Art in the docks

On a bright crisp late February morning I had a wander around the Twelves Quays area.

The ‘four bridges’ crossing of the docks between Birkenhead and Wallasey has been closed for some time whilst the Council’s contractors replace the aging bridge structures and renew the highway.

Close to the Wirral Met College Wirral Waters campus a public art installation has been put into place. Three double sided panels contain artwork commissioned by local Wirral Methodist Housing Association with a grant from the Arts Council of England and assistance from Peel Holdings who own the dock estate.

The art project called ‘And the River flows on’ involved professional artists led by Robin Woolston helping a number of groups in the community develop their artistic skills to paint images that tell the story of the history of Birkenhead Docks.

The area where the art panels have been installed is still derelict and undeveloped. The panels sit on land adjacent to the new college building.

The college on Tower Road opened in September 2015, with approximately 35,000 square feet (3,300 square metres) of space. It provides courses focusing on construction. Students were involved in every stage of the development which won a Royal Institute of British Architecture award in 2016.

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Fog on the Mersey

I took a few pictures of the River Mersey from Birkenhead just before the Christmas break. An early morning fog was burned off by the sun on both the Liverpool and Wirral riverbanks, but it refused to fade away over the river itself and by lunchtime it made for an eerie sight. The blanket of fog made the famous skyline of the city appear to be built on a low-level cloud.

The City’s two cathedrals, St John’s Tower and the both the old and new old Royal Liverpool hospital buildings can be seen clearly. However, the Albert Dock and Pierhead are under the mist, with only the top of the Echo Arena and BT Convention Centre to be seen. The rest of the City is in bright sunshine.

Just another day on the river and with apologies to the Geordie band Lindisfarne who sang about the Fog on the Tyne… the fog on the Mersey is all mine, all mine, the fog on the Mersey is all mine.

Manchester Ship Canal Cruise

We took a trip aboard the Mersey Ferry boat the ‘Snowdrop’ which is currently painted as a dazzle ship (see my earlier blog post) on a cruise up the River Mersey and along the Manchester Ship Canal to its terminus at Salford Quays.

The Manchester Ship Canal is 36-miles long (58 km) linking Manchester to the Irish Sea.  In large part it follows alongside the routes of the rivers Mersey and Irwell.

There are many landmarks along the way.  There are many different types of bridges which have to be lifted or swung aside to allow ships to pass up or down the canal.  As well as bridges there are many sets of locks to be negotiated.  In order to travel from the tidal River Mersey the ship canal has to negotiate four sets of locks (including the entrance lock at Eastham) which lift vessels around 60 feet (18 m) up to Manchester.  And on the banks of the canal there are many historic buildings and a changing industrial landscape.

The rivers Mersey and Irwell were first made navigable in the early 18th century. Goods were also transported on the Runcorn extension of the Bridgewater Canal (from 1776) and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (from 1830), but by the late 19th century the Mersey and Irwell Navigation had fallen into disrepair and were often unusable.  Manchester’s business community viewed the charges imposed by Liverpool’s docks and the railway companies as excessive and a ship canal was proposed as a way of giving ocean-going vessels direct access to Manchester.  A public campaign was set up to enlist support for the scheme and was presented to Parliament as a bill in 1882. However, faced with stiff opposition from Liverpool, the canal’s supporters were unable to gain the necessary Act of Parliament to allow the scheme to go ahead until 1885.

Construction of the ship canal began in 1887 taking six years to complete at a cost of £15 million which is estimated to be equivalent to about £1.65 billion in today’s money!  When the ship canal opened in January 1894 it was the largest river navigation canal in the world, and enabled the newly created Port of Manchester to become Britain’s third busiest port despite the city being about 40 miles (64 km) inland.

Changes to shipping methods and the growth of containerisation during the 1970s and 1980s meant that many ships were now too big to use the canal and traffic declined, resulting in the closure of the terminal docks at Salford in 1984. The canal is able to accommodate a range of vessels from coastal ships to inter-continental cargo liners but it is not large enough for most modern vessels. By 2011 traffic had decreased from its peak in 1958 of 18 million long tons (20 million short tons) of freight each year to about 7 million long tons (7.8million short tons).

The canal was bought by the private company Peel Ports in 1993.  Peel are re-developing sites along the ship canal and are looking to increase shipping from 8,000 containers a year to 100,000 by 2030 as part of their Atlantic Gateway project.

I took a number of photographs along the route.

We took the ferry from Seacombe with a short hop to the Pierhead at Liverpool and down along the Mersey.

Woodside Ferry terminal in Birkenhead is the second Mersey Ferry terminal on the Wirral side.  The New Brighton and Tranmere ferry terminals having long since closed down.

Cammel Lairds shipbuilders yard with the twelve century Birkenhead Priory building as a backdrop.  I’ve posted in the past about both of these sites.

The former grand merchants houses at Rock Park on Wirral look much more elegant from the river even looking through the Tranmere Oil Terminal.  Rock Park comprises a varied selection of Grade 2 listed villas built between 1836 and 1850 along with landscaped drives and a Victorian Esplanade overlooking the River Mersey.  The Tranmere Oil Terminal was opened on 8 June 1960 to handle vessels of up to 65,000 tons, and is connected to the Stanlow Oil Refinery by a 15mile (24 km) pipeline. Part of the terminal occupies the site of a former ferry service to Liverpool, with the old pier considerably modified.

At Eastham locks on the River Mersey forms the entrance to the Manchester Ship Canal just after the Eastham Ferry Hotel.  We passed the Sten Idun chemical tanker being navigated down the canal by the MSC tugs Victory and Viking.

At Ellesmere Port the canal is joined by the Shropshire Union Canal, at a site now occupied by the National Waterways Museum. The area was a 7-acre (2.8 ha) canal port linking the Shropshire Union Canal to the River Mersey. It was designed by Thomas Telford and it remained operational until the 1950s.  I’ve posted about the boat museum in an earlier blog.

Essar Oil UK Stanlow Oil refinery is situated on the south bank of the Manchester Ship Canal, which is used to transport seaborne oil for refining and chemicals for Essar and Shell.  Stanlow has a refining capacity of 12 million tonnes per year, it is the second largest in the United Kingdom and produces a sixth of the UK’s petrol needs.  Stanlow is also a large producer for commodities such as jet fuel and diesel.  The refinery serves much of England through the UK oil pipeline network.  Oil is delivered to the Tranmere Oil Terminal via ship and pumped to Stanlow, where it is then refined and stored for delivery.

At Weston, near Runcorn, the ship canal also connects with the Weaver Navigation.  Stobart Ports now own the docks at Weston Point.  They are developing the site as an ‘inter-modal’ port facility to enable freight, currently carried by road, to be transported by rail and water. This will see increased warehousing, new container handling facilities, an extension to the existing West Coast main line rail siding, a new link road, and improved navigable access between the dock and the Manchester Ship Canal.

At Runcorn Ineos manufactures chemicals including chlorine, chlorine-containing compounds including vinyl chloride, heavy chemicals including alkalis, and fluorine-containing compounds. A separate business within the same company manufactures salt from brine transported by pipeline from the saltfields of central Cheshire.

The Runcorn railway bridge is on a branch of the West Coast Main Line and provides frequent services to the Liverpool Lime Street and London Euston stations.  Locally it has been called the Queen Ethelfleda Viaduct but more widely as the Britannia Bridge. The bridge is named after Ethelfleda because the southern abutments and pier were built on the site of the Saxon walled settlement built by her in 915.  Parts of the bridge are castellated to reflect this. There are three shields above the footway – the Coat of Arms of the City of London, Britannia (from the crest of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) company and the Liver Bird of Liverpool.  Because of the crest the bridge is also known as the Britannia Railway Bridge.

The A533 road crosses the Runcorn Gap over the Silver Jubilee Bridge, the lowest bridge crossing of the River Mersey.  It is a through arch bridge with a main arch span of 330 m. It was opened in 1961 as a replacement for the Widnes-Runcorn Transporter Bridge, and was initially known simply as the Runcorn Bridge or Runcorn–Widnes Bridge.  In 1975–77 it was widened, after which it was given its official name in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  The bridge is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade II listed building.

The Silver Jubilee Bridge is a bottleneck and becomes congested at peak travel times, and in the event of a breakdown or accident on the bridge, traffic in the area comes to a standstill. To resolve this problem, a second crossing of the Mersey the Mersey Gateway is now being built.  Construction began in May 2014 and is due to be completed by the autumn of 2017. It is located approximately just less than a mile (1.5km) to the east of the existing Silver Jubilee Bridge that connects the towns of Widnes and Runcorn.  It is will be a toll bridge, with three lanes in each direction.  The design is a cable-stayed bridge with three towers across the river and a second bridge across the ship canal.  It will be 2.3km long with a river span of 1km. The main bridge deck is made from reinforced concrete and the spans are supported by steel cable stays attached to pylons rising up to between 80 and 125m above the river bed.

As we move on down the ship canal we travel past a number of bridges.  The construction of the Manchester Ship Canal included the construction of several swing bridges and high level bridges which would not obstruct tall vessels travelling on the Canal.

Old Quay swing bridge

Moore Lane swing bridge

Acton Grange Railway viaduct

Chester Road swing bridge

Northwich Road swing bridge

Latchford High Level Bridge, Knutsford Road swing bridge and Latchford viaduct

Latchford Locks.  Latchford was chosen as the location of intermediate locks on the Manchester Ship Canal. These comprise a larger lock for ocean-going vessels and a smaller lock to its south for coasters, tugs and barges. A ship mooring area was provided on the canal’s south bank and enabled two large vessels to pass each other at this point.

Thelwall Viaduct or officially called Thelwall High Level Bridge.  The viaduct is a steel composite girder viaduct close to the village of Lymm  It carries the M6 motorway across the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey.  It actually comprises two entirely separate bridges, one of 4,414 feet long carrying the northbound carriageway, which was the longest motorway bridge in England when it was opened in July 1963, and one 4,500 feet long carrying the southbound carriageway which was opened in 1995.  The longest single span is the one of 336 feet crossing the ship canal.

Warburton High Level Bridge.  Warburton Bridge is a privately owned high-level cantilever bridge which incorporates a public highway the B5159 road, connecting the A57 with the A6144.  It has a statutory toll charge of 12p.  It was commissioned under the Rixton & Warburton Bridge Act 1863. It is unadopted and privately maintained.  It is one of the few remaining pre-motorway toll bridges in the United Kingdom.

Cadishead Railway Viaduct now disused

Irlam container terminal

Irlam Locks.

Barton Locks

Barton High Level Bridge carries the M60 over the ship canal.  It was opened in October 1960 as part of the then M63 and was known as the Stretford – Eccles by-pass.  Prior to its opening all the traffic in the area was forced to cross the Manchester Ship Canal via the Barton Road Swing Bridge or further upstream via the Trafford Road Swing Bridge.  The bridge was designed of such a height to give a clearance from the water level somewhere in the region of 100 feet to allow waterborne traffic to pass freely under it.  It was originally built with two lane carriageways in either direction but road traffic soon increased to the point where it became essential to widen the bridge to three lanes either side with each extra lane being supported by additional reinforced concrete piers built alongside the originals.  The work on this widening process was completed in 1990 – 30 years after its original opening.

Just a little further on a 60ft lifting road bridge which was being built collapsed next to the M60 Barton High Level Bridge in May 2016.  Construction was part way through the bridge which would carry a new dual carriageway over the Manchester Ship Canal to relieve congestion.  The lifting platform crashed onto the canal and has subsequently been taken way leaving the four bridge towers some of which suffered damage in the collapse.  The bridge’s completion has been put back indefinitely.

Barton Road swing bridge and Barton Swing Aqueduct, the only swing aqueduct in the world.  The Barton Swing Aqueduct is a moveable navigable aqueduct carrying the Bridgewater Canal across the Manchester Ship Canal. The swinging action allows large vessels using the ship canal to pass underneath and smaller narrowboats to cross over the top. The aqueduct, is a Grade II listed building and is considered a major feat of Victorian civil engineering.  It was designed by Sir Edward Leader Williams and built by Andrew Handyside and Company of Derby, the swing bridge opened in 1894 and remains in regular use.

Centenary Lift Bridge is the last bridge that we sail below as we then enter into the Salford Quays complex.

We then pulled into a side dock just before the ITV studios.  Media City is well named given the number of broadcasting satellite dishes next to our disembarkation point.

 

The trip had taken us over six hours passing through a varied landscape and a history of our industrial past and present.

King’s Day at Birkenhead Town Hall

I’ve taken photographs of Birkenhead Town Hall before in a few articles on this blog.  But as I walked past on Thursday 27th April I noticed that rather than the union jack flying overhead there was the national flag of the Netherlands flying.

Well the 27 April is the Netherland’s national day; it is the King’s official birthday and is known as King’s Day or ‘Koningsdag’.  In the Netherlands it is celebrated with parties, street markets, concerts and special events to celebrate the royal family.  Some people set up stalls to sell second-hand goods and King’s Day themed products in many city and town centres.  The day features official musical performances and many people spontaneously sing “Het Wilhelmus”.  This is a poem written in 1574 and describes the life of William of Orange (William the Silent) and his fight for the Dutch people.  Each year, the royal family visits some of the venues and they are entertained with displays and performances around local historic events. Royal family members generally join in with the games in a good natured way and greet the thousands of people who turn out to see them.

Well there was none of that in Birkenhead but a number of civic dignitaries and Dutch nationals currently residing in the Merseyside area held a civic reception along with the Mayor of Wirral Councillor Pat Hackett in Birkenhead Town Hall.

Interestingly in October 2016 the Council adopted a protocol for flying flags at Wirral Town Halls which will be overseen by the Council’s ‘Standards and Constitutional Oversight Committee’.  Whilst the rules are in the main about flying the union jack or the Wirral Council flag it seems unclear to me as to when the flag of other nations can be flown at the town halls in Wirral.  It’s an interesting aside to the usual civic protocols.

Hamilton Square Christmas Lights switch on

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On Friday night I went down to Hamilton Square in Birkenhead to watch the Christmas lights being switched on along with a lot of other people keen to soak up the festive atmosphere.

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This was the first time for ten years that the Square has had Christmas lights.  This year’s event was organised by Birkenhead First and Wirral’s Chamber of Commerce.

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Birkenhead First is a Business Improvement District (BID) which enables businesses within a designated area to fund initiatives and improvements over and above those provided by the local council.

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The Business Improvement District is a partnership between local businesses and Wirral Council, led by a private sector steering group.  Birkenhead First aims to encourage more visitors to and greater investment in Birkenhead town centre. As part of its approach to brightening up Birkenhead they sponsored and funded the Christmas lights this year.

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There were a range of local stores selling everything from chocolate to locally made gin as well as a range of entertainment.  This included a number of attractions for children including Santa and his sleigh, characters from the film Frozen, Fusion Dance Academy and drumming displays from Wirral Samba.

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The team from Wirral Radio entertained the crowds and there was music and Christmas carols from local schools.  Liverpool FC and England footballing legend John Barnes switched on the Hamilton Square Christmas lights at 6pm.

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The couple walking on stilts around the crowd were popular as were the street merchants selling lights and lanterns.  As well as the lights and a Christmas tree outside the town hall there were lights in the trees and on the Square’s ornate street light columns.

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The area around the town hall was certainly jam packed so much so that I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage, but I did manage to get a few shots of the lights and activities around the Square.

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Birkenhead Tunnel Flyovers

Some may say an article and photo assignment about urban flyovers is a peculiar subject.  As a regular commuter to Birkenhead I have always viewed the town centre flyovers which feed traffic into the Queensway road tunnel taking people under the River Mersey to Liverpool as a particular ugly form of 1960’s concrete brutalism architecture.  They have cut up Birkenhead town centre and do not show the town’s best side even on a sunny day as I took the photos contained in this article.  Most commuters will probably be too pre-occupied with their journeys to take any real notice of the road network around them.  If you explore on foot you discover a number of forgotten streets deep below the speeding commuter traffic.  Whilst making a definitive physical statement and defining the town they have an important purpose in keeping Liverpool bound traffic moving as I have found out.

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The Birkenhead to Liverpool tunnel was opened in the 1930s.  Over the years the cross-river road usage was increasing to such a level that it was causing chronic traffic jams at each end.  The original 1930s Birkenhead terminus only had a small number of toll booths and there was congestion with the surrounding roads, and by the 1960s this was causing traffic problems across the town.

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Whilst a brand new tunnel was being built from Wallasey to the north of Wirral to relieve the Queensway tunnel, the planners drew up a scheme to demolish huge areas of Birkenhead and to build a series of large flyovers in the town centre to serve the tunnel.

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The original tunnel had bottlenecks along its route with two junctions inside which had their own traffic signals.  There were also toll booths at each entrance.  As part of the upgrading the junctions inside the tunnel were remodelled. The Liverpool spur became exit-only, allowing traffic from Birkenhead to opt for the Dock exit or the Haymarket exit. The Birkenhead spur to the docks which came out onto Rendel Street was closed.  Apparently its traffic signals were unreliable and caused long delays.

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Brian Colquhoun and Partners, one of the engineering companies involved in the construction of the original tunnel were appointed to review the arrangements and develop a plan to solve the traffic chaos.  They reported back in August 1966 with their proposals.  All tolls would be collected at the Birkenhead end of the tunnel rather than at both ends.  Traffic entering and exiting the tunnel would be segregated and the local road network in Birkenhead town centre would be re-engineered to allow free movement from the major radial routes to the tunnel mouth stopping only for the toll.  To alleviate rush hour congestion towards Liverpool, marshalling areas would be created where traffic queues would be managed and controlled and congestion would not spill onto the surrounding streets.

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The plan involved clearing a large area of central Birkenhead including more than 170 homes, 90 shops, 23 factories and 14 pubs.  They were replaced with vast open areas of tarmac and two kilometres of new elevated and tunnelled roads. The construction works lasted over two years including the complete renovation of several railway tunnels underneath, with the computer controlled queuing system with the scheme opening to traffic in July 1969.

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Like many cities in the 1960’s embracing the ‘white heat of technology’, to quote former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, they were too enthusiastic in demolishing old buildings and replacing them with modern concrete constructions.  As I set out in my earlier article on Birkenhead Priory, St Mary’s church the town’s first parish church lost its congregation in the clearances of housing required for the construction of the tunnel. (https://briansimpsons.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/birkenhead-priory/)

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The new road layout used huge lengths of elevated roadway to allow all traffic entering or exiting the tunnel to get to and from each of the three major approaches to the tunnel without causing congestion with other local traffic.

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The main elevated flyover now dwarfs a piece of more historic Birkenhead: King Edward VII Memorial Clock Tower situated in the roundabout on Clifton Crescent opposite the now empty Central Hotel which lends an even more care worn feel to this area of town.

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The clock tower is a Grade II listed building is a memorial to the reign of King Edward VII and was designed by Edmund Kirby and was erected by public subscriptions in 1911.  It was originally situated in Argyle Street, near Birkenhead Central Station but it was in the way when the area was redeveloped to improve road links to the Birkenhead Tunnel.  This meant that in about 1929 it was moved 50 metres to its present location in Clifton Crescent. The Central Hotel was built in 1938, and the flyover was added from 1966, so the Clock Tower has seen many changes to its surroundings since it was first built.  The clocks are maintained and in working order, so it has not been completely forgotten.

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The network of flyovers continues to move traffic around the town and into the tunnel as it was designed to back in the 1960s.  However some of the high level flyovers didn’t survive entirely unscathed.  Whilst the Borough Road flyover has been the main subject of my photos this month; the flyover which used to rise above Conway Street has been demolished.

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In the early 1990s, Wirral Council set up the ‘City Lands’ regeneration scheme under the then government’s City Challenge Fund.  The plan saw major regeneration work across Birkenhead’s town centre and a key project was to remove what was seen as a major barrier which cut the main town centre into two and was far too close to the main shopping precinct.  It was demolished and replaced with two roundabouts, and with it went the long, thin elevated road running diagonally north-westwards across the tunnel’s plaza complex. There’s now just a little stub to show where the flyover used to start. There is now no direct way from the tunnel to the main shopping area, and traffic wanting to do this now has to go around the road system instead.

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At the Liverpool end the toll booths were removed and plans were developed for a Liverpool Inner Motorway system with the tunnel connecting to this as an integrated transport system.  But it was never fully realised and the Churchill Way flyover in Liverpool was the only tangible development which rises close to the tunnel exit in the city centre.

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The flyovers were an expression of modern urban Britain in the 1960s and we still use them today.  Many of us take them for granted.  Walking around the town centre you get a different angle on them from speeding along them in our insulated vehicles.

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Thanks to Chris Marshall’s article ‘Flyovers and flashing lights’ about the Queensway tunnel on his website http://www.cbrd.co.uk  which is dedicated to the study of the entire road network of mainland Britain.

There’s no place like home revisited

Way back on the 5th of August 2012 I made a post entitled ‘There’s no place like home’ [see https://briansimpsons.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/theres-no-place-like-home/ for the full blog].

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In this article I went along to the last site being cleared under the Government’s then ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) in Birkenhead to take some photographs before the houses in the Carrington Street and Milner Street area of north Birkenhead were bulldozed to the ground.  The HMRI programme was designed to remove old obsolete houses and replace them with modern new purpose designed homes.

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Almost four years to the day I returned to the area to see what has happened on the site.  As I reported in my original post the area was in danger of becoming an urban wasteland.  The incoming coalition government had stopped the funding for the Housing Market Renewal programme launched by the former Labour Government in 2002 as part of its austerity measures.

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However during 2012 a coalition government allocation of £7m got a regeneration initiative back on track and some 60 new homes were built off Laird Street at St Josephs Place on another former clearance site.

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Further up Laird Street the redevelopment of Milner, Carrington, Thorneycroft ,Plumer and Rundle Streets was in the pipeline as the second phase to this development when I visited to take photographs of the old dilapidated houses awaiting demolition.

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A private sector developer Keepmoat has now built out the site and they have sold the homes despite the challenging financial climate over the last few years.

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The accent of the regeneration scheme has been on housing affordability.  The properties were made available to purchase through the government-backed ‘Help to Buy’ scheme.  Prospective buyers are offered part ownership of properties of between 25% and 75% to help them get a foot on the housing ladder.  As their financial circumstances improve they will be able to increase their share of ownership.

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Plumer Street, Thorneycroft Street, Carrington Street, Milner Street and Rundle Street have been turned into a new area called St James’ Gate.  This sees the cleared demolition site developed with 125 new build 2, 3 and 4 bedroom modern homes.

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The St James’ Gate development cost around £12.5 million to build.  The site was very popular.  The first seven completed properties were snapped up within two weeks of them being released for sale ‘off plan’.  The remainder of the site has been fully sold and families have all moved in to their brand new homes.  As I wandered around this sunny Sunday morning the residents were all going about their business in sharp contrast to the deserted streets back in 2012.

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The St James’ Gate scheme, together with the previously built St Josephs Place development, means that Keepmoat will have provided a total of 187 new homes in the north Birkenhead area on former clearance sites.

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Wirral Council and Keepmoat have further plans which could see around 400 new homes built in total, completely transforming this part of Birkenhead.

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The Council hopes with the new homes that this part of the town will become a popular and attractive neighbourhood again. The area is certainly much more attractive than the old dilapidated homes I photographed back in 2012.  It is right on the edge of the stunning Birkenhead Park and there has been other investment in the area with a new health centre, retail facilities and good schools nearby.

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I wonder what we may see if we come back in another four years time?