Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Mersey Ferry, the Liver Birds, and other things in Liverpool

While pitched at Chester I treated myself to a day in Liverpool. Some of it (seeing Antony Gormley's beach artwork at Blundellsands) has already been covered. This post is about the other things I wanted to see.

Liverpool is the biggest place in the Merseyside conurbation, which straddles the River Mersey. It's a proud city, and with very good reason. It was for a very long time the sea gateway to the North West of England, and (almost) the most important seaport in the entire land. Many famous people have come from Liverpool. For me, never having seen Manchester, its rival, Liverpool is the city that best represents all that is finest about the North.

I last went there for two nights in 1984, my only previous visit. Liverpool made a deep, lasting impression. I stayed at a hotel in Blundellsands, attended a course at Bootle, and when not at the hotel or stuck in a classroom, toured the area on foot and by train. The Merseyrail system had just been completed, incorporating new sections of underground line that linked the otherwise disjointed city railways into a coherent whole, and made getting around fast and easy. The Beatles Museum had opened. There was a nationally-advertised garden exhibition on at St Michaels. And plenty of more usual sights to see - the two cathedrals, for instance. Much building was going on - Lime Street Station (the main one) was engulfed in scaffolding, and was little better than a dusty building site, with much of the old tatty station still evident, nothing at all like the impressive modern interior you see now. But St George's Hall, a stone's throw away, looked splendid with its classical columns, a full-blown Greek temple.

I couldn't go everywhere in the short time I had, but I thought I might well come back again soon enough for a second look. So I simply walked around the central area, took the famous Ferry across the Mersey to Birkenhead, and rode out on the train to West Kirby and New Brighton. I drank in the atmosphere, like an intoxicant. How refreshing Liverpool was after stifling London! It felt such a warm, friendly place. I had no problems whatever with the local accent, no issues with the people I met. So much for Southern prejudices. I felt free, and I was so sorry that I wasn't staying for a week. In fact I returned to London with a sinking heart. These were the shots I took and kept, the images I retained in my mind for for the next thirty years:

Golden images indeed. As it turned out, I never went back, not until this year. And I could spare only a day. Chester, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Hilbre Island had the greater priority. But I got Chester out of the way on the first evening, the Aqueduct and Island on the day after. In so-so weather. My second full day was completely devoted to Liverpool. It turned out to be the best day of all for sunshine.

For once I decided not to do it all in Fiona. I selected Hooton station as the place to make for, intending to park her there all day. And I was pleased to discover that an all-day parking ticket cost but 80p. Ha! When I last parked at Haywards Heath station (on the Brighton-London main line) it cost me £7.00, and that was in 2012. A typical London Commuter Belt rip-off. And the one-day, travel-everywhere MerseyTravel Saveaway rail/bus/ferry ticket cost me a mere £4.90. Dream prices down south!

Trains ran every quarter of an hour. A bright yellow train soon turned up, with representations of the main tourist sights painted on it. I went into the carriage with the Gormley 'iron men' on the side:

It was a smooth journey to Hamilton Square station in Birkenhead, where I got out. I wanted to cross the Mersey by sea, not in a rail tunnel. I lingered to watch the red tail lights of the train recede down the tunnel. In 1984 the rails hadn't been continuously-welded and trains made a clank-clank-clank sound which you could hear from a long way off. It was gone.

You had to take a lift to the surface. I went up with a local man, and I was bursting to tell him, in my gushing way, that I was visiting Liverpool after thirty years and agog to see what it looked like now. I restrained myself with immense difficulty. As you can see, Hamilton Square station is topped at street level by a magnificent red brick tower.

It was a short walk to the Ferry. The approach had changed somewhat. Tramlines that weren't there in 1984 had now appeared! They looked original, but were not. A bit of fakery, methinks, just for the tourist! There were still bus stops, but it wasn't the important-looking bus terminus of thirty years back, and the ferry terminal, though still in the original building, had been tarted up inside and out. It was now a tourist palace, and no longer the workaday building I saw in 1984. Nor did the ferries run to a tight commuter schedule. They ran at longish intervals, to suit the visitor with leisure. People with jobs to get to clearly now took a car, train or bus through one of the Mersey tunnels. I found myself buying a coffee and some cake, just to pass the time. 

The old-fashioned green-painted decor of 1984 had been very atmospheric. Now it was all bright red metalwork. Even so, the knot of ferrygoers like myself were all excited. We were impatient for the barrier to be opened.

Then it was, and we sped with unnecessary haste down the ramp to the pontoon. Soon the ferry boat approached, moored, and let us aboard.

The boat, at least, was the real deal. The voyage across the Mersey was just like my 1984 experience. It was beautiful, inspiring. I was reminded of old-time paddleships on the Bristol Channel, even though this was a much more modern boat. I was a child again. The Liverpool waterfront came closer and closer, and then suddenly we were there, with all the major buildings, such as the Royal Liver Building, resplendent in the sunshine.

You can easily guess where I went next. I ignored the Beatles Exhibition. I was a Beatles fan, always had been, but why spend time on the well-known, when there was so much else to investigate? I made a beeline for the Royal Liver Building.

I wanted to go inside. Did I dare? Then I said to myself: do what you want to do. Ask to see. They can only say no. Fortune favours the bold. Who dares wins. So I went in. It was all right. Two stout, jovial men manned reception. They might have been a Northern Comedy double act, immediately taking me in hand, putting me at ease, and making me laugh with them.

Lucy: 'I hope you don't mind, but I'm visiting Liverpool, and I've always wanted to see the inside of the Royal Liver Building!'

Comedians: 'Love, you can see whatever you want, provided it's just in this entrance area. We'd let you see more, show you the whole lot, but management won't allow it. Who knows why; but there it is.'

But the entrance was all I wanted to see. And it was, as hoped for, a marble dream. I took a couple of shots, then the guys insisted on taking one of me, posing on the stairway between the lifts:

After this, we discussed the Liver Birds, the two big green statues of birds atop the building, that everyone in the world knows about. The leading comedian gave me the low-down on them. I paid rapt attention. I was told that when these two birds were being made, the sculptor was obliged to use as a model a collection of bird parts. So that's why each bird has the feet and claws of an eagle, but the upper parts of a cormorant. I was also told that they are a pair of male and female birds. The female looks out to sea, to the fishing and nesting grounds; the male looks inland, to the pubs. (I laughed heartily at this) Here's a not-very-good shot I took of the female:

And they told me that there are in fact not two, but four Liver Birds. But I can see only two birds on the roof, I said. Ah, love, they replied, there are another two birds just like them, elsewhere in the city. Not many people know this; but we like you, and we'll let you in on the secret. So they told me where to look. I decided to seek them out. It would be my special quest for the day.

The first of the other two birds was close by. You could see it from the St Nicholas Church garden, a white one, near the top of a legal building with 'Mersey Chambers' on the side of it. (That's a genuine cormorant on the very highest part)

Seeing the fourth bird, this time a black one, involved a bit of footwork. It was on the Walker Art Gallery, up beyond Lime Street station. It was strutting its stuff on the roof, next to a lady with a trident:

So there you are. I have seen four Liver Birds, and can die happy!

This post is getting a bit long, so I'll gallop to the end. The Australian couple I'd met at Pontcysyllte Aqueduct had urged me to see the Walker Art Gallery, so I had a quite separate reason for going there. On the way, before catching the train to see the iron men, I decided to seek out the site of the Cavern Club, where the Beatles had famously played in their earliest days. I knew that it had long been redeveloped, and that there was no basement club there now. But surely there would be something to see? 

What a let down! The general location was easy to find, the city signposting the 'Cavern Quarter' very clearly. But close in, all you saw was a shopping arcade. I walked in, and there, at the bottom of a central atrium, was a podium reached by steps. On this was a set of figures, arranged as the Beatles might have been for a typical performance. Except that it wasn't the Beatles. It was a generic band, unrecognisable as anyone in particular.

What a disappointment! Off to one side was a Beatles mural, but depicting them in their later hippy days, and not an inspiring work of art in any way.

I soon left. While trying to find Moorfields station, I came across two places that were more suggestive of robust Liverpuddlian nightlife. One was a 'gentleman's club', called Dreamers. It was actually a lapdancing club, suitably seedy. The other was a shop selling fetish underwear called Mode Mwah, suitably kinky.

You'll notice the rainbow on the Cumberland Street sign, lower left in the Mode Mwah picture. This is the edge of the 'Stanley Street Quarter', officially recognised as the centre for LGBT social life in the city. Just so you know.

To end, my visit to the Walker Art Gallery, and a plunge into Victorian High Art. I do highly recommend this gallery if you have any admiration at all for consummate skill in sculpture, painting and ceramics. What a treasure house of Victorian taste! It's by no means a collection of nineteenth-century artworks and nothing else - there are works from several centuries, but the selection reflects what men of taste thought was good around 1890. Personally I relish such stuff, even if it tells a trite moral story, or is just an emotionless but beautifully-executed example of dazzling skill. Sculpture of the latter kind can be seen aplenty in a salon close to the entrance, a bit tucked-away:

You can improve it no end by inserting yourself into the equation:

The place is strong on Pre-Raphaelite painting. Go just for that. But the painting that I thought the most charming (and in its way the most insightful) was this 1878 painting titled And When Did You Last See Your Father? by William Yeames. Here it is (sorry about the glass reflections), with the official commentary on the wall nearby:

Yes, it's a tense scene: clearly the Roundhead inquisitors must get the information they need from the boy. But at the same time, these are not Nazi thugs. They are English gentlemen on the Parliamentary side. Plain-mannered, plain-living, super-religious, and all against the trappings of privilege maybe; but fathers themselves, and clearly disinclined to be rough with this unworldly lad, who is loyal to the truth, and has the light of divinity shining on him. It is the blowing-away of a standard myth, that all of Cromwell's men were brutal, insensitive clods.

Lime Street station, and the underground train back to Hooton was close by. I had a quick look at St George's Hall, full of columns, on the way. It was too big to get in one shot. So I just took the columns.

Back at the caravan, on the laptop, I made this version. Better still.


  1. A jovial Liverpudlian once told me that, if Liverpool ever won the FA Cup, the Liver Bird (presumably just one of them) would fall off its perch. Well, it's still there.

    Yes, Liverpool is a lovely city. I had a conducted tour when my younger son applied to study at Liverpool University and have been back once since. I really must return.

  2. You have to realise that all the nicest people come from Liverpool........LOL. I am proud to have been born there and to have lived there for over 27 years. I go back there occasionally. I am so glad you enjoyed your visit there Lucy for the city does have much to see. It is such a shame though that you only had a day there. You should spend a week there to get the most out of it, days out visiting places and evenings at the theatre to fill your time. Had I known you were visiting I could have joined you for a couple of hours.

    Shirley Anne x


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