BARRIE HUDSON returns to his home turf on the Wirral peninsula, and finds there’s still plenty left to discover

IT’S strange to be invited as a tourist to the place where you grew up and then find good things you knew little or nothing about.

It’s stranger still to be invited back a few years later and find even more.

Perhaps it’s true that we take things for granted when we live among them.

The Wirral Peninsula lies between Liverpool to the east and Chester and North Wales to the west. It can be reached by road from Swindon in as little as three hours or so, provided the M6 isn’t being overly temperamental.

Though the peninsula covers only about 15 square miles, it manages to cater for all the major visitor attraction food groups. There are historic houses, tranquil woodland and gardens, coastal walking and cycle paths, plenty of good restaurants and a selection of shopping venues ranging from upmarket designer affairs to traditional market stalls.

There are museums, art galleries, animal and bird sanctuaries, cinemas, theatres and children’s attractions.

The hotel chosen as our base by the local tourism department was the Grove House, which nestles among 1930s semi-detached houses in Wallasey, a small town in the top right corner of the peninsula.

It’s friendly, family-owned, and one of the area’s most popular wedding venues.

The rooms offer all the comforts of a modern hotel, but unlike certain modern hotels the place feels anything but impersonal. Rooms start at £69 per night and there is a range of special meal and accommodation deals.

The hotel stands across the road from a large and lively pub called the Nelson Hotel, and is a few minutes’ walk from the local station. The railway network is excellent; there are stations throughout Wirral and even on a Sunday it’s easy to get as far as Liverpool or Chester in less than an hour.

Something else the peninsula excels at is excellent restaurants. We dined at two during our stay.

Thornton Hall Hotel and Spa is based in and around a 19th century manor house. It is the most striking building in an unspoiled village, Thornton Hough, which was already well established – albeit under another name – when William the Conqueror sent his minions on the stocktaking exercise which became the Domesday Book.

Restaurant patrons dine in a truly exquisite high-ceilinged room with panelled walls. The a la carte menu comes in at £45 per person – other menus are available – and is worth every penny. Main courses include venison, Gressingham Duck and Mackerel with horseradish, oyster and beetroot. Dessert choices are from a variety of exotic confections with ingredients ranging from matcha green tea and passion fruit to rhubarb.

We also visited the Jug and Bottle in Heswall, a large venue which takes the notion of wholesome pub food and gives it an upmarket - but still affordable at £11 or so for most mains - makeover.

Why have plain old fish and chips or bangers and mash, for example, when you can have local ale battered cod or wild boar bangers?

Among the most beautiful of the peninsula’s many visitor attractions is Ness Botanic Gardens, 64 acres of beautiful all-year-round greenery near the Welsh border.

The gardens were founded at the turn of the20th Century by a Liverpool cotton trader called Arthur Kilpin Bulley, who funded global cutting and seed-collecting expeditions. Today the gardens, as well as being open to the public, host some of the University of Liverpool’s botanical research.

Also founded by a Victorian businessman was one of the Wirral’s better known locations, Port Sunlight. The village was created by Lord Leverhulme, an idealistic if paternalistic soap baron who believed a well-housed workforce was a happy and productive one.

The beautiful houses, and public structures such as the Lady Lever Art Gallery, have hardly changed since the last stones were laid. Walking among little more than a few streets, the visitor can see hundreds of listed buildings.

Port Sunlight and Leverhulme’s soap works are visible from a much more recent addition to Wirral’s roster of places to see. Until not so long ago Port Sunlight River Park was a landfill. Now it is an expanse of woodland with grassy areas, a wildlife lake, pathways and a hill commanding views across the Mersey to Liverpool’s ever-changing skyline, to which at least one shiny new tower seems to be added every few months.

Created by a charity, The Land Trust, the park is managed by another, Autism Together.

Tranquillity can also be found on the other side of Wirral at the RSPB’s Burton Mere Wetlands, home of countless wading species, ducks, geese and dragonflies.

There are hides, nature trails and friendly staff always on hand, and entry costs £4 for adults with various concessions available.

Within easy travelling distance is Brimstage Hall, another of the peninsula’s many historic manor houses. The first building on the site is thought to have risen in the 12th century, but these days the hall and courtyard are home to a collection of charming independent vintage, antique and craft shops.

On an offbeat note, Wirral may well be the only place in the country where one of the garden centres is also marketed as a visitor attraction.

Gordale was founded nearly 70 years ago and was one of the first places of its kind. It has grown enormously over the decades and is now to normal garden centres what a hypermarket is to a small general shop.

It even boasts something reminiscent of an American roadside attraction – a giant Weber barbecue outside which signifies the centre’s status as a major stockist.

The best advice to anybody considering a visit to the Wirral is to start with

Travel facts:

Barrie stayed at the Grove House

Hotel and Restaurant, Grove Road, Wallasey CH14 3GF. Tel: 0151 639 3947.

Email Places of interest: Thornton Hall Hotel and Spa.

Tel: 0151 336 3938. Email: Jug and Bottle.

Tel: 0151 342 5535. Email: Ness Botanic Gardens. Port Sunlight River Park. Brimstage Hall and Courtyard.