HAVING slept like a log in my hotel in Heswall, I awoke about as speedily as a tree grows in breadth. I was warm and comfy and had no great desire to get out of bed but I also knew that the Seacombe to Liverpool ferry stopped running shortly after four pm and thus, if I wanted to catch it, I needed to be ready to go immediately after breakfast at eight. And I knew breakfast started at eight because I’d checked.
The breakfast was a lie
In the Hotel
Having blearily made my way down to the dining room only to find it locked, I retreated to my room and resorted to reading the information folder that hotels typically provide. This, in unarguable black and white, informed me that breakfast was at nine on Saturdays. My morning would thus be delayed by an hour (even if I now skipped breakfast, there would be no one on reception to let me check out until then).
I fretted for a moment over this but consoled myself with the healthy buffer I’d factored into my timings — so long as I didn’t dawdle, I’d still be fine. Meanwhile I had an hour to kill, so I might as well make a cup of tea.
An Alarming Development
I had just made the tea and had yet to touch the cup to my lips when the hotel fire alarm went off. The alarm was right outside my door, enabling me to briefly appreciate its full benefit before it damaged my hearing beyond all repair. Should I now be caught in a blazing inferno, I would at least be spared the terrifying roar of the flames.
Since I had been ready for an immediate departure after breakfast, I was already wearing my coat and had my packed bag to hand. I thus stumbled fully encumbered into the hallway where one of the hotel staff was repeatedly keying a pass code into a box on the wall.
‘It won’t turn off,’ he mouthed to me, his words lost amid the cacophonous echoes of the alarm. Not that I’d have heard them anyway; it was like that bit in Saving Private Ryan when all the sound goes muffled on the beach.
It’s a Small World
I decided the only privates that I’d be saving were my own and headed downstairs to lurk outside the hotel, where I and the other guests could frantically mime to each other. In one of those small world moments that so often seem to occur, the guest with whom I was conversing through gestures and shouting turned out to live just down the road from me, over two hundred miles from where we were both now being deafened.
No Cause for Alarm
It was pretty clear that the hotel was not actually on fire but that the alarm had simply developed a fault. Or possibly several faults, one of which was evidently that it could no longer be turned off. When it was eventually silenced we all gave what was probably a very loud cheer; I suspect they just cut the power to it.
Seizing the Opportunity
Now, as my hearing gradually returned, I realised that I was not only packed and ready to go but that I was near to the reception desk, where an equally deafened hotel employee was closing up the alarm panel. I seized my chance and nabbed him, so that I could check out early.
In a gesture of entirely unprompted reasonableness, he then knocked the price of breakfast off my bill since I would not now be hanging around to eat any. And thus, with my stomach rumbling and my ears still ringing, I set off more or less on time, returning to the long straight track of the Wirral Country Park.
Wirral Country Park
The Teeming Track
It was busier than I expected, with several early morning dog-walkers and a whole bevy of joggers. The latter seemed particularly appropriate for the path.
Initially, the path ran through a cutting and afforded no views. But this soon changed and I was able to gaze across field and marshland to the River Dee and, on its far side, Flintshire.
TSS Duke of Lancaster
I amused myself by identifying the various places I’d walked through, lost in a misty haze though they were, and kept an eye for a particular white dot. When I spotted it, it was indeed just a tiny white speck and difficult to make out for what it was. My camera’s zoom helped on that score, revealing the unmistakeable shape of the Duke of Lancaster.
A little further on, I encountered a side-track branching off and a signpost beside it indicated that it led to ‘the Dungeon’. This intrigued me.
True, I had a deadline by which to reach Seacombe and diversionary expeditions would hardly help with that. But I like to consider my perambulations as gentle adventures and if there is one thing that I’ve learned from the fantasy genre, it’s that adventurers explore dungeons.
In this case the Dungeon turned out to be a valley ending in a steep-sided, wooded hollow. It was quite lovely but also a good half mile out of the way. This extra mile (there and back) does not count towards the day’s total.
Having rejoined the disused railway line that is the Wirral Way at this point, I steamed along at a good pace.
Thurstaston is a tiny village, about a mile down the road from its former station. Its name is a mixture of Norse and Old English: Þorsteinn-tún meaning ‘Thorsteinn’s farmstead’. It is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Turstanetone’. Its old manor house, Thurstaston Hall, dates back in part to the mid-fourteenth century.
Not needing another diversion so soon after the Dungeon, I kept Thurstaston at arm’s distance and kept on going towards Caldy, an equally old but slightly less tiny village on the outskirts of the town of West Kirby.
Charm & Church
West Kirby is a smallish but affluent town, parts of which have a timber-framed charm much like that of Chester. Its name is Old Norse (Kirkjubyr, ‘church village’)
Facing out onto the mouth of the Dee is a Victorian promenade, adjacent to which is a marine lake (i.e. a shallow artificial coastal lagoon with constant water levels, separated from the beach by a dyke).
The marine lake is popular for rowing and sailing but swimming and paddling are strictly prohibited. This is partly because no matter how enthusiastic a paddler you are, you probably don’t want to be run over by a sailing dinghy at full speed and partly because a foot full of agonising fish venom will ruin anyone’s day.
Signs beside the lake warn that numerous weever fish have decided to make the lake their home.
Weevers are small fish of the Trachinidae family (about 14 cm long for the most commonly encountered species) and are characterised by venomous spines in their dorsal fins. This would be fine and dandy if they swam somewhere you’re unlikely to step on one, but weevers lack a swim bladder and are frankly quite poor at swimming. Which is why they like to bury themselves in soft sand, just below the surface with their spines sticking up.
They do the burying part so as to be able to ambush passing shrimp. The venomous spine thing is presumably for defence, although how that’s meant to deter you from stepping on one when all you can see is its fin — and only then if you’re really looking hard for it — well that’s anyone’s guess.
A Pain to Discover
Finding one the hard way is not fun: a weever sting causes intense burning pain, peaking about half an hour after the sting and then gradually easing off over up to twenty-four hours. Fortunately, the venom is very heat-sensitive and bathing the stung area in hot water (as hot as the victim can tolerate without scalding) drastically reduces the pain and duration.
Weevers live all around the UK’s coast and it appears that most popular beaches see at least a couple of stings each year yet they are not a well-known danger: generally the first time someone British hears the name ‘weever fish’ is when the first aider tells them what they just stepped on.
Still, they’re not life-threatening, just extremely painful; though it doesn’t help that the medical advice for a weever sting (‘bathe it in really hot water’) is the exact opposite of that for a jellyfish sting in UK waters (‘put ice on it’).
End of the Line
The Wirral Country Park had ended at West Kirby on account of the track bed from West Kirby to Birkenhead still housing an active railway line. As an alternative to directing us down the tracks and under the wheels of the Merseyrail Wirral Line service, the Wirral Way sent me along the top of a beach on a path amid low dunes and marram grass.
Stanley Road ‘Lighthouse’
The white tower of a lighthouse emerged from behind trees and dunes up ahead and, almost before I knew it, I found myself standing at the end of a long residential road.
I was now in the town of Hoylake and, at the end of the road, I turned right onto another road which led me back to the promenade. This latter road was called King’s Gap and it was from there in 1690 that William III set sail to Ireland to defeat the Jacobite army of James II.
At that time Hoylake was a tiny village called Hoose (the Hoyle Lake was actually a channel of water between it and Hilbre Island) but it grew significantly in the nineteenth century when the railways linked it to Birkenhead and Chester.
This explained the promenade — no self-respecting Victorian seaside town would be caught without one.
The promenade continued much the same for about two miles and then, at Dove Point, it swapped the Victorian railings of Hoylake for the grim concrete practicality of the 1980s in the form of the Wallasey Embankment. Although, in the context of sea defences, concrete, being an aggregate material readily eroded by wave action, is ‘practical’ in the sense of being ‘cheap and easy’ rather than ‘hard-wearing and resistant’.
The Wallasey Embankment was at least easy going, even if it wasn’t all that much fun to look at. And the tide had come in, which meant I got the satisfying crash of breaking waves as I strode along, making good time. There was precious little variation along this stretch so when an object of interest did pop into view it was very interesting indeed.
Leasowe Lighthouse was built by Liverpool Corporation in 1763 and is perhaps more interesting than it first appears. It certainly isn’t the loveliest of lighthouses but it is Britain’s oldest brick-built lighthouse and may well have been the first ever to be fitted with a parabolic reflector.
It ceased to be operational in 1908 but even then it was forging its own way forward as one of its last keepers — Mrs Williams — was the UK’s first and (at the time) only female lighthouse keeper.
The lighthouse lies on the outskirts of Leasowe (Old English Leasowes meaning ‘meadow pastures’), which has a significant dune system and its beaches in pre-embankment days briefly saw the world’s first passenger hovercraft service (to Rhyl), which ran in 1961-2 before collapsing into economic disaster.
After a good three miles of largely identical Wallesey Embankment, the path suddenly turned into a car park and then a road. A refreshments van by the side of the road sold me a cup of hot chocolate with marshmellows floating in it and I clutched this in my cold and windswept fingers as I double-checked where I now was.
The name New Brighton is no accident. In 1830, a Liverpool merchant named John Atherton purchased as much land as he was able and set about trying to turn it into a shiny new resort in the model of the original Brighton in Sussex.
Unlike many who had similar ideas at about the same time, Atherton was pretty successful, not least because New Brighton was handy for Liverpool and the Lancashire industrial towns in much the same way as Brighton was handy for London.
New Brighton Tower
By 1900, New Brighton had gained a tower — named with disappointingly little imagination the New Brighton Tower — a steel lattice affair in much the same spirit as the Blackpool and Eiffel towers. Not only was it taller than Blackpool’s at 567 feet but it was also the tallest building in Britain at the time.
Unfortunately, maintenance was put on hold for the duration of WW1 and by the time the war ended it needed so much renovation that its owners simply couldn’t afford it. The tower was dismantled in 1919.
Fort Perch Rock
Not put off by the clown — technically it appears to be a Pierrot — I made my way through New Brighton, passing as I did so its disused lighthouse (1827-1973), a marine lake (much smaller than West Kirby’s) and Fort Perch Rock, an early nineteenth century fortification.
Fort Perch Rock is a triangular-shaped coastal defence battery built in 1829, which makes it too late to be Napoleonic and too early to be a Palmerston Folly; it is now a museum.
Having passed the fort and rounded the northeast corner of the Wirral, I was now entering the Mersey Estuary.
Liverpool and Seacombe lurked in distance and between me and the latter was a broad promenade, constructed in the 1890s. My last two and a half miles of the day would be just as easy going as the others.
Egremont & Seacombe
New Brighton gave way to Egremont, which would later give way to Seacombe. All three are suburbs of the town of Wallasey, the name of which originally meant ‘island of the Welsh’.
As New Brighton expanded in the nineteenth century so did the already extant villages of Wallasey, Liscard, Poulton and Seacombe until they became one continuous conurbation. Egremont, through which I was passing, had started as an extension of Liscard until it became big enough to be a place of its own.
Just as when I walked through Holyhead, I was now in a location where my forebears had lived. I’ve been looking into my family history and several generations of ancestors on my mum’s side lived, worked and died in Wallasey having moved there from various other places such as Lancashire, Scotland and Sweden.
I was particularly looking forward to getting to Seacombe. Not just because I could take the ferry across the Mersey, which has to be one of the most famous ferries in the world, but because my great-great-great-great uncle worked on the Seacombe Ferry. Now admittedly that’s a lot of greats and with ‘uncle’ on the end of it, he’s not even a direct ancestor. But the man in question, Roger Fishwick, is the subject of quite the most interesting family history detail I’ve turned up yet. In 1869 he kicked a man to death!
In fairness, it’s not nearly as bad as that sounds (except perhaps for the man he kicked but he rather had it coming). According to local newspaper reports someone picked a fight with Roger’s brother Hugh, refused to let Hugh walk away and then proceeded to beat seven hells out of him. Roger, rushing to his brother’s aid, kicked the man in the side of the head. Whilst wearing clogs.
The Chester Chronicle, with glorious Victorian style, reports that Hugh’s assailant ‘turned over on his side, a gargling noise was heard in his throat, and then he expired’.
Trial & Sentence
At his trial, Roger’s defence barrister was able to argue that he wasn’t really the type to hold life cheaply, as exemplified by the seventeen times he’d saved people from drowning and the Royal Humane Society medal that he’d earned on that account.
The court found him guilty of manslaughter — which is fair enough, he had indeed killed a man — and the judge showed some mercy on account of the circumstances. Quite a lot of mercy in fact. Tons of it. Roger Fishwick got just fourteen days.
His younger brother John is my direct ancestor.
Wallasey Town Hall
The section along the banks of the Mersey was rather less windswept than the Wirral’s north coast had been and, while it wasn’t exactly warm it wasn’t exactly freezing either. The winter sun was low as I passed Wallasey Town Hall, almost silhouetting it against the sky.
Wallasey Town Hall was built between 1914 and 1916 as the town hall for the new County Borough of Wallasey, combining together all those other villages that would now be Wallasey suburbs.
Apparently, there was much discussion about where to build it — the middle of Wallasey? New Brighton? Liscard? The arguments deadlocked the council for months until eventually Seacombe won by a single vote. King George V laid the foundation stone and work commenced but by the time it was finished WW1 was in full swing and instead of the council moving in it was used as a military hospital. Wallasey’s council finally took possession in 1919.
Not only was the town hall nowhere near the centre of town but it was also built with its most impressive side facing the river, the better to awe boats on the Mersey or promenade strollers like me. Since its main entrance faces the other way, this basically means that its best side is its backside.
From 1926 a magnificent pipe organ provided suitable music to proceedings until 1940 when the Luftwaffe voiced its musical criticism via the medium of bombs.
The County Borough of Wallasey ceased to exist in 1974, having been merged with Birkenhead, Hoylake and Bebington to form the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral within the new county of Merseyside.
Wirral Council decided to make the town hall its home meaning that, if anything, it was now even further from the centre of the territory it governed. Still, it looks good from the river.
Having passed Wallasey Town Hall I was almost at the terminal for the Mersey Ferry.
The Mersey Ferry
Mersey ferries have run since about 1150 when a Benedictine Priory was established at Birkenhead and the monks would row people across the river for a fee. The ferry was Royally licensed in 1317.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 did away with the priory and the monasteries but ferries continued to be licensed, with one sailing from Seacombe by at least 1735.
Steam ferries arrived from 1815 and in 1847 the first ever floating landing stage was established, designed by civil engineer William Cubitt (1785-1861).
In 1914, two ferries, Iris and Daffodil, were taken out of service and used as troop ships for the daring but largely ineffective raid on Zebrugge. Both ferries saw action — their shallow draught meant they could skim over subsurface naval mines without making contact — and George V allowed them to add the word ‘Royal’ to their names.
An Idle Hour
I arrived at the ferry terminal with a little less than an hour to wait for what would be the last ferry of the day. This was ample time to sit down, enjoy a cup of tea and a sandwich and to generally enjoy the Liverpool skyline across the water.
MV Royal Iris of The Mersey
My ferry, when she arrived, appeared to be called MV Royal Iris but actually turns out to be MV Royal Iris of The Mersey (she can’t use the name Royal Iris as her now unseaworthy predecessor is still on the Lloyds Register of Shipping).
The welcome aboard message was preceded by a burst of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Ferry Cross the Mersey, which I guess was inevitable. As it turns out, Royal Iris of the Mersey used to be, before a refit, MV Mountwood, which actually appeared in the 1965 film. She was launched in 1959.
The Three Graces
It being a Saturday, the ferry trip was also a river cruise with commentary, pointing out building such ast the Kingsway Tunnel’s ventilation tower and Birkenhead Town Hall.
Soon enough, though, we were approaching Liverpool’s Pier Head and I found myself looking at the famous ‘Three Graces’ — The Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building. Together they form an iconic waterfront image.
The sun had set and the light was failing as I stepped off the ferry and into Liverpool, now one part of Merseyside but historically in the county of Lancashire.
Finding food and my hotel was high on my agenda but first, since they were right in front of me, I wandered up and down the waterfront admiring each of the Three Graces.
Royal Liver Building
I really like the Royal Liver Building. I thought it looked awesome when, as a child, I saw it on TV in the 1970s and I haven’t changed my opinion since.
It was completed in 1911 as the purpose-built headquarters for Royal Liver Assurance and its styling resembles that of the early American skyscrapers with which it is contemporary. It was one of the first buildings to be made from reinforced concrete and for 21 years was the tallest storeyed building in Europe (i.e. excluding towers such as Eiffel’s).
Atop its twin clock towers sit the famous Liver Birds, symbols of Liverpool, which resemble giant cormorants with fronds clutched in their beaks.
The middle of the Three Graces is the Cunard Building, completed in 1917. As its name suggests, it was built as the headquarters for the famous shipping line and served as such until the 1960s.
At first glance, its style appears plainer than its two companions but a closer look reveals that it is largely modelled on an Italian Renaissance palazzo and its sides are adorned with sculptures. Today it is owned by the Merseyside Pension Fund.
Port of Liverpool Building
The third grace is the Port of Liverpool building, completed in 1907 following a design competition. The winning plans did not include the dome, which was added as an afterthought and taken from an unused design for the Anglican cathedral. Like the Royal Liver building, the construction of the Port of Liverpool Building involved an early use of reinforced concrete (faced with Portland limestone).
It housed the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board from its opening until 1994 and is now a mixture of office space, cafés and luxury flats.
As the twilight turned to darkness, I made my way towards the city centre and went in search of my hotel. A shower, food and bed all beckoned followed by more walking in the morning.
This time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,905 miles