The people’s hill

Bidston Hill is special. Where else can you find a Windmill, an Observatory and a Lighthouse on a hill, only a few minutes away from a major population centre?

We must not take it for granted.

After many years of campaigning, 46 acres of Bidston Hill were secured for public use in 1894. The Bidston Hill Committee raised the lion’s share of the purchase price by public subscription, Birkenhead Corporation contributed £5000, and the vendor, Mr Charles de Grey Vyner, helped by accepting the lowest of three valuations.  By 1908, the area of Bidston Hill reserved for public use had grown to 90 acres, and now included Taylor’s Wood, named after Edmund Taylor, chairman of the Bidston Hill Committee. The purchase of Bidston Hill is commemorated in this tablet on the side of the Windmill.

Tablet on Bidston Windmill - click the image for a transcription
Tablet on Bidston Windmill – click the image for a transcription

After Bidston Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1913, the Birkenhead Corporation leased it for a while from Mersey Docks, then finally bought it in 1935.  At the time, the Corporation said: “By this purchase the land would be available for all future generations for recreational purposes”. This intention was reflected both in the price – a bargain £1000 – and in a restrictive covenant prohibiting new buildings. Needless to say, the lighthouse and its grounds did not become part of the Bidston Hill Recreation  Area. Instead, the lighthouse cottages were used as accommodation.

Meanwhile, the focus of activities at Bidston Observatory shifted from astronomy and chronometers to tidal studies and oceanography. By the 1970s, the oceanographers had outgrown the Observatory and needed more office and laboratory space. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) entered into negotiations with Birkenhead Corporation over the Lighthouse and its grounds.

In 1974, the NERC signed a 99-year lease over the former kitchen gardens of the Lighthouse, and construction started on a new research facility (in defiance of the restrictive covenant in the 1935 conveyance). This was later named the Joseph Proudman Building. At about the same time, some of the tenants of the Lighthouse Cottages were persuaded to move out, but the Connell family, residents of the cottages since 1937, determined to remain.

Joseph Proudman Building. Photo by Peter Craine, 2007.
Joseph Proudman Building. Photo by Peter Craine, 2007.

In 1981, NERC bought the Lighthouse and Cottages from Wirral Council (the successors of the Birkenhead Corporation), and used the lighthouse tower for storage and No. 3 Lighthouse Cottages for offices. No. 1 Lighthouse Cottage came with Connell family as sitting tenants.

In 2004 the oceanographers (then known as the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory) abandoned Bidston Hill for a new building at the University of Liverpool. The future of Bidston Hill was uncertain.

Various proposals for a re-development of the entire site were considered. At one stage, plans were drawn up for an eleven storey residential re-development of the Proudman site. Thanks to some vigorous campaigning by the Bidston Preservation Trust, the immediate threat was averted. The trust put forward its own plans to convert the entire site to a museum, but failed to convince NERC and Wirral Council that they had a sustainable business plan. It is said that the site was offered to the National Trust, who turned it down for want of an adequate dowry.

No doubt the situation today would be rather different but for Mary Connell, a resident of the lighthouse cottages since 1937. She fought off the combined legal might of NERC and Wirral Council, and finally succeeded to exercise her “right to buy” No. 1 Lighthouse Cottages. Part of the 1981 conveyance of the Lighthouse to NERC was ruled to be illegal, and had to be reversed.

NERC put the Lighthouse to market in 2010. Stephen and Amanda Pickles made the highest bid, and the sale went through in May of the following year.

In 2012, NERC applied to demolish the Joseph Proudman Building, which was expensive to maintain, riddled with asbestos, and potentially liable for business rates. The Bidston Preservation Trust opposed the demolition and applied to have the Joseph Proudman Building Grade-II listed, but this time the community was split. Some argued that the building was an eye-sore and detracted from the group value of the larger site. A minority held the position that the building was a fine example of cold-war architecture. The demolition went ahead, and by February 2013 little remained.

In 2014, NERC sold the Observatory and the site of the former Braehead Cottages to a developer. There was a competing, but lower, bid from a community group. The developer drew up plans for 9 dwellings on the car park and Braehead Cottage site, but these were never submitted to council. Over the next eighteen months, the condition of the Observatory deteriorated rapidly.

In September 2016, Edward and Fiona Clive succeeded in buying the Observatory. They are making good progress in their plans to operate the Observatory as an artistic research centre and museum, and desperately needed repairs are now under way.

Meanwhile, the interest in the Lighhouse as a visitor centre is growing. A thousand people visited the Lighthouse in 2016, and 2017 is on track to set a new record.

For the first time since 2004, the prospects of sustainable, public-facing futures for both the Observatory and Lighthouse look bright.

But all this – the heritage of Bidston Observatory, Bidston Lighthouse and Bidston Hill itself – will be at risk if development is allowed on the Proudman land.

Let us not let be the generation that gives up on Bidston Hill!