A walk to Hilbre Island

I’ve mentioned Hilbre Island in a number of blogs in the past and I posted about a walk to Little Eye way back on 5 May 2014 but I’ve not written a blog about walking out to Hilbre Island.

Armed with my pocket camera rather than full photographic kit we walked the two or so miles out from the beach at West Kirby and the same distance back again whilst the tide was out.

For September it was an overcast day but the rain kept away. On a summer day, up to 500 people can make the walk out to Hilbre Island. Given the changing tides some get the timing wrong and require the help of the local lifeboat crew.

There are a group of three islands just off the West Kirby coast.  Hilbre Island is the largest of the group at approximately 11.5 acres or 4.7 hectares in area.  It is two miles out from West Kirby or one mile from Red Rocks off Hoylake up the coast but there is no safe route across the sands from Red Rocks.  The safe route is to head to Little Eye from West Kirby Sailing School, then across to Middle Eye and onto Hilbre.  The sands are not safe outside of this path.

Middle Eye or in older sources ‘Middle Island’ and on Ordnance Survey maps it is shown as ‘Little Hilbre’ is the second island.  It is about 3 acres or 1.2 hectares in size.  The third island is Little Eye and this is much smaller being a rocky outcrop.  Hilbre and Middle Eye are less than a hundred yards apart.  All three islands are formed of red Bunter sandstone.

Hilbre Island is one of 43 tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland of Great Britain when the tide is out.  Others include The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, in Northumberland, and St Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall.  The islands here are thought to have been occupied on and off since the Stone Age. Several finds of Stone and Bronze Age items and Roman pottery items were discovered in 1926.

Hilbre Island’s name derives from the dedication of a medieval chapel built on the island to St. Hildeburgh, an Anglo-Saxon holy woman, after which it became known as Hildeburgheye or Hildeburgh’s island.  Hildeburgh is said to have lived on Hilbre Island in the 7th century as an anchorite (a religious recluse).  The 19th-century St Hildeburgh’s Church in Hoylake, built nearby on the mainland, is named for her.

Hilbre Island may have been a hermitage before the Norman invasion or at least a place of pilgrimage based around the tradition of St Hildeburgh.  In about 1080 a church for Benedictine monks was established on Hilbre Island as a dependency of Chester Cathedral.

The area was part of the lands of the Norman lord Robert of Rhuddlan and he gave the islands to an abbey in Normandy, who then passed responsibility onto the Abbey of St. Werburgh in Chester.

The island became a common place for pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries and upon the dissolution of the monasteries two monks were allowed to remain on the island, as they maintained a beacon for shipping in the river mouth as Chester and Parkgate were busy ports. The last monk left the island in about 1550, as it was no longer considered a sanctuary, having become a centre for commerce and a busy trading port itself.  In 1692 a small factory was set up to refine rock salt. There was also a ‘beer house’, The Seagull Inn, during the 1800s and with the commercial activity a custom house was established on the island to collect taxes on the goods traded.  However with the silting up of the River Dee trade switched to ports on the River Mersey and the commerce and trade vanished from the island leading to the closure of the inn in the 1830s. Part of the structure of this building remains incorporated into what was the custodian’s residence.

 

The islands were bought in 1856 by the Trustees of the Liverpool Docks, which later became known as the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.  Hilbre Island Lighthouse was constructed here in 1927 it is a white 3m high steel tower surmounted by a red lantern which since 1995 is solar powered.  The islands were sold to Hoylake Council in 1945 for £2,500, passing to Wirral Borough Council on its formation in 1974.

Hilbre used to have a Wirral Council Countryside Warden who lived on the island but in January 2011 it was announced that there would be no permanent ranger. Wirral Council said that they had had difficulty finding a ranger prepared to live without mains electricity or running water on the island. The ranger service now visits each day by Land Rover.

There are however a few houses, some of which are privately owned on the island.  There are also some interesting buildings like the decaying lifeboat station and the old telegraph station.  The ruined redbrick former Lifeboat Station was built in 1849; it was a quicker option than the previous method of dragging the boat over the sands from Hoylake.  It is said that the crew ran or rode on horseback from Hoylake before rowing out to rescue stricken sailors.  The last launch from here was in 1939.  Much of the slipway is still in place but the power of the sea has shifted numerous stones a few hundred yards.  The Telegraph Station has now been made into an interperatative centre.  Another interesting development was an exclusive gentlemen’s club who leased a house on the island in the late 19th century and named themselves the ‘Hilbre Club’.

The most southerly building on the island is the Hilbre Bird Observatory, from which birds are continuously monitored as part of a national network of observatories and ringing stations.  Terns, gulls, egrets, shelducks, herons, Manx shearwaters, rock pipits, peregrine falcons, gannets, oyster catchers have all been spotted here.

As well as birds the island is famous for its seals.  A colony of Atlantic grey seals swim around the northern tip of the island.  There is a regular count of the number of seals with their numbers increasing steadily over decades.  In recent years a peak count of over 825 was recorded on June 24th 2010.  The increase is mainly because the Dee Estuary is now very clean, so there is an abundance of food.  There is also plenty of space on the sandbanks particularly the nearby Hoyle Bank for the seals to haul out and bask in the sun.  At high tide they swim around catching fish and at low tide they haul themselves onto a sandbank or onto Hilbre when all the visitors have gone. Not having my DSLR camera and lens I struggled to get close up shots of the seals.

The Hilbre Islands Local Nature Reserve is within the Dee Estuary which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, a ‘Ramsar’ Site which is a Wetland of International Importance and a candidate EU Special Area of Conservation.  As such the islands are protected by law to conserve their wildlife and geology.

Whilst the islands and surrounding foreshores are the freehold property of Wirral Council who manage the site, a group called the Friends of Hilbre (http://www.deeestuary.co.uk/hilbre/) was formed in 2001 to help the Council maintain the islands.  The Friends of Hilbre amongst other things promote the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment of Hilbre Islands Local Nature Reserve for the benefit of the public.

Local yachting clubs have held “Commodore’s Day” visits to the Hoyle Bank sand bank just off from Hilbre island.  This usually involves the crews of several yachts going onto the sands and enjoying various activities: football, cricket and even barbecues.  This causes the seals to flee abandoning their rest period which could be detrimental to their health.  The Friends of Hilbre are seeking a way to resolve this issue with the Council’s Rangers’ department.

The island along with the West Kirby and Hoylake coast has been awarded Green Flag status for 2017/18.  Apparently Wirral has more of these flags than any other UK county.  The Green Flag is the national standard for publicly accessible parks and green spaces.  Set up in 1996, this scheme recognises and rewards green spaces in England and Wales which achieve the standards set.

Ending on a note from the world of showbiz, Hilbre island featured prominently in the 2013 BBC films crime drama ‘Blood’ which featured Hollywood stars Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham.  The film was shot in Wirral where the director, Nick Murphy, grew up. He located much of the action to Hilbre island where as a kid he had thought it would be a good place to bury a body!  The island provides a brooding back drop to the dark crime thriller.

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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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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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Mayday in West Kirby

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West Kirby is a small town on the north-west corner of the Wirral Peninsula at the mouth of the River Dee.  It is a popular destination for residents of Wirral and from Liverpool who come over on the train to enjoy the sun, sea and sand when the weather is good.  For a change this bank holiday we have had a really hot and sunny day with temperatures topping 20 degrees centigrade and lots of people were out to enjoy the day.

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A big attraction is the large man made coastal lake, the ‘Marine Lake’ which holds sailing events, sail-boarding, canoeing and kayaking. It is 52 acres in size, is around 5 feet deep and is totally enclosed.  Today it was calm with very little wind and there were few dinghies on the water.

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The popular walk along the outer wall of the lake has become a feature of the promenade in West Kirby since it was built in 1899.  The lake suffered a catastrophic leak in 1985 and a new much larger lake was built at that time by the local Wirral Council.  More recently the lake was given a £750,000 refurbishment in 2009 following an engineers’ report which said the lake’s outer wall was crumbling and that it was only a matter of time before it became too dangerous to allow visitors to continue walking along it. Today the perimeter wall is good shape and there were hundreds of people walking around the lake.

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Another favourite pastime when the tide is out for many families is to walk across to the three small islands out in the Dee estuary.  The islands of Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre Island are cut off from the mainland by the tide for up to 5 hours out of every 12 hours.  If you do not plan your walk with enough time to get back before high water then you will have to allow for a stay of at least 5 hours whilst the tide is in.  It takes around an hour for the 2 mile crossing.  Today there appeared to be many many people walking across the sands to the islands.

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Little and Middle Eye are very small sandstone outcrops but Hilbre is a much larger island at around 11.6 acres in area and whilst there are a number of buildings there are no shops, public toilets or any fresh water on the island and very little shelter. A Countryside Ranger from Wirral Council used to be based on Hilbre Island but it was announced in January 2011 that there would be no longer be a permanent ranger as the Council could not find anyone prepared to live without mains electricity or running water.

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The West Hoyle sandbank, to the west of Hilbre, provides a haul-out for quite large numbers of Grey Seals, and these can be seen swimming around the islands most days of the year. Whales and dolphins have also been sighted off the island.

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But many people were happy just to potter around the promenade or around the lake and judging by the number of cars in the town’s streets many probably didn’t manage to get a parking space and therefore were not able to enjoy a hot day by the sea.

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A wet weekend

It’s a very long bank holiday weekend marking 60 years of The Queen’s reign with the Diamond Jubilee celebrations right up to Tuesday 5th June.  Friday was hot and sunny, Saturday was overcast and Sunday was wet and grey.

This was the day of the Thames river pageant where The Queen led around a thousand boats in one of the largest flotillas ever seen on the River Thames. The pageant started up-river from Battersea Bridge finishing downriver of Tower Bridge.  They had closed the Thames barrier to ensure the small boats could navigate the Thames.

We went on our own pageant walking around the Marine Lake in West Kirby.  It was a cold and wet Sunday and there was only one sailing dingy on the lake but not for long as it couldn’t cope with the strong off shore winds.

There were a few other brave souls out.  The visibility was poor and you could not see the Welsh mainland across the Dee estuary.  We could just about see Hilbre Island and its smaller islands.

The Lifeguards were snuggled up in their Land Rover in the deserted car park.

We did a circuit of the lake and then straight into Morrisons for a hot cup of tea.

The Wilson Trophy, West Kirby

I had a walk around West Kirby marine lake on Sunday morning on the third day of the annual Wilson Trophy which is organised by West Kirby Sailing Club.  The 2012 event is the 63rd Trophy race and it is being held over 11th, 12th and 13th of May when around 200 sailors in 30 teams compete on the marine lake.  The majority of teams competing this year are from the UK, but three come from Ireland and two have made the journey across from the USA for the three day long event.  The event takes the form of 300 short races in three-boat teams jostling on an area the size of a football pitch to earn the coveted title: “Wilson Trophy Champion”.

The marine lake is set on the very tip of the Wirral peninsula with stunning views of the Welsh Hills and the Dee Estuary.  It is a man-made saltwater lake 52 acres in size, 5 foot deep and totally enclosed and it is used for a variety of water sports.

Friday’s races were cancelled due to strong winds.  But with the ultra-short team races they caught up on Saturday and Sunday morning.  Wessex Exempt and Royal Thames Red led the event overnight on Saturday both claiming nine victories out of 11 races.

The teams sail using the event’s uniquely colour-coded Firefly sailing dinghies.  The Firefly is a two-sail dinghy with no spinnaker and is raced as a double hander.  It has high manoeuvrability and is easy handling.  Watching the teams on Sunday morning it was quite a spectacle as the dinghies jostle each other as they head around the marker buoys.  As they are all closely grouped together it is no surprise that there were a number of ‘comings together’ with the umpires who follow each race in speedy inflatable dinghies imposing penalties on the offenders.

The Firefly class is popular for the British Universities Sailing Association who have two teams in the event a long with a number of other competitors from university teams.  As I left the event at midday on Sunday the top places in the initial ‘round robin’ event had changed; West Kirby Hawks were leading with the New Forest Pirates in second place.

This was how it finished as the race committee decided that as the wind speed had risen to 30 knots and building, the event must be postponed with the finishing positions for the 2012 Wilson Trophy being those at the end of the round robin races rather than going ahead with the top eight teams competing head to head.