When Squirrels Leapt From Tree To Tree

            From Blacon Point to Hilbre

  A squirrel could leap from tree to tree.

                                                            Old saying

 

Wirral in ancient times was a forest. According to the old rhyme, trees grew all the way from Blacon Point near Chester to Hilbre, or in a version recorded in Leasowe Castle, from Birkenheven (Birkenhead) to Hilbre. In yet another tradition recorded in Mr. Robinson’s legendary account of Wallasey, a man (not a squirrel this time!) ‘…might have gone out of treetops from the Meoles to Birkenhead, a token whereof in finding of large tree tops when getting of turves, which roots lyes a great way in the sea at this Present.’ It seems that this legend was inspired by the petrified forests, both of the Birket valley and Bidston Moss, and also the more famous ‘Meolse Stocks’ or the Petrified Forest at Meols, now no longer visible even at low tide, but once a local landmark; tree stumps and tree roots that vanished into the sea, and were believed to have stretched as far as the similar petrified forest at Formby. Another rhyme states that:

 

The squirrels ran from tree to tree

From Formby Point to Hilbre.

 

Other legends say that the forest once extended as far as Ireland.

 

Stories of a sunken land off the coast are common in Britain, for example, the more famous Cornish legend of Lyonesse, or Lethesow, which seems to have been inspired in part by the petrified forest in the waters near St Michael’s Mount, still occasionally to be seen at low water.

 

Certainly, Wirral extended further than it does now in historical times, and there is strong evidence that there was a significant port at Meols in the Middle Ages and earlier, which has since been swallowed by the sea. Gravestones have been found beneath the water off Leasowe Lighthouse and there are stories of a bell that can be heard from the waves, supposedly of a church that sank in medieval times. Remains of prehistoric fauna such as Irish Elk and aurochs suggest that the submarine forest itself dates as far back as the Old Stone Age.

 

It was said that while land extended between Meols and Formby, the Mersey once flowed into the Dee via the Backford Gap, just north of Chester, until the days of King Arthur, when earthquakes and violent inundations of the sea created its new course, formerly known also as the Cheshire Waters, or Mersey Water, and even today is often referred to as ‘The Water.’ Other traditions suggest that Bidston Moss was once under the sea, Wallasey an island (the name means ‘island of the Welsh’), and Overchurch was ‘the church on the shore.’

 

The North Wirral shore has certainly been contracting throughout recorded history, with the loss of the once vibrant port at Meols, which seems to have flourished from the Iron Age until the days of the Black Death. A graveyard lies beneath the waves near Leasowe Lighthouse, suggesting another lost village.

 

Not only is Wirral geographically smaller than it once was, as a political entity, Wirral is a fragment of former greatness. The first reference to Wirral appears in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle’s entry for the year 893 AD, when a Viking army led by one Hastein took refuge in ‘a deserted city in Wirral called Chester,’ so it seems that Wirral extended at least as far as the city. But by the days of Henry VIII, the traditions recorded by Leland state that Wirral at that time began ‘two bow-shots north’ of Chester suburbs. In the intervening centuries, when Wirral had first come under the sway of another group of Vikings, and then in Norman times become a haunt of outlaws, it had diminished slightly. Worse was to come in 1974, when what had once been the Hundred of Wirral, a subdivision of Cheshire, was divided between Cheshire itself and the new county of Merseyside. Since then, Wirral has usually been used to refer to the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral, part of Merseyside, which continues to exist to this day, despite the abolition of Merseyside in the eighties: Wirral itself is now a twilight zone lying between Cheshire and the former Merseyside. Since this work concerns itself with Wirral’s traditions, the traditional meaning of Wirral, corresponding with the Hundred, will be used.

 

A final note on nomenclature: ‘Wirral’ is regarded as the correct usage; ‘the Wirral’ (short for ‘the Wirral Peninsula’, which is correct) is seen as a solecism.

 

Wirral, which comes from the Old English Wirhealum, meaning ‘meadow of bog myrtle’, was known to the Celts as Cilgwri, or the Corner. Leland, writing about 1536, states that:

 

"Wyrale begynnith lesse then a. quarter of a mile of the very cite self of Chester, and withyn a 2. bow shottes of the suburbe without the northe gate at a litle brooket caullid Flokars Broke that ther cummith ynto Dee Ryver, and ther is a dok wherat at spring tide a ship may ly, and this place is caullid Porte Poole.

 

" Half a myle lower ys Blaken Hedde, as an armelet of the grounde pointing oute. At this is an olde manor place longging to the Erie of Oxforde, and theryn lyith sumtyme Syr Gul. Norres.

 

" A mile be water lower hard on the shore is a litle village caullid Sauheho (Saughall).

 

" Lesse then a mile lower is Crabho (Crabhall).

 

"A myle lower is Shottewik Castelle on the very shore longging to the King : and therby ys a park.

 

" Shottewike townelet is a 3. quarters of a myle lower.

 

" And 2. mile lower is a rode in D(ee) caullid Salthouse, wher again it (on the) shore is a salt house cotage.

 

" Then is Burton hedde, whereby is a village almost a mile lower than Salt (House).

 

"ii. myles lower and more is Denwale Rode, and agayne it a farme place caullid Denwaulle Haul. It longith to Mr. Smithe, and more up into the land is Denwaulle (Denhall) village.

 

"ii. miles and more lower is Neston Rode, and ynward a mile ynto the land is Neston village.

 

" About a 3. miles lower is a place caullid the Redde Bank, and ther half a mile withyn the land is a village caullid Thrustington (Thurstaston).

 

" A mile and more lower is Weste Kirkeby a village hard on the shore.

 

"And half a mile lower is Hillebyri, (Hilbre Point) as the very point of Wyrale.

 

"This Hillebyri at the floode is al environed with water as an isle, and than the trajectus is a quarter of a mile over and 4. fadome depe of water, and at ebbe a man may go over the sand. It is about a mile in cumpace, and the grounde

is sandy and hath conies. There was a celle of monkes of Chestre, and a pilgrimage of our Lady of Hilbyri.

 

" The barre caullid Chester Barre that is at (the) very mouth of the sandes spuid oute of Dee Ryver is an 8. or 10. mile west south west from Hilbyri.

 

"It is by estimation a XVI. mile from the point of Hilbery to crosse strait over to the next shore in Lancastershire.

 

" For Lyrpoole (Liverpool) lyith a X. miles into the lande from the mouthe of Mersey Water, and lytle lak of XX. from the very barre of Mersey that lyith in the mayne se.

 

" From the poynt of Hylbyri to Lirpoole as it lyith withyn the lande a X. mile.

 

" From Hilbyri to cumpace about the shore of Wyral on Mersey side to Walesey (Wallasey) village on the very shore, wher men use much to salten hering taken at the se by the mouth of Mersey, is a seven or eight miles.

 

" Thens a 2. myles to the fery house on Wyrale shore, and there is the trajectus proximus to Lyrpole a 3. miles over.

 

" Aboute half a quarter of (a) mile upward hard on Wyral shore is Byrk(et) a late a priory of a XVI. monkes as a celle to Chester without any village by it.

 

" Al the shore grounde of Wyral apon De side ys highe bankid, but not veri hilly grounde. And so ys the bank of Wyrale onto Briket on Mersey side.

 

" The trajectus from Hillebyri directely overthwart bytwixt Flint and Basingwark is at the ful se a VII. miles over."…’

 

While Camden, in his Britannia (1607) says:

 

From the Citie [of Chester] Northwestward there shooteth out a languet [tongue] of land, or promontorie of the maine-land, into the sea, enclosed on the one side with Dee mouth, on the other side with the river Mersey. Wee call it Wirall, the Welsh Britans for that it is an angle terme it Kill-gury. In old time it was all forest and not inhabited, as the dwellers report, but King Edward the Third disforested it. Yet now beset it is with townes on everie side, howbeit more beholden to the sea than to the soile. For the land beareth small plentie of corne, the water yeeldeth great store of fish. At the entrie into it on the South side standeth Shotwich, a castle of the Kings, upon the salt water. Upon the North standeth Hooten, a manour which in King Richard the Second his time came to the Stanleies, who fetch their pedigree from Alane Sylvestre, upon whom Ranulph the first of that name, Earle of Chester, conferred the Bailly-wick of the Forest of Wirall, by delivering unto him an home. Close unto this is Poole, from whence the Lords of the place that have a long time flourished tooke their name, and hard by it Stanlaw, as the monkes of that place interprete it, a Stony hill, where John Lacy Connestable of Chester founded a little monasterie, which afterwards by reason of inundations was translated to Whaley in Lancashire. In the utmost brinke of this Promontorie lieth a small, hungrie, barren and sandie Isle called Il-bre, which had sometime a little cell of monkes in it.

Comments