My Hometown: Birkenhead, Wirral

posted on December 11th, 2007 by Anthony

I don’t think this a meme really, but it is a nice idea. Jack alerted me to the idea with his piece about Gateshead, and he in turn got the idea from Mike Chermin… so I suppose it’s spreading like one.

Anyway it’s all about giving you readers an idea about the area I actually live. I have touched on the area a few times in posts, and my last two designs of this site have hinged quite heavily on the sights of the local area. It makes sense to give a bit more detail to the picture.

Over The Water

I’ve mentioned it once or twice (hey we won’t have it forever…) but here’s the view from our flat. Not only is it stunning, but it does give a good idea about the Wirral’s place on earth…

Birkenhead separated from Liverpool by the River Mersey.

So basically Birkenhead is slap bang opposite Liverpool. 2008 European City of Culture. Home to the mighty Liverpool FC and some team that play in blue. World heritage site (well the bit in the picture, The Pier Head). Host of the 2007 Turner Prize. One of the biggest building sites in the Europe. What else… oh yeah music… The Zutons, Space, The LA’s, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Lightning Seeds, some four piece outfit from the 60s… they all came from Liverpool.

But I’m not here to talk about Liverpool. They’re “Over the Water”, this is about Birkenhead and the Wirral.

The Wirral Peninsula

For those who didn’t pay attention in geography a peninsula is a piece of land with water on three sides.

The Wirral Peninsula

The Wirral is probably about as classic as examples of peninsulas get. As you can see from the map we have the famous Mersey and the not-so-famous Dee rivers feeding into the Irish Sea at the north.

I’ve lived on the Wirral for most of my life, bar a few years living in Cheadle Hulme up Stockport way. On the map I’ve highlighted the towns I’ve lived, as well as Wallasey where I went to school. Fascinating stuff.

One point about the peninsula is it’s name. Is it The Wirral, or just Wirral? I say The Wirral – it’s not technically correct, but is is how most locals refer to the place. If nothing else it does fit the soft scouse accent and the general local way of saying things…

History

There is a very strong Viking history to the peninsula, we were a completely independent Viking state at one point. In fact there’s a pub near Hoylake that reckons there is Viking longboat under it’s car park, and my local golf courses was the scene of an epic Viking battle – the one that apparently set England on it’s course of Englishness – not too shabby.

Birkenhead Priory

In the twelfth century the monks of Birchen Head (a group of birch trees) started up a little ferry service over the river – and so Birkenhead came into being. The church – Birkenhead Priory – is still there and is the oldest standing building in Merseyside. Obviously the ferry is still going too, though it’s a bit further up the river now.

What really put the Wirral on the map, however, was shipbuilding. John Laird opened his Cammell Laird shipyard in the 1820s. Between 1829 and 1947 over 1,100 ships were launched form the Wirral’s coastline, including the first ever steel ship (and very scouse sounding) Ma Roberts. All the ship building also inevitably led to Birkenhead becoming a major docks area in general, mirroring the massive success of it’s neighbour over the water.

Riveters from Cammell Lairds in 1901

After WWII times got harder shipbuilding in the country and things dwindled away considerably. The last proper launch was of the nuclear submarine HMS Unicorn (now called HMCS Windsor and operating for the Canadian Navy) in 1993. Ship work still takes place on the site, but these days it’s for refits and things like that.

The site is used for the odd few other things these days. For example the main construction shed – one of largest indoor spaces in Europe – is occasionally used for testing hot air balloons! (I’m pretty sure Richard Branson tested his last big expedition balloon there.)

Railways also played a massive part in the development of the area (as they so often did). First a certain George Stepheson connected Birkenhead to Chester in 1840. Then in 1886 a tunnel was dug for the railway to carry on through to Liverpool and it’s docks.

This was the boom time for Birkenhead and money came flooding into the town. Along with giving the town some cracking architecture it also provided Birkenhead Park in 1847. This was the first public park in the world! It’s widely believed to be the inspiration for New York’s Central Park. It was sadly neglected for many years, however it has just undergone a massive, and much needed, £11.5m redevelopment.

Sunlight Soap

Birkenhead doesn’t haven’t a complete monopoly on the industrial history of the Wirral – although it’s undoubtedly what made everything else possible. In 1888 William Hekseth Lever built a whole town for his soap factory and workers called Port Sunlight – after their famous Sunlight Soap. It still exists today with over 900 listed buidlings and is a desginated conservation area. It’s still as pretty and well maintained today as it was when it was first built. (It’s a shame it’s next to New Ferry…). Lever still have a factory is still there too.

The Bad Side

The Wirral has always been regarded as the posh side of Liverpool. That’s both true, and unfair. The Wirral has a huge spectrum of areas. It has hugely affluent areas, it has some of the worst council estates in the country. It has beaches, wonderful coastline, it has farmland, it has towns, it has parks, it has industrial estates and much more within it’s 7×10 mile area.

I’ve kind of hinted at it, but when shipbuilding hit the skids so did Birkenhead. At it’s height Cammell Lairds employed around 16,000 people alone. As the shipbuilding industry slowly died over the second half of the last century, money slowly drifted out with it.

Like Liverpool, recent history hasn’t been too kind to the Wirral – and Birkenhead in particular. Admittedly, Birkenhead was always a dock town. Being a dock town will always mean that some areas aren’t going to be particularly posh… but add in 50 years of slowly dying industry and any problems that existed get magnified hugely.

Birkenhead doesn’t have a great reputation and, to be perfectly honest, most of it is entirely justified. The town centre is run down and populated by scallies (chavs), a lot of the surrounding mini-towns that make up Birkenhead are no-go areas for a lot of local people. Only recently Birkenhead made the national news because a 13 year old kid had killed a man and tried to hide his body in a bonfire

Having said that, for various reasons, my family has been living in a town called Rock Ferry. It’s in the immediate Birkenhead area that was once the heartland of the Cammell Lairds community. It’s got a pretty bad reputation locally, but having lived there for over 10 years I can honestly say it was never as bad as it was portrayed. Not great… but just about bearable.

The Good Bits

So I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of Birkenhead. It’s hard not to. It’s a huge shame because Birkenhead has some pretty beautiful areas and buildings. We are lucky that our flat is just off one of them – Hamilton Square. This is a lovely Georgian style square headed up by the old Town Hall, with a war memorial in the centre. Birkenhead was once a very affluent town, and some areas really reflect it’s glory days… they were just some time ago now, unfortunately.

Hamilton Square 1959

The Wirral as a whole though is a great place to live. There a lot of areas that more than live up to it’s reputation as being the posh side of Liverpool. Areas like Caldy where you will find a large proportion of the Liverpool and Everton teams past and present. Mr Benitez himself has a £4m+ property around there.

West Kirby marine lake by Andy… who also plays in the awesomely name Seal Club Clubbing Club

Caldy is in the North West of the peninsula, and this where some of the Wirral’s finest features lie. The coast line, for one, is beautiful. West Kirby has a lovely beach, a marine lake and is generally a great little seaside town. Up the road you have Hoylake – another nice seaside town – and also home to the 2006 British Open golf tournament. A load of money has gone into that area to improve the transport network etc… it has also seen a resurgence of the towns night life…

The area is also home to a number of parks and woods, a lot of which is National Trust Nature Reserve land. I have many, many fond memories of cutting my mountain biking teeth around Royden Park and Thurstaston. The bedrock of the area is sandstone which makes for some striking scenery, and lots of interesting rock formations – not least Thor’s Rock/Stone.

Thor’s Rock, Thurstaston

Thurstaston Common also provides the highest point on the peninsula, offering views of all three bodies of water in a hugely impressive panorama.

Other bits that are really nice, but I haven’t got time to mention:

You can find a lot more stuff on the Wirral’s Wikipedia page.

Summing It Up

I’m not sure I’ve done a good job of selling of Birkenhead and The Wirral. It’s very easy to get bogged down in it’s negative aspects – it’s certainly the image that most outsiders seems to have of the place.

I’m extremely glad that I could call it home for over 20 years of my life. It’s varied environment is a great place to grow up, it has a fascinating and long history, and (mostly) it’s a pretty friendly place. It’s an area where people live, rather than visit – if you see what I mean. It’s certainly not a tourist destination, and until recently it has never marketed itself as one.

I’m hoping that since the British Open came to town that people will start to see that the Wirral has a lot to offer. The council are also desperately hoping to grab hold of the coat tails of Liverpool Capital of Culture status, it should help.

If you’re ever visiting Liverpool, take a day out to come and see us. It’s a place well worth exploring.