A Swift Half in Maritime Liverpool

You know that feeling of dread you get, when you suddenly find yourself in deep water, conversationally? I experience it most often when, in a Glasgow taxi, the driver strikes up a conversation. There follows, from me, a stream of dumb smiles, nods, ‘mmmmm’s, and general signals of polite encouragement, even though I am unable to understand most of the words being spoken. But, in the back of my mind, I am surfing a wave of secret fear that the conversation will suddenly cease, and our eyes will meet in the rear view mirror. It’s the moment when he asks a question. The content of which, of course, I have no idea – but of course it’s much too late to ask for a repeat of the last ten minutes’ worth of discourse.

Well, It happened again at the weekend. But this time, it was in Liverpool. I was sat, enjoying the slight breeze from the Mersey as the early June sun gently burned the skin on my increasingly bare crown, staring happily at a pint of excellent Pale Ale, as I drank with with my pal Mark outside the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, one of the city’s better known and lovely pubs. I thick arm appeared on the back of my chair, and when I turned to find out who owned it, I was confronted with a big, crop-haired and tubby chap sporting a Lacoste polo shirt and a ready smile.

“D’ya mind if I rest me arm on yer chair, lar?”

He asked. I smiled and said no problem. Then it happened. He was out for an afternoon on the beer with his old man, and they were sampling the real ales that are supplied in happy profusion at said pub. The story flew out, thick and fast. Delivered in a rich Liverpudlian tang, filled with rolling ‘R’s, ‘T’s that sound like hissing snakes, and guttural coughs for emphasis, my new pal delivered a brief resume of his 40th Birthday, spent, I believe, in a similar manner to the present lunch time, but in distant Runcorn. As he finished, his dad emerged from the lovely, gilded ironwork that surrounds the Phil’s entrance [at which point I admit to being a fraud, because only locals are allowed to abbreviate the pub’s name to that] and asked for his son’s choice of ale. I was mentally exhausted, simply from trying to keep up with his rapid fire delivery.

We exchanged some advice on the best beers to choose, and then he was gone – inside, as it happened, to sample his beer. But it was one of the many indications that you get as a relative foreigner that this city is something else – the fact that a stranger will engage you in conversation and immediately treat you as their best friend is generally unusual in the more reserved parts of the country. But what is Liverpool all about? I mean, once you peel away the endless images of the Fab Four and the connection with football that appears to be ingrained in every molecule in the city, what is it all about?

My quest started in what I considered the logical place. You see, Liverpool is unlike most cities in the UK simply because it is looking out to sea. For centuries, it has in effect given the traveller the impression that its heart is somewhere else. I have heard it called ‘America’s most Easterly city’ due to the influences that crossed the channel in the glory days of Cunard and transatlantic sea travel. So I began by taking in the view of the Three Graces on the Pier Head, by the banks of the River Mersey.

Now before I wander off up James Street and through Derby Square, let us consider that the city’s prosperity as a port came by something of a chance. Back in the 1700s, Chester was the main port in the area, having the advantage of canals cut from the river Dee. However, nature played a cruel trick on Chester and a continual build up of silt in the river eventually rendered it unfit to carry the shipping that had previously used the port. At the same time, Liverpool was handed the opportunity to become a major port because of this loss.

And boy, did Liverpool sieze the opportunity. By the early 1700s, trade was brisk with of course the unsavoury connection to the slave trade being a significant factor in the city’s new found prosperity. And so it went on. By the time the 19th century arrived, an unbelievable 40 percent of all the world’s trade was going through the city’s docks. Looking now at the brick warehouses surrounding the Albert Dock, you get a small sense of the scale and ambition of the city’s importance. Looking at the throngs of tourists that flock to the waterfront, you really struggle to take it all in. Here, in one half-mile stretch, you have both the largest concentration of listed buildings in the whole UK, and three of the most iconic buildings in the world. Like old Bombay, Liverpool was designed to be approached from the river.

I shan’t try to do justice to the Three Graces – the Port of Liverpool building, the Cunard building and the iconic Liver building. They are all three beautiful in their own rights. What the Victorian shipping moguls would have made of the new Liverpool Museum that flanks them is another matter, however. A vast, angular structure designed with a deceptive amount of sympathy to its neighbours, and wrought from the same lovely white stone facing, it dominates the Eastern end of the Pier Head plaza.

My journey took me to the base of James Street and then up into the city itself. By the time you pass the disturbing, yellow livery adorning the Merseyrail terminal and pass a couple of rather scruffy pubs, you arrive in Derby Square and Liverpool hits you again with another of her seemingly inexhaustable stock of vistas. Heavily bombed during World War II, the square retails the impressive statue of Queen Victoria as well as a couple of lovely old Bank buildings. As any local wag [not a footballers’ wife, by the way] will tell you, if you approach the former monarch’s statue from a certain angle, it appears that she is holding……well, look at the photo and work it out. This seeming oversight in design has kept schoolboys in mirth for over a century.

From this square, now clogged with a small sub set of the unfeasibly large number of buses that prowl the city streets, you can see spectacular street scenes branching off. Heading up Castle Street, you see the Town Hall in front of you. Another stunning building, it is topped off with a dome and a series of columns that in any other town in the UK would make it a notable and distinct structure in itself. In Liverpool, such is the intensity of grand and impressive buildings, you might raise your eyebrows and nod respectfully before moving on, looking for the next big hit. You can only imagine the heady mix of the imposing buildings, and the thronging streets filled with people of all nationalities – sailors on shore leave, Irish refugees, commercial travellers. It has all rubbed off, and the ethnic mix has clearly contributed to the way the city is today.

Now, if you have got this far with my literal and metaphorical ramblings, you will know that another important aspect of any fine city is its public houses. And such it was that Mark and I decided to pay a visit to one now – Thomas Rigby’s, if you please. This is a fine place for a stop off, with a long bar and a vast range of both British and European beers available. It also shares a courtyard at the back with another hostelry, the Lady of Mann, meaning that when the weather is good, the place can become very busy. Taking on board some decent beer, we decided to walk further down Dale Street and eventually to what might reasonably be called the epicentre of Liverpool’s grand designs.

Lime Street station was the place where those visitors who had not disembarked from a steamer bearing the livery of one of Liverpool’s many shipping lines would be [in today’s terminology] de-trained. And rather like in Huddersfield, which I wrote about a while back, you begin to see that Liverpool also played the Victorians’ trick of making damned sure that people arriving for the first time were suitably awed by what they saw, having emerged from the sooty, noisy glass-roofed palace that is Lime Street. Standing atop the steps outside the front of the station, you are confronted with a sight that, even in today’s cynical and well-travelled world, makes you go slightly weak at the knees.

Stretching away from you on your right is St George’s Hall: a public building that makes you believe that the City Council must have plundered ancient Greece and snatched the Parthenon from Athens, and rebuilt it stone by stone in what was then Lancashire. It is vast, beautiful and it makes you realise as you walk away from the station that this city had both ambition and resources in plenty. You think it cannot get any better than this, especially on a sunny day. But then you are confronted by more. As the rounded end of St George’s Hall recedes, you see what to me is the most perfect building in the city, the County Sessions House. Built in the late 1800s, it is now used as offices for the staff of St George’s Hall. Rather than get all hot under the collar again, I will let the Liverpool Architectural Society describe it for you:

“It consists of a five bay front with a portico of four paired Corinthian columns and a high enriched parapet. The coat of arms located on the pediment is that of Lancashire County Council. The interior includes a charming Italian Renaissance staircase. Although considered too ornate for some, it is a fine termination to this row of civic buildings.”

By this time, I was experiencing a feeling I had not had since I was last in Florence or maybe Rome.  My head was spinning, and it was not caused by the ingestion of Pale Ale.  This vista makes you stop and think – just how high could the City’s aspirations go? Well, to find out the answer to this question, turn around so that you are facing back towards Lime Street Station, and look straight ahead. Forming the fourth corner of this World Heritage site, which by popular recognition contains one of the most important collections of civic buildings in the UK, and you are confronted by this. The end of the St John’s Shopping Centre, with the Holiday Inn sitting cherry-like on the top.

Rather like St Peter’s Buildings in Huddersfield, which I wrote about recently, there are moments when you have to look twice to believe that such a structure was allowed to be constructed at all. Vast, flourescent, pulsating and utterly at odds with both the scale and style of the environment around it, this monstrosity brought me back to earth with a bump. Clearly, it was time for another drink.

Hardman Street is a bit of a hike from Lime Street. Passing some nice old buildings along the way, you eventually arrive at the location of my initial conversation with my real ale loving friend: The Philharmonic. A tourist attraction in its own right, it is an unutterably lovely building both inside and out. The sheer ornateness, the exuberance of the décor just stuns you – and of course, you have only come expecting a pint of beer.

Even the toilets are things of beauty. But wander on, as we eventually did, and down a couple of back streets you will find a hostelry of similar charm, although less lurid. Ye Crack, allegedly a former haunt of the City’s ubiquitous, wayward son John Lennon, [although is there a pub within ten miles which doesn’t make a similar claim, even if it manifestly opened in 1994?], is a small unremarkable pub which was just lulling into that slightly hazy, relaxed Saturday afternoon atmosphere as we arrived. Seven very decent real ales adorned the bar, and the back garden was a nice and sunny place to drink some of them.

A couple of further pints in other central pubs followed, and that was the venture completed. By this time, the evening life was beginning and it was clearly no place for further architectural introspection. Feeling the need to fit in, we heeded the words of Herman Melville……

In the evening, especially when the sailors are gathered in great numbers, these streets present a most singular spectacle, the entire population of the vicinity being seemingly turned into them. Hand organs and fiddles, plied by strolling musicians, mix with the songs of the seamen, the babble of women and children and the wining of beggars. From the various boarding houses, proceed the noise of revellry.

Herman Melville, 1839

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