Hip Hoylake

[This article about Hoylake originally appeared in Issue 5 (2014) of The Merseysider magazine.]

There’s more to this seaside town than meets the eye, as we discover

In an earlier issue of The Merseysider we ran a feature on West Kirby and now it’s the turn of its very near neighbour, Hoylake. Both are attractive seaside towns with much to interest the curious visitor. If West Kirby seems in some respects a little more upmarket, Hoylake has been catching up since the Open Golf Championship returned in 2006 (and it’s back again this year), without losing its engagingly laidback charm. Market Street, the main thoroughfare, can be deceptively quiet, but the more time you spend in Hoylake, you more you realise just how much is going on beneath its tranquil surface.

Hoylake’s name is a reminder that there was once a ‘Hoyle Lake’, a deep channel that ran along this section of the Wirral coastline, protected from the Irish Sea by a sizeable sandbank. Even at low tide this was 15 to 20 feet deep, and numerous fishing boats and larger ships would anchor here. In 1690 a force of 10,000 English soldiers crossed from this point to Ireland. They were led by King William III, who went on to defeat James II in the Battle of the Boyne. His route to the shore is still marked by a road known as King’s Gap. Two lighthouses were built in 1760, then rebuilt about a century later. One of these still stands, in the unlikely setting of a back garden on Valentia Road.

Sea and river traffic dwindled as the lake silted up, but during the 19th century Hoylake began to acquire popularity as a resort, especially after the arrival of the railway in 1866. The population grew substantially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many of Hoylake’s buildings date from this period. The visually attractive variety of Hoylake’s houses reflects the social mix that is still a distinctive feature of the town. Grand houses on Meols Drive and Stanley Road are just a short walk from little fishermen’s cottages and terraced houses in the roads off Market Street. Hoylake also has one of the region’s most striking railway stations: an elegant 1930s Art Deco building whose curved frontage and circular upper level make it reminiscent of a London underground station.

Hoylake’s two main arteries are Market Street and the promenade. At the busier western end of Market Street there’s a large group of buildings known, because of the shape of the site, as the Quadrant. The Town Hall was once here, but now there’s a range of businesses, including the Seagrass Studio Gallery, which is a fine example of the many independent shops to be found in Hoylake. Run by artist Jo Smith, the shop sells Jo’s own pictures and handmade jewellery, as well as work by other local artists; you can also go to art classes here. At the other end of Market Street there are several antique shops, and also the Kingsley auction house, whose regular sales attract many collectors and bargain hunters. Hoylake Fisheries sells locally caught fish, and next door is the Three Sisters greengrocers, remembered by many for its appearance in a television documentary when Mary Portas helped the sisters transform their shop.

Jo Smith of the Seagrass Studio Gallery at a Festival of Firsts event in Hoylake

Jo Smith of the Seagrass Studio Gallery at a Festival of Firsts event in Hoylake

Also at the Quadrant is the popular Portrait House restaurant, whose chef Adam Bowers has won several awards. Other notable restaurants (all on Market Street) include the long established Lino’s Italian restaurant, Julian’s (run by Julian Davies, a former Wirral chef of the year), Bej (a vegetarian and vegan restaurant) and a newly opened yogurt bar. Another recent arrival is Marco’s on Kings Gap, advertised as ‘by Marco Pierre White’ (we’re not quite sure what that means, but don’t expect him to be slaving away in the kitchen). Hoylake has several pubs, such as the Ship Inn and the Blue Anchor on Market Street, where the huge Punch Bowl Inn – after one or two short-lived re-openings – appears to have finally closed its doors. The oldest is the Green Lodge Hotel on Stanley Road, originally built in the 18th century as a hunting lodge for the Stanley family. Down the side streets there are atmospheric smaller pubs: the Lake on Lake Place and the Plasterer’s Arms on Grove Place.

The long promenade was built in 1898. It’s ideal for a stroll or a more vigorous walk or run, and is also popular with birdwatchers. At the eastern end you can gaze at boat owners tending to their craft, and (if the tide’s in) watch the vessels coming and going; at the western end if you venture a little beyond the promenade you can explore the Red Rocks. But there’s plenty to be enjoyed in between as well. Much of this is clustered around the new Lifeboat Station, which opened in 2008. Lifeboats have a long history in Hoylake, dating back to 1803. You can find out about this by visiting the station on one of its open days, or its predecessor (further along the promenade), built in 1899 and now the Hoylake Lifeboat Museum. This has a fascinating display of photographs and exhibits, relating not just to lifeboats – though they do have one of these, that’s over a hundred years old – but also to the history of Hoylake. The Museum’s obliging Chair and Secretary, Hazel Langley and Beverley Aspinall, agreed to pop their heads through the cut-out model of a lifeboat-man and a sea creature so we could photograph them. Near the new station is a very different vessel: the Grace Darling, Hoylake’s very own pirate ship, magically assembled from driftwood by Frank Lund and Major C Mace in 2013. The same pair created the Black Pearl in New Brighton, which was dramatically swept out to sea in the recent storms. The Grace Darling survived, and children and adults continue to enjoy clambering all over her.

Hoylake’s large sandy beach is often quiet and peaceful, though the strong winds that can blow along this coast make it one of the country’s leading sites for sand yachting; the European championships were held here in 2007. Many walks along the beach from either Hoylake or West Kirby end at Red Rocks, where after a bit of climbing and leaping over gaps you can find a comfortable perch and enjoy the view across to Hilbre Island. The nearby dunes and reedbeds are a coastal reserve, where as well as many different plant varieties there is a breeding colony of natterjack toads, a species that’s very rare in Britain. They tend to hide themselves away so can be hard to spot, but during the mating season (April to June) the loud croaking calls of males looking for female company can be heard.

One of the most impressive things about Hoylake is how much happens here, with an incredible number of groups and organisations catering for all sorts of interests and addressing all kinds of community issues. A good example is the Melrose Art Club, which meets regularly at Melrose Hall. Tutor Dennis Spicer is an accomplished artist himself (you can see his work on his website, www.dennisspicer.co.uk). He tells me that a varied mix of people attend the sessions. ‘Some come having not picked up a pencil since they were at school, but there are also former art college students who want to keep their hand in and others who are building up their portfolios because they hope to go to art school.’

Lesley Humphreys, one of the members of the class, has an interesting history as an artist. ‘I used to draw at home for the kids, but otherwise just didn’t have the time to pursue it. Then when the children grew up I thought, “Now it’s my turn.”’ Lesley was 55 and after gaining a GCSE and an A level in Art she’s thinking of starting a part-time degree course. Unlike Lesley, Gladys Ward had no previous experience of art when she joined the club about five years ago. ‘It’s a wonderful two hours of escapism, and my own skills have definitely come on. Of course, there’s a social side to it as well: even if Dennis is on holiday we still come.’

Melrose Hall itself is managed by Jackie Hall, who together with her late husband rescued the building when it was threatened with closure in 1999. She tells me, ‘We’re a registered charity and now all kinds of groups make use of the hall. There’s a choir, tai chi, dog training, a jazz orchestra that plays here once a month, stage performances and concerts. We also work with a lot of other charities, letting them use the hall to raise money. Hoylake’s very community minded – everybody pulls together. We have public meetings here and sometimes over a hundred people will come to discuss a local issue.’

Given Jackie’s dedication to community causes, it’s perhaps not surprising to hear that she was awarded an MBE in 2012. She hands me a leaflet that lists some of the town’s many local groups, from the allotment association and the civic society to the photographic club. She explains that Incredible Edible is an intiative to grow healthy food in planters and on unused plots of land around the town. People can help themselves to herbs, fruit, lettuce and other produce – the plot near the station is very popular with commuters. Then there’s Hoylake In Bloom, whose volunteers take responsibility for the town’s impressive floral displays.

As you might have guessed, Hoylake also has a thriving arts scene, with a community cinema that’s been created to plug the gap left by the much missed Hoylake Cinema on Alderley Road and many resident writers, musicians, painters and sculptors (leading some to call it ‘the St Ives of the North’). There’s also the annual Festival of Firsts, the brainchild of poet and former Scaffold member John Gorman, who initially thought of staging a summer arts festival on Hoylake’s promenade. It now takes in a variety of venues across Hoylake, West Kirby and New Brighton, with several days of music, art and poetry. 2014’s programme includes appearances by Willy Russell and Ian McMillan, and an exhibition of artworks by the comedian Harry Hill.

The 2014 Hoylake Parade, part of the annual Festival of Firsts

The 2014 Hoylake Parade, part of the annual Festival of Firsts

Hoylake is of course famous for the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, though there’s also an excellent if less feted municipal golf course near the station and plans for a new £50 million ‘golf resort’. Investors are being sought for the last of these so for now the focus is still very much on this year’s Open Championship, the twelfth to be held at Hoylake. The Open’s return in 2006 after many years’ absence resulted in a concerted effort to spruce up the town, as well as a dramatic escalation in property values. Things have calmed down since then, though 2014’s championship will still be a very big event, and television viewers around the world will once again enjoy the spectacular views of the Wirral coastline. A tearful Tiger Woods was crowned champion in 2006, when it was heartening to hear him describe his affection for the Hoylake course. He’ll be welcomed back in 2014, and maybe this year he’ll find a little time to explore the town: an all-day veggie breakfast at Bej, rooting through the bric a brac at the auction house, a pint at the Plasterer’s…come on Tiger, you don’t know what you’re missing!