Ask most people living on the western bank of the River Mersey estuary where they’re from and they’ll tell you Liverpool. It’s easier that way. It’s a world-renowned city famous for musical exports and football heritage – everyone knows it. But they’re lying. What they really want to say is that they’re from the Wirral. Any mention of it, though, is met with a puzzled look. Nobody really knows about the Wirral, you see.
Before we go any further, I should clarify: it may officially be known as Wirral, but everyone here insists on it being ‘the Wirral’ thanks to the undeniably Scouse habit of adding ‘the’ in front of just about anything, or perhaps because it’s technically ‘the Wirral peninsula’. Either way, the warmth of its people and its natural beauty has nestled happily under my skin over the years.
I’m always perplexed as to why and how nobody else seems to know about the Wirral. After all, it was inhabited as far back as 7000 BC, so there’s clearly something worth sticking around for. Built atop layers of history and clues left behind by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and raiding Vikings, it’s a region that happily divides its charms between countryside and coast.
Nestled between one of the world’s greatest port cities and the rugged beauty of North Wales, the peninsula stretches 11km wide from the River Dee to the River Mersey. Due to its modest size, you can quite easily spend the morning unpicking a rich Victorian heritage amid friendly, lively towns such as Birkenhead, before stealing a quieter moment in the open countryside of the Dee Estuary after lunch.
The region is sheltered by the Welsh hills to the west and surrounded by water on three sides. Its fringes certainly lend themselves well to exploration on foot. Rambling the 40km of dramatic coastline, traversing its sand dunes or criss-crossing inland through Tolkien-esque shire and farmland is a must for any visitor. As a welcome rest stop, you’ll also find warmth and sanctuary along the way among the many cosy country pubs dotted across the countryside.
Sometimes the Wirral is quite literally hidden, lingering behind the large bank of fog that often hangs low over the Mersey. For many it slips under the radar, but give this place a chance and you’ll understand exactly why locals so fondly (if a little tongue-in-cheek) refer to it as the ‘Paradise Peninsula’.
Begin your Wirral adventure in the town of Birkenhead. Wander past the lakes and Victorian buildings of the peaceful Birkenhead Park, the first in the world to be publicly funded – it was even said to have influenced the design of New York City’s Central Park. Worth visiting nearby is Hamilton Square, home to the greatest concentration of Grade I-listed buildings outside London. From here, amble down to Woodside ferry terminal to hop aboard the iconic Mersey Ferry. This service has existed since the 12th century, when Benedictine monks would row weary travellers across the water. It also offers the best views of Liverpool’s waterfront landmarks, such as the Liver Building and Royal Albert Dock, while on-board commentary delves into the city’s rich musical and maritime heritage, peppered with Scouse humour. Alight at Seacombe and stroll to New Brighton for the old-world joys of a classic seaside town. Follow the sculptures along the Mermaid Trail, take in the town’s history at Fort Perch Rock and marvel at the lighthouse. Naturally, there are great chippies to pop by, such as Perch Fish Bar or Mediterranean Sea, before strolling around the Victorian Quarter and dipping into The Bow-Legged Beagle for a locally brewed craft ale.
Day two starts at the resort town of West Kirby. Plan your visit around the tide times because you’ll want to walk out to the wonderful Hilbre Island, where you can discover incredible coastal scenery, spy grey seals in the water and see oystercatchers scrutinising the shoreline. Back on the mainland, meander around the West Kirby Marine Lake. It’s a popular spot for watersports, so if you do feel like dabbling in windsurfing or sailing, you can visit Wirral Watersports Centre on the shore. Those who prefer to stay on dry land can head into the town’s bustling centre. The best retail therapy is found along The Crescent, where high-street brands and local shops rub shoulders in Tudor-style buildings. Fill up on small plates and cocktails at Lateral by WYLDE, then spend your afternoon at Parkgate, a pretty village perched on the bucolic banks of the River Dee. Once a prominent port in the 1800s, the sands of Parkgate have long since surrendered to the vast salt marshes wrapping the coast here, which are rich in wildlife; you can even spot ghostly barn owls at dusk. Buy an ice cream from Nicholls – a rite of passage when in Parkgate – and wander along the promenade while watching the sun sink behind rolling Welsh hills.
“As a photographer I have found many beautiful spots on the Wirral, but you can’t beat a winter’s sunrise down at Woodside ferry terminal. The sun always rises behind Liverpool on the opposite shore, backlighting the impressive skyline with fiery reds, oranges and yellows. If you time it right, you’ll even capture the ferry making its way across the Mersey. On other mornings, there may be atmospheric fog too.”
- Josh Edwards
Eat seasonal food at Claremont Farm. Its dishes are made from produce grown on the farm itself or from the surrounding area. Try the locally caught sea bass with potatoes and kale, or homemade beans on toast with halloumi. Pick up baked treats at the farm shop on your way out.
Stroll along the coast from New Brighton to West Kirby. The 13km walk takes you past beaches and points of interest, including Fort Perch Rock, the 16th-century Leasowe Castle, Leasowe Lighthouse and Red Rocks.
Cycle along the 19km Wirral Way, taking in views of verdant countryside and Welsh clifftop panoramas. Originally a railway line, this traffic-free route stretches from West Kirby to Hooton. Stop at Thurstaston along the way to explore meadows and heathland brimming with birdlife, as well as sandstone cliffs towering above the River Dee.
Explore the idyllic Port Sunlight, a model village from the 19th century that has made a popular film location for the likes of the TV series Peaky Blinders. Originally built by Lord Lever (of then manufacturing giant Lever Brothers) as a home for his factory workers, you’ll find cottages and stunning architecture, independent shops, the Gladstone Theatre, the Lady Lever Art Gallery and acres of parkland and gardens.
Getting there: The easiest way to get to the Wirral is via Liverpool. Take the train from either Manchester or London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street, then hop on the local Merseyrail service (Wirral Line) running underneath the River Mersey.
Stay at: Hillbark Hotel & Spa is a Grade II-listed hotel nestled in leafy parkland that gazes over to Wales, across the Dee estuary. The interiors are as gorgeous as its timber-framed facade and you can feast in its award-winning restaurants; there are over 600 wines and a champagne bar for celebrations. Warmer months call for lunch on the lawn, while the drawing room is ideal for winter evenings cosied up by the inglenook fireplace.
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