I’ve mentioned Hilbre Island in a number of blogs in the past and I posted about a walk to Little Eye way back on 5 May 2014 but I’ve not written a blog about walking out to Hilbre Island.
Armed with my pocket camera rather than full photographic kit we walked the two or so miles out from the beach at West Kirby and the same distance back again whilst the tide was out.
For September it was an overcast day but the rain kept away. On a summer day, up to 500 people can make the walk out to Hilbre Island. Given the changing tides some get the timing wrong and require the help of the local lifeboat crew.
There are a group of three islands just off the West Kirby coast. Hilbre Island is the largest of the group at approximately 11.5 acres or 4.7 hectares in area. It is two miles out from West Kirby or one mile from Red Rocks off Hoylake up the coast but there is no safe route across the sands from Red Rocks. The safe route is to head to Little Eye from West Kirby Sailing School, then across to Middle Eye and onto Hilbre. The sands are not safe outside of this path.
Middle Eye or in older sources ‘Middle Island’ and on Ordnance Survey maps it is shown as ‘Little Hilbre’ is the second island. It is about 3 acres or 1.2 hectares in size. The third island is Little Eye and this is much smaller being a rocky outcrop. Hilbre and Middle Eye are less than a hundred yards apart. All three islands are formed of red Bunter sandstone.
Hilbre Island is one of 43 tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland of Great Britain when the tide is out. Others include The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, in Northumberland, and St Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall. The islands here are thought to have been occupied on and off since the Stone Age. Several finds of Stone and Bronze Age items and Roman pottery items were discovered in 1926.
Hilbre Island’s name derives from the dedication of a medieval chapel built on the island to St. Hildeburgh, an Anglo-Saxon holy woman, after which it became known as Hildeburgheye or Hildeburgh’s island. Hildeburgh is said to have lived on Hilbre Island in the 7th century as an anchorite (a religious recluse). The 19th-century St Hildeburgh’s Church in Hoylake, built nearby on the mainland, is named for her.
Hilbre Island may have been a hermitage before the Norman invasion or at least a place of pilgrimage based around the tradition of St Hildeburgh. In about 1080 a church for Benedictine monks was established on Hilbre Island as a dependency of Chester Cathedral.
The area was part of the lands of the Norman lord Robert of Rhuddlan and he gave the islands to an abbey in Normandy, who then passed responsibility onto the Abbey of St. Werburgh in Chester.
The island became a common place for pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries and upon the dissolution of the monasteries two monks were allowed to remain on the island, as they maintained a beacon for shipping in the river mouth as Chester and Parkgate were busy ports. The last monk left the island in about 1550, as it was no longer considered a sanctuary, having become a centre for commerce and a busy trading port itself. In 1692 a small factory was set up to refine rock salt. There was also a ‘beer house’, The Seagull Inn, during the 1800s and with the commercial activity a custom house was established on the island to collect taxes on the goods traded. However with the silting up of the River Dee trade switched to ports on the River Mersey and the commerce and trade vanished from the island leading to the closure of the inn in the 1830s. Part of the structure of this building remains incorporated into what was the custodian’s residence.
The islands were bought in 1856 by the Trustees of the Liverpool Docks, which later became known as the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Hilbre Island Lighthouse was constructed here in 1927 it is a white 3m high steel tower surmounted by a red lantern which since 1995 is solar powered. The islands were sold to Hoylake Council in 1945 for £2,500, passing to Wirral Borough Council on its formation in 1974.
Hilbre used to have a Wirral Council Countryside Warden who lived on the island but in January 2011 it was announced that there would be no permanent ranger. Wirral Council said that they had had difficulty finding a ranger prepared to live without mains electricity or running water on the island. The ranger service now visits each day by Land Rover.
There are however a few houses, some of which are privately owned on the island. There are also some interesting buildings like the decaying lifeboat station and the old telegraph station. The ruined redbrick former Lifeboat Station was built in 1849; it was a quicker option than the previous method of dragging the boat over the sands from Hoylake. It is said that the crew ran or rode on horseback from Hoylake before rowing out to rescue stricken sailors. The last launch from here was in 1939. Much of the slipway is still in place but the power of the sea has shifted numerous stones a few hundred yards. The Telegraph Station has now been made into an interperatative centre. Another interesting development was an exclusive gentlemen’s club who leased a house on the island in the late 19th century and named themselves the ‘Hilbre Club’.
The most southerly building on the island is the Hilbre Bird Observatory, from which birds are continuously monitored as part of a national network of observatories and ringing stations. Terns, gulls, egrets, shelducks, herons, Manx shearwaters, rock pipits, peregrine falcons, gannets, oyster catchers have all been spotted here.
As well as birds the island is famous for its seals. A colony of Atlantic grey seals swim around the northern tip of the island. There is a regular count of the number of seals with their numbers increasing steadily over decades. In recent years a peak count of over 825 was recorded on June 24th 2010. The increase is mainly because the Dee Estuary is now very clean, so there is an abundance of food. There is also plenty of space on the sandbanks particularly the nearby Hoyle Bank for the seals to haul out and bask in the sun. At high tide they swim around catching fish and at low tide they haul themselves onto a sandbank or onto Hilbre when all the visitors have gone. Not having my DSLR camera and lens I struggled to get close up shots of the seals.
The Hilbre Islands Local Nature Reserve is within the Dee Estuary which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, a ‘Ramsar’ Site which is a Wetland of International Importance and a candidate EU Special Area of Conservation. As such the islands are protected by law to conserve their wildlife and geology.
Whilst the islands and surrounding foreshores are the freehold property of Wirral Council who manage the site, a group called the Friends of Hilbre (http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/hilbre/) was formed in 2001 to help the Council maintain the islands. The Friends of Hilbre amongst other things promote the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment of Hilbre Islands Local Nature Reserve for the benefit of the public.
Local yachting clubs have held “Commodore’s Day” visits to the Hoyle Bank sand bank just off from Hilbre island. This usually involves the crews of several yachts going onto the sands and enjoying various activities: football, cricket and even barbecues. This causes the seals to flee abandoning their rest period which could be detrimental to their health. The Friends of Hilbre are seeking a way to resolve this issue with the Council’s Rangers’ department.
The island along with the West Kirby and Hoylake coast has been awarded Green Flag status for 2017/18. Apparently Wirral has more of these flags than any other UK county. The Green Flag is the national standard for publicly accessible parks and green spaces. Set up in 1996, this scheme recognises and rewards green spaces in England and Wales which achieve the standards set.
Ending on a note from the world of showbiz, Hilbre island featured prominently in the 2013 BBC films crime drama ‘Blood’ which featured Hollywood stars Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham. The film was shot in Wirral where the director, Nick Murphy, grew up. He located much of the action to Hilbre island where as a kid he had thought it would be a good place to bury a body! The island provides a brooding back drop to the dark crime thriller.