“I have heard of the greatness of Liverpool but the reality far surpasses my expectation” Prince Albert, 1846
We decided to go to Liverpool for a couple of days. I had some research I wanted to do there, and Tim had some family roots that he wanted to explore. We didn’t have major plans, but thought it would be an interesting part of the country to visit. Like Prince Albert, the reality far surpassed our expectations.
Liverpool was one of the world’s most important ports and it is no exaggeration to say that it played a part in the fate of nations. In the 18th century it was the hub for trade from Ireland, Europe, and the West Indies. By the 19thcentury 40% of the world’s trade went through Liverpool. It was richer than London. But when trading practices changed, Liverpool changed. Container ships were created and thousands of dockworkers were unemployed. The Germans tried their best to destroy the city during the Liverpool Blitz of the Second World War. Over 4,000 people were killed and much of the city destroyed. Liverpool has been a city of great wealth and great poverty, great building and great destruction. What we saw was a city that has put thought and energy into reconstruction. The past is valued. Contemporary architecture and world culture is embraced. There is a reason why the city was the European Capital of Culture, 2008.
We booked ourselves into the historic Adelphi Hotel.
Built in 1911, the Adelphi was regarded at the time as the most elegant hotel outside of London. Its grandure has faded but it has old style character and charm and was surprisingly inexpensive. It symbolized the many contradictions we found in Liverpool.
We had arrived hungry and set out to find a bit of lunch, perhaps a little pub. We discovered The Salt House where we were surprised to find fabulous tapas, as good as anything we had in Barcelona. The first of many surprises in this visit.
We finished lunch and went to investigate the new Museum of Liverpool, the largest newly-built national museum to be built in the UK in over 100 years. It is a great piece of architecture sitting beside the Mersey River. We had just started to explore displays about the history of the city when we got a call from cousin Matt, who was coincidentally in Liverpool, taking a break from university in Newcastle. So of course we met up and went for a drink in an archetypal Liverpool pub.
A Liverpool/Manchester football (soccer) game had just finished. The pub was filled with at least twelve huge flat screen TVs, all playing highlights. Loud, energetic, and filled with delicious Liverpudlian accents, the pub was a real hit of what we imagined we’d find in Liverpool. We watched a table of young men, each with 2 pints of beer in front of them, drinking mixed cocktails out of fishbowls that they passed from one to the next. Guzzle drink from fishbowl, pass it on, guzzle another until all were gone and attention could be focused back on the beer.
We decided to find somewhere to go for dinner. We walked around the corner from the pub and travelled into an entirely different world. A large, modern pedestrian mall goes through the centre of town, filled with stylish chain stores. Usually I hate this kind of consumerist centre, but the area had a good, honest energy about it. Maybe it was the width of the mall, maybe it was the way that people were using it, enjoying the angled walkways on this damp grey evening. A few hearty souls were sitting outside for coffee.
We decided to splurge on a dinner at “Jamie’s Italian”, Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant, where we sat in a glass fronted restaurant overlooking the mall, feasting on squid ink pasta and shell fish risotto A far cry from the pub around the block, but this too is the real Liverpool. Modern architecture embracing the old buildings in the kind of eccentric mix that comes from re-thinking a city after devastation. International cuisine created by someone who has worked his way up from cooking in his parent’s pub.
We started our next day of surprises down on the waterfront. UNESCO declared Liverpool’s waterfront a World Heritage Site because it represents a “supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global significance.” The site begins at Albert Docks. Albert Docks has the largest collection of Grade 1 buildings (buildings of special architectural or historical interest) in the UK. The Docks were originally opened in 1846, by Prince Albert, which is when he made his comment about reality surpassing expectations. They were the world’s first non-combustible commercial docks, made entirely of brick, cast iron and stone. They contained the world’s first enclosed dry dock (built in the 18th century) and the first hydraulic lifts. The docks were built to support the huge volume of goods that came through the port. But the days of shipping into the Mersey estuary were numbered and the Albert Docks closed down for commercial shipping in 1972.
They were refurbished and re-opened in 1988 to house museums, shops, and various cultural attractions.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum are here. The Maritime Museum gives a great background to the importance of the port city of Liverpool. There was a special exhibit about the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland and the Lusitania, three magnificent ocean liners that left from Liverpool between 1912 and 1915 and all sank with great loss of life. There was also a great exhibit called “Hello Sailor” about gay life on the ships. With terribly punitive laws on homosexuality, ship life was, apparently, the place where men could come out of the closet safely. There were fabulously happy, campy photos from life aboard the ships.
The ugly side of Liverpool’s prosperity is examined at the Slavery Museum. Liverpool’s wealth was due, in no small part, to its connection to the slave trade. During the American Civil War, they were unofficially backing the Confederate army. Ships left from Liverpool and collected goods in Europe that they could trade to African traders in exchange for human slaves. It was disconcerting to see some of the same lovely glass beads that we had seen in Venice used to buy slaves in Africa. The museum sets exhibits about African culture beside hard-hitting stories of life on the ships and in captivity. Exhibits showing the contribution of black culture to European and North American culture aim at reconciliation. It’s powerful museum, and given a place of honour in the city. A city of contradictions. A city of stories. And we hadn’t even been on the Beatle trail yet…