The wind was whipping waves through the tall grass as we headed up towards Storeton Hill, the ridge that separates Storeton from Higher Bebington, and as we turned to look back at the view across the Wirral towards the Welsh hills, it was just possible to imagine this as the scene in 937 of the epic Battle of Brunanburh, which confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Brunanburh was the first occasion when English forces – Saxon noblemen of Wessex and Mercia – were united by King Athelstan to fight the combined forces of Norsemen and Celts from Scotland, so for some historians it marks the birthplace of England. Yet very little is known about the battle, and its site is disputed, though somewhere on the Wirral seems favoured – and this ridge is a contender. If so, the Vikings and their Scottish allies would have been dug in on the commanding position of Storeton Hill.
The primary source of information about the battle is a 73-line poem in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 937, entitled The Battle of Brunanburh which describes in gory and glorious detail Athelstan’s victory:
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
The sons of Eadweard, it was only befitting their noble descent
from their ancestors that they should often
defend their land in battle against each hostile people,
horde and home. The enemy perished,
Scots men and seamen,
fated they fell. The field flowed
with blood of warriors, from sun up
in the morning, when the glorious star
glided over the earth, God’s bright candle,
eternal lord, till that noble creation
sank to its seat. There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed; Northern men
shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
weary, war sated.
Athelstan succeeded in uniting all the tribes of Saxons in Wessex and Mercia, at the same time ensuring that the advance of the Vikings into England was halted and the Celts were restricted to the west of Britain. So, despite subsequent invasion and colonisations from the continent, the Anglo-Saxon roots of England were consolidated by Brunanburh.
Our walk had begun at the village of Storeton, itself a Viking name meaning ‘large farmstead’. There’s still a farm there, and some of the buildings incorporate remains of a great medieval hall, Storeton Hall, built in the 1360s by the Stanley family, the most powerful Wirral family in medieval times. Their power came from holding the office of Master Forrester of Wirral, a power which they exercised in such a tyrannical manner that it struck fear into the locals.
The Wirral had been a royal forest since 1129. This did not mean that it was completely covered in forest, but that the area was subject to strict laws, enforced by the Stanleys. The most notorious was the protection of all deer and game which was only allowed to be hunted by those who had been given special permission. It was also forbidden to fell trees, dig pits, grow crops, cultivate land or build dwellings outside of the designated areas. Those living in or around the forest were not allowed to own grey hounds and their dogs had to have their nails removed in order to stop potential damage to local game. Everyone in the Wirral was liable for any game found dead, and punishments could be meted out all residents. Punishments for killing game included blinding with red hot pokers and the amputation of the perpetrator’s fingers.
Some argue that in the medieval the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in which Gawain journeys through “the wilderness of Wirral, where but few dwell who love God and man of true heart”, Storeton Hall is one of the great houses where Gawain is entertained.
Professor Stephen Harding is a descendant of Sir John Stanley (1350-1414), Knight of the Garter and Master Forester of the Wirral. He explains:
The poem is remarkable not only because of its strong association with the area but also because of the large number of Scandinavian dialect words in it – words like karp (to boast or chatter), renk (knight), storr (large) and gate (street, track), and is quite different from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written at the same time but in the King’s English. It indicates that a strong Norse dialect was still being spoken here hundreds of years after the initial Viking settlements.
The Norsemen or Vikings began raiding the area towards the end of the ninth century and settled along the Dee side of the peninsula, and the sea coast, giving their villages names such as Kirby, Frankby and Meols. They also introduced their own system of local government, with its parliament at Thingwall. Evidence of the Norse presence in Wirral can still be seen from place names – such as the common –by (meaning town in Norwegian) suffix and names such as Tranmere, which comes from trani melr (cranebird sandbank).
On the ridge above Storeton are Storeton Woods, now owned by the Friends of Storeton Woods and the Woodland Trust. The woods have grown up on the site of a quarry that was present at the time of the Roman occupation. We walked along the old tramway embankment (above), constructed in the 19th century to transport stone to the quayside at Bromborough. A short section of the rails can also be seen: they were purchased, second-hand, when the original rails on the Liverpool-Manchester railway were upgraded.
Most of Storeton village is built from the stone quarried on Storeton Ridge. The stone is a creamy sandstone (not red, like most sandstone on Merseyside) and was also used in many other buildings, including Birkenhead Town Hall and the Empire State Building. The quarry was filled in with spoil from the excavation of the Queensway Tunnel in the 1920s.
The quarry was also the site of the discovery of dinosaur footprints in sandstone layers from the Triassic period, over 200 million years ago. In 1838 men working in Storeton quarry discovered preserved footprints of an unknown animal.
No bones or other material remains were discovered. Because the footprints look like a human hand with a thumb on the outer edge the creature was named Chirotherium, from the Greek words chir for hand and therium for beast.
Examples of these footprints can be seen in World Museum Liverpool in Liverpool and the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead, and also in Christ church, Kings Road, Bebington.