Although the day I’m about to write about wasn’t all about the tidal island and not all about being tipsy either, I just couldn’t resist the title.
I arrived back on the ferry from the Isle of Man following the recent lighthouse bonanza over there, and was met by Bob at Heysham. I’d made some lighthouse plans for later that day and we had a little time to kill beforehand.
While in the area we decided to pay Hale Lighthouse a visit. I’d not been here since my 2012 tour and I felt I hadn’t really explored the area properly on that occasion. Hale Lighthouse was built in 1906, replacing an 1838 light in the same location. The light was introduced to help guide ships safely around Hale Head as they approached the Mersey. This area is renowned for its fast moving tides and the ever changing sandbanks that can sit just below the water level, a hidden danger to shipping.
When the original lighthouse here was built there was already a private bathing house in this location and with the introduction of the first lighthouse, this house was converted into the keepers cottage. This cottage was demolished shortly after the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1958 when the need for the light was no longer essential owing to the reduction in trade in the area and the use of that particular shipping channel.
The cottage has now been replaced with a new property and this, along with the lighthouse, is now in private ownership. There is plenty in the area to suggest that, although a public bridleway runs along here, visitors to the area aren’t necessarily welcome. However, you can see why this might be the case judging by the amount of graffiti on the wall to the seaward side of the lighthouse.
Getting around down here involved a little hop over a bit of fencing (we later found the actual way down), wandering around on some rocks, and then trying to avoid getting stuck in the mud just below the lighthouse. Our shoes didn’t thank us for that that bit!
With the big plans still ahead for the day it was time to get a shift on down towards the Wirral. Thankfully there was a little time to spare which allowed us to take a swing by Ellesmere Port. On my original 2012 lighthouse tour I’d not managed to get to this one and I recall reading that it was part of the National Waterways Museum, so I’d assumed that I could turn up there and get to see it. I am not sure to what extent it is a part of the museum, but the land it is on is now private with the building owned by a fire brigade union. Having done my research though I knew where we needed to go to get the best view of it and so it was a relatively straightforward visit.
This lighthouse, built in 1880, is also (rather confusingly to my mind) known as Whitby Lighthouse. The village of Whitby in the area has, in more recent years, merged with other neighbouring villages to form Ellesmere Port. There is a wonderfully detailed explanation around why the lighthouse was originally built and its relationship to the waterways in this area on the excellent Lighthouse Accommodation website.
There is a fantastic old picture on the Ships Nostalgia website showing the lighthouse when it marked the entrance to the Shropshire Union Docks and Canal. Sadly the introduction of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894 meant the lighthouse became surplus to requirement after only 14 years.
It was time to head for the exciting afternoon we had planned. In my role as Events Coordinator for the Association of Lighthouse Keepers I’d come into contact with the owner of the lighthouse in Hoylake, which is now a private home. I’d made contact with him ahead of this trip and had also mentioned our intention of heading over to Hilbre Island while in the area. He very kindly offered to walk over to Hilbre with us and show us around the Hilbre Island Canoe Club’s base there, which seemed like an opportunity not to be missed.
First though he (Charlie) had invited us to meet him at his home and, of course, I couldn’t resist the chance to take a look inside such a beautiful building and lighthouse. For a start the garden is just glorious and so well kept. To see the lighthouse towering out of the top of the very grand looking house makes for such a fantastic scene. Charlie explained to us which parts of the house would have been there when the lighthouse was operational and how the building was split into two with a shared access hall when it housed the keepers and their families.
Hoylake Lighthouse was originally the high light, working in partnership with a low light that has since been demolished. Charlie has a wonderful map on his wall showing the area and you can clearly see how these lights, which appear relatively inland, would have helped to guide ships. The navigation on the Wirral is particularly interesting as running through a series of lining up lights was necessary for safe passage.
The existing lighthouse was completed in 1866, replacing its predecessor which had been operating for just over 100 years by that point. The light was discontinued in 1886. When Charlie purchased the house he also inherited the old lighthouse log book which, as you can probably imagine, is a wonderful thick tome just full of history.
I won’t say too much about the house itself as it is a (beautifully decorated) private home, so I will skip ahead to the tower. It’s a really unique tower, very open and the type that those without a head for heights would really struggle with. There is no central column, just open space, and the spiral staircase is made up of fantastic lattice metal stairs which allow you to see right through them to the area both below and above. There is definitely nothing enclosed about this lighthouse tower.
Just below the lantern there is the usual small room where, these days, operational lighthouses would have a couple of boxes that keep the light going. Then it’s just a climb up a ladder to get to the lamp room. What a space that is! Again it’s very open and bright with 360 degree views. What amazed me most up the top though was the width of the gallery. The railings around the gallery are pretty low so you do need to be a bit careful, but it is such a wide space compared to those I have been to before that I was quite impressed. Again, it’s all about the space at Hoylake.
Charlie had very kindly carried his wonderful and heavy old binoculars up the stairs (no mean feat) and set them up so we could see a number of the other lighthouses in the area, including Talacre (Point of Ayr), Bidston and Leasowe, the latter of which could be seen quite clearly with the naked eye that day. We could also see across to Hilbre Island and this served as a reminder that we should probably start heading that way to ensure we caught the tides right.
Hilbre Island, or the Hilbre Islands (actually three tidal islands, with Hilbre being the biggest) sit just off the coast at Hoylake. Although it is recommended to go from West Kirby at low tide, Charlie said that walking from Hoylake was fine as long as you knew which way to go. The timing for Hilbre is key as there is plenty to see on the island and you definitely don’t want to be only just starting the walk back with the tide already coming in.
Considering it’s a small island it has a really interesting history. There’s a great piece on the Hilbre Island website that gives masses of information on various aspects of its past. My interest in visiting was largely a result of the light over there, but I got somewhat waylaid when Charlie showed us the Hilbre Island Canoe Club building. He is a member of the club and the building is full of a variety of pictures from past and present.
While Bob flew Joe the Drone around the island, Charlie showed me a photo album which gives a wonderful overview of the club’s past – oh, and the wine came out!
There was so much conversation about the Club and other topics that I almost forgot what I was there for, but we did eventually make it to the lighthouse. I’d had a couple of discussions before with my lighthouse pal John about whether or not the light on Hilbre met the criteria for inclusion in my book. As a result, my first priority was to check that it did and that it was actually big enough for a person to be able to get inside. As you will see from the picture, the door is considerably taller than me. There may not be room to swing a cat in there, but it could fit a person inside. I would give it a good go!
Around 1810, two wooden markers were installed at the north end of Hilbre to help guide ships into the Hilbre Swash at the entrance to the River Dee. In 1840 these were replaced by new markers on Little Eye (the middle of the three Hilbre Islands) and just offshore at Hoylake. After being replaced at some point they were eventually demolished during WWII to avoid the enemy using them as landmarks.
A navigation light, an acetylene gas-powered light on a lattice tower initially, was first introduced by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Authority in 1927 to mark the Hilbre Swash. It was later replaced by the existing steel structure and ownership of the light changed to Trinity House in 1973.
Close to the lighthouse is the old telegraph station, which was the second station on the island (the original was a wooden structure). This was one in a long chain of stations used to communicate messages from as far as Holyhead to Liverpool. A couple of other lighthouse locations were involved in this process, those being Great Orme and Bidston Hill. The telegraph station on Hilbre was completed in 1841 with the system continuing to be used until 1860.
We then had a great walk around the island.
Then it was back to the Canoe Club where I proceeded to gulp down another glass of wine. When you are on a tidal island you can’t be hanging around for too long sipping on a glass of wine! The walk back across to Hoylake was thankfully very refreshing. On arrival back at Charlie’s we discovered his lovely wife Ali was back so we popped in and I enjoyed even more wine.
I had arranged to stop off at Bidston Lighthouse that evening to collect something and poor Stephen and Mandy ended up waiting very patiently for our arrival only for me to turn up a little worse for wear. As far as I could tell they didn’t seem to mind too much though and very kindly gave me coffee. The visit to Bidston was actually very well timed as it is currently one of four lighthouses currently lit up with beautiful moving light designs by Hendrick’s Gin, which seems like a wonderful image to leave you with at the end of this long and crazy day 🙂