West Kirby, still hoping


The early May Bank Holiday weekend is upon us, usually a time for weekends away, day trips into the countryside, or at the very least visits to garden centres followed by afternoons of planting shrubs and flowers or painting fences. That was before. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air above England that Sunday may bring an announcement that restrictions may be eased and a gradual and tentative return to the old ways begin. But for now, it’s still staying in, the new usual for most of us.

Yesterday, whilst waiting for somebody to reply to a message on Microsoft Teams where I mainly work now, I found myself browsing a list I had typed some time last year entitled Places to go in 2020. I had to laugh at myself: the wettest February on record followed by a deadly virus that’s kept us inside throughout the driest, warmest April and will likely curtail recreational freedom for some months to come. If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that when it comes down to it, our human planning and organising and solid certainty is actually very fragile and no match at all for the forces of nature. Anyway, back to the joy of life and sunshine and celebrating that I am alive, well, employed and have everything I need except my hairdresser.

On this extensive list of possible places to go this year is West Kirby, a small town at the tip of the Wirral Peninsula and just eight miles from Liverpool. I have been a couple of times previously but have particular reasons wanting to go again, and the time would have to be right.



The north Wirral peninsula has some quite lovely coastal towns and villages which look out to open sea or over the river Dee towards north Wales. Kirby as a place name is, not surprisingly, of Viking origin and means the village with a church. The Vikings arrived in AD902 having been driven out of Ireland. There isn’t much in the way of archaeology, though a hogback stone is preserved in the parish church and other examples of Viking artefacts have been discovered elsewhere on the peninsula. The history surrounding the Wirral Vikings is something I hope to explore further.  Modern day residents include Conservative MP and one-time-would-be party leader Esther McVey, who I’m not interested in .


The green hills of Wales across the estuary

The original West Kirby Marine Lake was built in 1899 but the current lake, larger and deeper then the old, dates back to 1985 and is very popular with all sorts of water sports enthusiasts. It’s a very short walk from the train station to the lake and from there to the Victorian promenade and beach.




About two miles off shore is Hilbre Island, uninhabited except by wildlife. An observatory offers opportunities to see some rare and endangered birds as the island (actually a very small archipelago) is a stop-off point for some species which migrate twice-yearly along the west coast of Britain. Grey seals also live on the island but tend to stay in the water when people are around. The island can be reached on foot at low tide, hence the timing of the visit having to be carefully planned.


Zooming in on Hilbre

I haven’t been to the island but that was one of my hopes for 2020. Reading through my wish list prompted me to look through these and other photos from a previous visit, partly to enjoy the only beach scenes I might get to see for quite a while, but also as a reminder that in the natural world the cycles of life carry on, unaffected by Corona; flourishing and renewing through less human contact. Birds still fly; seals still swim.Tides still come and go at their appointed times and following their courses, pulled by the moon, as they have since forever. How humbling and reassuring it is that they too are beyond our planning and organising and will still be rushing in, and out again, waiting for no man, once we are free to get out there again.




Birkenhead Priory


In 1150, an order of Benedictine monks established a Priory church at Birkenhead on the estuary of the river Mersey. They were the first Mersey ferry men, supervising travellers on their journeys across the river. The Benedictine community seems to have lived quietly on the site, though there are records of some of the monks having had colourful pasts, including one who had been convicted of murder but had travelled to Rome for absolution from the Pope before commencing a life of religious devotion at Birkenhead.


Over the next 200 years, the site was developed with the addition of a hostel and scriptorium. A small monastic community lived at Birkenhead until the Priory was dissolved in 1536, after which it was sold into private ownership.



The Priory is small and has a tiny but pretty garden which includes a couple of herb beds, sadly having lost their characteristic scents as winter looms. I imagine it’s peaceful sitting here in the warmer months.




By the 19th century, the chapter house had been left to become a ruin but is now back in use for religious services. The congregation must be small but what a lovely place to gather.




Above the chapter house is the scriptorium which is dedicated to HMS Conway, a navy teaching vessel which was founded in 1859  to improve the training of merchant navy officers. The original ship was replaced twice over the next hundred years but the new ships retained the name. At the time of my visit one of the Conway ‘old boys’ was on hand, talking to visitors about his time on board.



The ship was moored at Birkenhead near to the Priory before being moved to Anglesey during World War II when German bombers started targeting Liverpool, England’s second major port. She met her end in 1953 when returning to Birkenhead for a refit, and running aground.



Behind the church, the outer wall has been transformed and spotlights added. This must make a stunning sight by night,





The Priory undercroft is smaller than I had expected and slightly cluttered by the addition of some exhibits which I felt took something away from what could have been a very serene space. However, cleverly arranged lighting showed the exquisite arched ceilings.




From the undercroft a stair case leads up to the tower and to a spectacular view of Birkenhead and Liverpool but the day was declining and I had another place to visit, so I wasn’t tempted to climb the 100+ spiralling steps.


The links to the river have remained. Camell Laird ship building yard provides an interesting juxtaposition as a large yellow crane looks down on the Priory grounds.



William Laird set up the Birkenhead Iron Works in 1824, its prime purpose being the manufacture of boilers. His son, shipbuilder John Laird, joined him 4 years later and the company soon became pre-eminent in the manufacture of iron ships. John Laird & Sons joined with Sheffield firm, Cammell Johnson in 1900.

John Laird became Birkenhead’s first mayor and was responsible for bringing about great improvements in the town, including maintaining a police force. He also served as the town’s first MP from 1861 to 1874. He is buried in the graveyard next to his shipyard.



For me, this was the perfect time of year to walk among the fallen leaves and enjoy the battering of the coastal wind against ancient stones which have stood for nearly a millennium and may still be there for another.




Birkenhead: stories of war and sea (and hidden treasure)

A hundred years ago today, English war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in northern France, just one week before Armistice Day – 11th November 1918 – marked the end of World War One. I was first introduced to Wilfred Owen at school, and during the decades since then I have been moved and disturbed in equal measure by Owen’s graphic depictions of the realities of war through the eyes of one who lived it.


This year marks the centenary of the end of the Great War and has engendered much media attention, including the story about the unveiling of a statue of Wilfred Owen in his home town of Oswestry in Shropshire. I was surprised to read that the poet spent a significant part of his life in the town of Birkenhead where his father had worked on the rail network, mainly at the now demolished Woodside Station near to the docks.



The Wilfred Owen Story in Birkenhead is run by a charity and celebrates Owen’s connections to the town and his war poetry. The weekend of the 100th anniversary of his death seemed like an ideal time to take a look in combination with visits to two other local places of interest. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The Wilfred Owen Story is only open on three weekdays for just a few hours, with no exception being made this weekend despite the historic occasion.

After exploring other parts of Birkenhead, I returned to Hamilton Square en route to my final destination. Even though it was just 3 o’clock, it was a grey afternoon and the sun hadn’t broken through the cloud cover all day. The elegant Georgian Square was all but deserted and I enjoyed the colours of autumn in solitude as I walked the pathways by the cenotaph.







A chance encounter led to another war time story and a tale of treasure salvaged from a distant sea bed. As I trained my lens on the cenotaph, the only other person in the Square paused so as not to walk into my shot. I thanked him, and this led to an interesting conversation.


Keith ‘Scouse’ Cooper told me the story of a world record breaking salvage operation which took place in 1981 in the Barents Sea 240 km off the coast of Russia and Norway.

Over 400 bars of gold bullion were retrieved from the wreck of HMS Edinburgh which was scuttled by her crew on 2nd May 1942 to avoid capture, three days after being hit by torpedo fire by German U-boats. The gold – worth about 1.5 million pounds (about 65 million in today’s money) – had been loaded just days earlier in Mumansk, Russian part-payment for supplies and military equipment, and was on its way to Britain.

After nearly 40 years on the sea bed, the  bulk of the gold was finally brought up from the designated war grave more than 800 metres down. Keith was one of the divers involved in the international salvage operation. I asked Keith if he’d got rich from his share of the proceeds; he told me the money was long gone.

Back home, I found this film online, which follows the Salvage of The Century  operation as it unfolds and the gold is hauled up by ‘Scouse’ Cooper and the other divers.

Scouse’s story linked perfectly to my next port of call which was a few minutes’ walk away next to the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside landing stage. Before going in, I spent a few minutes looking across the river Mersey to Liverpool waterside which looked quite lovely as dusk started to descend.

Woodside terminal
The commercial district
The three graces
The two Cathedrals

The U-Boat Story is an unusual museum and is well worth a visit. It offers an opportunity to see what life was like on board the actual German submarine, U- 534, the last U-Boat to leave Germany, which was brought to Birkenhead in 1993.



It is still a mystery as to why U-534 and the two other type 22 submarines which accompanied her defied the German command to surrender on the morning of 5th May 1945 when World War II was declared over. Instead, her crew fired torpedoes at the British coastal command bombers which had spotted the German subs off the coast of Denmark. After some exchange of fire, a depth charge sank U-534. Almost all of her crew escaped and were rescued.

In the 1980s, suspicions arose that this last U-Boat to leave Germany might have been carrying Nazi treasures to be hidden in Norway and reclaimed after the war. She was eventually raised from the bed of the North Sea but no treasures were discovered. She was cut into the five sections, making it possible for visitors to see her interior.














It’s impressive to see how the submarine survived four decades on the sea bed, and the interesting and informative audio visual recordings make it easier for those of us who are not mechanically-minded to make sense of what we are viewing.





Inside, the exhibition centre has an interesting display which includes U534’s time line and houses additional artefacts which were recovered.









A display of everyday items including wine, board games, shaving equipment and personal nick-nacks remind visitors of the ordinary human lives combatants lived before and during the conflict, and that those lost were not just militia, but men.




Anthem for Doomed Youth -Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.