Ferry ‘cross the Mersey

Tim’s mother’s family came from Bromborough, a suburb of Birkenhead on the Wirral Peninsula. The Wirral is directly across the river Mersey from Liverpool. It is easy to get there by rail – there is a tunnel under the river. But of course the more interesting and fun trip is by ferry. Ferry ‘cross the Mersey.

Tim on the Mersey Ferry, at the dock in Liverpool

The Gerry & the Pacemakers song plays as you start out on the ferry. Click on the link for a wonderful YouTube clip of them singing on the ferry. Nothing has changed. You can’t get the song out of your head for days.

The ferry took us to the Woodside dock, where we took a side trip to “The U-Boat Story” – a tour of a WW2 U-boat.


U-534 was sunk the day that peace was declared. It had not surrendering and seemed to be evading capture. There were rumours that it was carrying important Nazi documents, or perhaps even Nazi officials. It was attacked by RAF fighters and sunk just beyond Norway. It rested on the bottom of the ocean until 1993, when it was raised, cleaned up and brought to Merseyside as an interactive display. They have divided it into sections so that you can see the inner workings. No treasure was ever found, and the boat remains steeped in mystery.

From the Woodside dock, we got on the Merseytravel train (like a metro) and travelled about 20 minutes to Spital in search of “Ravensheugh”, Tim’s mother’s family home. Tim and his family had stayed there just prior to immigrating to Canada.He had gotten rough directions to the house from his cousin.

Much has changed in the intervening 60 years of course. Spital Road is a busy thoroughfare, and we felt quite disheartened as we walked along. We looked carefully at all of the houses that we thought might be Ravensheugh, but we had no number and there were no names posted. We were just about to leave when a couple pulled up into a driveway next to us. We asked them if they had ever heard of a house called Ravensheugh. Sure, they said, the house just down the street calls itself Ravensheugh, but the original Ravensheugh is just where you are standing.

Tim at Ravensheugh, Spital Road

The house is not as grand as it was when Tim’s family was there, but at least we had found it. We walked back through the wild and wonderful park that Tim would have played in as a child, feeling connected to a personal past.

We got back on the train and got out at the next stop, Port Sunlight. In 1887, William Lever and his brothers were looking for a place to build a new soap factory to expand their business. They purchased acreage between the Mersey river and the railway line and proceeded to build a factory, plus a model village to house the workers which they called Port Sunlight. Lever thought of the business as a profit share, but instead of giving the workers the extra money, he built them homes based on principles promoted by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

Port Sunlight

There are 900 lovely homes in Port Sunlight. Lever used a number of different designers for the homes, so each section is quite unique and fronts on wide, open streets. Lever built schools, community centres, a hospital and the Lady Lever Art Gallery. The community is protected from further development and preserved as an important historic area. It was a bold social experiement in valuing the lives of workers. Certainly it didn’t hurt the Lever Brother’s business. Sunlight soap is known the world over.

Some of the workers houses in Port Sunlight

By the time we arrived at The Lady Lever Art Gallery it was closing in 20 minutes.  We dashed in and were stopped dead in our tracks by some of our most favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat, Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel– our jaws dropped. We started rushing from room to room trying to gather them into our hearts before they closed the doors. A very kind guard said to me, “You know, most people plan to spend a whole day here.”

They gently pushed us out the doors and we drifted back to the train and back to the 21st century.

Of course one of the must sees in Liverpool is the Cavern Club on Matthew Street, where the Beatles played as their fame took off. The club is still there, although it has been moved a bit over from its original location. Three floors under the street, the stage is at one end of the small brick cavern, and the whole club is only 3 cavern arches wide. Adele played there just last year – it is hard to fathom how her huge voice would have reverberated off of these brick walls. We watched a Beatles tribute band,  and joined in as everyone sang “Love, Love Me Do” and “Please, Please Me” in the darkness of the cave.

The Cavern Club

Filled with bittersweet Beatle lyrics, we went back out to Matthew Street and went into another club across the road. There was a big band there, with a horn section, guitars, piano and a decent singer. They were covering Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Santana. Great vibe and energy, lots of people dancing.

We headed out and into the Cavern Pub where we saw an amazingly flash guitar player, doing some brilliant Hendrix stuff. He had only one hand – his picking hand was a very effect prosthetic. He was brilliant. The band is called “Xander and the Peace Pirates” Really, really good.

There were no chairs in these clubs. People stood and drank and danced. Most of all, they paid  attention to the music. When they wanted to hear something else, they bought drinks and carried them from one club to the next. Being on Matthew Street was like going to one big street party, and this was on a Sunday night in February! We walked home late through the misty Liverpool streets with music in our ears.

The next day we had a great visit with Tim’s cousin Keith, who lives outside Manchester and was able to give us a few more details about growing up in the Wirral. We had lunch and went walking through Liverpool, passing through a rather torn down and dispirited Chinatown. It is the oldest Chinatown in Europe but with there wasn’t a lot to recommend it.

Chinatown in Liverpool

We ambled through the new Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The design is very Gothic, with wide vaulting ceilings and the world’s highest and widest Gothic arches. It wasn’t particularly inspiring to us, even with the UK’s largest pipe organ 910, 267 pipes), but perhaps it is still a bit new.

The wide arches of Liverpool Cathedral

We ended up back at the Adelphi for tea with Keith. We ensconced ourselves into the plush sofas under massive chandeliers.

Keith, Amanda and Tim having tea at the Adelphi

Having made a wonderful connection to Tim’s cousin, I couldn’t help wondering how different Tim’s life would have been had his family stayed in the area. Would he have spoken with the same beautiful Liverpudlian accent as Keith? Would he have hung out in the Cavern Club as a teenager, groovin’ on the Merseybeat?

Our last morning in Liverpool was spent in homage to The Beatles. “The Beatles’ Story” is an excellent museum down at Albert Docks. An audio guide (read by Julia Lennon, John’s sister) takes you through the history of the Fab Four from their days in high school to the break up in 1970. The phenomenally short 8-year recording career that changed the way the world thought about music.

There were recordings of the Quarrymen and photos of the teenage John playing in his skiffle band. There was a recreation of the office of The Merseybeat (the newspaper that promoted the Mersey sound), of the recording studio at Apple Records, and of Brian Epstein’s record store. The life-size cover for the St. Pepper album was there (they made it life-size for the cover shoot). At the end there is a section devoted to what each Beatle has done, creatively, since the band broke up.

We came around the last corner, ready to head out to get the train back to London and walked into a recreation of John’s white room. “Imagine” was playing.

John Lennon's white room

We left Liverpool with music in our hearts.

Liverpool. A world of surprises

“I have heard of the greatness of Liverpool but the reality far surpasses my expectation” Prince Albert, 1846

The Liver Bird welcomes all to Liverpool

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.

The ornamental gateway to the old Liverpool Sailor's Home

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.

Amanda writing in the lounge of the Adelphi. Product placement for Apple computer.

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.

The Salt House. Fabulous Tapas in a great renovated building

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.

The Pump House (now a restaurant) in Albert Docks. The Museum of Liverpool is in the background

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.

Albert Docks

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…

The old and new mix at the waterfront. The Museum of Liverpool (the low white building) is in the distance behind the bridge.
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