Liverpool postcard:Brookside Close To the first of three very different Merseyside housing projects, and the most familiar of the trio. Brookside Close was filmed on a specially-built housing estate in the eastern suburb of West Derby, five miles to the east of Liverpool city centre. I took the number 13 bus deep out into the suburbs, to a neighbourhood with an increasingly leafy vibe, past a local pub with a betting shop in the car park, and a giant Tesco that used to be an army barracks. Deysbrook Lane eventually fades out in a web of cul-de-sacs, but before it does a pair of curved brick walls lead off to the left, one painted with the street name - Brookside. Yes, there is an actual brook, it's called the River Alt, which rises close by and flows behind the Grants' old house into Croxteth Hall Park. I'd show you a photo, but the stream is mostly obscured by flowering vegetation, and the shot would tell you nothing. Executive producer Phil Redmond bought up the entire close in 1982, the aim being to provide a secluded but realistic space for filming, with the brook on one side and woodland on the other. Of the thirteen houses seven were used for administration, post production and canteen facilities, and stayed mostly out of sight, and it's these you encounter as you walk up the first wiggle of close. They stand in twos and threes, now occupied by ordinary members of the public, while a couple of similar-looking newbuilds have just been squeezed in on the penultimate bend. And then you reach the final dogleg and there they are, six of the most famous homes in the country, looking much as they ever did. [5 photos]
Had I ventured here five years ago I'd have seen a very different sight. Brookside Close was sold to a private developer after the soap stopped filming in 2003, then gutted and redecorated and put up for sale at what were then extremely high prices. The developer duly went bust and the houses slowly decayed, while the gardens and pavements became overgrown, a situation turned round only when another developer bought up the whole lot for three quarters of a million pounds. Houses on the original set had no water mains or telephone cables, so these had to be added along with functioning kitchens and complete internal walls, and today they're all rented out, one suspects to families and fans. Confusingly they're now numbered upwards from 47 in odd numbers, rather than consecutively from 5 to 10, but other than that the panorama is unmistakeable. It took me a while to work out that the three houses nearest the river weren't any of the main residences but were used for back-up, and carefully cut out of shot on camera, but the other six I knew inside out. Sheila and Bobby at number 5, the legendary Casa Bevron at number 8, and the most famous patio in Britain out of sight round the back of number 10. Apparently the owner of the latter still gets regular knocks on the door from fans who want to see his garden, so I decided to stand well back and observe from a respectful distance. Thankfully all the residents were indoors or out back, one with some unnecessarily agitated dogs, or just driving back from the shops (as I suddenly discovered). Sorry to be the stalking tourist, but simply being here was enormously evocative for one of the millions who grew up around here.
Liverpool postcard:Port Sunlight A completely different kind of soap opera took place on the other side of the Mersey, halfway down the Wirral (so not officially in Liverpool, yes, I know). The soap in question was Sunlight, Lever Brother's pioneering laundry detergent, which didn't smell of carbolic and was the first domestic bar to be sold cut and wrapped. With its success came the need to build a large manufacturing plant, so a riverside site was selected and Port Sunlight was born. What makes it special is the garden village William Lever built to house his workforce, a place of function, benevolence and beauty, and not what late Victorian society was used to. Each of the 800 houses is unique, grouped into blocks designed by different architects, with all the attention to detail you'd expect from an Arts and Crafts environment. Wandering round what strikes you is the sense of scale and space, and greenery, beauty, and that this is somewhere you'd be inordinately proud to live. But it's also far less working class than it used to be, no longer the sole preserve of Unilever staff after private sales began in the 1980s, and the cars driving round the broad boulevards suggest considerable upmarketing has occurred.
As well as housing, Lever kitted out Port Sunlight with a fine array of municipal buildings. These included a cottage hospital (now a hotel), a Technical Institute (now flats) and an open air swimming pool (now a garden centre). The Girls' Club building now houses Port Sunlight Museum, which I turned up too late to enjoy, as the crowd outside sipping their cups of tea drank up and moved on. But there was time to look round one late arrival to the village which still fulfils its original purpose. The Lady Lever Art Gallery was built in Beaux Arts style to house the philanthropist's acclaimed collection of art, furniture and ceramics, and opened in 1922 a few years before his death. It still looksstunning, despite the rebuilding works going on up one end, and entrance is free (because Liverpool museums are excellent like that). The main gallery has a feel of Dulwich Picture Gallery about it - one long room with high walls bedecked with art - but with considerably more rooms off to each side, and packed with a much wider variety of pieces. One rotunda houses classical sculptures, another gallery exquisite Chinoiserie, plus there are five period rooms decked out with all the soft furnishings of eras past. Again looking round there's a feeling that Port Sunlight is now a very middle class day out, but then this is the Wirral, and Port Sunlight remains very much for all. [11 photos]
Liverpool postcard:The Welsh Streets The Welsh Streets are a ladder of Victorian terraces in Toxteth, each named after something suitable Celtic like Gwydir or Elwy or Rhiwlas or Treborth. The houses are small and nothing outlandishly special, except that Ringo Starr was born in one, and because of the astonishing furore over their future. In 2004 these eleven streets were threatened with demolition under a New Labour programme called Housing Market Renewal, there being too much 'obsolete' low level accommodation in the city, or so the rationale said. Residents said otherwise, infuriated that perfectly good housing stock was to be eliminated in favour of lower density development, but the council moved them out anyway and boarded up their homes. Except that the expected regeneration never came, and the Coalition government withdrew funding, and an entire L8 neighbourhood has been blighted. Eric Pickles threw out the latest plans, which would have retained part of Ringo's homestreet, and a decade on the Welsh Streets problem looks no closer to being solved.
I walked down through Toxteth from the cathedral, elegant townhouses making way for more ordinary flats and a particularly scruffy shopping parade on the way down the hill. But at least everything looked occupied, that is until I reached High Park Street and the metal shutters appeared. On one side of the road a girl played in a well-tended front garden, while nobody lived on the other, and the Tasty corner shop appeared to have sold its last sandwich some time ago. I made for Ringo's road, that's Madryn Street, and soaked up the compellingly unsettled vibe. The place was completely dead, bar a run of trees dripping with red berries, with the feeling I could have stood in the street for hours without anyone else walking or driving through. Number 9 was identifiable only by considerable marker-pen activity across what had one been its window and doors, not even a burglar alarm hanging limp like many of the adjacent properties. But further down I found a single house still under occupation, its brickwork clean, its front door bright orange and its top window open in complete defiance of the establishment's intent. Parallel Powis Street was even more affecting, the entirety of each boarded-up façade painted black and without a single tree to break the barren panorama. Coming as I do from a city with a housing crisis based on lack of supply, the whole thing looked insane.
At the age of four Ringo's family moved to Admiral Grove, one block north, where they were still living when the Fab Four's fame began. It's not under threat, indeed number 10 is particularly well scrubbed up with whitewashed walls and a bright pink drainpipe. This street still teems with life and desirability, indeed in inner City London these narrow terraced houses would command a tidy sum. But a pocket of intractable indecision lingers close by, as the Welsh Streets await an undoubtedly unsatisfactory fate. [8 photos]