Step inside the Wirral landmark very few people have ever visited

Most small villages would be counted lucky to have just one major landmark standing out on the skyline but at Bidston there are three.

A windmill, a lighthouse and, right next to that on Bidston Hill, a Victorian twin-domed observatory.

Anyone driving or walking anywhere near the area will have noticed the splendid Victorian building, looking like a cross between a mansion house and a laboratory, and wondered what it is like inside.

And for the first time in many years you can now step through the door for and see for yourself – at least once the current lockdown has ended.

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Bidston Observatory

As well as its beautiful wooden domes, sweeping staircase, cavernous cellars and several incredible views of the Liverpool waterfront – surely contenders for the best panoramas in the whole of Merseyside – Bidston Observatory was the site of some of the most important scientific research for 150 years.

In 2016, it was bought by a group of artists who now run the building as a not-for-profit 'artistic research centre', providing a place where people in the arts can spend time working away from the bustle of daily life.

Artist and trauma therapist Fiona James and her husband, furniture designer Edward Clive, both 38, searched the country for somewhere they could use as a home for their centre before hearing about the observatory.

Ed told the ECHO's Liminal podcast: "We became fascinated by it. It wasn't even on the market at that point."

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Built in 1866 to designs by architect George Fosbery Lyster, Bidston Observatory was initially run by John Hartnupp, an astronomer and director of the Liverpool Observatory, who was the first person to calculate the longitude of Liverpool.

Each dome contained a telescope – one used to calculate time, the other one known as his 'comet telescope'.

Crews of ships crossing the Equator had been mystified as to why their chronometers – instruments used to measure time on board ships – appeared not to be working correctly, until the discovery that the change in temperature caused the oil in their mechanisms to change viscosity and run faster.

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Mariners from all over the British Empire would send their chronometers to Bidston to be calibrated. The enormous ground floor room that is now used as a kitchen was originally the chronometer room with its walls covered in clocks.

Fiona said: "They did up to 1,000 a year. The observatory was built as space where you could bring chronometers and they would raise and lower their temperature to find out how they would work at sea."

The Doodson-Lege Tidal Predicting Machine now on display t the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool

The research into time naturally evolved into tidal research, with all of the world's tide times calculated at Bidston – including those for the D Day Landings – as well as the designs for the Thames Barrier. During World War II, the observatory was a Luftwaffe target as it was known as a place of important scientific work.

It was a smart machine, a couple of metres wide and covered in brass gears, pulleys and cogs, that was used to predict tide times. One of its inventors, Salford-born oceanographer Arthur Doodson, lived and worked at the observatory where the Doodson-Lege Tidal Prediction Machine was kept in the cellar but is now on display at the National Oceangraphic Centre in Liverpool.

Ed said: "It was effectively the first computer that could predict a year of tide times and height anywhere in the world.

"Obviously that's got huge ramifications for shipping, especially on Merseyside with this really tricky sandbar at the mouth of the estuary. Knowing the tide times was critically important."

The women working at Bidston Observatory during World War II

A second machine was kept in the coach house in case either site was bombed during air raids.

Doodson and a staff of nine women researchers were based at the observatory, also taking it in turns on night watch as Bidston Hill was a key look-out point for the port.

The view from the roof of Bidston Observatory, including Liverpool skyline and Birkenhead Docks

Fiona said: "They actually foiled various attempts to bomb the docks from the vantage point of the roof.

"The US team was about 150 people, there were 150 people in Egypt as well – and then based at Bidston, doing all the D Day Landing predictions along with loads of other big pushes, were just nine women and one guy and two machines.

"Everyone that worked here, and we're met generations of them, had a really nice time. They're out of town, the building's lovely. When we first came and looked at this building, you really sensed it. There's a nice atmosphere."

Inside one of the two Domes at Bidston Observatory.(Pic Andrew Teebay).

In great Victorian tradition, Lyster designed the observatory as a monument to the work that was being done there. It was not only immensely practical – with its cavernous cellars, large rooms, series of bedrooms – now using by visiting artists – and two domes, but it was beautiful too.

As you step through the front door you are met with a glorious wooden staircase and Minton-tiled floor.

Fiona said: "It's a strange building. Era-wise you can see it's got this industrial might to it but there are things that look way later -Brutalist. It was really about, 'this is the future, this is star-gazing'.

"One of the nicest features is some of the cornicing upstairs where the ratios are the same as around the dome, so there are references to the technical all the way through it."

Inside the cavernous cellars at Bidston Observatory

Later users of the building were not always respectful of its beautiful architectural features when there was work that needed to be urgently done.

Fiona said: "You look at some pipework that goes right through beautiful cornicing and you realise in the '50s there was a really pressing task to be able to get more bodies in this building to do research – and that was their priority.

"There are really sad things like beautiful marble, ammonite fireplaces that were just smashed up so they could put more bookshelves in. But this was a working building."

The staircase inside Bidston Observatory

Bidston residents had fought to save the observatory, which had fallen into some decay after being sold to a private landlord by its last occupants, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, which had moved into more modern premises at the University of Liverpool in 2004.

So it's perhaps unsurprising that many of them have been popping round to find out more about the building's new owners – sometimes even knocking on the kitchen windows with questions.

Ed said: "This room has windows at either end and the public footpath on to Bidston Hill over there so people quite often just wander around.

"You'll be having your breakfast and there'll be someone leaning in at the window. We found it very unnerving initially but everyone has been very friendly and you start to recognise people.

"People are very naturally inquisitive. They're always knocking on the door asking, 'What are you doing?' I'm like, 'Hi, I'm still in my slippers'.

"There's been a lot of support, and it's been really exciting having people locally coming and engaging with it and interested to see something happening here."

Bidston Observatory Artistic Research Centre runs heritage tours of the building. However, it is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Further details on its website.

Visit the Merseyside coastline from your living room

Listen to the full interview with Fiona and Ed, recorded on a tour of Bidston Observatory, on the ECHO's Liminal podcast.

In each episode, presenter Laura Davis takes listeners for a stroll along Merseyside's windswept coastline with the people who have made their lives at the edge.

Click HERE to find Liminal on all podcast apps, but for an interactive, immersive experience listen on the Entale app.

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