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Wirral or the Wirral // is a peninsula in North West England. It is bounded to the west by the River Dee, forming a boundary with Wales, to the east by the River Mersey and to the north by the Irish Sea. Both terms "Wirral" and "the Wirral" are used locally (and interchangeably), although the merits of each form are debated.
The roughly rectangular peninsula is about 15 miles (24 km) long and 7 miles (11 km) wide. Under the Local Government Act 1972 the northern part is the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral in Merseyside. The southern part is now administered under Cheshire West and Chester. Historically part of Cheshire, the Wirral's boundary with the rest of Cheshire was officially "Two arrow falls from Chester City Walls", according to the Domesday Book. Under that definition, places such as Ledsham, Puddington and Saughall would be part of Wirral. The peninsula has also been a hundred.
The Wirral contains both affluent and deprived areas. Many of the more prosperous areas are located on the west and south of the peninsula, while the less prosperous and more heavily urbanised areas are concentrated to the north-east, around the heavily built-up district of Birkenhead.
The name Wirral occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as Wirheal, literally "myrtle-corner", from the Old English wir, a myrtle tree, and heal, an angle, corner or slope. It is supposed that the land was once overgrown with bog myrtle, a plant no longer found in the area but plentiful around Formby, to which Wirral would once have provided a similar habitat. The name was given to the Hundred of Wirral around the 8th century. In the Domesday Book and shortly afterwards, the name of the hundred changed to the Hundred of Wilaveston, which later became Willaston.
The earliest evidence of human occupation of Wirral dates from the Mesolithic period, around 7000 BC. Excavations at Greasby have uncovered flint tools, signs of stake holes and a hearth used by a hunter-gatherer community, and other evidence from about the same period has been found at Irby, Hoylake and New Brighton. Later Neolithic stone axes and pottery have been found in Oxton, Neston, and Meols. At Meols and New Brighton there is evidence of continuing occupation through to the Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, and funerary urns of the period have been found at West Kirby and Hilbre.
Before the time of the Romans, Wirral was inhabited by a Celtic tribe, the Cornovii. Artefacts discovered in Meols suggest it was an important port from at least 500 BC. Traders came from Gaul and the Mediterranean seeking minerals from North Wales and Cheshire. There are also remains of a small Iron Age fort at Burton, which takes its name (burh-tún) from it.
Around 70 AD, Romans occupied Chester. Evidence of their occupation in Wirral has been found, including the remains of a road near Mollington, Ledsham and Willaston. This road may have continued to the port at Meols, which may have been used as a base for attacking the north Wales coast. Storeton Quarry may also have been used by Romans for sculpture, and remains of possible Roman roads have also been found at Greasby and at Bidston. By the end of the Roman period, pirates were a menace to traders in the Irish Sea, and soldiers may have been garrisoned at Meols to combat this threat.
The Romans left in about 410, but later coins and other material found at Meols show that it continued to operate as a trading port. There is evidence of Celtic Christianity from the 5th or 6th centuries in the originally circular shape of churchyards at Bromborough, Woodchurch and elsewhere, and also in the dedication of the parish church at Wallasey to a 4th-century bishop, Hilary of Poitiers. The Celtic names of Liscard and Landican (from llan-T/Decwyn) both suggest an ancient British origin. The name of Wallasey, meaning "Welsh (or foreigners') island", is evidence of British settlement. The Welsh name, both ancient and modern, for the Wirral is Cilgwri. In Welsh mythology, the Ouzel (or Blackbird) of Cilgwri was one of the most ancient creatures in the world.
The Anglo-Saxons under Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, laid waste to Chester around 616. Æthelfrith withdrew, leaving the area west and south of the Mersey to become part of Mercia, and Anglo-Saxon settlers took over Wirral except the northern tip. Many of Wirral's villages, such as Willaston, Eastham and Sutton, were established and named at this time.
Towards the end of the ninth century, the Norsemen or Vikings began raiding the area. They settled along the Dee side of the peninsula, and along the sea coast, giving their villages names such as Kirby, Frankby and Meols. They introduced their own local government system with a parliament at Thingwall. Ancient Irish annals record the population of Wirral by Norsemen led by Ingimund, having been expelled from Ireland around 902 and getting agreement from Aethelflaed or "Ethelfleda", Queen of the Mercian English to settle there peacefully. The boundary of the Norse colony is believed to have passed south of Neston and Raby, and along Dibbinsdale. Evidence of the Norse presence in Wirral can still be seen from place name evidence – such as the common '-by' (meaning "village" in Scandinavian languages) – suffixes and names such as Tranmere, which comes from trani melr ("cranebird sandbank"). The finding of two hogback tombstones corroborates this. Recent Y-DNA research has also revealed the genetic trail left by Vikings in the Wirral, specifically relatively high rates of the Haplogroup R1a, associated in Britain with Norse (Slavic Vikings) ancestry.
Bromborough on Wirral is also one of the possible sites of an epic battle in 937, the Battle of Brunanburh, which confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This is the first battle where England united to fight the combined forces of the Norsemen and the Scots, and thus historians consider it the birthplace of England. The battle site covered a large area of Wirral. Egil's Saga, a story which tells of the battle, may have referred to Wirral as Wen Heath, Vínheíþr in Icelandic.
After invading England in 1066 and subduing Northumbria in 1069/70, William the Conqueror invaded and ravaged Chester and its surrounding area, laying waste to much of Wirral. The Domesday Survey of 1086 shows that Wirral then was more densely populated than most of England, and the manor of Eastham, which covered most of the east of the peninsula from Bidston to the River Gowy, was the second largest in Cheshire. Of the 28 former lords of Wirral manors listed, 12 bore Norse names. By 1086, most of the area was in the hands of Norman lords such as Robert of Rhuddlan, his cousin Hugh d'Avranches, and Hamo de Mascy. The survey shows 405 family heads living in the peninsula, suggesting a total population of 2,000–3,000.
For about 250 years the Earls of Chester ruled the whole of the County Palatine, including Wirral, almost as "a kingdom within a kingdom". Between 1120–1123, Earl Ranulph le Meschin converted Wirral into a hunting forest, an area in which game, particularly deer and boar, could be allowed to flourish undisturbed. A chief Forester was appointed with a ceremonial horn, and the position soon became a hereditary responsibility of the Stanley family. However, after complaints by the residents about the wildness of the area and oppression by the Stanleys, a charter confirming the disafforestation of Wirral was issued by King Edward III on 20 July 1376.
At the end of the twelfth century, Birkenhead Priory stood on the west bank of the River Mersey on a headland of birch trees, from which the town derives its name. The ruined priory is Merseyside's oldest surviving building and its Benedictine monks provided the first Mersey ferry service around 1330, having been granted a passage to Liverpool by a charter from Edward III. At this time, large areas of Wirral were owned by Chester Abbey. In 1278 the Abbey was granted the right to hold an annual three-day fair at Bromborough, but the fair declined after the Black Death in 1349. Another fair was established in 1299 at Burton. Meanwhile, Meols continued as an important port, and the eroded coastline there has provided what is described as "the largest collection of medieval domestic items to have come from any single site outside London".
A Subsidy Roll of 1545 shows that the population of Wirral was no more than 4,000. The peninsula was divided into 15 parishes (Wallasey, Bidston, Upton, Woodchurch, West Kirby, Thurstaston, Heswall, Bebington, Bromborough, Eastham, Neston, Burton, Shotwick, Backford and Stoke). Most parishes were subdivided into smaller townships, of which the largest in terms of population were Neston, Burton, Wallasey, Tranmere (then within the parish of Bebington) and Liscard, and were the same size as small rural villages.
Wirral's proximity to the port of Chester influenced the history of the Dee side of the peninsula. From about the 14th century, Chester provided facilities for trade with Ireland, Spain, and Germany, and seagoing vessels would "lay to" in the Dee awaiting favourable winds and tides. As the Dee started to silt up, harbouring facilities developed at Shotwick, Burton, Neston, Parkgate, Dawpool, and "Hoyle Lake" or Hoylake. However, there was not a gradual progression of development, and downstream anchorages such as that at Hoyle Lake (which replaced Meols) were in occasional use from medieval times, depending on the weather and state of the tide. The main port facilities were at Neston and Parkgate.
At the same time, larger ships and economic growth in Lancashire stimulated the growth of Liverpool. The first wet dock in Britain was opened in Liverpool in 1715, and the town's population grew from some 6,000 to 80,000 during the 18th century. The need to develop and protect the port led to a chain of lighthouses being built along the north Wirral coast. The commercial expansion of Liverpool, and the increase in stage coach traffic from Chester, also spurred the growth of ferries across the River Mersey. By the end of the 18th century the Wirral side of the Mersey had five ferry houses, at Seacombe, Woodside, the Rock, New Ferry and Eastham.
Other communications were also improving. Turnpike roads linking Chester with Eastham, Woodside, and Neston were built after 1787. In 1793, work began on the Ellesmere Canal, connecting the River Mersey with Chester and Shropshire through the fluvioglacial landform known as the Backford gap, and the town of Ellesmere Port began to develop.
The excavation of the New Cut of the Dee, opened in 1737, to improve access to Chester, diverted the river's course to the Welsh side of the estuary and took trade away from the Wirral coastline. Although plans were made to overcome its gradual silting up, including one in 1857 to cut a ship canal from a point between Thurstaston and Heswall to run along the length of Wirral to Chester, this and other schemes came to nothing, and the focus of general trade moved irrevocably to the much deeper Mersey. However, from the late 18th century there was coal mining near Neston, in tunnels stretching up to two miles under the Dee, and a quay at Denhall was used for coal exports.
The first steam ferry service across the Mersey started in 1817, and steam-powered ships soon opened up Wirral's Mersey coast for industrialisation. The 1820s saw the birth of the area's renowned shipbuilding tradition when John Laird opened his shipyard in Birkenhead, later expanded by his son William. The Lairds were largely responsible for the early growth of Birkenhead, commissioning the architect James Gillespie Graham to lay it out as a new town modelled on Edinburgh. In 1847, Birkenhead's first docks and its municipal park, the first in Britain and the inspiration for New York's Central Park, were opened, and the town expanded rapidly. Birkenhead's population of less than one thousand in 1801 rose to over 33,000 by 1851, and to 157,000 by 1901. The town became a borough in 1877, incorporating within it Oxton and Tranmere.
The improved communications also allowed Liverpool merchants to buy up and develop large estates in Wirral. James Atherton and William Rowson developed the resort of New Brighton, and new estates for the gentry were also built at Egremont, Oxton, Claughton and Rock Ferry. Arrowe Hall was built for the Shaw family in 1835.
In the mid 19th century docks were established at Birkenhead and in the Wallasey Pool, and continuing development for a wide range of industry both there and along the banks of the Mersey. The New Chester Road was opened in 1833. Wirral's first railway was built in 1840, planned by George Stephenson and connecting Birkenhead with Chester. In 1852 Price's Patent Candle Company built a factory and model village at Bromborough. This was followed in 1888 by William Lever's establishment of the much larger Sunlight soap factory and Port Sunlight garden village, designed to house its employees and provide them with a benign environment. The opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, with its outfall at Eastham, led to further port-side and industrial development beside the Mersey at Ellesmere Port.
In 1886, the Mersey Railway tunnel was opened, linking Wirral and Liverpool. This led to the further rapid growth of suburbs in Wirral, particularly in Wallasey, Hoylake and West Kirby, and later Bebington and Heswall. Wallasey's population grew to over 53,000 by 1901, and the town also achieved borough status soon after the turn of the century.
The dockland areas of Wallasey and Birkenhead continued to develop and prosper in the first half of the century, specialising in trade with Africa and the Far East. A host of other port-related industries then came into existence, such as flour milling, tanning, edible oil refining and the manufacture of paint and rubber-based products. In 1922 a new oil dock was built at Stanlow near Ellesmere Port, and in 1934 oil refining began there. A large chemical and oil refining complex still dominates the area.
In 1929, the 3rd World Scout Jamboree was held at Arrowe Park and this celebrated the 21st Anniversary of the publication of Scouting for Boys. Thirty-five countries were represented by 30,000 Scouts, plus another 10,000 British Scouts who took the opportunity to camp in the vicinity.
The rail tunnel under the Mersey was supplemented by a vehicle tunnel in 1934, the Queensway Tunnel. A third tunnel opened in 1971, the Kingsway Tunnel, connecting with the M53 motorway which now runs up the centre of the peninsula. These new roads contributed to the massive growth of commuting by car between Liverpool and Wirral, and the development of new suburban estates around such villages as Moreton, Upton, Greasby, Pensby, and Bromborough.
In 1940–41, as part of The Blitz, parts of Wirral, especially around the docks, suffered extensive bomb damage. There were 464 people killed in Birkenhead and 355 in Wallasey, and 80% of all houses in Birkenhead were either destroyed or badly damaged. During the Second World War Wirral held two RAF sites, RAF West Kirby (which was a camp, not an airfield) and RAF Hooton Park and a number of anti-aircraft sites to protect the docks of Birkenhead and Liverpool.
After the Second World War, economic decline began to set in Birkenhead, as elsewhere in the area which had started to become known as Merseyside. However, there continued to be industrial development along the Mersey between Birkenhead and Ellesmere Port, including the large Vauxhall Motors car factory on the site of RAF Hooton Park.
Wirral can be defined both as a geographical peninsula and as a socio-cultural area. The current Metropolitan Borough of Wirral has a population of 312,293 (according to the 2001 census), and covers an area of 60.35 square miles, bounded by the Cheshire Plain, the River Dee and the River Mersey. The Irish Sea lies to its north west side.
Although it has been stated that "it is difficult to find any work in which there is a written description of the exact area defining The Wirral Peninsula", historian Stephen Roberts defines it as "the peninsula which is bounded by the Dee and Mersey estuaries, Irish Sea and... the route of the Shropshire Union Canal between Ellesmere Port and Chester". This definition extends the original Hundred slightly further east, to the River Gowy.
The Shropshire Union Canal joins the River Mersey at Ellesmere Port and the River Dee at Chester. This canal technically makes the peninsula an island. In the north of the peninsula, the River Fender, Arrowe Brook and Greasby Brook drain into the River Birket, which itself flows into the River Mersey via Wallasey Pool (Birkenhead Docks). Further south, the River Clatter and River Dibbin drain into the Mersey at Bromborough Pool.
Two approximately parallel Triassic sandstone ridges run down the length of the peninsula. The western ridge is made up of Grange and Caldy Hills at 256 feet in height, then Thurstaston Hill (298 ft), Poll Hill in Heswall (350 ft, the highest point on the Wirral) and Burton (222 ft). The less continuous eastern ridge consists of Bidston Hill (231 ft), Prenton (259 ft) and Storeton Hill (229 ft). The shallow Fender Valley, between these ridges, was carved out by a large glacier.
The major urban centres of Wirral are to its east: these include Birkenhead and Wallasey. To the west and south, Wirral is more rural. Two-thirds of the population of Wirral live on one third of the land in Birkenhead and Wallasey, according to Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council. Other towns to the south and west of this area are usually considered part of Wirral: notably, Ellesmere Port is often described as one of its 'border towns'. For regional economic planning, The Wirral is considered part of the Liverpool City Region.
There are many towns and villages on the Wirral. Those administered by the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral are listed in List of towns and villages in Wirral (borough). Those also on the Wirral but administered by Cheshire West and Chester include:
Despite containing urban and industrial areas, Wirral still has picturesque villages, sandy beaches, large areas of land owned by the National Trust as well as views across the two estuaries and out into the Irish Sea. Among the areas of open land are Bidston Hill, Caldy Hill, Eastham Country Park, including the Victorian Pleasure Gardens, Hilbre Island, North Wirral Coastal Park, Thurstaston Common and Thor's Stone and the Wirral Way. Ness Botanical Gardens are part of the University of Liverpool and have won many awards. The visitor centre at RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands provides birdwatching facilities in the Dee Estuary nature reserve.
Places of architectural interest include Hamilton Square and Port Sunlight. The view of the buildings on Liverpool's Pier Head when crossing on the Mersey Ferry is famous. Many villages of Wirral such as Burton also well preserved with their characteristic red sandstone buildings and walls. The old port of Parkgate also attracts many visitors. The arts are well represented by the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight and the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead. The historical sites include Birkenhead Priory, Leasowe Lighthouse, Hadlow Road railway station and the buildings and ancient carvings on Bidston Hill.
The inhabitants of the east side of Wirral have a strong scouse accent. Accents on the River Dee side of Wirral are not as strong, for reasons that are partly social and partly geographical. Neston once had a distinctive dialect derived from the migrant workers at the Denhall Colliery.
The area has been home to many notable people, including: Jim Bennett (poet) (writer, poet), Ian Botham (cricketer), current Antiques Roadshow presenter Fiona Bruce, Daniel Craig (actor), Matt Dawson (rugby union player), Austin Healey (rugby union player), Emma Hamilton (mistress of Horatio Nelson), Glenda Jackson (actress and politician), Paul O'Grady (TV presenter), John Peel (disc jockey and radio presenter), Patricia Routledge (actress), Dominic Purcell (actor), Chris Boardman (cyclist) Jim Bowen (TV Presenter) and Harold Wilson (Prime Minister who was Head Boy of Wirral Grammar School for Boys). Several pop groups, rock bands and artists also come from the area including Miles Kane, Elvis Costello, The Boo Radleys, Half Man Half Biscuit, Engine, The Coral, The Rascals and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
Wirral has hosted a variety of different films and television programmes. Chariots of Fire was filmed at various locations on the Wirral including the Oval Sports Centre, Bebington and the Woodside Ferry Terminal while the Ealing comedy, "The Magnet" (1950), was filmed in Wallasey and New Brighton.
The 51st State was partly filmed around the docks in Birkenhead. Awaydays, based on a novel of the same name by Kevin Sampson, was filmed extensively in Wirral. In 2012 the movie Blood, starring Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham was filmed on the Wirral.
The Queensway Tunnel in Birkenhead is also featured in the Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 during the scene where Harry and Hagrid escape on a flying motorcycle and pass through the tunnel. The scene was filmed while the tunnel was closed for repairs. The unused Dock branch of the Queensway Tunnel was filmed as a New York underpass in the 2014 movie 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'.
In television, sitcom Watching, produced by Granada Television between 1987 and 1993, was partly set and filmed at various Wirral locations, particularly Meols. More recently, Mike Bassett: Manager, starring Ricky Tomlinson was a follow-up to the film Mike Bassett: England Manager, and featured a fictional football club called Wirral County, a parody of Tranmere Rovers, who Bassett (Tomlinson) managed after being sacked from the England job. It is also believed that the Lime Pictures production Hollyoaks films occasionally, on location, in Wirral. The BBC comedy drama Candy Cabs filmed external scenes in West Kirby and Hoylake in 2011.
The M53 motorway runs along the length of Wirral, from near Chester. At the north eastern end, Wirral is joined to Liverpool by three tunnels under the River Mersey: two road tunnels, one from Wallasey (Kingsway) and one from Birkenhead (Queensway), and the Mersey Railway tunnel.
The peninsula is served by a network of bus routes. These are provided by larger companies whose networks of bus services in the North West of England are extensive, such as Arriva North West and Stagecoach Wirral. Furthermore, the peninsula is also served by many independent bus operators, the largest being Avon Buses who operate many services without subsidy from Merseytravel. Other independent bus companies which operate on the peninsula include A2B Travel, Cumfybus, Impera, Helms Coaches and Eazibus.
Most bus services operate from the three bus stations: Birkenhead bus station, Heswall bus station and Woodside bus station, although many services start from other interchanges, such as New Brighton, Seacombe Ferry and Liscard Village.
The Wirral Line of the electrified Merseyrail network links West Kirby, New Brighton, Chester and Ellesmere Port via many other towns and villages to all four of Liverpool's city centre stations (James Street, Moorfields, Lime Street and Liverpool Central) through the underground Loop tunnel. Another railway line, the Borderlands Line, offers hourly diesel services from Bidston (on the West Kirby branch of the Wirral Line) to Wrexham in North Wales.
Regular Mersey Ferry crossings operate to Liverpool from both Woodside and Seacombe, providing a commuter shuttle and pleasure cruises.
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