On Wednesday this week, in the snow, sleet and rain I went walking in North Wirral with the area’s principle historian, Stephen Roberts.
You might have noticed Stephen around the blog before. He comments sometimes and is also the author of ‘A History of Wirral’ which I’ve mentioned before. He’s a teacher too, head of the History Department at a school in Kendal, from where some of the pupils came to have a look around Liverpool 8 with me a while back.
My brief was simple. ‘Take me on a walk somewhere interesting that I’ve never been.’ And he did.
“It was nice to meet Ronnie at this well-known and ancient Liverpool church, where some of my ancestors were baptized.”
We drove to Greasby and parked at Stephen’s parents house.
“Marl pits abound in this part of the world. They are evidence of our ancestors’ efforts to improve the heavy boulder clay of Wirral. Thankfully the builders of this estate decided to keep them, so the bull rushes can flourish.”
Then we set off through Greasby.
“The bottom right hand photograph is my favourite – it powerfully evokes life in old rural Greasby. I grew up here in the 1960’s and 70’s when the last vestiges of rusticity were rapidly disappearing, as housing estates grew up and all the quirky, overgrown corners were filled in.”
When we got to Pump Lane now Stephen showed me the old village pump, excavated in his younger years by Stephen and his friends, led by the late Jim O’Neil, who is now commemorated here.
“During the summer of 1980, under the leadership of the great Jim O’Neil, many of us came here every day to clear the site and gradually expose the old road, trough, cistern and pond. Jim has maintained the spot ever since. Sadly he died just before Christmas, the day after he retired. I would like to pay tribute to all the work he did in the fields of local history, conservation and in just being a great bloke.”
Next we came to some military looking houses.
“During this period in excess of 150,000 young men passed through the camp either on route to foreign parts in its early days as a transit camp, or as recruits to be trained by the various drill instructors. There was of course also a core of permanent staff to cater for all the various needs of those young men.” RAF. West Kirkby Association
Today we walk through the site of the Camp, mostly in silence, imagining the sounds of the many boots that marched here before our own.
“Think of all the young airmen who spent six weeks or so of their lives on this site, being moulded into what the RAF thought they should be like in order to defend the country, from Nazi Germany and then potentially Soviet Russia as the Cold War began. Isn’t it remarkable how little evidence remains of their presence and how quickly nature has recovered?”
And then we find the Camp itself.
“Some of the debris is clearly from the old RAF camp – like these bollards. Perhaps they stood outside the guardroom. Some of it is fly tipping.”
As Stephen says, we’re not convinced all we see are military remains. There were Christmas trees for example!
“I had never really noticed these huge ugly fence posts before. They are very strong and stable, so must be the northern boundary of the camp.”
Emerging from the fields where the Camp was, we get a bit lost. And come to somewhere Stephen hasn’t seen for ‘a good 40 years.’
“Suddenly we stumbled on a very familiar spot – my old school’s playing fields. We used to be brought here twice a week on a Crossville bus in order to play football or go on cross country runs.”
“This is a typical 1930’s pub, built for motorists. We see them all around Merseyside. This one replaced a much older (and probably nicer) one. My grandfather worked on it and it is now famous for having a possible Viking long boat buried under its car park. Apparently, some of the builders saw it, but the foreman told them to cover it up again. For more details see here and here.
At this point Stephen reminded me that his Grandfather also worked on the chimneys of Bidston Court, when it was being rebuilt as what is now the ‘dream wedding’ hotel in Royden Park that we’ve seen several times.
“I love this building: it is essentially a one-roomed medieval cottage which has been slightly modernized. There must have been many more of these in Great Meols. Some of them have been demolished and replaced; some of them lay further out to sea in the old Meols which was washed away in the middle ages. For more details see my book “Hoylake and Meols Past” (Phillimore 1992) or “Meols: The Archaeology of the North Wirral Coast” by David Griffiths et. al. (Oxford 2007)”
“The sea looks very still and bleak today, but this part was once a channel for ships heading to Liverpool and a haven for the Hoylake fishing fleet. Hoylake once housed customs officers, coastguards and two lighthouses. There was even a Lazaretto for quarantining sick sailors arriving from the Mediterranean or Africa.There is still a very important lifeboat station.”
Next, in Hoose, the oldest part of what is now Hoylake, we meet some of the places and people who made Stephen.
“This is Sea View, where numerous fishing families lived, including my great great great grandfather, Peter Roberts, who was living here at number 9 in 1851.”
“My ancestral tombstone. I first saw this in 1982. It triggered my interest in local and family history. Henry was my great great grandfather. Coincidentally he married a girl from Kendal, which is where I now work. His son, John Isaac, drowned off the lifeboat in November 1906. Another son, Peter, was lost at sea in 1914.”
And here is Henry Roberts, fisherman, standing in the water at Hoylake in the late 19th century. And below, his great great grandson, Stephen.
“I was first photographed in this position back in 1984 when I wrote an article about the “Stag” and and the “Ellen and Ann” – Hoylake smacks which went down with all hands just before Christmas 1894. This is the Eccles family grave, containing John, Edwin and John junior, who drowned off the “Ellen and Ann.”
“We were able to dry out a bit in the ever-welcoming “Plasterers Arms” and therein to discuss local history, her taking part in re-enacting battles of the English Civil War, and customers past and present with the friendly landlady and her husband.”
The RAF West Kirby website has many photographs of the place and the people who passed through there and it’s well worth a visit. It also contains pictures of the only one of the Camp’s buildings to have survived, As a church hall at St John the Divine Church in Frankby, Wirral.
Finally, the last words from Stephen:
“Thanks very much Ronnie for joining me on a walk through my favourite piece of the earth’s surface and for taking such good pictures. I enjoyed sharing this route with you and look forward to doing a similar psychogeographical exploration in Liverpool during the Easter holiday.”
Yes, the psychogeographers will be back. Walking around, certainly. And getting lost if we can!
And talking of psychogeographers and historians, here’s a wonderful resource for the whole of Cheshire and Wirral. Victorian Tithe maps, shown alongside what’s there today. You can search on a name a post code or a whole area, such as ‘Greasby, Thurstaston and West Kirby’ and see what’s changed and what remains the same.