Sandstone hills with a view of the Wirral’s green fields
The Wirral peninsula, sandwiched between the estuaries of the Dee and the Mersey, is a green oasis separating the docks and factories of Liverpool and Birkenhead from the steel and chemical plants of the north-east coast of Wales. Seaside resorts such as New Brighton seem a world apart from the urban sprawl of Merseyside, while inland lie commuter villages whose rural peace is a complete contrast with the industrial areas around them.
Thurstaston itself is little more than a tiny group of buildings just off the road from West Kirby to Heswell, centred on a church, a hall and several farms. But Thurstaston Hill, on the opposite side of the road, is a wilderness of sandstone rocks and sandy trails, ideal for children to wander in and for picnics. It is often used for orienteering events, and from its highest point offers fine views of the mountains of North Wales just across the estuary. On top of the hill is Thor’s Stone, a 25 ft high pinnacle of red sandstone weathered into a rounded shape.
The road which leads through the village continues almost to the edge of the estuary, and its last stretch passes the site of the old railway station, now the centre for the Wirral Country Park. This is based on the route of the old branch railway line from Hooton, on the Chester to Rock Ferry line, to West Kirby. The route provides rare seclusion and glimpses of an amazing variety of bird, animal, plant and insect life. There are car parks and information centres at intervals, and one former station – Hadlow Road, on the outskirts of Willaston – has been restored as a reminder of what the line was like in the 1960s.
One of the problems with holiday resorts on the Dee estuary is that the sea recedes so far for so long. West Kirby solved the problem by trapping 32 acres of water in its own marine lake, where sailing dinghies, canoes, sailboards and rowing boats may be hired. Lessons are available, and with the necessary licence, obtainable at the Department of Leisure Services and Tourism in Hamilton Street, Birkenhead, visitors can use their own boats on the lake.
Walking on the sands can be dangerous, because of the speed of the returning tide. There is safer walking to be had in the Wirral Country Park, which follows the course of the abandoned West Kirby to Hooton railway line.
Hilbre Island and Little Hilbre Island are surrounded by a scattering of other rocks and islets, including Little Eye, on the fringe of the wide sandbank which stretches out from the Wirral shore at low water. This part of the estuary is a refuge for many different kinds of water birds – curlews, redshanks, ring-tailed plovers, knots, bar-tailed god-wits, oystercatchers, dunlins and sander-lings are all found here. Basking seals may occasionally be seen, and Hilbre Island is a nature reserve.
It is possible to visit the islands on foot: apply for a permit from the Department of Leisure Services and Tourism and follow the route shown on the map beside the lake entrance in Dee Lane. The walk takes 1 hour, and walkers should remember that the tide surrounds the islands 3 hours before high water until about 3 hours afterwards. There are no shops, toilets or even fresh drinking water on the islands, and little shelter against bad weather.
Best known as a golfing centre, Hoylake’s name came from the Hoyle Lake, which was a broad, deep stretch of water sheltered from the open sea by sandbanks. When the Dee changed its course in the 18th century, with catastrophic effects on the harbours further up the estuary, the sand filled up the Hoyle Lake, creating the broad sandbank which stretches northwards from the promenade at low water, providing a beach more than 2 miles across.
Swimmers need to beware of sudden deep channels and pools in the otherwise flat sand, and bathing is dangerous near the harbour, where sailing boats tie up to moorings which dry out at low water. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach at weekends in summer, and daily during school holidays.
Leasowe’s lighthouse tower stands on flat ground behind a rampart of dunes and a seawall, but when it was built in the late 18th century this was a soft and treacherous area of shifting sand which was unable to support a structure tall enough to give ships warning of the dangerous banks and shoals offshore. In the end, it took a disaster to put matters right. It is said that in 1760 a ship loaded with cotton was stranded on the sands, and its cargo left to rot on what was then the beach. The tough cotton bales served to bind together the sand and the vegetation into a base solid enough to support a tower.
This whole area is now the North Wirral Coastal Park, in which shrubs and plants are being used to create picnic areas, and homes for wildlife. From Leasowe it is possible to walk along the coastal path as far as Hoylake promenade to the west, or, to the east, to the start of the New Brighton coastal defences and thence along the promenade wall as far as Wallasey. There is a sports centre.
LIFE ON THE NARROW BOATS
The brightly painted canal boats of the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum today lie at rest in buildings that were once part of the finest canal port in England. Thomas Telford, whose Ellesmere and Chester Canal formed part of the Shropshire Union Canal system, built the port in 1833 at the point where the canal met the River Mersey; it now joins the Manchester Ship Canal at the same point.
The port’s main building was its Great Warehouse, shaped like a letter E with arches beneath so that the boats’ cargoes could be hauled up directly to the first floor. The warehouse was burned down in 1970 but other buildings survived and were turned into a museum in 1976.
The museum contains a collection of more than 50 boats from the earliest type of canal craft to the Mersey flat boat Mossdale, built in the 1870s. There are also steam-driven pumping engines and a restored boatbuilders’ workshop. On the canal, visitors can take a trip on a working narrow boat.
New Brighton’s fortunes have changed over the years. It grew to prosperity as a seaside resort because of the ferry connection from Liverpool, and in 1898 the New Brighton Tower was finished, the tallest structure in Britain and a prominent local landmark. During the First World War, however, it fell into neglect, and in 1921 it had to be demolished. Only the ground-level building was left as a theatre and ballroom, and this was destroyed by fire in April 1969.
Later, the pier which provided New Brighton’s ferry-boat connection was closed and demolished. The sands were scoured away by changes in currents caused by the building of the container docks and terminal at Seaforth, on the opposite bank of the Mersey, leaving a rocky outcrop honeycombed with pools and slabs of slippery, weed-covered stone.
Bathing is dangerous along the foreshore, with sandbanks further out and strong offshore currents, and is recommended only in those areas marked with red and yellow flags and under the care of the Beach Patrol. But the town still offers a wide range of seaside attractions from beauty contests to powerboat racing, with an outdoor swimming pool.
Birkenhead’s once bustling docks traffic has declined in recent years, and a glance from any one of the three roads which cross through the dock area between Wallasey and Birkenhead will reveal more empty berths than full ones. But the town is still the focal point of a busy and prosperous Wirral, with attractions that include an indoor swimming pool, a theatre and several playgrounds and sports fields. (8) PORT SUNLIGHT
Naming it after the trademark of the soap which made him rich, Lord Leverhulme built this garden village for his workers in 1888, and created one of the most spectacular examples of enlightened town planning of his time. In the centre is the Lady Lever Art Gallery and, near the railway station, an information centre. In nearby Bebington is a sports centre with swimming pool, sauna and an artificial ski-slope.
The first ferry between Eastham and Liverpool was Job’s Ferry, run by a brotherhood of local monks, but regular ferry-boats plied between here and Liverpool, carrying passengers and freight from Chester and Shrewsbury, from the early 1800s until 1929. Since then, the commercial bustle has been replaced by an oasis of calm represented by the Eastham Country Park.
Ellesmere Port came into being as the port where the original Ellesmere Canal reached the Mersey and eventually the sea, and it later became the hub of the whole Shropshire Union Canal system.
Thomas Telford built a magnificent set of warehouses and a complex of canal buildings for the port. Some of these buildings house Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, which is open daily, except Fridays in winter.
Helsby Hill, an outcrop of sandstone, rises steeply out of the flat lands bordering the Mersey, and offers wide views from its 462 ft summit of the refineries and chemical works along the river, and the greener country of the Wirral with, to the south, the Bickerton and Peckforton Hills. Near the summit is an Iron Age hill-fort, one of a chain of fortifications stretching right across Cheshire. There is limited parking alongside roads and lanes; the climb to the summit takes about 5 minutes, along well-marked paths.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Chester, 7 miles S of Ellesmere Port. 14th-century cathedral, 18th-century castle and Cheshire Regiment Museum, medieval city walls, Grosvenor Museum of Roman antiquities, zoo and gardens, daily; King Charles Tower (Civil War displays), Water Tower (city history), daily in summer; Heritage Centre, St Michael’s Church, daily
Delamere Forest Trail, 6 miles SE of Helsby.