diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Postcards from Merseyside

St John's Beacon
Erected in 1969, this landmark tower was then the tallest building in Liverpool, and very nearly still is. Visitors were invited to ascend 138m to the observation lounge and revolving restaurant, and initially did, before health and safety and then lack of patronage closed the attraction down. Local station Radio City refurbished the upper bubble in 2000, turning the outdoor observation deck into offices and the restaurant into studios, from which they still broadcast daily. Thoughtfully the corridor used to access the studios runs around the glass-paned edge, and members of the public are once again invited inside to enjoy the best views over central Liverpool.

The ground floor entrance doubles up as Radio City reception, which feels odd, indeed the whole visit is essentially a trip to a radio station. The lift whisks you up to the '1st floor', which is way up in the sky, then a member of staff carefully ushers you out towards the rim and not the heart of the machine. The immediate vicinity isn't always especially photogenic from above, but look further and the view of the Liver Building looks very much like that seen at the start of the Brookside, which probably isn't a coincidence. Further away are Anfield, the Albert Dock and the Anglican Cathedral - the only other building which appears to rise to a comparable elevation - then the broad sweep of the Mersey, the Wirral peninsula and the Welsh hills beyond.

The upper corridor isn't huge, and only covers three-quarters of the perimeter, and you'll probably want to ignore the promo video which tells the history of Radio City. But it probably won't be packed out - this is advertised as a no-need-to-book attraction - and the £5.50 ticket won't break the bank. On a fine day there's nowhere better to get your bearings before heading off to whichever other attraction takes your fancy. [7 photos]

Stanley Dock
Walk north from the Pier Head and the Liverpool waterfront becomes increasingly down at heel. Past the last of the newbuilds and restorations, and the funnel vent of the Wallasey Tunnel, lies a hinterland of rundown sidestreets plied by men in overalls. On the riverward side the former docks lie dormant and decaying behind a long brick wall, occasionally broken by thick turrety gateposts, the name of each dock elegantly scripted on a Victorian plaque. Most of the original buildings have been demolished but the behemoths at Stanley Dock remain, and one of these is the world's largest brick warehouse.

The Tobacco Warehouse is 14 storeys high, around 200 metres long and contains a total floorspace of 37 acres. When it opened in 1901 it would have been packed with hogsheads of tobacco, but in the 1980s fell into disuse as is now more than readily apparent. Most of its windows are smashed, exterior chains of fire escapes are rusting away, and a Beatles mural painted on a far wall serves only to bring the brickwork into sharp contrast. English Heritage have had it on their At Risk Register for years, because nobody wanted to knock it down, but nobody could ever find a profitable use for the low-ceilinged floors.

Naturally it's now lined up to become 500 apartments, a developer having come up with a cunning plan to knock through selective floors and to carve out large central voids for lighting. It seems ludicrous that anyone with money would want to live out here, an awkward walk from anywhere, but the North Warehouse on the opposite side of the dock has already been transformed into the Titanic Hotel, to which posh cars bring guests on business or for wedding receptions. One day full-blown cafe culture may come to Stanley Dock, like some ghastly echo of London's blandest waterfront, but let's hope the Tobacco Warehouse's imposing character still shines through. [7 photos]

Birkenhead Priory
The oldest surviving building on Merseyside is the shell of a priory built by monks in the 12th century, back when they and a few farmers were the only inhabitants of the entire Wirral peninsula. The monks also kickstarted the Mersey Ferry, which'll be 700 years old next year, so expect celebrations. No monastery survived Henry VIII, so the Western Range half-stands open to the sky and the refectory was only reroofed in 1993, with a small museum since tucked into the Undercroft. A model in a glass case shows the full scale of what used to be. Only the Chapter House has been fully restored, and is still used for CofE services on the rare occasion of the 5th Sunday of the month.

Birkenhead's first parish church was built in the grounds and thrived, until the Queensway Tunnel was built and a substantial area of housing was wiped away. Subsequent road widening cut St Mary's off from its congregation making the building surplus to requirements, so it was all knocked down in 1975 save for some special windows and the tower. Thanks to the sterling work of volunteers it's now possible to climb 101 steps to the top of the variegated tower and look out across Birkenhead, or more likely across the Mersey towards the World Heritage skyline.

Most jarring is the sight of the Cammell Laird shipyard immediately adjacent, so close that its construction wiped much of the graveyard away. The Ark Royal aircraft carrier was built here, and the second Mauretania, and the polar research ship that wasn't called Boaty McBoatface. Now two giant yellow cranes loom alien-like on either side of the nearest dry dock, the occasional flash from a welding torch sparking at the foot of the gantry. The priory site somehow lives on in the midst of light industry and heavy shipbuilding, an incongruous survivor beyond a dual carriageway barricade, open Wednesdays to Sundays, admission free. [5 photos]

New Brighton
At the top of the Wirral, where the Mersey finally meets the sea, is Liverpool's seaside getaway. Though not actually in the city it's damned easy to nip to, barely twenty minutes by train or a short underwater drive. A long promenade hugs the Irish Sea coast, above actual sand, with a lighthouse at the tip of the breakwater to guide ferries and trade. Tall red cranes on the opposite bank remind paddlers of the industriousness of these waters, while a white turbine forest whirls silently offshore. Once round the Marine Lake is enough for some (ten minutes tops on a mobility scooter), providing an up-close view of the solid Georgian defence known as Fort Perch, a weekends-only museum and events venue.

New Brighton's massive outdoor bathing pool, dubbed an aquatic stadium, failed to survive storm damage in 1990 and has since been replaced by a swanky cinema, a curve of chain pubs and a massive Morrisons. These are the new seaside magnets, drawing custom from the more traditional amusement arcades, burger bars and ice cream vendors along Kings Parade. Then in the evening there's always the Floral Pavilion, more likely to be hosting a tribute act than the real thing, but which will be welcoming the actual Lulu in November and the Merseybeats in March. Though now more commuter suburb than proper resort, New Brighton appears to be weathering the downturn without going under. [3 photos]

» Merseyside 2017 - 25 photos [slideshow]
» Merseyside 2016 - 7 photos
» Merseyside 2015 - 75 photos

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