MINI-BUS driver Paul told us there used to be horse-drawn carriage rides in Birkenhead Park until the food shortage occurred.
His throaty, smoky laugh rattled through the mini bus. “Then we all had to eat gee gee burgers,” he said. Besides infectious Scouse humour, the community spirit is evident in the Wirral. Paul beeped his horn, waved to people in cars, on crossings or the pavement, shouting “hiya mate” through the window. Via the Mersey tunnel, the Wirral Peninsula is less than two hours’ drive from the Fylde, and offers 25 miles of dramatic coastline, stunning countryside plus a wealth of attractions. Birkenhead Park rangers, movers and shakers Baz and Jase, might have been a Britain’s Got Talent double act. With thick accents aka John and Ringo they worked in unison to paint pictures of the history of the 125-acre park, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton in 1847. At the opening, locals enjoyed rural sports such as chasing the greasy pig with the soapy tail. Baz and Jase pointed out where as little lads, ill-fated climbers of their 1924 Everest expedition, Mallory and Irvine, practised their climbing skills on the rugged steps of “The Rockery”. In 1850, American architect Frederick Olmsted took design ideas to incorporate into New York’s Central Park. An £11m Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled a huge restoration project in 2004. Woodland coppices, meadows and two beautiful lakes, homes to 100,000 fish, create a stunning natural environment with a Roman Boathouse, Swiss Bridge, two cricket grounds, rugby ground and Gothic Lodge. A huge £60m investment is benefiting seaside resort, New Brighton. Driver Paul said that in the early 1920s, one-legged “Peggy” Gadsby, plunged into the river from the pier end for the prospect of a few coppers. New Brighton once boasted a taller tower, at 544 ft, than Blackpool Tower’s 518 ft, which was destroyed by fire in 1969. The new major waterfront development, to be completed in September, will comprise a six screen digital cinema, Travelodge, supermarket, lido, water sports facility, marine lake, bars, restaurants and shops. The exterior of the glittering Floral Pavilion, Panoramic Lounge and Conference Centre pays homage to London’s Victorian Crystal Palace. Patrons of the 814-seat state-of-the-art theatre were packing picnic hampers to allay hunger pangs for Ken Dodd’s performance that evening - he’s renowned for over-running his time-slot, but no-one complains. The Wirral displays one of only four remaining Second World War U-boats. The £5m winner of Merseyside’s Small Visitor Attraction now rests at the Woodside ferry terminal. The cross-sectioned German U-534 was raised from the sea-bed just off Helsingor, Denmark, where it sank following a depth charge. Most of the crew jumped ship but trapped in the torpedo room, five went down with the sub, released when the internal pressure equalised, getting out through the escape hatch to attempt the 210ft ascent to the surface. Four survived. Glazed panels over the end of three sections enable visitors to view the engine room with its rusted copper and steel pistons, taps, wheels and pipes, plus tiny kitchen with oven and dials. With only half the number of bunks to crew, each took his turn in a still warm bunk, barely the size of a man. Washing in seawater and scratchy soap or dirty dishwater was generally avoided, and a bottle of cologne was passed around for freshening up. The air was certainly fresh, bright and breezy, proving ideal flying conditions for the Wirral International Kite Festival in New Brighton, where over 50 exhibitors displayed their skills. This colourful, two-day event features worldwide kite flyers with artistic kites, giant inflatables kites, sports kites, formation fliers and power kites. It’s worth the pain in the neck to view exhibits which depict such as Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood and the Fab Four, giant Disney cartoon characters and intricate Chinese creations of bamboo and silk. Just a few miles away is Port Sunlight, the uniquely beautiful, upmarket garden village created by “Soap King” William Hesketh Lever in 1888 for his Sunlight Soap factory workers. Designated a conservation area, the village comprises over 900 Grade 1 listed buildings including boutique hotel, art gallery and museum. We stayed at the Peel Hey Guest House, Frankby, a charming country house and tea rooms, with pretty gardens, and a conservatory. Stop and sample their afternoon tea with home-made cakes. Winners of Guest Accommodation of the Year for Merseyside for three consecutive years, Peel Hey also boasts an English Tourism Council four-star and silver award 2010 plus breakfast award. Dining experiences included a visit to the award-winning Portrait House and Bar at the Victorian resort Hoylake. Works of local artists reflect the role of the former photographic studio. This place to see and be seen offers a fusion of contemporary and classic cuisine. The Peninsula Dining Room launched in May 2009, is listed in the Good Food Guide 2011. Theirs is haute cuisine indeed, served in a contemporary setting with none of the stuffiness often associated with this standard of excellence. There’s lots of reasons to visit the Wirral, but for me, it would almost be worth the trip to taste the Pensula’s divine limoncello creme brulee!