A weekend in Liverpool is just long enough to get a sense of this great city’s soul – because so much of it lands in your face, wild, full of colour and above all warmth that you really can’t miss it. Back in London the difference was patent: crowds of lone people were glued to their mobiles, whereas up beside the Mersey, Scousers (that’s anyone born within spitting distance of the famed river) roamed hand in hand in couples or in boisterous groups lapping up life. No shortage of hen-parties and musicians, but no mobiles in sight either.
This year they’ve got a lot to keep them busy, much of it clustered around the old docks embracing the broad, generous river. This was once the hub of a maritime trade completely independent of London which headed straight across the Irish Sea to Ireland, and thence to America. In fact 175 years ago last weekend, the first passenger ship steamed out of the port to take hundreds of migrants off to the New World, initially Boston, later New York. In 2015, Queen Mary 2 (below) ceremonially took its place.
The social history of the port is brilliantly illustrated at the riverside Museum of Liverpool quirkily shaped like two elongated, tapered boxes. It’s actually the UK’s largest new national museum in a century – and Danish architect Kim Herforth Nielsen did it proud. Here I first came across Liverpool’s epithet “wondrous place” – coined by that inimitable 1950s rock ’n roller, Billy Fury (1940-83) as well as other memorable quotes like “Liverpool is an organiser’s graveyard” and “Scratch beneath the surface and it’s all chaos and madness”. Love it, just my kind of place.
Here’s old and new above – the Port of Liverpool building beside the stretched white boxes of the Museum of Liverpool. Inside is a beautiful spiral staircase a la Guggenheim (below).
Not surprisingly, Liverpudlians love a party, so last weekend’s anniversary produced a firework or two, plus catwalk, music (never a shortage of that), food, drink and a grand send-off for Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the world’s largest cruise liner. In the background of Pier Head stood the line-up of the ‘Three Graces’, the city’s Edwardian beauties: the Cunard, the Royal Liver and the Port of Liverpool buildings – monumental symbols of the city’s thriving mercantile past. And, for the occasion, some dressing-up too.
Today, although plenty of grand old buildings still line The Strand, a broad avenue running parallel to the former wharf, much of the heart of the city has been ripped out and rebuilt. Some of this was due to extensive wartime bombing which left gaping holes well into the 1990s, while other new structures were part of a slow regeneration process which has lifted the city out of unemployment and poverty into a much prouder place.
The result is an anarchic jumble of architectural styles, some happier than others, but altogether creating a kind of uncontrolled zaniness that somehow fits. This year, even the Mersey ferries have been repainted in psychedelic colours. Nicknamed Dazzleferries, they commemorate World War I when boats were painted in abstract designs to confound the enemy. I bet they did too. Here’s a stunning example by the Pop artist Sir Peter Blake.
Inside the ferry terminal, a Fab Four café is one of many inescapable monuments to the city’s greatest sons, the Beatles. Yeah yeah. More psychedelic colour over the walls, while earlier that day an old Bentley (I think) seemed to have been painted in sympathy to join a vintage car rally.
Even the Liverpool Metroplitan Cathedral encloses a crazy light show of stained glass inside a structure that has distinct extra-terrestrial qualities. The soaring, circular hall topped by a lantern tower is the work of Sir Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984) and was built in incredibly avant garde 1960s style to become Britain’s largest Catholic cathedral. And it only took five years to complete so Gaudi- eat your heart out.
Ironically, the cathedral overlooks Hope Street, now the most happening part of town where cool bars and restaurants side with yet another architectural gem, the Everyman theatre, fresh from last year’s total refurbishment. The best place for a feed round here is 60 Hope Street – which offers modern British in an elegant Georgian townhouse. Otherwise, don’t forget Liverpool’s footie status and head for a venture backed by former Scouser captain Steven Gerrard: The Vincent. The large, stylish brasserie only opened a few weeks ago, yet is already ticking over nicely. It’s right behind the City Hall on a rather grand square called Flag Exchange. Here’s a generous starter of gravadlax below.
So what of the Fab Four? Well if you don’t make a pilgrimage across the Mersey to Wirral to visit John Lennon’s childhood home (I didn’t), the next best thing is the riveting Beatles Story, a multi-faceted museum covering their trajectory from early days playing at the Casbah (pre Cavern days), to the painful break-up of 1970.
This atmospheric memorial to the city’s musical genius, tucked away beneath the revamped Albert Dock warehouses (also home to the Tate Liverpool which this summer shows Jackson Pollock), is a must-see/do. All those Japanese, Polish, French and American tourists can’t be wrong. Earlier that afternoon, 600 Italian schoolkids had rolled through….The labyrinthine space is full of replicas (the Casbah and the Cavern above), photos and memorabilia – which you walk round accompanied by an audio-guide narrated by John Lennon’s sister, Julia, so full of personal insights. All very intense and moving – so give it time.
As we were there just before closing time, we had it pretty much to ourselves apart from two young Japanese women, dressed to kill, who spent most of their time posing for pics of each other. Latterday Yoko Onos?
Finally, we just had to do a pilgrimage to the original Cavern, in the still seedy Cavern Quarter. But which one? there seemed to be two or three. Finally we learned on best authority that it was the door opposite The Grapes, a pub founded in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. How appropriate. Talk about Revolution…