Beyond the Beatles – Liverpool is Dancing to a New Beat

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Oct 31, 2016

With a little help from history and its most famous sons, The Beatles, Liverpool is rocking again, writes Scouser Chris Wright.

Back in the early 1980s, writer Alan Bleasdale was looking for an image to convey the utter misery of unemployment-blighted Liverpool for his seminal drama series, Boys from the Blackstuff. He settled on the city’s derelict Albert Dock. In the final episode, wheelchairbound George surveys the silt-clogged dock and the smashed windows of its abandoned warehouses and, after thinking of his and his city’s finer past, dies. It just might be the most miserable scene in British TV history.

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Well, you should see the place now. Albert Dock represents Liverpool’s revival from the most afflicted of European cities to a thriving, buzzing tourist hub where Beatles pilgrims rub shoulders with football fans, students and cruise ship passengers. 

This is my home town so let me show you what I can see from here, facing the city with my back to the River Mersey. To the left, there’s enough proud history and art to make a scholar blush: the Tate Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum – one of the world’s best – and the Museum of Liverpool. Just beyond those landmarks are the beautiful Three Graces buildings at the Pier Head, topped by the Liver Birds that have been the city’s icons for more than a century. In front of them, the “ferry ’cross the Mersey” – with that infernal Gerry and the Pacemakers song playing relentlessly – is docking from Birkenhead.

To the right, restaurants and bars abound (my band had a residency in one of them back in the 1990s but we changed our name so often that I doubt anyone would remember us) and behind is a 60-metre-high Ferris wheel. What you can’t see – because it’s underground in suitably Cavern-esque swarthiness – is The Beatles museum, cramped and heaving, evoking the earthiness of the band’s early days in Liverpool and Hamburg.

Ahead, the city unfolds up the hill, the skyline dominated by the bewilderingly different cathedrals (as a city with a vast Irish population, it has always needed two: one Protestant and one Catholic). If there was a match playing, I’d possibly be able to hear the noise coming from Anfield (home of Liverpool Football Club) or Goodison Park (Everton Football Club), though the stadiums are several kilometres away and you can’t see them from here.

The docks, the cathedrals, the old warehouses: none of these is new and all were here when I was a kid. But it’s what’s been done with them. Somehow, the life’s been returned to Liverpool.

In order to explore my home town, let’s take a walk with my dad. At 70, he’s seen it all: he was a child in the postwar era when bomb-ravaged Liverpool was put back together; a teen in the city’s 1960s cultural heyday when The Beatles ruled the world (that’s when my mum arrived, along with thousands of other young people); a young adult in the 1970s when Liverpool Football Club made the city world-famous; and a working man in the city’s schools when the docks shut down and the city all but died in the 1980s. Seeing it rebound is a source of delight and pride for him.

From the docks, we head up the hill, through the shopping districts and past the World Museum and the Walker Art Gallery in the Victorian buildings near Lime Street Station – where many visitors arrive – towards the cathedrals. Why there? Partly because they’re great buildings and partly because they demonstrate some of the unique oddity of Liverpool.

The Catholic one (Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, to give it its formal name, or Paddy’s Wigwam, the moniker bestowed by the Irish community) is a soaring concrete and glass teepee, jagged and unlikely – to many eyes, hideous on the outside but filled with radiant light streaming through the stained-glass windows in blues and reds. The Anglican one – stocky, broad-shouldered, sandstone Liverpool Cathedral – recalls Notre Dame with its vast interior and high vaulted ceiling. (In fact, it’s considerably bigger: guides will proudly tell you that Nelson’s Column, which stands tall in London’s Trafalgar Square, would fit comfortably inside it.) Remarkably, this Gothic Revival cathedral – completed in 1978 – is the newer of the two in Liverpool. From its towers, there are great views over the city and the river, where the transformation is in evidence again. Cruise ships come here now and Cunard brought its three flagship liners to the city to commemorate its 175th anniversary in May last year.

The cathedrals are at opposite ends of Hope Street, with a few excellent diversions along the way on the 10-minute stroll between them. First is the newly spruced-up Everyman, one of many theatres in the city representing a cultured town that hums with performances, live music and art. It has a great café, too. 

A little further on, don’t pass up a visit to The Philharmonic Dining Rooms – The Phil, to one and all. This National Heritage-listed pub is a series of ornately decorated rooms – all bas-relief walls, cherubs and chandeliers. Its gents’ toilets are so resplendent that bar staff are accustomed to requests from women to see them and will oblige in quiet times, checking the coast is clear.

The great thing about going around Liverpool with Dad is that after a lifetime here, he knows the places that aren’t in the guidebooks. So after walking downhill past one of the world’s oldest and most entrenched Chinatowns – ports are always a melting pot – we head to the start of the extraordinary Mersey Tunnel Tour (+44 151 330 4504) at the Georges Dock Building near the Pier Head. The Queensway Tunnel under the river was the world’s longest road tunnel when it opened in 1934 and to stand beneath the ventilation stations with their vast, angry fans is an experience both impressive and, frankly, frightening.

Dad also knows that to see a city properly you have to get out of the centre so we grab the kids and go north towards Crosby Beach. Getting there is a reminder that not all is perfect in Liverpool; the population has shrunk dramatically since the city’s 1930s heyday and much of the city remains depressed or even abandoned, not yet gentrified. The areas around the football grounds – which are cathedrals in their own right and have museums chronicling the hopes and dreams they’ve lifted and dashed over the years – are particularly underprivileged.

As a piece of sand, Crosby Beach is not going to feature in the dreams of many Australians but it has curious fame as the home of Another Place by Antony Gormley: a series of 100 life-size cast-iron figures of the artist spread along three kilometres of the foreshore and stretching almost one kilometre out to sea. The sculptures have inevitably been adorned with hats, scarves and other paraphernalia over the years and the kids adore them.

It’s a good city for kids in general. The dock areas offer plenty of hands-on attractions but on rainy days – and, oh my, are there some rainy days in Liverpool, with that wind blowing off the Irish Sea – the best option is the brilliant Underwater Street, a play centre that’s, well, under Water Street at the Pier Head.

Time to check out Liverpool’s nightlife, for which I recruit my schoolfriend, Neil, who these days is a policeman rather than the scourge of them. We begin at Alma de Cuba, perhaps the most atmospheric restaurant in England’s north, housed in a former church with dim light and long shadows.

After that – well, after The Phil (again), Thomas Rigby’s, Lady of Mann, The Grapes, The Beehive, The Hanover Hotel, Flanagan’s Apple and O’Neill’s – I fear my notes have become a little scattered under Neil’s expert direction but we’ve put the world to rights. And in the next day’s haze, some conclusions are clear. 

First, Liverpool wears its Beatles heritage on its sleeve in a way that is sometimes cloying (Liverpool John Lennon Airport: Above Us Only Sky), sometimes amusing (locals recall Ringo Spa: manicure and pedicure). You can still go to The Cavern Club on Mathew Street, where The Beatles started gigging in the early 1960s, though it’s not quite the same place as the original. And live music in Liverpool is more than a series of tribute bands; it’s everywhere and in every form, with the Irish particularly well represented. 

Second, Liverpool has a lot to thank its ever-expanding student population for. They’re legion and they’re interesting. 

Third, you could spend a lifetime here and not see every pub, bar and nightclub, from the LGBTI places around Stanley Street to lively Concert Square, from rejuvenated Baltic Triangle to crazily diverse Seel Street. 

Outsiders will say Liverpool is mawkish, sentimental and self-pitying. And it probably is. But in a streamlined and homogenised world, it has character and identity. For those who left in the jobless years, it’s quite something to come back and see it so transformed. 

Where to Stay  

Hard Days Night Hotel

Liverpool milks its Beatles history for all it’s worth and Hard Days Night Hotel is plentiful with Fab Four fare, plus it’s about a minute from The Cavern Club. It doesn’t have the biggest rooms – unless you go for the Lennon Suite, complete with a white baby grand piano – and noise from the street can be an issue. But if you’re here with The Beatles in mind, this place provides plenty for fans. harddaysnighthotel.com

Signature Living Serviced Apartments 

Apartment hotels are gaining popularity, particularly with families, but this one does a lot more than just provide you with a kettle and a microwave. The rooms at Signature Living Serviced Apartments are stylish and each one is unique. The apartment hotel is perfectly located on Stanley Street, near the Mathew Street nightlife and the shopping district, and offers great service. Another good option for self-catering rooms and apartments is The Nadler Liverpool on Seel Street.

The Shankly Hotel

For the benefit of non-Liverpool fans, Bill Shankly was a visionary and iconic manager who put Liverpool Football Club on the road to becoming a world-beating force in the 1970s and ’80s. Then again, if you’re not a Liverpool fan, you’re unlikely to opt for the (expensive) Shankly Hotel anyway. In the on-site Bastion Bar & Restaurant, there’s a host of memorabilia provided by Shankly’s family, including a telegram from Neil Armstrong and Shankly’s first Liverpool contract. Oh, and the rooms are clean and comfortable. shanklyhotel.com

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