Tag Archives: BidstonHill

A Vision of Biddestone Through Time

Here is a delightful excerpt from A Home Tour through the Manufacturing Districts of England in the Summer of 1835, by George Head (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1836). I found it on that most excellent of websites, “A Vision of Britain Through Time“, which I commend to all local and family historians in need of historical and geographical context for British place names since 1801.

BIDDESTONE LIGHTHOUSE

As I was walking from Woodside towards Biddestone lighthouse, the day being hot, I heard the clattering of hoofs behind me, and was accosted by a little boy, with the offer of a pony. I at first sight thought the whole troop were donkeys; but, on a second glance, I did certainly perceive that one of the quadrupeds really was a pony. The boy had just emerged, with his long-eared squadron, from the village of Biddestone, on his way to Woodside, in order to pick up customers for the day.

The colour of the steed in question was a light sandy dun, a black streak extending the whole length from the withers to the tail; which mark of distinction not only assimilated him to his companions, but, from long habits of intimacy, his manners had become so near akin to theirs, that in reality he was, morally speaking, just as much a jackass as a horse. Such as he was, I immediately engaged his services, upon paying a shilling down, with a promise of more, according to time, on delivery. I was also furnished with a stick into the bargain, which latter I soon found was doomed to more wear and tear in my service than the pony, which was of a nature at all events not to be ridden away with. In a few minutes he was tied up to a rack of hay in a stable belonging to the lighthouse.

Biddestone Hill, about three miles from Woodside, commands an extensive view of the country inland, while the forest of signal poles, with which the lighthouse is surrounded, give it, at a distance, an extraordinary appearance—that of a dock or harbour on the top of a hill. Hence the merchant vessels bound to Liverpool are signalled and telegraphed in the offing, the poles alluded to bearing the private signals of different individuals. And what must be remarked as rather singular is, that, notwithstanding the arduous duty which necessarily falls on the station, the whole is performed, almost exclusively, by young women, daughters of the veteran in charge. The old man, who is thus ably supported in the winter of life, is fourscore years old, and has held the office upward of forty years. Although boys are employed to run backward and forward, out of doors, with colours to the poles, and haul them up; and one of the three young women is married, and occasionally assisted by her husband; yet it is she who, being perfect in the whole code of signals, performs the responsible part of the duty. This couple were both at work together at the time I arrived, the young woman keeping the lookout, and calling the numbers, while the man, merely at her bidding, pulled the ropes. She not only kept him employed, but managed meanwhile to iron a shirt into the bargain.

The business of the youngest sister is to attend the light, consisting of eleven Argand lamps, with plated reflectors. Every four hours during the night the lamps are trimmed; these, the stove, copper, oil jars, and paved floor, are preserved in a state of cleanliness not to be exceeded; while no doubt, many a mariner, on a wintry and stormy night, both knows and feels that his life and safety are thus well confided to the never-failing care of — woman.

The old man is William Urmson, who died later that very year. The three women were the surviving daughters of his second wife:  Ann (who was to succeed William as keeper), Catherine (the youngest), and Jane, wife of Thomas Nichols, the Telegraph Keeper.

It’s interesting to note that the single massive reflector of 1771 has been replaced by 11 smaller reflectors. Both William Hutchinson himself (in his Treatise of Practical Seamanship), and later, Robert Stevenson (the Scottish lighthouse engineer who visited in 1801), recommended multiple smaller reflectors instead of a single big one.

Dutch visitors

Recently, a Dutch gentleman, whom we shall call Jan VIII, visited Leasowe and Bidston Lighthouses. I hope Jan VIII and his gracious wife will forgive me for greeting them with a paintbrush in hand.

Jan VIII was retracing the footsteps of his ancestor, Jan van Heukelom (1784-1847). The elder Jan, whom we shall call Jan IV, visited England in 1805 and kept a detailed journal of his travels. These were interesting times. England was at war with France, alarm beacons were erected on Bidston Hill in April, and the Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21st October.

Here is an extract from Jan IV’s journal entry for Monday 16 September, 1805, when he paid a visit to Bidston Lighthouse. My thanks go to Jan VIII for sharing his annotated transcription, and to Woutera Willemsen for translating this passage from the Dutch.

“I then crossed the Mersey in a boat with Rogers and walked to the lighthouse with him. It is but a kind of tower, with a room containing the light for the ships to navigate by when sailing into the channel. The light is a cotton lamp wick supplied by oil placed in front of an enormous reflector. This reflector is, I noticed, in the shape of a parabola and the lamp is in its focus. The largest circle must be approximately 18 feet wide and the reflector is made up of trapezia of mirror glass. The front of the room in which the lamp is located is entirely made of glass, which means the light can be seen freely. Closer to sea there is another smaller and lower beacon. The helmsmen must keep these two lights in a straight line in a certain position in the channel. These circumstances, which the caretaker informed me of and his statement that the light was by far not as visible from the side as from the front, strengthened my thoughts concerning the parabolic nature of the reflector. This lighthouse can be seen clearly from Liverpool. The pilots used this circumstance by placing a number of signal poles close to the lighthouse. As soon as a ship arrives from sea and comes within sight of this beacon, it will hoist its private flag from which the caretaker will recognize the owner. The caretaker will then go and hoist the owner’s flag on the designated pole while a general sign will show what kind of ship it is. This is how the Liverpool merchants (want to) know what is happening at sea close by. When we arrived back from the lighthouse, we just had time to dine after our crossing, which seemed to last a long time to me. Afterwards, I dressed and went to the theatre with Mr Tait and company.”

Jan IV used the English terms for “lighthouse” and “signal poles”, and the French “reverbère” for “reflector”.

May Day Morris Dancing

The Mersey Morris Men and the Mockbeggar Morris danced at dawn on Bidston Hill this morning. They, along with other Morris sides around the country, dance the sun up every May Day. It’s worth getting out of bed for!

Did you know that where the Mockbeggar Morris danced this morning is very close to the Upper Mockbeggar Light? Or that the Mockbeggar Morris might be dancing at the Lower Mockbeggar Light in a few weeks’ time? Let me explain.

In 1763, 250 years ago, two lighthouses were built at Leasowe to light the safe passage through the Horse Channel. These leading lights were known at the time variously as the Mockbeggar Lights (because of their location on Mockbeggar Wharf) and the Sea Lights (to distinguish them from the Lake Lights, which marked the channel to Hoyle Lake). A few years later in 1771, the Lower Mockbeggar Light having been destroyed by storms, a new lighthouse was built on Bidston Hill in the same alignment. This became the Upper Light, and Leasowe Lighthouse, formerly the Upper Light, became the Lower Light.

We hope that the Mockbeggar Morris will be able to perform at Leasowe Lighthouse’s sestercentennical celebrations on Sunday June 16th (Father’s Day) this year.

Mersey Morris Men

Mersey Morris Men

Mockbeggar Morris

Mockbeggar Morris

Morris Dancers

Morris Dancers by Bidston Observatory

Dust to Dust

The Joseph Proudman Building has been reduced to rubble. I’ve posted a time-lapse video of how it happened.

Joseph Proudman Building reduced to Rubble

Joseph Proudman Building reduced to rubble

For a while, during a spell of dry weather, the lighthouse and cottages were covered in a blanket of dust — fine, sticky stuff composed of powdered concrete and who-knows-what that blew off the demolition site, turning our hair to straw and leaving a gritty taste in our mouths. When we complained, the demolition contractors promptly deployed a “dust reduction unit”, which sprayed a mist of water into the air, stopped most of the dust from blowing over us, and made our breathing easier. Eventually the rains should wash away the dust that remains. We had been worried about the effect the dust was having on the vegetation. But this morning, we saw the crocuses in bloom, a little late in the season, but apparently healthy.

Soon it will be all over, and we’ll be waking up to the sound of birdsong instead of the rumble of heavy machinery.

One evening a couple of weeks ago, we noticed from our dining room window some pretty lights twinkling through the trees to the east. We hadn’t seen these before, and wondered what they were. Then it dawned on us that we were looking at the lights of Liverpool at night. We will not miss the Joseph Proudman Building.

People keep asking me what will happen next. In the short term, the site will be landscaped and new grass will be sown. In the longer term, we can only guess. We know that NERC want to dispose of their property on Bidston Hill. This includes the Observatory, the site of the former Braehead Cottage, and the leasehold of the site of the former Joseph Proudman Building (Wirral Borough Council own the freehold).

Meanwhile, Wirral Council’s “Interim Planning Policy” precludes new residences on Bidston Hill. While this is in force, I can’t see planning permission being granted for a residential development on either the Braehead Cottage or Proudman site. Presumably, it would be possible to obtain planning permission for a new research facility or office space on the Proudman site, but this does not seem likely — the location is too remote and the network infrastructure is too poor to make a good location for offices

However, Councils are fickle creatures, and Wirral Borough Council, like every other local council in the country, is under severe financial pressure and this shows no signs of letting up. The Council could benefit financially by selling the freehold of the Proudman site to a developer, and the only thing standing in its way is its self-inflicted Interim Planning Policy.

So it’s probably only a matter of time before the council revises its planning policy to suit itself, and the Proudman site is sold to a developer. We have to hope that what’s put in its place is in keeping with the Observatory, Lighthouse and Bidston Hill. A residential development comprising a couple of sandstone cottages might be a satisfactory outcome.  An eleven storey high-rise would not (although plans for such a monstrosity were actually drawn up only a few years ago).

I’d quite like to see the land dedicated as a public park, with a few benches and tables for picnics, and perhaps a visitors’ centre or ranger’s hut. This would be consistent with the spirit in which Mersey Docks and Harbour Board originally sold the Lighthouse site (including what is now the Proudman land) to the Birkenhead Corporation back in the 1930s for the greatly discounted price of one thousand pounds, on the understanding that it would be used for the recreation of the people of Birkenhead. Incidentally, there is in the document that conveyed the land to the Birkenhead Corporation a covenant forbidding the erection of new buildings. But that covenant did not stop the construction of the Joseph Proudman Building…

After the demolition of the Joseph Proudman Building

After the demolition of the Joseph Proudman Building

Antarctica, Floods and Bidston Hill

Last week, BBC news reported on a new measurement of the volume of ice in Antarctica, from the Bedmap2 project. The potential sea level equivalent of the Antarctic ice volume is 58 metres. What does this mean? The BBC article explains: “if this ice was all converted to liquid water, it would be sufficient to raise the height of the world’s oceans by 58m”.

I did my own “back of the envelope” calculation using the Bedmap2 numbers (and a few guesses and approximations), and came up with a figure of about 60 metres, close enough to convince me that the BBC explanation of “potential sea level equivalent” is correct. I suspect the actual sea rise would be slightly less, because some of the water would inundate coastal regions, making the oceans larger, not just deeper. Still, 58 metres is a lot.

Ordnance Survey cut benchmark on Bidston Lighthouse

Ordnance Survey cut benchmark on Bidston Lighthouse

Something about 58 metres rang a bell. Then I remembered the Ordnance Survey benchmark cut into the base of the Lighthouse, near the front door. (The first time I saw this, I mistook it for a mason’s mark. It was a surveyor who explained its significance to me.)

As I reported in an earlier post, the horizontal line at the top of the benchmark is 58.9727 metres (or thereabouts) above mean sea level at Newlyn, Cornwall. So if Antarctica melted, the sea would be lapping at the foot of the Lighthouse, and Bidston Hill would be an island.

We could buy a boat, and invest in a new dioptric lamp in case the Lighthouse is needed again. But surely it’s better to do our bit towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and invest instead in solar panels (assuming we can obtain planning permission and listed buildings consent).

There’s another connection between Antarctica and Bidston Hill. NERC, which used to own the Lighthouse and still owns the Observatory, is the research council that funds both the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre. It’s only a few months since the proposed merger of the British Antarctic Survey with the National Oceanography Centre was averted.

 

 

 

Creating new horizons

4 Lighthouse Cottages, Bidston Hill is to be demolished.

Not many people know that 4 Lighthouse Cottages, Bidston Hill, CH43 7RA, is actually the postal address of the Joseph Proudman Building.

The Joseph Proudman Building was built during the 1970s on land which used to be the kitchen gardens of the Lighthouse Cottages. It was officially opened on 18 April 1979, and named after Joseph Proudman (30 Dec 1888 – 26 Jun 1975), CBE, FRS, Honorary Director of the University of Liverpool Tidal Institute. Joseph Proudman also gave his name to the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL), the research institute which occupied Bidston Observatory, the Joseph Proudman Building and part of the Lighthouse until its relocation to the University of Liverpool in 2004. POL is now part of the National Oceanography Centre.

Few will be disappointed to see the Joseph Proudman Building disappear from the Wirral skyline. Amongst those few are fans of cold-war architecture and the well-intentioned Bidston Preservation Trust, who mounted a campaign to save the building as part of a longer-term strategy to protect the more important Bidston Observatory. They bought a few months for their campaign by applying to English Heritage to have the building Grade II listed. Wirral Borough Council, who own the freehold of the Proudman site, were forced to postpone their decision on whether to consent to the demolition until after English Heritage had considered the matter. To cut a long story short, English Heritage rejected the application at the initial assessment stage, the Council finally gave its consent, and the live-in guardians who have kept the Proudman Building secure for the last seven years have been given notice to quit.

The demolition works are scheduled to start on Monday 26th November 2012, and are expected to take 10-12 weeks. The contractor undertaking the demolition is Hunter Demolition. Their tag line is “creating new horizons”.

If all goes to plan, you will be able to follow the action on the web thanks to wirralcam.org. A webcam mounted on the east face of the lighthouse will give a panoramic view of the proceedings. At the beginning, you will see the Joseph Proudman Building. At the end, you will see the iconic Liver Buildings in the distance. Creating new horizons indeed!

Halloween, Ghosts and Mulled Wine

Last night, there was a Halloween Ghost Walk on Bidston Hill. About 60 people assembled at Tam O’Shanter Urban Farm and proceeded along the hill, lit by a waxing gibbous moon two nights off full. Ghost stories were told along the way. The evening was cold and dry.

Meanwhile back at the Lighthouse, Mandy had baked two carrot cakes, a Dorset apple cake, and a batch of Anzac biscuits, and was preparing hot chocolate. I’d lit a fire and had a big pot of mulled wine simmering. When the party arrived, Mandy served hot chocolate, I served mulled wine, and the walkers helped themselves to cake and warmed themselves by the fire.

Thanks to ranger Nic Harding for organising the event and acting as guide, to the Friends of Bidston Hill for providing story tellers and marshalls, and to Tom Slemen for letting the tellers adapt his stories. The proceeds from the event will go to the Friends of Bidston Hill.

Stephen’s Mulled Wine Recipe

Several people asked for the mulled wine recipe. I made it up as I went, but it was something like this:

Ingredients:

  • 5 bottles of red wine. I used Tesco’s French red wine at £3.59 a bottle. Any decent, cheap claret will do.
  • About a pint of orange juice, no bits (they spoil the texture).
  • 2-3 sachets of mulled wine spices. I used a couple of different brands, but Schwarz’s are fine.
  • 1 apple, sliced.
  • 1 orange, peeled and studded with cloves.
  • 1 large cinnamon stick.
  • 1 handful of green cardamom pods.
  • Ground cinnamon, maybe a teaspoon or two.
  • Ground ginger (optional), a teaspoon or two.
  • A little brandy.
  • About a pint of tap water.
  • 1 small tin of golden syrup.
  • A tablespoon or two of soft brown sugar.

Serves about thirty.

Method:

Put the spice sachets, cinnamon stick, slices of apple, and the clove-studded orange into the pan. Pour in 3-4 bottles of wine, most of the orange juice, and a little water. Heat the pan until the mixture begins to steam, then keep the temperature steady. Its OK to let it simmer a little, but don’t let it boil. While the mixture is heating, add the golden syrup and a tablespoon of brown sugar, sprinkle a little ground cinnamon and maybe ginger on top (not too much), and throw in the cardamom pods. Stir gently. Splash some brandy into the pan about 10 minutes before serving.

The longer the spices and fruits have to blend, the better. I started about an hour before serving.

I had to serve outside, so I transferred the pan to a gas barbeque to keep it on heat while serving. My pan wasn’t big enough to hold all the wine, so I had to add more wine, orange juice, and maybe a little brown sugar after every ten servings or so. Do this little by little, so that the temperature doesn’t drop too fast. You rarely need to add more spices. I served using a ladle into plastic cups (Tesco value cups, doubled up for insulation, are quite economical). If you have more time, you could strain and decant before serving.

The recipe is very tolerant of variations of quantity. Let your own taste be the judge. Other spices such as nutmeg and ginger work well too. Probably the most unusual aspects of my recipe are the cardamom pods, and the use of golden syrup instead of sugar, but I do think these work well. If you can arrange that your guests are cold, they’ll appreciate it all the more!