Cross the Mersey

THERE was a time my only real point of reference for Wirral was that its council sponsored Tranmere Rovers when former Liverpool striker John Aldridge signed with them in 1991.

Walkers at the Port Sunlight River Park looking across the Mersey
Walkers at the Port Sunlight River Park looking across the Mersey

Pretty pathetic, I know, but true nonetheless. And it says more about my football fascination as a kid than anything else. Tragic.

Admittedly, I roughly knew it was an area located between North Wales and Liverpool, neighbouring Chester maybe, yet could honestly tell you little more.

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How refreshing, then, a quarter-of-a-century on, to finally be fully enlightened.

Offered the chance of a whistle-stop tour of everything Wirral has to offer, my initial thoughts as we check-in to the warm and welcoming family-owned The Grove House Hotel in New Brighton is: will there really be enough to fill an entire weekend?

After all, this peninsula - and that is what it is jutting out into the Irish Sea with the River Dee to the west and Mersey to the east - is only around 15 miles long and seven miles wide.

However, it soon becomes apparent there is. Plenty and more again.

The following day’s packed itinerary is discussed over dinner at Thornton Hall Hotel, one of the region’s finest and nestled in the heart of Wirral’s clearly beautiful countryside.

The Lawns Restaurant, with its grandiose dining room, is described as an ‘exquisite’ dining experience and, given the creativity and high standard of the stunning food produced here by head chef Ben Mounsey and his talented team, it certainly lives up to that billing.

Thornton Hall is also renowned for its award-winning spa facilities and, unsurprisingly given its beautiful grounds, is a leading wedding venue, too.

One of Wirral’s most familiar names is Hoylake, the famous old links golf course where Rory McIlroy won the Open in 2014, but Ness Botanical Gardens, too, is an iconic place of interest.

Home to more than 15,000 types of plants, it was originally created by Arthur Kilpin Bulley in 1898, before being bequeathed to the University of Liverpool by his daughter Lois Agnes after his death in 1942.

With a keen interest in introducing plants from the Far East, he would see hundreds of species successfully grown in the UK and now the Gardens are a sprawling myriad of ever-changing colour and beauty.

With, among other features, its water gardens, azalea walk, grass labyrinth, wildflower meadow, rock garden and herbaceous lawn, it makes for a pleasurable few hours ambling around with notable nods to history, too.

Staying on the outdoors theme, we stop off at the RSPB site at Burton Mere Wetlands which is a fascinating development, not least for the wonderful juxtaposition of the nature reserve’s fine vistas and plethora of wildlife with Connah’s Quay Power Station looming in the background.

Aside from the obvious birdwatching opportunities from the hides - avocets, redshanks, kingfishers - there’s guided walks around the reserve and the chance for kids to explore the surrounding woodland, maybe to create dens of their own or go in search of various creepy crawlies.

For those visitors with children, Brimstage Maze is a must-see. How’s your sense of direction? It needs to be good to weave your way out if its giant Maize Maze - literally towering walls of maize - but we are reliably informed no child has been completely lost yet.

With its own ice cream parlour, too, the kids will be happy while, for the parents, the maze sits behind the quaint Brimstage Hall Courtyard which offers an eclectic mix of independent shops for those not wanting to risk getting stuck in the field.

New Brighton, on the north-eastern tip of Wirral, is an ideal base from which to explore the peninsula although, equally so, there is plenty to enjoy there as well with its miles of promenades including a new £60m redevelopment to hopefully lift the resort back to its halcyon days of the early 1900s.

There is a call-in at Gordale, one of the first garden centres in Britain and an ideal place to enjoy a coffee, while the mouthwatering sirloin streak at the Jug and Bottle in Heswall is definitely recommended.

This is labelled as a gastropub and it does cater for all your pub classics but the building itself dates back to the 19th century and, with its rustic feel, log fires and leather arm chairs, brings with it all the expected atmosphere and character.

Another example of the investment into the Wirral is at Port Sunlight River Park, another picturesque open space which it is hard to believe was transformed from a landfill site before being opened to the public in 2014.

Once you have climbed and weaved your way to its highest point - there are almost three miles of weaving footpaths to navigate - you are met with the sight, across the Mersey, of Liverpool’s famous waterfront or, if you turn the other way, the rising peaks of North Wales.

Just down from here, you could, of course, actually take up the advice of Gerry and the Pacemakers and take a Ferry Cross The Mersey in order to explore everything Liverpool has to offer.

However, as we patently discovered, there is genuinely no real need; Wirral is a treasure trove of its own.

And, as I now know, so much more than a name emblazoned on the shirts of a football club from Birkenhead.

Dave Craven stayed at The Grove House Hotel, New Brighton, CH45 3HF. Prices from £79 0151 639 3947

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