Wyre Heal

A Local History of the Wirral Peninsula

Chapter 4

Hilbre... The Cheshire Islands

At the north-western corner of the Wirral Peninsula, approximately one and a half kilometres off the coast, adjacent to West Kirby, there lies an exposed reef of sandstone.  At high water, most of the reef is submerged.  The three parts of the reef that are exposed form the Hilbre group of islands.

Geological evidence suggests that originally, there was one large island.  But, over the years, tide and weather erosion have worn away at the soft red sandstone to create three islands. The three islands that form the Hilbre chain of islands are known individually as Little Eye, Middle Hilbre and the main island of Hilbre itself.

Access to the islands is from a route that starts from the bottom of Sandy Lane, West Kirby, adjacent to the Coastguard Station.  There is another route starting from the Red Rocks, Hoylake, but this route is not recommended by the Coastguard due to sinking sands, deep water filled gullies and the unpredictable way that the tide comes in.  For those who do not fancy the one and a half kilometre walk or are unable to trek across the sands, in summer, a horse drawn cart service is available for a reasonable fee.

Because Hilbre is an island, visits have to be timed to co-incide with low tide, otherwise, the visitor may be cut off during the crossing by the tide or be marooned on the island once it had been reached and the visit would last quite a few hours longer than anticipated. The Ranger Station at Thurstaston can give guidance as to the best times to cross. As there are no shops or facilities on the island, all necessities have to be carried across by the visitor.

The route to the islands start from the Coast Guard Station goes out in a straight line past the boating lake and across the sands to the left of the nearest island, Little Eye.  Little Eye has a rock formation on it that resembles the head of a lady with long hair and is almost completely submerged at high tide.  This island is skirted and the route continues across the reef to Middle Hilbre.  Before reaching Middle Hilbre, a water filled gully created by the retreating tide has to be forded. Care must be taken as the depth of the water in the gully varies and is unpredictable.  Once Middle Hilbre is reached the walker has a choice.  They can either walk over the island or skirt around it on the western, seaward side.

If the seaward route is taken, care must be exercised as the rocks are covered in Kelp and are extremely slippery, however, one of the two caves on the islands can be observed which makes the precarious walk worthwhile.  This cave is called the “Smuggler’s Cave” and there are no prizes given for guessing how it got it’s name.  There is a path across the island, and whilst walking along it the outlines of three fields can be traced.  The fields were used for growing food and crops for the small number of inhabitants of Hilbre in days gone by.

Continuing along the path to the northern end of the island, it will be noticed that there are no trees.  This is due to the exposed position of the island, and is a feature that will be noted on the main island of Hilbre as well.  If the path over the island is taken, please keep to it and avoid damaging the rare plan life that grows here.

The next obstacle is the reef across to Hilbre itself.  Again, the rocks can be extremely slippery.  Be sure to wear stout footwear, as some of the rocks can be jagged and sharp.

Hilbre and it’s History

 On arriving at the main island, a bay on the southern tip gives access to a path that leads past the cliffs and onto the plateau.  Here an ancient pond, said to have been made by the monks who once lived on the island, is surrounded by rare and colourful plants.

On the eastern side of the islands is a collection of “Helligoland Traps”.  These traps are used to capture some of the rare breeds of birds that visit the island.  The captured birds are identified and ringed by the R.S.P.B. officers who take it in turns to man the bird watching station.

The name “Hilbre” is derived from the name Hildeburgh.  Saint Hildeburgh was a legendary figure said to have visited the island’s monastery whilst on a pilgrimage.  It is her name that was given to the island by the resident monks.   There had been a cell of monks on the island for well over one thousand years.  When King Henry the Eighth made his religious reforms in 1538, the cell was moved to Chester.  Unfortunately, they left no physical remains behind, but their graveyard was discovered at the northern end of the pond when excavations were taking place.  After leaving the island, the monks went to Chester.  They then started the church that was to become Chester Cathedral.

The Ecclesiastical connection was not severed completely on dissolution of the monastery.  The Church still owned the islands until 1828, when they were sold to the Trustees of Liverpool Docks for use as a telegraph station.  During the intervening years, the island had a public house that was a favourite mooring place for local sailors, fishermen and even the occasional smuggler. 

The telegraph posts and lookout station were part of a chain of telegraph stations stretching all the way from Holyhead in Anglesey to Liverpool.  The stations gave advance warning of ships inward bound for the Port of Liverpool.  The island also possesses a tide height gauge.  The gauge is still in use today and is situated at the end of a gully hewn out of the solid sandstone close to the derelict lifeboat station.  The measurements from the gauge are sent to the Proudman Tidal Institute at the Observatory on Bidston Hill.

The lifeboat station was constructed in 1849.  At that time it was operated by Liverpool Dock Board.  In 1894, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute took over responsibility for the station until, in 1939, it was superseded by the Hoylake Station. A bird-watching lookout has been constructed over the beginning of the old slipway for ornithologists to observe the rare breeds that congregate on the island.  Trinity House, the organisation responsible for maritime navigation, also used the island.  They maintained a marker buoy store here unlit 1876 when it was mover to Holyhead in Anglesey.

Today, the only permanent resident on the island is the warden, whose responsibility it is to oversee the visitors, keep the islands safe, tidy and free from litter, take tide height readings and liaise with the R.S.P.B. officers, Coastguard, Lifeboat and the Meteorological Office.

The erosion that split the original single island into the three islands that we know today is still present.  An on-going program repairs known weaknesses and identifies new ones in an attempt to literally stop the islands from falling into the sea.  This on-going problem was first reported in 1857 when part of the cliff on the Western side of the island was in danger of collapsing and reducing the island’s surface area.

By 1945, the islands had outlived their maritime usefulness and were sold to Hoylake Urban District Council for the sum of £2500.  They had the idea of lifting the visiting restrictions from the islands.  This would then open up the islands for walkers, ornithologists, botanists or anyone who just wanted to get away from it all for a couple of hours.  The Council’s idea was a successful one, which is confirmed by the number of people that can be seen walking over the sands to the islands.

One of the most visited parts of the Island is the Lady Cave.  There are several different versions of the story telling how the cave got it’s name.  The most popular being of a young Welsh girl who had thrown herself from a boat taking her to an arranged marriage.  Her drowned body was discovered by the monks on the rocks close to the cave that bears the name “Lady Cave.”

In more recent times, the Hilbre has provided the paint industry with an unexpected facility.  Situated in the paddock, behind the Warden’s house, is a rack filled with painted pieces of timber.  Due to the island’s exposed location, it makes an ideal weathering post.  What better way to discover which colour or type of paint best stands up to the elements?

If you have already visited the islands, I hope that this article renews fond memories.  If, however, you have never journeyed across the sands, I hope that you have been encouraged to visit the beautiful Cheshire Islands we know as Hilbre.

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Updated - 24-09-09