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Queensway Tunnel tour – Going underground in Liverpool history, part II

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.

Photograph of Monument to the Queensway Tunnel in Birkenhead
A beacon identical to this one in Birkenhead once stood at the Liverpool entrance to the Queensway Tunnel (By Rept0n1x – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29171165)

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!

 

 

Cover of Beatles Landmarks book

The Beatles’ Landmarks in Liverpool, by Daniel K. Longman

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.

Beatles images

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.

Beatles landscapes

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.

Buy the book: The Beatles’ Landmarks in Liverpool, by Daniel K. Longman (Amazon UK)

If you liked this, take a look at some of Dan’s other books: