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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Barnston Road fields

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A couple of weeks ago the field of oil seed rape or ‘rapeseed’ was in full flower on Barnston Road one of the main roads into Heswall.

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I’ve taken photographs before of oil seed rape fields, as they make such a contrast in the countryside with their yellow flowers against the green vegetation and blue skies.

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As I travel past these fields now the yellow flowers have gone and the field is green and as the plants turn through gold to brown they will be ready to harvest in late summer.

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British production has risen from a few thousand tonnes in the 1970s to a couple of million today, more or less doubling in the last 10 years alone.

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In 2012 the UK was the seventh biggest producer of oil seed rape in the world.

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Rapeseed is grown for the production of animal feed, vegetable oil for human consumption, and biodiesel and lubricants.

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…in perpetuity

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Richard Henry Hooper (known as Harry) Hooper was born 1865 and was a successful local business man who lived in the large house known as ” Knollwood” in Gayton.  We don’t know much about Mr Hooper but a sign passed by hundreds of motorists everyday between Barnston Road and Brimstage Road advises us that in 1930 he presented the pinewoods at the Gayton roundabout to the parish of Gayton ‘for the use of the public in perpetuity’.

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His house at “Knollwood” in Well Lane Gayton is still standing today; a local landmark for its very fine entrance gates which are from the former Birkenhead Woodside Railway Station which closed in 1967.

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Mr Hooper was clearly a keen golfer as he was Captain of Heswall Golf Club in 1912.  He died on the 4th May, 1936.

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Today the pinewoods are maintained by Wirral Council as well as a local resident who tidies the area on a regular basis.  The woods are no longer solely pine woods with other deciduous trees now growing.

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The woods are an oasis of calm between two busy roads and have benches laid out for sitting on.  Many of the timbers have rotted on the benches and the local Rotary Club have replaced most of them.

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I wandered through them one very sunny late afternoon a few weeks ago when the bluebells were still in flower.

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Thank you Mr Hooper for leaving to the community to enjoy …in perpetuity.

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Heswall Dales

I’ve posted about Heswall Dales before.  It’s a great place to walk in all weathers as you are rewarded with great skyscapes as well as views across to Wales or out to Liverpool Bay.

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The Dales arean area of 73 acres of heathland and they are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as a Local Nature Reserve.  The site is red sandstone and the heathland area comprises in the main of heather, gorse and birch trees.

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As well as offering views of the Dee Estuary and the Clwydian Hills of North Wales you can get a clear view over to the Point of Ayr, the northernmost point of mainland Wales right at the head of the mouth of the Dee estuary. The Point of Ayr lighthouse stands on Talacre beach at this point.  At one time it had two lights; the main beam shone out to sea towards Llandudno and a second beam shone up the River Dee towards Dawpool, just below the Heswall Dales.  It was replaced by a light vessel in 1883 at which point it was retired as a working lighthouse.

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For many years a colliery operated at Point of Ayr which was the northernmost point of the Flintshire Coalfield.  It was one of the last remaining operational deep mines in Wales extending out northwards under the Irish Sea.  However the Point of Ayr colliery closed in August 1996.

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Now energy generation of a different kind can be seen in the distance behind the Point of Ayr headland with the Gwynt y Môr Offshore Wind Farm in Liverpool Bay off the North Wales coast.  It is currently the largest windfarm in construction anywhere in Europe.  Gwynt y Môr will consist of 160 turbines when complete.

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Easter in Heswall Dales

I’ve been delayed in uploading my photos from Easter time but finally got around to it today.  On Easter Sunday it was a bright but cold morning and I ventured out onto Heswall Dales in the Wirral.

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Heswall Dales are on the north eastern side of the Dee Estuary.  They are an area of lowland heath of around seventy two acres a short distance out of Heswall town centre.  I walked through a narrow lane off Thurstaston Road behind what is now Tesco who built on the site of the old Liverpool Children’s Hospital whose grounds extended down to the Dales.  Following the path up and down over rough ground you eventually climb up onto a larger tract of open heathland.  When you get onto the higher ground you are rewarded with panoramic views of the hills and mountain ranges of North Wales across the River Dee.  Moel Famau still covered in snow could be seen clearly in the early morning haze you could just see the tip of Mount Snowden in the far distance to the left of Moel Famau.

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Over to the west sailing dinghies in the River Dee estuary could be seen with Burbo Bank offshore wind farm in Liverpool Bay in the background.

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Heswall Dales is one of the series of western lowland heath plant communities occurring on the Triassic sandstone outcrops of Wirral.  The area possesses both wet and dry heath, with birch and oak scrub, and some plant species which have a very localised presence.  Together with its associated wildlife it represents an important refuge in the ever expanding urban environment of the Wirral.

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The heathland was recognised in 1979 as the second best remaining example of lowland heath in the Merseyside area, Thurstaston Common a bit further up the peninsula being the best regarded site locally.  The area was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its heathland habitat by the Nature Conservancy Council which is now known as English Nature.  In 1991 Heswall Dales was given the status of a Local Nature Reserve (LNR).

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The area has both wet and dry heathland with the dominant plant being Heather (Calluna vulgaris).  Drier areas of heath contain a mix of Bell Heather (Erica cinerea) and Western Gorse (Ulex gallii).  The gorse species is mainly distributed across the western part of Britain and is of regional significance here.

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The mixture of Birch scrub and European Gorse is an important habitat for breeding birds.  Gorse provides excellent cover for birds such as Wrens, Yellowhammers and Chaffinches.  On this morning a female Kestrel was hovering nearby its eyes fixed on its prey in the heathland below.  I stood still for some minutes and managed to get a photograph before it flew off to another part of the Dales.

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At Easter the Gorse bushes were in full flower their yellow blooms being one of the earliest flowers of the year.

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Heswall Dales has birch and mixed woodland in the valleys running through the site with heathland on the large broadly level area that runs though to Dale Farm at the north of the site.  The Contryside Ranger Service of Wirral Council in 2009 received funding from Natural England to carry out a restoration project to reinstate the lowland heath habitat.  They cleared the encroaching scrubland of bramble, birch and bracken which had spread and was blocking out the sunlight to the native heather and bilberry.

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In order to keep this natural habitat there is a requirement for ongoing management of the Dales and the Countryside Ranger service depend on volunteer days when members of the public help out.

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I continued to walk on to Dale End Farm Dale Farm which provides a day service for adults with disabilities and mental illness, giving people opportunities to learn life skills through the therapeutic use of horticulture.  From there I walked back onto Thurstaston Road ending my morning’s walk.

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March snow in Heswall…

Van Morrison’s 1973 song Snow in San Anselmo (the first track on the album Hard Nose the Highway) captures a California town experiencing snow for the first time. The song gives you the sense that time stops and everyone is silently taking in the snowy scenery around them for the first time.

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From the last verse of the song:

Snow in San Anselmo

My waitress my waitress my waitress

Said it was coming down

Said it hadn’t happened in over 30 years

But it was laying on the ground

But it was laying on the ground

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Well we’re not in California and we’ve had snow before in Heswall but my elderly neighbours said we haven’t had it as deep as this in the last 25 years.  We had around eight or nine inches of snow and considering it started on 22 March the day after the first day of Spring, it is unusual and given that Wirral being next to the sea tends to have milder weather it is even more out of keeping with the regular pattern of weather.

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Nature’s a fickle thing.  The Jackdaws perched high in the snow covered tree tops wondering what season its is and the magnolia buds breaking through snow encrusted leaves alongside a single camelia flower heralding a Spring which hasn’t quite arrived.

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I had a walk down to Gayton Roundabout with my camera.  A lot of tree branches had broken under the weight of snow.  In the two small triangular woods next to the roundabout many Scots Pine branches had fallen blocking the paths.

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Some branches had fallen onto the road way bringing down telephone cables.  As I slithered home on Friday night in a snow storm a large branch had fallen blocking the road at the end of Storeton Lane which the queue of motorists had to move in order for us to get out onto Barnston Road.

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As I slithered around walking on the pavement one intrepid explorer strode out on his cross country skis soon disappearing into the distance down Barnston Road.

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By Sunday afternoon whilst the pavements are still under many inches of snow the main roads are now clear.  The thatched Devon Doorway pub and restaurant looked inviting with its extra layer of snow on its roof in the afternoon sunshine.

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Wirral Easter Egg Run 2012

The 32nd Wirral Egg Run took place on April 1st 2012. Around 12,000 bikers are said to have taken part in this year’s event. It started on New Brighton promenade at 11am with the riders travelling the 20 odd miles passing through Wallasey Village, Moreton Cross, Moreton, Hoylake, West Kirby, Caldy and Heswall before arriving at Clatterbridge  Hospital in Thornton Hough.

The Wirral Egg Run is an annual event which raises money for local children and children’s charities as well as donating Easter eggs to children in hospital.  The riders deliver their Easter eggs at Clatterbridge Hospital for children in Wirral. Whilst the delivery of Easter eggs forms the tradition of the Egg Run, this is accompanied by the delivery cash donations to the Wirral Egg Run charity.

We stood with lots of other people on the Glegg Arms roundabout watching the riders come through Heswall town centre on their way to Clatterbridge. There were bikes of all shapes and sizes together with a sizeable number scooters and quad bikes as well as the odd motorcycle and sidecar.  Many of the bikers were dressed up as chicks, bunny rabbits and other fancy dress.

It was a nice sunny morning and the sun held out for all the riders who came through the town. Just as well for ‘Borat’ in his mankini, he must have been cold despite the sunshine.

Well done to all the participants for taking part in such a worthwhile cause and a great event.

As well as the riders entering into the spirit of the event by dressing up it was good to see so many classic bikes out on the road including Norton, Triumph and Royal Enfield.  They were quite a few Harleys out but I’m sure I saw a rare Indian go past before I could take a photo.  But it was great to see a few BSA bikes like the one above.  My dad used to pick me up from school on his BSA Bantam in the late 1960’s.

A particular well done to Emily and her Dad for taking part this year.