The phrase ‘hidden gem’ is often misused.
We’ve all been to these places, often to find they aren’t particularly hidden and ‘gem’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting.
Venturing into the world – for it is a world – of the Wirral Transport Museum is all the proof you’ll need that it’s the real deal.
The museum – featuring a fleet of buses and trams, a model railway and assorted vintage transport paraphernalia – can be found at the end of a tram track that snakes out of Woodside Ferry Terminal.
The trams still run at weekends, when the museum offers free entry, but there’s otherwise little sign that this is the centre of a UK first.
On 30 August 1860, the first tram service in the UK started operating at Birkenhead (‘a town of considerable importance’, noted the New York Herald).
The tramway conveyed workers from Woodside Ferry Terminal to Birkenhead Park – and subsequently Oxton. Some of those trams remain in Wirral Transport Museum and still manage the odd jaunt down to Woodside.
The building hums with gentle activity. To step inside is to step back in time, to an era of flat caps, vintage advertising hoardings and the faint whiff of axle grease. An old Mersey Ferries ticket office forms the entrance booth.
On the tracks today it’s Wallasey Corporation Tramways’ Bellamy, a lime-and-cream beauty that once connected Seacombe Ferry to New Brighton.
“Part of the charm is the trams have Birkenhead and Wallasey written on them – and that’s where they hail from,” says Rob Jones, Secretary of the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society Limited (MTPS).
“They worked the lines here and all have their own individual traits and liveries.”
Rob is a plain-speaking man, perhaps not one to suffer fools gladly. But when asked about his connection to the museum his face cracks into a smile.
“The trams are just beautiful – especially when you get to take them out.”
The opportunity to head out in one of the many vintage trams is undoubtedly a big draw and the constant maintenance means there’s a quiet industry inside the huge shed, which gives the place the feel of a living museum.
As visitors drink in the heritage, volunteers repair and maintain it. It’s a unique experience – the place feels alive. While it mines the warm nostalgia of yesteryear, change is afoot. Local non-profit Big Heritage – who also run the nearby, soon to be renovated, U Boat Museum at Woodside Ferry Terminal and Liverpool’s Western Approaches – will be the new custodians.
The company aims to increase visitor numbers to 40,000 a year. “We want to tell the story of Birkenhead’s social history through the exhibits; a people’s history,” says Dean Paton, CEO of Big Heritage.
“It’s a working-class thing isn’t it, the bus and tram.”
For Dean, the opportunity to take over the reins at the transport museum was too good to pass up, even if it brought a new set of challenges. “It genuinely is a hidden gem…” he pauses and grins. “Perhaps a rough diamond, but the collection is wonderful.”
Clearly there’s the potential to link up with nearby attractions such as the mooted Transport Shed on Dock Branch Park, which skirts within yards of the museum.
Dean hopes future day-trippers from over the water might spend a whole day in Birkenhead, rather than heading straight back to Liverpool.
Big Heritage wants to create apprenticeships to bring a new generation through too. With the two organisations joining forces, the museum – and the history of our world-first trams – looks more assured that it has for a long time.
Wirral Transport Museum is open from 1pm – 4.30pm weekends and Bank Holidays.
1 Taylor Street, Birkenhead, CH41 1BG