Hidden in the River Mersey you'll find Stanlow Island - a mysterious place with a fascinating past.

The island is located just off Ellesmere Port and it is cut off from the mainland by the Manchester Ship Canal.

It is effectively part of the massive Essar oil refinery complex, itself secretive and fenced off to deter casual sightseers.

Stanlow was once home to a community of monks for hundreds of years, and later became home to officers from the Manchester Ship Canal Police force and their families.

Traces of the island's history are still around today, including an abandoned police station and ruins of a medieval abbey which have been reclaimed by nature.

Pat Roper was among the people to have lived there in the 50s with her family, in one of the four cottages that were on the island at that time.

Back then Pat would regularly see workers catching the ferry to the island to work at Stanlow refinery.

The island has no permanent residents today but still welcomes hundreds of ships every year serving the refinery. That’s why there’s a 24-hour request ferry serving the island, shuttling mariners and refinery workers to and from when needed.

People wanting to visit the island must get permission from Essar. Among those to have visited it in recent years include a group of bird counters, who get permission to cross the canal to count the birds on the estuary as part of a nationwide survey.

To find out more about Stanlow Island we took a look at its incredible history and spoke to those that lived and worked there.

Stanlow Island, situated on The Manchester Ship Canal, North West England

Cistercian monks founded Stanlaw Abbey in 1178

The area was originally called Stanlaw but the name is believed to have later been changed to Stanlow because of a 19th century mapping error.

Cistercian monks founded Stanlaw Abbey on the remote Stanlaw point in 1178. In August 1277, King Edward I stayed there for three nights.

The remains of Stanlow Abbey and the houses later built on the site on Stanlow Island - pictures taken by former resident Derek Smith in 1995.

The monks picked the site because it was isolated and remote, but its windswept Mersey location caused problems. In 1287, the great tower fell – and fire tore through the abbey two years later.

The abbey finally moved to Whalley, Lancashire, in 1296. But a small number of monks remained at the surviving grange, which was used right up until Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries from 1536.

In 1745, a farmhouse was built on the abbey ruins.

Fast forward to 1956 and Stanlow became the place that Pat Roper and her family called home.

Pat Roper lived on Stanlow Island with her family until the age of 19

Pat, 73, from Ellesmere Port, first moved to Stanlow Island with her mum Ada, dad Jim and her sister Jill in 1956.

Aged eight at the time, Pat said the family made the move due to her dad's job as Sergeant for the
Manchester Ship Canal Police.

They lived in one of the four houses on the island where other families of those who worked for the police force also lived.

Thinking back to her childhood Pat recalls the island being the perfect place for exploring, thanks to the wildlife and the remains of the monastery.

But life on the island was also isolating, being cut off by the mainland and having to catch the ferry to see friends and go to and from school.

Picture shows Pat's dad Sergeant Jim Roper surveying Stanlow Island in 1976

Pat told the ECHO: "We moved there when my dad got promoted to Sergeant on the Manchester Ship Canal. We lived in one of the police houses - there was just four houses.

"He was on 24/7 really. Anything that went wrong he would be called out.

"When I moved in it was just exciting really, I didn't know we were going until the day we moved.

"I remember going out exploring and we were digging and we found this bone.

"We took it back to my dad and said 'do you think this could be one of the monks?'

"He said 'don't be silly,' - it was from one of the cattle on the island that must have died."

"My sister hated living there but my mum loved it"

Picture shows houses on Stanlow Island. In the background is The River Mersey in April 1976

Pat said there were no public facilities on the island but a couple called the Hardcastles set up a small sweet shop where you could buy sweets, chocolate and cigarettes.

"That was the only problem with living there - that it was really isolated," Pat added.

"That's why my grandmother bought me a bike so I could go after school to her house.

"My sister hated living there but my mum loved it. She loved the wildness of it.

"She used to walk along the shore collecting driftwood and she'd bring it back and my dad would chop it up to put on the log fire."

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"I lived there until I got married"

Pat got married in 1966 and was pictured in her wedding dress taking the ferry over to Ellesmere Port.

She moved off the island after that with her husband and they went on to have three children together.

But Pat's parents stayed living on the island until the late 1980s, when they were forced to move due to fears about the dangers of living so close to the refinery.

One of the 24-hour ferries that links the Stanlow Island docks with the Essar refinery across the Manchester Ship Canal

Pat said: "When I was younger it was an adventure but as you get older and into your teens you were restricted.

"You were isolated from your friends and everybody who came on the island had to be accounted for.

"You couldn't just have friends coming down - you had to get permission, because they had to come across on the ferry boat.

"I lived there until I got married. My mum used to come on a Saturday and take the two boys down to stay for the weekend.

"It was an adventure to them exploring and trying to find relics around the monastery but they were long gone then.

"My parents moved off in the late 80s. Peel Holdings reckoned it was a danger to be living in the middle of an oil refinery. There's no houses there anymore."

The island still holds a special place in Pat's heart as the place where she grew up and she later returned to scatter her mum's ashes at Stanlow Point at her request.

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The houses where Pat and other families once lived have now been demolished.

The ECHO’s archive shows we made occasional visits to the island in the 1960s and 1970s to learn about life there.

In 1967 we wrote that the island had “a total population of 18 people, three tame cats, four tame dogs and an unaccountable number of cats and dogs escaped from ships.”

In 2018 the ECHO also joined former resident Derek Smith on a trip there.

Picture shows Stanlow Island Ferry Boat Skipper, Mr Andy Stewart in 1976

"It was the best job I've ever had in my life"

Another person who has fond memories of their time at Stanlow Island is John Graham.

We managed to track him down thanks to the help of the Ellesmere Port Old and New Facebook community group.

John, 72, worked on the island for 47 years and only retired from his job as ferryman five years ago.

John Graham worked on Stanlow Island for 47 years

After working for Shell for a long time John left his job at Stanlow for a year before returning to the island as a supervisor for a contractor.

But by far his favourite job on the island was as the ferryman.

Stanlow Island, off Ellesmere Port - looking across the River Gowy and out to the Mersey beyond

John told the ECHO: "When I worked for Shell on the island on one night shift you could have 30 people working there in one night.

"Now you would have two or three people over there - that's how much things have changed.

"The ferry was 24 hours a day everyday, every year, in all weathers.

"The ferryman was the last job I had out there - it was the best job I've ever had in my life.

"It was fantastic to get to speak to everyone and I used to feed the foxes and the wildlife."

John saw life on the island change a lot during his time working there.

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John said: "Everything tightened up with the security around 2004 because people could walk on and off the ships up until that point. People would go on the ships robbing stuff and then come off.

"Things really tightened up and if you wanted to go to the island someone had to give you permission.

"You had to go to security, security would check you and then you would be escorted by security to the ferryman.

"Wherever you were going on the island there would be someone designated to go around with you."

What remains of Stanlow Island today

The old police station on Stanlow Island

Today Stanlow Island is overgrown with brambles and has been reclaimed by nature.

What was once a club house where sailors and workers from the refinery would go to eat and socialise now lies empty.

Other buildings still on the island include an abandoned police station, a concrete water tower and empty workshops.

Ray Sherlock last visited Stanlow Island around two years ago with a group of bird counters, who count birds across the UK's coastline and waterways.

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Ray told the ECHO: "We get to visit the island once a month (in all weather) to count the birds on the estuary as part of a nationwide survey.

"'Bird counters' as we are known, count all around the UK coastline and waterways as possible on one Sunday a month.

"We get permission to cross the Manchester ship canal at Eastham and Stanlow so we can cover the whole of the estuary from Eastham to Frodsham score.

"We meet at Stanlow and sign in, then we drive to another part of the refinery and sign in again and receive our passes. We are then taken to the Manchester ship canal by mini bus. Then it's a very short journey by the small ferry boat.

"The ferryman then unlocks the gates that lead through to the island. There is an abandoned police station next to the gate that is now boarded up.

"There is also a long brick built outside toilet next to the police station. All the other buildings are now inaccessible because of thick jungle like brambles that grow above head height in places.

"There is a two room "cottage" here, one side was a small workshop and the other looks like a mess room. There is a sofa, chairs, kettle and even a dartboard in there all rotten and damaged."

Ray described the island as "a magical place" which "nature is taking back."

Stanlow Island

He added: "There are lots of rabbits on the island and foxes too. The island is home to dozens of species of birds.

"We have watched peregrine falcons, marsh harrier, merlin, sparrowhawk, kestrel and recently a goshawk on the island and the surrounding marshes.

"The whole south side of the Mersey is alive with thousands of ducks, geese, swans and waders and I feel really privileged to be allowed access to it. The island is a magical place where nature is taking it back.

"I haven't been to the island for nearly two years and really miss it."