diamond geezer

 Thursday, September 08, 2016

A grey morning on Merseyside

One danger of booking an awayday rail ticket months in advance is that the weather might be atrocious. It happened when I went to Durham last year, and it happened again on Saturday when I went to Liverpool. The first drops fell as my train crossed the Mersey, the rain then chucked it down for eight hours, and the sun only peeked out as I headed back to Lime Street for my return journey. Thanks for all your suggestions as to where I might visit. I should perhaps have targeted a few more indoor attractions, but where would have been the fun in that?

North: Another Place (Crosby, Sefton)

You'll know this one, even if you've never been. About 20 years ago the artist Anthony Gormley commissioned 100 identical cast iron sculptures of his body so that they could be attached to a beach to be covered by the rise and fall of the tide. The beach in question is in Crosby, the first stretch of sand beyond the mouth of the Mersey, and just up the coast from Liverpool Docks. But it's not the first place this metal army has been exhibited - they were initially deployed in northern Germany in 1997, then transferred to Norway and on to Belgium. But something about Crosby just felt right, so they've been here permanently since 2005, embraced by the local council as an artwork with pulling power.

I wasn't expecting the sheer scale of the piece. I'd walked down to the coast through a fairly ordinary seafront suburb, all view of the sea blocked by a low strip of dunes, emerging through a narrow gap onto the promenade. I'd also timed my visit for low tide, or thereabouts, so ahead of me lay the entire broad expanse of Crosby Sands. A couple of miles of beach all told, too long to see in its entirety, sloping gently down towards a distant run of breaking waves. And dotted here and there, some close to shore and some much much further out, a sprinkling of solitary immobile figures staring out into the Irish Sea. I thought there'd be clusters, but there was too much space to fill for that. Instead no more than one sentinel was ever in close-up at any time, a handful of his brothers in the approximate vicinity, and the remainder merely tiny metal posts scattered into the sandscape.

It was raining hard, so I had my hood up, and only the hardiest dog walkers had ventured anywhere near the beach. But having the place pretty much to myself was excellent, because it meant all the people I could see were genuine sculptures rather than intrusive humans. It also meant the sky was a leaden grey, with the closest wind farm a mere blur in the distance, and only the occasional container ship creeping across a blank horizon. I imagine a fine day looks dazzlingly different, and high tide totally dissimilar too, when only the figures closest to the shore are visible above the sea. Instead I got to see the majority of figures from the feet or knees up, with only a few so far out that only the head was showing.

They don't like you walking too far out. Signs on the promenade warn against wandering more than 50 metres from the land because of "very soft sand and mud" beyond, although I arrived on the beach inbetween them so only read the warning on my way back. I'd been out as far as the first watery channel, the sand here rippled and uneven, and was already regretting my decision to wear my quite-nice trainers. I can see how tempting it would be to walk further, but there's not really a lot of point given that every statue is the same as every other, rust excepted, and the other 99 still so far away.

The wet day meant even the innermost sculptures were glistening, and one particular appendage drew unfortunate attention to itself. A comfortably proportioned organ dangles from the groin of each facsimile, a low point on which water trickling down the sculpture inexorably coalesces. This forms a droplet of increasing dimensions, in this case over ten seconds or so, until eventually gravity does its thing and a big bead widdles down onto the sand. I can see why some have protested that the sculptures are too lifelike, but we're all human and we all leak, so why the fuss?

To visit Another Place I took Merseyrail to Blundellsands & Crosby station, which delivered me roughly halfway along the installation. Signs on the platform exhort you to alight at the station beforehand, which is Waterloo, although it is a little further to walk thanks to a large marine lake to be negotiated around. Even better ride all the way on to Hall Road at the far end of the beach and walk back to Waterloo, as I might have done had the weather been better - it's only a couple of miles in total, and there's a half-decent cafe or two to end up in. I'd recommend visiting at low tide, but even if you simply turn up and take pot luck with the level of submergence, I'll bet Another Place still weaves its magic. [7 photos]

East: Williamson Tunnels (Edge Hill, Liverpool)

Beyond odd, and above peculiar, this warren of tunnels below Mason Street is an amazing leftover from a 200 year-old job creation scheme gone rogue. The proponent was Joseph Williamson MP, a highly eccentric businessman who earned his fortune by marrying into the Tate sugar dynasty. Having financed a row of houses on the edge of Edgehill, and keen that they should all have back gardens, he employed a large number of men to build brick arches over the adjacent sandstone quarry and thereby level out the land. But he couldn't bear to discharge his workforce once the job was done, so kept them busy with pointless underground tasks, including building more arches underneath the existing arches, and the digging of a labyrinth of tunnels. Only when Joseph died in 1840 did his workfare scheme end, and only relatively recently has the full extent of his madcap scheme been uncovered.

A body of volunteers has been busy for the last 20 years digging out the rubbish that's accumulated in the tunnels and gradually opening up them to the public. This has been no mean feat, removing decades of detritus dropped through holes in the basements of the villas above, and trying not to dislodge the student accommodation blocks which have since been built in their place. The Heritage Centre on site is now open daily (except Mondays), and for less than a fiver they'll lend you a helmet and take you inside. Given how wet it was when I went the "every 20 minutes" tour frequency seemed somewhat optimistic, and I would have got the circuit to myself had not a volunteer tacked on to shadow my excellent guide (and record his fact-packed spiel, presumably to learn from later).

The helmet isn't because it's dangerous, merely because some of Williamson's arches are quite low and you might bang your head. There is seemingly no logic to what got built where, or in what form, from small poorly-constructed features in alcoves to more uniform brick spans above long double-floored caverns. The floor goes down so far in places that much of the walk is on scaffolding, while another section passes beneath the original homes past a concrete pile inadvertently drilled into the void by a more modern builder. Along the way there's graffiti to see, and some questionable handiwork, and displays of crockery, pet skeletons and old earthenware Hartley's jamjars retrieved from below. The tour didn't venture quite as far as I was expecting, but it did last the advertised 40 minutes, and a full sense of mystery was imbued.

Before long there'll be more to see. Volunteers are digging out one of the adjacent chambers, which goes down way further than I'd expect - one of the structural benefits of constructing your tunnels inside a former quarry. There's also a completely disjoint (and more extensive) section to the north, under the jurisdiction of a different set of volunteers, which you'll need membership to enter. And immediately between the two halves, by some vastly unlikely coincidence, is a completely different bore you've quite likely travelled through. The main railway line to Lime Street drives straight under Mason Street, just to the west of Edge Hill station, severing Williamson's central 'Triple Decker' in the process. That's one historic tunnel through an even older tunnel, and an adorably quirky tourist attraction to boot.

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