A walk to Hilbre Island

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.

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Along the shore at Thurstaston

A long straight road from Thurstaston village takes you down to the Thurstaston visitors centre and down to the coast and a shingle and sand beach with boulder clay cliffs overlooking the River Dee and the Dee estuary out to Liverpool Bay.

The River Dee

The Dee Estuary or in Welsh the ‘Aber Dyfrdwy’ starts near Shotton after a five-mile (8km) ‘canalised’ section and the river soon swells to be several miles wide forming the boundary between the Wirral Peninsula in England and Flintshire in north-east Wales.

The estuary is unusual in that comparatively little water occupies such a large a basin. Experts suggest that the estuary owes its origin to the passage of glacial ice south eastwards from the Irish Sea during successive ice ages, eroding a broad and shallow iceway through the relatively soft Triassic sandstones, mudstones and coal measures underlying the area. The inner parts of this channel were filled by glacially derived sands and gravels long ago but infilling by mud and silt has continued ever since. It is also thought that prior to the ice ages the estuary received larger river flows as the upper Severn flowed into the Dee near Chirk.  For a period, the Mersey may also have flowed into the Dee by means of a channel which it cut through the base of the Wirral Peninsula.

The estuary is a major wildlife area and one of the most important estuaries in Britain, amongst the most important in Europe for its populations of waders and wildfowl. The Environment Agency is the Conservation Authority, and the estuary is protected or listed under several schemes.

From earliest times, the Dee estuary was a major trading and military route, to and from Chester. From about the 14th century, Chester provided facilities for trade with Ireland, Spain, and Germany, and seagoing vessels would “lay to” in the Dee awaiting favourable winds and tides. However as the Dee started to silt up, harbouring facilities developed further up the estuary on the Wirral bank successively at Shotwick, Burton, Neston, Parkgate, Dawpool, and “Hoyle Lake” or Hoylake as it is now called.  The excavation of the New Cut in 1737, to improve access to Chester, diverted the river’s course to the Welsh side of the estuary, but failed to stem the silting up of the river, and Chester’s trading function declined as that of Liverpool on the River Mersey grew.  However, Chester was still a major port of passenger embarkation for Ireland until the early 19th century.

Now just up the coast from Thurstaston towards West Kirby is the Dee Sailing Club with its slip way out into the estuary. The slipway is also used as an access point for cockle fishermen.  A total of 53 licences are available each year to cockle fishermen with more temporary licences being issued if the cockle stock levels are high enough. However in recent years a ban on collecting the shellfish has been in place because of serious drops in cockle stocks on the Dee estuary.  The industry is worth an estimated £40,000 a year to cockle pickers, who are licensed to harvest the shellfish for six months.

Thurstaston visitors centre

Wirral Country Park features a 12 mile footpath following the line of the old West Kirby to Hooton Railway line.  At Thurstaston there is a visitor centre, Bird Hide, Toilets, Picnic Areas, BBQ area, Café, pond, Green Shop and a range of artistic pieces. The Wirral Way is very popular with pedestrians, dog walkers, horse riders and cyclists.  But as well as being a stopping point on the linear Wirral Way Thurstaston is a point of access onto the West Wirral coast.

The Birkenhead Railway, owned jointly by the Great Western Railway (GWR) and London and North Western Railway (LNWR), had initially opened a branch line from Hooton to Parkgate in 1866 with an extension to West Kirby being completed twenty years later, including Thurstaston station which opened on 19 April 1886.  Station Road was constructed from land donated by local landowners Thomas Ismay and the Glegg family to provide access from the village to Thurstaston station.

During the Second World War the line was used for the transportation of munitions. Heavy anti-aircraft gun emplacements were built on land to the west of the station, which have since been grassed over.

Despite regular seasonal tourist use of the station, passenger numbers generally remained low and on 1 February 1954 the station was closed to passengers, although the line itself remained open to passenger trains for another two years.  The track continued to be used for freight transportation and driver training for another eight years, closing on 7 May 1962 with the tracks being lifted two years later.

The route became the Wirral Way footpath and part of Wirral Country Park in 1973, which was the first such designated site in Britain.  Unlike most of the stations on the line, the two platforms are still in situ, though the southbound platform is largely overgrown.  The station buildings have long since been demolished.

Thurstaston Beach

Walking from the visitors centre you soon come to edge of the Wirral.

The west coast of Wirral is eroding and one of the best areas to view this is from the beach at Thurstaston which is constantly at the mercy of the incoming tides sent up the River Dee from Liverpool Bay.  The Environmental Agency management policy agreed in the ‘Shoreline Management Plan’ is to ‘hold the existing defence line’.

The steps down to the beach directly behind the Thurstaston Visitors Centre have long gone as the ground has fallen away and the steps at the base washed away.  To get onto the beach now you either take the steps down to Shore Cottage or you walk along the coastal path down to ‘Tinkers Dell’.  Evidence of continuing erosion is visible here again at the bottom of the cliffs next to Tinker’s Dell.  Walking through Tinkers Dell is like walking through a lush tropical jungle as you walk down to the cliffs.  As you get to the beach looking at the cliffs you can see the various layers in the clay which is easily washed away by the sea.

During storms in 2013 and 2014 a disused Sandstone farm building, probably 18th or 19th century, tumbled down the cliff side onto the shore below.  It’s a bit of a mystery as to what this old building was originally used for either a barn or it may have been a dwelling.  However research by the Wirral Society suggests that the structure may have been a working Lime kiln from the late Nineteenth century.

Some experts suggest that the continued silting process in the River Dee will start to build a protective bank of sand which will stop the high-tides crashing onto the clay cliffs.  The River Dee is in a constant state of flux with silt and the emergence of new Spartina Grass areas like those in Parkgate which has silted up dramatically since the Eighteenth Century.

A short walk back along the beach heading up the estuary towards the sea brings you to Shore Cottage.

Shore Cottage and Studio

Shore Cottage Studio is a modern artists’ studio offering creative courses by the sea. The studio sits in the garden of the family home of the artists, which in turn sit right on the beach and the tidal estuary at the bottom of boulder clay cliffs in a Site of Specific Scientific Interest.   The access is by a public footpath of steps with a handrail leading down the cliff onto the shore from Station Road above.

The Studio opened in 2014 and the actual building of the it featured on George Clarke’s ‘Amazing Spaces’ programme on Channel 4 in 2013.  George Clark described the Studio as “the perfect place to teach art”.  The studio has unrivalled, panoramic, inspirational views across to the Dee estuary to North Wales. The artists have said that it was designed and built with teaching creative courses by the sea as its raison d’être.  Shore Cottage and the studio are cut off by tides twice a day, and these varying tides, open views, and as the artists say “exposure to the elements make the Cottage and its immediate environment an ever changing, exciting, dynamic, and inspirational space”.  All of the courses are designed to make the most of the stunning and unique location allowing students to walk along the shore sketching, photographing, collecting and interacting with the environment.  It certainly feels like a remote location well away from modern day life.

Liverpool2 Container Terminal

The relatively new Liverpool2 container port has become quite a landmark on the Liverpool bank of the River Mersey.  I took some photos from the west coast of the Wirral peninsula of the giant cranes at the Liverpool2 container terminal as part of my blog about Thurstaston back in January 2017:  https://briansimpsons.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/around-thurstaston-common/

However if you visit New Brighton you are right opposite the container terminal and you can get a real close up of the giant red cranes which dominate the skyline.

The cranes were built in China and were transported up the River Mersey in November 2015 having set off from Shanghai on the Chinese ship the Zhen Hua23 in August 2015. They arrived after a long 18,000 mile journey travelling through South East Asia, past India and the Arabian Peninsula before rounding the Cape of Good Hope and South Africa.  They lay in port in the Canaries for a few weeks awaiting the final works to be completed at the Port of Liverpool ready for their installation.

The super-structures were produced by Chinese company, Zhenhua Heavy Industries, who are reputably the largest heavy duty equipment manufacturer in the world.  The contract with Peel Ports; who have developed the new deep water container terminal; is said to be worth more than £100m. A total of eight ship-to-shore megamax cranes and 22 cantilever rail-mounted gantry cranes are being supplied to Peel Ports as part of the company’s £300m investment programme to expand and develop the Port of Liverpool.

Each crane measures 92 metres high to the top of the frame, approximately the same as the Royal Liver Building, and 132 metres high when the boom is raised. Each crane weighs around 1,600 tonnes.

The construction of the terminal started in 2013.  Following its opening in November 2016 Liverpool2 became the UK’s largest transatlantic deep-sea port and container terminal and the investment in facilities allow it to accommodate the majority of the world’s current container fleet, including the very largest of modern container vessels which are just too large to navigate the existing Liverpool container terminal.  The new facility employs around 500 people.

The cranes will have the ability to operate at speeds in excess of 30 moves per hour and they will be capable of picking up 24 containers up to 10 high on deck.   The fleet of cranes is supported by a multi-million pound investment in quayside facilities and support technology.

The construction of the new terminal necessitated laying 30,000 cubic metres of concrete, the installation of 15,000m of steel piles and 6,100m of new crane rails. Dredging the river involved removal of approximately five million cubic metres of material from the river bed.  More than 500,000 cubic metres of material was deposited around Taylor’s Bank and other licensed offshore sites.

The new container terminal is just one of the projects that the land owner Peel Group wish to undertake with their Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters projects which they hope will transform the River Mersey waterfront over the next twenty years.

The day after Storm Doris: New Brighton Lighthouse

Storm Doris hit NW England on Thursday.  It didn’t cause as much damage as anticipated.  While the seas were calmer the day after there were still choppy waters around New Brighton Lighthouse.

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Originally named the Rock Light, the lighthouse has been called Black Rock Light, Rock Perch Light, and it wasn’t until 1870 that the name Perch Rock Light became commonly used but nowadays everyone refers to it as New Brighton Lighthouse.

A light has been maintained on the rock since 1683.  The rock, known locally as Black Rock or Perch Rock gets its name from the Perch which was the tripod like structure which held a fire as an early form of beacon to mark the rock. The light marked the approach for Liverpool bound vessels guiding them away from the sandstone reef that has always been a hazard to shipping using the entrance to the River Mersey.

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When foreign ships, passed the old perch, they were charged sixpence for its respect and upkeep.  However the wooden post or ‘perch’ was often washed away and a boat had to be launched to recover it from Bootle Bay.  In February 1821, the pilot boat “Liver” collided with the perch and carried it away.  It was washed away in March 1824 and not recovered until the December but the cost of replacing it all the time grew too expensive and it was decided to build a new purpose designed lighthouse.

The foundation stone of the new lighthouse was laid on 8th June 1827 by Thomas Littledale, Mayor of Liverpool.  It was designed on the lines of the John Smeaton’s Eddystone lighthouse off the Devon coast by John Foster.  Interestingly it was built of marble rock from Anglesey by Tomkinson & Company. It is 28.5 meter (90 feet) high and is located behind the historic Perch Rock Fort; a Napoleonic defence guarding the mouth of the River Mersey.

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The granite cost one shilling and sixpence (or 7 ½ pence in today’s money) a cubic foot and each piece of stone was interlocked into the next.  The whole of the stonework was coated with what is known as “pozzuolana” a volcanic substance from Mount Etna used by the Romans which, with age, becomes rock hard.  The first 45 feet of the lighthouse forms a solid base with the entrance door above this giving access to a spiral staircase leading up to the lighthouse keeper’s living quarters.  Above this is the lantern house.  A ladder has to be used to gain the necessary height to reach the 15 iron rungs of the lighthouse as the door is 25 feet from the base.

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The revolving light was said to be the first in the country. Overall the lighthouse cost £27,500 to build at that time.  Work was only possible at low tide and it was not completed until 1830.  Its first light shone on the 1st March 1830 and consisted of two white flashes, followed by one red.  The light had a range of 14 miles and was 77 feet above the half-tide level of the river.  The light was at first was powered by Sperm Whale oil.  In 1838 experiments with Acetylene gas were unsuccessful but it was eventually connected to the mainland electricity supply.

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The lighthouse was originally maintained by two or three keepers who took up residence when they were on duty.  However in 1925 the keepers were made redundant when the operation of the light was made fully automatic.

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The Lighthouse last shone its light on 1st October 1973 as it was replaced by a radar system operating in the River.  The lighthouse was sold to Norman Kingham, a local businessman and owner of the adjacent fort.  He had plans to turn it into a holiday home, however it is currently empty.

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When the lighthouse was decommissioned the lighting apparatus was removed and a fog bell that originally hung from the tower was also removed although the bracket from which it hung still remains.

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The whole tower was restored and painted in 2001 with Millennium project funding; this included the placement of a decorative LED light inside the tower, which flashes Morse Code messages including the names of all who lost their lives in the Titanic tragedy

Around Thurstaston Common

At the weekend I walked around Thurstaston Common a part of West Wirral popular with walkers and outdoors enthusiasts.  The weather was not the best for taking photos but there was a weak winter sun in between the showers and dark clouds and foreboding skies in the late afternoon.

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Thurstaston Common is a unique area which together with the adjacent Royden Park comprises an area of almost 250 acres (100 hectares) of parklands, woodland and natural heathland.  It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is a Local Nature Reserve.  The site is jointly owned by Wirral Borough Council and The National Trust and is managed by Wirral Rangers.

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Starting from Telegraph Road you are soon at the top of Thurstaston Hill which is a modest 298 ft (91m) in height.  But it offers extensive views across the Wirral Peninsula and beyond.

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On one side there are views of the Dee Estuary (itself a Site of Special Scientific Interest) and over the River Dee to the Clwydian Hills of North Wales.

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If you look closely enough you can make out the Point of Ayr on the North Eastern corner of the North Wales coast with the Great Orme in Llandudno behind it.

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On the other side of the Wirral peering toward Birkenhead you can see Arrowe Park Hospital in the near distance with the City of Liverpool in the far distance with both cathedrals and various city centre tower blocks being visible.

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Further round are the docks at Seaforth and the newly installed giant red cranes which are part of the new £400m Port of Liverpool terminal 2 development.

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On the third side of the peninsula are the towns of Hoylake, Moreton and Leasowe with Liverpool Bay beyond them and the wind turbines at Burbo Bank offshore wind farm at the entrance to the Irish Sea.

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The clear white painted Leasowe Lighthouse shines like a beacon but while it no longer safeguards the Wirral coast it leads the eye out to the far coast of the Mersey which extends from Crosby through to Formby Point.

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In clear weather, Snowdonia, the Pennine Hills, the Lake District are all visible but not today.

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A brass viewfinder plate was installed on top of the Triangulation point column on the Hill in memory of Andrew Blair, founder of Liverpool and District Ramblers Association to help visitors find their bearings.  However the brass map was stolen from the viewing point in August 2016 and has not been found.  Wirral Council has promised to install a replacement plaque to be produced using photographs of the original brass map.  To this end the Council has appealed to members of the public to provide information or photographs of the original design.

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As you approach Royden Park from Thurstaston Common you can see the Grade II listed building of Hillbark reputed to be one of the finest examples of Victorian half-timbered designed buildings. The house was originally built in 1891 for the soap manufacturer Robert William Hudson on Bidston Hill.  In 1921 the house was sold to Sir Ernest Royden, and he arranged for the house to be dismantled and rebuilt on the present site, at Royden Park, between 1928 and 1931.  Sir Ernest Royden died in 1960 and left the house to the local council and up until the mid-1980s it was used as an old people’s home.  It closed in 1984 and fell into disrepair until in the early 2000s it was converted into a five star hotel.

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In the middle of the common is a relatively new memorial stone erected last year.  Sir Alfred Paton gave Thurstaston Heath to the National Trust in memory of his brother, Captain Morton Brown Paton and the other men of The Wirral who died in the Great War 1914-18.  Captain Morton Brown Paton served with the South Lancashire Regiment and he died in action on 7 August 1915 age 44 at Helles, Turkey.  He was a successful cotton merchant in Liverpool.   The plaque on the memorial marks the anniversary of the family’s donation to the National Trust.

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The habitat of the Common varies from mixed woodland dominated by birches, oak, sycamore and rowan to wet and dry heathland.  Locally rare plants such as marsh gentian, oblong-leaved sundew and round-leaved sundew are found on the common. Animals include common lizard, dragonflies and birds such as yellowhammer and meadow pipit feed and nest in the heather.  Tawny owl, jay, sparrowhawk and woodpeckers can also be sighted in the pine plantations.  Today as I sat on the hill an inquisitive Robin nestling in the gorse, which was out in full bloom, was my main sighting of the local wildlife.

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Within the Common close to Thurstaston Hill is the location of Thor’s Stone, a place of ancient legend.  Thor’s Stone is a large rectangular red sandstone outcrop that is around 50 feet in length, 30 feet wide and 25 foot high which has been eroded over thousands of years.

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This part of Wirral was settled by the Vikings as part of a Norse colony centred on Thingwall which was the local parliament in the 10th and 11th centuries and local folklore says that the rock is named after the Norse thunder god Thor.  Viking settlers according to legend used the stone as a pagan altar when religious ceremonies were held here at Thor’s Stone.  The stone was also known locally as ‘Fair Maiden’s Hall’.

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This is a fascinating period of Wirral’s history.  The Vikings began raids on the Wirral towards the end of the ninth century, travelling from Ireland; they began to settle along the River Dee side of the peninsula and along the sea coast.  The settlement of the Wirral by the Vikings was led by Ingimund, who had been expelled from Ireland in around 902 and gained permission from Ethelfleda, Lady of Mercia and daughter of King Alfred the Great, to settle peacefully on the peninsula.  Most of the village names around the peninsula derive from ancient Norse.

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Geologists and historians now think that Thor’s stone is a natural formation similar to a tor, arising from periglacial weathering of the underlying sandstone with the rock being moulded by water flows under the ice at the end of the last Ice Age.  It was later exploited by quarrymen in the 18th and 19th centuries and weathered by subsequent erosion.  The small pool to the left of Thor’s Stone is one of the wetland areas to be found on the heath.

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Today the soft sandstone has been an easy rock for countless people to have carved their names or messages into for posterity.  There is not an inch of it which doesn’t appear to have been carved upon.

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The top of Thor’s Stone can be reached by a choice of easy scrambles up the heavily eroded rock. The outlines of 230 million year old sand dunes can be detected in the rock layers, a reminder that the area was an equatorial desert in the Triassic period.

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From Thor’s Stone it was a short walk back to Thurstaston Hill and back down the other side to the car park on Telegraph Road.

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An early morning walk in New Brighton

After seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert this week in Manchester I took the opportunity this bank holiday weekend to go down to Merseyside’s own ‘New Jersey Shore’.  Not quite Atlantic City, but New Brighton is situated at the entrance to the Mersey on the north-eastern tip of the Wirral Peninsula, overlooking the Irish Sea and the Liverpool Bay.

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At its peak in the early 1900’s New Brighton was the most popular resort for Merseyside with its own ferry terminal connecting it to Liverpool across the River Mersey.  Amongst other attractions the resort boasted the New Brighton Tower with its own ballroom and at one time Europe’s largest open air outdoor swimming pool on the main promenade.

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Sadly, neither of these attractions now exists.  For years the town has seen many restoration projects fail such as the plans to transform Victoria Road into a shopping centre to match London’s Covent Gardens.  There were plans to develop the stretch of costal area between New Brighton and Wallasey village into a Disneyland type of venture as well as an ambitious ‘Pleasure Island’ scheme to rival Blackpool but neither of these schemes proved viable.

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But New Brighton has now become a ‘New’ New Brighton with the completion in 2012/13 of a major £60 million redevelopment program.  This has included a replacement of an old worn out theatre with the modern Floral Pavilion and the redevelopment on the promenade with the new Marine Point leisure complex with modern restaurants and bars as well as The Light cinema and a hotel.  But there are still the traditional pleasures of the original funfairs, entrainment arcades, large marine lake, a model boating lake and ten pin bowling alley and Laser Quest adventure centre.

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The final part of the New Brighton redevelopment was the construction in 2014 of ‘The Prom’ apartments which comprises of 24 luxury apartments offering sea views, across Liverpool Bay, and the historic Fort Perch Rock and Light House.

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It’s interesting to hear how New Brighton got its name.  In 1830, a Liverpool merchant, James Atherton, purchased much of the land at what was Rock Point, which enjoyed views out to sea and across the Mersey and had a good sandy beach. His wanted to develop it as a desirable residential and holiday resort for the growing number of well off business people.  His aim was to create a resort similar to Brighton on the south coast, one of the most elegant seaside resorts of that Regency period and hence he called it ‘New Brighton’. Development began soon afterwards, and housing began to spread up the hillside overlooking the estuary.  This was aided with the closure of a former gunpowder magazine in 1851.

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During the latter half of the 19th century, New Brighton developed as a very popular seaside resort serving Liverpool and the Lancashire industrial towns, and many of the large houses were converted to inexpensive hotels. A pier was opened in the 1860s, and the promenade from Seacombe, further down the River Mersey, was built through to New Brighton in the 1890s. This served both as a recreational amenity in its own right, and to link up the developments along the estuary.  It was later extended westwards towards Leasowe, making it the longest in the UK.

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The New Brighton Tower, rivalled the more famous Blackpool Tower.  It was actually the tallest tower in the country, opening in 1900 but it closed in 1919, largely due to lack of maintenance during World War I. Dismantling of the tower was complete by 1921 leaving only the ballroom that was at the foot of the tower.

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However after World War II, the popularity of New Brighton as a seaside resort declined dramatically like many other traditional holiday resorts. The Tower Ballroom located in its own grounds continued as a major venue, hosting numerous concerts in the 1950s and 1960s by local Liverpool groups including The Beatles as well as other international stars. But the Tower Ballroom was destroyed by a fire in 1969.  The site is now grassed over and used as a football pitch.

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Another blow to the resort was when the last Ferries across the Mersey to New Brighton ceased in 1971, after which the ferry pier and landing stage were dismantled.  By 1977, the promenade pier had gone as well.

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One of the more peculiar sights is Fort Perch Rock which is a former defence installation situated at the mouth of Liverpool Bay. It was built in the 1820s soon after the Napoleonic Wars to defend the Port of Liverpool.  It was proposed as a fortified lighthouse to replace the old Perch Rock Light, however a separate lighthouse was subsequently built.  The fort was built on an area known as Black Rock, and was cut off at high tide but with coastal reclamation it is now fully accessible. At one point the Fort was armed with 18 guns, of which 16 were 32-pounders, mounted on platforms. It was nicknamed the ‘Little Gibraltar of the Mersey’.  It is now a tourist attraction and museum. It has been, and is still used as a venue for musical concerts and has been listed as a Grade II building.

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Right next to Fort Perch is what is now known as New Brighton Lighthouse originally known as Perch Rock Lighthouse.  Construction of the present structure began in 1827 though a light had been maintained on the rock since 1683. It was designed on the lines of the Eddystone lighthouse by Mr. Foster and built of marble rock from Anglesey by Tomkinson & Company.

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New Brighton has two churches dominating the skyline and which can be seen from the River Mersey. On Victoria Road is the Anglican St James Church by Sir George Gilbert Scott notable for its thin broach spire and a polygonal apse. It now incorporates the New Brighton Visitors Centre.

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The second is St Peter and Paul’s Roman Catholic Church is at the top of Atherton Street, completed in 1935.  This is a very prominent Grade II listed building in the Roman Gesu style, featuring a large dome on a drum. Nicknamed the “Dome from Home” by returning sailors, the church was closed in 2008, but after a public outcry it subsequently reopened in 2011.

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Just as sad as the demise of the tower was the closure of the open air swimming pool in1990.  The old pool is now the site of the new Marine Point development with a Morrison’s supermarket and car park taking up much of the original bathing pool foot print.  The story started in June 1934 when Lord Leverhulme declared open the finest and largest aquatic stadium in the World.  The popularity of this once magnificent and eye catching bathing pool was shown by the fact that 100,000 people passed through the turnstiles in the first week.  It was built on sand, covering an area of approximately 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) and cost £103,240 being constructed of mass concrete covered with a rendering of white Portland cement.

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The pool was designed to obtain as much sunshine as possible and facing south; it was sheltered from the north winds. Lights which lit up under water were placed at the deep end for night bathing and a 10 metre regulation standard, high diving stage was provided suitable for international diving competitions.  The pool was built also to allow for Championship swimming events and it held some 2,000 spectators for events.  The Pool contained 1,376,000 gallons of pure sea water, filled through the ornamented cascade with the water constantly changed being fed from the adjoining Marine Lake, which acted as a huge storage tank.

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In the 1950s through to the late 1970s ‘bathing beauty contests’ had mass appeal and were popular as they were seen to bring a little bit of ‘glamour’ to the post-war seaside resorts.  The outdoor pool was used extensively during this period with the first Miss New Brighton Bathing Girl contest starting at the Pool in 1949 with the last event in 1989.

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The pool was used for other events such as firework displays and pop concerts including in May 1984 ‘New Brighton Rock’ when Granada Television staged a £100,000 Pop Spectacular at the pool.

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However on 26th and 27th February 1990, hurricane force winds measuring more than 100 mph caused severe damage to the New Brighton bathing pool. With estimated costs of over £4 million to repair the damage it was decided to demolish the building. The then Merseyside Development Corporation (MDC) which had taken over responsibility for the sea front area cleared the open air baths in the summer of 1990 and it lay grassed over until the Marine Point major redevelopment scheme started some twenty odd years later.

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A happier tale has been the Floral Pavilion theatre.  Up until World War II there were seven theatres in the wider Wallasey area including the Palace Theatre, the Pier Pavilion, the Tower Theatre, the Irving Theatre, the Winter Gardens, the Tivoli and the Floral Pavilion.  Whilst the other theatres closed during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with the advent and growing popularity of television, the Floral Pavilion carried on.  It was opened in May 1913 by the Rt. Hon the Earl of Derby as an open air theatre with a pavilion called ‘The New Victoria Gardens’.  In May 1965 when the glass structure of the theatre was replaced it re-opened as ‘The Floral Pavilion Theatre’. Since then theatre has staged many one-night shows with a variety of artistes.

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As part of redevelopment on the New Brighton promenade the Floral Pavilion was demolished in 2006 and a new £12 million 800 plus seat Floral Pavilion and Conference Centre was built. The theatre was the first phase of the redevelopment scheme and the new complex opened on 13th December 2008 featuring the nationally famous comedian but local legend Ken Dodd who has had a long association with the Floral Pavilion, making his first appearance there in 1940.  The Floral Pavilion’s architect Ken Martin said he had designed the new building to be “theatrical on the inside and outside”, with a wave-shaped roof, bandstands and lighting colonnades. This design captures and is a celebration of the spirit of the old Floral Pavilion.

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The new Floral Pavilion theatre and conference centre continues to attract a number of touring plays and musicians and ending on the Bruce Springsteen theme where I started this post, Nils Lofgren part of the East Street band has played the theatre on a couple of tours, the first time in its old form and his last appearance earlier this year in the new completely rejuvenated venue.

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A short walk to Little Eye

Close to the village of West Kirby in Wirral are three tidal islands lying at the mouth of the Dee Estuary, Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre Island which have been designated a Local Nature Reserve.

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On an overcast May Bank Holiday Sunday we set off late morning to walk to Hilbre Island by way of Little Eye and Middle Eye the two smaller islands in the chain.  The islands are cut off from the mainland by the tide for up to 5 hours out of every 12 hours. The aim was to walk there and back during the low water period.

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We walked around the Marine Lake in West Kirby to the Dee Lane slipway making a direct line to Little Eye.  The tide had gone out around 9am but we were a little late in starting and you need at least three hours before the next high water to make the crossing over the sands to Hilbre Island and to complete the journey there and back safely.

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It was 1.15pm as we got to Little Eye with the next high water due at 3pm and we could see the tide coming around the landward side of Hilbre toward Middle Eye.  We decided that we had better head back to West Kirby and a coffee in the cafe on the South Parade.

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From Little Eye you can see clearly back to West Kirby, over to the North Wales coast and across to Hoylake further up the Wirral coast.

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Little Eye is a small outcrop of red Bunter sandstone topped with wiry grasses sticking up out of the golden sands of the Dee Estuary.  The three Hilbre islands have been occupied since Stone Age times with numerous archaeological finds on the islands, dating from the Stone Age, Iron Age, Celtic, Viking and Roman periods.  All that can be seen on Little Eye today of man’s presence are the remains of a brick and concrete moorings long since abandoned with a substantial iron bolt remaining defiantly in place.

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Hilbre Island has many more relics from later periods of history but that story is for another day.

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