It’s 6:15 pm, and the light is bright in my eyes as I look westward towards Hilbre Island. There are figures out there, crossing the sand. It looks an easy stroll.
A board by the lifeguard hut explains that high tide will be around midnight. Low tide is now. You can cross over to the island within a 3 hour window either side of low tide, but if you miss the crossing deadline, you must wait on the island for 6 hours until the tide goes down.
Someone told me the crossing only takes about 20 minutes and so I leave my rucksack (and phone) in the car. Carrying only my Garmin and my camera, I set off across the sands. It’s not exactly a dry crossing, as you have to splash through standing pools of water, luckily most are only a few inches deep.
In fact, there are three islands out here. Hilbre Island itself, Little Hilbre close to it, and somewhat further away is Little Eye. The advice is to head for Little Eye first, and then turn north to walk up past Little Hilbre until you reach the main island.
It’s further than it looks, but eventually I reach Little Eye, passing around behind it, as the advice suggests.
On the other side of Little Eye, and looking across the Dee Estuary, I can see the coastline of Wales. There’s the slender finger of the lighthouse at Talacre, on the Point of Ayr, the north-east corner of Wales. Beyond is a hump – looks like an island – which I think must be the Great Orme. How wonderful to see those familiar landmarks again.
Little Eye consists of a striated outcrop of red sandstone sitting on top of a flatter shelf of rocks. The island is covered in short scrub and I can see a ruined building of some sort.
I would like to climb up and explore the place, but realise I’ve taken 15 minutes to get this far. Now, I feel the first pang of anxiety. There’s nobody else around. When exactly was high tide? Did I read the board wrongly?
I look northwards and see Hilbre Island itself is still some way away. And so I decide there’s no time to explore Little Eye, because I don’t want to get caught out by the tide.
The route is drier here, as I’m walking along a ridge of rocks and sand that connects Little Eye with Hilbre. On the way I pass several groups of people heading back the way I’ve just come.
To my right, across a vast plain of sand and water, is Hilbre Point on the mainland. It’s the westernmost part of Hoylake and the sun catches the buildings and makes them glow.
Onwards. I hear a noise behind me and turn around to see a Land Rover making its way across the sands. Lazy tourists!
I reach what I think is Hilbre Island, but realise it’s only Little Hilbre. It is a humpy, grass-covered mound, long and thin, with some interesting rock formations. I think I’m the only person here, until I spot a young couple tiptoeing cautiously along a rocky ledge. looks slippery.
I walk over the top of Little Hilbre, it seems easier than walking on the rocks around it. When I check my watch I realise it’s already 7pm! It’s taken me 45 minutes to get this far
Now there is Hilbre Island. Dead ahead. Hard to see the details of the island because it’s silhouetted against the bright evening sun.
The seaweed-covered rocks are slippery and, rather worryingly, after seeing the young couple heading back to Little Eye, there is nobody else around. And I haven’t got my phone with me. Nor my poles. Slowly does it – I can’t afford to risk an injury.
I remember the Land Rover. If I injure myself, I can always ask for a lift back to West Kirby and the mainland.
Then I turn around and, with the sun behind my back, can finally take some decent photographs of Little Hilbre.
Onwards, walking along rocky ridges, avoiding slippery green areas, I finally reach my destination – Hilbre Island. I’m not sure where to go, but see tyre tracks heading around the back of the island, and so I follow them.
The rocks here are very red – their colour accentuated by the low rays of the sinking sun. It’s the Wirral’s own version of Ayers Rock.
I follow a paved track up to the top of the island. And, to my surprise, discover a group of small cottages. Do people live here?
On the highest point is a circular hut with wide windows. At first I think it’s a lifeboat lookout station – because a lifeboat house is marked on my map – but later I realise the circular building is a bird observatory.
I spot the Land Rover. It’s parked behind one of the cottages. Doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. So much for a lift back. People must live here after all. I spot a man painting the side of a hut, but otherwise the place seems deserted.
A ruined building stands at the end of the island. That must be the lifeboat house. No longer used, obviously. Beyond it is a tidal gauge – according to my map.
A few hundred yards away, on the sands between Hilbre and the mainland, a group of young people are playing football. They look like match-stick men from this distance but the sight is a relief, because they seem in no hurry to cross back to the other shore – which is reassuring. On the other hand – the thought strikes me – maybe they’re staying on Hilbre overnight?
I check my watch. Crikey! It’s 7:20 pm. 1 hour and 40 minutes since I set off. And 1 hour and 40 minutes until the 3 hour cut-off time for returning. Another thought strikes me. Is it OK to set off 3 hours before high tide? Or must you actually complete the crossing by then? I don’t know.
Anyway, I abandon my plan to try to circumnavigate the island. It feels too risky to spend any more time here.
Why didn’t I brink my rucksack. Or, at least, my phone. I’ve got no food, only a thin cycle-top over a thin T-shirt, and – most importantly – no water. To be stuck here overnight would be most unpleasant.
Fighting down a sense of panic, I begin retracing my steps at a brisk trot.
I only take a few photos on the way back. But can’t resist this shot – taken on full zoom – of the 4 towers of the Connor’s Quay power station over the water catching the sun, and the single strut of the Flintshire Bridge.
Passing in front of the Little Eye seems the shortest route. (Actually, I have to fight the urge to head for West Kirby in a straight line – but there must be a reason why the official advice is to go around the Little Eye. Maybe there are sinking sands out there? Or deep and non-wadeable channels?)
Alone, with no other soul in sight, I march through pools – and feel the water soaking my socks and getting into my boots. Is it my imagination, or is the tide higher now? How rapidly does it come in? Is it like Morecambe Bay where the incoming water moves faster than a person can run?
It’s only once I’ve covered a significant part of the distance that I can begin to relax. The pools, in reality, are only a few inches deep. I’m splashing – because I’m hurrying – and that’s why my boots are filled with water. I’m being silly.
Close to the shore now, I turn and take a final photograph of Hilbre Island (to the right of the photo below) and Little Eye (to the left), across that vast expanse of sand and mud.
Onwards towards West Kirby. The sun slips down under a finger of cloud and sends a wash of light across the buildings along the promenade. I’m nearly there.
Safely back on dry land I check my watch. 8:01 pm. A good hour before the cut-off time. It only took me – in my panic – 40 minutes to get back here. I’ve been walking at 3.5 mph, despite the difficult terrain. That’s a record speed for me!
Anyway, it’s a good job I didn’t need rescuing The lifeguards have gone home.
This walk = 4.6 miles
Total distance = 2,606.6 miles