Wirhalh Skip Felagr at Storeton Woods

On Saturday Wirhalh Skip Felagr, or the ‘Wirral Ship Fellowship’ as translated into English and Wirral Vikings held an event at Storeton Woods to recreate the Viking encampment deep in the woods that would have been in place before the Battle of Brunanburh which took place in the tenth century.

It is not known for sure where the Battle of Brunanburh took place but it is thought that the area between Storeton Woods and Brimstage Hall was the location for the battle which led to England becoming one nation as the Vikings were driven out of the lands.  Historians contend that 2017 marks the 1080th anniversary of the battle.

The event was run in conjunction with the Friends of Storeton Woods with the aim of explaining how the Vikings lived in their encampment by way of ‘living history’ and informative talks.

The Wirhalh Skip Felagr group love to demonstrate everyday life of the Wirral Vikings and how they lived locally.  The group look to demonstrate skills, techniques and ideas in as real a situation as possible.

The Skip Felagr focuses primarily upon the Hiberno Norse Vikings who settled the Wirral from Ireland in 902 AD.  The group offers a range of educational experiences to suit all requirements from talks and living history displays.

The Battle of Brunanburh was fought in 937 between Æthelstan, King of England, and an alliance of Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin; Constantine, King of Scotland and Owen, King of Strathclyde.  Æthelstan had invaded Scotland unchallenged in 934.  The Scottish kings had therefore made an alliance with the Vikings and an allied force was formed.  In August 937 Olaf and his army crossed the Irish Sea to join forces with Constantine and Owen but the invaders were routed in the battle at Brunanburh by Æthelstan.

Æthelstan’s victory brought English unity.  The tribes consolidated, peace reigned and there was abundance throughout the nation.  Historians have said that Brunanburh was the greatest single battle in Anglo-Saxon history prior to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The actual site of the battle is not known for certain and scholars have proposed many locations.  From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles it is known that after travelling north through Mercia, Æthelstan, his brother Edmund, and the combined Saxon army from Wessex and Mercia met the invading armies and attacked them in a battle that lasted all day where the Saxons triumphed and the invaders were forced to flee.

Olaf fled and sailed back to Dublin with the remnants of his army and Constantine escaped to Scotland. Owen’s fate is not known.  Among the casualties were five kings and seven earls from Olaf’s army and Constantine lost several friends and family members in the battle, including his son.  A large number of Saxons also died in the battle including two of Æthelstan’s cousins, Alfric and Athelwin.

The case for the battle having taken place in Wirral has wide support among many historians.  Charters from the 1200s suggests that Bromborough was originally named Brunanburh which could mean “Bruna’s fort”.  The nearby River Mersey was a commonly used route by Vikings sailing from Ireland.  Additionally, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle states that the invaders escaped at Dingesmere, and Dingesmere could be interpreted as “mere of the Thing”. The word Thing (or þing, in Old Norse) is a reference to the Viking Thing (or assembly) at Thingwall a short distance away from Bromborough on the Wirral. More lately a landscape survey carried out in 2004 has suggested a likely position for Bruna’s burh placing the burh at Brimstage.

It should be noted that other historians have suggested other possible sites including Burnley in Lancashire, as well as several areas in Yorkshire, Durham, and southern Scotland.  However I think the weight of expert opinion seems to recognise Wirral more than any other area.  Also I am told that internationally respected author Bernard Cornwell has recently come out strongly in favour of Wirral in his latest novel: ‘The Empty Throne.’

Whatever the truth today’s Wirral Vikings have shown how they might have lived on this site over a thousand years ago.

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Liverpool Waterfront by night

As the clocks go back and the nights draw in I went down to the Woodside Ferry terminal in Birkenhead on the Wirral side of the River Mersey to take some images of the World renowned Liverpool water front in the fading light of the day.  If anything the darkness and the artificial lighting of night enhances the views of the Pierhead and waterfront buildings.

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In December last year Liverpool’s waterfront was named as England’s “greatest place”.  Liverpool came top in a nationwide competition organised by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).  Over 11,000 people voted from a shortlist of ten places aimed at highlighting areas which town planners have created, protected and enhanced for communities.   Liverpool was the overall winner in ‘England’s Great Places’ competition.  The High Street in Thame, Oxfordshire and Saltaire, the World Heritage Site-designated historic village near Bradford were second and third respectively.

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The RTPI organised the competition to show what planning and planners can do to make the most out of England’s stunning heritage to create vibrant, beautiful places for people to live and work.

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Liverpool’s waterfront is arguably the jewel in the city’s crown and is a source of immense civic pride. The iconic Liver Birds, the Three Graces (the Liver Building, the Port of Liverpool building and the Cunard Building) along with the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals and other landmarks such as St John’s beacon provide a stunning backdrop to the River Mersey.  UNESCO World Heritage Site status was bestowed on the city’s waterfront in July 2004.

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There is now so much to see and do on the waterfront with the Tate Liverpool art gallery; the Merseyside Maritime Museum; the International Slavery Museum and the Museum of Liverpool; the Echo concert arena and the BT Convention Centre, the 60 metre high Liverpool Big Wheel and the recently opened Exhibition Centre Liverpool – are all within a stone’s throw of one another.

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There have been other developments over the years including the re-instatement of the cruise liner terminal at Prince’s Dock and the building of a number of tower blocks such as Beetham Tower and Its close neighbour and the tallest building in Liverpool, the West Tower.

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As well as the big cruise liners, the river is regularly used with the Belfast ferry from Birkenhead and the Isle of Man Steam Packet company ferry from Liverpool.  Both were moored in the river tonight.

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The waterfront has been transformed over the last few years and makes a great subject for photographers.

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.

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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Birkenhead Town Hall

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On a bright St George’s Day I ventured down to see part of Birkenhead’s most impressive architecture around Hamilton Square most particularly the town hall building.

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Birkenhead Town Hall is a Grade II listed building and was built as the main civic building for the former County Borough of Birkenhead.  It continued to be used as council offices by the town’s successor council, the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, and up until 2010 it housed the Wirral Museum.  It still remains the location of the town’s register office.

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When Hamilton Square was designed in the early 19th century, a plot of land was made available for the erection of a town hall between Hamilton Street and Chester Street. However, it wasn’t until 1887 that the current building was completed after four years of building.  It was designed by local architect Christopher Ellison in 1882 and was constructed using Scottish granite and sandstone from the now filled in local quarry at Storeton which I have written about in earlier blogs.

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The building consisted of a council chamber, offices, with a concert hall and function rooms known as the Assembly Rooms. Birkenhead’s magistrates’ court chambers are located in a separate building of the same design to the rear of the town hall.

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The clock tower is 200 feet in height and consists of four faces. After a fire in 1901, the upper part of the clock tower was rebuilt to a design by Henry Hartley. The rebuilding included the installation of a stained glass window by Gilbert P Gamon representing Edward I’s visit to Birkenhead Priory in 1277.

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The County Borough of Birkenhead was abolished on 1 April 1974 with the creation of the larger Metropolitan Borough of Wirral and nearby Wallasey town hall became the main civic centre for the new combined borough. The Birkenhead building continued to be used as council offices until the early 1990s, when work was undertaken to restore the external stonework and many interior decorations and features, including the former council chamber.

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The Wirral Archives Service was based in the building until 2008, when it transferred to the council’s Cheshire Lines Building nearby.  The service collects and stores all types of historical documents relating to the Wirral area, its people, businesses and institutions.

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Between 2001 and 2010, the Wirral Museum occupied a significant portion of the building.  It featured both themed and permanent exhibits such as the history and development of Wirral, the Cammell Laird collection, the Wirral Silver and Mayoral collections, Della Robbia Pottery and a detailed scale model of the historic Woodside area in 1934.

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Birkenhead town hall continued to house many council staff until the 1990s, but departments were then moved out to other buildings in the area and the town hall was only used as the museum and archives service together with the registry office for births, marriages and deaths.  However the civic building has also continued to be used as a venue for local and national elections and for the celebration of notable occasions as well as the town’s focal point for annual Remembrance Sunday ceremonies.

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In 2009 Wirral Council put the town hall on the market but found there was relatively little interest and the council found no suitable options were put forward.  The Council therefore decided to keep the town hall and it is again being used as offices.  Now there are more than 100 staff based at Birkenhead town hall, mostly transferred from former council offices at Acre Lane which has been closed and is being sold off.  There are plans to bring many more staff to the town hall as the authority sells off unwanted buildings across the borough to save cash.

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The town hall has a rich history in itself.  Throughout the First World War the Mayors and Mayoresses who were in office arranged a number of fundraising events and relief funds. Funds were used such as buying ambulances for the Birkenhead Red Cross. With the vehicles touring the town, starting at the Town Hall then travelling to Birkenhead Park, where at times there were practical demonstrations given to the public by the Borough Fire Brigade and the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

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In September 1914 the Mayoress of Birkenhead started an appeal for Belgian Refugees, who were heading to the area after fleeing from the German invasion.

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The recruitment of the Birkenhead Bantam Brigade started at the Town Hall before moving to Bebington Showground.  Over 1000 men were expected to attend ready to enlist and have a medical examination. Other large recruitment events were also held at the Town Hall.

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From 1915 for the duration of the war a party was held before Christmas and in January for the children of soldiers and sailors who were serving in the HM Forces being paid for by the Mayor’s Annual Relief Fund.

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The first Annual Meeting of the Birkenhead Branch of the National Union of Women Workers was held at the Town Hall. At this meeting the authorities gave permission for patrols of women to be formed, with the support of the police, to maintain order as so many girls appeared to be loitering by the newly formed camps for soldiers.

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In 1916 concerts were held here to raise funds to provide comforts to men serving in the War and in November 1918 a Thanksgiving Supper Dance was held for American soldiers who were billeted in the area.

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The town hall looks out onto Hamilton Square which is surrounded on the other three sides by Georgian terraces. No two sides of the square are identical.

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Hamilton Square was one of the first residential areas for business people and the growing professional classes to be built in the newly formed town of Birkenhead, following the introduction of steam ferries across the River Mersey from Liverpool in the nineteenth century.  Whilst there is still some residential accommodation in the square, many properties are now used as offices and for commercial uses.

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The land on which the square was developed was purchased in 1824 by Scottish shipbuilder William Laird (1780–1841).and he commissioned Edinburgh architect Gillespie Graham, to lay out a square and surrounding streets, in a similar style to Edinburgh New Town.  Gillespie Graham envisaged vistas of long, straight and wide avenues lined by elegant houses. Hamilton Square, named after Laird’s wife’s family, was built piecemeal over the next twenty years as the focus of the regular street layout.  Nearby Hamilton Square railway station opened in 1886.

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The private gardens within the square were acquired by the local council in 1903 and were subsequently opened to the public. Features of the square include the town’s cenotaph immediately in front of the town hall, a large Queen Victoria Monument at the centre of the gardens and a statue of John Laird, the first Member of Parliament for Birkenhead and the son of William Laird. Laird’s house, at 63 Hamilton Square, is a Grade I listed building.

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Between 1995 and 2002 Wirral Council had access to around £80m of public funding through the then government’s ‘Single Regeneration Budget’ to rejuvenate the area around Hamilton Square in what became known as the Hamilton Quarter initiative.  This saw shop front renewals, conservation and landscaping works which included the installation of the ornate ‘moon and stars’ lamp posts which are found all around the square.  The Hamilton Quarter intiative also funded initially the Wirral International Guitar Festival which still goes on today.

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It may be a surprising statistic but Hamilton Square is second only to Trafalgar Square in London for having the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England.

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Speke Hall

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Over the Easter weekend I took a trip to Speke Hall a National Trust managed property.  It is a rare example of a Tudor timber-framed wattle-and-daub Tudor manor house and it is located in an unusual setting sandwiched between Liverpool John Lennon Airport and the banks of the River Mersey. It is said that it is one of the finest surviving examples of its kind.
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The Hall was built in the Tudor period by the devout Catholic Norris family who were keen to impress visitors with the grandeur of their home and in particular the magnificent Great Hall.  William Norris II began building the house with funds accumulated from the spoils of war.  He also started the long tradition of Norris’s becoming members of parliament for Liverpool.OK3A2415v2

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The building has seen more than four centuries of turbulent history. From the Tudor period when Catholic priests were hunted down and Catholic families who might aid them such as the Norris’s were punished; to years of neglect and decay in the 18th and 19th centuries when at one point it was used as a cow shed; through to being refurbished in Victorian times with the installation of the developing ‘technology’ of the era.  The Hall, following the restoration, spans many periods with a unique mix of Tudor design combined with Victorian Arts and Crafts’ interiors.  In the 20th century the National Trust acquired the building and its remaining lands on behalf of the nation.

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The oak frame, typical of the period, rests on a base of red sandstone surrounded by a now dry moat. The main beams of the house are stiffened with smaller timbers and filled with wattle and daub.OK3A2413v2

OK3A2423v2Construction of the current building began in 1530.  However it is thought that earlier buildings had been on the site and they have been incorporated into today’s structure. The Great Hall was the first part of the house to be built, in 1530. The Great (or Oak) Parlour wing was added in 1531 as was the North Bay.  Between 1540 and 1570 the south wing was altered and extended with the west wing being added between 1546 and 1547. The last significant change to the building was in 1598, when the north range was added by Edward Norris.  In 1612 a porch was added to the Great Parlour. And a laundry and dairy were founded in 1860.  Though the house itself is Tudor, the interiors have been decorated and redecorated through the years as fashions changed.  Much of the decor is Arts and Crafts inspired, and some of the interior rooms are furnished with original William Morris wallpaper.  These rooms illustrate the Victorian desire for privacy and comfort.  The laundry was altered in the 1950s.

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In some rooms there is fine Jacobean plasterwork and intricately carved furniture.  The National Trust has laid out a fully equipped Victorian kitchen and servants’ hall which enables visitors to see behind the scenes.OK3A2463v2

OK3A2469v2The gardens date from the 1850s and feature ornamental Yew hedging.  There is also a ‘Ha Ha’ (a recessed wall that creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape beyond) at the front of the main house.  A short walk from the Hall is the Home Farm, a model Victorian farm.  There are woodland trails, a hedge maze, and walks along The Bund, an earthwork designed to cut noise from nearby Liverpool John Lennon Airport.OK3A2414v2

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OK3A2399v2In the courtyard of the main building are two ancient Yew trees, one male and one female, called ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. In speaking to one of the Trust volunteers I learnt that it is hard to date Yew trees.  They are first recorded in correspondence dating to 1712; however they are generally estimated to be at least 500 years old with Adam possibly being around 600 years old.OK3A2443v2

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The house was built and owned by the Norris family for many generations until the female heiress married into the Beauclerk family in 1736.  Towards the end of the 18th century the house was abandoned by the family, who preferred to live in more fashionable London, and the dilapidated estate was finally sold in 1795.

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The Watt family purchased the house and estate from the Beauclerks in 1795.  Richard Watt, had made his money in Jamaica from the sugar plantations and decided to invest his hard-earned wealth in property.  Leaving Speke Hall to his great nephew, who substantially refurbished the Hall; it was again vacated in 1813.  After a period of tenancies, the house became thoroughly neglected and was almost a ruin before Richard Watt V and his new bride began the arduous task of restoration in 1856.  Both dying before they were 30 years old, and leaving only a young daughter to inherit on her coming of age, Speke Hall was then leased to Frederick Leyland for 10 years.OK3A2461v2

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As manager of the Bibby Shipping Company, Leyland was a relatively wealthy man, and ploughed a lot of money into the redecoration the house. His understanding and appreciation of the Arts and Crafts movement featured prominently in the Victorian refurbishment of Speke Hall, from his use of contemporary wallpapers by William Morris to his collection of Old Masters.OK3A2457v2

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The last surviving heir of the Watt family was Miss Adelaide Watt, who returned to the house in 1878 at the age of 21 years.  She set about developing a huge new farm complex, and was determined that such an historic property should be preserved for all time, irrespective of the massive amount of industrial development that was fast spreading out from the city.OK3A2424v2

OK3A2445v2Miss Watt died in 1921, leaving the house and estate in trust for 21 years, during which time it was looked after by the staff under the supervision of Thomas Whatmore, who had been butler to Miss Watt.  During this time the farm complex was transformed into an aerodrome opening in 1932.  At the end of this period, in 1942, the house passed into the ownership of the National Trust.  The house was administered by Liverpool City Corporation from 1946 until 1986, when the National Trust took over full responsibility.OK3A2503v2

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Under the National Trust the building has been further refurbished.  The Home Farm building has been renovated and now houses the shop, restaurant and reception and the laundry has been converted into the education room.  Rooms such as the gun room have been changed over the years and then changed back by the National Trust in order to show more of the history of the Hall.OK3A2499v2

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There are a number of unique features in the Hall dating from the various periods of its history.  Some of the most interesting survive from its early days.  There is a ‘priest hole’ and a special observation hole built into a chimney in one of the bedrooms to allow someone from the household to see people approaching the house and to warn any Catholic priest visiting the family that he may need to hide.  There is also an ‘eavesdrop’ – a small open hole under the eaves of the house – which allowed a servant to listen in on the conversations of people awaiting admission at the original front door to see if they were friend or foe.

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Why was this the case?  Well under Queen Elizabeth I the Act of Uniformity was passed which restored the Church of England rather than the Catholic Church as the official religion of the country and all who did not conform were fined or imprisoned.  It was High Treason for a Catholic priest to even enter England and anyone found aiding and abetting a priest would be punished severely.  The Jesuit religious order was formed in 1540 to help the Catholic Church fight the Protestant Reformation and many Jesuit priests were sent across the Channel to England to support Catholic families. Jesuit priests would live with wealthy Catholic families in the guise of a cousin or a teacher.  To this end ‘priest hunters’ were tasked to collect information and locate any such priests.OK3A2473v2

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OK3A2470v2Sometimes Jesuits priests in an area would meet at a safe house; these safe houses were identified by secret symbols and the Catholic supporters and families would pass messages to each other through code.  Hiding places or ‘priest’s holes’ were built in these houses in case there was a raid. The Priest hole in Speke Hall has been built behind a false timber panel in one of the bedrooms.  Priest Holes were largely constructed between the 1550s and the Catholic-led Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Sometimes other building alterations would be made at the same time as the priest’s holes so as not to arouse suspicion.OK3A2409v2

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Speke Hall is said to be haunted.  It has appeared on the TV series Most Haunted in 2009. The resident ghost is said to be Mary Norris, who inherited Speke Hall in 1791. Mary Norris married Lord Sidney Beauclerk, who proceeded to gamble away the family fortune.  When Beauclerk told his wife they were ruined, she threw their newborn son out the window of the Tapestry Room, into the moat outside. She then ran to the Great Hall where she took her own life. Her ghost is said to haunt the Tapestry Room.OK3A2497v2

OK3A2491v2At the end of the day as I left the Hall I reflected that it is not only a miracle that the building has survived but even more surprising that it has remained virtually unaltered since it was first built for the Norris family some 450 years ago.  It is in the most unlikely setting, at the edge of a modern industrial estate and bordering on the runway of Liverpool Airport where the air is regularly punctuated by the roar of jet engines as planes taxi down the next door runway.  Truly a remarkable piece of history preserved for us all to appreciate.

 

Poppies Weeping Window

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Weeping Window is part of the installation ‘Blood Swept Lands of Seas of Red’ which was originally shown at the Tower of London in November and December 2014.  The original display captured the British public’s imagination – it is estimated that the Tower of London was visited by over five million people whilst the Poppies were on display.  It was named Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red after a line written by a Derbyshire soldier who died in Belgium.

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Weeping window has now been installed on St George’s Hall in the heart of Liverpool.  It is on display from 7 November through to 17 January 2016.  It was the centre piece of the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Liverpool on 8 November.  It is a cascade of several thousand handmade ceramic poppies which pour out from high up in St George’s Hall to the ground below.  The thousands of ceramic flowers represent the lives of the many military fatalities lost in the First World War.  World War 1 style sandbags cordon off the poppies from the public viewing them.

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I went along to try and capture some images in the rain. Some shots have been affected by the very heavy rain that fell this weekend.

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The sculptures are by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper and they take elements of their installation from the Tower of London to create another work of art here in Liverpool.  The event is part of the UK wide 14-18 NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commission’s aim to commemorate, across the country, the hundred years since the First World War.

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Over the period the original installation was housed at the Tower of London poppies were added each day until there were 888,246 poppies representing each one of the deaths in the British and Colonial forces between 1914 and 1918.  The last poppy was planted at the Tower of London on Remembrance Day 2014.

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The Backstage Trust bought the Weeping Window section of the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red artwork following the closure of the event at the Tower of London last autumn.  The Clore Duffield Foundation secured the Wave section of the installation.  Both works, together totalling more than 10,000 ceramic poppies, are being showcased at locations around the country between now and 2018, before finding permanent homes at the Imperial War Museum in London and Manchester.  Most of the poppies were sold to the public, raising about £9m for military charities.

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Weeping Window spent two months on show at the Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland before moving to Liverpool for Remembrance Sunday.  The Wave was installed in September at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

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St George’s Hall was built in 1854 and is regarded as one the finest examples of neo classical architecture in the world.  The plateau outside the front of the hall is meeting place for great celebrations and commemorations in the city.  During World War 1 St George’s Hall was the rallying point for the famous Liverpool PALs, when Lord Derby and Lord Kitchener appealed for 100,000 local men to form a new army battalion.

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Thousands of men travelled to these rallies and they signed their attestation papers in St George’s Hall.

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Lord Kitchener was Secretary of State for War and he organised the largest volunteer army that both Britain and the world had ever seen.  His commanding image appeared on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!” across the land.

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By September 1914, more than 30,000 men had enlisted at St George’s Hall.  In 1915 Lord Kitchener returned to Liverpool to inspect nine battalions on the plateau outside the great hall.  However, by the end of the war more than 13,000 men from Merseyside had died in the conflict.  The plateau now features the Liverpool cenotaph, established in 1927 as a memorial to those who fell in WW1.

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