I did it! Circumnavigating the Wirral peninsula in a Magnum 21 trimaran. Now I'm completely exhausted. Feel like I swam around the peninsula. Don't hold your breath until the video comes out though. Editing 17 tapes down to 23 minutes takes a long time!
Now we were in the New Cut alongside the training wall that had diverted the Dee along the Welsh side of the estuary and created Sealand and Shotton. The Cut was planned and undertaken between 1732 -36 by engineers from the Netherlands and paid for by local merchants and Chester Corporation. It didn't solve the silting problem as it was intended to!
The first bridge we came to, The Flintshire Bridge at Connah's Quay, was the only one under which we could get with the mast up so we stopped the engine and became the first vessel ever to sail under it. I had motored under it last year in the opposite direction.
Approaching a bridge with the mast up is quite scary. Even though you may have checked all the data and the air draft gauge tells you that there is sufficient room, you still look at the narrowing gap between the underside of the bridge and the top of the mast with apprehension as you approach. The height gauges are unusual things to encounter when on the water. Took me a while to work them out. They are clearly tidal gauges but the numbers decrease as the tide rises, the opposite to a normal tidal gauge where the numbers increase as the depth increases.
Once through we turned left into a little beach behind a breakwater and dropped anchor next to the old Shotton Wharf.
I bade everybody keep still once I'd steadied the boat laterally and I quickly took down the sails and the mast whilst the others cowered in trepidation on the trampolines at the thought of some sort of impending catastrophe. I had laid it on a bit thick! But it was safe as a result.
Next a motorboat from the Deeside Water Ski Club across the river at Connah's Quay came alongside and we transferred the TV crew so that they could get some material from outside the trimaran. The club also laid on a show for us with skiers and wake-boarders thundering past us in both directions as we headed towards Chester.
The second bridge we encountered was Hawarden Railway Bridge. This old, rusting bridge, that used to swing out of the way for shipping, is still in use by heavy, freight trains and the occasional passenger train too. It is clearly made of stern stuff.
But then I guess it is right next door to the Shotton Steel works so the materials to build it would have been cheap. One can still walk across it on the footways that many thousands of steel workers would have walked along each day when iron and steel were being made in the blast furnaces that have long since disappeared from John Summers Steel Works.
We passed by the imposing John Summers head quarters building. This steel company was nationalised and then sold off and then renationalised by successive Labour and Tory governments in the 1960s. What a waste of public money! It became Corus and now it belongs to an Indian squillionaire.
Next are the road bridges at Queensferry carrying traffic between North West England and North Wales. First the old blue-painted “New Jubilee” double bascule bridge. A bascule bridge is a moveable bridge with a counterweight that continuously balances the span, or "leaf," throughout the entire upward swing in providing clearance for boat traffic. It has not been opened since they built the adjacent, bye-passing, dual-carriageway bridges in the 1960s.
As I child I spent hours in the family car queueing to get over this famous blue bridge at Queensferry, except it was not blue but grey then. The queues extended as far as Two Mills Garage on the way out to Wales and as far as Holywell on the way back. At that time there used to be a gigantic hump-backed bridge on the road leading towards the bridge from England connecting the two parts of RAF Sealand on either side of the road. I remember my father used to take great delight in speeding up over this hump (when there was no queue) so as to turn all our stomachs! Happy days.
There is a new smooth cycleway that follows the river from Shotton all the way to Chester.
The modern slipway at Broughton is an expensive bit of infrastructure designed to accommodate the barge used to transport the giant wings of the new super Airbus A380 to Mostyn docks. There they are transferred to a ship, the Ville de Bordeaux, and taken by sea to France where ultimately they are joined to the fuselage at Toulouse. The giant buffers are designed to rise and fall on their piles with the tide. As we pass by an aircraft lands at Hawarden Airport. Wings for the smaller Airbuses are flown from here in specially designed aircraft that look like a Beluga whales and have become known as Bulugas.
Saltney Ferry only ceased in the 1970s and one can still see the steps for it. It was replaced by a simple but inelegant concrete footbridge.
We were getting near the end of our circumnavigation of the Wirral now. The industrial riverside of Saltney and then Chester golf club were on our starboard side and the Kop, a playground, ahead. We turned the corner at Sealand Road and there was the lock that gives access to the Shropshire Union Canal.
But it was closed off for repair! Just like the lock at the other end of the canal at Ellesmere Port. Now what? We could get the boat out of the water at Sandy Lane but there was an obstacle, the weir!
We can't drag the Magnum 21 up the face of the weir like the raft racers did a few weeks back.
But fortunately I've chosen to come back up the River Dee on the biggest tide available this month, 9.6m at Liverpool, which means that at high water the weir will have 2 feet of water covering it. With the shallow draft of the Magnum 21 trimaran we only need 8 inches to get over it but the tide falls rapidly in Chester after high water and wo betide us if we are not over it by then. So now we have a race on our hands!
I open the throttle and we speed past the Sea Cadets centre at Crane Bank.
No time to admire the smart, new apartments that line the riverbank here and the new stables for the race course. No time to talk about the only remaining licenced salmon fishermen who fish here with nets from rowing boats.
A brief stop to explain to the camera about the railway bridge (it was built by Stephenson, of Rocket fame, but with brittle cast iron girders instead of the flexible steel ones and it collapsed when a train was going over it in 1847 causing 5 deaths and many injuries) and about the Roodee, that used to be a harbour in Roman times but silted up and became an island (Roodeye) and was used for football games that became so violent they had to be banned and was then converted into a race course in 1539 and is thus the oldest race course in England still in use today.
In fact it is a race day today as we pass by!
Two more bridges to go. The Grosvenor Bridge, designed by Thomas Harrison in consultation with the great engineers of the day, was the largest, single-span, stone-built bridge in the world when it was finished in 1832.
Between this Bridge and the Old Dee Bridge are Chester Castle and County Hall on the port side, a house called “Nowhere” on the starboard side, and Edgar's Field.
In 973, King Edgar was rowed up the river from here, by eight other kings to show him their allegiance, to St John the Baptist's Church, which had been founded by King Aethelred of Mercia in 689.
This row upriver must have taken place around this time of the day in order to catch the tide.
Finally and just in time we slip under the Old Dee Bridge, built in 1280 to replace a wooden one that had stood since 922, and over the weir (built across the Dee in 1093 to provide power for water mills) with enough time to spare to do it a few more times for the benefit the TV crew! Phew.
When it was the only bridge across the river it used to be known as the Dee Bridge and is the place from which distance measurements to and from Chester were made. It originally had a gate on the Handbridge (Welsh) side and was very narrow and thus congested. Thomas Harrison, the great Chester architect, was responsible for widening it for pedestrians but still today it is only wide enough for single lane traffic.
The painting by Edmund Garvey shows a weir on the downstream side as well as the upstream side. The remains of this can be seen as rubble today. There was a Roman ford below this and if you look at the alingment of the roads on a map or on GoogleEarth you can see where it would have been.
The Dee Mills utilised the power of the water and when these were demolished a hydroelectric power station was built on the Chester city side of the bridge. I've heard it said that it used to provide enough power for the City's trams and I carry in my mind the mildly amusing image of all the trams grinding to a halt when the tide comes in! Nowadays it is used for extracting water from the river for public use.
We motored slowly past the band stand, where a band was playing as it was Sunday, and under the very last bridge, the Queens Park Suspension Bridge, to have lunch with all my crew and helpers at my favourite café, the famous Blue Moon Café, next door to my second home, the equally famous, Grosvenor Rowing Club.
We'd done it. The first trimaran to navigate on the Shropshire Union Canal. The first vessel to sail under the Flintshire Bridge. The first trimaran ever to circumnavigate the Wirral peninsula. One of the most interesting voyages I've ever undertaken and right on my doorstep.
What's on your doorstep?
We all set off from West Kirby Sailing Club in the general direction of Mostyn on foot promptly at 0900 to be sure we should reach the Magnum 21 trimaran before the tide came in.
We had about 10 minutes to spare only and whilst I made ready for sea Ben and Simon recorded the water swirling about our feet and enveloping the sand bank upon which we had grounded the afternoon before. A seal gave us the once over then departed. There is a colony of over 300 seals on the West Hoyle Bank and they swim around Hilbre Island, catching fish, whenever the tide comes in. Quite a gauntlet to run of you were a salmon or sea trout trying to get upriver to spawn.
Andy was enjoying his wedding anniversary today so Sue helped out as crew. It was overcast and the wind was blowing only gently up the river but the tide was flowing quickly and we made good progress over the Salisbury Bank towards Greenfield, gradually drawing closer to the Welsh side where the channel is and the fastest flowing water.
Our max. speed was 10.7 knots over the ground with the flood tide using the engine. Given that we can usually only make 7.5 knots with the 5HP engine this means that the flood tide must have been flowing at 3.2 knots at some point, probably just as we approached Flint Point. There I departed a little from the buoyed route, as we were on a rising tide, so that we could sail close to Flint Castle and get some video of it.
Flint Castle was the first of a chain of castles built along the Welsh coast by the iron-willed King Edward I who had defeated Prince Llwelyn ap Gruffudd (pronounced Griffith) in 1277 and then again in 1284, killing him this second time. Wales had lost its independence, just as England had in 1066 to the Normans, but it had gained a collection of great tourist attractions.
It was over 100 years later in 1399 at Flint Castle that King Richard II, who had been captured in the Welsh mountains, surrendered to the son of John O'Gaunt, Henry, Duke of Bolingbroke who then proceeded to claim the throne and was supported by parliament. The stuff of legends and plays by William Shakespeare!
Mostyn was one of the great families hereabouts and the village of Mostyn lies on the other side of the Dee Estuary, opposite West Kirby. Mostyn Dock is the harbour from where the giant pylons for the wind farms off the Wirral and Welsh Coasts were transported.
Yes, it's a windy area and West Kirby SC is a Mecca for windsurfers because the wind on the marine lake often comes clean across the Irish Sea yet the boundary of the lake means that there are no waves on the water to disturb their progress, as would be the case on the sea. This means that on good days they can set international speed records.
Walking around the Marine Lake is one of the things that people do when they come to West Kirby, come rain or shine. Another favourite activity is to walk to Hilbre Island but you have to be careful not to get cut off by the tide.
Our land lady used to have a wind surfing shop. Her B&B where we had spent last night had a really lovely seaside feel to it. At breakfast she got out an old chart to see where we'd taken the ground. Surprisingly it was much clearer on this chart exactly where we had ended up than it is on the modern charts. This was no ordinary chart. It was a piece of history. This was the sort of chart that would have been used to navigate into Liverpool when the Leasowe, Bidston and Hoylake lighthouses were operational. Of course it was in black and white and the depths were in fathoms but these were not the most surprising features. No, what was exceptional about this chart was that it was upside down! Well not quite. But certainly north was not at the top as is the convention these days. It was orientated so that a mariner approaching the Wirral would see everything as it was. Hoylake would be on the right and the Rock lighthouse would be on the left with Leasowe and Bidston lighthouses straight ahead. “This chart has been designed for women!” I exclaimed, displaying my male chauvinist credentials. “You don't have to turn it upside down to read it because it is already upside down.”
It was brilliant. Dated 1771 it was designed to show mariners the new leading lights arrangements following the construction of the then NEW lighthouse at Bidston. You can see clearly all the features that I have been describing, the sand banks, the leading lights, Hoyle Lake. You can even see the smoke rising from the lighthouses! What a find!
Look closely at the PDF file. It's really worth studying. For example the variation is shown as 21 degrees! Today it is only about 4 degrees. This is why even when turned upside down it still does not have the look of a modern chart. It is oriented to the magnetic compass, which is what the mariner of the day would have been using.
From the sea, anything conspicuous on the top of a hill is a useful mark for navigation and this, of course is where windmills were put. Look closely and you can see that there used to be a windmill on top of Grange Hill, behind West Kirby, which when lined up with the Hoylake lighthouse created a transit that could guide mariners in from the north along what is called a half pilotage line.
When this windmill was destroyed by a gale in 1839 mariners lost a useful land mark and so a monument with a sphere on top was erected in its place, spcifically for mariners. We used to drive past this on our way to visit my grandfather who lived in West Kirby and I never knew what it was for till now!
Another detail on this closeup from the 1771 chart is a light on the shoreline at Hoylake which explains why the main lighthouse is now to be found set back amongst the houses.
The narrow and shallow channel leading from West Kirby up the Wirral side of the Dee estuary towards Heswall passes by Caldy and Thurstaston (Thor's Town) that is not only the home of Dee Sailing Club but also a thriving cockling industry on the Dee.
These coclkers told me that there are 50 licences on the whole of the Dee Estuary and that each licencee expects to land 1/2 a ton of cockles every day. So that's quite a crop. 25 tons of cockles a day. It is a strictly controlled activity. The shellfish are exported as far away as France and Spain where they are considered quite a delicacy.
There is a poem called The Sands of Dee by Charles KINGSLEY.
"O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
Across the sands o' Dee:"
The western wind was wild and dank wi' foam,
And all alone went she.
The creeping tide came up along the sand,
And o'er and o'er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see;
The blinding mist came down and hid the land-
And never home came she.
Locals say that she can still be heard calling the cattle home when fog shrouds the sands but of course this is just myth. And the association with Sally's Cottage? Only one of location, as far as I can see.
Lower Heswall (Hazle Wall) can only be reached at high water. And we need the next daytime high water to get back up the River Dee to Chester tomorrow, which involves crossing to the other side as soon as we set off in the morning. So my team all drove here instead for a lovely meal in a packed venue, Shelldrakes restaurant that was the previous site of Dee Sailing Club.
Lower Heswall is the sort of out of the way place that old boats come to die. They are brought here by well meaning people, usually with some emotional attachment to their boats and with the clear intention of renovating them and restoring them to their former glory. But few realise what a time-consuming and expensive job this can turn out to be and consequently many boats end up neglected and forlorn. But they nevertheless add a certain charm to this unusual place that is otherwise given over to wild life, the sea having mostly forsaken it except for a few occasions each year.
Further still along the Dee shore is an even stranger place, Parkgate.
Parkgate took over as the main port of departure from the River Dee in 1686 after Chester silted up. Indeed Handel sailed from here to Dublin in April 1742 for the first performance of the Messiah. Another famous visitor was Admiral Lord Nelson's "Bequest to the Nation", Lady Emma Hamilton, who came to bathe.
But after the River Dee was rerouted along to Welsh side in 1737 in an attempt to reinstate Chester as a port of significance, Parkgate was deprived of water and eventually in 1815 its days as a port came to an end. Instead it became a seaside resort without any sea. Now tourists flock here to promenade bizarrely along the sandstone sea wall and to eat local shrimps and award winning ice cream. Definitely worth a visit if you've never been.
Apart from the excellent opportunities to observe wildlife in the Dee estuary there is a lovely little art gallery and a couple of pubs, restaurants and an excellent chippy where you can see photographs of how it used to be when the tide came in. There is also a private school, Mostyn House School.
The beach at Hoylake is flat hard sand so it is ideal for sand-yachting and the European championships were held here in September 2007. I was told that you have to be careful not to get run over when walking your dog on the beach here because the sand-yachts don't make any noise as they approach and they're incredibly fast.
If you look out from the beach at low water springs then you can see the top of a wreck.
We were now sailing in the region of this wreck! The story goes that it was a Greek freighter, fetching vital supplies for the war effort, that had become separated from its convoy and owing to the lack of navigation lights during WWII it had run aground. The crew was saved and so was most of the cargo of sulphur but the ship could not be saved so the Royal Air Force used it for target practice in 1943 instead. Very practical. Unsurprisingly it's split into two distinct parts now.
As we had skirted around East Hoyle Bank a squall with heavy rain falling from the clouds above it had made its way along the coast of the Wirral rather conveniently missing us entirely. Now it was calm and I started the engine and furled the jib so we could see ahead more easily. I made reference to the chart plotter within the hand-held GPS now so that we negotiated the buoys correctly and didn't make contact with anything underwater. Then as we approached Hilbre Island another squall went by, this time to seaward, again avoiding us completely. How lucky were we? Then the tail end of the wind associated with this squall caught us just as we were rounding the top of the island and we took off!
“We've got plenty of power!”, Andy shouted. I lifted the engine and unfurled the jib again to balance the power around the mast. Simon woke up and surprised himself with his sense of well being. We were flying at 12.5 knots against an ebb tide that must have been 3 knots alongside the island. “Get the genoa out,” suggested Andy. We had changed direction now and were reaching instead of beating so it was safe enough. A seal popped his head up above the water momentarily then thought better of it and disappeared again.
Hilbre Island is a bird sanctuary cut off by the tide twice a day but accessible on foot most of the time. But now was not the time for bird watching. It was time to look out for the moorings that we should have been at an hour ago before the water disappeared. Damn, I wish I'd remembered those binoculars. I knew we were close but, when a mile away, a few masts can be difficult to spot. All ahead of us were white horses. This did not auger well. It meant shallow water. “There! Over there. I can see them,” I claimed. “Now, how do we find a way through all this shallow water without a pilot.” The tide was ebbing fast and soon there would be no water at all to sail upon. I was having a deja vue, having run aground last year in the Dee Estuary. If only I'd used the engine at the outset instead of wasting all that time beating out of the Mersey Estuary. 20-20 hindsight! The centreboard popped up, then the rudder. I had that sinking feeling. I jumped out, as the water was now clearly only inches deep, and ran ahead to see if it got deeper or shallower. We used the genoa to help us push the boat a little further towards our destination but it was hopeless. The water quickly disappeared and we were left high and dry about a mile from the West Kirby Sailing Club! Oops.
I called my twin sister, Ruth, on my mobile phone and she said she could see us. She called back after a while with advice from the sailing club, not to walk directly towards the club but to walk diagonally towards the moored boats and thence towards the club.
So as we secured the Magnum 21 for the night with the anchor we watched the sea disappear from the surrounding sand and eventually we could see why we'd been given this advice. The channel that would have taken us to the moorings was between us and the club. Not to worry. We were OK. The boat was OK and we were not going to have to spend the night afloat. Anyway, if you were cut off on a sand bank by the sea, would you rather be with a boat or without a boat?
We were welcomed into West Kirby Sailing Club by a small group who had keenly been watching our arrival and after further discussion in front of charts I decided that the boat was going to be safe where she was so we set off to find our B&B.
We had a shower and I lay down for a snooze only to ponder about the centreboard. Did I leave it securely in the up position or could it fall to the down position when the night tide lifted the trimaran? If the latter then the centreboard could be damaged when the tide went out again. The board is designed to pop up if one hits something whilst moving forwards and it can cope with a vertical grounding but it's not ideal. There was nothing for it. I was going to have forgo by nap and walk out to the boat again to check.
A two mile long walk (one mile each way) over hard sand is not such a trial when mother nature makes everything look so beautiful.
Sure enough when I got there I found my fears justified. After cleating the up-haul I ambled back again and drove to lower Heswall for dinner.
Our host, Lesley Goodman, had already kindly taken the camera crew to Shelldrakes Restaurant in Heswall for me on her way to somewhere else.
Next to Seaforth Dock is the port radar station but next to that are Blundellsands and Crosby Sands upon which there is an amazing art installation by Anthony Gormley. It's called “Another Place” and is something of a hazard to small boats venturing inshore.
Coincidentally this installation of 100 statues, cast in iron, of Anthony Gormley himself has been exhibited previously at 'another place' that I have sailed past in a trimaran; Cuxhaven, which stands at the mouth of the River Elbe where it enters the North Sea at the German Bight. Strange but true.
After much tacking too and fro we made it around the No 11 beacon, which marks the end of a rather dangerous line of large concrete obstacles designed to take the power out of the waves to reduce erosion.
It certainly works as the sand quality and quantity are much better now than when I was a child. There are a number of beacons just off shore along here and each marks a line of these massive groins. But it was safe to sail in between at high water. As soon as the tide goes out though a remarkable thing happens. Men with buckets and spades venture out onto the sand and follow the receding water as far out on the Brazil Bank as they can safely get. Whatever are they doing? Making sand castles?
I went and asked one and he told me he was digging for lug worms which he uses as bate for fishing. “How do you know where to dig?” There are two tell tale signs and he demonstrated for me how easy it was, if you knew how.
The Sea Front at New Brighton used just to be beach and red and yellow sandstone and sand hills but following the depression in the 1930s a number of public works were undertaken as part of the New Deal in order to get people back to work and the economies of the world moving again. The promenade here was one of these public works. As you can see from the photos above it has many moods. Behind its protective concrete wall is a model yachting lake where I took my first sailing creation for its sea trials in the 1950s. It is still as popular as ever but now radio control is commonplace.
There used to be an enormous bathing pool but storms eventually got the better of it.
Further along are “The Dips”, which only a few weeks ago hosted the Wirral Show, which is where I got the idea for the Microlight. Ben, the cameraman, was up there now buzzing around attempting to hold his camera steady enough to get some worthwhile video.
We sailed close in towards Harrison Drive where the West Cheshire Sailing Club is and where the lifeboat station has a garage containing a hovercraft! This is the site of my first ever sailing experience. Not one that I cared to repeat as it was overcast, dead calm and quite uninspiring.
I could see that we had fallen behind schedule and so I hoisted the genoa when we were opposite the site of the Derby Pool, where I spent my entire summers swimming in the 1960s, whilst everybody else was old enough to be enjoying free love.
However, as we were sailing upwind we had to sail more off the wind with this larger head sail and so our progress was no better. We took it down again and continued with the jib and main, which enabled us to point a little higher upwind.
The next tack took us to Leasowe Castle, which looked quite different from the sea and quite surprised Simon when I pointed it out to him. Then we were approaching Leasowe Lighthouse so I made sure we got as close in as possible to see it from the sea and to note the alignment with Bidston Lighthouse beyond. Of course the sand banks have moved since this alignment was established but we had GPS and an international rule of thumb to guide us around the East Hoyle Bank. The rule of thumb is that where the water changes colour it is 2m deep. Very useful to know that. Nevertheless, as we looked back the alignment of the lighthouses was clear to see and would have been useful formerly, at night especially.
We turned away from Meols and the sea became quite lumpy. Simon was prone to getting seasick so he lay down on the trampoline and unexpectedly fell asleep. Archeaologists have discovered aritifacts proving that Meols was trading with the ancient civilisation of the Phoenicians long before the Romans conquered Britain!
As we sailed around the sand bank I peered towards Hoylake. There used to be a lake there, Hoyle Lake, that provided shipping with a sheltered anchorage whilst waiting for the right wind and tidal conditions to enter Liverpool. It was from here that King William III sailed to Ireland to do battle with King James and the road down which he came to the sea is still known as Kings Gap.
There used to be another outdoor swimming pool on the sea front at Hoylake and that site is now being turned into a new Lifeboat Station. John Curry, the Liverpool Pilot in charge of the lifeboats along the Wirral told me yesterday that they'd only just been involved in the rescue of somebody who'd crashed in a Microlight. I'd elected not to mention this to Ben before he took off in one!
I'd forgotten to bring along my binoculars in my haste this morning and so I could not spot the Hoylake lighthouse.
Being right amongst the houses it is difficult enough to find, even when you know where it is but of course at night, when it would have been lit, it would have been obvious and would have provided yet another land mark from which to plot one's position. Lights don't necessarily have to be in transit in pairs (making leading lights) to be useful to a mariner. Simply knowing where the lights are situated means that by taking bearings of them with a compass it is possible to plot one's position on a chart. The great thing about lighthouses is that they work even when you cannot see them because often you can see the loom of the light over the horizon from many, many miles away.
All these lighthouses became redundant once the main channel into the Mersey was marked with flashing buoys. Now they are historic monuments.
One lighthouse that was not made redundant was this one right at the top left hand corner of the Wirral, the Red Rocks at Hilbre Point. That's because it's not a lighthouse at all. It's a folly. Well actually it's not even a folly. It is part of some lucky person's house. How splendid!
Next to Leasowe Castle is Leasowe Common and next to that is Leasowe Lighthouse, the oldest brick-built lighthouse in Britain, constructed in 1763. I used to run past this lighthouse too on my cross-country runs. It was derelict then in the 60s and actually I thought it was a shot tower as it didn't look like a proper lighthouse to me, like the one at New Brighton.
Nowadays it has “friends” and is maintained and loved though no longer used for its primary function, guiding ships. There used to be another light a quarter of a mile off-shore. These two lights together formed a pair of leading lights so that shipping, when they had the two lights in line exactly, knew that they were on the correct course in towards the lighthouse. But the sea washed it away in a violent storm in 1769. So in 1771 the government built a lighthouse on top of Bidston Hill, well behind Leasowe Lighthouse. Being much higher up it would have been visible further away over the horizon. So Leasowe became the lower of the two leading lights where previously it would have been the upper one.
The original 1771 lighthouse at Bidston was octagonal and the lantern consumed two pints of oil an hour and behind the lantern would have been a reflector 13ft 6in in diameter enabling the light to be seen 21 miles away. Smoke from the burning oil went out of a cowl in the roof. When it was a hundred years old it was replaced by the present structure, which continued in service until 1913 when the channel into Liverpool was marked by lit buoys.
You can see in the photos that both lighthouses have windows on one side only so that the light shone only out to seaward.
I used to run past Bidston lighthouse too as a teenager. I loved running on Bidston Hill. The rhododendrons in Bidston Woods were spectacular in springtime and the views of Liverpool and all around were terrific and the ground was great for running on, varied sandstone, grass, mud, pine needles, sand and heath and all undulating.
There is an observatory up there next to the lighthouse. It was built earlier, in 1866, and all the tides used to be calculated there. Most famously the tides for the D Day landings in Normandy were calculated here.
And yet I never made the connection between the two lighthouses that I used to run past in my youth. I did think that it was a strange place to put a lighthouse, on top of a hill, miles from the sea. But it never occurred to me that it was linked to the lighthouse at Leasowe and was all part of a deliberate plan to make the treacherous approaches to Liverpool safer.
With the Ben, the TV cameraman, and Simon, the producer/director, we went inside the Leasowe Lighthouse, as it was open today, and climbed up the spiral staircase to the top. Over 100 people were expected to abseil down it during the course of the day as we sailed past it. The view from the top was spectacular. We could see clearly over to Formby point where the Queen's Channel turns out into Liverpool Bay. There is an old rhyme “Squirrels jumped tree to tree from Formby to Hilbre”. So clearly there was a forest right across here at one time. Formby has one of the few remaining populations of RED squirrels. Hilbre was our destination today and we could almost see that too over to the SW. The tide was still out and before us lay the massive East Hoyle Bank around which we would have to navigate later on.
When we descended we stood on the embankment and looked back. I can remember standing here with my father and sisters when I was almost twelve years old to watch the first ever hovercraft passenger service that operated between here and Rhyl on the north Wales coast, just across the Hoyle bank from here. It was very noisey! All this sand between the two destinations meant a ferry was impractical and so it was an ideal hovercraft route. The trouble was that nobody really wanted to travel between Moreton and Rhyl. The hovercraft was a solution looking for a problem that didn't really exist. So, sadly, it was a commercial flop.
It is a great view from here though. We could see the cathedrals in Liverpool, the Seaforth Dock and Bidston Hill and all around. But time was marching on and we had to fetch the Magnum 21 trimaran from Wallasey Yacht Club and launch it on the beach at New Brighton. And Ruth and Stephen had to take Ben to Formby so he could video us from a Microlight!
Andy was already at the Pier Buoy struggling to get into his dry-suit. I had already elected to wear better protective clothing than I had yesterday. Shaun was waiting for us at the club and helped us hitch up. We unceremoniously slipped the boat onto the sand and received a warning from the beach patrol for speeding on the beach with the empty trailer.
I don't usually launch before assembling the boat but here it is not recommended to launch on the slipway when the tide is lashing against the sea wall, which it would soon be doing. The sea started to wash around the boat so I gave Andy the anchor and he walked down the beach up to his neck in water with it. Any excuse to test his dry-suit. It leaked! Then we set about putting the floats on and the mast up and hoisting the sails. Simon used my camcorder in its special waterproof case to record this abnormal procedure. But he made the mistake of allowing the water to rise inside his waterproof trousers to the level of his cotton shorts so as the day wore on, being damp, he got cold.
We set off with the tide coming in and the wind against us, not a great recipe for rapid progress out of the estuary. The sailing was good but progress was slow. Every time we tacked back towards the shore we seemed to be in the same place! Well not exactly but certainly not much further out to sea.
We had to get round the No 11 beacon to get through the Rock Gut, (see our yellow track on CHART). In days of yore even large ships would then have taken the Rock Channel but not today. I was intent on staying as close to the Wirral shoreline as possible so we had to take this route but at high water in a shallow draft trimaran we should have no problem.
We got a close look at Fort Perch Rock from the sea and at New Brighton's Rock lighthouse.
The fort is unusual. It was conceived when Napoleon was a serious threat but was not completed until after he'd died. Liverpool was the world's most important trading port at this time and the entrance to the Mersey had to be protected. Originally it sported a drawbridge. It only fired in anger on two occasions, once in each World War and neither was against any real threat. It was decommissioned as late as 1954.
There used to be another fort on the opposite side of the River Mersey at Seaforth but now there is a container dock there.
Two years ago I sent a Latvian-built, CATRI 24 trimaran from here to Baltimore, USA on this container ship, which doubles as a Roll On Roll Off ferry. It was all terribly easy. Who would have thought there was a RORO ferry between here and North America? Apparently the ACL ship just fits exactly into the Gladstone Dock and it has such powerful bow and stern thrusters that it can hold itself still in a side wind of Force 6! Who needs a tug these days?
The Rock lighthouse, to me, is a proper lighthouse as lighthouses should look. That is because it was modelled on the famous Eddystone lighthouse that outlived the rock upon which it was mounted and now survives as a memorial to its designer on Plymouth Hoe. The Rock lighthouse conveniently has a black base, which helps to indicate, at a glance, the state of the tide. It has been unlit since 1973.
Today we were going to sail past Leasowe Castle, where we spent last night. I've quite a strong connection with Leasowe Castle, though, as it was a Railway Workers' Convalescent Home during my childhood, I'd not ventured inside until my father married again and held his wedding reception there in1984.
The writer of the post card on the right said, in April 1946, not to take any notice of the old girls on the front. It wasn't as bad as all that!
In the late 1960s I used to run past three sides of the castle, along the sea front, alongside Leasowe Common and again on Leasowe Road and never wondered much about its history, of which, it turns out, there is quite a lot, going back to 1593 when it was built by Ferdinand, 5th Earl of Derby, second heir to the English throne and King of the Isle of Man, no less!
My father had done a lot of work during his retirement on the family history and discovered that we were descended from Gervase Walker, the brother of Rev. George Walker, Defender of Derry, the man who, during the siege of Londonderry, coined the phrase “No Surrender”, a phrase sadly much repeated during the more recent troubles in Northern Ireland.
Rev. George Walker was killed during the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690, fighting on the side of the recently installed protestant King William of Orange, William III, affectionately referred to as King Billy in Ireland.
King Billy stayed here at Leasowe Castle whilst his army assembled at Hoylake just along the way! I wonder if my father ever knew this. Sadly I'm no longer able to ask him.
The waitress who attended us told us about ghosts in the castle and about the ceiling from Court of Westminster in the Star Chamber and the wood, which came from the submerged forest of neighbouring Meols. My mother once told us that she had been taken as a child to see the sunken forest here. She said that nearby Moreton used to be known as Moreton-on-the-Mud because it was flooded so often. The sea defences, erected under the provisions of an act obtained in 1828 prevent this nowadays. The waitress also told us that she found the forest in the grounds of the castle to be scary. Her use of the word forest intrigued me for it was but a wood and a small one at that.
The Wirral hundred had been forested, 1120-23, at the order of Randal de Meschines, Earl of Chester. Why? Well after the Norman conquest the Wirral hundred had been divided between the Church and the palatinate Barons and the latter, not being resident in the hundred had entrusted the stewardship of their estates to their armed followers who forced the defeated natives (Britons) to work on farms that had once been their own property and extracted whatever they could from them.
The natives in their turn had resorted to plunder to satisfy the rapacious demands of their taskmasters who turned a blind eye to their activities as long as they profited from them. The thefts even extended within Chester itself. The Earl of Chester was so irritated by all these aggressions that he ordered all the farms to be destroyed, their boundaries removed and the greater part of the Wirral hundred to be planted as a forest. Not that it did much good. The expeditions of the natives at the behest of their feudal overlords continued for another two and a half centuries and the forest actually afforded them shelter. The citizens of Chester complained to Edward, The Black Prince, then Earl of Chester, at whose request his father, the King, then ordered it to be disforested. They must have left that little bit of the forest inside the grounds of Leasowe Castle.
Finally we were threading our way through Wallasey Yacht Club's line of moored boats and onto the beach beside New Brighton Pier in time for lunch.
Our maximum speed had been 14.3 knots. Of course there is no pier any more. It was dismantled in 1971 and the ferry to and from Liverpool, which had only run in the summertime anyway, ceased altogether. The old PIER buoy now floats ashore.
Ruth and Stephen were there already with my car and trailer and as soon as the TV crew were ashore a Wallasey Yacht Club tractor came down onto the beach with the trailer and we winched the trimaran onto it. Shaun Fanning, the club secretary, showed us the way to the club and we were given a drink and shown over their workshop where they maintain and refurbish their fleet of Seabird Half-Raters. These boats are the oldest one design class in Britain still racing and weigh ½ ton each. The specification is very particular and some of the woods that have to be used are quite difficult to find these days. There was one in the workshop that was 54 years old and had been almost completely rebuilt. A labour of love if ever there was one. Some of their vessels are over 100 years old!
There were some nice photos in the clubhouse and I noticed a peculiarity in the rigging. The spinnaker guy was in a peculiar position relative to the jib. It ran inside the jib rather than outside. They tried to explain it to me and I nodded along but couldn't really understand the reasoning behind this feature, which apparently is written into the rules. I'm used to an asymmetric spinnaker with the tack attached to the end of a bowsprit and the guy running from the clew in both directions but outside the whole of the jib. They, of course were using a symmetrical spinnaker and a spinnaker pole so they only ever run dead downwind with it. Of course it is possible to run dead downwind by goose-winging with an asymmetric but it is more common to broad reach. Each to their own. They have a nice gallery on their web site, which shows the boats well and illustrates the use of the spinnaker.
They were kind enough to allow us to leave the Magnum 21 in their yard overnight so we bade farewell and headed for a local café. It wasn't very exciting but it was cheap and we were hungry.
New Brighton was founded in 1830 by James Atherton who thought it would be a great place for the wealthy gentry and merchants of Liverpool to come and live. It is one of the many villages that make up the county borough of Wallasey, as it used to be. Now Wallasey has been swallowed up by Wirral. I was brought up in Wallasey and always wondered about its origin. It was said that the Romans never bothered to conquer it. The 'ey' clearly points to it having been an island (eye-land) like Anglesey is the island of the Angles and Hilbre was formerly known as Hildeburgheye or Hildeburgh's island. The 'Wallas' part of the name has the same root as Wales does and Wallacia in Romania and means stranger. So there was most likely an ancient enclave of Celts living here before and during the Roman era. Maybe there is an ancient connection between Wallacians and Wallaseyans that nobody ever saw before. Experts can argue about this but actually nobody really knows for certain so my theory is as good as anybody's.
There is an Atherton Street in New Brighton, named after the founder and it was not surprising to find a Brian Atherton in charge of the Safe Water Training Sea School in New Brighton and a Peter Atherton owning the Leasowe Castle Hotel, which is where we headed next (by car) for dinner and overnight accommodation.
We are going to sail along the Irish Sea coast of the Wirral right past Leasowe Castle tomorrow.
One of the places we regularly used to run past was Old Mother Redcap's house. Old Mother Redcap ran a public house where smugglers were made welcome. The weathercock on the top used to point out to sea if the customs and excise men were about and pointed inshore if it was safe to land with contraband. The Wirral had quite a bad reputation in the 19th Century for smuggling and wrecking!
It being next to a groin with a substantial eddy swirling around the end of it, we sailed as close as we dared to Old Mother Redcap's (now redeveloped as a nursing home), so as to be sure it was on camera.
Then we sailed even closer in to the promenade to get a clear view of the Magazine, a pub next to the site of the magazine used to store gunpowder unloaded from ships before they entered the Liverpool dock system. Not a good idea having a lots of ships all close together with gunpowder on board.
Just last week I was here to watch the Tall Ships depart from Liverpool and the whole promenade from Seacombe to New Brighton was packed with people enjoying the spectacle in the sunshine. No drunkenness, no rowdiness, no hooliganism. Just thousands and thousands of people interested in boats watching and chatting. It took several hours for Wallasey to empty afterwards. All the roads were blocked with traffic. There was even an aerobatic display to entertain the departing hoards.
The last time the Tall Ships came to Liverpool I remember that the queue at New Brighton Railway Station went three times around the whole station! This time they had anticipated the crowds and had put on a few more trains than the usual Sunday service, thank goodness.
We were approaching our destination now and gybed out again towards the Tower buoy. There is no tower in New Brighton any more but there used to be one that was taller than the famous Blackpool tower. Sadly it was neglected during the first world war and was dismantled afterwards.
However, the Tower Ballroom at the foot of the tower remained until, that is, it burned down dramatically in 1970! I was home in Wallasey for my summer vacation and watched as fire engine after fire engine arrived from far and wide. There were crews from Wallasey, Birkenhead, Liverpool, Heswall, even Chester and Helsby, 30 miles away, as I remember. And they were pumping water from the marine lake and from one engine to another up to the fire. Biggest incident I ever saw.
The picture shows the site of the tower grounds. On the slope were steps leading to an outdoor fairground, which included the usual dodgems and waltzers, a rocket ride and a gravity defying centrifugal wall of death, to which you would stick as it spun round and round like a giant spin dryer. Beyond that was the Tower building. Beyond that was the New Brighton Rakers football ground. This was more than just a football ground as it was surrounded by a 550 yd banked cycling track, that was never used as far as I remember. My dad took me when I was so small that I couldn't see anything unless he put me on his shoulders. We drank hot oxo at half time and I remember collecting bottles to get money back on them. Eeh, them were't days.
We sailed right in close to look at the yard and there were some ships in there being refitted! Then we gybed away again and back inshore, this time to look at the long Monks Ferry slipway, which was largely underwater at this state of the tide but is also right under the nose of my accountant . (He was very upset when I later told him we'd sailed right under his office window.) The views of Liverpool from here are stunning.
The monks from the Birkenhead Priory were granted the licence to operate a ferry from here to the fledgeling village of Liverpool by King John in 1208. Imagine that! This was the time of the Crusades and Richard the Lionheart and the Magna Carta and Robin Hood.
To quote Winnie the Pooh:
King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon ...
But no one came to tea.
The tide had now turned and owing to the shelter provided by the surrounding buildings we had very little wind with which to propel the trimaran and we were drifting at an alarming rate already towards the floating landing stage of the Woodside Ferry. I did not want to get the mast caught underneath the access bridges to the stage and was more than happy when we slipped back into the wind and were able to sail by.
Alongside one of the four tall Art Deco ventilation towers for the Queensway Mersey road tunnel we turned away from the river bank to give a wide berth to the two enormous, floating landing stages for the modern Irish car ferries, which sail to Belfast and to Dublin. My father was Irish and we used to go there by sea from Liverpool twice a year. The Irish ferries then were in the Prince's Dock, right beside the Royal Liver Building. As soon as the clock on the Liver Building hit nine o'clock the Belfast ship would cast off and everybody ashore would wave handkerchiefs and shout farewells. But it would take an hour or so to get through the dock system to the lock and maybe another hour to get through the massive lock into the river. At least it seemed like that to us. We never seemed to be allowed to stay up late enough to sail past the New Brighton lighthouse anyway.
Of course time is money and with modern ferries now so fast one could be half way across the Irish Sea in this time. So some bright spark hit on the idea of big floating landing stages in the river, just like the cross-river ferries had been using for years. But this new Roll On Roll Off facility was built on the Wirral side of the Mersey, much to the consternation of the scousers on the Liverpool side. So now ferries can load and unload in very little time and they spend most of their time speeding across the sea instead of stuck in a dock for a whole day at a time. Much more profitable. Thinking back to my early childhood I have a vision of a car (with running boards!) being driven onto a large net made from stout hemp rope. Then a derrick was used to lift the net containing the car into the ship's hold, whilst those in steerage class looked on admiringly. How things have moved on!
The RORO ferry terminal is alongside a great sandstone wall that, when built, blocked off the whole of the wide entrance to the great Wallasey Pool, creating the Birkenhead dock system. In the reference room, upstairs in Wallasey's Earlston Library there is a painting of the ceremonial opening of the Alfred Dock in 1851, that I used to admire when I was supposed to be revising for my A level exams. I went to look at it shortly before undertaking this trip around the Wirral and was horrified to be told that it had been stolen in 1984. The thieves got out over the roof with it apparently. Bastards!
To my minds eye it didn't look anything like the picture, as I remember it, because the picture had shown the dock gates at low water with gentlemen in top hats and ladies with parasols and long dresses with bustles at the back standing on golden sand next to clean red sandstone rocks. We, of course, were passing by at high water.
We were in the narrowest part of the river here and this, of course is where the oldest known ferry across the Mersey to Liverpool is situated. The Domesday book has a record of a ferry service from Seacombe in 1086 so it must have existed even before then.
Seacombe Ferry is the ferry of my childhood. Vast hoards of people commuted from here everyday. To give you some idea of just how many that was: when the Queensway road tunnel opened in 1934 the ferry service from Seacombe lost two million passengers because people started to use the new tunnel rather than the ferry.
Hundreds of yellow Wallasey Corporation buses used to congregate here to meet the ferries. Of course the even more recent, motorway-linked Kingsway road tunnel killed off the ferries altogether and now there are no buses waiting for passengers. Indeed a passenger would have to wait quite some time for a bus to come.
One of the ugly concrete ventilation towers for the Kingsway tunnel is adjacent to the ferry terminal. The next place of note is the Guinea Gap Baths where I spent every morning before school from the age of 11 to 13. We used to watch the ships in the river while we waited for the baths to open. It used to be salt water and having short pools (25yds) was popular for the setting of records. It's still there but much improved.
We sailed as close as possible to the magnificent steps that sweep down to the riverside from Wallasey Town Hall. Then out past a large groin marking the site of Egremont Ferry. Yet another of the many ferries that have come and gone along this great river. Only one more to mention.
The river was becoming calmer. We'd left behind the bottleneck where water has flowed so fast for so long that the sand on the river bed has been scoured away leaving only undulating rock that creates an undulating water surface above it.
The promenade here is very popular with runners. When my school, Wallasey Grammar School, was located at Withens Lane, just up the hill, I was obliged to undertake my first ever cross country run along it one day because the Rugby pitches were frozen. And I discovered that I was pretty good at running. So when the opportunity came along to give up rugby, which I hated because I was hopeless at it, and take up running, which I was good at, I seized it. Consequently I then ended up running along here lots so sailing alongside it was novel and also nostalgic for me.
We gybed alternately towards and away from the shore, passing the barge where dredgers unload their Mersey sand, which is used in the making of concrete.
We noticed a medium-sized, quite elderly, white, motor-yacht floating in the river. It was pointing towards the shore at Bromborough but apparently stationary. We passed between it and the shore only to be greeted by a tirade in the form of five short blasts from its horn, which in sailing parlance means “What the **** are you doing?” I looked around me and realised that we were between the motor-yacht and its intended destination, a small dockyard upon whose slipway was assembled a team all ready to receive her.
This repair yard actually still makes ships! I'd visited it during my reconnaissance. I had thought that shipbuilding was dead on the Mersey after Cammel Lairds' Italian cruise ship fiasco had forced the firm into liquidation. But of course the local expertise did not die even if the firm had.
Anyway we were quickly out of there and passing the Mersey Wharfe, which is where Bromborough Pool used to be, where flat bottomed ships can now take the ground as they are unloaded by crane.
We were too far from New Ferry to be able to see much, not that there is much there to be seen. They scrapped Brunel's huge Great Eastern here! That would have been a sight to behold.
The river frontage between here and Rock Ferry hosts some very grand houses, long past their heyday now but being renovated and turned into desirable accommodation.
There is a notice next to the houses stating that they are bound by restrictive covenants and are listed as being of architectural and historic importance and may only be used for residential purposes. They may not be altered externally in any way without planning permission. Sounds good but then right next door are these eyesores. Are these of historic importance too?
The slipway that would have been used by the Rock Ferry is still there and leads up to the site of the Royal Mersey Yacht Club.
If you ever drive along the A41 Rock Ferry bypass you could be forgiven for not noticing this yacht club but it is right there beside you as you whiz by. They sail Etchels, a beautiful, sleek keel-boat, but most were not here today as they'd departed to Anglesey for Menai week. We turned about to be sure the club's boats were caught on camera.
Although it is possible to see both of Liverpool's cathedrals from here, the view from these lovely houses on the Esplanade at Rock Ferry has long since been blighted by the Tranmere Oil terminal, which is connected to the Stanlow Oil Refinery on the Manchester Ship Canal by a 15 mile pipeline.
It was opened in 1960 to handle vessels of up to 65,000 tons, less than half the size of tankers that will fit in the Suez canal and 1/10th of the size of a supertanker! A modern supertanker can be as long as the Empire State Building in New York is high! And the draft or depth of the such a ship is twice the depth of the Queens Channel at the entrance to the Mersey so it could not even get into the river. Supertankers became the norm for shipping oil after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when the Suez canal was closed and oil had to come via the Cape. So a floating terminal was built near Amlwch, just north of Anglesey, and the oil piped ashore and pumped all the way across N. Wales to Stanlow. With the clearing of the Suez Canal of mines by the Royal Navy in 1975, the use of supertankers gradually declined and the Amlwch facility ceased to be used from 1990. But this terminal at Tranmere remains in regular use.
Obviously facilities like this are vital to the country and the security men at the compound gate told me during my reconnaissance that they can have armed police there within 3 minutes!
Now we were opposite the Liverpool Marina and it was beginning to get pretty rough but coming up on the port side was Cammel Laird's shipyard. When I was a lad the A41 was impassable for quite a while when all the 10,000 shipyard workers left work. A considerable queue would build up on the road as a result. In those days the yard was very busy and important. Many warships including two of Britain's Polaris nuclear submarines were built here. I'd never been inside so it was interesting to see the gigantic slipways and the dry dock from the river.
The dry dock itself is interesting. It used to be Tranmere pool. The John Poole (who else) was granted the lease of ferry rights by Queen Elizabeth I in 1586. The very first steam powered ferry service operated from here in 1817. Imagine that, we'd only just beaten Napoleon with horses and canons and ships with sails and now steam ferries were being brought into use on the Mersey. So in the early part of the nineteenth century the ferry operators must have felt pretty smug because times were good.
But you can't stop progress and new roads and railways from Chester to Woodside ferry, a horse drawn tram service from New Ferry to Woodside and even a railway tunnel under the Mersey eventually saw off the Tranmere ferry, which ceased in 1904. This is when Cammel Laird turned the pool into a graving dock and expanded. Of course Cammel Laird went under during the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher saw fit not to support mammoth industries like shipbuilding, steel making and coal mining, which were strike ridden at the time. Cammel Laird rose from the dead though but fell yet again following a fiasco with a middle section of hull designed to increase the size of an Italian cruise liner. They were going to cut the liner in half and weld this section in between! But the Italians pulled out of the deal without paying. I blame the lawyers, myself.
I was surprised to see a warship in the dry dock, which, bizarrely is right next to Birkenhead Priory. Apparently the workforce is now counted in hundreds.
The lock gates opened and we motored out with about ten minutes to spare before the storm gates were closed. Phew.
Next thing was to get the sails up. To do this I elected to anchor close to the site of Eastham Ferry just a couple of hundred yards from the lock. A licence had been granted by Edward, the Black Prince, to the Poole family to operate a ferry from Eastham in 1357. The licence subsequently passed to the Abbey of St Werburghs (Chester Cathedral) and monks operated a ferry from near here where it was called Job's ferry. Probably because you would have needed the patience of Job whilst waiting for one. The steps carved out of the sandstone at Job's ferry may still be seen.
I was anchored near the Eastham Ferry Hotel, which harks back to the age of steam when there used to be a floating landing stage here. As the ferry trade started to decline following the introduction of rail travel the owner succeeded in turning Eastham into a resort with a park, fountains, a great triumphal archway to celebrate Queen Victoria's jubilee, a bear pit and a circus. Crowds came from Liverpool for days out. But eventually in 1929 the ferry ceased. The railway tunnel between Birkenhead and Liverpool had been open since 1886 and was electrified in 1903. The road tunnel was under construction and the writing was on the wall for all the ferries that remained.
The radio crackled into life. It was the Wallasey Yacht Club boat. We'd better hurry up and get out from there as the oil tanker was about to leave the lock and it needed the full depth and width of the channel. We were just on the edge of that channel!
We'd been having some difficulty because we were not exactly in still water. In fact we'd started dragging the anchor as the sail had gone up. The currents in the Mersey are merciless. We quickly secured everything, I hauled the anchor aboard and when Andy pulled in the main sheet we took off like a bullet from a gun. I knew straight away that we had too much sail up. Andy and I are a couple of lightweights so our weight is not much use when it comes to hiking out to counter gusts of wind from the side. The oil tanker was bearing down on us and we shot across the channel at 12.5 knots towards the shallower and much rougher water. Several gophers swept over us. Booff! My life jacket exploded! It is supposed to self-inflate when immersed in water. Very reassuring that it did, I suppose. But a trifle embarrassing. Andy whose curly hair had turned into ringlets by now was glad he'd got his dry suit on. I was glad I'd closed up my collar but really the lightweight clothing I'd chosen for this “pleasant” day was not up to the job. I wouldn't make the same mistake tomorrow. Fortunately the water was warm by English standards, it being high summer.
We got things under control fast and then attempted to take a reef.
It wasn't that easy in this rough water. In fact I decided upon two reefs in the main sail. I was glad I had a competent sailor with me who understood what we were doing and had his wits about him.
Now calm and no longer under pressure we headed back inshore towards Job's Ferry to be sure that the cameraman would capture it in the background. Then we sailed off along the Eastham channel in a north westerly direction with the wind behind us but the tide still coming in against us, my aim being to reach the narrowest part of the river at high water when the tide would be slack. The flow of tide can be 7 or 8 knots and if you have the wind against it then it cuts up somewhat rough! The building of sheer dock walls along both banks of the Mersey has made things worse because the waves do not dissipate as they would do onto beaches but instead they bounce off the red sandstone and interfere with other waves creating massive crests and deep troughs. Not a pleasant experience in a small boat.
The morning after the night before and the sky was blue, the air still and the ship canal water was glassy like a mirror at 6 o'clock.
Lots to do though before the men arrived from Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council to open the lock that would allow us to enter the canal from the basin where I intended to launch the Magnum 21 trimaran for the second leg of my circumnavigation of the Wirral peninsula.
Some lads fishing in the basin next to where I was intending to launch the boat had told us last night that a car had been dumped into the water at this point and to take care when launching! Nice area! Good of them to warn us though. At least the boat and car were still there when I went to inspect at around 7am. I took the recently purchased, telescopic, microphone boom and prodded around in the water. I couldn't feel any thing like a car down there, thank goodness.
After breakfast in the Holiday Inn I set about turning the boat into a proper trimaran ready for sailing. Fixing the akas (outrigger beams) and pulling out the amas (floats) then lifting the mast into position and fitting the rudder. Andy Todd, a friend from Chester Sailing and Canoe Club, whom I had invited along for the sailing, turned up and started to get into his dry suit. Ruth, my twin sister, and her husband Stephen turned up promptly at 0900. Stephen had an electric pump with which he set about inflating the trailer tyres to make it easier to roll them over the brick-high obstacle separating the car park from the dock.
Fenders tied in place we launched the Magnum as the council team arrived to open the lock gates. This was quite a palaver. Not so much that it was complicated, more that its was laborious. Whereas when it was constructed it would have been in constant use as freight came and went whenever the tides were right, nowadays it is only used a handful of times a year. Two men had to crank handles to winch the chains that pulled aside each lock gate in turn. Hard work! Once we were in the lock they then had to close the lock gates behind us before opening up the paddles in the lower lock gate to let the water out of the lock. They had an enormous T bar to which they had to attach extra leverage poles to be able to open these paddles and with one person on each end of the T they slowly opened up each paddle in turn. The water in the basin above was higher than the upper lock gate and so as water was going out of the lock more water was coming in so there was quite a flow through the lock itself and the level fell quite slowly. Until the dock emptied to the level of the ship canal the water inside the lock was still pressing against the lower gate and we couldn't get out. They gradually opened one more paddle after another to speed the process up as best they could and eventually we came level with the Manchester Ship Canal water and they were able to open the lower lock gates.
Meanwhile Andy and I had been steadying the boat in the flow and the gradually increasing wind whilst gradually lowering her into the lock and slowly easing the warps by which she was loosely secured to bollards. We had time to pay a final visit to the facilities in the hotel before we became preoccupied with the sailing!
The TV crew had been recording the proceedings around the lock. A big oil tanker went by in the canal and they were able to catch that as it obliterated the view of the Mersey beyond.
On the VHF radio I tried to raise the Harbour Master at Eastham Lock where the ship canal joins the river but VHF only works if sender and receiver are in line of sight with each other and I couldn't raise him. So I called up Eastham control using my mobile phone. I told them that we were nearly ready to enter the Ship Canal and he asked me what speed I could make as they were going to put the storm gates on at 11 o'clock. Storm gates! This did not sound great. A storm had not been forecast. Force 5 max. surely? Gales are force 8 and storms are greater than force 9 on the Beaufort Scale! “It's OK we always close the storm gates if the tide rises above the level of the canal.” Of course, if they didn't do that the lock gates would open up and a flood of water would enter the canal and lift all the ships in it to whatever level the water rose to. As the canal is effectively a 56km long dock, this would create some disruption.
Nevertheless, time was marching on and we needed to get going if we were to make it to the lock before it became impassable for the two hours around high water.
Eventually the lock gates opened and with motored out into the Manchester Ship Canal. When this lock was built it would have opened directly into the Mersey and we would have been sailing straight away. There would once have been a ferry from here to Liverpool and a “high speed” steam packet boat to Chester. The river is very wide at this point and relatively shallow. In fact shallow enough that at low tide in August 2006 a certain Graham Bonas WALKED from the salt marsh at Ince Banks, just near here, and in just over an hour arrived on the other side near Liverpool John Lennon Airport.
You have to bear in mind though that the tidal range in the Mersey is up to 10.6 metres so although it may be shallow at low tide, at high water springs it is anything but shallow and there is an awful lot of water in the river. This was how it would be today.
Soon we were passing Poole Hall Rocks, which separates the canal from Poole Hall Sands obviously named after Poole Hall, which was built by the Poole family, the local Lord of the Manor since shortly after the Doomsday. One of the adherants of William de Maldeberg, Baron of Nantwich had settled here and taken the name of Pulle or Pul. The names of Overpool and Netherpool (nether meaning lower, as in the Netherlands or your nether regions) may still be seen on nearby motorway signs.
There are or have been many pools on the Mersey. Bromborough Pool that became the dock for access to Port Sunlight where Lever Bros. built their great soap manufacturing plant, Tranmere Pool, from where the Tranmere ferry operated and which later became the dry dock of Cammel Laird's shipyard, Wallasey Pool, which formed the basis of the great float of Birkenhead docks, Otterpool, and of course the most famous, Liverpool.
We didn't even notice the masting crane as we passed it, not that we needed one. Our eyes were fixed on the tugs helping the great big oil tanker that had passed by earlier and was now almost in the larger of the two locks at Eastham. We contacted control on the radio and were ushered into the smaller adjacent one. It was quite windy and I turned around within the lock to face the wind and have more control. The lock gate closed behind us and the water level started to fall almost immediately. Somebody from Wallasey Yacht Club ran along to us and the TV crew scrambled out of my boat hastily. The yacht club's motor boat was tied up next to a ladder just outside the lock gates. Simon and Ben needed to be ready to record our grand exit from the canal and thus our entrance into the mighty River Mersey.