This feature on West Kirby was originally published in Issue 2 of The Merseysider magazine.
Wowed by West Kirby
Alison Sullivan explores the popular Wirral coastal resort
The Merseyside region has many stretches of glorious coastline, but West Kirby’s has to be one of the best. It’s also an interesting town, with pleasant parks, stylish shops and bars, and several quirky, unusual businesses. It’s easily accessible by train and a visit there during fine weather is a great day out.
An area usually missed by the casual visitor is actually the oldest part of West Kirby, around St Bridget’s church. The church itself is well worth a look, as it’s thought that one has been on this site since before the Norman Conquest. Much of the present church dates from the 19th century, but there are earlier features, including a 14th century chancel and the 11th century Hogback Stone, so-called because of its curved shape.
The coming of the railway shifted the epicentre of West Kirby away from the old village, and today most visitors head straight for the seafront, or the shops in the centre of town. The promenade offers panoramic views of the Dee Estuary, with the Welsh coastline beyond and Hilbre Island a little offshore. Looking inland the view is pleasant enough but less interesting, the buildings along the promenade a mix of tall Victorian or Edwardian houses and modern flats. Most of the promenade runs alongside the marine lake, and a walk around the lake is a must (some locals do it once or twice a day). You’re likely to see windsurfers, canoeists and yachts from the local sailing club. Many sports events take place on the lake and in 1991 the world windsurfing speed record was set here, though it was broken two years later. Last year a world model yachting competition took place on the lake, and Prince Philip came to take a look.If you continue your walk beyond the sailing club and head inland, a very nice beach can be accessed via Macdona Drive. The main beach is at the other end of the promenade, and this is very popular in the summer, when pony rides and ice creams are the order of the day. If you walk along the shore towards Red Rocks and Hoylake, there are more views of the estuary and interesting plants and wildlife. You’ll also pass the famous Royal Liverpool Golf Club. Built in 1869 it’s the second oldest seaside course in England and one of the country’s great links courses. The first Amateur Championship was held here in 1885, and it’s also hosted eleven Open Championships. After a lengthy absence the Open returned to the Royal Liverpool in 2006, when Tiger Woods was the victor, overcoming the difficulties caused by several weeks of exceptionally hot, dry weather. The Open returns in 2014.
Another popular walk, and one that is strongly recommended if you have the time, is out to Hilbre Island. It’s unsafe to start from Hoylake, and before setting out from West Kirby you should check the tide tables on the noticeboard at Dee Lane, by the marine lake. The island is cut off at high tide and you’re advised to leave the island at least three hours before high water. However if it’s a nice day there are usually plenty of people visiting the island so you should feel safe. Hilbre is actually the largest of a group of three islands, and the recommended route is via the other two (Little Eye and Middle Eye).The island has an interesting history, having been inhabited almost continuously for thousands of years (until recently a ranger lived there, but that’s no longer the case). Stone and Bronze Age relics have been found here, together with Roman pottery, from the time when the island would have been a defensive outpost for the Roman garrison at Chester. In the Middle Ages monks lived on the island, and in the 18th and 19th centuries it even had an inn. There’s much less activity on Hilbre now, though in the summer you’ll usually see one or two lifeguards and there’s also a bird observatory and a small solar-powered lighthouse. A telegraph signalling station was built on the island in 1841 and this can still be seen.
Once you’re on the island it really is an oasis of tranquillity and you can enjoy wandering around the unusual sandstone rock formations and admiring the sea views. Many species of birds visit the island, and there are beautiful wildflowers at different times of the year: bluebells and pink thrift in early summer, yellow birdsfoot trefoil later on. For much of the year a large group of seals can be seen on a distant sandbank. Unless you’ve got binoculars they’ll only be a cluster of dots, but they often swim close to the island, so keep an eye out for seals’ heads bobbing above the water – the old lifeboat station at the far end of the island can be a good place to spot them.Away from the seafront West Kirby has several parks, the largest of which is Ashton Park, a fine example of the town parks established during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. There’s a lake, teashop, bowling greens, tennis courts and extensive shrubberies and grassed areas. Tennis tournaments occasionally take place here and in the past the likes of John McEnroe and Boris Becker have played at Ashton Park.
West Kirby is a prosperous town and the local economy is able to support a number of distinctive independent shops and numerous cafes and restaurants. The Waverley on Banks Road (the main shopping street) offers all that you’d expect from a newsagent, but walk past the newspapers and magazines and you enter another part of the shop, selling an impressive range of fine wines, chocolates and coffee. The last of these includes Kopi Luak, said to be the world’s rarest and most expensive coffee. Astonishingly, owner Tony Dangerfield tells me that 1% of the total world production of this coffee is sold through his shop. ‘Having a cup of the stuff at Raffles Hotel in Singapore is apparently on the bucket list of things to do before you die,’ laughs Tony. ‘I sell it at £15.99 for 100g, which’ll make around 15 cups, so obviously it’s not something you’d drink every day. But as there are places in London that will charge you £70 a cup I think the price is pretty reasonable.’ Other coffees start at £2.50 for 100g. All have been carefully selected by Tony, who’s something of an expert as he’s a qualified coffee taster and for several years was a commodities trader specialising in coffee and cocoa. His work took him all over the world, but now he’s putting his knowledge to good use in West Kirby. He also recommends Montezuma’s milk chocolate, again on sale in his shop: ‘The best chocolate made in this country and among the very best in the world.’ His selection of fine wines includes one recommended by Robert Parker, the leading wine expert whose approved wines often sell for several hundred pounds. ‘This one’s only nine pounds. It sums up my philosophy – offer the best quality at the most competitive prices you can.’A little further along Banks Road is Staacks art gallery and shop, where Kara King has been selling a variety of art-related items (paintings, craft goods, pottery, cards) for two years. The regular exhibitions (a different one every month) are an important element in the shop’s appeal. In May, for example, there is an exhibition of painted fabrics by Zoe Padmore. The rest of the attractive display of artworks in the shop is from many different sources. Kara estimates that over a hundred different artists and makers have been represented in the shop. ‘I like to think we’re helping to show the people of the Wirral what’s out there,’ she says. ‘Most of the artists are British, but they’re from all over the country.’
A recent arrival in West Kirby is the fashion retailer Nanci Henry on Grange Road. Owner Dan Barnes named the shop after his grandmother, and he has big plans for the premises: ‘We opened with seventy square metres but soon we’ll have four hundred, with major expansion upstairs.’ He’s clearly delighted to be in West Kirby. ‘I think it’s a great town and the right place for us. We’re trying to do something different and I think West Kirby itself is unique and full of character. Our building’s got an interesting history. It started out as a dressmaker’s, then became a bank in the 1920s, so it’s turned full circle really.’ The old bank vault can still be seen, and is now where the shop’s range of shoes is displayed. ‘We sell the leading heritage brands in fashion,’ explains Dan, ‘but essentially we’re product-focused rather than brand-focused. Our dresses range in price from £30 to £300. It’s the strength and individuality of the product that matters to us.’
Also on Grange Road but a shop that’s been in business considerably longer is The Clock Workshop, which is now in its 31st year. It’s the kind of shop that gives West Kirby its character, and when you cross the threshold you’re in a magical world full of clocks of all shapes and sizes, ticking quietly away in the background as I chat to owners Tim and Sarah Dundas. ‘We buy, sell and repair clocks and always seem to be busy,’ says Sarah. ‘The clocks are often pre-war and for the bigger ones we’ll go out to people’s houses. We also repair old wristwatches, which not many people do these days. We’re working on one that was sent over from Spain at the moment.’If your exploration of West Kirby leaves you desperate for a nice cup of tea you won’t have far to go, because the town is full of cafes and teashops, and more seem to be opening all the time. Surprisingly however there’s only one on the promenade – Tanskey’s, which backs onto Coronation Gardens. The café’s named after the nearby Tanskey’s Rocks, which Vikings once used as a breakwater when sailing to and from their port at Meols. In those days the rocks must have resembled a huge set of teeth (‘tonnsker’), but they’ve suffered considerable erosion since. The café’s windows look out onto the marine lake and the Dee beyond, making it a very pleasant place for a meal or a snack. On a recent visit I enjoyed potted smoked mackerel pate with warm crusty bread, sharing with my companion a bowl of sea salt and black pepper wedges. There’s also an imaginative children’s menu, with fish finger sandwiches an obvious favourite.
Back on Banks Road Marigold’s fish and chip shop is a reliable West Kirby institution. The shop has a dining area but is also popular for takeaways and if you see people tucking into fish and chips on the seafront they’ve usually bought them here.
If West Kirby is somewhat overrun with tea shops, there are surprisingly few pubs, though the White Lion up the hill on Grange Road is a traditional local that fortunately still survives. The Wro lower down Grange Road is a stylish establishment that’s won many awards in recent years. It’s actually two bar restaurants, directly opposite each other – one’s more of a bar, the other more of a restaurant though they’re both dual purpose. There’s a relaxed yet contemporary ambience and many locals will tell you the Wro is hard to beat. At the other end of West Kirby and further inland – best to go by car or be prepared for quite a long walk – is the Moby Dick on Village Road. A few years ago this was a pub that seemed to be dying on its feet (it did in fact close for a while), but now it’s often packed to the rafters, and all because it’s hit on a simple winning formula: carvery dinners at very low prices (£4.95 Monday to Saturday, £6.95 on Sundays). In a short space of time it’s built up a large, loyal following.
After a substantial roast dinner at the Moby Dick, it’s obviously back to West Kirby for another bracing walk around the marine lake (or maybe not!).