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Wirral Walks: Hilbre Island in Dee Estuary

Adele Cosgrove-Bray is a writer, poet and artist who lives on the Wirral Peninsula in England.

Standing on Hilbre Island, looking across the mouth of the River Dee and into the Irish Sea.

Standing on Hilbre Island, looking across the mouth of the River Dee and into the Irish Sea.

Hilbre Island in the Dee Estuary

The islands of Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre are located at the mouth of the Dee Estuary on the border between England and Wales.

Hilbre is a designated nature reserve and Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area, a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance), and a candidate for designation as a European Union Special Area of Conservation.

The islands and the estuary provide a vital feeding and resting place for thousands of migrating birds, such as Greenland Wheatear, Redshank, Dunlin, Cormorant, Skylark, Bluethroat, Dark-bellied Brent, Shag and Common Scoter.

A large mixed colony of Harbour or Common seals and Atlantic Grey seals live in the estuary and often swim up to the islands. They usually sunbathe on West Hoyle Sandbank.

The journey from little eye to middle eye is beautiful but deadly; the Dee Estuary is notorious for its dangerous tides.

The journey from little eye to middle eye is beautiful but deadly; the Dee Estuary is notorious for its dangerous tides.

Walking to the Three Islands

Hilbre Island is cut off from the mainland twice each day, for up to eight hours at a time. Before walking out over the sand, always check the tide times which are posted on the information board by the slipway at West Kirby promenade. The bay is flat and wide, and the tide comes in rapidly via channels which run parallel to the shoreline. The potential danger should not be underestimated.

The information board also shows a simple map of the safe route out to the three islands. Visitors should walk from West Kirby promenade to the smallest island which is Little Eye. From there, walk parallel to the beach to Middle Eye then on to Hilbre Island itself. Taking a shortcut diagonally across the sands is potentially dangerous due to banks of estuary mud in which it is easy to become stuck.

There is no shelter on the island. There are eco-friendly compost toilets. You are advised to take a packed lunch and drinking water with you, plus waterproof clothing. Footwear should be appropriate for a rugged hike over flat sand and jagged, seaweed-strewn slippery rocks.

Common accidents on or around Hilbre: twisted or broken ankles; injuries due to falls, dehydration; hypothermia; sunstroke.

Less common accidents on or around Hilbre: getting stuck in estuary mud; drowning.

The remains of Seagull Inn form part of the foundations of Telegraph House.

The remains of Seagull Inn form part of the foundations of Telegraph House.

Hilbre's History

Occupied since Stone Age times, Hilbre Island has a varied and colourful history.

There have been numerous archaeological finds on the islands, dating from the Stone Age and Iron Age. Other finds were Celtic, Viking and Roman, though there is no indication of actual occupation by the Romans. While the Romans reputedly built a couple of roads through Wirral, their main focus was the port of Chester. They named their new walled city Diva, after one of their goddesses who was beautiful but treacherous--rather like the tidal River Dee, which acquired her name and which still claims lives to this day.

Red Bunter sandstone stretching from Middle Eye to Hilbre.

Red Bunter sandstone stretching from Middle Eye to Hilbre.

Celts, Romans and Vikings!

The area was occupied by both Welsh and Irish Celts, who lived peacefully alongside the Viking settlers. Many placenames across the Wirral peninsula show the linguistic heritage of these cultures. Surviving stone carvings from this period show a fusion of Celtic and Viking art, a development only seen elsewhere in Northumberland. Wirral was considered part of Wales until Norman times.

Hilbre got its name from St Hildeburgh, who was an Anglo-Saxon (or Viking, depending on which textbook you read) saint whose name was given to the medieval chapel which once stood on the island. Nothing of this building remains. Hilbre was also home for four hundred years to a small group of monks, who remained there until the dissolution of the monasteries. One hermit stayed behind, and passengers onboard ships used to wave to him as they sailed by.

The tidal nature of the Dee meant Hilbre formed a convenient stopping-off point. Inevitably, a pub was built. The Dee Estuary was notorious in the 18th Century for piracy and smuggling, and Seagull Inn on Hilbre Island played a central role. Its landlord, Joseph Hickson, reputedly earned his wealth this way. The remains of Seagull Inn today form part of the foundation of Telegraph House, built by the Trustees of Liverpool Docks in 1841. A ranger service is provided from the mainland.

A ruined lifeboat station now houses a bird observatory and an important tidal gauge which calculates tidal predictions to allow ships the enter the busy River Mersey. There are also three privately owned bungalows, the Telegraph Station (now used by the Friends of Hilbre), and a solar-powered beacon managed by Trinity House.

My Hilbre

I first visited Hilbre Island in 1993. I was working as a photographer at the time, and was sent there on a shoot in the company of a group of children who had all experienced the death of a parent. I had assumed they’d be silent and morose but actually they were just ordinary kids dressed in anoraks and wellies, clutching packed lunches and grumbling about how far they’d have to walk.

Our group was escorted by the island’s ranger, who at that time lived on Hilbre Island. She was an amiable woman whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten. She saw the city-girl shoes on my feet and groaned. Clearly I’d been demoted to the category of One More Stupid Tourist. These-days I know better than to hike over three miles of damp sand and tricky, kelp-strewn rocks in kitten heels.

Scent-Laden Breezes and Golden Sand

Amazingly I survived uninjured. The shoes didn’t. However, this isn’t a story about my feet. It’s about how it feels to walk out over miles of pristine sand laid bare for a few hours between tides; how it feels to hear nothing but the chatter of migrating shoreline birds and the whistle of scent-laden sea breezes and the crunch of your own feet striding over damp, ridged sand. It's about how it feels to have a huge, unfettered sky arching over your head. It seems like another world.

Little Eye juts up from the flat, exposed dark-gold sand like a mad tuft of rebellious green hair on a giant’s head. There’s not much to it other than a lump of red Bunter sandstone topped with resilient grass.

The rock pools around Middle Eye are home to crabs and shrimp, and tiny grey fish which dart away from any new shadow. Stinging jellyfish lie in wait for the returning tide, like bad-tempered gelatinous aliens. Ribbons of shining kelp cling to the pungent sandstone, offering shelter to a multitude of oceanic flies and crawlies. Cockles, barnacles, mermaid’s purses, dainty pink shells, bits of polished rock and worn-smooth driftwood lie everywhere, and the ever-present breeze carries the plaintive honking of seals.

Middle Eye itself is covered in grass. There’s a narrow set of steps carved into the cliff face up one side, and an awkward DIY descent on the other. The cliff face is unstable in places, and its base is surrounded by fallen rocks. Millennia ago, Middle Eye and Hilbre were probably one island.

Island Magic!

I’ve been back to Hilbre many times, sometimes alone and sometimes with groups of friends or family. Not one person has failed to have been moved by the experience.

While walking back to the mainland, on that first visit, one of the children began talking to me about photography. He wanted to have a look through my camera. I let him, and he told me his mother had enjoyed photography; it had been her main hobby. When he rejoined his buddies, who were wearily trudging through rivulets of incoming tide, one of the accompanying social workers quietly told me this had been the first time this boy had ever spoken about his dead mother.

Maybe there’s a touch of magic on Hilbre Island after all.

Share Your Opinion!

© 2009 Adele Cosgrove-Bray


Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on July 21, 2011:

Many people haven't heard of Hilbre Island, Angemac; it's ecology can only cope with so many visitors at one time anyway!

angemac23 from Canada on July 20, 2011:

I have never heard of Hilbre Island but it certainly sounds like an interesting place!

Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on January 20, 2011:

What a lovely addition to this page, Ann! Thanks for dropping by.

AnnThayer on January 17, 2011:

Thank you for the descriptions of Hilbre Island. They evoked such vivid memories. I spent a lot of my early years on the island in the house that my grandfather had built.(Originally to store his sailing parafinalia for the winters.) The house is now over 100 years old. I loved being in my bedroom at night and hearing the sounds of the waves on the rocks below.When ever we went to stay there for a while we hired old (to me!) Rose Cummmins and her horses and a dray stacked with the supplies we needed. I remember the barking of the seals and worried when they were giving birth they were really calling"Helllllp!"

Again, thanks for bringing back such good memories.

Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on January 04, 2011:

That sounds like an interesting experience, Ian. I'd love to stay on the islands for longer than a few hours!

Ian on January 03, 2011:

The Warden at that time was Vicky, I think; yes these islands are a very special place. I spent three perfect winter months on the island while with the RSPB. When a winter gale blows onshore the whole island seems to move as the waves crash against it - feels like the heartbeat of the earth itself. Wonderful! I have not visited the islands for many years but you have brought them back to me, thankyou.

Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on October 04, 2010:

Different authors claim different things, in accordance with their own ideas - as with probably all historical accounts.

Thank you for adding your ideas, Susan.

Susan Craggs on October 03, 2010:

Hildeburgh was probably not a saint, but a Saxon land owner; no such saint was recorded in Saxon times. The monks on Hilbre were part of the Abbey of Chester,and the cell on the island may have been set up in the 12th or 13th century. Two monks and their servants lived there until 1538. The last monk retired on a pension, to live on Hilbre. See books by Burne and Tait in Cheshire Record Office, Duke Street, Chester.

Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on July 23, 2010:

You're most welcome, Lisa. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Lisa Ward on July 23, 2010:

I love Hilbre Island and have walked over many times. Beautiful hub.

Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on June 14, 2009:

Chrismortons, I don't have a video as yet, no. However there is always Wirral Webcam which has a camera on Hilbre.

Lafenty, you're welcome, thanks. We're spoiled for gorgeous countryside and seascapes here in West Wirral.

lafenty from California on June 13, 2009:

What a beautiful place. I've always wanted to visit that part of the world. Maybe someday. Thanks for sharing it.

Chrismortons on June 12, 2009:

I have never been to Hilbre Island. I thought of watching some video over there. Do you have one? If so please add it here.

Looking forward,


Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on June 08, 2009:

Thanks, Chris; it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance.

Christopher James Stone from Whitstable, UK on June 08, 2009:

I'd like to visit this place myself sometime. Welcome to HubPages Adele.

Adele Cosgrove-Bray (author) from Wirral, Cheshire, England. on June 07, 2009:

Thanks, Steve. It's a pretty amazing place, in all truth.

Steve Andrews from Lisbon, Portugal on June 07, 2009:

It looks a wonderful place and your description really brought it to life, Adele!