There isn’t a more iconic Merseyside building than the Royal Liver Building. It sits at the Pier Head, the point at which Liverpool’s wealth flowed into the Victorian and Edwardian town. Its sister buildings embody one of the great shipping companies of Liverpool’s heyday and the Port itself, respectively. And it’s crowned with the two most famous representations of Liverpool’s symbolic and legendary avians.
Even if it hadn’t been named the Liver Building when it was built, no doubt we’d be calling it that today anyway.
It has a long and fascinating history, from the beginnings of Royal Liver Assurance as the Liverpool Lyver Burial Society. A group of working class men set up the Society to ensure that none of them suffered the ignominy of a “pauper’s” (i.e. unmarked) grave.
From these humble beginnings, the society outgrew several headquarters before settling on the purpose-built Liver Building, which opened in 1911. As I mention in my book, the secret of the Liver Building was that it was much bigger than Royal Liver Assurance needed. The cost of the huge building was offset by letting out the other floors to other companies.
In the 100-plus years since then, no image to represent Liverpool in its entirety is complete without it. And something that I’ve only recently appreciated is how world famous the building is. It’s made it into at least two computer games: SimCity 3000 (1999) and Horizon Zero Dawn (2017) for a start.
Legend has it that if the liver birds fly from the turrets, then Liverpool will cease to exist. I don’t really know what the hell that means, but put it this way: the liver birds on the Liver Building will survive for as long as Liverpool does.
Royal Liver Building history
A new era began in 2011, a century after the building opened, when Royal Liver Assurance merged with the Royal London Group. The building was put up for sale, for the first time in its history, in 2016. Corestate Capital and Farhad Moshiri (Everton FC’s majority shareholder) bought it for £48 million. It’s now home to 16 tenant companies.
It’s this change of ownership which has led to the creation of a public tour, under the banner of RLB360. The tour opened its doors in April 2019. I was lucky enough to get tickets on one of the most beautiful weather days in May.
The Royal Liver Building was the tallest building in Britain from its opening in 1911 until the Shell Centre opened in 1961. It therefore seems fitting that the focus of RLB360 is the access it gives to the roof. But your ticket also gives you access to a small exhibition in the basement, displaying photos and short history snippets of the building, as well as a wealth of stats and facts.
You can also have your photo taken in front of a green screen, inserting yourself into a handful of historic and modern images. They’re a little pricey to buy prints (as you might expect), but there’s no obligation however much you play with it.
After a short health and safety briefing (no leaning over the edge!) you’re go via lift to the 11th floor, the topmost office storey, and out onto a lower roof level. Here you get your first impressive views of the Mersey, town and the docks. More importantly, as this level you’re closer to the giant clock faces (bigger than those housing Big Ben) than you’ll probably have been before. It really brings home how massive those hands are!
Most of the attraction of this tour is to get close to the clock faces, the architectural details, and those birds. You also get a 10 minute video, projected onto the walls inside the river-front clock tower.
The video starts with the clocks themselves, then transporting you back in time to the construction project of 1911. From here its off through the Blitz raids of 1941, pop psychedelia and Culture Capital fireworks.
It’s a nutshell summary of 100 years of history, but there’s nothing new for anyone who’s heard of World War II and the Beatles. Still, the animated liver birds were pretty cool!
It was a privilege to come so close to the workings of the Liver Building clocks; the mechanisms provided the incessant soundtrack to the film.
After this comes the final flight of spiral stairs onto the upper roof level. Now you’re half way up one of the two Royal Liver Building turrets, above the clocks. Here are the promised 360° views from Snowdonia to the Pennines. This is the first time I’ve seen both sides of the Wirral without being in an aircraft.
You can also see a great deal of the Mersey, from the windfarms in Liverpool Bay, past ferries big and small, and off to Tranmere and Runcorn. You get a new angle on the city centre into bargain too, and the two football stadia to the east.
A new view of Liverpool
This new attraction is going to be of most interest to locals wanting to see inside their most iconic building. You don’t see much of the Royal Liver Building’s innards, except for the lift, stairs and clock room. It’s all about the views (hence the name) and a smattering of history. For those who don’t mind how they get their aerial fix, the big wheel at the King’s Dock is probably just as good (though you can linger longer on the Liver Building roof). But it’s the experience of being in this precise building which is its big draw.
The display in the basement is good, with just enough to keep you entertained while you wait for your tour.
If I have to criticise something, it was the jagged feel of ‘newness’ that should smooth off with time. The tour guides, while very friendly and polite, lacked the easy-going attitude that made the tours of the Old Dock and the Queensway Tunnel so enjoyable. I’m sure they’ll relax into their roles before long, and feel more confident going off-script. There’s some return value in feeling that your tour guide put their own spin on things; that the other guides would give you a different experience. Whether this is something the building’s owners would accept is another matter, but I hope it’s the way things go.
I learned a couple of things. Firstly, the Royal Liver Building is built from reinforced concrete (one of the first buildings in the world). Secondly, there are three clocks on the river side, but only one on the Strand side. Yes, I know you can tell this from just looking, but if you’d asked me I’d probably have said three clocks on both towers! It pays to be more observant…
More information: you can find out more about the tour, and buy tickets, from http://rlb360.com/
Scenes from a tour: Liverpool from the Liver Building roof
My interest in landscape is not just restricted to history and archaeology. I’m just as interested in the modern urban landscape (of Liverpool in the case of this blog), because it’s the product of everything that went before. Archaeologists recognise the ‘layers’ of landscape development as truly as they see the ordered layers in the side of a trench denoting Romans following Iron Age communities following etc etc etc.
And as I’ve researched Liverpool’s historic landscape and the landscapes of urban zones around the world (and as I’ve lived in several very distinct cities myself), I’ve come to realise the role landscape history plays in our day to day lives. This happens whether we think we’re interacting with ‘The Past’ or not.
And so a project that naturally caught my eye started with a van called Ed, and has so far developed into Placed (‘Place Education’), which until Sunday 23rd September 2018 inhabited a slice of the old George Henry Lee building on Houghton Street.
Placed want to know what influences changes in shop occupancy, and the impact of those changes on the use of the surrounding area. In this way it ties in to my own interests.
My encounter with Placed came in the form of a guided tour by Ronnie Hughes, who many readers will recognise as the author of the A Sense of Place blog. He’s also involved in local community initiatives such as Granby 4 Streets and the Mystery Literary Festival (though he’d be the first to tell you he’s just part of a team). And now a PhD in Sociology and History!
Having read Ronnie’s blog for what seems like the best part of a decade, I was very much looking forward to meeting the man in person, especially listening to him talk about a project where our respective interests overlap.
Breathing Spaces, giving the walk its title, are the spaces Ronnie has identified in any given city which let visitors to the centre can use to take a moment to reflect.
Ideal Breathing Spaces should be noticeably quiet – away from the bustle of shoppers, cars, buskers, soap-boxers – sheltered to lesser or greater extent from the elements, and Free. Free has a capital F for me because (taking a cue from the Open Source movement) it should be Free as in ‘Free Speech’ as well as in ‘free beer’. In its Free-ness it should be inviting, in that you should be in no doubt that you can come here, sit down, eat your own food perhaps, without being moved on. A truly communal public space that welcomes.
Do we have any of those in Liverpool? And how well do they match up to these ideals?
I must say now that these ‘ideals’ are ones I felt came across during the walk, and are not necessarily culled from a shopping list that Ronnie has made!
It was a small group on this, the third of three walks. This made it easy to exchange ideas and chat about our own takes on what Ronnie was describing. The youngest member of the group must have been no more than 10 years old, and even she was engaged with the things we were talking about!
Literally Going to Town
We first shared our ideas of what ‘going to town’ means to us. It means (to our group) shopping, socialising, going to work, doing touristy things and a few other things besides.
But this is in some contrast to the landscape of town, which can very easily feel like it’s all about shopping. This is particularly true since the arrival of Liverpool One. Town is a shopping landscape, and so Breathing Spaces might merely be seen as a ‘break from shopping’. But that would be to misunderstand what many people are in town to do.
Ronnie had promised to take us to the best Breathing Space first, before taking us on a tour of other spaces that don’t do such a great job. The walk set out from George Henry Lee’s and headed first to the garden of Bluecoat Chambers. Why is this garden such a good space? Well, it is a secluded space, quiet and green, with seats and benches. Although the gates are locked at the end of the day (and were locked when Ronnie did a reccie earlier that morning!) you can come and go as you like. Even better, some of the tables inside the Bluecoat are free for you to sit without being obliged to buy a coffee from the café there.
In many ways this is the ideal: a Free space where you can come whenever you like, and where you’re not obliged to carry on your purchasing. You can truly take a break.
However, where the Bluecoat falls down is its obscurity. On the other walks Ronnie has taken, many did not know of its existence. And of those who did, they (and this included me until today) assumed that all the seating inside is for customers only. But that’s not the case, so next time you need a moment to yourself, pop into the Bluecoat cafe, head to the tables next to the Children’s Corner, and take the weight off.
Public squares, car parks and through routes
But Bluecoat was a model student compared to the rest of the class, who could learn a thing or two…
I’ll not bore you with a detailed itinerary, suffice to mention a few common themes which our encounters with the other open spaces looked at.
Free to Breathe
The places we visited were dotted across town. We stopped at ‘Mr Seel’s Garden’, just off Hanover Street. We visited a couple of ‘squares’ (often created through the demolition of old houses) in the Ropewalks area, and we inspected the Breathing Space potential of Liverpool One and Derby Square.
We talked about the responsibility for these areas, and the quality of the space there. Most of the spaces had seating in, but in every case this was lacking in quantity, faced away from each other (so you wouldn’t go there with more than, say, one friend in tow), and was definitely doing its best to discourage the homeless from staying too long. In fact, it seemed designed to prevent anyone from getting too comfortable.
The other common theme was wastage of space. The area outside the Court in Derby Square was huge and flat and broken only by electronic bollards and a few intimidating benches to one side. Part of Ropewalks Square off Bold Street was a privately owned rectangle of uneven flagstones. Formerly the site of Christian’s grocer’s, the place is now vacant, empty, and unused, and yet private. Besides the fact that its a shame the grocer’s was moved on by the owner, its a double crime that someone can ‘sit’ on this space and reserve the right to keep people from it. It should be part of a revamped Ropewalks Square plan.
And this square, in common with the other spaces we saw, felt more like a cut through, from one place to another. The paving pattern reflected this, directing walkers straight across. It isn’t a place to stop, to pass the time of day, to people watch. And yet it could be, with a little bit of clever planning.
There are mature trees in these spaces now, and a smattering of seating. With some decent landscaping, people could come to these spots to rest, chat, or spend a moment of quiet contemplation away from the rush. A path that wound around planting would help ‘trap’ people (in the best way possible) and encourage them to stay a while. Not to mention that such a space would be more attractive to everyone, passers-by included!
But with Freedom comes great responsibility. Who would care for these places? Isn’t maintenance and redesign expensive?
Well, is it any more expensive than the street sweeping that must follow a heavy Saturday night in the Ropewalks? Plus, as Ronnie pointed out, an increasing number of people are moving into these areas. You can imagine guerilla gardeners or ‘friends of’ groups attaching themselves to these pockets. You can’t imagine either of these things happening to them in their current ‘bronze throne’ incarnations.
Some of the ‘squares’ are surrounded by bars, who benefit from these public spaces to accommodate bigger crowds and generate that all important footfall. Although they do a sterling job of sweeping up the broken glass and cigarette butts on a (late) Sunday morning, perhaps they should be contributing to the beautification of what also happens to be a space used in the day time.
This clash of daytime economy vs nighttime economy was raised a few times. Couldn’t there be more integration and collaboration?
By the end of the tour it would have been possible to feel that Liverpool had a rather sorry selection of lacklustre spaces. But on the contrary, Ronnie was optimistic. Firstly, these spaces are open. They’re not built on, and are not about to be (although who knows about the Christian’s site?). So that’s the first issue rendered moot.
Secondly, through initiatives like those that Ronnie and the Placed team are involved in, there’s a chance that such ideas can have an impact.
Placed is all about increasing the influence of the community on their local environment. It’s also about showing people just how much influence they can have. There is a lot of skepticism over how much say people have over the changing landscape. People either think they have no say, or are not listened to. While this latter issue is unfortunately often the case in practice (two-day ‘consultations’ on a completed Masterplan, for example), it needn’t be the rule.
Ronnie truly feels that this situation can be turned around, and is working actively, with many others, towards this goal.
The potential to create indoor Breathing Spaces is already there in Liverpool too.
We talked about the Bluecoat cafe, which just needs to be publicised more. But there’s also plenty of vacant space all over the shop (if you’ll pardon the pun). George Henry Lee’s is one example, and there are countless empty shop floors – first storey and upward – down Church Street, Bold Street and Lord Street. We also visited Cavern Walks, which has a nice big empty shop which hasn’t had tenants in a couple of years.
Cavern Walks was built to house hundreds of Lloyd’s Bank staff, who were a captive audience for the shops on the bottom two floors. But Lloyd’s left, and Cavern Walks is not in a great position to get much passing trade. Hence the empty lots.
But if a Breathing Space was set up in there – a place where you knew you could bring your own food, sit a while, sit as long as you like – then it becomes a magnet for people at this end of town.
The same thing applies to other places where this might be implemented. The potential for indoor Breathing Spaces is totally untapped.
We talked about a few other factors. Masterplans like Liverpool One are dropped wholesale on an area, and we heard how it necessitates artificial measures like price controls in order to work. It’s a delicate balance, artificially maintained. This is in contrast to how cities built up in the first place, with businesses cropping up in response to need (with the odd Charter, ahem, to seed the first settlement).
We talked about how residential developments must include a minimum percentage of homes in the ‘affordable’ bracket. Ronnie suggests we should demand portion of indoor Free Space too, especially in town centres.
Towns they are a-changing
Modern town centres are highly planned machines for encouraging spending. But as people move back into the towns and cities they fled from in the 70s and 80s it’s going to become more important that we take into account the other aspects of life: relaxation, contemplation, wandering, thinking, and we’ll need to provide for these things too.
By Ronnie’s thinking, the ideal situation would be one where we have a chain of indoor and outdoor spaces across town where we can plan little breaks and retreats from city centre life. Places where we can predict a spot to sit and think. ‘Going to town’ would then become much more varied in meaning. In fact ‘doing nothing’ might be a meaning in itself! Towns would become just that little bit more relaxed, and attractive, to they eyes and to the feet.
Heritage Breathing Spaces
To bring it back to history for a moment (!), it did cross my mind that museums and galleries can play a big part in this, and to a great extent already do. Although their opening hours are set, there are few other places you have such great license to come in for free, sit where you like, and do absolutely nothing, should the feeling take you. These places also come with a great deal of ‘props’ to inspire a bit of thinking, and are generally peaceful without having the strict Quiet rules of libraries.
I wish Ronnie and Placed the best of luck, and will be following their progress. I also hope to see other groups doing similar things, and would like to see these ideas spread.
Meanwhile, I think I will be keeping my eyes open for previously unnoticed Breathing Spaces wherever I go. I’ll collect them in memory for future reference when needing a moment to myself.
Thanks again to Ronnie for the walk, and the sharing of ideas. I’d like him to know that the first thing I did afterwards was to take my home-made packed lunch to Bluecoat to sit inside and eat it at their tables with great relish!
More information on Placed
Placed home page: https://placed.org.uk/
Placed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/placeded
Ronnie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/asenseofplace1
Historic England are the government’s adviser on the historic environment, so they have a duty to encourage the enjoyment of England’s history. Part of this remit is to manage the Historic England Archive, from which a new series of books takes its content. The volume I review here is, you’ll be shocked to learn, Liverpool.
The Historic England Archive holds over 12 million photographs, documents, plans and drawings covering the whole country. They run a public service where you can contact them to find out what they have, and get copies made for you.
But you don’t need to do that right now, as Hugh Hollinghurst has put together a neat little collection published by Amberley.
Old photographs of Liverpool
There are literally a billion books containing archive photographs of Liverpool. I’ve reviewed some of the best (and some of the worst) on here. I judge the books by their cover, and also by their content, and most importantly by the captions on the images.
Many books are content to give you about 15 words on the old photo, giving very little context or detail, and often getting things wrong. It’s not that this book is entirely error free (there’s one big blooper in there) but the length of the captions and the lack of nostalgic rose-tinted spectacles mean they’re not an issue.
The book is 95 pages long and has photos and also paintings from a wide gamut of Liverpool’s history. The earliest photograph is possibly the earliest photograph of Liverpool – St. George’s Hall, in 1855. (What we would recognise as photography had barely been around for a decade and a half by this point).
The book includes brand new photography, as well as images from the 1980s and 90s to give context. (And because, it pains me to say, those are now decades themselves part of history…)
Landscape history in archive photographs
It’s no secret that old photographs are a great reminder of the layout of the former city. It’s fascinating to see places like the Pier Head without its Three Graces. George’s Dock was divided into three and filled in around the turn of the 20th century, and Liverpool’s three gems erected over the next two decades.
The photos are in batches, so we see a couple charting the development of the Pier Head from the 1990s to today. We also see the Goree Piazzas from different angles, revealing the changing waterfront. There are explicit links between the captions, so this is much more than a scattershot ‘photo album’ approach.
There’s a fascinating panorama in the new book which shows a golden skyline, almost completely uniform in height. The only things that venture above the general roofline are the Customs House and St. Nicholas’s church. The age of the photograph and this uniformity lend it the appearance of Venice.
It’s a post-Blitz image which opens the book, and the first section, ‘Docks’. An aerial image, the most surprising thing about it is the neatness of it. It’s much like you’d expect a post-nuclear city to look. No life, no rubble, just clean squares where buildings once stood and the Customs House’s foundations like an I-beam embedded in the Earth.
Changing Liverpool landscape
Both the Customs House and the Sailor’s Home are some of Liverpool’s most famous and regretted losses. Hollinghurst talks about these demolitions with admirable neutrality. The Customs House had been identified as a difficult building to use or re-use as early as 1910, and the ‘prison-like’ interior of the Sailor’s Home condemned it once it required telegraph poles to shore up its frontage (see page 8 for that striking image). No doubt counter-arguments can and will continue to be made, but its interesting to hear the evidence.
Historic England’s Aerofilms archive has a wealth of aerial shots of the docks, and a couple are in this book. Here we’re treated to some of the less well-known docks, like Bramley Moore and Huskisson in the north. We see handsome liners and hefty cargo ships coming and going. We’d do well to remember that it isn’t just the Albert Dock that Liverpool’s wealth rested on.
As well as the wide shots of historic landscapes, Liverpool includes interiors and details. There are high quality shots of windows in the Port of Liverpool Building, and carvings on the Cunard Building. Photos show lavish Edwardian interiors of the Cunard and White Star Buildings, including an office in the latter, beautifully neat with gorgeous brass lamps and elaborate ceiling mouldings.
A favourite of mine was the view out of the fifth floor of the second Adelphi Hotel. It looks south west down Ranelagh Street and you can make out Central Station. There’s the faint outline of the Customs House (that place again!) and, according to the caption, Birkenhead. (Perhaps that’s easier to see on the full size negative.)
Which of the great and good of previous centuries might have looked out on this vista, waiting for their ship to come in?
Trams and railways in old Liverpool
As well as buildings and docks, the old photos take in stations and rails. The Overhead Railway features on an impressive aerial shot, snaking like a giant Scalextric past Herculaneum and the other northern docks.
Other photos show ground-based scenes. There’s a busy intersection on the Strand in one. Little more than the stanchions which held the rails up remaining in another. (This allows Hollinghurst to date that particular image to 1957).
History of Liverpool in eight chapters
Hollinghurst divides the book into eight chapters (amongst them Transport, Docks, Leisure and Homes), but it’s clear to see the connections between them. Even the Homes chapter includes archive images of Goodison Park and the industrial landscape of Aintree (with its Hartley’s Village).
The book brilliantly captures the intertwining elements of Liverpool’s history. The amount of information in the captions makes them almost more than mere captions. Some of the photos are rarities or otherwise unusual.
As someone who has seen hundreds of old images of the city over the years it’s getting harder to find something new. I think the depths of the Historic England Archive have yet to be fully plumbed! My only real gripe is that it’s not easy to cross-reference this book with the archive itself. The images from Historic England are labelled as such, but the reference numbers are not here. You’ll have to do an intelligent search on the Historic England Archive website to find them.
Get the book
Liverpool: unique images from the archives of Historic England is written by Hugh Hollinghurst with Historic England. It was published in 2018 by Amberley Press.
Two disclaimers: I used to work for the Historic England Archive (when it was the National Monuments Record, part of the then English Heritage), and also I was honoured to see my own book, Liverpool: a landscape history recommended in its opening pages, next to my favourite Liverpool volumes. Still, I think this book is worth checking out, even if you think you’ve see every old photograph of Liverpool.
This website is all about the historic landscape. It’s about how the landscape shapes what happens in the city, and it’s about the landscapes that we invent by living in it. Just think of the ‘Knowledge Quarter’ and the ‘Cavern Quarter’. Though they’re sickly marketing-gimmick names they do acknowledge some of the character that certain areas have built naturally, unconsciously over time. And so it was with great excitement that I found that The City and the City, a brilliant book by China Mieville, had been adapted for the small screen by the BBC.
Note: I’m not intending to have too many spoilers in this post, but I will be talking about the big plot concepts which permeate the whole story. If you’d rather come to the story fresh, go and read the book, or watch the show, first, and come back to this later.
This post isn’t going to be a review of the programme. Suffice to say I loved the book when I first read it, and I loved this adaptation. I recommend both.
My article is about how Liverpool is a star of the show, and the city features centrally. Hell, the main character is played by Liverpool’s own David Morrissey. But he’s not the only Merseyside star of the show. The City and the City is a veritable I Spy of Liverpool locations.
The main concept of the book, on the face of it a police procedural, surrounds the two rival cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma. Besźel is the down-at-heel city where Inspector Tyador Borlú (Morrissey) polices the streets. Ul Qoma is the shiny, high-rise, Shanghai-alike sibling that split from Besźel some years ago. The crucial fact is that the two cities occupy the same space on the map.
Citizens of one must not look at (in fact, must learn to ‘unsee’) the buildings and people in the other city, on pain of apprehension by Breach, the government unit who monitor the invisible and intertwined border.
Suffice to say that when Borlú starts the investigation of a woman murdered in Ul Qoma but dumped on his home turf of Besźel, the Kafka-esque complications of the invisible barrier complicate things enormously.
Tale of Two Cities
How do you film such a high-concept story? The characters have been brainwashed into fearing even accidental interaction with the other side. They almost literally cannot see what they are not allowed to. ‘When in Besźel, see Besźel’, as the propaganda posters remind the good citizens.
Well, of course you need a city with shiny high rises, an ageing red-brick airport, a smattering of Brutalist towers, and some ornate Victorian architecture to give a sense of faded glamour. And you need all this on top of each other, preferably over a network of strange underground arched caverns.
Oh, and of course you need a colossal columned building to act as the central bureaucratic Soviet edifice.
While watching it, what started out as an exciting game of spot-the-landmark soon became an interesting thought process: why was Liverpool a good place to film this programme?
Two cities in one
Liverpool is a complex arrangement of buildings which have grown up over the years. The same goes for the streets of the city.
There are wide boulevards and open plazas. There are narrow streets, Art Deco tunnel entrances on both sides of the river.
There are glass-fronted towers and there are concrete monstrosities (that we love all the same). There are older, sturdier bright white stone office buildings. There are mysterious obelisk-like monuments standing proud, but of uncertain origin.
Liverpool, city of contrasts
Water Street typifies the potential that those working on The City and the City saw for portraying two different cities in the same place.
The north side of the street is a hotch-potch collection of different architectural styles. The groundbreaking Victorian Oriel Chambers sit next to some 1960s egg-box building which is clearly inspired by it. The Town Hall peers round the corner, sticking out beyond the general street line.
The south side of the street, by contrast, is a catalogue of massive yet clean Neolclassical lines. The square bulks of India Buildings and 7 Water Street (an old bank) make a imposing business face that doubles as the wealthy Ul Qoma landscape.
Liverpool Heritage, old and new
What’s often lost in discussion of ‘heritage vs progress’ is this wonderful variety. We can argue til we’re blue in the face whether the old Midland Bank on Dale Street is in keeping with the other offices, or if the Echo really did complain about the ugly pile of stones – the Liver Building – when it was built blocking their view of the Mersey.
But any true heritage campaigner fights for all types of quality building. The idea is that additions to the landscape should improve it, not just boost the ego of the architect. Even more importantly, removals should not be to the detriment of the urban environment, and certainly shouldn’t be pointless demolition.
The City and the City reminds us of this variety by deliberately separating it out. In the story, Tyador Borlú can only see the old and higgledy piggledly world of Besźel, while Ul Qoma is modern and foreign. But the plot inevitably leads him to break that barrier, and discover how the other half live. In his world, the two sides can never be reconciled, but in our world, in our city, they are.
Filming in Liverpool
Using Liverpool as a film set is nothing new. We’ve seen Harry Potter and Captain America gracing the streets of the city, because it can fill in for 1920s-40s New York. Foyles War used it to depict London, Poland, Southampton and France.
But the case of The City and the City is even more impressive. Liverpool stands in for two cities at the same time, in the same place, a city uniquely conceived and arguably unfilmable, except for in this, the City of Cities.
I hear that the interior (bar and club) shots were all filmed in Manchester. But I’d be interested in knowing where other exteriors were filmed. There are a few bonus screenshots below, where I’ve noticed a Merseyside building or streetscape. But let me know if you’ve watched this programme and have noticed any more.
The thing which inspired this website from the outset was the huge number of historic features in Liverpool that we take for granted every day. The Queensway Tunnel is one of them. Thousands of people use it every day to commute between Liverpool and Birkenhead. It’s part of the furniture. And yet it’s easy to forget that this tunnel is nearly 100 years old, and was a pioneer.
It’s even easier to forget just how attractive it is, under Churchill flyover and the mass of toll booths on the Wirral side. Some of the best bits have disappeared forever, such as the beacon which once stood proud at the Liverpool entrance. Birkenhead have kept theirs, yet these are just part of the wonderful design which demonstrates the care paid to civil projects such as this back in those days.
One way of getting to know the Queensway Tunnel better is to take a tour. Merseytravel run tours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays (5pm) and Saturdays (10am) (more details on the Merseytravel website). The tours start at Georges Dock Building, and show you around the whole of that edifice as well as parts of the tunnel underground.
Our guides were Ryan and Billy, and like the best Scouse tour guides, they were a bit of a double act! They must have done that tour hundreds of times, and yet they presented the tour like two people still in love with their work. They reminded me of the guides on the Old Dock tour, and just as knowledgeable on their specialist subject.
Tour of the Queensway Tunnel
There’s something that always strikes me about George’s Dock Building. Even though I know this ‘fact’, the tour really made it hit home: the whole thing is a ventilation shaft. Fresh air comes in through the ‘shoulder’ of the building, sucked down by massive fans into the bowels of the building. At the same time, air from the roadway is pushed back out of the top of the building.
The offices and control rooms which make up the rest of the the building are cleverly built in around this primary function. The almost unnerving truth is that, when you’re half way around the tour, you’re inside the ventilation system. That’s right: when the fans are spinning round you feel the air being drawn past you as it makes its way out of the tunnel.
But before you cancel your tour tickets, the guides reassure you that the air quality inside the tunnel itself (let alone in the ventilation shafts) is clean. So clean, in fact, that it beats some central Liverpool streets for low pollution levels. That wasn’t always the case, of course. From the 1930s to the 1960s and beyond, the time someone was allowed to work inside the system was restricted to minutes at a time!
Architecture and engineering together in the tunnel
For fear of spoiling it for those who want to go on the tour, I’m not going to give away too many details. Suffice to say that the highlight for me were the original fans (or impellers). They are still used every day to move the air around. They’re huge: so huge that the building was constructed around them, and they won’t be leaving until the building is pulled down!
Other wonderful features are the little details that only a tiny minority would have been expected to see. The lifts are beautifully decorated in art nouveau styles. There are mouldings around the ceiling in the stairwell and on the roof windows in the control room (see gallery below). To increase light levels the interior of the largest chambers are covered in white glazed tile. Even those tiles, though functional, are attractive.
How the general engineering works hand in hand with the architecture is something that you rarely see nowadays done in such a beautiful manner. This was brought home to me as we left at the end of the tour. A Cornish family had just arrived in town and were having a wander around. When we told them what was inside they asked ‘But what was it originally?’ Nope, it’s always been a ventilation shaft! Just a ventilation shaft like they don’t make any more.
Photos of the tunnel
I’ll get out of the way now and let you look at the photos. These are just a few that I took on the Queensway Tunnel tour. All the details are in the captions – click for larger versions!
A lot of local history revolves around nostalgia: people’s memories of 50 years ago are filled with family, friends, making-do and getting by, as well as reconnecting with old communities on new digital forums (including this one!). Being a mere whippersnapper, I’m not often caught up in this, with a couple of exceptions. I grew up beneath blue suburban skies, and my school bus terminated at Penny Lane.
More than any other band, the Beatles are tied to their landscape. In fact, David Lewis’s book The Beatles – Liverpool Landscapes saw the landscape from a personal viewpoint, through Beatles stories, and the Magical Mystery Tour probably couldn’t do the same thing in the Kinks’ London nor in Elvis’s Tupelo, Mississippi.
Dan Longman’s latest book does something slightly different to Lewis’s, in that he takes individual sites on Merseyside and views their history through a Beatles lens. In some examples, this brings a little context to the Beatles’ own history and origins, while at other times the sites in question are largely insignificant except for the part their played in the greatest pop story ever told.
Like many of these slim volumes by the History Press and Amberley Publishing, there are then-and-now photos of the key locations, the modern versions taken from as near as possible to the historical image.
However, in this book there is much more historical detail in the text itself, with article length descriptions of people, places, and their interaction. To me, this is a welcome feature, as photo-heavy books rarely produce something you’ve not seen before.
In Beatles Landmarks the photographer of the modern images is Bob Edwards, well known to anyone who keeps tabs on the various Liverpool history Facebook pages and Bob’s own Liverpool Picturebook. The Picturebook is one of the best resources for old photos of the city, but Bob is also an excellent photographer in his own right, and his skills raise the photography in this book well above the rest.
Another player drafted in to help is Bill Harry (archived website). Harry introduced John Lennon to Stuart Sutcliffe, played in bands with Lennon, and, more famously, founded and edited the newspaper Merseybeat with his partner Virginia. His foreword gives a quick overview of his career and his links with the Beatles, and although it doesn’t seem to have much to do with Beatles places, it helps put the later historical chapters into some wider context.
After the foreword we’re straight into the images, which open with the iconic Pier Head and the Three Graces. This first entry is more of a scene-setting one, telling us how Liverpool grew from a tiny village into a world powerhouse, and a place where cultures mixed and clashed and gave birth to a group who incorporated everything from American rock ‘n’ roll and northern skiffle into their acts.
From here on in the images are roughly chronological, so the Pier Head takes in the emerging 1960s in Liverpool, and then we’re shown four childhood homes, as well as Woolton Church, the Casbah, and the NEMs offices, as they appeared on Whitechapel. In between these are probably lesser known sites (and all the more informative for that) such as Stanley Street, where John was bought his first guitar, Litherland Town Hall, venue of an early and key post-Hamburg gig, and Hulme Hall, Port Sunlight, where Ringo first played live with his new band-mates.
Finally, we get to Penny Lane and Strawberry Field, two world-famous spots and typical of the ‘ordinary’ landscapes the boys inhabited before they became a band.
My favourite entries are those, like Stanley Street and the Majestic Ballroom in Birkenhead, where Daniel explores the normal landscape of the city, escaping from those hotspots like Mathew Street and Penny Lane that we know so much about. Dan’s experience as a historian (and a tour guide to boot) as well as a journalist with the Echo shows through in his details of the builders of Menlove Avenue, and similar levels of detail of buildings and gig venues from Liverpool to the Wirral. Some of the older photos in here have come from the Mirrorpix archive too, which Dan must have delved deep into to recreate the then-and-now pairs.
One detail which struck me was the fact that quiet and leafy West Derby, where I grew up, was some sort of rock hotbed in the 1960s! I knew of the Casbah, and went to a birthday party there many years ago, but Lowlands, now home to the West Derby Society amongst other things, was apparently a rival venue!
I also learned that the Eleanor Rigby statue in Stanley Street has had calls for it to be moved somewhere more central. But it’s a monument dedicated to all the lonely people, so…
I won’t reveal too many more nuggets of information that you’ll get from this book, but suffice to say the length of the chapters is just long enough to create those ‘one more before bed’ feelings, and I got through the book in a couple of decent sittings. It’s great to see a photo-centric book where the history text is fleshed out well enough to get your teeth into. A lot of the new books I read content themselves with a caption and no more. This is much more of a proper history book.
What with the inclusion of the Beatles Story at the Albert Dock, and the publicly accessible nature of the places mentioned in the book (plus the map at the front), I could see it being useful for tourists visiting the city. Anyone else who’s interested in seeing how Liverpool made the Beatles will also find this a great read, but you needn’t be a massive Beatles fan to get a lot out of it.
There’s little to complain about, except perhaps the multiple times the Beatles are referred to as a ‘boy band’. OK, so Lennon’s wedding to Cynthia was kept secret for commercial reasons, the lads’ looks and clothes were heavily managed as part of the marketing, and … well, fine, there are similarities. But I’d expect plenty to scoff at that kind of label for such a pioneering group!
Also, there’s one photo which is much later than the caption mentions (‘1960s’) because there’s a D reg Mini in, but that’s a tiny typo in a book which has few, if any, others.
Buy this book if you want to discover how a place like Liverpool can extend its influence across the globe through the culture of the people. It’s not a comprehensive view of Liverpool, nor Beatles, history, but it’s a fascinating way of looking at the intersection of both.
The town grew up around a ‘dark pool’, from which is took its name. The pool flowed into a wide river which would one day be famous across the globe, almost synonymous with the town. The river in turn empties into the Irish Sea, for a long time an important trading route both east-west and north-south.
As technology moved on, the river’s banks became crowded with masts, and docks to hold those masts. Eventually, the ancient pool was lost beneath the city’s streets – the land was simply more valuable – but it is known that the stream which fed the pool still flows underground, buried not lost, along with remains of the medieval castle.
To the east and south of the city centre, a gridiron of Georgian streets with smartly coloured front doors attest to one of the city’s most affluent periods. These days, their neat uniformity is face to solicitors, dentists and ‘aesthetic’ clinics.
The Victorian parks – gifts from the city’s richest sons and daughters – throng with the distinctive accent of the locals, along with a host of dialects and languages brought here from all over the globe by students and others. This is the legacy of a time when the place claimed to be ‘Second City of Empire’.
The Vikings once landed here too, but the evidence of their stay is as ephemeral as King John’s castle. A placename here and there; something in the genes perhaps.
A greater impact came out of the generations of writers, musicians and actors who grew up here, exporting portraits of the locals, and changing the face of global culture permanently. It is to find the home of these portraits that the tourists flock.
There has been trouble along the way, to be sure, and no little violent upheaval. National headlines have been written in the streets of this fiercely independent town.
But you can’t keep this place down (there are more cathedrals, and more universities, than the average), and now the city, once again, finds itself resurgent. Cranes march across the skyline, and the old is – almost carelessly – cleared to make way for the brand new, for the future. Only time will tell if that future belongs to the people who call this place home, or to the people who bring their business here from elsewhere.
This is a city which won’t be held back. This a city of music, of poets, of sport, of life. Your forebears may have trodden the docks and piers here, on their way out, to a new life across the water, to America, or Britain.
This is Dublin, your long lost twin, your neighbour across the sea.
Image: The corner of Fitzwilliam Street Upper and Baggot Street, Dublin, by the author.
This post was inspired by a recent visit to Dublin, and the amazing city I found there.
Modern administrative areas have little meaning when we go back even a short time. But they can make all the difference when it comes to modern heritage work. So that’s why we have this book on finds from Manchester and Merseyside, which span the ages, and covers objects discovered through the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).
The PAS was begun in 1997 to deal with the thorny issue of random finds discovered by metal detectorists, ramblers and anyone else stumbling across historic artefacts outside of a formal archaeological investigation.
Until then, the law surrounding what happened to buried artefacts depended on what they were made of. Things deemed ‘treasure’ were generally those which were judged to have been buried with the intention of the owner coming back for them, and this was generally taken to mean coins and precious metal.
So, for example, the famous Sutton Hoo ship was not treasure, because no one intended to recover it, and it was largely wood and iron. However, there’s no doubt that any chance finds from that feature would have been immensely important to archaeologists!
So today, if you find something of historical interest, you can report it to your local PAS officer who will record it and add it to the database. Merseyside’s officer (as well as being the officer for Cheshire and Greater Manchester) is Vanessa Oakden, who’s based at the Museum of Liverpool, and it’s a new book of her’s I’m looking at here.
50 finds from Manchester and Merseyside
This book is just one in a series covering all the counties where the PAS operates, all published by Amberley Press. It takes some of the best finds from the two counties to display the good work of the Scheme.
The book’s not only here to show off the best finds, however, but also to remind readers of the importance of reporting chance finds, and of making a note of where exactly something was found. This is of particular importance if the find is a piece of flint, as often the exact distribution of a scatter of flint debris is what gives archaeologists the important clues.
And what better way to have another round of rivalry with our Manchester neighbours than to compare impressive finds? 😉 (Turns out there are more prehistoric finds, and better ones, from Merseyside!)
The book is a heavily illustrated volume containing colour photos of all the finds mentioned, from different angles, including similar finds from elsewhere which give a bit of context. The impressive thing is that Vanessa shows a wide ranging knowledge, which must be a requirement for the job, at least to some extent. That must be the best thing about the role – coming into contact with different eras of human history each day!
Where does the landscape interest come in? Well, with a county-wide remit, the distribution maps in this book show that it’s not just the individual finds which bring through the knowledge, but how they’re ranged across the land. A national map of terrets (a type of harness fitting) show that they’re particularly common in the north east of England, and therefore all the more interesting when they turn up in south Lancashire.
The challenge for Liverpool and Manchester, however, is that the built-up areas will have destroyed a lot of early archaeology in the digging of cellars and foundations. The most fruitful areas for finds are rural (that’s where the metal detectors go, as well) but it should be remembered that the absence of a certain find type from the urban part of Liverpool doesn’t mean it wasn’t there once. It’s complicated, this stuff!
I don’t have many problems with the book. It’s a good overview of highlights from the PAS in this region, and is a fantastic advert for the scheme (along with the other books in the series). Hopefully it will encourage someone to bring in finds they might otherwise have kept to themselves.
If I had to say anything against it, it might be that the maps could have been a little more consistent. They came from different sources, but could easily have been standardised to help comparisons. There were also a couple of terms I didn’t understand, such as ‘rowells’, mentioned in an entry on a find of broken spurs from Bebington (they’re the spiky wheels on the heel of the spur).
Still, that doesn’t take away much from what is a handy archaeological overview of the counties covered, and finds-centred books are rare on the popular bookshelf.
Ever had that feeling where you wish someone at the time had taken photos? Imagine the Victorian wealth of knowledge we’d have if even more people had hopped on the photography bandwagon! And sometimes, don’t you wish you’d taken more photos?
This local history lark, perhaps without me realising it, has become centred around collecting fresh memories now so that future-me can rest assured that someone did take photos and someone did write it down. For that reason I really enjoyed Gerry’s post on his blog That’s How the Light Gets In, called ‘Liverpool 1984: looking back’. It was a crucial time in Liverpool’s history: the Toxteth riots were recent history, and the Militant Tendency were on the rise. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see this time as a tumultuous period before the gradual and hard-won development of Merseyside into the cultural and business centre that it is today.
I try to avoid the danger of viewing history from this privileged point of view – one where everything looks inevitable. In 1984 Liverpool’s prospects were far from rosy, whether or not you knew of some people’s plans for the place.
Gerry’s blog post is a create cross-section of cultural Liverpool from that year. He takes in politics, the International Garden Festival, Liverpool Football Club’s successes on the European stage and music, in the form of Probe Records (and Pete Burns legendary cantankerousness!). There are photos too, of all this plus pre-redevelopment Clayton Square, theatre posters and street scenes.
If you could distil what makes Liverpool so… Liverpool, then 1984 seemed to have it all: political and social upheaval, and popular culture which hit international heights. ‘Liverpool 1984: looking back’ is a perfect time capsule of a fascinating period, and one I (at an extremely young age) lived through.
I’ve got another bunch of links for you today. I’m still catching up with my saved sites, so some of these pages have been around a while. Even if you’ve seen them before, I hope you enjoy revisiting them again now!
Map of Williamson Tunnels
The Williamson Tunnels team are local history heroes. The bunch of self-starters have excavated tonnes (literally, tonnes) of spoil from Joseph Williamson’s underground labyrinth, and navigated all manner of legal and other issues. Hats off to them!
The one crucial source they never had to help them was a map by Williamson himself. The tunnels feel pretty improvised, and I doubt there was ever an overall plan.
But there are a couple of post-Williamson plans, by the historian James Stonehouse and, later the Territorial Army, who used the tunnels for bridge building practice (of all things!). Those sources, combined with knowledge from the modern excavations, has allowed the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels to create a detailed map of known (and potential) features.
I try not to link to every one of Colin Wilkinson’s posts on Streets of Liverpool (really, you should just go and follow it), but there was a post a few months ago which struck a chord with me. He talks about how Bold Street is such a great place partly because it’s not changed all that much since it’s hey-day. And while no one would argue that things should always stay the same for continuity’s sake, the thing about Bold Street is that it is at such a perfect scale. Lord Street and Church Street are larger, and can easily play host to large department stores, but Bold Street is smaller, more intimate, and is home to more varied, small and interesting shops.
You might not want a Bold Street in every corner of Liverpool, but it’s a gem in the city, especially since so much else has been lost.
Bold Street is a great showcase for how ‘old’ streets can have extended lives without being stuck in the past. Bold Street is a modern street, but shows that we can’t just demolish because things are of a certain age, which seems to be the argument in too many cases.
Liverpool is rightly proud of its historic buildings. It’s said (with some dissenting voices) that there are more listed buildings in the city than anywhere else outside London. Our St. George’s Hall is world famous, and has acted as New York and Birmingham in recent film and TV productions. But where is ‘one of the purest monuments of Greek revival in England’? It’s a little thing that sits in the shadow – literally and figuratively – of its big brother.
The Oratory of Liverpool Cathedral is as old as the cemetery, and older than the cathedral itself. It was designed by John Foster, who had a hand in some other Liverpool classics, and is considered by some to be his best. The building’s familiar from going past it, but the Liverpool Hidden History blog has got a great overview of the site, plus a bit on the cemetery and its famous ‘inhabitants’.
This website is all about the landscape: how do geography and topography influence everything from the founding of Liverpool to the food we eat? The Scouse accent has the same influences. Scouse, as many of you will already know, it a heady mix of Welsh, Irish, Lancashire and more. Some of the influences are clearer than others, but I’ve come across a little online game which lays it all out before you, and gives you an aural demonstration!
Listen as Dr Dialect takes you on a quiz of the whys and wherefores surrounding the accent, from the time it first emerged on Merseyside, where it came from, and maybe where it’s going. The usual suspects are present, but you might discover a couple of things you didn’t know, like!
And finally, something a little out of left field. In 1977, a man named Paul (Brown, I’d guess) made a film called the Earth Probe. It’s a documentary on the Liverpool Gyratory (as it then was – now Queen’s Square Bus Station), made up of bits of film, sound and digital effects (yes, digital effects in 1977!). At first it might seem a little arty for most tastes, but as you watch it you find it’s building up an impressionistic feel of that part of town over the course of 24 hours, and of course there’s plenty of footage of your everyday Liverpudlians going about their shopping 40 years ago.
Last week was one of my history-indulgent weeks on Merseyside. One where I catch up on the ever-changing town centre (it’s still changing), check that my book’s still on the shelves of Waterstone’s (it’s not 🙁 ) and book myself on a tour or two (I did).
First up, on Sunday, I was lucky enough to catch one of the Williamson Tunnels member’s tours courtesy of the Friends of Williamson’s Tunnels (FoWT). Despite a little mix-up on my part, which revealed the existence of two societies concerned with the Tunnels, we were well taken care of by the energetic volunteers who make up the Friends. A special thank you to Chris, who booked us in, and Jamie and Tom, who, along with Chris, were our guides for the three parts of the tour. Read more
Anglesey and North Wales are very close to Liverpool hearts. Countless Welsh builders helped create some of our inner suburbs in distinctive yellow brick, and the red bricks of the University are Welsh too. More recently, there can’t be many Scousers who haven’t had a day trip or two to Llandudno, Conwy or Beaumaris.
On the weekend of 13th to 15th May 2016 I joined a Neolithic Studies Group tour to Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, to have a look at much older remains of Wales’s inhabitants, and inevitably ponder on how old the links to Merseyside could be. You’re probably two steps ahead of me already, but I’ll catch up with you in good time. Read more
There’s nothing like a gathering of like minds to get the keyboard fingers itching to put down a few words! And this past Saturday (2nd April, 2016), the Spirits of Place symposium held at the Calderstones Mansion was just one of those gatherings.
Is this the best Liverpool memoir? It’s certainly different to all the rest.
There are plenty of memoirs and autobiographies written by people who lived through some of Liverpool’s darkest days (or, at least, they lived in Liverpool’s darkest areas – not many memoirs by the Victorian gentry). Some are semi-fictionalised, like Her Benny, and Helen Forrester’s Twopence to Cross the Mersey, while others form the basis of photo books, like Scotland Road: the old neighbourhood, by Terry Cooke. Still more are dotted around the Web, shared on Facebook and passed around. Read more
It’s been all over the news lately: Liverpool is one of the first British cities to be rendered in three full dimensions on Google Earth. There was, as a crazy extra, a rumour going around that it was in preparation for a new Google office which was opening in the city.
In this post I’m going to take a look at a book which was published eight years ago, but which I only got a copy of over Christmas 2013. And it’s taken me another 12 months to get around to reading it! Despite (or because of) it’s age, it makes an interesting read. Read more
All born-and-bred Liverpudlians (and many more people) will be aware that the city is made up of a collection of villages. The villages used to sit comfortably in their landscape, surrounded by fields, lanes, streams and hills. Over time, they were swallowed up by the emerging behemoth of Liverpool itself.
This map has popped up twice for me recently, as someone asked me for a scanned copy, an a second person posted this image on one of the many great Liverpool history pages on Facebook. It’s a moment of Liverpool’s very early days captured on parchment.
My favourite thing about this map is its ‘obviousness’ and clarity. To a landscape archaeologist, this map of Liverpool is such an easy model to read. For a start, the Pool itself – “Ye Se Lake.” – is there, centre stage. We know straight away where the small town gets its name. Read more
Happy New Year all! This year I’ll be concentrating on more maps of Liverpool and the surrounding area, with only a smattering of news when it suits. First up: a lovely little book from 1902, detailing one man’s niche interest…
It’s that time of the year again, so what better way to beat the winter blues than to treat yourself to the stuff below. Of course, you could also buy something for the historian in your life, but who’s gonna know?
Heritage Protection is a controversial field at the best of times. There are almost as many different opinions on a given listing, say, as there are people offering said opinions. It’s difficult for the likes of English Heritage to decide what to protect and what to let go, and it’s certainly not a scientific process. But should we stop getting confused between the things we should be saving, and the events they merely represent?
The 1950s were a turning point in the history of Liverpool’s urban fabric. In fact, it marked a point in time just before some of the most wide-ranging changes the city had ever seen. A new book by Robert F. Edwards casts light on this era through a selection of photos under the banner Liverpool in the 1950s. Read more
I can’t deny it – I’ve waited a long time to be able to say this: I have written a book, and someone has agreed to publish it.
At the time of writing, Liverpool: A landscape history is due in shops imminently, although I’ve not had confirmation of the exact date yet. There’s only 1000 to be printed, so get yours as soon as you can! Read more
I recently visited that there London, popping into the London Review Bookshop (a bricks-and-mortar relative of the London Review of Books – definitely pop in if you’re in the area!), where I stumbled across Maps, the first in an annual series of compilations by Five Leaves Press. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in ages, and I had to share it here. Read more
Today’s map is from the end of the 19th century, part of the Royal Atlas of England and Wales, published in 1898. It’s one of my favourite views of Liverpool at the height of its global power, for several reasons.
As you’ll no doubt be aware, the planning application for Peel Waters was recently waved through by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and there will be no public enquiry. Regular readers will remember previous posts, where I’ve come down against the scheme. But now that it looks like going ahead, it’s time to move on and consider how the development will unfold. Read more