All of the time we’ve been walking along the coast of the Dee Estuary, from West Kirby right up to the marshland between Neston and Burton Point, we’ve known there’s another, upstream and final piece of this edge that we’d yet to explore. We explored it today.
And did so partly at the suggestion of blog contributor Stan Cotter, who told us on last week’s Walk report about the delights of the church at Shotwick, the tiny village at the heart of our unexplored piece of edgeland. Right on the border between England and Wales. Tangled up in the land around the motorways and semi-motorways that link Chester, Wales , the Wirral and Liverpool. And right on the edge of where the River Dee used to be, long long ago.
‘If you ever find yourself in Shotwick, that’s on the Welsh road (it’s referred to as the Welsh Road on the map but its actually the A550). It’s a lovely little old village. It doesn’t have a shop, post office or a pub, but it does have loads of history going back to Roman times. The village church is a lovely little church, where the sandstone wall at the entrance is worn where the archers and swordsmen sharpened their weapons. It was in Roman times a major port until Chester was established.’
So yes, this village, which we know to be on the edge of a marshland, used to be a port. So what happened? For this, we’ll let the Parish Newsletter take up the story.
‘Wirral’s Historic Dee Coastline’
On 24th May Gavin Hunter came to give a very well supported talk on Wirral’s historic Dee coastline. Gavin is the co-author of local history books and a landscape historian who regularly speaks and lectures on the history of the Wirral peninsula.
Gavin began his talk by explaining that the River Mersey originally flowed into the sea through the Dee estuary and that at the time there was enough water to prevent the Dee from silting up. When the course of the Mersey changed so that it flowed into the sea at Liverpool the Dee was doomed. The original course of the Dee followed what is still the boundary between England and Wales, but the course of the river was changed to try to keep Chester navigable as a port and by 1916 eighteen square miles had been reclaimed.’
Thank you. We left some money for the newsletter, in the bowl, as requested!
I’d heard mention of the River Mersey theory before, because it really is a huge estuary for one modest river, and this is what I’ve found so far on Wikipedia:
‘The estuary is unusual in that comparatively little water occupies so large a basin. One theory is that larger rivers such as the Severn and/or Mersey once flowed into the Dee. The current view is that the estuary owes its origin to the passage of glacial ice southeastwards from the Irish Sea during successive ice ages, eroding a broad and shallow iceway through the relatively soft Triassic sandstones and Coal Measures mudstones which underlie the area. The inner parts of this channel were filled by glacially derived sands and gravels long ago and infilling by mud and silt has continued since. It is also thought that prior to the ice ages, the estuary received larger river flows as the upper Severn flowed into the Dee near Chirk. For a period, the Mersey may also have flowed into the Dee by means of a channel which it cut through the base of the Wirral Peninsula.’
So, glaciation, other rivers? Happy to hear about more definitive research on the Severn and Mersey? But what is definite is that once the course of the Dee was altered in the mid-eighteenth century, Shotwick was changed utterly:
‘West of Chester, the river flows along an artificial channel excavated between 1732 and 1736. The work was planned and undertaken by engineers from the Netherlands and paid for by local merchants and Chester Corporation. It was an attempt to improve navigation for shipping and reduce silting. Chester’s trade had declined steadily since the end of the 17th century as sediment had prevented larger craft reaching the city. After four years’ work, the river was diverted from its meandering natural course which passed Blacon, Saughall, Shotwick Castle, Burton and Parkgate and up the west shore of Wirral. Instead the new canalised section followed the coast along North East Wales. During this time, Sealand and Shotton were reclaimed from the estuary. Land reclamation in this area continued until 1916. The river’s natural course can still be determined by following the bank and low bluffs that mark the western edge of the Wirral Peninsula.’
So we set off to look for evidence of the river’s original course.
Carolyn tells us lots about the place and the joys of living there. Including the fact that eleven of the fifteen homes in Shotwick, including her own, are rented by a local Trust and cannot pass into private ownership. She also tells us about her past in Liverpool, and that she went to school at Blackburne House, when it was still a girls school and before it was transformed into the social enterprise where we and so many of our friends have done so much work.
At which point, as we do with new walks, Sarah says to me – ‘So, marks out of ten so far?’ ‘Four’ says I, ‘And it feels like a one-off. Shotwick was glorious and we’ll definitely be back there. But this trudging across busy roads and around the edges of fields, and finding footpaths that these agri-business farmers clearly don’t want us to find? Don’t think so.’ So, agreeing immediately that life’s too short not to have a fantastic time as often as possible, we put our normally trusty circular Wirral Walks book away, get our map back out and find the quickest route back to Shotwick.
One day, we’ll return here and follow the marsh path into Wales. But for today we turn back to explore the ancient lanes of Shotwick, all three of them.