Monday, 30 December 2013


In my Liverpool post I mentioned that Liverpool became a major port after the River Dee started silting up.  The ports of Neston and, later, Parkgate on the River Dee were Liverpool's predecessors, so Neston and Parkgate's loss was Liverpool's gain.  Neston, whose history goes back as far as Viking times, became an important port in the 1500s when it became the main point of departure for Spain, France and Ireland, helped along by excellent coaching links to London.  As the River Dee began to silt up the port activity moved to Parkgate, which in turn became one of the main departure points for Ireland.  It also became a fashionable resort, but now that the sea has receded the promenade looks out over a vast salt marsh.  However, this change in geography has made the area  a magnet for birdlovers.  The Gayton Sands RSPB Reserve to the west of Parkgate welcomes large flocks of wintering waders such as pintails and bar-tailed godwits, while along the foreshore birds of prey such as peregrines and hen harriers can be seen going about their hunting.  Another popular area for nature-lovers is the Wirral Country Park near Neston, which follows the path of a disused railway line.  There used to be collieries operating around Neston, and this part of the local history can be relived by following the Neston Collieries Trail.  To the south-east Ness Botanic Gardens enjoys a favourable geographical position with relatively low rainfall for the west coast and less severe frosts than other areas nearby, allowing the beautiful collection of plants to thrive.

Map of the area. 

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Ness Botanic Gardens. Photo by Alan Pennington, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 26 December 2013


Hoylake and the neighbouring West Kirby, situated at the mouth of the River Dee on the Wirral Peninsula, make the most of their seaside position with a range of watersports.  The Wirral Sailing Centre on West Kirby Marine Lake offers windsurfing, dinghy sailing, kayaking and power boating courses, while Hoylake hosts the European Sand Yachting Championships.  Between the two communities is the RoyalLiverpool Golf Club and a 300 acre patch of land nearby is being earmarked for a world class golf resort.  Hoylake is gaining a reputation as something of a hub for artists with its growing population of painters, sculptors and other arty types.  One particularly prominent project is a pirate ship 'beached' on the seafront made from driftwood and named the Grace Darling.  The Festival of Firsts in Hoylake is an arts festival with a difference, focussing on innovation and creativity and community participation.  There is plenty of interest for lovers of wildlife in this part of The Wirral.  The Dee Estuary is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its birdlife, which includes overwintering wildfowl and waders.  Old favourites such as oystercatchers, curlews and redshank can be seen going about their business on the shoreline.  Meanwhile, natterjack toads can be found in an area along the shore called Red Rocks, and there are rare grasses in the dunes.  At low tide there is access from West Kirby to the Hilbre Islands, where there are grey seals and a bird observatory.  

Map of the area. 

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Red Rocks. Photo by El Pollock, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 19 December 2013


New Brighton became a popular daytripping destination in Victorian times, when visitors from Liverpool used to cross the Mersey by ferry, landing at a pier in the resort.  The pier has since been demolished, as has the New Brighton Tower, built in 1898 and at 621 feet the tallest structure in Britain at that time.  During the resort's peak period of popularity in the early 1900s it had a ballroom and an outdoor swimming pool as well as a host of other attractions.  The ballroom, named The Tower Ballroom, was still going strong during the height of the Merseybeat era, hosting concerts by groups including the Beatles.  Sadly, a lot of the attractions from the resort's early days went the way of the pier and the tower, but now there is a redevelopment plan underway resulting in a new pavilion, the FloralPavilion, and the Marine Point leisure and retail complex.  However, one remaining relic of earlier times is the striking art deco building housing the New Palace amusement arcade, which along with the Adventureland attraction provides plenty of fun for the kids.

A causeway from the mainland leads out to Fort Perch Rock, whose battery of 18 guns was built in the 1820s during the Napoleonic Wars to fend off the French.  The fort occupies what at that time was a strategic position, facing onto the main entrance for shipping approaching the Mersey.  Its position and purpose earned it the nickname the "Little Gibraltar of the Mersey".  Now the fort is open to visitors and houses a museum with maritime and aviation displays including aircraft wreckage dating from World War II.

In the 1980s a book of photographs by the photographer Martin Parr called The Last Resort featured New Brighton as its subject.  The book became a classic of documentary photography and put Parr firmly on the map as a leading photographer.  The book, which featured the working classes holidaying in what was at the time a depressing and decaying resort, divided opinion among those who viewed it, with some finding its images disturbing, while others saw a more affectionate and humorous side to them.

For a list of events in the Wirral see here.

Map of the area.

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Fort Perch Rock. Photo by Rept0n1x, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


The distinctively shaped, angular chunk of land across the River Mersey from Liverpool is an area within Merseyside known as The Wirral, and Birkenhead is on its eastern flank, facing Liverpool.  The "Ferry Cross The Mersey" made famous in the song by Gerry and the Pacemakers (see previous post) can be traced back to monks from an ancient priory.  In the 12th century the monks of Birkenhead Priory established a ferry to Liverpool as part of their duty of care towards travellers.  In the early 1800s a steam ferry took over the crossing and merchants from Liverpool developed shipyards and docks in the area.  Shipping activity has largely moved to Seaforth, but one reminder of those days remains in the form of the Shore Road Pumping Station, where a large steam engine called the Giant Grasshopper was built by the inventive Victorians to prevent the flooding of the Mersey rail tunnel.  The 1887 Old Town Hall on an elegant Georgian square in Birkenhead houses The Wirral Museum with a carefully restored Victorian interior.  Meanwhile back at the Priory, which adjoins the towering cranes of the Cammell Laird Shipyeard, the tower is open to visitors who can enjoy amazing views over the Mersey and The Wirral from the top.  The tower is dedicated to the 99 men who died in a disaster aboard the Laird-built HMS Thetis submarine in 1939.  Other museums include the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum and the Wirral Transport Museum.

A short distance to the south of Birkenhead is Port Sunlight, a striking example of 19th century town planning.  The village was created by the soap magnate William Hesketh Lever as housing for his workforce, and it is now a conservation area charmingly termed a Garden Village.  The village makes for a pleasant day out, with a museum bringing to life what it was like to live here during Edwardian and Victorian times, and refreshment facilities including a hotel with fine dining.  There is a walking trail available from the museum for those who want to explore the village on foot.  

Map of the area. 

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Port Sunlight. Photo by Gary Beale, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


I have a confession to make.  I have something in common with Prince Charles.  Prince Charles hates modern architecture, and has been known to describe modern buildings in terms such as “monstrous carbuncle”.  I often shake my head in despair at the sight of modern buildings, as I genuinely can’t understand why something has to be ugly just because it’s modern.  At least this was the case until I visited Liverpool for the first time when, totally out of character, I found myself gazing admiringly at the city’s architecture both old and new.  There can be few skylines in the country to match that of Liverpool, which features a fascinating mix of buildings. 

Waterfront near Albert Dock

The elegant trio of buildings overlooking the docks – the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building, all built in the early 20th century – is referred to affectionately by the locals as the “three graces”.  Nearby is the impressive new Museum of Liverpool, with its diagonal lines resembling an x-shape, its big picture windows providing wonderful views over the Mersey.  Other nearby buildings are equally striking, some with shiplike outlines.  Higher up in the city centre, Liverpool’s two cathedrals continue the “old and new” theme, the old cathedral towering over everything, the fifth largest in the world and unusually these days free to enter, while a short distance away the newer Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral provides a complete contrast with its wigwam-like shape – in fact the Liverpudlians in typical comic style often refer to it as “Paddy’s Wigwam”.  All this splendour has led to Liverpool being awarded World Heritage Site status, but last year it was reported that this status could be under threat due to a planned waterfront development called Liverpool Waters which some believe has the potential to jeopardise the city's heritage.

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An elegant reminder of Liverpool's trading heyday. Photo by G-Man, via Wikimedia Commons

Waterfront, with the Cathedral towering over everything

Liverpool's importance as a port began as far back as the early 18th century when Chester's status as a port was scuppered by the silting of the River Dee.  By the end of the 19th century it was one of the most important ports in the world, with 40 per cent of the world's trade accounted for by Liverpool's ships.   Now the docks dating from those times, most notably Albert Dock, have been given over to tourism, with a heady mix of restaurants, shops and attractions such as the Tate Liverpool.   When we visited we went on a hugely entertaining tour on land and water in a wartime amphibious vehicle called the Yellow Duckmarine.  Unfortunately in March this year the Duckmarine sank in the Albert Dock and all the tourists on board had to be evacuated.  Then, unbelievably, the same thing happened again in June.  Fortunately everyone was okay, but the incidents seem to have forced a halt in operations, as the website states that tours are unable to operate at present.  

Albert Dock, with the ill-fated Yellow Duckmarine

London may have been the epicentre of the Swinging Sixties, but there was plenty going on in Liverpool also, where the pop music scene was dubbed Merseybeat.  The city is inextricably linked to The Beatles, who played in the famous Cavern Club nearly 300 times in their early days.  The club is still open for business and still putting on live bands.  There is also a bar opposite called the Cavern Pub which has live music nightly and is free to enter.  There are Beatles tours available for those who want to follow in the footsteps of the Fab Four, some of which take in the childhood homes of Paul McCartney ane John Lennon, and which also visit Strawberry Field and Penny Lane.  Then there is the Beatles Story down by the docks for those who like such things.  Near the old Cathedral is an amazing old pub called  The Philarmonic Dining Rooms, apparently affectionately named The Phil by John Lennon, who is said to have complained that one of the prices of fame was no longer being able to go there for a drink.  So as you can see, you can't get away from The Beatles in Liverpool - even the airport is named after John Lennon.  Other 60s icons associated with the city include Cilla Black, whose broad Liverpool accent is one of her trademarks, and Gerry and the Pacemakers, whose most famous song was Ferry Cross The Mersey, also the title of a film starring the band.  Meanwhile, on TV, The Liver Birds sitcom, first shown in 1969, told the story of two trendy young women sharing a flat in Liverpool.

Aside from the "Ferry Cross The Mersey", which still runs today, taking people across to the Wirral Peninsula, there are ferries to Dublin, Belfast and the Isle of Man.  Liverpool is also visited by cruise ships.  In the absence of the duck tours there are 'hop on hop off' bus tours available for exploring the city.  There are numerous museums and galleries, including the Walker Art Gallery,  the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum.  As one would expect from such a vibrant city, there are a host of festivals and events all year round, covering everything from food and drink to sport, from music to comedy and much more.

For a list of events in Liverpool, see here.

Map of the city.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013


Bootle is almost a suburb of Liverpool, although it is a town in its own right, in the Metropolitan Borough of Sefton on Merseyside.  During the war the town took a hammering, largely due to the presence of the docks on the foreshore.  90% of homes in the borough were damaged during the Liverpool Blitz, making it the most bombed borough in the country.  The Gladstone Dock was the base of the escort ships which were charged with protecting the convoys crossing the ocean during the Battle of the Atlantic.  Frederic John Walker, the Captain of HMS Starling and well-known pursuer of u-boats, used to stay in the Mayor's Parlour at the Town Hall and would sail out of Bootle. 

Much of the architecture in the centre of town is Victorian, notably the Town Hall and the Municipal Baths (now disused), a relic from the time when Bootle grew up as a bathing resort for wealthy Liverpudlians in the 19th century.  The town's Derby Park is a fine example of an urban Victorian park.  Bootle lies on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, 2 miles from Liverpool's Stanley Dock in one direction and 7 miles from Aintree racecourse in the other.  As is so often the case, Bootle's docks went into a decline during the 1960s and 1970s, but there is a regeneration underway.  The Gladstone Dock is now the departure point for ferries to Ireland with P&O.  Among the famous people born in Bootle are a number of footballers and the 60s rock 'n' roll star Billy J. Kramer, who has a statue down the road at Liverpool's Albert Dock.

Map of the area.

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Derby Park.  Photo by Sue Adair, via Wikimedia  Commons. 

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Like many towns in the area, Crosby's roots are Viking, but much of the present-day town is characterised by elegant Regency buildings.  These can be attributed to the wealthy local merchants who built the town's terraces and crescents in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The town as it stands today is the successor to the original hamlet of Little Crosby, which lies around one mile inland.  The southern end of Crosby's sandy beach is home to the Crosby Marina Club, which offers sailing lessons for beginners.  Swimmers should beware though: the strong currents here coupled with the shipping lanes close by given the proximity of the Mersey make the Crosby Channel a hazardous place for swimmers. 
Crosby's beach has a unique art installation spread over 3 kilometers of the foreshore called Another Place.  The work of Antony Gormley, it consists of 100 life-size, cast-iron figures stretching almost one kilometer out to sea.  The sculptures were originally displayed in various locations on continental Europe before settling in Crosby, where they look set to stay. As I sit typing up this piece many parts of the country are being battered by the worst storm for decades.  I've been wondering how the Crosby sculptures are bearing up, and I am pleased to report that I have just seen a photograph of one of them on the Liverpool Echo website standing defiantly facing the incoming waves.  Let's hope they all survive the tempest.

Map of the area.

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Photo by WillDaviess, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 2 December 2013


There are many places around the British coast where signs of early human habitation have been found - the remains of an early tool, a burial chamber, human bones for example.  However, Formby has something rather different.  At Formby Point when the tide is low human footprints can be made out in the mud.  These have been dated to the late Neolithic era 7,000 years ago, and were probably made by the hunter-gatherers who roamed the area at that time.  Animal footprints have also been discovered there, made by a variety of creatures including deer and wolf.  Formby Point is part of the Sefton Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest, and is characterised by extensive sand flats and dunes.  This is a rewarding area for walkers who like an interesting view: as well as the ships going in and out of the Mersey the mountains of North Wales can be discerned on the horizon.  Wildlife enthusiasts are in for a treat in the woodlands near here, where there is a red squirrel sanctuary, while the dunes are home to the natterjack toad.  

On the other side of the dunes is the town of Formby, originally a Viking settlement called Fornebei.  The town's landmarks include the Church of St Luke, which is 19th century, but some of the graves in the churchyard go back much further.  One of the gravestones to be found there is that of Richard Formby, armour-bearer to Henry IV and Henry V - he was known as 'Richard The Giant' due to the fact that he was 7ft tall.  Another interesting feature of the churchyard is a cross which originally stood on the village green.  During the Plague of 1665 its hollows were filled with vinegar so that coins could be disinfected.  One of Formby's streets is called Lifeboat Road, named after the lifeboat station which was built there in 1776, making it Britain's first lifeboat station.  

Map of the area. 

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Photo by Tom Pennington, via Wikimedia Commons