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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End of Year Statistics 2016

It’s that time of year again when I reflect on what I’ve published on this blog during 2016. I’ve uploaded eleven new blogs during the year.

This year saw another record of 9,849 views with 6,564 separate visitors from 86 different countries coming to the blog site.  The Top Ten countries viewing my blog were in order of views:

  • UK                             6,024
  • USA                          1,562
  • Germany                   473
  • France                       332
  • Australia                    213
  • Russia                      159
  • Canada                     142
  • Netherlands              101
  • Spain                         66
  • Brasil                         53

The top ten most visited articles were mostly from previous years with only the posting about the Littlewoods Building making it from this year’s postings.  The most visiting postings in order of popularity were:

  • On Four Bridges
  • Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
  • The Welsh Streets Part 2
  • On Bidston Hill
  • About Wirral
  • The Hillsborough Monument Memorial
  • Thingwall to Landican
  • Littlewoods Building on Edge Lane Liverpool
  • A trip to Jerusalem
  • A walk along Hoylake Promenade

I’ve uploaded 107 posts since I started the blog in March 2012 with 36,945 total views and 20,386 separate visitors during this time.

Let’s see what subjects I cover in 2017?

I will end by saying thank you to everyone who has taken the time to follow my blogs and photographs during the last twelve months and look forward to seeing you in the forthcoming year.

Best wishes to you all for 2017.

Hamilton Square Christmas Lights switch on

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On Friday night I went down to Hamilton Square in Birkenhead to watch the Christmas lights being switched on along with a lot of other people keen to soak up the festive atmosphere.

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This was the first time for ten years that the Square has had Christmas lights.  This year’s event was organised by Birkenhead First and Wirral’s Chamber of Commerce.

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Birkenhead First is a Business Improvement District (BID) which enables businesses within a designated area to fund initiatives and improvements over and above those provided by the local council.

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The Business Improvement District is a partnership between local businesses and Wirral Council, led by a private sector steering group.  Birkenhead First aims to encourage more visitors to and greater investment in Birkenhead town centre. As part of its approach to brightening up Birkenhead they sponsored and funded the Christmas lights this year.

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There were a range of local stores selling everything from chocolate to locally made gin as well as a range of entertainment.  This included a number of attractions for children including Santa and his sleigh, characters from the film Frozen, Fusion Dance Academy and drumming displays from Wirral Samba.

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The team from Wirral Radio entertained the crowds and there was music and Christmas carols from local schools.  Liverpool FC and England footballing legend John Barnes switched on the Hamilton Square Christmas lights at 6pm.

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The couple walking on stilts around the crowd were popular as were the street merchants selling lights and lanterns.  As well as the lights and a Christmas tree outside the town hall there were lights in the trees and on the Square’s ornate street light columns.

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The area around the town hall was certainly jam packed so much so that I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage, but I did manage to get a few shots of the lights and activities around the Square.

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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.

The Mersey Ferry ‘dazzle ship’

On a bright early autumn day I went to see the ‘Dazzle Ferry’ at Seacombe ferry terminal.

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The Seacombe Ferry Terminal building was made a Grade 2 listed building in 1991.  It is actually a ferry and bus terminus built between 1930 and 1933, designed by L St G Wilkinson, the Borough Surveyor of the then Wallasey County Borough Council.

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It has much architectural merit being built of brick with Portland stone dressings.  An imposing feature is the monumental central clock tower.

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There used to be a railway station outside the ferry terminal.  The station saw regular passenger trips to Birkenhead, New Brighton and Chester with occasional specials to Wrexham and West Kirby. However, the line was more focused on goods rather than passengers, so when the majority of the Wirral Railway was electrified in 1938 the Seacombe branch was not and passenger services ended on 4 January 1960.  Goods services continued for three further years until the station closed completely on 16 June 1963.  There is no real evidence of the line left in the area but the cutting in which the line was situated is now the approach road to the Kingsway (Wallasey) Tunnel.

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On an historic note the first commercial shore-based Radar station in the world for the navigation of ships was installed at the Seacombe Terminal buildings in 1947.

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St. Paul’s Church was designed by John Hay of Liverpool looks down to the Ferry terminal.  It was consecrated on the 12th October 1847 and when it was completed it had a spire of 120 feet but it was deemed as too dangerous so 20 feet was removed from the top.

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I had come to see the Mersey Ferry boat which had been given a colourful design, created by Sir Peter Blake as part of the recent First World War commemorations.  I made reference to it in an earlier post about the ‘dazzle ship’ that was commissioned for the 2014 centenary of WW1, the “1418 NOW” (WW1 Centenary Art Commission) which used an historic pilot ship conserved by Merseyside Maritime Museum.  As I stated then when this ship was returned to its original colours it was planned to commission a similar design on one of the working Mersey Ferries boats.  https://briansimpsons.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/the-dazzle-ship/

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The Snowdrop was the ferry boat that was chosen.  The eye-catching dazzle design is in honour of the patterns that were first used on vessels in World War One. Unlike other forms of camouflage, dazzle works not by concealing but the specially painted ships ‘baffle the eye’ making it difficult to estimate a target’s range, speed and direction.

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The ‘Dazzle Ferry’ made quite a contrast to the Liverpool waterfront and the Fred Olson cruise ship Boudicca which was moored at Liverpool’s Cruise Liner terminal across the river.

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The artist Norman Wilkinson was credited with inventing the technique and he explained that dazzle was intended primarily to mislead the enemy.  The ships were painted in black and white and in colour; each ship’s dazzle pattern was unique in order to avoid making classes of ships instantly recognisable to enemy U-boats and aircraft.  Edward Wadsworth, an Intelligence Officer for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the First World War, supervised the painting of more than two thousand British ships in ‘dazzle camouflage’ in Bristol and Liverpool. This experience inspired him to produce a series of woodcut prints that are now part of the Walker Art Gallery’s collections in Liverpool.

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This commission has been entitled ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’ and the Snowdrop in its new livery came into service in April 2015.  This is the third in the series of Dazzle Ship commissions and the first to be a working vessel; it is the only operating dazzle ship in the UK.  The design has been commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 14–18 NOW the First World War Centenary Art Commission and Tate Liverpool in partnership with Merseytravel and National Museums Liverpool. The project is supported by Arts Council England, National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Department for Culture Media and Sport.

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Visitors who board the Snowdrop can learn more about the history of dazzle and the role that the Mersey Ferries took in the First World War in an on-board display which is curated by Merseyside Maritime Museum and Tate Liverpool.

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Sir Peter Blake is a world famous artist and is a leading figure in the development of British pop art and his work is synonymous with the use of imagery from modern culture, including comic books, consumer goods and advertisements. He has a strong relationship with Liverpool and probably most famously he designed the The Beatles’s album cover, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. However he actually first visited the city during his National Service with the RAF (1951 – 53) when his training required that he travel to Belfast, so he sailed by ferry from Liverpool’s iconic waterfront.  He is also patron of the John Moores Painting Prize.

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Sir Peter designed the Pop Art-style patterns with the aid of a computer, then visited Liverpool to see how the two-dimensional artwork would translate on to the three-dimensional ferry and in the second stage he adapted the design to the shape of the boat.  The Snowdrop then went into dry dock at Birkenhead’s Cammel Laird’s shipyard where the painters made the design a reality.

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It certainly brightens the river view around the Seacombe Ferry terminal where it is a big attraction although the Spaceport visitor attraction which was installed in 2005 in some of the Mersey Ferry buildings attracts a number of people particularly with younger children who want to learn about space as they walk through different themed galleries, which all have a variety of interactive and audio-visual exhibits.

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I understand that the Dazzle Ferry will continue in service up to 31 December 2016.

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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.

There’s no place like home revisited

Way back on the 5th of August 2012 I made a post entitled ‘There’s no place like home’ [see https://briansimpsons.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/theres-no-place-like-home/ for the full blog].

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In this article I went along to the last site being cleared under the Government’s then ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) in Birkenhead to take some photographs before the houses in the Carrington Street and Milner Street area of north Birkenhead were bulldozed to the ground.  The HMRI programme was designed to remove old obsolete houses and replace them with modern new purpose designed homes.

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Almost four years to the day I returned to the area to see what has happened on the site.  As I reported in my original post the area was in danger of becoming an urban wasteland.  The incoming coalition government had stopped the funding for the Housing Market Renewal programme launched by the former Labour Government in 2002 as part of its austerity measures.

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However during 2012 a coalition government allocation of £7m got a regeneration initiative back on track and some 60 new homes were built off Laird Street at St Josephs Place on another former clearance site.

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Further up Laird Street the redevelopment of Milner, Carrington, Thorneycroft ,Plumer and Rundle Streets was in the pipeline as the second phase to this development when I visited to take photographs of the old dilapidated houses awaiting demolition.

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A private sector developer Keepmoat has now built out the site and they have sold the homes despite the challenging financial climate over the last few years.

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The accent of the regeneration scheme has been on housing affordability.  The properties were made available to purchase through the government-backed ‘Help to Buy’ scheme.  Prospective buyers are offered part ownership of properties of between 25% and 75% to help them get a foot on the housing ladder.  As their financial circumstances improve they will be able to increase their share of ownership.

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Plumer Street, Thorneycroft Street, Carrington Street, Milner Street and Rundle Street have been turned into a new area called St James’ Gate.  This sees the cleared demolition site developed with 125 new build 2, 3 and 4 bedroom modern homes.

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The St James’ Gate development cost around £12.5 million to build.  The site was very popular.  The first seven completed properties were snapped up within two weeks of them being released for sale ‘off plan’.  The remainder of the site has been fully sold and families have all moved in to their brand new homes.  As I wandered around this sunny Sunday morning the residents were all going about their business in sharp contrast to the deserted streets back in 2012.

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The St James’ Gate scheme, together with the previously built St Josephs Place development, means that Keepmoat will have provided a total of 187 new homes in the north Birkenhead area on former clearance sites.

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Wirral Council and Keepmoat have further plans which could see around 400 new homes built in total, completely transforming this part of Birkenhead.

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The Council hopes with the new homes that this part of the town will become a popular and attractive neighbourhood again. The area is certainly much more attractive than the old dilapidated homes I photographed back in 2012.  It is right on the edge of the stunning Birkenhead Park and there has been other investment in the area with a new health centre, retail facilities and good schools nearby.

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I wonder what we may see if we come back in another four years time?