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Southport: A seaside city woven into English history

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Southport, England, host city to the 137th Open Championship, dates back to Viking times. Yet this home to 100,000 people is a reminder of what used to be and a vision of what's to come.

By Melanie Hauser, Correspondent

SOUTHPORT, England -- As you make your way down tree-lined Lord Street, there's a turn-of-the-century Victorian feel. The architecture. The trees. The gardens across from a long row of shops. The light poles. The signs from shops in business since 1825.

You imagine a once-bustling seaside resort that sprung up on the west coast, a perfect place for the upper crust of the industrial revolution -- think the ship builders from Liverpool and railway builders -- to relax in a breezy, more refined and definitely more pleasing setting than nearby Blackpool.

Today it feels paint-peeling weathered -- a bit Shabby Chic. A reminder of what used to be and a vision of what's to come. The old hotels are contemplating much-needed facelifts. New hotels are going up. Construction is in overdrive in Merseyside, perhaps a bit because the lagging economy is causing people to seek holidays closer to home. Perhaps, too, because the entire Merseyside area has been on stage two of the last three years with Open Championships at Hoylake in 2006 and this week at Royal Birkdale.

This isn't a St. Andrews. It's not a city that exists for golf, rather a resort area with nearby championship golf courses as one of its perks. Nor is it a place where you see plaques commemorating people burned at the stake during the Reformation. Or castle ruins. Or breath-taking cathedrals.

Yet this city of 100,000 is indeed part of the fabric of English history. Parts of the city date back to Viking times. Churchtown in the northern part of the city -- the area around St. Cuthbert's Church -- is mentioned in the Domesday Book, which William the Conqueror commissioned in 1085.

Another William -- William Sutton, known as The Mad Duke -- founded the Southport we know today in 1792, while Meols Hall, in the northern part of the city, dates back to the 12th century and the reign of King John. Prior to the Norman Conquest, the land was in possession of five Thanes, who legend says were descendents of the original Norse Settler Odda. At last count, Meols Hall had passed through 27 generations of the same family.

And, while we know about Napoleon Bonaparte, who was exiled to Elba and St. Helena, we didn't know about Napoleon III -- Louis Napoleon -- who was exiled to Southport. The younger Napoleon lived in exile on Lord Street for two years (1846-48) before he returned to France to become the first President of the French Republic and emperor of the Second French Empire.

At least one legend says Napoleon III liked the tree-lined look of Lord Street so much that he replaced medieval Paris with similar tree-lined boulevards upon his return.

To give you an American reference point, that was just after the Republic of Texas was annexed by the U.S. (1845) and just before the Civil War.

Southport's famous born-here faces include the late Sir Anthony Quayle, a Shakespearean and Hollywood Academy Award winner, and Miranda Richardson, who was in, among other films, The Hours and Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire.

Fitting in with the Victorian quirkiness there is Birkdale Sands, a sand runway on the beach where old Fox Moth bi-planes would land in the 1930s, bringing in England's rich and famous on holiday. And if that's not interesting enough, try the British Lawnmower Museum or the Model Railway Village in Kings Gardens, just off Lord Street.

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