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A Liver Bird’s point of view: Royal Liver Building 360

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.

Advert from Horizon Zero Dawn showing Liver Building
Advert from Horizon Zero Dawn showing Liver Building
Screenshot from SimCity 3000 showing Liver Building
Screenshot from SimCity 3000 showing Liver Building

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.

The Liver Building on a sunny day

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.

RLB360 tour

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.

Model Liver Building in the RLB360 museum

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!

Immersive video

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 spiral stairs up to the roof of the Liver Building

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!

Roof-top tour

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.

Manufacturer’s plaque on the clock mechanism

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 view south over the Royal Albert Dock and the city

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

Photo of St George's Hall, Liverpool, with CGI enhancements

The City and the City and the Liverpool Landscape

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.

Book: The City and the City, by China Mieville (Amazon UK)

TV version: The City and the City, BBC iPlayer

The City in the City and the City

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.

Photo of Water Street, Liverpool
Water Street, Liverpool, part of Besźel in The City and the City (note 8 Water Street in top left – the fuzzy right hand side is ‘unseen’ city of Ul Qoma)

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.

Photo of St George's Hall, Liverpool, with CGI enhancements
The distinctive front of St George’s Hall, CGI-enhanced with domes for extra threat, is ‘Cupola Hall’ in The City and the City.

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.

Photo of disused Queensway Tunnel entrance, Rendel Street, Birkenhead
The disused Rendel Street Queensway tunnel as entrance to Cupola Hall

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.

Screenshot from The City and the City
The Victoria Tower at Brunswick Dock – an isolated upstanding monument to contrast with the flat dock landscape
Screen shot of scene from The City and the City
The Kingsway Tunnel ventilator tower provides a suitably oppressive backdrop to dystopian Besźel. The two shots above appear seconds apart in episode 1

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.

Photo of Water Street as Ul Qoma
Water Street, Liverpool, as Beszel
Photo of Water Street as Beszel
Water Street, Liverpool, as Ul Qoma

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.

Other locations

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.

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Yeoman’s House, West Derby Village

The ‘Yeoman’s House’ (as it is known locally) dates from the 1580s, so is a cherished historical feature in the village of West Derby. Others include the similarly-aged courthouse across the road.

The stocks to one side, and the beautiful red brick cottages around the entrance to Croxteth Park add to the historic landscape. That’s not to mention the other monuments dotted around the area too, and the great history of West Derby in general.

Yeoman’s House photo gallery

The building was put up for sale in 2017, so new photos were taken by estate agents. The photos below are all from the estate agents who put the property on the market:

 

Further Reading

Liverpool’s 400-year-old courthouse where you could be put in the stocks for not having a pig-ring – Liverpool Echo (accessed 18th Nov 2017)

Refurbishing old buildings in the historic landscape

English Heritage have released a new volume of their ‘Constructive Conservation’ series, this one entitled Sustainable Growth for Historic Places. It’s all about the benefits of re-using historic buildings for new purposes, and the effects not only on the bottom line of the developer, but also the ability of these buildings to attract customers and tourists, and the benefits of creating an attractive and enjoyable place to work in. Read more