Notwithstanding the many attractions of staying in Port Sunlight, we did go further afield. The Clwydian Range is an area I have never been to, and it’s a much underrated part of Wales. The scenery here inspired much of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry, underground there are a number of caves and passageways in the limestone, the longest known cave system is over a mile long.
Geologically interesting, this area’s rocks and fossils were studied round the turn of the C20 by pioneer geologists, dating the rocks using graptolites (they were pioneers both in that geology was still working things out, and also that they were women); Charles Darwin visited the area as an assistant to Adam Sedgwick who was mapping the strata of the area. Silurian mudstones with limestone outcrops, which give some spectactular scenery, for example at the Loggerheads Country Park; this is an old lead and zinc mining area, the name here having arisen from a Victorian dispute over the area’s mineral rights which lasted for several decades. The path through the woods along the river valley is called The Leete (i.e. ‘leat’), passing a giant wheelpit which once housed a 40-foot waterwheel to pump water from the Glan Alyn Mine. This is karst country, and a short way uphill the River Alyn’s bed becomes dry, so presumably the 3-mile leat, built to supply power to dewater the mine, was puddled or similar. I’m sure it worked efficiently as it was the product of one of my historical heroes, John Taylor, a nineteenth-century mining entrepreneur and engineer, who was also responsible for the Tavistock Canal in Devon (back in the Tamar and Tavy Valleys). He lived at Coed Du House, where his friend Felix Mendelssohn visited him, writing several works inspired by the countryside thereabouts, including The Rivulet and Son and Stranger. The return path follows the edge of the wooded area, with views across farmland towards further hills, and then across the top of the limestone cliffs before descending to the ‘tea garden’ by the river. Originally bought and developed by the Crosville Bus Company in 1926, it was a favourite destination for charabanc excursions from Liverpool, currently the home of Caffi Florence, which provided excellent tea and cakes.
Our slightly longer walk was from the car park in Bwlch Penbarras to Moel Famau, but I must admit I hadn’t anticipated the path being so wide and surfaced – the map was a bit redundant as there was a 2-metre wide route carved across the hill, leading to the Jubilee Tower on the summit of Moel Famau. (The pretty patterns are due to heather management.) The tower was built in 1810 for George III’s Jubilee, but they had trouble raising enough money so it was built from rubble masonry rather than ashlar, and it never was finished. The rubble construction probably contributed to the tower’s collapse after a prolonged and severe storm; the base was consolidated in the 1960s as a viewpoint. It was a relatively clear day, and so Cadair Idris and the Snowdon massif were visible to the west; eastwards the view was across to the Dee Estuary, the Wirral, and Merseyside, but unfortunately as this view is across the flat part of Flintshire towards the Cheshire Plain, the astonishingly large and ugly cement factory at Padeswood dominates the view in a particularly displeasing way. It would have looked much better if they had built it in a big hole, or upside down, or not at all.
There’s a string of Iron Age hillforts along the Clwydian Range at quite regular spacing, which probably related to tribal boundaries – each area having a share of the more fertile Vale of Clwyd to the west and the less fertile uplands for summer grazing. The medieval parishes may well respect these boundaries. Moel y Gaer is, unusually for a hillfort, on a spur and overlooked from the main ridge of the range, looking like a tonsure.
Our return journey took us past Loggerheads and Caffi Florence, so we revisited the tea garden; then it was back to Port Sunlight via the less built-up central part of the Wirral, which still has some of the feel of rural antiquity, it has grown organically and gradually rather than been hurriedly built with no regard to the landscape. Driving along the New Chester Road (A41) it’s hard to imagine that Sir Gawain had problems in the wilderness of the Wirral (although the poet had to alliterate) as he searched for the Green Knight, but this relatively undeveloped part of the area is still farmland and even has the odd bit of thatch.
Speke Hall was another day’s outing. It’s amazing that it’s still standing, as it has Liverpool John Lennon Airport on three sides, and it’s a little surreal turning from a road that is typically ugly airport-edge development into the drive of a Tudor manor house with a Victorian interior (William Morris wallpapers included).
The train service from Port Sunlight was excellent, and so we used it to go to Chester, fulfilling a long-held ambition of mine to walk the circuit of the walls, as well as a general look round the town. Another day we took the train to Birkenhead, where I had a look round Hamilton Square (“the most Grade I listed buildings in one place in England after Trafalgar Square” as I heard and read several times) which has Birkenhead Town Hall – which the local council has up for sale (although with a new Labour administration I’m not sure what’s going to happen there). I also took a return visit to Birkenhead Park, which was the first publicly funded civic park, designed by Joseph Paxton, and the template for the design of Central Park in New York; in addition it has the recent addition of a particularly ugly visitor centre. We also had a ride on the Mersey ferry.
I was sad to leave Port Sunlight. To make our holiday suitably rectangular we drove home to Surrey via Leeds, where we picked my daughter up as she had finished university for the summer, spending the afternoon at the Abbey House Museum.
P.S. Regarding the Second World War pillboxes I mentioned in part one, I’ve since discovered that the collection of WWII defences in that area are of national importance – there’s an interesting report here.