Sandwiched between Liverpool and Wales, the Wirral peninsula is a flat expanse of green that holds many a mystery. It’s home to dreamers, schemers and an outsider spirit that is responsible for throwing up all manner of weirdness. Sometimes it’s a sedate, soft weirdness that can be observed when walking the lanes and villages that dot the peninsula; occasionally it rears up in art and music, as a challenge to the Leisure Peninsula’s apparent sleepiness. But it’s best discovered by wandering off the track and finding out the peninsula’s secrets and hidden gems.
Everyone who grows up in Wirral knows about Birkenhead Park and its use as the model for Central Park in New York. And you probably know about Hilbre Island and the seals, and the Viking settlements that are still evident in the names of Thingwall, Tranmere and Thursaston – but did you know about the Battle Of Brunaburh or King Canute holding back the tide on Leasowe Shore? But that’s the obvious stuff; there are plenty more curios to discover even if history isn’t really your thing. We’ve asked Future Yard‘s Matthew and Christopher, Wirral’s answer to the Legion Of Doom, to pick out some of their favourite hidden gems that you may not have heard of. Buckle up for the journey, you might be in for a surprise or two.
As a Catholic school boy I was told never to go up to the hill after dark, for Satanists worshipped there: so as soon as I could, I did. With literally centuries of legends, Bidston Hill is drenched in folklore. From pagan carvings in the sandstone through to the wartime underground tunnel network, which never stays closed for long thanks to intrepid urban explorers; what appears on the exterior as merely a dog walking spot holds many secrets. The windmill which crests the hill (which has featured in everything from Brookside to a Loved Ones music video) is said to be frequented by the ghosts of headless millers. And the rumours go further, of witch hanging spots, Satanists buried beneath the hill to prevent further hauntings, even a werewolf. Among the legends lies gorseland, edible mushroom-filled woods and the glorious observatory, on a site where a beacon used to stand connecting Liverpool to Wales. MH
Bromborough Power Station
Built to power the growing industry of the Lever Brothers and the village they built for their workers at Port Sunlight, the Central Power Station in Bromborough was opened in 1918. As well as serving the nearby factories and residential areas, the oil-powered station served up electricity to the bustling docks at a time when Wirral was a hive of industrial activity. Cammell Laird shipyard was booming, the pottery made in Birkenhead (Della Robbia) and Seacombe was highly sought after, cars were rolling off the lines at Ellesmere Port, and the Lever brothers’ UniLiver company was growing to become a global leader. When the power station was closed in 1998, it was indicative of the slow decline of industry across the country and left Wirral lagging a bit behind. The power station itself has been left pretty much as it was the moment the last workers clocked off, giving the switchgear control room an eerie feel. It’s almost like the site, at the end of Thermal Road, has been abandoned in some Chernobyl-style accident, with nature, rust and graffiti taggers adding their own markers of industrial decline. The site can’t be accessed, except by intrepid urban explorers, who have to time their visits when the tide is out. Still, it’s worth a look the next time you’re going for a walk in Port Sunlight River Park… CT
Tucked behind a kebab shop and hidden down a side road is one of Birkenhead’s most loved shops. Skeleton Records – known to everyone on the Wirral as Skellys – is the last bastion of Birkenhead. A shop which has survived Cold War threat, multiple recessions and a Thatcher government, nothing has ever been able to destroy Skellys. Run by local legend John Weaver since day one, he’s still there forty years later, casting his eye over the wares brought before him. And John knows his music, having put on shows with all manner of bands, from Motörhead and Fairport Convention to Dead Kennedys and Siouxsee and the Banshees. And who could forget his fabled attempts to put on Sex Pistols on three separate occasions. He even narrowly missed out on releasing OMD’s debut single out (which was then released on Factory Records). But aside from its owner’s rich past, the shop is a treasure trove of records with everything from Joy Division and Cream to the collected speeches of Chairman Mao. MH
The Creep and The Reach
The east and north sides of Wirral are criss-crossed by a warren of underground tunnels that date back to the era of Mother Redcaps and the smuggling that flourished there hundreds of years ago. They stretch from the Mersey inlets in Wallasey to the Irish Sea at New Brighton, and in land as far as Hilary’s Brow in Wallasey Village. The system of tunnels in New Brighton date back 200 years to when the resort was known as Black Rock, famed for its piracy. One of the less remembered subterranean systems, The Creep, is underneath the amusement arcades in New Brighton, which is still accessible for tours today. The Creep Inn was a nightclub in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but prior to that it was a secret munitions factory, staffed by women who made ammunition for the war effort during WWII.
The entrance to these tunnels is just behind the Floral Pavilion theatre – and at the end of the same road is a block of flats on the site of the another old New Brighton nightclub, the Chelsea Reach. This dingy, seaside resort club was the centre of the action in photographer Tom Wood’s collection Looking For Love, first published in 1989. It captures the era and the honesty of the people with a loving eye – and if you ask people of a certain age about their experiences of The Chelsea in New Brighton, be prepared for tales that will curl your toes. CT
The Wirral’s location absorbs its neighbours’ strongest characteristics by osmosis, bringing together the romanticism of Ireland, the magic of Wales and the wry humour of Liverpool. This chemistry has long bred a lineage of eccentrics. From the obsessive musical desire of John Peel to the flamboyant glam Pete Burns and the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, Wirral has bred some of the most creative and unique minds in the country. One that you may not have heard of, though, is artist Ron Gittins. Inside what looks like an ordinary flat in Tranmere lies a whole other world. The red bricks hide giant, gaping three-metre-tall animal mouth fireplaces, an underwater themed bathroom and papier-maché heads of classical icons. Sadly, Ron passed away last year but there are hopeful plans to open it up to the public soon. MH
Explore the Wirral and its various curios, myths and legends with Hidden Wirral. They run a number of walks and tours that will allow you to get up close and personal with some if Wirral’s weirdest wonders.