It’s the sandstone. It gets me every time, the familiar bedrock of the place where I have lived these last fifty years, a city rose-red as Petra. Liverpool was founded on a sandstone bluff and a ridge of sandstone ruptures the Cheshire plain, the county of my childhood. Merseyside is a place where buildings great and humble glow in the ochre of sandstone.
Last Friday we walked out to the Hilbre islands, three sandstone outcrops in the Dee estuary. Size-wise they may be insignificant – Hilbre itself about eleven acres, Middle Eye, three acres, and Little Eye a mere half acre – but to the open sea of Liverpool Bay they present a sheer cliff-face of stratified red and yellow sandstone laid down in a vast desert more than 200 million years ago.
And that’s the other thing about sandstone that resonates with me: the sense of deep time. I place the palm of my hand on the red sandstone, warm in the November sun, and sense the millennia pulsing through my skin. The red and yellow sandstones of Hilbre were laid down in the Triassic era. Some contain pebbles -they are known to geologists as the Bunter pebble beds – pebbles washed into the desert sands during flash floods. The footprints of a prehistoric animal called cheirotherium have been found imprinted in the sandstone on Hilbre.
Until the waters melted at the end of the last Ice Age, the three sandstone knolls of Hilbre were joined to the Wirral shore. Now, if you take careful note of the tide tables, you can walk out from West Kirby across the wet sands to these uninhabited islands as the tide ebbs. It takes barely an hour to walk out from the suburban hum of the Wirral, but when you arrive you feel that you have travelled to a far-distant place, a wild and lonely place, one that sea birds, not humans, call home. It’s for this reason that Hilbre features in Christopher Somerville’s gazetteer of Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places.
It had taken less than half an hour to drive from Liverpool city centre to the shore at West Kirby, and another hour to walk across the sands of the Dee. Yet, standing at the northernmost point of the main island, the sense of isolation, of being far from things, is intense. No matter in which direction you look, you gaze into far distance.
To the north, across the bay of Liverpool, your eyes are drawn towards the distant horizon of the Irish Sea where vessels pass along the shipping lanes into Liverpool. To the south (above), the full length of the silver waters of the Dee extend as far as Shotton on the Welsh shore. Turn east, and across bay the the north coast of the Wirral stretches from Hoylake past Leasowe and its lighthouse, to Crosby and Formby on the coast beyond Liverpool. Look west (below) and the most dramatic view opens up: the dark bulk of the peaks of Snowdonia, the sudden drop to the sea at Llandudno’s Great Orme and, on a clear day like yesterday, the low flat outline of Anglesey.
Close as this place is, we haven’t done the crossing to Hilbre for nearly 25 years, last coming here with our daughter when she was little. Now with a King Charles spaniel skipping by our side, I sift the sediments of memory and a little girl and the ghost of a dog, a big, bounding, bobbed Old English sheepdog, are there, too. Flashes return of a childhood journey through Cheshire lanes bounded by red sandstone to visit my godfather in West Kirby. He once gave me a book signed by a friend of his who also lived in West Kirby, Norman Ellison who, as ‘Nomad’, presented regular present natural history programmes on Children’s Hour on the BBC Home Service during my childhood in the early 1950s. I still have the book – The Wirral Peninsula – and in it Ellison devotes three chapters to Hilbre, a place he loved and visited regularly, often with his friend Eric Hosking, where they would watch birds together. And then I remember the first time I came to Liverpool – for a university interview – approaching by train through tunnels and deep cuttings sliced into the sandstone the city rests upon.
Leaving the slipway at West Kirby we set off across the wet sands, sloshing through the gutters, heading as you must, not directly to Hilbre itself, but taking a dog-leg towards the smallest island Little Eye (above). All around were the little circular mounds that are the casts of lugworms which swallow the sand, digest organic material and eject the rest as the little mound. It’s a reminder that the plentiful marine organisms and all kinds of shellfish attract a great number and variety of birds to this shore. The islands are port of call and staging post for migrating and overwintering birds, especially waders. The Dee estuary is a giant larder feeding thousands of oystercatchers, knot and dunlin, curlew and lapwing, duck and geese. On our crossing we saw a group of white egrets and crowds of noisy oystercatchers, while a herd of several dozen seals basked in the sun on a sandbank out in the Dee.
The name Hilbre derives from Old English of the seventh century, when Anglo-Saxons settled in Cheshire, and means ‘Hildeburgh’s eye or island. Not much seems to be known about Saint Hildeburgh, other than that she was an Anglo-Saxon holy woman to whom a medieval chapel on the island was later dedicated, after which it became known as Hildeburgheye or Hildeburgh’s island.
Maybe Hildeburgh was one of the religious women who, surprisingly in the largely warrior-dominated society of the seventh, could wield significant power and influence. Last month, Radio 3’s The Essay began what will be a series of 30 Anglo-Saxon Portraits, the first ten of which have been broadcast and are still available as podcasts. In one of the talks – about the seventh century abbess Hild of Whitby, Barbara Yorke told of a time when a notable religious woman such as Hild could be in charge of a monastery the size of a small town – a monastery in which both monks and nuns lived and future bishops might be trained. What was fascinating about this, in the light of recent events, was that women from the royal house and leading families could become church leaders. It was only later that the patriarchal hierarchy of the church asserted itself, and the idea of a woman training a province’s bishop came to be seen as impossible. Yorke concluded with these words: ‘Hild is a woman well worth remembering, as some thirteen hundred years would elapse before we find women holding power within the church of England that is in any way comparable to hers’.
Looking back to the shore at Hoylake
While there is evidence that Hilbre has been occupied on and off since the Stone Age (Stone and Bronze Age items and Roman pottery were discovered in 1926) it was the beatification of Hildeburgh that seems to have made it a place of more permanent settlement. A small cell of monks was established on the islands around 1080 when the area was part of the lands of the Norman lord, Robert of Rhuddlan. He gave the islands to the abbey at Saint-Evroul-sur-Ouche in Normandy, France which in turn passed responsibility to the Abbey of Saint Werburgh in Chester.
In 1540, John Leland, official historian of Henry VIII, visited the area and wrote:
And half a mile lower is Hillebyri, as the very point of Wyrale. This Hillebyri at the floode is al environid with water as an isle, and then the trajectus is a quarter of a mile over, and 4 fadome depe of water, and at ebbe a man may go over the sand. It is about a mile in cumpace, and the grounde is sandy and hath conies. There was a celle of monkes at Chestre, and a pilgrimage of Our Lady of Hilbyri.
The island was a place of pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries, but by the mid-16th century the last monks had left the island, no longer regarding it as a holy sanctuary, for by this time Hilbre was an important port and trading centre. In the reign of Elizabeth I, when the Earl of Essex was pursuing his campaign in Ireland, 4,000 foot and 200 horse troops were encamped on Hilbre en route to Ireland. This would scarcely be possible today, given the size of the island. But 17th century maps of Cheshire, such as Speed’s of 1610 (below) show Hilbre as a single island roughly square in shape and about a mile long with a deep inlet on the southwest. If the three islands were once one, today they are linked only by sandstone reefs exposed at low tide.
The route out to the islands is pretty obvious: we simply followed the tracks of the ranger’s landrover. No-one lives on Hilbre these days, but Wirral coastal rangers make the crossing to the islands every day at low tide. The first island, Little Eye (below), is barely more than a grass-covered knoll of sandstone. At the southern tip are the remains of some kind of brick structure, now largely washed away.
Some patches of chamomile, with their daisy-like flowers (above), were still in full bloom on the smallest island, from where, looking north there was a clear view across the sands to Hoylake and the array of wind-turbines offshore.
Past rock pools and over sandstone reefs, the way now leads to the middle island.
Middle Eye is my favourite of the three islands. It may be small-scale, but its cliffs of yellow sandstone are dramatic and imposing. Facing the mainland, a cave (once used by smugglers, they reckon) has collapsed, leaving a picturesque sandstone arch.
From the western-most high point of Middle Eye there’s a great view towards the red cliffs of Hilbre itself (top of post). From there, it’s a short walk across the sand to Hilbre itself.
Coming off the sand, the approach to the island is round the cliff, deep red in the bright sunshine, and up a paved causeway past the boat-shaped Old Telegraph Station with the curved windows at its prow, facing east down the estuary. Built in 1841, it was part of a chain of signalling stations between Liverpool and Holyhead, sending messages about shipping.
It was from the cliffs here that, looking south across the estuary towards Wales, we saw the group of Grey Seals basking on a sandbank, a common sight on most days of the year, apparently. Whales and dolphins have also been sighted off the island: now that would be something to see!
Half way across the island is a rectangular pond (above), obviously artificial, but the reason for it being dug is not known. A clue may lie in the fact that several clumps of the Two-flowered Narcissus grow here; one botanical authority states that the plant was ‘probably introduced centuries ago by Benedictine monks who had a small cell there since Saxon times’. Wormwood also grows here – a relic of the days when there was a brewery here, and it was added to the beer to give it a bitter taste.
The brewery was attached to an inn that served the needs of sailors, traders and soldiers who passed by the island. In 1692 a small factory was set up to refine rock salt from around Northwich in Cheshire. With the silting of the River Dee, trade switched to ports on the River Mersey and the trade vanished from the island leading to the closure of the beer house, but part of its structure is incorporated in one of the buildings on the north side of the island.
In 1813, Richard Ayton visited the island and mentions the public house in his account, A Voyage round Great Britain in 1813:
Upon it there is a public house, the only habitation, and a few rabbits, the only quadrupeds, to which nature supplies a very meagre provision, only parts of the island being covered with a scanty sprinkling of grass. It is most important as a station for two beacons, which are raised upon it, as guides to vessels through the Swash, a channel between the Hoyle Sands, leading into Hoylake, an admirable roadstead for ships of 6oo tons burden. There is another entrance into this road; but with the wind in any degree from the Eastward, the Swash is the only outlet by which vessels can escape to the sea.
The approaches to the land, between the mouths of the Dee and the Mersey, have a most formidable aspect, and a stranger casting his eye over the puzzling confusion of banks which break the sea, would scarcely believe that these dangerous passes are avenues to the great port of Liverpool. . . . Nothing could be more wild and dreary, and the eye was not relieved on turning to the land, which was also sand, with something of vegetation but not of verdure upon it, and without a single tree.
A man and his wife are the only permanent inhabitants, and they are said by various arts of industry to have amassed immense wealth, not less, fame has ventured to assert, than a thousand pounds. The crews of some small vessels which find a harbour under one side of the island, are the great customers of their tap-room, but their riches have been gained principally by wrecking, for which business their situation here is said to be admirably calculated. She was an active partner in the miscellaneous business of her husband, having hardihood enough to despise the privileges of her petticoats.
Towards the western end of the island there’s a tall mast – not a mobile phone transmitter, but a radar station, webcam and weather station, part of the Liverpool Bay Coastal Observatory. The Coastal Observatory webcam is located at the top of the radar tower and is powered by small wind turbine power generator.
At the very tip of the island is a ruined lifeboat station (above), with a fireplace carved from sandstone.
As we stood at the head of the island looking towards the mountains of Snowdonia, we could see a squall approaching from the Flintshire shore, where it was raining.
We expected a downpour, but the rain slipped to the east of us, and we stayed dry.
You dreamed of this island and
I wanted to buy you the book
Remember? You said it was too much.
The river sweeps past Hilbre’s rocks
carrying the silt of Berwyn Hills out
into the Celtic sea.
Kick. Kick and pull
past mudflat and marsh.
Past Shotton, her blast furnaces once
an altar to Baal. Cold now. Bulldozed rubble.
War grave of an age of iron.
Wanna buy some of the good stuff?
He worked on the night shift, kept the gear in his locker.
The way ahead is clear and my arms stretch and pull.
The river runs straight and true as far as Deva,
and her echoes of the Twentieth Legion.
Within her walls, cower ghosts of Welshmen
hung before dawn and left for all to see,
though the dead know no shame.
Past meadows, hedges and riverside pubs.
A bridge that links and divides.
Two nations, border country, and in my mind
I’m so close to the edge.
But fly-strewn water fills my mouth,
and drowns all possible words.
Llangollen sisters take the air.
The wisteria is so beautiful this year.
Words hang unspoken while
its beauty moves them to tears.
And on this bank you walked and laughed.
Dinas Bran glowers down, as, from the next bed,
the addict demands my shoes.
The stream presses and pulls, squeezes
the air from my lungs. I follow the river,
a golden thread weaving through
Tegid’s cold depths to her source, where
I am sucked into the ground
and spat out into the clouds.
‘Swimming Against the Stream’ is by local poet Bobby Seal,who explains the background to the poem:
I wanted to write about the River Dee in Wales, as that is a part of the world I know well. But, in following the river from where it enters the sea back to its source, I saw the opportunity to make it a temporal journey as well as a physical one. Moving back through time as well as back to the source of the river; mixing personal memory with historic facts and topographic observations.
We made our way back across the sands, towards the shore and some much anticipated lunch. As I walked I noticed that, as it dried, a dimpled pattern appeared on the surface of the sand – precisely the same pattern to be seen on the sandstone of the islands, a pattern baked hard in hot, primordial desert winds and covered by layer on layer of more sand. Like a memory, buried in time.
I would still go there
if only to await
opening of truth’s flower;
if only to escape
such bought freedom, and live,
prisoner of the sea,
on the mind’s bread and water.
– RS Thomas, ‘Island’
- Hilbre Island: BBC Northwest Tonight
- Birds of Hilbre Island: Friends of Hilbre
- Wildlife of Hilbre: Friends of Hilbre
- Hilbre as a Nature Reserve: Friends of Hilbre
- Hilbre Bird Observatory blog
- Sandstone on Merseyside: from the allertonoak website, an excellent page documenting the impact of sandstone on the landscape and buildings of the area.
- Friday Walks, To the Islands and beyond: the same walk, by fellow Liverpool blogger, Ronnie Hughes