Liverpool’s spectacular renaissance is not the only good news to come from in and around Merseyside in recent times.
Travel directly from Belfast to Birkenhead with Stena Line car ferries or fly into Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport then take the fabled Ferry ‘Cross The Mersey to the Wirral and you’ll discover a green and leafy peninsula where the feelgood factor has been running rampant.
Step ashore in Birkenhead and you’ll find – from the lavishly refurbished Woodside terminal building, with its U-534 U-Boat exhibition and restored maritime buildings, to the grandiose Victorian town hall – a not long ago close to derelict town that has re-found its heart and soul.
And, at the point where the mighty Mersey empties into the Irish Sea, there’s the now once again bustling little seaside resort of New Brighton, with its £70-mllion re-generation programme well on course, including an £11-million re-fit of the iconic Floral Pavilion Theatre and Conference Centre, an eight screen digital cinema and a new-build 66-bed hotel.
There was a mega-buzz all over the Wirral one weekend last month when Ulster’s own Rory Mc Ilroy showed the world how to play golf with his spectacular victory in the Open on the wide open Royal Liverpool links course at Hoylake, taking a near £1-million purse in the process.
That one event brought a quarter of a million visitors to the Wirral. The hordes of golf enthusiasts came not just to watch today’s greats but in many cases to sample for themselves a round or two on one or other of the area’s 14 superb courses.
Meanwhile, cycling is being touted as the new golf, with the best bikes costing £15,000 and more and mega business deals – like the recent tie-in between America’s Verizon and Vodafone – as likely to be cemented while riding the lanes as over drinks at the 19th hole.
The Wirral has a range of enticing specially dedicated cycling routes, including the meticulously signposted and undemanding 35-mile Wirral Circular Trail, which unveils such scenic highlights as the renowned Red Rocks beach, the bastion of Fort Perch Rock, the imposing brick-built Easowe Lighthouse, from 1763, and views across the Dee estuary to the seal sanctuary Hilbre Islands nature reserve and the brooding mountains of North Wales.
Another pretty cycle route, along the 12-mile bed of a former railway line, runs through Wirral Country Park, which opened in 1973 as Britain’s first dedicated country park. It provides a walk, the cycling route and a bridleway.
While out two-wheeling, I visited the near legendary Eureka Café, haunt of local bikies for half a century, for a well-earned cuppa and massive slice of homemade cake. Many charity rides include this welcoming venue in their itinerary.
Opened in 1847 as the first publically funded park in the world, Birkenhead Park was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, of Crystal Palace fame, and is claimed to have inspired many of the features that American architect Frederick Law Armsted embodied into his designs for New York’s Central Park.
Around 900 listed buildings can be found at Port Sunlight garden village, created in 1888 by soap magnate Lord Leverhulme, who wanted his employees to have work, leisure and home conditions as clean and healthy as his company’s products.
Though there’s an overall sense of cohesion, each of the houses here has its unique features, with a highly artistic mix of pre-Raphaelite, arts and crafts and art nouveaux influences.
Here the fascinating museum and the Lady Lever Art Gallery are well worth a couple of hours while a walk around the village’s spacious, leafy and meticulously maintained avenues imbues a sense of peace and well-being.
Three of the properties on the 125-year old estate are available as five-star holiday lets.
Fringing on Cheshire’s bling-laden ‘footballers’ wives’ territory – and with property prices to match – The Wirral has no shortage of trendy pubs, bars and eating places, especially along the five or so mile strip between Hoylake and West Kirby.
With the Open and its crowds in town, we found if hard to get a table but local connections worked the trick for us at the multi award-winning Wro, comprising the bar, the lounge and the loft, spread across three sites within yards of each other. The bistro style food was excellent, the cocktails spot on.
For our second night, we put on our glad rags and joined a coterie of the world’s best golfers fine dining at the exclusive Hillbark Hotel, a Tudor-styled black and white half-timbered extravaganza that was actually built in 1891 for the Hudson Soap family, which went on to become Lever Brothers.
The ultra-luxurious Hillbark is the smallest five-star hotel in Britain and the only one on the Wirral. It has 250 acres of parkland and gardens, with sailing, fishing, shooting, archery, walking and, of course, golf among the activities on offer.
Said to have been inspired by Cheshire’s famed Little Moreton Hall, the house was itself the inspiration for a copycat property that Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany had built in Potsdam.
Back in 1929-31, the remarkable Hillbark was taken down piece by piece then re-assembled at its current site in Frankby, at a cost of £150,000 – or around £40-million in today’s money.
The Wirral’s stats are equally impressive: the home borough of Elvis Costello, Daniel Craig, Paul Hollywood, Glenda Jackson, Chris Boardman, Ian Botham and many other celebs has a visitor economy worth more than £310-million a year, attracting almost seven-million visitors, providing around 4,400 FTE jobs and showing 5 per cent annual growth over the past half decade. It’s the home of Unilever, Cammell Laird shipbuilders and Typhoo tea.
For further information go to www.visitwirral.com