David Robinson parks his prejudice against the Wirral and finds pretty villages and perfect pubs
After the Toxteth riots of 1981, Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw came up to Liverpool to see the extent of the damage for himself. His chauffeur picked him up at Lime Street and drove him past the decrepit red-brick terraces, graffiti’d buildings and shuttered shops. “It’s terrible, isn’t it,” Whitelaw said, “what they’ve done?” “We haven’t got there yet,” the chauffeur replied.
Or at least that’s the story they told when I worked there 30 years ago. And these were indeed dark days in the city’s history. No matter how bad things were, though, there was always one consolation. Take a ferry across the Mersey to Birkenhead, and they were even worse.
Because I knew that, I rarely did cross the Mersey, so the charms of the rest of the Wirral peninsula were lost on me. I realised that New Brighton once used to be a bustling resort; I knew they played a lot of golf on the Wirral (14 courses including Hoylake, where the 2014 Open was held) but to me that only seemed another reason to avoid it. The idea of a mini-break on the Wirral would have struck me, back then, as either sad or ludicrous.
Why? Along with all of the other prejudices you may already have been able to discern, I was geographically prejudiced against it too. A 23-mile tongue of land between the Mersey and the Dee, seemed to me more like a tonsil, a flat, featureless, in-between land whose surgical removal wouldn’t be much of a loss.
All of which just goes to show how little you know when you think you know it all. True, Birkenhead is still falling off the bottom of most social indices you can think of. But its hinterland on the Wirral most definitely isn’t.
Hoylake is a good example. We stayed at its Holiday Inn where right next door, Marco Pierre White has a gaff; a few hundred yards away is the golf course Tiger Woods reckons is the best he has ever played, and when you drive off down the west coast it’s as leafy as Surrey, except that between those leaves the chances are you can see the shining waters of the Dee, the hills of the Flintshire coast and, with luck, a distant smudge of Snowdonia.
Our driver was a rare breed of Welshman: one who actually preferred living in this part of England. The idyllic-looking ancient villages (Caldy, Brimstage, Neston) he took us through made his point for him, each seemingly containing at least one Premier League footballer’s mansion behind high walls but, more importantly, an enticing-looking pub too.
Take, for example, the Red Fox at Thornton Hough, an enormous late Victorian pile which a year ago was transformed into everything a gastro pub ought to be, right down to open fires, wooden galleries and vast garden terraces. Although the village goes back to the Domesday Book, what you can see of it today owes a lot to Lord Leverhulme, the world’s first control freak paternalist soap king. The good folk at Wirral Tourism probably want you to visit the museum and 700-cottage model village he built at Port Sunlight but Thornton Hough, which Leverhulme bought in 1891 as a smaller-scale rural equivalent, is no less interesting. It’s also where he chose to live himself, although these days his home is now the Thornton Hall Hotel. For the last three years, it’s been voted the UK’s Best UK Beauty Luxury Spa at the World Spa Awards.
If you haven’t noticed it, there’s a distinctly middle-class pattern here. I haven’t even begun to mention the Ness Botanic Gardens, the RSPB’s new visitor centre at Burton Mere Wetlands, the seals at Hilbre Island, the artists’ courses Laura Heath introduced us to at Shore Cottage Studio (it opened last year after featuring on Channel 4’s George Clark’s Amazing Spaces), 35-mile circular Wirral cycle and hikers’ trail, or the award-winning beaches at Meols, Moreton and Wallasey. I haven’t touched on the history, or the farm shops (try the one at Claremont Farm), mazes and craft centres.
This isn’t what you think of when you think of Merseyside, although technically that’s its address. But look at the post code: it’s CH: Chester. The Wirral begins, the Domesday Book told us in 1086, “two arrows’ fall from the walls of Chester”. It’s really north Cheshire as much as it is east Merseyside: in crude terms, good fertile land, not gap sites and Stanley knives; posh, not Scouse. Even New Brighton’s bouncing back. I hardly recognised the place, but I’d say the same about the Wirral as a whole. It’s not a hole. I was wrong. I’m sorry.