From here, the shoreside path heads west, along Wirral’s northern coast, bounded by the Irish Sea. There’s a marine lake, long sandy beaches and, just offshore, vast low-water sandbanks with evocative names like Mockbeggar Wharf and North Bank.
The coast path runs on along what was once a sandy shore, now edged by golf links, dune systems and the North Wirral Country Park. Next comes open Leasowe Common with its vertical white landmark, Leasowe Lighthouse.
The name of the next settlement, Meols, gives a clue to the coast’s original character: melr is an Old Norse or Viking word meaning ’sand dunes’. Soon after dredging began in the mouth of the Mersey in the early 1800s, all sorts of ancient artefacts started to emerge from the shore. They included Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking coins, brooches, weapons, tools, keys, and pottery. Many of these artefacts can be seen today in the Museum of Liverpool. Off Dove Point are the remains of a fossilised forest, now covered by the shifting sands again. Even more surprising was the discovery in 2007 of a clinker-built Viking trading ship buried some 2-3 metres beneath a pub car park at Meols. It seems that the tip of Wirral was an important port and trading hub for several thousand years, long before the rise of first Chester and then Liverpool.
Today, a recreational cycleway and path run all along the north Wirral shore, now protected from the Irish Sea by sculptural breakwaters and an embankment. It’s an open coast, dominated by the sea, the sky and the cry of gulls. Offshore, far out in Liverpool Bay, ghostly white wind farms shift in the haze.
Islands in the tide …
Wirral’s north-west corner is marked by Hilbre Point, aptly-named Red Rocks and the three sandstone islets that make up Hilbre Island, a curious nature reserve crouching in the mouth of the broad Dee Estuary. There are breeding rare Natterjack toads in the dunes and marshes at Red Rocks, while Hilbre hosts thousands of crowded waders at high tide, and fat grey seals haul out on the offshore sandbanks at low tide. It’s said the sandbanks are covered in shells of two types: sea shells and countless spent anti-aircraft gun shells fired at enemy bombers heading for Liverpool docks during the Second World War.
From West Kirby with its Marine Lake, ice creams, promenade and exotic palm tree-fringed parks, the path heads south towards Chester. Suddenly, the path takes on a different character. Now running along the broad Dee Estuary, fringed with salt marsh and inky channels, overlooking Wales on the far shore, the path seems gentler and more intimate. There are trees and marsh plants. The dominant colours have changed from jade-green seas and orange sands to muddy greys and vibrant greens. And, far out on the other side, the distant Welsh hills.
Key routes down the Dee shore include the Wirral Way, a 12 mile/20 kilometres-long former railway line that’s now a popular cycling, walking and horse-riding route between West Kirby and Hooton. Although the old railway runs just inland, there are other paths and cycleways that trace the shore close to the tideline. Together, they provide plenty of opportunities for circular routes, too – out along the marshes and back along the Wirral Way.
Beyond the Wirral Country Park at Thurstaston, with its clay cliffs, stunning views, picnic tables, and sandy shore, the Wirral Way runs on below Heswall to Parkgate – whose sea wall-lined main street overlooks the marsh. Old photographs show local boats landing cockles at the middle slipway here as late as the 1940s; now, the saltmarsh encroaches on the sea wall and floods only during the highest ‘spring’ tides. Today, Parkgate is famous for its local potted shrimps, ice creams, cafes, chip shop and eateries.
Beyond Parkgate, the Wirral Way veers away from the shore towards its terminus at Hooton. But the shoreside path continues below Neston, passing the remote Harp Inn beside the ruins of the old Neston Quay. Now a lane and cycleway, the shoreside path runs on alongside the RSPB’s Burton Marsh Reserve to reach Burton Point and its Iron Age earthworks that once guarded the old course of the River Dee before it was diverted over to the Welsh shore. From here, the new Burton Greenway carries walkers and cyclists along a broad tarmac and boardwalk route on through the Deeside Industrial Park, into Chester.
All in all, the coastal route around the Wirral shore from Liverpool to Chester is a delight. Varied, bracing and with ever-changing views, this is part of the England Coast Path not to be missed.