National Character Area 59

Wirral - Description

The Wirral today

The landscape of the Wirral NCA is based on the formal landscapes of former large country estates, rural areas, natural coastal scenery and wooded sandstone ridges, which combine to give the NCA a unique landscape character. The pastoral landscape of central Wirral is separated from the industrial areas of the neighbouring Merseyside Conurbation NCA by a dramatic sandstone ridge which extends from Bidston Hill in the north through Noctorum and Mountwood to Storeton in the south. The M53 motorway provides access to this area and also separates the Wirral plain from the urban east of Wirral.

The geology of the Wirral peninsula is dominated by glacial till overlying Triassic sandstone. These combine to form a low-lying but gently rolling platform punctuated by low sandstone outcrops. The highest point is at Poll Hill, Heswall, at 106 m.

With the exception of Hoylake and West Kirby, the NCA’s coastline is essentially undeveloped and is an important area for coastal-related recreation and nature conservation. The north Wirral frontage is characterised by coastal sand dunes, which are now encased or separated from natural interaction with the foreshore by artificial defences, low-lying hinterland and extensive sandy and muddy/sandy beaches. Between the Wirral and north-east Wales lies the large, funnel-shaped Dee Estuary. The three small, low-lying sandstone islands of Hilbre are located approximately 1 km off the extreme north-west corner of the Wirral peninsula. The coastline and estuary are of international importance for wildlife.

The River Dee is 110 km long from its source in Snowdonia National Park in Wales to where its estuary discharges into Liverpool Bay. The River Dee is normally tidal up to Chester Weir. There are a number of watercourses through the Wirral. The south-western part of the NCA contains streams draining to the Dee Estuary.

Most small rivers in the north of the peninsula drain into the Birket, which itself flows into the River Mersey via Wallasey Pool (Birkenhead Docks), while Clatter Brook and the River Dibbin drain into the Mersey at Bromborough Pool.

Woodland is predominantly broadleaved and is primarily associated with sandstone ridges, country parks and country estates. Pockets of woodland often create the impression of considerable woodland being present.

The core of this area is predominantly mixed agricultural land, with areas of improved pasture, arable farming and market gardens. The majority of the agricultural land is Grade 3, with pockets of Grade 2 present around Thornton Hough and Hoylake. Grade 4 land is situated to the south of Hoylake, where the land is low lying, with numerous drainage ditches. A number of birds rely on both grass and arable farmland areas for feeding. There is a low-lying, flat area across the north end of Wirral, immediately inland of the coastal strip, which is poorly drained by small rivers of the Birket catchment. Parts of this area provide roosting areas for wintering birds and support other wildlife such as water voles. This area is largely grazing for cattle and horses, but with some remaining horticulture.

The field pattern results from the enclosure and re-organisation of a mix of medieval townfields and ancient fields. Fields are generally medium sized, defined by intermittent clipped hedgerows, often replaced by post-and-wire fences. Field ponds and copses are important features. Boundaries in residential areas and surrounding country estates are predominantly red sandstone walls, which is a common theme running throughout the Wirral. In coastal areas, low-lying farmland is often bounded by drainage ditches or hedges characterised by gorse scrub.

The Dee Estuary consists of extensive intertidal sand flats, mudflats and coastal salt marshes. The estuary is internationally important for waders and wildfowl. The estuary also forms an essential part of the route for migratory fish species that depend on the whole river ecosystem, including the River Dee and Bala Lake Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which lies upstream. North Wirral Foreshore, located between the outer Dee and Mersey estuaries, is an area of intertidal sand flats and mudflats, with embryonic coastal salt marsh, which is of international importance as a feeding and roosting site for passage and wintering flocks of waders, wildfowl, terns and gulls. The Dee Estuary is of international importance and is designated as a Ramsar site and Special Protection Area (SPA).

The Dee Estuary (including the North Wirral Foreshore) is also designated as an SAC. The Mersey Narrows and North Wirral Foreshore is a Ramsar site and SPA.

The eastern shore of the Dee Estuary is backed by a stretch of till cliffs. Further along the coast to the north, small relic fragments of coastal sand dunes are found, particularly at Meols. The coastal sand dunes at Red Rocks Site of Special Scientific Interest support a re-introduced population of natterjack toad. Lowland heathlands show a strong association with the underlying geology and soils and are found on podsolic soils that have developed over Triassic sandstones, such as on Thurstaston Common. A notable feature is the many marl pits, formed where calcareous clay in the soil has been dug up and spread on the land. Water-filled marl pits constitute a significant wetland resource, providing an important network of infield ponds, in which great crested newts are often found.

The towns and villages, such as Heswall, Hoylake and West Kirby, which developed as dormitory settlements, feature a mixture of traditional sandstone buildings and modern post-Second World War housing development. Increased pressure for accommodation in this commuter belt has led to the expansion of many of the settlements, resulting in gradual coalescence.

Red sandstone is common throughout the area, with many churches and houses in the villages built from sandstone. Welsh slate and tile roofs predominate. The pink hues of the local red stone bring warmth to the landscape and provide a unifying theme in buildings, walls and bridges. Traditional timber-framed structures including cruck frames are now very rare compared with later sandstone and brick.

This is a rich pastoral landscape interspersed with settlements, scattered farmsteads and many garden centres. Long-known as a commuter belt for wealthy businesspeople, the area is prosperous, with many large houses and country estates predominantly built using local red sandstones. Settlements are linked by an intricate network of lanes, bridleways and footpaths.

The area’s coastline, countryside and parks are a vital resource of tranquillity in an area classified as untranquil to moderately tranquil.

Recreation and tourism are supported by good access to the dramatic coastal landscape and its outstanding ornithological interest. There are a number of country parks, Local Nature Reserves and Local Wildlife Sites. There are a large number of golf courses on the coastal strip and in the rural areas, some of which include good wildlife habitat. The Wirral Way is a path on the track of an old railway that runs from West Kirby to Hooton in mid-Wirral as part of the Wirral Country Park. Wirral has designated bathing waters at West Kirby, Meols and Moreton.

The landscape through time

The Triassic Period (248-205 million years ago) is represented by red mudstones and sandstones that underlie virtually the entire area, with the sandstones forming the higher ground at the northern end of the Wirral. The only exception to this is a small area of Carboniferous sandstone and shales near Neston. The sandstones, where present close to the surface, give rise to free-draining soils that support lowland heathland vegetation such as at Thurstaston, on the Wirral. The harder coarse red Triassic sandstones out-crop in many parts of Wirral.

The main deposit of Quaternary age is till, which formed in and beneath glaciers and ice sheets. During the last glacial advance some 20,000 years ago, ice invaded from the Irish Sea area and deposited till, sands and gravels over much of the Merseyside area. Also associated with the glacial advance are deposits of fine, wind-transported silt known as loess.

There is some evidence to suggest that the Wirral peninsula was occupied or used extensively during the Mesolithic Period, with strong evidence for at least one permanent settlement at Greasby dating to c. 7000 BC.

Sea levels in the area have changed a number of times since the last glaciation. The 5,000-year-old submerged remains of a post-glacial forest on the Meols foreshore indicate that much of the Wirral at that time was some distance from the coast.

The remains of a small iron-age fort are present at Burton in the south-west of the area, on the outskirts of Chester. A Romano-British presence on the Wirral is evident, related to the occupation of Chester. A major Roman port was established in the former tidal pool of the River Dee at Chester. Roman roads are found near Willaston and Ledsham, and other traces of early Roman activity have been found at Meols. Meols developed as a port potentially from the Iron Age, but was also active in the Roman period from the mid-1st century to the late 4th century.

Following the cessation of Roman governance, Meols seems to have continued to operate as a port, as indicated by the discovery of a sizeable early medieval finds assemblage.

There is evidence that Vikings, expelled from Ireland, settled on the Wirral. The north-west corner of the Wirral peninsula has a concentration of Scandinavian place names; however, only a few – such as Meols (‘sandbank’) – have retained their pure Scandinavian form.

At the time of the Norman invasion the Wirral was an area of small, dispersed settlements supporting fishing or farming communities. Much of the Wirral became an extensive Royal Hunting Forest in the 12th century, and was subject to Forest Law.

The pattern of early settlement was largely nucleated, and the vestiges of townfield agriculture (in the curved boundaries of strip farming preserved in later enclosures) can still be detected along the peninsula. Ancient enclosure reflecting a more dispersed pattern of farm holdings is also evident, although planned and regular late post-medieval field patterns dominate.

From the late 18th century, agriculture developed to provide meat, dairy, arable and horticultural products to serve the growing needs of the urban populations. Numerous field ponds were dug to extract the calcareous marl deposits that were widely used as a mineral fertiliser, with these ‘pits’ later providing a means of watering livestock. Tower mills (a type of windmill) and the remains of mills (mill mounds) are a distinctive feature of the Wirral, indicating a thriving arable economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dispersed and loose courtyard steadings, with buildings dating generally from the late 18th century, include two-storey combination barns.

The Dee Estuary and the ports along it, at Parkgate for example, historically provided access to Chester. The port at Chester functioned throughout the medieval period, but progressive silting of the River Dee and changes in sea level meant that ‘satellite’ anchorages had to be established along the Dee shore of the Wirral. These included Neston, Shotwick, Parkgate and Caldy. The canalisation of the River Dee (the New Cut) in the 18th century enabled larger ships to reach Chester, extending its role as a port.

The increased reliability of steam-powered boats in the 1820s encouraged wealthy Liverpool businessmen and merchants to establish country houses and estates on the Wirral. The introduction of the Wirral’s first railway in 1840 further encouraged settlement in the area, which has continued up to the present day. Towns and villages developed as dormitory settlements for Liverpool, Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port and Chester. Nineteenth-century villas are a characteristic feature.

The Dee Estuary is rapidly silting up, with marsh-fringed inlets now almost filled with tidal mudflats and coastal salt marshes. The former port at Parkgate, one of the country’s principal producers of shrimps and a former embarkation point for Ireland, is now separated from the water channel by a broad salt marsh that has developed on Gayton Sands. Coastal salt marshes have spread considerably since common cord-grass was introduced to the area prior to the Second World War. Silting-up continues, with coastal accretion largely from long-shore drift. The 20th century, especially since the Second World War, has also seen a considerable increase in the development of recreational and leisure facilities, with increased mobility of the population and building of major roads such as the M53. There has been an overall decline in woodland cover, with more deforestation than afforestation.