Trust lands of Thurstaston, Caldy and Grange Hills. This locale boasts a pleasant (notwithstanding the dark undertones Sangster unearths!), undulating landscape, largely covered with sandstone outcrops, deciduous woodlands, and gorse covered heath, the south-west facing slopes of which afford spectacular views across the Dee estuary towards Wales and the Irish Sea. A few miles up-river, Burton Marsh, a wide expanse of tidal grasslands (deliberately planted, I believe, on estuarine mud flats many years ago), also offers atmospheric views, and this whole area of southern Wirral is, as far as my own experience goes, not very well known outside the North West.
The Face Stone itself lies deep within the curiously named ‘Stapledon Wood’, which may be found on the inland side of Caldy Hill. This substantial sandstone outcrop does indeed have a door like indent etched into the front. Nobody (as far as I know), has ever explained how or why this indent got there.
The Mariners’ Beacon, where Sangster dozes off on a bench, stands proudly on top of Caldy Hill. This sixty foot sandstone ‘Column’ (as it’s known locally), was erected in the place of an old windmill (destroyed in a storm), that sailors had previously used as a navigation mark.
The inverted stone heart in the wall described by Mrs Magister can also be found nearby, and according to some accounts really was placed there for the reasons she mentions to Sangster (who knows?).
The derelict swimming baths, and the pub by the marshes, where Sangster parks to eat his lunch, are both real, although the baths (which were part of a private school), are long since demolished. The promenade next to them, which Sangster sees in a newspaper photo being lashed by storms, runs along the waterfront (or perhaps ‘marshfront’), of Parkgate, a Deeside town much prettier than its name.
The Cheshire County Lunatic Asylum (more generally referred to by the name Sangster knew it, ‘Deva’), was closed as recently as 2005, although this grim building still stands at the time of writing, eerily empty, in the grounds of Chester’s Countess of Cheshire Hospital.
Centurion House, the model for Sangster’s Chester office block, does indeed stand on the site of the Golden Falcon Inn, where George Frideric Handel apparently stayed whilst waiting for a delayed Dublin Packet boat. During this wait, Handel’s masterpiece The Messiah was, as Sarah tells a distracted Sangster, first performed for the public in the fittingly beautiful surroundings of Chester’s Saint Werburgh’s Cathedral.
The magnificent Liver, Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, and Cunard Buildings, or ‘Three Graces’ of Liverpool’s Pier Head, now surrounded by sympathetically restored Victorian dock warehouses and glittering modern blocks, were besieged on all sides by decay in 1969. At that time the Mersey Ferry terminal with its floating landing stage was wood-clad and painted in the virulent green Sangster describes.
Most of the other settings in The Face Stone are inventions to suit the plot, but nevertheless take elements from one or more real places (some of which still exist). Here's a selection that helped inspire locations in the book:
The Manor Free School as described takes elements from a number of different schools around the country that work for The Face Stone story, and especially some local Cheshire schools, including: Calday Grange Grammar School in West Kirby, Mostyn House School in Parkgate, and Chester Cathedral Choir School (the latter two schools are now closed but the buildings remain).
St. Hildeburgh's Preparatory School is, like the Manor Free, not based on an actual school, but the building and location as described in the book do resemble The Grange, a red brick mansion in West Kirby which did, many years ago, house a preparatory school called Combomere.
The village next to the Manor Free is modelled on Caldy and Thurstaston villages.
Kingswood House is largely an invention, as stucco fronted houses are not common on sandstone abundant Caldy Hill, especially from the Georgian period when the Le Conte's mansion would have been built. Nevertheless, there are a few imposing houses in the area that fit the bill, elegantly proportioned with white rendered walls, wide lawns, and woodlands framing the grounds, just as Sangster sees them.
The Canteen is based on several places I knew growing up, which were doubtlessly typical of general stores and post offices that could be found in 1960's Wirral (presumbly elsewhere in the country as well). And, for whatever reason, they seemed to attract very eccentric owners like the Jacksons (as I thought anyway - maybe they were just hard working shopkeepers who didn't need trouble from kids).
The Occidental Club is imagined as an amalgam of the Athenaeum in Liverpool and London's East India Club.
The Jolly Miller of Dee Tavern is modelled on Ye Olde Boot Inn, Chester.
The Bell Hotel is inspired by several half-timbered pubs, but especially the Ring O’Bells in West Kirby old village. The chimes that wake Sangster in the middle of the night when staying at The Bell would have rung out from nearby St Bridget’s church.
Michael’s 'Lair' is based on a derelict ex-MOD facility on Caldy Hill (now much changed and given over to a shooting club I believe). In 1969 this place looked pretty much as Sangster found it (including the charcoal girl on the wall!).
Michael's Quarry mixes aspects from several of the Wirral's numerous abandoned quarries, particularly the cliffs of Irby Quarry and the tramway of Storeton Quarry. The triassic sandstone hewn from these quarries (much sought after in the past for building), can bear high concentrations of methane, a gas known to cause hallucinations. The thick clay soil that sits on top of this sandstone also lends itself to water retention, which combined with the Wirral’s rather wet climate, often results in the formation of deep ponds.
The horizontal willow that Sangster uses to cross the quarry lake is inspired by a similarly odd-angled tree that many years ago grew in a field near Caldy Hill, straddling a pond created not by an abandoned quarry but a World War Two bomb. I suspect this willow was growing upright when the explosion blew earth from under it, causing the tree to grow sideways ever after.