Wirral Walks - Hilbre Island
Hilbre Island in the Dee Estuary
The islands of Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre are located at the mouth of the Dee Estuary on the border between England and Wales.
Hilbre is a designated nature reserve and Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area, a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance), and is a candidate for designation as a European Union Special Area of Conservation.
The islands and the estuary provide a vital feeding and resting place for thousands of migrating birds, such as Greenland Wheatear, Redshank, Dunlin, Cormorant, Skylark, Bluethroat, Dark-bellied Brent, Shag and Common Scoter.
A large mixed colony of Harbour or Common seals and Atlantic Grey seals live in the estuary and often swim up to the islands. They usually sunbathe on West Hoyle Sandbank.
Map showing Hilbre Island off the Coast of West Kirby
The Journey from Little Eye to Middle Eye
Since this article was written, public toilets have been built. These are composting toilets, which differ from the conventional water-flush variety.
Walking to the Three Islands
Hilbre Island is cut off from the mainland twice each day, for up to eight hours at a time. Before walking out over the sand, always check the tide times which are posted on the information board by the slipway at West Kirby promenade. The bay is flat and wide, and the tide comes in rapidly via channels which run parallel to the shoreline. The potential danger should not be underestimated.
The information board also shows a simple map of the safe route out to the three islands. Visitors should walk from West Kirby promenade to the smallest island which is Little Eye. From there, walk parallel to the beach to Middle Eye then on to Hilbre Island itself. Taking a short cut diagonally across the sands is potentially dangerous due to banks of estuary mud in which it is easy to become stuck.
There is no shelter on the island, and there are no public toilets. You are advised to take a packed lunch and drinking water with you, plus waterproof clothing. Footwear should be appropriate for a rugged hike over flat sand and jagged, seaweed-strewn slippery rocks.
Common accidents on or around Hilbre: twisted or broken ankles; injuries due to falls, dehydration; hypothermia; sunstroke.
Less common accidents on or around Hilbre: getting stuck in estuary mud; drowning.
Telegraph House on Hilbre Island
Occupied since Stone Age times, Hilbre Island has a varied and colourful history.
There have been numerous archaeological finds on the islands, dating from the Stone Age and Iron Age. Other finds were Celtic, Viking and Roman, though there is no indication of actual occupation by the Romans. While the Romans reputedly built a couple of roads through Wirral, their main focus was the port of Chester. They named their new walled city Diva, after one of their goddesses who was beautiful but treacherous--rather like the tidal River Dee, which acquired her name and which still claims lives to this day.
Celts, Romans and Vikings!
The area was occupied by both Welsh and Irish Celts, who lived peacefully alongside the Viking settlers. Many placenames across the Wirral peninsula show the linguistic heritage of these cultures. Surviving stone carvings from this period show a fusion of Celtic and Viking art, a development only seen elsewhere in Northumberland. Wirral was considered part of Wales until Norman times.
Hilbre got its name from St Hildeburgh, who was an Anglo-Saxon (or Viking, depending on which textbook you read) saint whose name was given to the medieval chapel which once stood on the island. Nothing of this building remains. Hilbre was also home for four hundred years to a small group of monks, who remained there until the dissolution of the monasteries. One hermit stayed behind, and passengers onboard ships used to wave to him as they sailed by.
The tidal nature of the Dee meant Hilbre formed a convenient stopping-off point. Inevitably, a pub was built. The Dee Estuary was notorious in the 18th Century for piracy and smuggling, and Seagull Inn on Hilbre Island played a central role. Its landlord, Joseph Hickson, reputedly earned his wealth this way. The remains of Seagull Inn today form part of the foundation of Telegraph House, built by the Trustees of Liverpool Docks in 1841. The island’s ranger lives there now.
There is a ruined lifeboat station which now houses a bird observatory and an important tidal gauge which calculates tidal predictions to allow ships the enter the busy River Mersey. There are also three privately owned bungalows, the Telegraph Station (now used by the Friends of Hilbre), and a solar-powered beacon managed by Trinity House.
Beneath a Majestic Sky
I first visited Hilbre Island in 1993. I was working as a photographer at the time, and was sent there on a shoot in the company of a group of children who had all experienced the death of a parent. I had assumed they’d be silent and morose but actually they were just ordinary kids dressed in anoraks and wellies, clutching packed lunches and grumbling about how far they’d have to walk.
Our group was escorted by the island’s ranger, who at that time was an amiable woman whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. She saw the city-girl shoes on my feet and groaned. Clearly I’d been demoted to the category of One More Stupid Tourist. These-days I know better than to hike over three miles of damp sand and tricky, kelp-strewn rocks in kitten heels.
Scent-laden Breezes and Golden Sand
Amazingly I survived uninjured. The shoes didn’t. However, this isn’t a story about my feet. It’s about how it feels to walk out over miles of pristine sand laid bare for a few hours between tides; how it feels to hear nothing but the chatter of migrating shoreline birds and the whistle of scent-laden sea breezes and the crunch of your own feet striding over damp, ridged sand. It's about how it feels to have a huge, unfettered sky arching over your head. It seems like another world.
Little Eye juts up from the flat, exposed dark-gold sand like a mad tuft of rebellious green hair on a giant’s head. There’s not much to it other than a lump of red Bunter sandstone topped with resilient grass.
The rock pools around Middle Eye are home to crabs and shrimp, and tiny grey fish which dart away from any new shadow. Stinging jellyfish lie in wait for the returning tide, like bad-tempered gelatinous aliens. Ribbons of shining kelp cling to the pungent sandstone, offering shelter to a multitude of oceanic flies and crawlies. Cockles, barnacles, mermaid’s purses, dainty pink shells, bits of polished rock and worn-smooth driftwood lie everywhere, and the ever-present breeze carries the plaintive honking of seals.
Middle Eye itself is covered in grass. There’s a narrow set of steps carved into the cliff face up one side, and an awkward DIY descent on the other. The cliff face is unstable in places, and its base is surrounded by fallen rocks. Millennia ago, Middle Eye and Hilbre were probably one island.
Hilbre Island is the perfect place for a picnic. A sceptic might argue that there’s nothing there (and I’m a natural-born sceptic.) Of course there’s not much there. That’s the whole point. A person undergoes the long walk to Hilbre for the experience of the journey itself, and for the extraordinary atmosphere of the island.
There is a special atmosphere there. It’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand. Maybe all those centuries of monastic living have left a subtle mark in the rock. Perhaps the violence which the island saw during the peak of its notoriety has left a hint of danger behind. Or maybe it’s just my vivid imagination playing games, but certainly this island has inspired my fiction writing--such as my short story, Seagull Inn, which was published in an anthology called Ruins Terra. Several scenes in my novel Rowan are set here too.
I’ve been back to Hilbre many times, sometimes alone and sometimes with groups of friends or family. Not one person has failed to have been moved by the experience.
While walking back to the mainland, on that first visit, one of the children began talking to me about photography. He wanted to have a look through my camera. I let him, and he told me his mother had enjoyed photography; it had been her main hobby. When he rejoined his buddies, who were wearily trudging through rivulets of incoming tide, one of the accompanying social workers quietly told me this had been the first time this boy had ever spoken about his dead mother.
Maybe there’s a touch of magic on Hilbre Island after all.
Books about Hilbre Island and Wirral
West Kirby Beach's Sand Dunes
- West Kirby Dunes
Almost hidden amongst tall grass are the steps leading up to the walk over the summit of West Kirby's sand dunes.
- Sandlea Park
Tucked away between Grange Road/Meols Drive and Dee Lane in West Kirby is a small but picturesque oasis of trees, shrubs and formal gardens.
- Ashton Park
Ashton Park in West Kirby, Cheshire, is an outstanding example of an early Edwardian public park.
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© 2009 Adele Cosgrove-Bray