Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point

Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point

This is the first of two walks that I took along a stretch of the Mersey Way, accompanied by our dog and starting at the end of Dungeon Lane, a road that runs, alongside the perimeter fence of John Lennon Airport, from Speke estate down to the river.

There’s a rough surface car park about half a mile down Dungeon Lane, much frequented by plane spotters who take up positions along the lane with folding chairs, flasks and binoculars, waiting for the planes coming in to land on the last minute or so of their descent to the runway.  I parked the car and set off down to the Dungeon.

Once the road ran all the way down to the foreshore here.  Now Dungeon is an abandoned and neglected place where rubble, broken bricks, and the remains of a sandstone quay suggest some kind of industrial past.

The name ‘Dungeon’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘dunge’ or ‘denge’, meaning marshland, or land that adjoins a marsh (think of Dungeness in Kent), rather than having any association with castles or imprisonment.  But this place does have some significance in Liverpool’s economic history, because it was here, after the discovery of rock salt in Cheshire in the 17th century, that a salt refinery was established, the remains of which are still visible in the crumbling stone work and overgrown sandstone jetty.

The development of the trade in salt from Cheshire was the catalyst for improvements in communications from the Cheshire salt fields and the Lancashire coal fields to the River Mersey and Liverpool, a process that boosted the town of Liverpool and the growth of the port. The first step in these developments was the transformation of the small fishing hamlet of Dungeon into a place of industry.  Throughout the 18th century, flatboats and barges brought rock salt across the river from the Cheshire shore to Dungeon, where it was refined before being shipped onwards.

The salt works closed in the late 1840s, and the quay was then used by a firm of ship breakers.  But by the early 20th century the river channels had begun to silt up, and the shipyard closed in 1912.  That was the end of industrial activity at Dungeon, and the little bay slipped once again into isolation and abandonment.

From Dungeon I turned to follow the broad sweep of the bay southeast towards Hale Point.  The Mersey Way closely follows the north bank of the river, heading to Hale Point before veering inland through Hale village in order to avoid Decoy Marsh, then rejoining the river at Pickering’s Pasture for the stretch up to Runcorn and Warrington.  The route in part is concurrent with the Trans-Pennine Trail.

This is a lovely stretch, with fields and wooded copses inland and the Mersey estuary opening out from the Runcorn gap in a series of broad, sweeping bays.  Once a filthy industrial wasteland, the estuary is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because the intertidal flats and saltmarshes provide feeding and roosting sites for large populations of waterbirds. During the winter the estuary is of major importance for ducks and waders, and in the spring and autumn migration periods it’s a crucial stopover for wader populations moving along the west coast of Britain.

The web page of the Mersey Estuary Conservation Group reports that dunlin, turnstone, teal, black-tailed godwit, redshank, pintail, and shelduck visit the estuary, while it is nationally important for wigeon, lapwing, curlew, golden and grey plover.  As the river continues to recover from industrial pollution, the range of fish species in the estuary has increased to over 50.   Sea bass, flounder and shoals of sprat are now common, and recent catches have included sole, dogfish, rays, mackerel as well as conger.   Salmon are probably breeding in the Mersey river system since juveniles were found in the river Goyt. As fish numbers increase, so to have sightings of  Cetaceans  (porpoises, dolphins and whales).  Seals, too, are regularly seen in the estuary, the most unusual and rarest being a Hooded Seal – a Greenland species – which hauled itself on the mud banks at Spike Island in 1997.

There are many Liverpudlians for whom this stretch of the river has provided a welcome opportunity to experience a quite wild and appealing area of countryside close to the city – not least for those who were rehoused on Speke Housing Estate in the postwar period, among them Paul McCartney.

In his biography of McCartney, Many Years from Now,  Barry Miles describes how Paul and his brother Mike, like thousands growing up on Liverpool’s new housing estates, were raised on the border of country and city:

For Paul and Michael, the best thing about living in Speke was the countryside. In a couple of minutes they could be in Dungeon Lane, which led through the fields to the banks of the Mersey. The river is very wide at this point, with the lights of Ellesmere Port visible on the far side across enormous shifting banks of mud and sand pecked over by gulls. On a clear day you could see beyond the Wirral all the way to Wales. Paul would often cycle the two and a half miles along the shoreline to the lighthouse at Hale Head, where the river makes a 90-degree turn, giving a panoramic view across the mud and navigation channels to the industrial complex of Runcorn on the far side. These are lonely, cold, windy places, the distant factories and docks dwarfed by the size of the mud banks of the river itself.

In the early fifties the McCartneys moved to another new house, surrounded by a muddy building site, at 12 Ardwick Road in the expanding eastern extension of the estate. It was not without danger. Paul was mugged there once while messing about with his brother on the beach near the old lighthouse. His watch was stolen and he had to go to court because they knew the youths that did it. […]

The little village of Hale was less than two miles away, with thatched roofs, home of the giant Childe of Hale who, legend has it, was nine foot tall. … The worn gravestone is still there, inscribed ‘Hyre lyes ye childe of Hale’. It was a favourite destination for a family walk. On the way back Paul’s parents and the two boys would stop at a teashop called the Elizabethan Cottage for a pot of tea, Hovis toast and home-made jam. It was a pleasant, genteel interlude, a touch of quality before they walked back to their very different life among the new grey houses and hard concrete roads of the housing estate.

‘This is where my love of the country came from,’ Paul said. ‘I was always able to take my bike and in five minutes I’d be in quite deep countryside. I remember the Dam woods, which had millions of rhododendron bushes. We used to have dens in the middle of them because they get quite bare in the middle so you could squeeze in. I’ve never seen that many rhododendrons since.’ Sometimes, however, rather than play with his friends, Paul preferred to be alone. He would take his Observer Book of Birds and wander down Dungeon Lane to the lighthouse on a nature ramble or climb over the fence and go walking in the fields: ‘This is what I was writing about in ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, it was basically a heart-felt song about my child-of-nature leanings’.

Speke was originally planned in 1936 as a complete town for 22,000 people, with an industrial estate, schools, a civic centre, a cinema, an ‘open-air music garden’ and a stadium and pleasure beach on the banks of the River Mersey. Unfortunately building work was interrupted by the Second World War and, though more homes were built in the postwar years, the gardens, stadium and pleasure beach never materialised.  Instead, social and community facilities and services were overlooked or inadequate.

1936 model of the planned Speke new town
1936 model of the planned Speke new town

The path to Hale follows the edge of farmland, skirting fields of barley, potatoes and carrots.

You can’t forget that the airport is nearby – on this stretch you walk parallel to the approach which aircraft make on their descent to the runway.  But the noise levels are not intrusive, apart from the brief roar of the reverse thrust engines as the planes touch down; for most of the time the only sounds are of rooks in the copse leading up to Hale village, or the calls of gulls and waders out on the mudbanks of the river.

Speke airport was constructed between 1930 and 1933, but until 1986 was located on a smaller site near Speke Boulevard (where the old terminal building is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel).  The major redevelopment of the 1980s saw the move to the new site near to the river at Oglet, and a transfer of ownership from Liverpool City Council to Peel Holdings, the company that now owns assets on both sides of the Mersey, from Liverpool to Manchester.  These include: the port of Liverpool, Birkenhead docks, the Manchester Ship Canal, the Trafford Centre, MediaCity UK at Salford Quays, and a great deal more.

The path follows the top of the low clay cliffs; between the path and the cliff edge is a strip of shrubs, reeds and saplings.  Flocks of hedgerow birds were exploiting the late summer seedheads; there were burdock (the dog came home with her coat festooned with the velcro-like burrs), teasel, and a delicate pink-and-white striped bindweed.

Walking on, the church tower at Hale was visible across the fields where a tractor was ploughing, pursued by a flock of seagulls.  Hale (the name is Anglo-Saxon again, deriving from ‘healh’ meaning promontary of land-  a reference to the village’s location on a bulge of land protruding into the Mersey. The village still retains something of its rural and farming character, the product of the rich and fertile soils hereabouts.

There are salt marshes between the village and the river which can flood at particularly high tides or during storms.  There used to be extensive osier willow beds around the marshes which gave rise to another village occupation, basket-making.  The industry died out long ago, but there are still remnants of the old willow beds marked on the Ordnance Survey map.  Along the cliff top and down on the foreshore there are dense reed beds: I imagine that in the past villagers  would have harvested the reeds for thatching (in fact, there are still a few thatched cottages in Hale village).

The walk ends at Hale lighthouse (top) which stands at Hale Head.  The first  lighthouse was built here in 1838, but the present building dates from 1906.  It ceased operation in 1958, since there was no longer any shipping on this side of the river. Since then it’s been a private residence. From here there are superb views of the hills at Frodsham and Helsby on the opposite bank.

See also

A walk round Hale

After a short-lived attempt to return on Friday, the snow and cold has departed, leaving us with milder, clearer weather.  So yesterday we walked  a stretch of the Mersey Way along the river’s edge from Hale Point before turning inland, through the woods and up to Hale Park.

There was a stiff, chilly breeze blowing in off the river at Hale Point where the occupied but inoperative lighthouse stands.  It last performed as a lighthouse in the 1950s.  Despite being directly under the flight-path of aircraft coming in to land at John Lennon Airport, this stretch of shoreline is a major migration stopover point for birds during the spring and autumn movements. There are large influxes of waders in the winter especially, with the mud banks and salt marsh providing a feeding and roosting area for birds.

As we walked yesterday, there were large flocks of dunlin swirling along the shoreline in ever-changing patterns, jostling for space with oystercatchers. Last time we walked this stretch we saw curlew, though none this time.  Best of all, we had the closest view I’ve ever had of a kestrel, which hovered over the cliff edge, unconcerned by our approach and only gliding away when we were right underneath him.

It was a relief to turn inland, away from the stiff breeze blowing onshore, and head up through the belt of woodland that leads to Hale Park.  From there we walked back through the village to our starting point, passing the Childe’s cottage and the tree-carving of the Childe of Hale.

The Childe of Hale , whose actual name was John Middleton, was born in 1578 in Hale and gained renown as being, at that time, the world’s tallest man.  He was 9ft 3 inches tall!

John Middleton died on 23 August 1623, as entered into the Hale Church death register, where his name is recorded, with ‘Childe Of Hale’ written alongside in pencil. His grave lies in Hale churchyard, with the inscription:

Here lyeth the bodie of John Middleton the Childe Nine feet three Borne 1578 Dyede 1623

In 1768 John Middleton’s remains were removed from his grave by the schoolmaster and Parish clerk, and measured. It was discovered that his thigh bones each stretched from the hip of an average sized man to his foot. Later his remains were re-interred in the churchyard.

When an old elm tree that stood opposite the church became diseased, rather than cut it down it was decided to create the carving of the Childe Of Hale, now gradually rotting away and riddled with beetle bore holes.

The pub in the village is named the Childe of Hale and the pub sign bears a portrait of John Middleton, the original of which resides in Brasenose College, Oxford.  His association with the college originated when he was returning from a wrestling bout at King James’s court in 1617.  His mentor, Sir Gilbert Ireland, Lord of the Manor of Hale, who graduated at the college and was a senior member there, took the giant to meet the students at Brasenose.  It was there that two life-sized portraits were painted.  One can be seen in Speke Hall while the other hangs in the college.

After the tranquillity of the walk, we return to the news that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has been shot in the head and six others killed by a gunman in Arizona, no doubt inspired by Sarah Palin’s cross-hair hit list.  On of the six dead is a child of nine who was once designated to be a Face of Hope by virtue of her birth on 11 September  2001.  I can’t help but see parallels between this shooting – of someone who dared to speak out in favour of Obama’s health-care reforms – and the assassination of Salmaan Taseer in Pakistan for questioned the country’s blasphemy law and championing the cause of  Aasia Bibi, the woman accused of blasphemy.