Hilbre, situated in the River Dee (Holy River) estuary off the coast of the Wirral Peninsula, can be reached on foot at low tide from the mainland town of West Kirby via the smaller islands of Little Eye and Middle Eye. Views across the Dee Estuary are truly beautiful, and opportunities to see rare wildlife are exceptional.
The Dee estuary is one of the ten most important estuaries in Europe for overwintering wildfowl and waders. Large numbers of Grey seals can be seen swimming around the island on most days of the year; dolphin and even whale sightings have also been reported.
Hilbre island is named after Saint Hildeburgh, an Anglo-Saxon holy woman, who is said to have lived on the island in the 7th century AD as an anchorite. Some consider that she never existed while others equate her with Saint Ermenhilde, the mother of Saint Werburgh, to whom Chester Cathedral is dedicated, or St Edburga of Mercia, daughter of the pagan king, Penda.
In about 1080AD a cell and church for Benedictine monks was established on the 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, France who in turn passed responsibility to the Abbey of St. Werburgh in Chester.
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 1550AD, 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.
In 1692 a small factory was set up to refine rock salt. There was also a beer house or inn. 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.
Groups are restricted to 50 people and permits are required in advance for any group of 6 or more people. These are allocated on a strictly first come basis, and you may find that your chosen day is already booked.
For Information & Advice call 0151 648 4371/3884.
The island is cut off from the mainland by the tide for up to five hours out of every 12. If you are planning a visit, you must allow yourself enough time to leave Hilbre at least three hours before high water, or longer if any of your party walks slowly. It takes about one hour to cross the two miles to Hilbre. There are no shops or fresh water on the islands, and very little shelter. Overnight stays are not permitted.