With its great restaurants, array of wildlife and countless sailing opportunities, this peninsula has something for everyone. Words: Carol Davis
Tucked between bustling Liverpool and the border with Wales, the Wirral Peninsula is a pocket of coastal calm. Just 15 miles long and seven miles wide, this tongue of land stretches into the Irish Sea between the Dee and Mersey estuaries and is surrounded by glittering water on three sides.
Dotted with villages with names such as Meols, Kirby and Thurstaston that evoke its 10th- century Viking settlers, Wirral seems like a land that time forgot – particularly so at the tip of the peninsula where the tidal islands of Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre beckon to be explored.
Nature enthusiasts love this part of the world. Over winter, the shores are studded with oystercatchers, sanderling, curlew, bar-tailed godwits and common scoter. In spring and autumn, the skies darken with thousands of migrating birds, including Brent geese, purple sanderling and great-crested grebes. Year-round hundreds of Atlantic grey seals bask on sandbanks and shoals of harbour porpoise play far out at sea.
But there’s more on offer here than simply nature’s wonders. From well-stocked boutiques and tempting restaurants to a sailing lake and a gallery hung with Turner paintings, there is plenty to do and see. And the town of West Kirby on Wirral’s northwest tip makes a great base from which to discover the pleasures of this peninsula.
10AM A WALK TO ISLANDS
On a bright morning I check the tide tables beside West Kirby’s marine lake and stride over the sands to Hilbre Island. On my way, I pass sea-carved caves, swathes of pink thrift, bird’s-foot trefoil and rock sea lavender.
Since the Friends of Hilbre are out this morning, I gaze through their telescope at basking seals. Then I peer into the old telegraph station, which is home to nesting swallows in summer.
After admiring cormorants and shags feeding, I meander down to the old lighthouse station in search of the wreck of the SS Nestos. A passing seal gazes back at me from the waves. A shiver runs up my spine as I finally glimpse the jagged remains of the SS Nestos, which sank far off the Hilbre shore in 1941. Just a few miles from the mainland, this island feels like another world.
1PM LUNCH BESIDE THE MARINE LAKE
With the sea air whetting my appetite, I head for Tanskey’s bistro on the West Kirby promenade, and peer from its porthole towards the teeth-like rocks whose Viking name inspired the bistro’s name.
Biting into a smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich, I watch windsurfers and sailors zip along the marine lake. From here, I glimpse the blue mass of Anglesey far along the North Wales coast. I end my meal with an award-winning honeycomb and chocolate ice cream from the famous Nicholls of Parkgate, which is based just a little further down the coast (0151 625 3882, tanskeys.co.uk).
2PM ANTIQUES AND AFTERNOON TEA
Duly refreshed, I stroll round the wall of the marine lake, dodging giant jellyfish marooned on the path and children excitedly fishing for crabs. I meander along Victorian and Edwardian terraces to take a look inside Paisley’s Emporium where soft pashminas and Kashmiri rugs are displayed alongside hand-crafted Baltic amber jewellery.
Further down Banks Road, Desdemona Postlethwaite Antiques has gleaming mirrors and pictures. I browse painted lighthouses and souvenir mugs in Le Bizz, before admiring ornate bird-cage planters and painted teapots in Mooch. Round the corner, Aubergine serves spiced chai latte in quirkily painted teapots, beneath a sign reading ‘By the sea all worries wash away’. I’ll raise a cuppa to that. Paisley’s Emporium (0151 625 2127, paisleys-emporium.com), Desdemona Postlethwaite Antiques (0151 345 1812, desdemonapostlethwaite.co.uk), Le Bizz (0151 625 4646, lebizz.co.uk), Mooch (0151 625 3049), Aubergine (0151 625 2662, facebook.com/theaubergine.co).
8PM SHORELINE VIEWS
Down on the Heswall shore – a 15-minute drive south from West Kirby – the terrace of Sheldrakes restaurant makes a great place to watch the sun setting over the wooden boats beached on the grassy marshes. On the other side of the Dee estuary, lights on the North Wales coast are beginning to twinkle. I dine on scallops with black pudding, followed by a seared breast of duck with star anise and black cherry jus.
Over a digestif, I chat to friendly owner Helen Demetrios who fell in love with the place one hot summer and has spent years drawing visitors to this idyllic spot of coastline. Taking a lingering last look, I wish I could stay too (sheldrakesrestaurant.co.uk, 0151 342 1556).
10AM A SUN-LIT VISION
I head for Port Sunlight on the east side of the peninsula. This Victorian-era model village is the creation of a multimillionaire businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist who made Sunlight soap and became Viscount Leverhulme. I stroll along sweeping boulevards, past grand Victorian and Edwardian homes built as part of his vision to share his prosperity with his workers and step into the elegant Lady Lever Art Gallery, named after his wife. Admiring the Pre-Raphaelite collection, I seek out a couple of wonderful Turner paintings where light shimmers invitingly on the water. Free entry (0151 478 4136, liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ladylever).
1PM CHIC DINING
After a relaxed morning I want to linger, so head to the restaurant in Leverhulme Hotel which was once the Port Sunlight cottage hospital. I opt for crab and avocado salad with warm bread to start. Simple fennel salsa makes the ideal accompaniment to my whole sea bream main course. Savouring every morsel, I gaze over the lawns and imagine workers being nursed back to health within these walls (0151 644 6655, leverhulmehotel.co.uk).
2PM I AM SAILING
Inspired by my lunch from the sea, I head back to West Kirby and its salty marine lake. I wriggle into a wetsuit for a taster sailing session and am skilfully instructed by 17-year-old Abbie who has sailed for 12 years and now spends weekends racing around Hilbre.
As Abbie expertly tacks up against the wind, she coaxes me into putting a hand on the tiller and guides me. With the tiller responsive under my hand, Abbie regales me with tales of the odd seal wandering into the lake, as I revel in the shimmering blue water and skies. Three-hour taster sessions, £35 (adults), £30 (juniors) (0151 625 3292, wirral.gov.uk/watersports).
7PM LAST LOOK FROM VIKING CORNER
For my final dinner in Wirral, I head for The Wro, a bar and lounge named after the Viking word for corner, which has glorious westward views over the Irish sea – especially at sunset. I choose mackerel – much loved by those Hilbre seals, though mine comes as a smoked mackerel and lime pâté with warm tin loaf bread.
A rich salmon and king prawn linguine is the perfect end to my stay. All weekend I’ve been told that anyone who discovers Wirral will come back – and now I’m inclined to agree (0151 625 2010, thewro-lounge.co.uk).
NEED TO KNOW
42 CALDY ROAD
The family home of Sue and Ken Graves, this West Kirby B&B has views over the estuary, Irish Sea and Hilbre. Minimum stay two nights at weekends, from £99 per night for two, including breakfast (0151 625 8740, 42caldyroad.co.uk).
HILLBARK HOTEL AND SPA
This five-star hotel is an example of half-timbered Victorian design. Double or twin rooms for two, from £280 per night, including breakfast (0151 625 2400, hillbarkhotel.co.uk).
ABBEY HOUSE APARTMENT HOTEL
Located close to the sailing lake in West Kirby, this one-bedroom loft apartment at the Edwardian Abbey House offers self-catering or B&B options. From £75 per night (0151 632 0914, abbeyhousewestkirby.co.uk).
HOW TO GET THERE
Merseyrail local trains run regularly from Liverpool and Chester to West Kirby or take the Mersey Ferry across from Liverpool. By car, Wirral is accessed by the A59, M53 and M56, which links to the M6. It’s around a 30-minute drive from Liverpool and an hour from Manchester. For more, go to visitwirral.com.