At the turn of the 19th century Birkenhead was a minor village on the Wirral bank of the Mersey, buffered from Liverpool’s heavy industry by the river.
Things changed quickly over the next few decades, as the shipbuilder William Laird set up shop and laid out the monumental Hamilton Square.
On the back of this came Birkenhead Park, which was the first in the world to be funded publicly, and like Hamilton Square is brimming with listed buildings.
The Mersey is known the world over for its ferries, and you can travel back in time to the roots of this service at Birkenhead Priory, which was awarded ferry rights by Edward II in 1318. In Birkenhead you’re in a handy spot to visit the model village of Port Sunlight and the monuments atop Bidston Hill.
1. Hamilton Square
The Scottish shipbuilder William Laird had big plans for Birkenhead in the early 19th century and commissioned the Edinburgh architect James Gillespie Graham to design a magnificent square.
This Georgian wonder is graced by the most Grade I listed buildings of any ensemble in the country after Trafalgar Square.
Using the maiden name of Laird’s wife, Hamilton Square is framed by terraces of sandstone town-houses, none of which are quite the same.
The initial project lasted more than 20 years, between 1825 and 1847, and includes the Town Hall (more later), Birkenhead’s cenotaph, an imposing neo-Gothic monument to Queen Victoria and a statue of William’s son, John Laird.
He was Birkenhead’s first MP and resided at No. 63 on the square.
2. Birkenhead Park
By the time Hamilton Square was completed in 1847, the first publicly funded park in the world opened a few minutes away.
In 230 acres and laid out over seven years, Birkenhead Park became a template for New York’s Central Park.
It was laid out by Joseph Paxton, renowned for his work at Chatsworth, and contains several monuments designed by the Liverpool architect Lewis Hornblower.
Two of these are the Neoclassical Grand Entrance and the Cricket Pavilion (1849), with triangular gables over its porch.
The Swiss Bridge is the only covered bridge of traditional wooden construction in the country, while the lakeside Roman Boathouse has an unusual segmented arch offering access from the water.
As well as this remarkable Grade I landscape, Birkenhead has a modern visitor centre, a generous adventure playground for youngsters, all sorts of sports facilities and two fishing lakes.
3. Port Sunlight
The leafy suburb of Port Sunlight was the brainchild of the “soap king”, William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) who built a soap factory here in the 1880s and constructed a model village for his workers.
Port Sunlight is named after a brand of soap manufactured by Lever, and was constructed at a time when new efforts were being made to mollify employees with comfortable and healthy living conditions.
Sharing the Arts and Crafts movement’s Medieval and Tudor styles and quality workmanship, Port Sunlight has 900 Grade II listed buildings and demands a walking tour.
Your first stop has to be the Port Sunlight Museum, which gives you background on William Hesketh Lever and his grand designs for the village.
You can sample life in Port Sunlight during the early years, entering a restored Edwardian worker’s cottage, and learning about the architects who planned the homes, principal buildings and parks.
Guided and self-guided tours of Port Sunlight begin and end at the museum.
4. Lady Lever Art Gallery
Some years later, William Hesketh Lever founded an extraordinary art museum at Port Sunlight in memory of his wife Elizabeth Hulme (d.
1913). Here Lever donated his enormous art and applied art collections, housed in a solemn Beaux-Arts hall completed in 1922. The exhibitions shine a light on the industrialist’s tastes, and with it those of the wealthiest Victorians and Edwardians.
As well as lots of Pre-Raphaelite art, there are works by important earlier artists like Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable and Turner.
There’s a splendid assortment of English furniture, as well as Chinese and Wedgwood ceramics, including what is likely the best collection of Jasperware in the world.
All of this painting, sculpture and decorative art is on show together in five “Period Rooms” recreating interiors from mansions of the day.
5. Ferry Across the Mersey
One of the ultimate Merseyside experiences is to catch a ferry across the famous river, and this can be done from the small Woodside Ferry Terminal.
Ferry rights were first granted to the nearby Birkenhead Priory in the 14th century, and by the 18th century Woodside was just one of many embarkation points on the Wirral bank for numerous private ferries.
This terminal is joined to the railway network at Hamilton Square and is also linked to a heritage tramline that runs every weekend and during school holidays.
The crossing to Pier Head in Liverpool is just ten minutes, but if you fancy a more leisurely trip there’s a 50-minute River Explorer Cruise, with commentary and the best views of the Liverpool skyline.
6. Wirral Transport Museum
Europe’s first street tramway was built in Birkenhead by the American transport entrepreneur George Francis Train.
This opened in 1860 and ran from Woodside by the ferry terminal, to Birkenhead Park.
That line was shut down in the early 20th century, but a new heritage tramway was set up in the 1990s, and we’ll go into more detail below.
The Wirral Transport Museum opened that same year in a grand Victorian twin-levelled stables, and holds the line’s vintage tram collection, as well as historic buses (see the fine 1943 Guy Arab and 1943 Leyland Titan), cars, motorcycles and the 1950s Green Goddess fire engine.
Also on show is a model railway and a model of one of the huge movable cranes that loaded iron ore Bidston Dock, which closed down in 1997.
7. Wirral Tramway
From the stop on Taylor Street outside the Wirral Transport Museum you can ride a heritage tram for 1.1 kilometres to the Woodside Ferry Terminal.
The line has a fleet of nine beautiful heritage trams, most of which are on show at the museum, including the only standard gauge ex-Lisbon tram (1930) in the world.
The line runs all year round on weekends from 12:45 to 16:45, as well as Wednesday to Friday during school holidays.
Travelling from the museum, the tram is timed to connect with ferry departures at Woodside on the half-hour.
Fares are £2 for adults and £1 for children.
8. Birkenhead Priory
Merseyside’s oldest surviving building, th Benedictine Birkenhead Priory was founded a little way in from the Mersey in the mid-12th century.
After gaining “ferry rights” from Edward II in 1318 monks here were responsible for the first regulated ferry across the Mersey.
Like all monasteries in England, Birkenhead priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 16th century.
The current priory chapel is in what used to be the priory’s chapter house, and on the top floor here the scriptorium holds a chapel dedicated to the 19th-century Royal Navy training ship HMS Conway.
There’s also a small museum recalling the long history of the site and the function of the buildings still standing.
The tower of the demolished 19th-century parish church of St Mary has been preserved as a memorial to the 99 sailors who died aboard HMS Thetis.
This submarine was built at Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird shipyard and sank during trials in June in 1939.
9. Williamson Art Gallery & Museum
Birkenhead’s rich art reserves are kept in a temple-like neo-Georgian building in Claughton.
The Williams Art Gallery & Museum was purpose-built in 1928 and is named for its financier, John Williamson, then director of the Cunard Steamship Company.
This is one of the region’s best art collections: There’s Victorian painting by the Academic artist Albert Joseph Moore, and seascape painter Philip Wilson Steer, as well as a trove of watercolours, drawings and prints.
Birkenhead’s Della Robbia Pottery, a giant of the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century, is well-represented, as is Liverpool soft-paste porcelain, manufactured locally in the second half of the 18th century.
The Maritime Gallery holds a wide array of antique ship models, for the old Cammel Laird shipyard, Mersey Ferries and the many other vessels that used to navigate the river.
10. U-Boat Story
The ticket for the River Explorer Cruise includes entrance an outdoor museum for the German Submarine U-534. This vessel was built for the Kriegsmarine in 1942 and was sunk by an RAF bomber in Denmark’s Kattegat on 5 May 1945, the day of a partial surrender of German forces in Denmark by Admiral Dönitz.
All but three of the crew of 52 survived to be rescued, while the sub was rediscovered in shallow water in 1986 and raised to the surface in 1993. Before it could be brought to its new permanent site by Woodside Ferry Terminal the U-boat was cut into five sections and is displayed in this broken-up format, allowing you to see the interior through glass screens.
Information signs and audiovisual displays give an impression of what it was like on board, while among the preserved artefacts is a seldom-seen Enigma machine.
This popular attraction at Seacombe is themed around astronomy and space travel, with short-term exhibitions, interactive galleries and a 360° planetarium.
In early 2019 there was a display of rare Star Wars memorabilia assembled by one of the country’s biggest collectors.
Known as the Dome Theatre, the planetarium shows well produced 25-minute movies at hour intervals.
At the time of writing this was “We Are the Aliens”, narrated by Harry Potter Actor Rupert Grint.
Upstairs there’s a new interactive zone with games and activities that allow young minds to grasp concepts like gravity, magnetic fields, weather and light, all with comfortable seating so parents can take it easy.
12. Birkenhead Town Hall
The administrative hub of the old County Borough of Birkenhead, the Town Hall is on the eastern frontage of Hamilton Square.
This striking Neoclassical monument dates to 1887, and has a Corinthian portico before a 60-metre clock tower.
Within there’s a concert hall, function rooms, a former council chamber and offices.
Wirral’s council offices remained inside, even after the county lines were redrawn in 1974. They moved out in the 90s to make way for the Wirral Museum, which was here until its closure in 2010. Since then the building has been revitalised and council offices have moved back in, accompanying the borough’s register’s office, which has remained the whole time.
13. Bidston Hill
This hill in the suburb of the same name is covered with 100 acres of woodland and heathland on a former estate, handed to Birkenhead in 1894. There’s a lot of interesting things to check out on Bidston Hill, especially for amateur historians.
The hill has been capped with a lighthouse since 1771, and the current Bidston Hill Lighthouse went up in 1873. Constructed from the same local sandstone, Bidston Observatory dates to 1866 and was used to calculate the exact time.
Over the next three years, this facility was connected electrically to a gun on Mopeth Dock by the Mersey, which would be fired every day at 13:00. Just north-east of the observatory there’s a slab with a 1.4-metre Norse-Irish carving of a sun goddess from the 11th century, and another a few metres away depicting a horse.
14. Tam O’Shanter Urban Farm
There’s a sweet old cottage on Bidston Hill, which is the core of a free children’s farm, managed by a charitable trust and open every day of the year except Christmas Day.
Smaller visitors will be besotted with the farm’s animals, including goats, pigs, ponies, chickens, sheep, geese, ducks, rabbits, guinea fowl and chickens.
You can buy some animal feed for a £1 to hand-feed the friendly goats, while there’s a picnic area, a cafe and a playground making use of a pair of safe old tractors.
During the school holidays there’s usually something happening, like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic in summer, with amusement stalls and a bouncy castle.
15. Flaybrick Hill Cemetery
If you aren’t spooked out by Victorian cemeteries there’s a magnificent example by Bidston Hill.
No longer in use, and kept as a memorial garden, Flaybrick was opened in 1864 and is estimated to have more than 200,000 interments.
Among these are James Taylor Cochran, whose Birkenhead shipyard built the Resurgam, a Victorian prototype submarine.
Also here is Mary Mercer (d. 1945) who was the first woman mayor of Birkenhead.
Her portrait can be seen at the Williamson Art Gallery & Museum.
The neighbouring Anglican and nonconformist chapels at the top are now eerie ruins, while a fine assortment of mature specimen trees can be admired, like a silver pendent lime, a monkey puzzle, a Caucasian lime and a cut leaf beech.