Harbour porpoise image by: John of Wirral
In Liverpool Bay, on the eastern shore of the Irish Sea, a sliver of sandstone protrudes from the western corner of the Wirral peninsula into the mouth of the Dee estuary. The outcrop runs for two miles under the sands from West Kirby, emerging as three small tidal islands: Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre. The first, the tiny hummock of Little Eye, lies about half way out and has barely enough soft turf to pitch a tent. The second, Middle Eye, is a low cliff-bound sward of a couple of acres, and is separated from the third and greater island, Hilbre, by a reef of low rock generally awash at high water but navigable in a small boat on a spring tide. Hilbre forms the extremity of the chain, a narrow finger pointing northward into the deep swash, where the tide races around its tip as it streams in and out of the Dee. It is only an island a third of the time, for at most states of the tide it is possible to walk across the sands from the mainland, but it feels remote and isolated, and normally the only sounds are the hiss of the breeze in the grass, the sea’s susurration and the eerie chorus of the seal colony out on the West Hoyle Bank, and all around are mile upon mile of sands, either dull grey or sparkling brilliantly, according to the weather; it is a quiet and special place, and a complete contrast to the bustle of the mainland.
The nicest anchorage in Liverpool Bay
Hilbre is not a striking landmark, it’s cliffs, although precipitous, rise no higher than 30ft and it can easily become obscured against the background of the Wirral shore or the Welsh Hills; it’s significance to the small boat sailor is simply in being the nicest anchorage along this whole coast and in providing some shelter in the lee of the cliffs from the prevailing westerly wind. Anchorage in the vicinity of Hilbre was always important in past centuries when vessels sailing to and from Chester and Liverpool would shelter in the Hoyle Lake to await favourable wind and tide. The Hoyle Lake, lying off the north Wirral shore and sheltered from the open sea to the north by the East Hoyle Bank, was to the Mersey and Dee estuaries what The Downs off the Kent coast was to the Thames estuary. Hilbre flanked its western entrance and would have have witnessed much maritime traffic. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there was a pub on the island, which according to local tradition was called The Seagull, and one can imagine seamen, the crews of local and visiting vessels, dallying there and perhaps doing some business in contraband goods. What remains of the ale house is now incorporated into the Victorian telegraph keeper’s cottage and is the oldest remaining building on the island.
Hub of the Irish trade
Ever since Chester served as a port in Roman times, the Dee estuary has been important for trade with Ireland, and the records of the Chester customs office attest to the importance of Hilbre. Thus, between 1566 and 1567, the vessels the George of Hilbre (12 tons), John of Hilbre (16 tons), Jesus of Hilbre (14 tons), Bride of Hilbre (24 tons), Ellen of Hilbre (12 tons), Sunday of Hilbre (23 tons), Katherine of Hilbre (16 tons), Nicholas of Hilbre (16 tons) and the Eagle of Hilbre (10 tons) are each recorded to have carried mainly either cloth and coal to Dublin, or hides and fleeces from Dublin to Chester. Most of these boats were almost certainly locally owned, their owners living in West Kirby, Calday and Meols. Hilbre boats at this time seem to have dominated the local shipping trade, those from other local villages (such as Wallasey and Neston) being only a few, and even the fleets of Chester and Liverpool being relatively small (comprising 7 and 13 vessels, respectively, although generally of greater tonnage). The customs house was established to control the traffic and "the great smuggling which went on in the old days, when ships stole quietly up the Dee and hid a cargo of contraband, to be removed when opportunity occurred." Shipping was a hazardous business, not least at this time from piracy, for in 1581 the Margaret of Hilbre was attacked off Anglesey by "a tall barque with two tops in a warlike manner" which fired on, boarded and plundered her.
Little is known about Hilbre in the distant past. The area around Dove Point on the Wirral shore, which formed the eastern entrance to the Hoyle Lake two miles away at Meols, is believed to have been a significant prehistoric trading site and settlement. Some finds have been made on the islands: a crouched burial beneath a cairn on Little Eye was reported in 1875, but the remains are now lost; and an inurned cremation, possibly of early Bronze Age, was found on Middle Eye in 1965. A Roman coin, some 3rd or 4th century pottery fragments and some ornamented blue glass beads (in a rabbit hole), typical of 7th century Anglian cemeteries, represent the early historical finds on Hilbre, apart from the most significant discovery: the head of a red sandstone ringed cross, along with a grave slab, unearthed by the keeper in 1852 whilst digging for rubble. The cross head is typical of ring-headed crosses associated with Irish Norse settlement, and is thought to show an influence of Irish Christianity; it dates from the late 10th or early 11th century, was worked by a Chester mason and is now on display in Chester’s Grosvenor Museum. It is the only tangible link to Hilbre’s religious past.
The Lady of Hilbre
The name Hilbre (pronounced ‘Hill-bray’) comes from ‘Hildeburgheye’ meaning Hildeburgh’s island. Who Hildeburgh was is no longer known, but tradition has it that she was a 7th century saint and that a shrine dedicated to her later became the Chapel of St. Mary. It is possible that a small religious house existed on the island at the time of the Norse settlement of Wirral from Ireland around AD 905, and the Doomsday Book entry for West Kirby mentions two churches; "one in the town and the other on an island in the sea near thereto." Following the Norman conquest the island became the property of the Abbey of St. Evroul in Normandy, but in 1139 was bought by the Benedictines of St. Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester who established there a small cell dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the 13th and 14th centuries this became a place of pilgrimage: "And thither went a sort of superstitious fools, in pilgrimage to Our Lady of Hilbre, by whose offerings the monks there were cherished and maintained." It is not clear whether a lamp maintained in the chapel at that time also served as a navigation beacon for shipping, but it is recorded that John the Scott, Earl of Chester, gave 10 schillings per annum for the light of St. Mary. A link between Our Lady of Hilbre and the safety of shipping is preserved today in the name of the current Hoylake lifeboat: the Lady of Hilbre.
There is, however, a story of another lady of Hilbre relating to the ‘Lady’s Cave’ in the cliffs on the west side of the island. A monk discovered a dying maiden cast up on a ledge within the cave and, before she died, he learnt her story. She was the daughter of the custodian of Shotwick Castle (farther up the estuary) and against her father’s wish had fallen in love with one of his esquires. Her father insisted she marry a man of his choice, a Welsh knight Llewellyn, and shipped her off to Wales to be wed. En route, either the boat foundered, or the maiden was given the news that her lover was dead and, stricken with grief, she either fainted and fell, or cast herself overboard and was washed up in the cave, broken-hearted and half dead.
Another local story is that of the Constable’s Sands. Richard, Earl of Chester, was way-laid by ‘Wicked Welsh men’ whilst on his way on pilgrimage to St. Winifred’s shrine, Holywell (along the Welsh Dee shore). Richard managed to send word to his constable, William Fitz-Nigel of Halton, to raise his army and meet him at Basingwerk, between Chester and Holywell. The constable rode fast to Hilbre hoping to find barques to take him across the estuary to Wales, but there was none. However, he besought a monk to intercede on behalf of the earl, promising gifts, and as a result the waters parted and he was able to ride across the sands and bring the earl to safety in Chester – presumably he was lucky with a particularly low spring tide. Afterwards, William gave the village of Newton-by-Chester to St. Werburgh’s Abbey, a gift recorded by charter in 1119. Whether the name of the ‘Constable Bank’, extending into the Irish Sea farther down the north Wales coast, is in any way related to this story is a matter of pure conjecture.
Three pints with breakfast
It is likely that only one or two monks at any one time lived on Hilbre, but there is no evidence that they lived ascetic lives as hermits, they were responsible for the collection of tithes from the district for St. Werburgh’s and are sometimes mentioned in the court rolls for misdemeanours such as ‘taking a porpoise at Meols’ and for assault in West Kirby. The last monk to live on the island, known as the ‘prior’ and named Sir Robert Wiggan of Hilbre, left of his possessions two boats, a heifer, two calves and a filly. He continued to live there drawing a pension until 1550, after the dissolution of the monasteries, when ownership of the island passed to the Dean and Chapter of Chester Cathedral. Living on the island was presumably still good in 1596 when on 2nd November "Prebendary Sharpe went to Hilbre with two companions and drank two quarts of wine with their supper and three pints with their breakfast"!
The late Elizabethan age was undoubtedly the heyday for the Irish trade based at Hilbre, but there was also much activity due to the Irish wars both then and in the following century. Cromwell’s troops embarked for Ireland in the Hoyle Lake, as did William of Orange’s army of 10,000 in 1689-90, and for local ship owners this presumably presented both opportunity and hazard. Three local ship owners, "Thomas Ratclyf, Robert Coventre and Thomas Waren, of Werrall, by Hilbree, sayleres" in 1571 petitioned the Lord Justice of Ireland for redress after their vessels were commandeered. But military activities were exceptional; for the most part Hilbre can be imagined probably with an inn and perhaps a couple of houses and a dozen small sailing vessels moored in its lee, as the breakwater of the sheltered anchorage of the Hoyle Lake, owned by local families whose business was farming on the mainland and modestly plying the Irish trade.
At the end of the 16th century a Spanish Armada pilot described the Hoyle Lake as "a very good anchorage" with 4 fathoms at low water at the entrance and greater depth within. 250 years later, the western entrance to the Lake was, "Strongly marked on the southern hand by Hilbre Islands, if such they may be called, for they dry up their bases several feet above low water level" and "a drainage stream gutters down, affording a muddy dyke for flats, close along the eastern side of Great Hilbre, with 6 feet at two hours flood," which seems much less the fine anchorage it used to be; the Hoyle Lake was silting up, the Seagull Inn was no more, and Liverpool had grown hugely in importance as a port. Ambitious proposals in the 1820s to drive a shipping canal through to west Wirral from Birkenhead and develop Hilbre as part of a large harbour complex were scuppered by vested interests in Liverpool Corporation, inducing the principal engineer involved, Thomas Telford, to resign in disgust.
What the Victorians did
In 1828 the Trustees of Liverpool Docks acquired the lease of the island in order to erect a telegraph station to link the transmission of semaphore signals from Holyhead to Liverpool. There were seven intermediate stations: Point Lynas, Puffin Island, the Great Orme, Llysfaen (above Abergele), Foel Nant (above Prestatyn), Hilbre and Bidston Hill. Upon making a dawn landfall off Anglesey in 1850, a visiting American described how, "Coming to Point Linos, a telegraph station was pointed out; our signal was hoisted, and in five minutes we had spoken our name to a man in Liverpool." The station still stands on Hilbre, still with its swivelling telescope ports in the bow-fronted window, on the island’s highest point. The semaphore arms, wooden boards measuring 8ft 6in x 1ft 6in, were mounted on three masts north of the building and could be turned to face either the adjacent stations or ships in the offing. The telegraph keeper’s duties were strictly prescribed, and included keeping a slate log of all messages and relaying a test signal every day at noon along the whole 70 mile chain. The system worked very efficiently and the fastest time recorded for a message sent from Liverpool to Holyhead and back on a clear day in 1830 was 23 seconds. And story has it that a keeper in Holyhead, irked at having to repeat a message, signalled, "You are stupid," and within minutes received a reply from Liverpool, "You are dismissed."
Further tenants arrived on the island in 1836 with the establishment by Trinity House of a buoy store with attendant keeper to supervise and maintain the buoyage in the Dee and the adjacent coasts. The separate houses built close next to each other to accommodate the two keepers and their respective assistants and families are what comprise the main complex of buildings on the island today. Squabbles over space, however, and rights to grazing, eventually led the Dock Board to buy the island outright in 1856.
In the mid 19th century technology was advancing apace and an electric telegraph replaced the semaphore system in 1861, and the station at Hilbre was upgraded and retained its role as a relay station. Additionally, in 1852, a tide gauge was installed, the reading of which was added to the telegraph keeper’s duties, along with regular meteorological readings, which information was passed to the Tidal Institute and the Liverpool Observatory to be made use of in forecasts for shipping. The tide gauge recorded the movement of a copper float rising and falling in a well connected by a siphon to the tide in a narrow, deep cleft cut out of the rock and readings were recorded manually from a paper chart right up until 1988; the cleft is an obvious feature at the old lifeboat station at the northern end of the island.
The lifeboat station and slip date from 1849 and were built as a supplement to the Hoylake Station, which was one of several lifeboat stations the Liverpool Dock Trustees found expedient to establish earlier in the century (the two earliest were at Formby and the Point of Air). The Hoylake boat could be launched conveniently only at high water from the mainland, horse-drawn from the boathouse on a carriage, but the Hilbre boat could be launched directly into deep water at low tide down a choice of two tramways off the northern tip of the island. The boat was manned by the Hoylake crew who, summoned by the firing of a canon, would run or drive in traps or wagons across the sands to Hilbre, where the keeper would have the doors to the slipway open ready for the launch. The station was taken over in 1894 by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and operated until 1939, during which phase three different boats saw service and 44 launches and 21 lives saved were recorded. All the boats were driven by sail and oar. The last one, a Liverpool class lifeboat the Chapman, which served from 1925, has been renovated and locally preserved. The introduction of a motorised boat at Hoylake and a tractor to tow it across the sands made the Hilbre station obsolete.
A decline in the importance of Hilbre to the Liverpool Dock Board correlated with its increased letting to private tenants and use for recreation, especially with the advent of the railway to Hoylake. Leisure visitors who occasionally came out by horse and trap to picnic upset nobody, but in the early 1900s crowds arriving by rail from industrial Merseyside came out in their hundreds, causing inevitable conflict. Attempts were made to restrict access by permit, and even to fence off the island, but these proved futile in the face of local objections based on historical rights of access. One recreational body which established itself early on the island was the Mersey Canoe Club which acquired use of the Trinity House buoy store after this service had located to Anglesey. This was a northern splinter group off the Royal Canoe Club based on the Thames, and in 1896 the club was allowed to erect its own clubhouse just north of the keeper’s house. The Mersey Canoe Club still occupies the clubhouse and, although there are now relatively few members, it works to preserve the finest collection of original clinker ‘Rob Roy’ sailing canoes in existence.
The Beasts of Hilbre
Hilbre was finally sold to the local District Council in 1945 on condition that it be used "for recreational purposes to the end that the property may be preserved to the enjoyment of the public under proper control and regulation and for no other purpose whatsoever," meaning it was to remain unspoilt, the development of "swings, roundabouts, side-shows or other amusements of a similar character" was precluded. As a result, Hilbre today is largely enjoyed for its natural surroundings and not least for the wild life in the Dee estuary, and it is now a Local Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The large overwintering populations of wading birds in particular attract much interest and there has been a bird observatory on the island since 1965. The grey seals that tend to swim close to the rocks at the northern end of the island arouse excitement amongst visitors too. These are members of a resident colony that hauls out every tide onto the edge of the West Hoyle Bank once it starts to dry, safely on the opposite side of the deep channel from Hilbre in the middle of the estuary. The colony was first observed to establish itself in the 1920s and steadily grew in number to 150-200 animals by the 1970s. They seem to originate (like other colonies in the Irish Sea on the Calf of Man and on Bardsey) from the large breeding colony on Ramsay off the Pembrokeshire coast, where breeding females return in November and December to give birth. The West Hoyle colony is unusual in being so close to a large conurbation.
An unexpected animal rarely encountered on Hilbre is the hedgehog. Sightings have occasionally been reported over the years and assumed to be due to animals inadvertently having been carried out there. However, I have personally found one determinedly walking out towards Hilbre over the wet sand. How does the creature know there is the safety of dry land ahead? How does it know in which direction to walk? And does it have awareness of tide times? I would like to know.
Of all the various creatures reported at Hilbre, none is as haunting, arouses the sense of wonder or stretches the imagination quite to the extent as the Hand Beast, whose footprints were first noticed on the island in the early 1990s. To lie in one’s boat by the island at night and hear plosh plosh plosh… is it sand collapsing in the gutter as the water runs out, or is it footsteps? The Hand Beast, or Chirotherium, was named because its footprint looks like the impression of a human hand and was first thought to have been made by a large ape or bear-like creature. The footprints were made in semi-dried mud then baked hard and covered over with wind-blown sand and alluvial deposits, along with traces of horsetails (Equisetum, which is still abundant locally) and were found after a rock fall in the cliffs at the southwest corner of the island. They date from over 200 million years ago, were made by crocodile-like archosaurs, possibly about 10ft long, and represent some of the earliest Triassic fossil footprints in Britain. Along with the Norse cross head, they are now in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.
J. D. Craggs (ed), Hilbre The Cheshire Island. Liverpool University Press (1982) ISBN 0-85323-314-4
Pat O’Brian, Looking Back at Maritime Wirral. Willow Publishing (1989) ISBN 0946361274
Michael J. King and David B. Thompson, Triassic vertebrate footprints from the Sherwood Sandstone Group, Hilbre, Wirral, northwest England. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, vol.111, pp111-132 (2000)