The History and Archaeology of Bidston Hill. By Dave Sadler
Bidston Hill is 100 acres of heathland and woodland that contains historic buildings and ancient rock carvings. It is located on the Wirral Peninsula, near the Birkenhead suburb of Bidston, in Merseyside, England. With a peak of 231 feet (70 m), Bidston Hill is one of the highest points on the Wirral. The land was part of Lord Vyner’s estate and purchased by Birkenhead Corporation in 1894 for use by the public. Its History and surrounding archaeology has always been fascinating to me, and warrants notice from others unknowing of its beauty and interesting features. It is also suggested to be the location – Wearyall Hill (widely suggested to be Wirral Hill) is the site where Joseph of Arimathea allegedly landed and planted his staff in the ground, which sprouted as the Holy Thorn
It is believed that there has been a windmill, on this site, since 1596. The mill was ideally placed to catch the wind and was able to produce over 100 pounds (45 kg) of flour every 3 to 5 minutes. However, the mill was difficult to access by cart. The previous structure, a wooden peg mill, was destroyed by fire in 1791. During a gale, the sails got out of control and the friction produced by the revolving wooden mechanism caused the entire mill to burst into flames.
The current building was built around 1800 and continued working as a flour mill until about 1875. After falling into disuse the windmill and the land, on which it stands, was purchased by Birkenhead Corporation and restored from 1894.
There is a plaque on the windmill, which reads as follows:
This land, including the woods surrounding this windmill, containing with the adjacent piece of land known as Thermopylae about 90 acres (360,000 m2) was purchased from RG de Grey Vyner during the years 1894 to 1908 at a cost of £30,310. Of this sum the Corporation of Birkenhead contributed £14,625 and £15,685 was raised by public subscription. A portion of this land, viz the eastern wood containing 22 acres (89,000 m2), was purchased as a memorial of the late Edmund Taylor, of Oxton, in recognition of his great services in connection with the acquisition of Bidston Hill for the benefit of the public. The land belongs to and is maintained at the expense of the Corporation of Birkenhead. But according to the deeds of conveyance it must always be used as an open space and place of public recreation and must be preserved and maintained, so far as possible, in its present wild and natural condition. Special care being given to preservation of the trees, gorse, heath and also of this windmill. Bye laws have been made and a keeper and assistant appointed so that they are observed. The public, for whose enjoyment alone the land was secured, are invited to aid in preserving it from fire and damage.
AD MCMIX. This tablet restored 1971.
The building was badly damaged in 1927, once again. A public subscription was then raised, in order to carry out the necessary repairs. The windmill has been reconditioned several times, since. During 2006, the roof of the windmill was replaced as part of a refurbishment program, in order to maintain the structure.
Bidston Observatory was built in 1866 using local sandstone excavated from the site. One of its functions was to determine the exact time. Up to 18 July 1969, at exactly 1:00 p.m. each day, the ‘One O’Clock Gun’ overlooking the River Mersey near Morpeth Dock, Birkenhead, would be fired electrically from the Observatory. In 1929 the work of the observatory was merged with the University of Liverpool Tidal Institute, being taken over in 1969 by the Natural Environment Research Council. The Research Council relocated the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory to the University of Liverpool campus in 2004.
Bidston Lighthouse and Semiphore station
There has been a lighthouse on Bidston Hill since 1771. Being more than two miles from the sea, it depended on a breakthrough in lighthouse optics, which came in the form of the parabolic reflector, developed at the signals station on Bidston Hill by Liverpool’s dockmaster William Hutchinson. The reflector at Bidston Lighthouse was thirteen-and-a-half feet in diameter, and the lamp consumed a gallon of oil every four hours. The present lighthouse was built in 1873 and was operational until sunrise on 9 October 1913. Bidston and Leasowe Lighthouse together formed a pair of leading lights enabling ships to avoid the sandbanks in the channel to Liverpool. It is now privately owned.
This seemingly unimportant hole cut into the sandstone is all that remains of one of Bidston Hill’s “lofty flagstaffs”. It may surprise you to know that Bidston Hill was once home to more than 100 flagpoles. Most were erected between the lighthouse and the windmill but there were a further 8 flagpoles on the other side of the lighthouse which were reserved for the British Admiralty and Excise Services.
In 1763 the signalling station was built near to the location of the modern day lighthouse and functioned using the flagpoles as a complicated early warning system. As merchant ships rounded the Point of Ayr or sailed past Formby Point the ship would be spotted and identified. Flag runners were employed to watch for ships and had 11 minutes to raise the correct company’s flag on the right pole, followed by the correct cargo flag. This enabled supervisors in the docks to ready their work force to unload the ship (and it meant the workers would be paid only for the time they spent working). Each flagpole was 30 ft (9.14 m) tall and made of Baltic Pine.
In 1826 the system was updated when the Telegraph Station was built next to the Lighthouse. The Telegraph Station was part of the Liverpool to Holyhead telegraph, a chain of semaphore signals that ran from Liverpool along the North Wales coast to Anglesey. A message could be relayed from Holyhead to Liverpool (or vice versa) in just a few minutes. The Liverpool to Holyhead telegraph was the first telegraph intended primarily for commercial and private correspondence. The semaphore-based telegraph was eventually replaced by an electric telegraph in 1861.
The Sun Goddess and Moon God
Probably the oldest recorded feature on the Hill is the four and a half foot long carving of the Sun Goddess and its lesser-known counterpart the Moon God. The Sun Goddess is carved in a human crucificial form and its name refers to the sun ray design at the feet of the goddess. The figure’s central axis is orientated 100° magnetic; the feet point roughly towards the rising sun at midsummer. It appears to have been re-cut at some point in the past, but has retained much of its original detail. Much of what we know of these carvings is shrouded in mystery but they are believed to be Norse Irish in origin and it has been suggested that they are from the late 9th century.
in 2002, I was lucky to visit the site and take part in an official ranger tour. It was at that time that the Moon god carving was uncovered for the first time in many years. We were taken to the carving, but to preserve the find, it was soon covered as to protect it from future weathering or vandalism. I am unsure if images exist recording the carving.
The Norse Horse
This magnificent carving is almost life size and has been carved into the sloping rock using a ‘pecking’ technique. Sadly, the horse is partly worn away, but the head and neck can still be seen. Experts from Liverpool museum have suggested that the circular carved device in the horse’s neck may be a symbol depicting the sun; this combined with the possible orientation onto equinoctial sunrise may suggest that the horse embodies some solar significance. Greek, Roman and Hindu mythology all consider horses important in the rising of the sun, indicating that seven horses are needed to pull the sun or the sun chariot into the sky. Norse mythology indicates that only two horses are required.
The Mummers Carvings
The Mummers’ Carvings have may different stories told about them, from devil worshippers and witches’ rituals to simple advertisements. What is clear is that they have some root in the area’s pagan origins. It is thought that these carvings have some links to the performance of seasonal mummers’ plays (which originated in ritual, much like that of the Morris) to welcome in the spring; celebrate the harvest; resurrect the sun at midwinter by the death of the winter deity and his eventual rebirth; and chase away winter blues and evil spirits. Each play dealt with different aspects of life including love and courtship, death and birth. By the last performance here in 1935 (by a travelling troupe called the Galloshans) many had been Christianised, however the essence behind them remained the same. It is often difficult to make out the carved figures; one man carries a knife and the other a goblet.
The “Cock Pit” is another strange feature of the hill, found at the very northern end, near Bidston Hall. Consisting of a narrow circular trench, approximately 10 inches deep and twenty feet in diameter, cut into the bare sandstone and surrounded by tall gorse bushes. Some say that the site was home to the illegal and barbaric sport of cock fighting, and that on certain days the emblems of past champion cockerels can still be seen. Others say that it was originally a gorse mill, where gorse was crushed for animal feed. Or could both be right?
The curious concrete structure near to the “Cock Pit” is the top of a ventilation shaft rising from the air-raid tunnels built beneath Bidston Hill during the Second World War. The ventilation shaft is kept sealed because the shaft and tunnels are extremely dangerous.
Bidston Hill Deep Shelter
During World War II, an air raid shelter was constructed at Bidston Hill.
Bidston Underground Tunnels For many of the earlier generation the tunnels beneath Bidston were a place to play, a place to explore and a place to hide from the world. But for many years now the tunnels have been shut off from the outside world due to lack of maintenance and persistent health & safety issues. With the exception of the occasional opening to the public, the tunnels are now permanently closed. Minutes of Wirrals Civil Defence Emergency Committee in 1941 reveal that the peninsulas skilled workforce saw it granted almost unprecedented funds to establish two deep air raid shelters. One sprawling under Tranmere around Olive Mount, Thompson Street and Holborn Hill.. The other under Bidston Hills Rhododendron Garden with its entrance facing Hoylake Road. Tickets were to be handed out to ensure access to residents in the event of an air raid. By June 1943 the final bill for the project was £163;48,006 with the corporation paying £163;6510. The tunnels were 7 feet wide and 6 feet high with a large arched roof.
A reporter in 1943 advised that due to the unreliable nature of the rock costs increased, and it was noted that the unskilled workforce available had been markedly inferior to the Tranmere Shelter. Less explosives were required in Bidston, and the spoil was tipped close to the entrance which accounts for the rise in the grassed land around the Hoylake Road area. Emergency Committee minutes also reveal that during construction the project was plagued with trespassers and vandalism.
Nine hundred and fifty tonnes of sand were sold to a contractor for building purposes. Although it never saw the scale of use it was intended for, tickets do still exist and people did shelter under Bidston. There were 2213 bunks and 793 seats, as well as a canteen staff dormitory, toilets, medical posts and a ventilation shaft which could double as an emergency escape hatch if necessary.
Chair of Bidston Preservation Society Peter Crawford has conducted meticulous research into the shelter. He said “As a child i remember seeing the escape shaft building on Bidston Hill. It was a brick structure about 8 feet tall, and inside were a series of ladders which meant people could get out if the Rhododendron Garden entrance was hit. After the war it was a real problem for police because if someone got in there and got into trouble there was very little chance of them being found. This was a structure that could house 3000 people and it was totally dark. In the 1960s they saw it as a place the could be of use because of the Cold War, but there was a lot of dry rot in the timber work”
As the police reports from the time show, the tunnels were an extremely dangerous site, and it is worth pointing out to would be adventurers that thanks to the careful application of huge amounts of concrete the tunnels are now completely inaccessible.
If you would like to plan a visit and explore the area of Bidston Hill. A trail commences at Tam O’Shanter Urban Farm, Boundary Road, Bidston, Wirral, CH43 7PD.
Bidston Community Archaeology also exist locally. More can be learnt from their website
Constructed by Dave Sadler