Burton in Wirral to Widnes


CHESHIRE

Posh and industrial, the Britons named the county Legacchestir. Chester was originally a Roman fort but even after they had left, Saxon, Vikings and Normans left their mark. The Wirral is a wedge of silted land between the rivers Dee and the Mersey.

The Wirral was once an area of scattered villages and hamlets engaged in farming and fishing. The peninsula saw a boom in development in the Victorian age with population soaring. In the 1820's, steam-powered boats were introduced into the ferry service, encouraging Liverpool businessmen to establish homes in Wirral away from the over-crowded city.

Dee Estuary

Wirral's first railway was built in 1840, running from Birkenhead to Chester. Birkenhead's first docks were opened in 1847 and in the same year Birkenhead Park became the first public park in the country and the model for the more famous Central Park in New York. If the Ferry service opened up Wirral, it was the Mersey railway which led to its increased development. Starting in 1886, the first underwater railway in the world, it connected Birkenhead, Wallasey and West Kirby with Liverpool.



Burton in Wirral


Burton-in-WirralBurton is an attractive village with a few black and white timber-framed houses and sandstone cottages. Surprisingly, it was a port in medieval times but is now well inland as a result of the silting of the River Dee. The red sandstone church has a working clock on its western tower with only one hand, but it looks rather good.



Neston


Ness GardensWe drove to Ness Gardens, the botanical garden of Liverpool University, and spent an hour wandering around. A rich cotton merchant constructed it, employing 48 gardeners, but when he died his daughter gave it to the University, which was rather nice. She stipulated that the public had to have access.

We drove down a road in Little Neston that looked as though it went to the Dee estuary, but it ended in a swamp. There is a path skirting the edge of the marshland to the south, that has wide views over to the hills of North Wales. Neston seems to be a posh area with large red sandstone houses and we drove beneath the red and yellow painted viaduct of the disused railway.

The Wirral Country Park follows this disused railway line and the former Hadlow Road station has been preserved much as it was when the last train operated in 1956. The line ran from Hooton to West Kirby, and the park continues north of Heston along the estuary.



Parkgate


ParkgateThe road took us to the promenade at Parkgate. This is a stranded seaside resort and the promenade and harbour wall now look out over a large stretch of salt marsh. It was once one of the main departure points for Ireland and 18th century houses along the waterfront are reminders of the days when it was a fashionable place. One striking black and white building is now a posh school. The steps that used to go down to the beach are now completely covered with grasses and sand.

In the marshes and mud flats west of Parkgate is the Gayton Sands RSPB Reserve, where large flocks of wintering waders include pintails and bartailed godwits, peregrines, merlins and hen harriers.



Heswall


To the west of this large town, a number of little streets run right down to the shore, giving views out across the sands and mud flats of Dawpool Bank. We noticed a huge number of businesses for sale although the town seemed to be thriving. Apparently Ian Botham was born here.

Thor's Stone

Thurstaston Common is an area of woodland and heath belonging to the National Trust. We climbed vivid red sandstone steps to an outcrop known as Thor's Stone, from which there are wide views across the whole peninsula from North Wales to Liverpool. The Anglican Cathedral over the Mersey is quite a landmark. The rock is criss-crossed by narrow white quartz veins and heathers were flowering prolifically.

Caldy BlacksSouthwest is the Thurstaston visitor centre, with information about the Country Park. There is a lovely beach below the cliffs at Caldy Blacks and a nice picnic spot. In summer there are cruises to observe the seals and sea birds at the mouth of the Dee estuary. We stopped for a coffee and toasties in the campsite café.



West Kirby


West KirbyWe arrived at the large marine lake at high tide and the man-made wall was completely submerged. The lake stretches the length of the mile-long promenade and is used for water-skiing, windsurfing, and sailing. At the northern end is a wide pier where a constant watch is kept on the bathers by a lifeguard patrol. Walking on the sands can be dangerous, because of the speed of the incoming tide. The other hazard are the weaver fish that have poisonous spines and sit in wait in the sand.

At low tide, it is possible to walk to Hilbre Island but it takes an hour and you need to get a permit first. It is one of three sandstone islands at the mouth of the Dee estuary and was once used as an outpost by the Romans. Benedictine monks built a monastic cell there in the 12th century and a signaling station was established in the 19th century. The Bird Observatory was formed in 1957 and the islands are now a nature reserve.



Hoylake


HoylakeThis as a comfortable, residential seaside resort with a 4-mile promenade. From the 18th century, shifting sands filled the lake from which the town takes its name, creating a broad sandbank that extends for 2 miles.

Leasowe lighthouseAt Dove Point, people were out on jet skis and a few were in little boats being pulled along by coloured kites. There were a few fishing boats that land and sell their catch on the promenade but the main attraction is the Royal Liverpool Golf Links where the Open is sometimes held.

Leasowe lies on the edge of the North Wirral Coastal Park between Hoylake and the New Brighton coastal defences. The Gunsite picnic area has impressive dunes and there is an 18th century, disused brick lighthouse. It is only open to visitors two Sundays a month and badly needs a coat of paint!



Wallasey and New Brighton


Perch Rock FortWallasey is a county borough that stretches back to Hoylake and includes the resort of New Brighton overlooking the Irish Sea. The sands were scoured away by changes in currents caused by the building of the docks on the opposite bank of the Mersey. The town has the usual range of seaside attractions such as a boating lake, fair and amusements along the King’s Parade.

SeacombeThe ferry from Liverpool brought thousands of Victorian daytrippers to New Brighton, and in 1898 the 621ft New Brighton Tower was built, then the tallest structure in Britain, but it was neglected and demolished in 1921. At the mouth of the Mersey, a causeway leads to Perch Rock Fort with a small museum. It was open but we didn’t fancy seeing World War II aircraft wreckage.

ferry ad

We attempted to drive down to Seacombe but the 3-mile promenade is pedestrianised.

I took several photographs of Liverpool and the Mersey Ferry from the ferry terminal, from where boats still sail to Ireland.



Birkenhead


Sub at museumWe drove into the road labyrinth of Birkenhead and found the Historic Ships. These are the frigate HMS Plymouth and the submarine HMS Onyx, both of which took part in the Falklands campaign. We stopped to look at a rusting German submarine and decided not to bother going in. You can catch a vintage tram from here to the ferry.

Tunnel Entrance

There are two tunnels connecting the town with Liverpool so just for the hell of it we went over by the Liverpool/Birkenhead Tunnel and back by the Wallasey Tunnel. The former is a two-way road and has junctions in it!

Vikings founded the port and called it Birken Haven. The first settlement was attached to an ancient priory, and it was the monks who, in the 12th century, established a ferry to Liverpool. John Laird, in 1824, built a boiler and ironworks in Birkenhead, which later became the famous ship yard Cammell Laird. Birkenhead grew with the advent of a steam ferry service in the early 1800s after which Liverpool merchants built houses, developed shipyards and docks.

Birkenhead PrioryWe eventually found the Priory in Priory Road, next to Priory Tiles on Priory Industrial Estate. It was a bit of a mess – enclosed by cranes on the dockside and with ancient stonework lying about. There is a museum but we were ushered out very quickly by "I’m locking the gates"! Can’t say I was very bothered.

Most shipping activity has moved to Seaforth, north of Liverpool, but Birkenhead's industrial heritage is celebrated in a town trail taking in a pumping station with a Victorian steam engine, used to prevent flooding in the Mersey rail tunnel. We passed the Cammel Laird shipbuilders, a huge oil terminal and got lost by the rather nice park.



Port Sunlight


Soap adThis is a cheery little place, rather like Cadbury’s Bourneville. William Hesketh Lever, later Lord Leverhulme invented Sunlight Soap in 1886, in Wigan. He built this garden village for his workers beside his new factory. Tree-lined roads, open spaces and good housing - a fine example of social engineering. The aim was to provide his workforce with a 'new Arcadia - ventilated and drained on the most scientific principles’. No fewer than 30 architects were employed and it is very nice indeed.

port sunlight

The first sod was cut by Mrs W.H.Lever on 3rd March, 1888. Bounded by a tidal inlet on one side and the main London railway line on the other, this marsh was far from being prime building land. This initial 56 acres cost Lever £200 an acre and he subsequently purchased another 165 acres.

EasthamThe village is now a conservation area, its heritage centre displays original building plans and there is a village trail. The Lady Lever Art Gallery was built by Lord Leverhulme to display his collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings and Wedgwood china.

We stopped at Eastham Country Park, which was once a Victorian pleasure garden. Through the woods, there is a nice little path that leads to a viewpoint down some steps to the river. We could see the entrance to the Manchester Ship Canal and an oil storage depot but couldn’t get any closer as the roads belong to the Ship Canal Company.



Ellesmere Port


This is the centre of an industrial area where Vauxhall has a massive car plant. The port stands at the junction of the Shropshire Union Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal and was built in 1790 as a gateway to their new canal system. The success of this transport method brought warehouses and mills but the port is hardly used now. New yuppie housing and a posh Italian restaurant have been built beside the canal.

Boat Museum

In old warehouses by a disused dock basin built by Thomas Telford, is the Boat Museum with the world's largest collection of brightly painted canal boats. They include narrowboats, canal barges, river barges, canal and river tugs, icebreakers and a coaster. We went aboard some of them to see what working and living conditions were like for the crews and their families.

View from StanlowMany old Georgian and Victorian buildings still survive and house fascinating exhibitions on the waterways, their industry and their people. It is a nice place for a day out and includes trips on the narrow boats.

We attempted to drive through Stanlow but the Canal Company owns all the roads so we took a main road through the huge oil refinery. The evening sun was shining on the tanks of the chemical works and it looked rather space age and eerie.

Overton Hill

At Helsby on the top of Overton Hill there is an Iron Age hill-fort, set in an area belonging to the National Trust.

View over estuaryApparently the views over the Mersey are lovely but we failed to find a place to park so we couldn't walk to the summit. There was one place where the roadside had been purposely barricaded with rocks.



Runcorn


We passes a railway viaduct at Frodsham before entering the morass of dual carriageways that surround Runcorn.

RuncornIf you want to get hopelessly lost, then this is the place for you. I have no idea how we eventually found Runcorn Hill but we were relieved to find the Travellers Rest advertising food - except there wasn't any! The area is now a nature reserve with a 'quarry trail' and fossilised dinosaur footprints were found in 1848.

Runcorn GapRuncorn is best known for its chemical works, which at night light up like a space-age city although it was once a resort for Liverpool. The soap and chemical industries were established in the 19th century and thousands of people arrived to work on the Manchester Ship Canal.

Widnes is linked to Runcorn by bridges at Runcorn Gap, where for centuries there was only a ferry crossing. Both towns are referred to as the cradle of the British chemical industry.



Widnes


Spike IslandIn 1845 a complex incorporating a railway, canals and docks was established at Spike Island, separated from Widnes by the St Helens Canal, to develop soap and soda-ash works.

Glass liftIt fell into disuse in the early 20th century and now the works have been replaced by meadows and paths with marshes to the east.

CatalystWe went to the Catalyst Museum, which has an exterior glass lift with views of the estuary and explains the industrial heritage. There are loads of interactive exhibits - great for kids.


 

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