Walking with Stephen: Greasby to Hoylake

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.

Our journey began in snow, meeting at Walton Church in Liverpool.

Our journey began in snow, meeting at Walton Church in Liverpool.

“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.

Just next to this marl pit.

Just next to this ancient marl pit, a source of agricultural fertiliser up to the 19th century.

“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 lanes of Stephen's childhood.

Along the lanes of Stephen’s childhood.

Pump Lane, the way it was.

Pump Lane, the way it was.

“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.

Stephen Roberts at the artesian well.

Stephen Roberts at the artesian well.

“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.”

They also uncovered this ancient pond, lurking in the overgrowth.

They also uncovered this ancient pond, lurking in the overgrowth.

Next we came to some military looking houses.

'For the families of the officers and instructors.'

‘For the families of the officers and instructors.’

Of R.A.F. West Kirby.

Of RAF West Kirby.

Which stood here from 1940 until about 1960, being last used in 1957.05e49c20

“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?”

Along the side of Greasby Brook.

Along the side of Greasby Brook.

Some roadways remain, going to nowhere now.

Some roadways remain, going to nowhere now.

New woodland has been planted. Stephen here ankle deep in icy water.

New woodland has been planted. Stephen here ankle deep in icy water.

Crossing more road.

Crossing more road.

And then we find the Camp itself.

Its remains, in the snow.

Its remains, in the snow.

“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.”

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As Stephen says, we’re not convinced all we see are military remains. There were Christmas trees for example!

And these strange fenceposts?

And these strange fenceposts?

“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.”

The white landscape of North Wirral.

The white landscape of North Wirral.

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.”

'We'd get the Crosville bus from school in Hoylake to our playing fields here.'

We enter Meols at the end of what is effectively Pump Lane from Greasby.

We enter Meols at the end of what is effectively Pump Lane from Greasby.

'In 1938 my Grandfather built those chimneys. Chimneys were his speciality.'

‘In 1938 my Grandfather built those chimneys. Chimneys were his speciality.’

“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.

Into Meols, past 13th century   Rose Cottage.

Into Meols, past 13th century Rose Cottage.

“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)”

Down to the front, the Irish sea looking particularly forbidding today.

Down to the front, the Irish sea looking particularly forbidding today.

Ice in the sea at what was previously the Hoyle Lake.

Ice in the sea at what was previously the Hoyle Lake.

“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.

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“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.”

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“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.”

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Henry Roberts

And here is Henry Roberts, fisherman, standing in the water at Hoylake in the late 19th century. And below, his great great grandson, Stephen.

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“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.”

And this lovely little pub, where they no doubt drank.

Coming at last to this lovely little pub, where some of Stephen’s ancestors no doubt drank.

“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.”

072ff3f0The 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.

5 thoughts on “Walking with Stephen: Greasby to Hoylake

  1. cheethamlib

    Very, very interesting, amazing how many links to the past are still around or in many cases just below the surface. Covering up the Viking longship in 1938 is just an incredible piece of stupidity – still we have to remember that times were different and so were attitudes towards ancient remains.

    I liked the story of the pump and cistern that was excavated. Looking forward to the follow-up in April…..thank you

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thanks Mandy, Stephen and I are both very interested in the idea of experiencing and learning about places by wandering around them with all of your senses open to what you find and how the places feel. And in urban places we find human foibles. And it may or may not be a Viking ship. But the main thing back in 1938, and maybe still today, was to get the pub built on time.

      Because, interestingly, when we went into the pub to look for information about the ship, the young staff member we asked pointed at the display board we’d just read and said ‘No, that’s all there is.’ Looking around though, we quickly found that the walls of the place were full of Vikings and Longships, but she just didn’t ‘see’ them.

      Reply
  2. Peter Dawson

    Really interesting, my dad was brought up in School Lane and my grandparents lived at 13 Sea View, we went back to find it but that house number was missing from the row? We also have graves at the Church

    Reply

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