The Wirral is a peninsula in north west of England. It is bounded by three bodies of water: to the west by the River Dee, forming a boundary with Wales, to the east by the River Mersey and to the north by Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea.
Wirral is roughly rectangular and is about 10 miles (16.1 km) long and 7 miles (11.3 km) wide. Two approximately parallel Triassic sandstone ridges run down the length of the peninsula. The western ridge is made up of Grange and Caldy Hills at 256 feet in height, then Thurstaston Hill (298 ft), Poll Hill in Heswall (350 ft, the highest point on the Wirral) and Burton (222 ft). The less continuous eastern ridge consists of Bidston Hill (231 ft), Prenton (259 ft) and Storeton Hill (229 ft).The shallow Fender Valley, between these ridges, was carved out by a large glacier during the last ice age.
The major urban centres of Wirral are to its east; these include Birkenhead and Wallasey. To the west and south, Wirral is more rural with smaller towns such as Hoylake, West Kirby, Heswall and Bebington.
Wirral has a long and varied history.The earliest evidence of human occupation of Wirral dates from the Mesolithic period, around 7000 BC. Before the time of the Romans, Wirral was inhabited by a Celtic tribe, the Cornovii. Evidence suggests that Wirral was an important port from at least as early as 500 BC. Traders came from as far away as Gaul and the Mediterranean in search of minerals from North Wales and Cheshire. Around the year 70, the Romans occupied Chester and traces have been found of their occupation in Wirral.
The Anglo-Saxons under Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, laid waste to Chester around 616. Æthelfrith withdrew, leaving the area west and south of the Mersey to become part of Mercia, and Anglo-Saxon settlers soon took over most of Wirral with the exception of the northern tip.
Towards the end of the ninth century, the Norsemen or Vikings began raiding the area. They settled along the Dee side of the peninsula, and along the sea coast. Bromborough on the Wirral is one of the possible sites of an epic battle in 937, the ‘Battle of Brunanburh’, which confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This is the first battle where England came together as one country, to fight the combined forces of the Norsemen and the Scots, and thus historians consider it the birthplace of England. It is thought that the battlesite was so large that it covered a large area of Wirral. Egil’s Saga, a story which tells of the battle, may have referred to Wirral as Wen Heath.
After invading England in 1066 and subduing Northumbria in 1069/70, William the Conqueror invaded and ravaged Chester and its surrounding area, laying waste to much of Wirral. By 1086, most of the area was in the hands of Norman lords. For about 250 years the Earls of Chester ruled the whole of the County Palatine, including Wirral.
Between 1120–1123, Earl Ranulph le Meschin converted Wirral into a hunting forest, an area in which game, particularly deer and boar, could be allowed to flourish undisturbed. A chief Forester was appointed with a ceremonial horn (the Wirral Horn), and the position soon became a hereditary responsibility of the Stanley family. However, after complaints by the residents about the wildness of the area and oppression by the Stanleys, a charter confirming the disafforestation of Wirral was issued by King Edward III on 20 July 1376.
At the end of the twelfth century, Birkenhead Priory stood on the west bank of the River Mersey on a headland of birch trees, from which the town derives its name. The ruined priory is Merseyside’s oldest surviving building and its Benedictine monks provided the first Mersey ferry service around 1330, having been granted a passage to Liverpool by a charter from Edward III.
Wirral’s proximity to the port of Chester influenced the history of the Dee side of the peninsula. From about the 14th century, Chester provided facilities for trade with Ireland, Spain, and Germany, and seagoing vessels would “lay to” in the Dee awaiting favourable winds and tides. As the Dee started to silt up there came into use larger ships and together with the growth of commerce and industry in Lancashire, Chester and the Dee declined and Liverpool started to grow as a port and centre for commerce.
The 1820s saw the birth of the area’s renowned shipbuilding tradition when John Laird opened his shipyard in Birkenhead, later expanded by his son William. The Lairds were largely responsible for the early growth of Birkenhead, commissioning the architect James Gillespie Graham to lay it out as a new town modelled on Edinburgh. In 1847, Birkenhead’s first docks and its municipal park, the first in Britain and the inspiration for New York’s Central Park, were opened, and the town expanded rapidly. The improved communications around this time allowed Liverpool merchants to buy up and develop large estates in Wirral.
The mid 19th century saw the establishment of docks at Birkenhead and in the Wallasey Pool, and continuing development for a wide range of industry along the banks of the Mersey. Wirral’s first railway was built in 1840, planned by George Stephenson and connecting Birkenhead with Chester. In 1852 Price’s Patent Candle Company built a factory and model village at Bromborough. This was followed in 1888 by William Lever’s establishment of the much larger Sunlight soap factory and Port Sunlight garden village, designed to house its employees and provide them with a healthy environment.
In 1886, the Mersey Railway tunnel was opened, linking Wirral and Liverpool. This led to the further rapid growth of suburbs along its lines in Wirral. The dockland areas of Wallasey and Birkenhead continued to develop and prosper in the first half of the Twentieth Century and many port-related industries grew such as flour milling, tanning, edible oil refining and the manufacture of paint and rubber-based products. In 1922 a new oil dock was built at Stanlow near Ellesmere Port, and in 1934 oil refining began there. A large chemical and oil refining complex still dominates the area today.
A vehicle tunnel was constructed under the River Mersey in1934, the ‘Queensway Tunnel’. A second road tunnel opened in 1971, the ‘Kingsway Tunnel’, connecting with the M53 motorway which now runs up the centre of the peninsula. These new roads contributed to the massive growth of commuting by car between Liverpool and Wirral, and the development of new suburban estates.
In 1940-41, as part of The Blitz, parts of Wirral, especially around the docks, suffered extensive bomb damage. After the Second World War, economic decline began to set in in Birkenhead, as elsewhere in Merseyside.
However, there continued to be industrial development along the Mersey between Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port, including the large Vauxhall Motors car factory built on the site of the former RAF Hooton Park airbase in 1962.
Since 1974 the Wirral is governed by the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral. Wirral continues to be an area of contrasts. There are areas of open land across the peninsula. These include Bidston Hill, Caldy Hill, Eastham Country Park, Hilbre Island, North Wirral Coastal Park, Thurstaston Common and the Wirral Way.
There are many places of architectural interest such as Hamilton Square and Port Sunlight. From Birkenghead and Wallasey there are fine views of the buildings on Liverpool’s Pier Head. Many villages of Wirral such as Burton are well preserved with their characteristic red sandstone buildings and walls. The historical sites include Birkenhead Priory, Leasowe Lighthouse, the old port of Parkgate, Hadlow Road railway station and the buildings and ancient carvings on Bidston Hill.
The Wirral is a varied area to explore and with Liverpool, Chester and North Wales on our doorstep there are lots of places to see.