England's greatest maritime city owes its wealth to the River Mersey. Two long stretches of docks and warehouses grew up on opposite banks, focused on the Pier Head, where stand the so-called Three Graces. The two less well-known of these are the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building, while the tallest (and most famous) is the Royal Liver Building. Revolutionary for its time (circa 1910) it's built from reinforced concrete, and is named after the insurance company it still houses. Its clock faces are larger than Big Ben's, all the better to aid passing shipping, and atop its two clock towers are the famous Liver Birds. legend has it that if they were ever to fly away the city would fall, but a) they're each attached with metal struts which are perfectly visible from the ground b) they're both made of copper, so Liverpool's safe for a while yet. There were once plans for a Fourth Grace, a millennial building to be erected on the former docks alongside, but a combination of inappropriate architecture and spiralling costs thankfully put paid to that. Instead the Mann Island site has been filled with tall black wedges, purportedly a mixed-use development but essentially dead at ground floor level. They look utterlyout of place, and were nominated for the Carbuncle Cup in 2012, but were instead beaten by the restored Cutty Sark. A far worse abomination would be the LiverpoolWaters project, pencilled in for Central Docks to the north, which would totally overshadow the waterfront with a 50-storey residential tower, and which forced UNESCO to place Liverpool - Maritime Mercantile City on its List of World Heritage in Danger. The commercial obsession with desecrating the sky with luxury apartments is by no means restricted to London.
Equally modern, and jarring in a more acceptable way, is the Museum of Liverpool, a long low concrete building that opened in 2011. A huge rectangular window pokes out at each end, while at its heart is a splendidly sweepingspiral staircase (warning: 84 steps ahead). Such is the city's historic importance that this is a National Museum, despite having Liverpool as its sole focus. And the good news is it's all terribly well done. Rather than a scattergun approach the museum focuses on a few choice areas, for example providing a fascinatinglyin-depth look at the Liverpool Overhead Railway rather than dipping into all forms of local transport. One of the best galleries is devoted to the city's creative flair, from playwrights to comedians, but more specifically football and music. The Beatles merit an entire case and a fifteen minute theatre show, but don't think John Peel and Echo and the Bunnymen don't get a look in. And by the time I'd immersed myself in The People's Republic gallery I was struck by what stands Liverpool apart. Other cities, Birmingham for example, use museums to celebrate their commercial heritage and entrepreneurial flair, while Liverpool maintains a laser focus on society, workers and community. Its glory days may have passed, but its people shine on.
Liverpool postcard:Albert Dock Back in the 1840s this large rectangular dock lined by warehouses was cutting-edge, indeed Britain's first entirely wood-free commercial premises. A secure place to store precious cargoes it thrived, then boomed, then inexorably declined. In the 1980s a restoration project saw the Albert Dock reborn as a mix of office space and retail, the most famous tenants probably Richard and Judy's This Morning and its floating weather map. The warehouses along one side are filled by the Merseyside Maritime Museum, a multi-storey memory bank of all things seafaring. A little tired in places, but by no means lightweight, two engrossing displays tell (in some depth) the story of the sinkings of the Titanic and the Lusitania. The third floor is separately branded as the International Slavery Museum, a little on the small side given the tale it has to tell, but a timely reminder that Liverpool's financial success (and that of the British Empire) rests on the disgraceful exploitation of Africa. It has some excellent staff too, for example Barbara whose Scouse tales of first-hand racism in the not-so-distant city had groups of visiting children suitably enthralled.
Oh, but the rest of theAlbert Dock is mostly a disappointment. It's all restaurants, gift shops and bars, appealing to lowest common denominator tourists in need somewhere to spend and slump. I was reminded of the back avenue at the O2 combined with the Trocadero, and scuttled round the perimeter in extra quick time. Although there is one cultural triumph, namely Tate Liverpool, the gallery's first venture outside the capital, and home to four floors of modern art. At present the paid-for exhibition is a display of Jackson Pollocks, so I gave that a miss, whereas floors two and one housed an eclectic constellation of pieces that merited more concentrated attention. Meanwhile if you step away from the dockside at the far end you'll find the entrance to The Beatles Story, because there had to be a Fab Four immersive experience somewhere, for £14.95 minus any Tesco vouchers you might have. On my whistlestop tour, a This Morning museum might have been much more appealing.
I dunno, Gerry and the Pacemakers write one song about it and suddenly it's the most famous ferry in the world. It also runs two very different services - one for tourists and one for locals. Tourists get the daytime to play, with a 50 minute triangular "River Explorer Cruise", which departs from the Pier Head and visits two stops on the Birkenhead side. At Woodside there's a U-Boat to explore, and at weekends a historic tramway outside the terminal too. Meanwhile Seacombe boasts a stellar-themed Spaceport, aimed firmly at families with children, and visiting which increases the prices of your £10 round ticket. Meanwhile before 9.30am and after 5pm the ferry operates for the benefit of commuters, shuttling back and forth rather faster, and that's when I chose to travel. The fare was included in the price of my Saveaway rover ticket, which also allowed me to travel on buses and trains all day, and which came loaded on an almost-smartplastic card. In London we have Oyster, in Liverpool they have Walrus (and insufficient card readers, so you have to carry your receipt around to avoid an excess fare).
I turned up at Woodside after five, fresh from the Merseyrail at Hamilton Square, only to be told that the ferry had stopped running for the day. I hadn't read the timetable carefully enough, and had missed the crucial detail than the commuter service ran from the other pier. Don't worry, said the cleaner, it's only ten minutes up the waterfront, and like a fool I believed her. In fact the distance was more like two miles, as I began to deduce when I triangulated the direction in which the latest ferry appeared to be heading. The intervening Mersey-side path rounded all sorts of decaying docks and outlying detritus, including the mammoth ventilation shaft for the Birkenhead Tunnel. What I thought was the correct pier turned out to belong to a much larger player, disgorging ferries from Belfast into a watery wilderness. I like this kind of urban desolation, don't get me wrong, but it took three-quarters of an hour of indirect route march to finally reach my quarry.
Not surprisingly, for a late-in-the-day against-the-flow service, the Mersey ferry wasn't busy. That was great because it meant the chance to stand in the small space up front and watch the river rush by, rather than being crammed out back or down below. But not right at the prow, of course, because that was fully occupied by a family filming themselves doing Titanic 'Jack and Rose' impersonations, because this never gets tedious to watch, natch. Until the end of next year the ferry is in full DazzleShips mode, a multi-coloured wartime redesign orchestrated by Sir Peter Blake, which livened up the surrounding grey somewhat. But there's always a proper estuarine feel, the surrounding land being relatively low and the Irish Sea not too far downriver. Although a diverse cavalcade of buildings hugs the Liverpool shoreline it's always the Liver Building that draws the eye, growing ever closer because that's where the boat docks. And although the tourist services always get it loud over the tannoy at this point, we commuters thankfully don't get to listen to Ferry Across The Mersey at this point, because the river itself has been experience enough.