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.

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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Draken Harald Hårfagre leaves Wirral

The largest reconstructed Viking longship left the Wirral on Monday afternoon heading back to Norway.

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The Draken Harald Hårfagre longship arrived on Merseyside on 17 July following a dramatic voyage setting sail on 2 July from Haugesund in Norway.  The name translates as ‘Harald the Fairhair’ after Norway’s most famous Viking king.

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The ship is 35 metres long (115 feet) and 7.6 metres (25 feet) wide, with a huge 260 square metre (2,800 sq ft) sail made of pure silk.  Construction began on what is the largest Viking ship ever built in modern times in March of 2010.  When rowed it requires 100 oarsmen to work 25 pairs of oars with each oar worked by two men or women.  The ship can sail the high seas with a crew of about 20 but it needs 100 oarsmen and women to manoeuvre it in and out of harbour if being rowed.

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The Draken Harald Hårfagre sailed across the North Sea to Shetland and south past Orkney and down the east coast of Scotland, then crossing through Loch Ness and the Caledonian Canal, passing by the Western Isles of Scotland to Peel on the Isle of Man before then crossing the Irish Sea to the Wirral.

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The longship and its crew had to contend with vicious storms on a treacherous journey that lasted almost three weeks. Just off Shetland it was hit by a big wave in high winds three days after setting sail which snapped the long boat’s mast and sent it overboard.  The vessel was diverted to Lerwick Harbour in the Shetland and it had been feared that she may have had to head back to Norway for repairs.  However the ship’s captain Bjørn Ahlander decided to continue the planned voyage to Merseyside using the on-board engine installed in case of any emergencies.

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Despite the boat being powered for much of the journey by the backup motor the 30 strong crew were still forced to endure difficult conditions as they sought to recreate the journey of Viking armies 1,000 years ago when Vikings sailed around Britain on the North and Irish Seas.

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The longship and its crew moored at Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club on Lewis Quay at the head of the West Float in the Birkenhead/Wallasey docks.  Whilst here the crew effected the repairs to the boat.  The West Float is the closest point that the organisers can get to where the Vikings are thought to have originally landed at Meols on the Deeside coast of Wirral.  The mooring has its own Viking link as the rowing club is located next to Penny Bridge once known as Tokisford – the crossing point of a Norseman called Toki.

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The Norwegian boatbuilders Arild Nilsen and Ola Fjelltun sailing with the ship flew to Scotland to search for timber for a new mast.  They found a tree, a Douglas Fir from Dumfriesshire from which the new mast has been constructed.  It was prepared at a sawmill in Grimsby and then the crew working with Cammell Laird and other local shipwrights finished the mast fixing and fully reinforcing the 70 foot mast in place on the longship.

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The work was completed and last Thursday and the vessel was rowed in the West and East Floats by a volunteers trained by Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club testing out its new mast.

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Interestingly the old mast was discovered in the last few days floating at sea and it was towed into the harbour in the village of Walls in Shetland. I’m not sure what they will do with it now!!

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The longship was to have left Wallasey on Sunday in full sail however the wind was a little too strong and they put off setting sail until around 3.30pm on Monday 4 August.

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The crew sang ‘The Leaving of Liverpool’ and then they sailed through the dock system to emerge on the River Mersey at the Alfred Dock at around 4.30pm.

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It passed Liverpool’s famous waterfront buildings as they unfurled the main sail.  It turned at Tranmere Oil Terminal and headed out back down the river towards the Irish Sea but the crew had taken down the main sail down again.

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It disappeared down to New Brighton and the mouth of the Mersey on its way to Peel, on the Isle of Man, before it returns home to Norway.

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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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Thingwall to Landican

Recently the road sign on Barnston Road has been changed as you drive into Thingwall from Heswall and Barnston.  Rather than plain ‘Thingwall’ the sign now refers to Thingwall’s ancient Norse origins. The original sign went missing and Viking expert Professor Stephen Harding asked the local council to prove it has pride in its Norse roots by replacing the road sign with one indicating the Viking link.  After some debate the Council has replaced the sign with an explanation of the area’s Viking heritage.

The word Thingwall is derived from ‘Ping-vollr’ which is old Norse for Assembly or Parliament. There were similar Viking assemblies in the British Isles in Tynwald on the Isle of Man, Dingwall in northern Scotland, and Tingwall on the Shetlands. The most famous Norse parliament was at Thingvellir in Iceland.  Thingwall is thought to be the site of the Viking “Ping” or “Parliament” which met around twice a year and ruled the whole Norse community throughout the 10th and 11th century.  Professor Stephen Harding from Nottingham University has carried out a lot of research on Wirral’s Viking heritage and he believes that the parliament is possibly the oldest in mainland Britain, predating Iceland’s Thingvellir by 30 years.

Evidence shows that Viking communities grew up in North Wirral and Saxons in the South of Wirral.  The hill on which the Vikings gathered in Thingwall is now known as Crosshill.  There’s not a lot to see here these days. On one side is a covered in reservoir and the other are rough fields with horses grazing.  Thingwall Reservoir was started before the First World War but worked ceased until 1918 when it resumed again.  Stone was brought from Thingwall Hill Quarry where Mill Road is today just off Pensby Road.

Getting off the main road, down Holmwood Drive and onto Lower Thingwall Lane you can walk down into what was the original hamlet of Thingwall.  The lane is quite narrow and runs beneath high banks and hedges.  The large three storey Woodfinlow House and smaller Woodfinlow Cottage were built in the 1860s.  The house was originally lived in by Joseph Basset who was the land owner and farmer.

Continuing down Lower Thingwall Lane there had been two or three farm houses but all that is left now are the buildings which made up Barn Farm.  These are directly behind the Basset Hound pub which would appear to be named after Joseph Basset.  The old barn has been converted into a house called Manor Barn and the farmhouse is now called Manor House.

At Thingwall Corner there is a busy roundabout.  On one corner is the Council estate built in the 1960s on the site of the former Thingwall Hall.  This had been built in 1849 by Captain John Lilley a merchant in the African trade a long with a lodge, coachhouse, cottages and out buildings.  The Hall was sold on many times and around the turn of the Twentieth Century it was acquired by Mr Edward Twigge.  In the 1920’s Mr Twigge’s daughter gave Thingwall Hall to the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital for convalescing children.  It ceased to be used by the hospital and was demolished in the 1960s to allow the building of the Council houses and flats we see today.

At Thingwall Corner opposite the Council estate there is a pathway over the fields to Landican.  Landican consists of a small group of cottages and farm buildings.  From the 2001 Census the community had a population of only 20.

The path runs across the fields and in the distance you can see across to the eastern ridge of Wirral toward Oxton and St Saviours Church on Bidston Road which can be clearly seen.

The fields between Thingwall, Landican and over to Storeton were the site of a tragedy from the Second World War.  An American Airforce B24 Liberator bomber returning from a training mission in Ireland to 703rd Bomb Squadron at Tibenham in Norfolk blew up over Landican.  The wreckage came down mainly in two fields, known locally as “The Seven Oaks” and “Top sheep field”.  The crash had brought down power lines blacking out Barnston and there are descriptions of the debris including tins of corned beef, money and other wreckage being scattered all across the local fields.  A memorial has been erected on Brook Way on the Durley Drive Trading Estate, not far from the crash site commemorating the 24 American Servicemen who died in the accident.

Landican has hardly changed over the last couple of centuries.  In 1085, Landican was recorded in the Domesday Book as Landechene.  ‘Llan’ meaning church or church enclosure.  Early names such as this suggest a pre-conquest religious site, which may pre-date the Saxon presence in Wirral.

The hamlet was a township in Woodchurch Parish part of the Wirral Hundred the ancient administrative area during the Middle Ages.  Landican was added to Birkenhead civil parish in 1933.  In 1930 there were thirteen dwellings in the hamlet all farms or farm workers’ cottages.  Seven are still standing today.

Thanks to Greg Dawson whose book ‘Tingvelle’ published in 1993 and the Oldwirral.com website pieced together much of the story of Thingwall that I have re-told here.