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Wirral's Mysterious Churches

St. Hilary’s

 

In 1727, Mr. Robinson, a local schoolmaster, wrote a long, rambling letter to one Mr. Bunbury, in which he related the accounts of Parson Glover of West Kirby, Richard Watt of Wallasey, and Robert Wilson of Liscard. As well as toponymical myths purporting to explain the names of Wallasey and Liscard, it includes a strange account of the building of St Hilary’s in Wallasey Village.

 

The current church was built in the nineteenth century, and the tower in the churchyard, which remains from the earlier church, is older and was built in 1530, but does not represent the original building, which is entirely lost. No one knows exactly when a church was first built at Wallasey Village, but the Vikings who came in the tenth century AD named the place Kirkby, or church-settlement. The dedication itself, to the fourth century St Hilary of Poitiers, is rare in England. There is reason to believe that this, (and the fact that Wallasey’s name, “island of the Welsh,” suggests a Celtic enclave in Anglo Saxon times), means that the church is very early. Some link the dedication with the fifth century bishop of Poitiers, St Germanus, who visited Britain in the 430s while combating the Pelagian heresy. Welsh legend connects his famous Allelulia victory (where he and his followers routed an army of pagans by shouting ‘Hallelujah’) with the vicinity of Moel Famau, across the Dee from Wirral.

 

Nothing is known about the church’s construction in history, but Mr. Robinson recorded the following tradition:

 

Before the Disafforestation of Worrall all the flat land called the Moss on which the salt tide flows was a Wood insomuch that I have heard Richard Watt say that he head old people to say, that a man might have gone out of treetops from the Meoles to Birkenhead, a token whereof in finding of large tree tops when getting of turves, which roots lyes a great way in the sea at this Present. When this present Church was being built at severall times, as aforesd several strangers came and worked some a week, some a fortnight, at their own proper Charges, and went away without any pay or Reward. More particular one Man as a Master Workman and other Dependent on him came and got Stones and dresst them and built that Arch of the Church next to Birds, Gills and Balls farms, the workmanship being different from the other arches, and Departed without any pay. When the neighbours ask’d them Whence they come they answered out of the Woods…

 

Who were workmen who came from the woods that once grew where Bidston Moss now lies? Why were they so generous with their labour, not accepting any payment? Who was the Master Workman and those other dependant on him? The story does not say…

 

Other traditions have grown up around the church. An area of the churchyard that contains no graves is said to be where the bodies of several notorious pirates were interred. Smugglers’ tunnels lead from beneath the old tower, from the old Rectory, and from a grave in the churchyard, in the direction of Liscard Castle, possibly as far as the Wormhole Complex of tunnels in New Brighton. According to a story told in 1866, by the coroner at the inquest into the wreck of the ship Elizabeth Buckham, one Sunday, when a wreck was reported off the shore, the rector of the church said: ‘Keep  your seats till after the collection and then we can all start fair,’ and then led his entire flock to plunder the cargo of the wreck. ‘Wrecking’ was a way of life in Wallasey of yore, and the same coroner related a prayer taught to children in the old days:

God bless feyther and God bless mather,

And God send us a wreck afore morning.

 

St. Andrews

 

St. Andrews, parish church of Bebington, is the linchpin of numerous stories. Robert Nixon, the so-called Palatine Prophet, who lived in the days of Richard III and Henry VII (or James I, according to others), foretold that when the ivy reaches the top of the church spire, the world will come to an end. However the people of Wirral needed not be too disheartened, since he told a man he met in Storeton Woods that in the last days the one safe place to be would be “God’s croft, between the rivers Mersey and Dee." Despite this divine protection, the spire was struck by lightning in 1805, and after further storm damage, it was rebuilt. Finally, the ivy was grubbed out in 1911, due to the damage it did to the spire and now the lack of ivy on the spire is conspicuous. What effect this will have on the future of the universe is something on which we can only speculate.

 

Among the yews in the churchyard, near the family vault of the Lancelyn Greens, there is a lamppost that is said to have inspired the one that appears in CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

 

The church is said to have been built on top of a burial mound, possibly the centre of pagan worship, explaining the dangerous bend in Church Road, which supposedly follows the line of the mound. Supposedly, the circular shape relates to a pagan belief that evil spirits could hide in corners. According to legend, the church was originally intended to be built at Tranmere, but one morning the builders found that all the materials had been moved to Bebington by some unnamed force. Philosophically, the sturdy workmen continued building in this new location.

 

In the early days of Christianity in Wirral, the church was known as Whitchurch, or the White Church, due to the creamy Storeton sandstone from which it was built. Bones and swords and spearheads were found beneath the church in the nineteenth century, and it is believed that they were the remains of warriors who died at the battle of Brunanburh (937 AD), fought in the vicinity according to some stories. At night, ghostly monks have been seen, some of them floating above the level of the ground, others seemingly wading through the earth.

 

Lost Churches and Ruined Chapels

 

The North Wirral shore has receded over the centuries. A church once stood where the waves now roll off the shore where Leasowe Lighthouse stands. Swimmers have reported that it is still possible to find gravestones beneath the water. Legend says that the church bell is sometimes audible.

 

Another lost church is the one that gave its name to Overchurch, near Upton. Built almost a mile from the centre of Upton, the church seems to have once been part of a village named Overchurch (‘the church by the shore,’ a name which has inspired further legends concerning Wirral’s changing coastline). Nothing remains of the village now, nor did it in the early nineteenth century when the church (Upton’s parish church) was finally abandoned after over a century of neglect. The church was demolished and later a new parish church erected in Upton itself.

 

During the demolition of the church, the famous Overchurch Rune Stone, or Biddan Stone, was discovered. This dates from Anglo Saxon times, some time after St Chad converted the area to Christianity, and it commemorates one Aethelmund, for whom the ‘folk’ were asked to offer prayer. One theory links this Aethelmund with the ealdorman of that name who ruled over the Hwicce, under the auspices of the Mercian kings Offa and Coenwulf, and who fell in battle against the men of Wessex in 802.

The churchyard is a circular area like St. Andrews and the church at Woodchurch, which has led some to conclude that it began its existence as a pre-Christian religious site. Rumour has it that modern pagans and witches congregate here at the Summer Solstice. Now entirely overgrown, hidden at the centre of woods near Moreton Spur, nothing remains of the church itself except for a few semi-legible gravestones and a yew tree. It is an eerie spot.

 

The ruined funerary chapel in Flaybrick Cemetery is also the centre of a cycle of legends. Built as a Non Conformist and Anglican chapel (a Roman Catholic chapel elsewhere in the cemetery has been demolished), its walls contain what appear to be occult or Masonic symbols, including an eye in a pyramid and a six pointed star. Last used in 1975, it is a roofless ruin inhabited by bats and frequented by Satanists.

 

According to a story current in the North End of Birkenhead, its ruinous nature is connected with the murderer Lock Ah Tam. Lock Ah Tam was a Chinese man who settled in Liverpool in the early twentieth century, where he worked as a superintendent of Chinese sailors. After receiving a blow to the head when attacked by Russian sailors, his personality deteriorated and he became violent and drunken, finally murdering his wife and children by shooting them. The jury rejected a plea of diminished responsibility due to insanity, and he was hanged in Walton Gaol.

 

His victims were buried in Flaybrick Cemetery, supposedly at the same time as the execution. According to the current story, the minister who conducted the funeral ceremony later committed suicide in the now ruined chapel, which mysteriously burnt down shortly afterwards. According to other stories, Lock Ah Tam’s ghost stalks the path near his victims’ grave.

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