“ Address: Wirral / Merseyside / England „
It always amazes me how many people who live in the area, don't realise that Cheshire has an island. Hilbre Island lies about a mile off the coast of West Kirby, the western most point of the Wirral peninsular. Hilbre actually consists of three islands, Little Eye which is tiny (0.2 hectares), Middle Eye which is about 1.2 hectares in size, and the main island, Hilbre which covers an area of 4.7 hectares.
Hilbre Island is owned by Wirral Borough Council who manage them as a Local Nature Reserve. The main island is the only one that is inhabited. There are some cottages on the island, mainly used during the summer, and a house for the island's warden.
The island is steeped in history. A Saxon/Norman grave marker was found in 1845 indicating early human settlement. A monastery was present on the island between the 11th and 15th centuries until the dissolution in 1536.
Hilbre was rumoured to be a centre for smuggling in the 18th and 19th centuries, and smuggling activities have been linked to the "Seagull" public house that was present on the island at this time.
In 1828 a telegraph station was erected on the island (this building is still standing), part of a line of stations linking Holyhead with Liverpool. This was used to give ship owners advanced warning of their ships' return. A message could be sent from Holyhead to Liverpool within 5 minutes, amazing!
More recent history concerns the lifeboat station. The remains of the station and slipway can be found at the north end of the island. The Hilbre station was used to launch boats at low tide, when boats could not launch from the main station at Hoylake. The Hilbre lifeboat was operated between 1849 and 1939.
Hilbre Island is tidal, so is accessible at low tide by walking across from the slipway at West Kirby Marine Lake. If visiting Hilbre Island, you must take note of the tide times and never start to cross if there's less than three hours to high tide (the tide times are shown on the notice board near the slipway). There's a recommended route to Hilbre which involves going towards Little Eye first then past the closer shore of Middle Eye, onto the main island.
The walk is quite tiring as you're walking across sand, and when you reach the islands, the ground underfoot consists of sandstone, often coated in sand, mud or seaweed making it very slippery. A visit to Hilbre should only be made if you're reasonably fit. The weather can change quickly, and there's hardly any shelter, so it's always worth packing a warm, waterproof coat in the rucksack just in case.
Once you're there, having avoided quick sand, the incoming tide, and slippery rocks, is it actually worth the effort? Well yes it is. Hilbre is a magical place. It's the only natural rocky coastline between North Wales and Cumbria, so is a special environment. The main island has sandstone cliffs of nearly 60 feet in height, secluded bays, rock pools, a couple of caves, and a lovely grassed area near the North end. You can spend quite a long time exploring Hilbre, and there's plenty to see and do.
Hilbre is justifiably famous for its birds. There's a bird observatory on the island who's members monitor the migration of birds throughout the seasons (as an island, Hilbre is often the first point that exhausted migrants can make landfall, meaning that anything can turn up).
There's a flock of brent geese present over the winter, and huge numbers of wading birds use the island to roost during high tide. Oystercatchers, dunlin, knot, turnstone, ringed plover, purple sandpipers, and many other species can be found here. If you're lucky, you'll see a flock of several thousand birds wheeling in formation as they try to avoid the attentions of a marauding peregrine falcon.
With all those rock pools, it's difficult to resist having a dip with a net and seeing what you can find. The clean waters of the Wirral estuary combined with the rocky coast means that you'll find wildlife at Hilbre that's difficult to find anywhere else in the area. The rock pools are full of fish, crabs, shellfish such as limpets and winkles, and there's a chance of finding more unusual creatures like sea slugs and sea slaters.
The best time to visit the island is in the summer. Pick a lovely sunny day, pack a picnic, and get onto the island a couple of hours before high tide. You can then stay over the tide (about six hours) and watch the character of the island change as the tide floods in.
Once the tide's in, you're cut off from the mainland by a mile of blue water and the island feels isolated. There's plenty of places to have a picnic, some of the rock formations make natural chairs and tables and you can sit here watching the wildlife and the sea, whilst basking in the sunshine, it's very relaxing and peaceful. Because of the layout of the island, even if there's a lot of people on there, it's always possible to find somewhere nice and quiet and feel as if you've got the place to yourself.
One of the features of the island is the local grey seal colony. At low tide, they 'haul out' about a mile from the island on a sandbank. At high tide, however, they swim around the island and sometimes climb out onto the rocks. It's possible to get extremely close views of the seals if you stay over the tide. These animals are incredibly inquisitive. They pop their heads up out of the water and stare at the visitors staring back, giving a real wildlife encounter.
All too soon, it will be time to make the long trek back to the main land carrying your memories of this special place with you. I always find a visit to Hilbre soothes all my cares away and leaves me feeling at peace. If you're in the area and can afford the time, give it a try, you may come to love the place as many other people do.
A bird observatory.