Hilbre Island

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Hilbre Island


Hilbre Island from Middle Eye
Location: 53°22’48"N, 3°13’12"W

The Hilbre Islands (pronounced Hill-bree) are an archipelago consisting of three islands at the mouth of the estuary of the River Dee. The islands form the westernmost point of Cheshire. They are a Local Nature Reserve and are within the estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest.[1][2] As of 2012, the islands have no permanent residents.

Location and character

Hilbre Island, the largest and westernmost of the group, is approximately 11½ acres in area, and lies about a mile from Red Rocks, the nearest part of the mainland of the Wirral Peninsula. The other two islands are Middle Eye (or in older sources Middle Island and on Ordnance Survey maps Little Hilbre), which is about three acres in size and Little Eye, which is considerably smaller. All three islands are formed of red Bunter sandstone. The main island and Middle Eye are less than a hundred yards apart.

Hilbre Island is one of 43 (unbridged) tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland of Great Britain.[3] The island can be reached on foot from West Kirby at low tide; this is a popular activity with tourists, especially during the summer months. Little Eye and Middle Eye are both unpopulated, but Hilbre Island has a few houses, some of which are privately owned.

Origin of the name

Hilbre Island's name derives from the dedication of a mediæval chapel built on the island to St Hildeburgh, an Anglo-Saxon holy woman, after which it became known as Hildeburgheye or Hildeburgh's island.[4] Hildeburgh is said to have lived on Hilbre Island in the 7th century as an anchorite. Some consider that she never existed, while others equate her with St Ermenhilde, the mother of St Werburgh to whom Chester Cathedral is dedicated,[5] or St Edburga of Mercia, daughter of the pagan king Penda.[6] The 19th-century St Hildeburgh's Church, Hoylake, built nearby on the mainland, is named after her.


The islands are thought to have been occupied on and off since the Stone Age: several finds of Stone and Bronze Age items and Roman pottery items were discovered in 1926.

Hilbre Island may already have been a hermitage before the Norman invasion[7] or at least a place of pilgrimage[8] based around the lore of St Hildeburgh. In about 1080 a cell and church for Benedictine monks was established on Hilbre Island as a dependency of Chester Cathedral. Although not named directly, it is believed that all three islands were mentioned in the Domesday Book in which mention is made of Chircheb (West Kirby) having two churches: one in the town and one on an island in the sea.

The area was part of the lands of the Norman lord Robert of Rhuddlan. He gave the islands to the abbey at Saint-Evroul-sur-Ouche in Normandy, who in turn passed responsibility to the Abbey of St Werburgh in Chester.[4] The island became a common place for pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries. At the dissolution of the monasteries two monks were allowed to remain on the island, as they maintained a beacon for shipping in the river mouth. The last monk left the island in about 1550,[6] as it was no longer considered a sanctuary, having become a centre for commerce and a busy trading port – so much so that a custom house was established to collect taxes on the goods traded. John Leland briefly describes Hilbre Island in his Itineraries (c. 1538–43) and says that "there was a Celle of Monkes of Chestre and a Pilgrimage of Our Lady of Hilbyri", though his contemporary description mentions only "conies" (rabbits) inhabiting the island.[9] William Camden wrote of Hilbre in Britannia (1586), the first chorographical survey of the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, as follows: "In the utmost brinke of this Promontorie lieth a small, hungrie, barren and sandie Isle called Il-bre, which had sometime a little cell of monkes in it."[10]

In 1692 a small factory was set up to refine rock salt. There was also a beer house or inn, which was open when the writer Richard Ayton visited in 1813.[11] With the silting of the River Dee trade switched to ports on the River Mersey and the trade vanished from the island leading to the closure of the beer house; part of the structure of this building remains incorporated in the custodian's residence.

The islands were bought in 1856 by the Trustees of the Liverpool Docks, which later became known as the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Hilbre Island Lighthouse was constructed here in 1927. The islands were sold to Hoylake Council in 1945 for £2,500.


The most southerly building on the island is the Hilbre Bird Observatory, from which birds are continuously monitored in connection with a national network of observatories and ringing stations.[3]

In January 2011 it was announced that there would be no permanent ranger. Wirral Council said that they had had difficulty finding a ranger prepared to live without mains electricity or running water on the island.[12]



  1. "Hilbre Island". Natural England. http://www.lnr.naturalengland.org.uk/Special/lnr/lnr_details.asp?C=0&N=hilbre&ID=215. 
  2. "Map of Hilbre Island". Natural England. http://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx?startTopic=Designations&activelayer=lnrIndex&query=REF_CODE%3D%271009520%27. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Caton, Peter (2011). No Boat Required – Exploring Tidal Islands. Matador. ISBN 978-1848767-010. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Roberts, Stephen J. (2007). A History of Wirral. The History Press. ISBN 978-1-86077-512-3. 
  5. "History". St Hildeburgh's Parish Church, Hoylake. http://www.sthildeburgh.org/history.html. Retrieved 12 May 2016. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Hilbre Island, Dee Estuary, Wirral Peninsula". The Journal of Antiquities. 15 May 2012. https://thejournalofantiquities.com/2012/05/15/hilbre-island-dee-estuary-wirral-peninsula/. Retrieved 12 May 2016. 
  7. Sulley, P. (1889). The Hundred of Wirral. Birkenhead. p. 247. 
  8. Anderson, R. (1 February 1982). "History". in Craggs, J. D.. Hilbre: The Cheshire Island: Its History and Natural History. Liverpool University Press. pp. 11. ISBN 0853233144. 
  9. Leland, John (1744–45). "The Itinerary of John Leland the Antiquary: In Nine Volumes". in Thomas, Thomas. Oxford. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=LNIBAAAAMAAJ&vq=hath%20conies&pg=PA52#v=snippet&q=hath%20conies&f=false. Retrieved 12 June 2016. 
  10. Camden, William (1610). Britain, or, a Chorographicall Description of the most flourishing Kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland. http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/travellers/Camden/22. Retrieved 12 June 2016. 
  11. Coward, Thomas Alfred (1903). "X: Western Wirral". Picturesque Cheshire. London & Manchester: Sherratt and Hughes. 


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Hilbre Island)