Why doesn’t the Wirral show off its Viking heritage?

The Wirral Peninsula attracts many tourists, but few are aware of the peninsula’s rich Viking heritage.

The Visit Wirral website celebrates the area’s history and recommends places to visit, such as the Port Sunlight Museum, Birkenhead Priory and the Williamson Art Gallery, but there is little mention of Wirral’s Viking heritage.

Wirral’s Viking history is no secret, and over the years, there have been a number of reports in the media that have drawn attention to the Viking connection, but their reports have not ignited the passion to create a centre to show the Vikings in Wirral. Unlike York with its Jorvik Centre, there is no place in the Wirral that fully celebrates its Viking past.

The major problem in establishing the authenticity of Wirral’s Viking heritage is that the period of the Vikings is commonly known as the ‘Dark Ages’, which reflects the difficulty of researching this period of history. While there have been some finds of Viking artefacts in the Wirral, there are no contemporary documents from the period. This makes the history of Wirral’s Vikings subject to much speculation.

Chester has its Roman Amphitheatre that dramatically shows off Chester’s Roman heritage. Wirral does not have anything of that scale to celebrate its Viking history, but there have been artefacts discovered at Meols, including brooches, weapon fragments and part of a drinking horn. Fragments of a Viking cross were discovered at the locations of Hilbre Island, West Kirby, Woodchurch and Bromborough, and the Hogback Stone at St Bridget’s Church West Kirby dates from the 11th Century.

The history of the Vikings in the Wirral

The Norse Vikings settled in the Wirral in 902AD and were in the area until about 1066AD. The Vikings settled in Northern England, but wanted to push farther south. The defining Battle of Brunaburh is where the Vikings battled the Anglo Saxons who defeated the Vikings and halted their progress towards the South. The Wirral village of Brunanburh (now Bromborough) is thought to have been the site of the battle, but there is no definite proof of this.

There was a large Viking settlement in Meols, which is where the Viking King Canute was thought to have lived. He famously tried to turn back the tide without success. There have been some Viking metalwork items found in Meols as evidence of a settlement.

The suffix ‘-by’ is probably Viking in origin. Areas such as Frankby, Pensby and Raby were places that contained Viking settlements.

In Thingwall, the Vikings formed a type of parliament that met at Cross Hill. Vikings from a wide area were thought to have gathered at there to discuss their political affairs.

The Viking Ship

Perhaps what is needed to celebrate Wirral’s Viking heritage is to find and display a major Viking artefact. In 2007, there was the exciting prospect of unearthing one: a whole Viking long ship.

In 1938, builders at the Railway Inn at Meols found a fragment of a Viking boat in the pub’s car park. As they did not want their building work interrupted, they reburied the fragment, but not before one of the builders made a sketch of the find. The drawing was largely forgotten until in 1991, when a program on television about the Vikings in Wirral prompted the owner of the drawing and son of the builder who had drawn it, Jon McCrae, to hand it over to the local museum. The drawing remained in the museum, unread and forgotten for over a decade.

In 2007, the Railway Inn made an application to build a new patio on a section of the car park. In the process of dealing with the application, the council noted that there was a record of the presence of the boat and, because of that, ruled that the depth of the patio’s foundations had to be restricted in order not to damage the Viking remains.

Professor Steve Harding, an expert on the Vikings, heard about the boat and organised a ground radar scan of the site. This revealed the remains of a 30×5 foot boat that would have carried dozens of Vikings. He believed that the boat was largely intact and preserved in blue clay. Professor Harding applied for European funds to carry out a full archaeological dig in order to remove the boat and displayed it in a museum. Alternately, he suggested that it could be preserved in the cellar of the pub to allow drinkers to view it whilst enjoying a drink.

Professor Harding failed to raise the money. If he had succeeded, then the display of the boat would have gone a long way to establish the importance of Wirral’s Viking heritage.

Despite Professor Harding’s certainty that he had discovered a Viking boat, not all experts are convinced that the boat dates back to the Vikings. There is no doubt that there is a boat under the pub car park, but there is no proof of its date.

Celebrating the Vikings

There is no museum in Wirral dedicated to the Vikings. Until one is established, then Wirral’s Viking heritage may not be widely known by the Brutish public. However, there are people and organisations in the Wirral that do try to keep the Viking history alive.

The Wirhalh Skip Felagr is a society that holds living history events that demonstrate mediaeval social customs and crafts. They also perform combat displays that portray battles between Vikings and Anglo Saxons.

In 2014, there were plans to recreate a full-size Viking settlement at Bebington. The group Big Heritage wanted this to be a major tourist attraction rivaling York’s Jorvik Centre, but the attraction has not come to fruition.

What Big Heritage did demonstrate is that there is a lot of interest in Wirral’s Viking history. They showed that what is needed to raise awareness of Viking history in Wirral is to build a major visitor attraction that tells the history of the Wirral Vikings, and encourages visitors and residents to find out more about the area’s rich Viking heritage.

Posted by Mark
March 30, 2017
Features

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