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5316 miles already walked

‘I’m Dreaming of a Welsh Christmas’!

Glasshouses, bronze sculptures, asparagus, Storm Deidre, maritime history and podiatrists have all played a part in my final walking week before I came off the road for a Christmas break.

The Ribble Way led me out of Preston, beside the river’s very muddy channel where I skirted the estuary before picking up the Sefton Coastal Way. I was surprised to come across acres of glasshouses and numerous plant nurseries. Hesketh Bank is sometimes called ‘the salad bowl of Lancashire’ although horticulture is not something I’d ever have associated with this ‘red rose’ county.

It was fascinating to find a place full of growers – each offering their unique selling point.  One specialises in year-round glasshouse lettuce; another sells bedding plants on an industrial scale to outlets such as B & Q; others have opted to grow and supply every conceivable type of salad food.  I think my favourite was the company that produces giant vegetable seeds, no doubt helping enthusiasts to win the largest marrow or onion competition at their local village fete!

Sefton’s Coastal Way took me towards Southport with its wide streets, large sandy beach and Grade II listed Pier, which is currently undergoing major restoration.  Reported to be the country’s oldest iron pier, it’s also the second longest pier after Southend-on-Sea. Sadly, I was unable to walk its full length owing to parts of it being cordoned off for refurbishment.  Unlike other seaside piers, Southport’s is unusual because it doesn’t start on the beach or promenade.  Instead, it starts near the town and spans a busy main road, under which a steady stream of traffic flows.

Ainsdale, at Southport’s southerly end, was my RV point to enjoy frothy coffees with some former ‘Wrens’ who’d travelled in from Manchester.  Meeting in the ‘whacky’ café-cum cycle shop (MeCycle), it was good to be in the warm where I received Christmas gifts and a Victory Walk donation from the Association of Wrens, Manchester Branch.  Meanwhile, on the same day, Skegness Branch of the Royal Naval Association presented a £750 cheque to the Victory Walk, kindly collected by Commander Glynn Johns on my behalf.   There have been other donations too, for which I’m always most grateful and I hope Santa brings more at Christmas!

Overnight, Ainsdale temperatures dropped suddenly resulting in a hard frost.  Next morning, when heading towards Formby, I found myself walking over frozen sand dunes. It was a strange sensation and any hope of seeing local natterjack toads and sand lizards faded.  Instead, I made another discovery while following the quaintly named Asparagus Trail.  Before World War II, Formby had been a large and important asparagus growing area, with Liverpool Port enabling growers to export their delicacy worldwide.  The National Trust has now reintroduced asparagus to the area, but not on its previous massive scale.

Continuing my coastal journey towards Liverpool, as dusk descended on Crosby, I became aware of life-size statues, spread along Crosby beach – some on the sand, others standing in the sea. It was an eerie sight. This area, known as ‘Another Place’, has been transformed by Antony Gormley’s 100 bronze sculptures, all looking seawards. I’d encountered a similar Gormley statue in Folkestone Harbour last year; that one was named Harbour Watchkeeper.

Next morning, I took the full force of Storm Deidre as I battled bitter gale-force winds and driving rain.  As I got closer to Liverpool’s famous landmarks, I found myself being blown backwards down Bootle’s Dock Road.  My head was on fire and my sore throat felt full of razorblades. This final heavy soaking resulted in the Victory Walker reporting ‘sick’ next morning, but for one day only.

During my fight to reach Liverpool’s Pier Head I felt, smelt and saw the city’s great maritime history unfold before me.  Ships were alongside in several docks, articulated lorries and fork-lift trucks bustled around, rubbish swirled about my path and large decaying warehouses were visible.  Elsewhere, it was clear regeneration had begun. At Stanley Dock in Liverpool’s old port, North Warehouse has been converted into the luxurious Titanic hotel. Next for redevelopment will be an ancient Tobacco warehouse.  These sites have contributed to Liverpool being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Maritime Site.

Liverpool’s docks were used for worldwide imports and exports, during which time it became known as ‘The Second City of the Empire’.  During the 1700s it overtook both London and Bristol in the slave trade. Later it became a key departure port for migrants setting out for a better life in the New World: it is estimated that 9 million migrants sailed from Liverpool. Liners also plied their trade from here and evidence of Liverpool’s maritime wealth can be seen in the 3 iconic buildings at Pier Head.  Known as ‘Three Graces’, the Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building are testament to the port’s success.

During World War II Liverpool became the Command Headquarters for the Battle of Atlantic campaign, from where planning and operations were controlled.  It was here that Admiral Sir Max Horton, Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, initiated ‘support groups’ of additional warships to supplement regular convoy escort groups.  Support group ships had authority to break away from a convoy to search independently for enemy submarines. One of the most decorated and successful support group commanders was Captain ‘Johnnie’ Walker, whose skill in detecting and destroying U-Boats was legendary. His statue can be seen at the Pier Head.

Today, it is planned to erect an International Memorial for the Battle of Atlantic on Liverpool’s waterfront, and fundraising has started. It will be given International status because, in addition to the UK, other countries including Norway, USA, Canada and the Netherlands all contributed and suffered losses during the Battle of Atlantic.  Figures vary, but is estimated that 3,500 merchant ships, 175 warships, 36,000 sailors and 36,000 merchant seamen were lost. Liverpool’s proud links with the Merchant Navy are also remembered in a MN Memorial, at the Pier Head.

Ten years ago, Liverpool was made the European Capital of culture, and it’s easy to see why. The City has an array of museums and art galleries, and during the late 50s and early 60s it witnessed the birth of many bands and solo artists.  Undoubtedly the most famous of all Mersey bands was The Beatles, but others included The Searchers, Jerry and the Pacemakers, Swinging Blue Jeans and The Merseybeats, while solo artists included Billy Fury and Cilla Black. Along with many other UK singers and bands, they all feature in the British Music Experience housed in the former Cunard Building. It’s a far cry from this majestic building’s original use!

Stepping off the Mersey’s famous passenger ferry into Seacombe, I joined the Wirral Trail which took me towards the river mouth. Along the promenade, memorial plaques mark where merchant ships were lost, and a notice outside Wallasey’s imposing Town Hall recalls when it was converted to a 400-bed military hospital during WWI.  Approaching New Brighton, the Wirral’s seaside resort, I noticed an extraordinary art installation called ‘Black Pearl’; it’s a community-built and maintained driftwood pirate ship. Further on, I rounded a corner near Hoylake and caught my first sight of Wales and the River Dee which acts as a border between England and Wales.

Plodding on in torrential rain towards Neston and MOD Danger Area on Burton Marshes, I became aware of an increasing pain in my right foot. Despite this I was determined to reach Hawarden Bridge which crosses the River Dee; for me this was my official exit point from England.  Suddenly, out on the Marshes, I spotted a sign I was hoping to see: ‘Welcome to Flintshire’.  I’d crossed into Wales as planned.  Much later, as another day of very wet walking ended, I accepted the need to get my foot examined.  The outcome was that I was told to rest for the remaining 3 days of the walking week.  It wasn’t a Christmas present I wanted, nor expected.

Downhearted, we drove ahead to a Welsh holiday cottage we’ve booked for a Christmas break.  However, looking on the bright side, this time last year I’d reached Sittingbourne, Kent having walked a mere 288 miles; this year my ‘bootometer’ reads 3,894 miles and I’m in Wales.  I’m happy with that!

See Photo Album No 59 – I’m Dreaming of a Welsh Christmas