This book deserves the full title; indeed, it seems naked without the full title page:
HUNDRED OF WIRRAL
COUNTY OF CHESTER
WITH AN ACCOUNT OF THE PRINCIPAL HIGHWAYS AND BYWAYS, OLD HALLS
ANCIENT CHURCHES, AND INTERESTING VILLAGES SITUATED
BETWEEN THE RIVERS MERSEY AND DEE
HAROLD EDGAR YOUNG
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
WM. FERGUSSON IRVINE, M.A., F.S.A
ILLUSTRATED WITH MAP, AND FIFTY-NINE PLATES
“Oh, piper, let us be up and gone!
We’ll follow you quick if you’ll pipe us on,
For all of us want to go there.”
HENRY YOUNG & SONS
I first saw this book at the end of my walk to Chester – the bookshop on the city wall had it for £40. Although attracted by the synchronicity of finding a book containing accounts of a walking journey through places I had just been, albeit a century earlier, I was too mean to buy it at that price. Back home, I tried to access it from the Lancashire library service, who do indeed have a copy – however it is only available to be viewed in a lead-lined basement, wearing white cotton gloves and supervised by the Borough Archivist, who is authorised to draw a sidearm from the stores and use lethal force if one cracks the binding or adds annotations. So I compromised and bought a copy from the internet, which still set me back £20, is a second edition and foxed to buggery, onto which I have now spilled some red wine. Moral: if the universe is kind enough to put the right thing within your grasp, then take it there and then, if it feels right and you have £40 on you.
It is a lovely book. One can purchase a ‘new’ version, on CD – as a set of PDFs, not an audiobook, which is a shame – I would love to hear sentences such as ‘It is true that Mrs. Hilda Gamlin produced her book entitled “‘Twixt Mersey and Dee”, [which] would probably have been rewritten, had not Death laid his icy hand upon the authoress some years after she had published her work’, or ‘Westward, like the course of empire, let us take our way, and New Brighton is soon left behind’ declaimed with the enthusiastic spirit that runs through the chapters. ‘Enthusiastic’ is the book’s defining characteristic – I sense that the author set out to really do justice to the place of his birth, by experiencing it fully and giving a thorough account, both of the place and its history.
The introduction locates the Wirral in literary myth as a well as history: ‘When Sir Gawayne sought for the Green Knight, we are told that he came in his wanderings into “the wyldrenesse of Wyrale,” but no-one had heard of the object of his quest, and so he left this wild and pitiless region; a land that, in the words of the Petition of the “poor commonality of Wyrall” in 1376, “had suffered great harm, damage and destruction” from the beasts of the forest, so that even the Churches were desolate and Divine services withheld.’ By the time of Young’s perambulation, things were looking up, as he describes ‘the fresh green fields and flowery country lanes of the Cheshire peninsula and the varied views of mountain and sea…’ (rendered into country parks, suburbs and beast-free golf courses in time for my visit.)
Young himself brings more delightful quotations: Leland, who visited the area in the 1530s in his role as the King’s Antiquary, reels off stuff like ‘This Hillebyri at the floode is al environid 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 a bout a mile in cumpace, and the ground is sandy and has conies.’ In 1621, William Webb, Clerk to the Mayor’s Courts of Chester, struggled to describe the shape of the peninsula: ‘The nearest resemblance I can give it, is the sole of a lady’s left-foot pantofle…narrowing again until it points with the tip of the toe upon Chester liberties.’ (I find this marvellously poetic, despite or perhaps because of the fact that I do not actually know what a pantofle is, what or where the Cheshire liberties are.)
The beasts may have calmed down a bit, but turbulent times have been experienced here: ‘As a reprisal for some predatory expeditions of the men of Wirral, [the Fourth Earl of Chester] ordered their farms destroyed, and afforested the whole district’, which was later ‘disforested’ when the ‘shelter if afforded to… freebooters’ caused problems to the citizens of Chester, who decided that the kind of neighbours who live in the woods were more trouble than the predatory farmers. (Interesting to consider the creation of forest as a kind of biological/economic weapon, and the unintended social side effects of its use.)
The bulk of the text is an evocative, knowledgeable and detailed account of the author’s impressions of the Wirral. ‘It was as fine a May morning as a man might wish to breathe upon when Ellesmere Port was left behind and the road to Whitby stretched ahead, and I went whistling on my way to Stoke’ is indicative of the style: he is an upbeat companion. The 100-year gap between our journeys is long enough for much to have changed, short enough for much to have stayed the same. When Young was writing, New Brighton had ‘altered greatly for the worse, and again for the better, during the past century’ – I could say exactly the same (though not without wishing I had witnessed the ‘degenerate days, when…the sands were disfigured with all kinds of cheap shows suitable to the Chowbent cheap-tripper’). One of the 59 plates shows water and sand some yards below the current level of Parkgate silt. And yet Port Sunlight looks exactly the same, and walking on Caldy Hill, I hope that one may still ‘put up a nightjar’.