Wirrals Past Ports

written by Kenneth Burnley and reproduced with permission

Gayton -— Parkgate — Neston

GAYTON today wears an air of peace and self-assurance which belies its turbulent past; read the words of this piece of verse written some 180 years ago:

Up rose the sun, the sky was clear,
And gently ebbed the Dee;
The winds of heaven were fast asleep,
Though Gayton all was glee.
The lads of Wirral came in crowds,
The nyrnphlets neat and trim;
To stay at home on such a day
Is very near a sin.
And love, who never missed a Wake,
Brought quivers filled with darts;
He’d much to do on all such days,
And wound a world of hearts.
And Cambria’s youth from Edwin’s shores,
An annual voyage take,
What lass would stay on that side of Dee,
When Love’s at Gayton Wake?
Youth, manhood, age, even childhood came,
To share this jocund day;
The hedges shone with gaudy shops,
And Gayton all was gay.
Dwarfs, giants, players, learned pig
With other creatures odd.
The Dee brought cargoes rich
And with them Mary Dodd.
When Mary first approached the place,
To get on shore was trying,
That she was there, on every voice,
Through all the Wake was flying.
A crowd collected — bought her cakes,
And gazed till they were weary,
And they who’d of the mammoth read,
Concluded it Was Mary.
From Hoylake Hall to Gayton came
Fine ladies — gentlemen;
They come, my friends to look at you
And you may look at them. _
The day wax’d short — the Wake grew thin,
Some sail’d adown the Dee,
Whilst others tugg’d against the tide,
And row’d to Hilburee.
This description in verse (can we call it poetry?) of the annual Wake at Gayton is by Richard Llwyd, a Welsh poet. More than anything else, perhaps, the poem gives us some idea of the importance of Gayton in times past. We can picture the scene: a fine day dawns, lads and lasses, ladies and gentlemen, young and old, converge on Gayton from all corners of Wirral. The ferry brings more merry-makers from North Wales across the placid waters of the Dee. As the visitors arrive, the sideshows spring into life with all kinds of wonderful entertainments. There is a man who eats glass bottles and stones; a dancing-bear; human oddities of all kinds, giants and dwarfs, fat ladies and thin men. The place resounds to the playing of pipers and fiddlers. Dancing-booths are set up. There are races and competitions for the more energetic: ducking for apples in a barrel of ale; a sack jumping match; catching a pig by its tail; grinning through a horse collar; races for everyone - men, women, children, dogs and ponies.
The arrival of Mary Dodd, a huge fat woman from Chester, is obviously something of a highlight in the proceedings, but whether for her own sake or for her cakes is not known! The afternoon wears on, the sun sinks behind the Welsh hills; lovers arm in arm leave to walk the field-paths home. The Dee is specked with small boats rowing their tired but happy passengers across to the Welsh side. The Wake is over for another year. But for how many more years did the Wakes continue? This is not known, but probably into the early years of the nineteenth century. The passing of this annual, harmless reverie surely left Wirral a poorer place, and Gayton passed into relative insignificance. Surprisingly, perhaps, the name Gayton has its roots not in the gay bonhomie of the place, but in its position as “the farmstead on the gate or road” that is, the main road along the Dee side from Chester to West Kirby. This is still true today, for at Gayton roundabout the incoming traveller from Chester has to choose between one of four roads which fan out to different parts of Wirral. The original village of Gayton lay nearer the river. For 600 years there was a ferry crossing from here to Flintshire on the Welsh coast; Edward I is believed to have crossed from here in 1277 on his way to the invasion of Wales. The old Ferry House, now called Gayton Cottage, still stands at the foot of the lane, looking out across the lonely marshes of the Dee. The five-mile crossing must have been a fair enough trip in calm weather, but a hazardous joumey when the Dee was rough.

The greater part of Gayton is now well-to-do suburbia. The seventeenth century Hall, however, facing the broad estuary in its charming setting down a narrow cobbled lane, is one of the fine old halls of Wirral. It was originally the home of the Glegg family, one of the oldest Wirral families with connections dating back to the year 1380, and whose name is perpetuated in the popular Glegg Arms Inn at Gayton roundabout. Gayton Hall, like so many other Wirral halls, has been altered and added to many times over the years. It was a place of hospitality for travellers en route to Ireland in the days when Parkgate was an important sea port. King William III stayed here in 1689 while on his way to the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland; and he was apparently so pleased with his overnight reception that he knighted his host, William Glegg, who subsequently planted two fir trees in front of the Hall to commemorate the occasion. They became known as William and Mary, and stood as prominent reminders of the Royal visit for nearly 250 years. One was blown down during a gale in 1936, and the other had to be felled shortly after. The flat roof of the Hall is said to have been used by smugglers as a hide-out during the eighteenth century.
In the grounds of the Hall (which was originally protected by a deep moat) stands a fine octagonal dovecot. Built of brick in 1663, this is one of only two dovecots or columbaria in Wirral, the other being at Puddington Old Hall. The keeping of pigeons in the Middle Ages was a pastime with a practical end, as they formed a much-needed part of manorial diet during the winter months when other food was scarce. There were often 500 or more pigeons to one dovecot. They reared their young, all the year round, in rows of niches built into the walls, a bit like a primitive chicken battery. Dovecots fell into disuse about two hundred years ago when the introduction of turnip fields meant that sheep and cattle could be grazed all the year round, giving fresh meat even in the depths of winter. The peasantry hated the dovecots, as not only were they the sole property of the lord of the manor, but the pigeons tended to eat the villagers’ crops and grain supplies. There were once some 25,000 dovecots in Britain, about two to each parish, so the two Wirral examples are indeed important. Before leaving Gayton, mention must be made of Gayton Mill, a red sandstone building at the side of the main road to Heswall. Now a private dwelling, the mill is believed to be the oldest on the west coast outside Anglesey, and it is certainly the oldest tower mill in Wirral. It bears the date 1735 and was last worked about 1875. Present day folk trying to bring up a family in today’s small, modem houses may be interested to note that the wife of the last miller at Gayton successfully reared a family of sixteen children within the narrow walls of the nearby miller’s cottage!

There is a fine footpath from Gayton along the bank of the Dee to Parkgate. Not that you  would know that the Dee is there, even at high tide the river is far away across the salt marsh. Only the exceptionally high tides of spring and autumn cover the marsh and then only to a limited degree. Less than twenty five years ago it was possible to walk along this sea wall with the water lapping the stones and the wind throwing spray up over the top on to the pathway. To the casual observer the acres of salt marsh stretching away from the sea wall into the distance may seem bleak and dreary. The marsh is, however, an important habitat for bird life of every description. Redshank, oyster-catcher, and lap- wing regularly breed here, and many other waders feed and roost on the marsh during the winter months and on passage in spring and autumn. Heron can often be seen gracefully winging along the gullies and channels, while many smaller land birds forage for food on the drier areas. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recognized the importance of the marsh to the extent that it last year (1980) purchased some 5,000 acres between here and Burton from the British Steel Corporation to be set aside as a reserve.

This acquisition is seen by many as one of the most significant events for bird conservation in Britain for many years and it is hoped that, with the appointment of a full-time Reserve Warden, much more may be learned about patterns of bird life in this part of the estuary which until now has been rather neglected.Bird lovers from all over the north-west gather along here on the rare occasions of an exceptionally high tide. Expectation mounts as the tide creeps ever so slowly higher, until the water flushes the birds out of the marsh. Clouds of birds fly towards the land, startled by the sudden rude washing-out of their hiding-places! But the disturbance is brief; after half an hour the tide recedes and the birds can once again settle in peace. In summer the marsh’s edge is bright with plants and flowers unique to this special environment: sea aster, sea purslane and scurvy grass grow on the marsh, while the pretty seaside centaury bedecks the red sandstone blocks of the old sea wall. A reminder of the days when these parts had trade links with Ireland can be seen midway between Gayton and Parkgate.

The slipway here was used by cattle pushed overboard from the boats to swim ashore. Near here, too, a footpath cuts across the golf course to the Wirral Way or beyond to Back- wood Hall, a delightful mansion set up on the slopes above the Dee. A mile or so further along the sea wall is Parkgate, with its neighbouring town of Neston. I have at my side fifteen or twenty books aboutWirral. All of them devote more space to Parkgate than to almost any other part of Wirral except Wallasey and Birkenhead. This is not surprising, since these one-time ports have had the most colourful history of all Wirral’s townships. Although now seemingly sharing little in common, the two places 250 years ago were linked together by a common interest: shipping. Looking out across the vast acres of marshland today, with scarcely a drop of water in sight, the visitor might be forgiven for being unable to imagine that, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Parkgate was one of the busiest ports in the land. And yet the evidence is still here in bricks and mortar; a mile or so of inns, shops and cottages within a stone’s throw of the redundant sea wall, all looking out across the marshlands of Dee. “All on one side like Parkgate” is an old Cheshire saying with plenty of meaning still today.

The story starts, not here at Parkgate, but a mile and a half up-river where, in the middle of the sixteenth century, a quay was constructed to cater for the shipping which had originally used the port of Chester. As we have seen, by the fifteenth century siltation had begun to cause serious problems for boats entering Chester: a document dated 1422 states that “the abundance of sands which had choked the creek” was lamentably decaying the commerce of the City. Anchorages had been established on the Dee at Shotwick and Burton, but these too had been made useless by the relentless march of the grass and mud. The building of the quay at Neston (originally called the “New Quay”) brought a vast amount of shipping to this anchorage during the second half of the sixteenth century and the early years of the seventeenth century, and was largely responsible for the rise in importance of Neston during this time. The New Quay, unfortunately, was never a very satisfactory anchorage; it provided little shelter from the storms which regularly sweep up the Dee, and it was not long until silting caused problems here too.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the authorities had begun to look elsewhere for the site of a new anchorage. The river shore by Neston Deer Park (Leighton Park), a couple of miles down-river from the New Quay, at a place known as the “parke gate”, had on occasions been used by boats to unload their goods if they were too large to reach Chester. The site was not too far distant from Neston, where a considerable business had evolved in catering for travellers and the handling of goods, and so it was announced that “the water bailys of this city [Chester] do immediately demand anchorage at Parkgate and insist upon the same as this City’s right”. And so Neston’s New Quay was abandoned and the stones used to form a new anchorage at Parkgate. The original site at Neston is a fascinating place today; all that remain are the ruins of the Old Quay House (which in its time has been used as a “House of Correction”, a farmhouse, and a private residence), and the sandstone walls which were constructed to protect the farmland from the river. A smugglers’ tunnel is supposed to have run from here to the old Vicarage at Neston. The site is now, confusingly, called the Old Quay!

The construction of the new anchorage at the “Parke Gate” at the beginning of the seventeenth century transformed a sleepy hamlet into a bustling seaport of national importance. The main catalyst in this transformation was undoubtedly the introduction of the Dublin Packet Service, a combined freight and passenger service which operated on a “demand” basis from its inauguration in 1710 to 1775. For nearly a hundred years the service to Dublin brought travellers to Parkgate from allover the country. Many were famous (or at least titled) and most were wealthy poor people could not afford to travel in those times. The passengers brought money, and a small town of inns, hotels, coffee houses, gaming parlours, assembly rooms and even a theatre sprang up to cater for the demand. But surely, you say, Parkgate was only a stopping off place, a port of call, a point of embarkation for the sea journey to Ireland? Yes, but the unpredictable weather of these parts (and the unpredictable vessels!) meant that the service was anything but regular. Passengers could wait days, even weeks, for the weather to change for the better. But if the passengers fretted at such delays, the local innkeepers rejoiced at the trade the inclement weather brought their way!

Mention must be made of the many famous people who passed through Parkgate during this period. Probably the most quoted was Handel, who came to Parkgate in November 1741 on his way to Ireland for the first performance of the Messiah. However, the weather knows no distinction between the famous and the unknown, and he too was prevented from sailing. Handel, though, made good use of thedelay. Wanting to try out some last-minute alterations to the score of his oratorio, he went to Chester where he hired or borrowed some members of the Cathedral choir. He eventually sailed from Holyhead in North Wales, a longer overland journey, but with a sea journey much shorter than that from Parkgate. Handel did, however, retum via Parkgate. Jonathan (Dean) Swift, Dean of Dublin and celebrated satirist and author, often passed through Parkgate. John Wesley, the travelling evangelist, crossed to and from Ireland more than forty times during his lifetime of preaching the gospel to the folk of Britain.

He, too, made good use of a delay caused by unfavourable winds; he preached at “the new chapel at Neston” in April 1762. Many more names are written in Parkgate’s history,  the Lord Deputies of Ireland; Oliver Cromwell; and Emma, Lady Hamilton. The diaries and Writings of these and other travellers of the time give highly descriptive accounts of the voyage across the Irish Sea. A young girl, Jane Reilly, wrote the following account of the arrival of her packed boat at Parkgate in 1791:

After sailing close enough to the coast of Cheshire to see some fine hobut went some part of the way in a small boat and were carried by the men the rest of the way. '

Accommodation on board varied according to the whim of the master of the vessel; John Wesley used to take his own chaise on board in preference to the discomfort of a cabin. Another traveller, though, commented upon the excellence of the accommodation being “subjects of praise among the first circles of the two kingdoms”. Mention has already been made of the delays in setting sail because of unfavourable weather. Even when the joumey was under way, however, all was not always “plain sailing”. Although the voyage could take as little as thirteen hours, it often took twice that time, and could even take as long as three days or more. On several occasions ships approaching Dublin were forced to return to Parkgate without reaching the safety of harbour:

Being within a few leagues of Dublin Harbour, a strong wind sprang up, which obliged the “Murray” to put back
and the next day return to Parkgate, where she now remains. ‘ The passengers on that occasion were lucky to reach any port safely, for the violent storms which are common in the Irish Sea claimed many lives from the Packet ships. Poorly manned, overcrowded vessels with few navigational aids added to the risk of shipwreck:

At Parkgate there also came women trembling and waiting for the packets aboard which were their loved ones, who had set out from Ireland. Day after day they waited for the overdue vessels; becoming at last uneasy, then anxious, and at length abandoning all hope, set out for home, knowing the sea would never give them back their dead. One of the worst wrecks was that of the King George in 1806. This vessel, which local people had said had too sharp a hull for these waters, ran aground on a sandbank in the Dee estuary,uses we arrived about ten o’clock at Parkgate, but the tide not being in we could not get close to the shore,  her sharp hull causing her to lie over on one side. As the tide rose, a gale force wind got up which caught the boat. Water came pouring into the hold, which was full of passengers. In the ensuing mélée, some I20 people drowned, the only survivors being four sailors and a boy.

The poet Milton lost one of his dearest friends, Edward King, in a shipwreck on his way from Ireland to Parkgate in 1637. King’s death was such a blow to the poet that he composed what is now recognized as one of his best works:
For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and Welter to the parching wind,
Without the need of some melodious rear.

As well as the Packet service to Ireland, a ferry service plied across the Dee to the Welsh coast for some hundred years between 1750 and 1850. The ferry brought Liverpool-bound passengers from North Wales via the ports of Flint and Bagilt, saving them the long detour through Chester. The trip to Wales also proved popular with day trippers to Parkgate during the first half of the nineteenth century.

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Parkgate’s days as a first-class port were numbered. As well as the effects of the spread of the marsh, road travelling had improved to such a degree that most travellers preferred to travel through North Wales to Holyhead where a more reliable service to Ireland could be obtained, as well as a shorter crossing.
Liverpool too was by this time a thriving port, and poor old Parkgate had to retire from the shipping scene; the last recorded reference to a boat landing passengers is 1811. Parkgate’s story does not end there; in fact, well before the last boat had left the quayside, fashionable society had discovered that here was the ideal venue for the newly found pastime of sea-bathing. We who take bathing so much for granted find it difficult to appreciate that, until the middle of the eighteenth‘ century, “taking a dip” was almost unheard of.

It was a Dr Russell who, in 1750, published a Dissertation on the Use of Seawater on Diseases of the Glands in which he advocated sea-bathing as a means of curing all such ills. And here, at Parkgate, was the ideal place to put the recommendations into practice. Firm yellow sands, bracing breezes, magnificent views across the estuary to the Welsh hills, pure sea-water, well-established communications (which were to improve with the coming of the railways), and excellent accommodation almost guaranteed Parkgate’s success. And lest it be thought that the gentry of the time kept well away from such goings-on, note the following extract from a London newspaper dated 1802:

Among the sea-dippers at Parkgate, near Liverpool, were the Hon. Colonel Crewe, Sir Boyle and Lady Roche, Sir Richard and Miss Hills, Colonel and Mrs Jepson, Lieutenant-Colonel Colston, Major Henchman, Captain Chandlers, Mr Trench, Mr Benson, the Hon. Mrs Foley, and the beautiful Miss Currie of Chester.
Parkgate had indeed become “much resorted to by the 'gay' and fashionable world”.

The kind of bathing indulged in at Parkgate in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was, however, different from the gay abandonment of today’s sun-seekers. It was not done to be seen in the water with the body uncovered; and as such things as bathing-costumes had yet to be introduced, bathers had to use a contraption called a bathing machine. Tobias Smollett in his article “Bathing Machine”, written in 1770, describes the machine admirably:

The bather, ascending into this apartment by wooden steps, shuts himself in, and begins to undress; while the attendant yokes a horse at the end next to the sea, and draws the carriage forwards, till the surface of the water is level with the floor of the dressing-room; then he moves and fixes the horse to the other end. The person within, being stripped, opens the door to the seaward, where he finds the guide ready, and plunges headlong for the sea. A certain number of machines are fitted with tilts, that project from the seaward end, so as to screen bathers from the view of all persons whatsoever.

Conditions inside the bathing machines apparently were pretty awful — dark, damp and musty, and crawling with insects. Small wonder, then, that not everybody used them. A visitor passing through Parkgate in 1813 was obviously shocked by the scene at high tide:

We discovered a spectacle which a foreigner might have moralized upon with more seriousness than we of this free country can be permitted to do. Few of either sex thought it necessary to hide themselves under the awnings of bathing machines. . . . He would be a fool or worse who accused them of any intentional indelicacy, but I do think it would be as well were they not to despise bathing machines for the few plain reasons that induce so many to use them.  The crowds came to Parkgate until the 1830s, when the expanding road and railway networks made the more commercialized resorts of Blackpool and Southport (and even New Brighton) readily accessible. Local people still bathed at Parkgate until the 1940s, when the expanding saltmarsh finally
reached the foot of the sea wall.

All through Parkgate’s years first as a port and then as a resort, a small section of the community has eamed its living from fishing on the Dee; few people, even today, have not heard of Parkgate Shrimps. Gone, however, are the days when fishermen’s nets hung along the sea wall and trains of twenty or thirty trucks full of cockles and mussels would leave Parkgate Station bound for the towns and cities of the North and Midlands. -
And what of Parkgate today? Well, Neston’s suburbs have crept up to its very edge; there is no sea you would be very lucky even to see it from here but its “front” has survived as an interesting relic from the port’s maritime days. Any fine day brings out visitors in their hundreds, to stroll along the prom, sample home-made Parkgate ice-cream, and take home a few ounces of Parkgate Shrimps. Most visitors remark on the attractive vista from Parkgate: westwards to the patchwork of the Welsh hills, or northwards to the cliffs about Thurstaston shore and the Hilbre Islands in the Dee estuary.

Few of those who amble along this mile long esplanade look at the many and varied buildings which make the town “all on one side”. Fewer still know the historical background to them. There is not the space here to describe all the buildings in detail - besides, others have done this already but any description of Parkgate would be incomplete without a mention of some of the more interesting buildings.

Most people start at the Neston end of the promenade and here, opposite the Old Quay Inn, is a row of eighteenth and nineteenth-century cottages, one of which has the name. Nelson picked out in stones on the ground in front of the house. This memorial is not, as many believe, to Admiral Nelson but to Nelson Burt, the son of a Chester artist Albin Burt who specialized in painting miniature portraits. Young Nelson was drowned in 1822 and his father set his name in the earth outside the front of the cottage. Nearer the parade, in a house on the corner, a young lady, Emma Lyon, stayed during the summer of 1784 to try to get rid of a skin complaint. The remedy (seaweed and salt water) evidently worked, for she wrote:

My knees is well . . . there is hardly a mark, and my elbows is much better. If I stay a fortnight longer I shall not have a spot, for you can scarce discover anything on my knees and arms.

This young girl, unknown at the time, was to become the renowned Lady Hamilton, wife of Sir William Hamilton, and later the mistress of Lord Nelson. But more of Emma later. This part of the parade is somewhat dominated by the black and white timbering of Mostyn House School, a boys’ preparatory school with a fascinating history. The oldest part of the school was originally a hotel, the George Inn, built about 1770 and at the time one of the most fashionable in Parkgate.

The remainder of this fascinating history can be found in Kenneth Burley's excellent book, Portrait of Wirral, of which I had permission to copy some items.


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