Nestled between the River Mersey and Liverpool on one side and the River Dee estuary and North Wales on the other is the Wirral Peninsula - a place I first visited two years ago. On that occasion we stayed in the picture postcard village of Port Sunlight, but this time our base was the Hillbark Hotel in Frankby, a Grade II listed building set within Royden Park.
The hotel was built in 1891 for soap maufacturer Robert William Hudson, before being sold to Sir Ernest Royden in 1921. He arranged for the house to be dismantled and rebuilt on its present secluded site a decade later.
The grand building, with its plethora of wooden beams and dimly lit walkways, would not have been out of place in a Robin Hood film or television series, as its interior could easily have doubled as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle. It certainly impressed the AA enough to give it a five-star rating.
After a lovely Friday night meal at the bustling Manor restaurant in nearby Greasby Village, our first port of call was Claremont Farm in Bebington, run by the Pimbley family for four generations.
Andrew Pimbley, who was recently named Wirral’s Food Champion, was clearly passionate about his produce which is used in the various cookery courses run at the farm. His boyish enthusiasm shone through and he is looking forward to Claremont Farm hosting the Wirral Food and Drink Festival next year.
The farm also hosts Free Welly Walks for school parties and other groups and other activities include the chance to harvest crops and wildlife spotting.
During our visit that chef’s favourite, asparagus, was bang in season and available to try, although my sweet tooth was more taken by the giant ginger and oak biscuits in the farm shop which were delicious.
After that, it was off to Ness Botanic Gardens, which has 60 acres of landscaped greenery. It boasts the finest collection of rhododendron and azaleas in the North West and this is the second year running that BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question TIme Summer Garden Party is being held there.
Less than an hour later we were at Wirral Sailing Centre in West Kirby which offers one or two hour boat trips around nearby Hilbre Islands and along the Dee Estuary, where there is a host of wildlife and even a local seal colony.
The staff at the centre were very personable and were holding kayaking classes for enthusiastic youngsters who seemed to be having a great time despite the increasingly chilly and windy May conditions.
As a special treat, the chance to take a spin around the lake on a powerboat was too good to turn down, particularly as the waterproofs I was supplied with were very warm and made me forget the weather. An exhilarating trip up and down the lake, reaching a top speed of around 24 knots, was a welcome adrenaline rush and is something I would love to do again, preferably next time with blue sky and a hot sun beating down.
A Saturday evening meal at Scog’s in West Kirby was very pleasant, even though the accompanying band was clearly too big for the venue. No matter, because food wise the Wirral is a fantastic place to eat, with plenty of award-winning restaurants.
There are many other places to visit in the Wirral, none more so than the aforementioned Port Sunlight which was built in 1880 for Lord Leverhulme’s Sunlight Soap factory workers and which still has 900 listed buildings today. A walk around the estate is a must, as it’s not unlike taking a trip back half a century to a more easy-going and quaint way of life of long, green avenues and oldy worldy architecture - not forgetting a church, museum and the fantastic Lady Lever Art Gallery wich houses some fantastic antique furniture, art and possessions from around the world, picked up by Lord Leverhulme on his travels.
The Wirral also boasts the seaside resort of New Brighton, which has defied the difficult recent economic climate to undergo a dramatic transformation in the last couple of years. It now boasts Marine Point, a £60 million development which includes a casino, notel and digital cinema called The Light, aswell as new retail and leisure outlets. The nearby Floral Pavilion Theatre has also undergone a £12 million re-development.
Liverpool, of course, is only a short ferry ride across the Mersey from the Wirral, but did you know that the Beatles played New Brighton’s Tower Ballroom 27 times, second only to the Cavern as the venue they appeared at the most.
That statistic is all you need for an added incentive to go there.
As for sports fans, next year’s British Open Golf Championship will take place at the Royal Liverpool course in Hoylake, bringing millions of pounds into the Wirral economy.
n For information about breaks in the Wirral go to visitwirral.com