Roger St. Pierre discovers why events travel south of the MerseyLiverpool’s spectacular renaissance is not the only good news coming from Merseyside. Groups that take the ferry ‘Cross The Mersey’ to the Wirral discover a green and leafy peninsula where the ‘feelgood factor’ has been running rampant.
Ashore in Birkenhead they find the lavishly refurbished Woodside terminal with its U-Boat exhibition and restored maritime buildings and a grandiose Victorian town hall in a town that, until very recently near-derelict, has re-found its heart and soul.
And, at the point where the mighty Mersey empties into the Irish Sea, there’s the now once again bustling little seaside resort of New Brighton, with its £70m re-generation programme well on course, including an £11m re-fit of the iconic Floral Pavilion Theatre and Conference Centre, an 8-screen digital cinema and a new-build 66-bed hotel.
Strategically located on a low bluff with dramatic views across the resort to the sea, the Pavilion has eight meeting rooms, the theatre being the largest, with a seating capacity of over 800.
There was a mega-buzz all over the Wirral Peninsula one weekend last month when the dynamic Ulster hero, Rory McIlroy, showed the world how to play golf with his spectacular victory in the British Open Golf Championship on the wide open Royal Liverpool links course at Hoylake, taking a near £1m purse.
That one event brought a quarter of a million visitors to the Wirral. The hordes of golf enthusiasts came not just to watch today’s greats but in many cases to sample for themselves a round or two on one or other of the area’s 14 superb courses.
Meanwhile, cycling is being touted in business circles around the nation as the new golf, with the best bikes costing £15,000 and more and mega business deals – like the recent tie-in between America’s Verizon and Vodafone – as likely to be cemented while riding the lanes as over drinks at the 19th hole.
Ideal for group activities, The Wirral has a range of enticing specially dedicated cycling routes, including the meticulously signposted and undemanding 35-mile Wirral Circular Trail, which unveils such scenic highlights as the renowned Red Rocks beach, the imposing brick-built Leasowe Lighthouse, dating from 1763, and views across the Dee estuary to the seal sanctuary and Hilbre Islands Nature Reserve and the brooding mountains of North Wales.
Another pretty cycle route, along the 12-mile bed of a former railway line, runs through Wirral Country Park, opened in 1973 as Britain’s first dedicated country park, providing a walk, a cycling route and a bridleway.
While out two-wheeling, groups visit the near legendary Eureka Café, haunt of local bikies for half a century, for a well-earned cuppa and massive slices of home made cake. Many corporate charity rides include this welcoming venue in their itinerary.
Opened in 1847 as the first publicly funded park in the world, Birkenhead Park was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton of Crystal Palace fame and is claimed to have inspired many of the features that American architect Frederick Law Olmsted embodied into his designs for New York’s Central Park.
The fascinating museum and the Lady Lever Art Gallery can lend a lustre to corporate events. Fringing on Cheshire’s ‘footballers’ wives’ territory – and with property prices to match – The Wirral has no shortage of trendy pubs, bars and eating places, especially along the five or so mile strip between Hoylake and West Kirby.
With the Open and its crowds in town, we found it hard to get a table but local connections worked the trick for us at the multi award-winning Wro, comprising the Bar, the Lounge and the Loft, spread across three sites within yards of each other. The bistro style food was excellent, the cocktails spot on.
For our second night, we put on our glad rags and joined a coterie of the world’s best golfers who were fine dining at the exclusive Hillbark Hotel, a Tudor-styled black and white half-timbered extravaganza that was actually built in 1891 for the Hudson Soap family, forerunners of Lever Brothers.
It is now the smallest 5-star hotel in Britain and the only one on the Wirral. From the intimate Krug Room to the show-stopping 500-capacity ballroom, the ultra luxurious Hillbark is well geared for the meetings market and has 250 acres of parkland and gardens to accommodate bespoke team building events, with sailing, fishing, shooting, archery, walking and, of course, golf among the activities on offer. Said to have been inspired by Cheshire’s famed Little Moreton Hall, the house was itself the inspiration for a copycat property that Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany later built in Potsdam.
Back in 1929-31, this remarkable building was taken down piece by piece then re-assembled at its current site in Frankby, at a cost of £150,000 – or around £40m in today’s money.
The Wirral’s stats are equally impressive. The peninsula is the home borough of Elvis Costello, Daniel Craig, Paul Hollywood, Glenda Jackson, Chris Boardman, Ian Botham and many other celebs. It has a tourism economy worth more than £310m a year, attracting almost 7m visitors, providing around 4,400 FTE jobs and showing 5% annual growth over the past half decade. It’s the UK home of the giant multi-national Unilever, of Cammell Laird shipbuilders and of Typhoo tea.
Almost every event can find a very relevant connection to justify choosing The Wirral as a destination.