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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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.