The stories of a couchsurfer

Liverpool: Delicate balance

The Royal Liver Building

For the past few posts, focused on travels throughout the United Kingdom, this blog has been quite critical on it’s cities and the lifestyle here. Leading the way in the complaints department was Britain’s fondness for monochrome vistas and the bleak, stagnant atmosphere that it induced.

Some of it is uncontrollable – the continuous overcast conditions of clouds upon clouds blocking out any Vitamin D the seemingly non-existent sun here could have provided and the murky brown waters of not just the rivers and ponds here, but even the coastal waters seemed to have a high dirt-to-water ratio.

Which makes it all the more surprising that, given that the British are not blessed with many natural colours, the nation continues to build boring, grey stoned buildings with barely the hint of any gold trimming that you may find on French or Spanish contemporaries. When the buildings here aren’t tonnes upon tonnes of white-grey stone, they go out on a limb and construct a purely red brick variant, of which is slightly less bland, yet becomes more and more so after even it succumbs after years and years of torment of British environmental dreariness and inevitably develops a layer of dirt and moss that blackens the brickwork.

To be fair, materials for such construction weren’t exactly rife at the time, but even todays modern buildings are conservative and can hardly be called novel.

This monochrome architecture is something that Britain is not alone with – it’s everywhere in Europe – yet other European countries differ in two main aspects. One, they are likely (correction, almost certainly) blessed with better weather conditions that at least provides a bright blue backdrop to these constructions, or if not covers them in a gorgeous layer of pure white snow. The second is that they at least take care to put some details on them – look at the cathedrals in Salamanca or the trimmings around most buildings in Paris or Lyon.

The combination of grey environmental conditions and straight-edge grey/white/dirt-red buildings is not one that every city can pull off. London is one of them.

Liverpool, as was a surprise, turns out to be another of them.

It’s really quite inexplicable too. Browse the photos from the previous post and you’ll find that almost all of them conform to the dreary conditions that have been described above. There’s no abundance of green parklands in the city limits in Liverpool like you would have in London and the River Mersey is twice the eyesore that the horrid Thames is.

Yet, something here just clicks. As if the city has, by chance, found the perfect balance of some indescribable feature that hangs on a knife edge, ready to topple over to dreadfulness whenever the next construction is erected.

Arriving by boat from Belfast, you’re provided with a pretty good initial impression of what Liverpool, architecturally, at least, has to offer. The boat pulls into the River Mersey, of which the business centre of Liverpool is situated on and the view of most of the buildings is well exposed.

Two stand out in particular – a bulking, symmetric, stoned construction with a large clock face at the top that sits right up against the riverbank. It appears as if it’s one of the oldest of the lot but still dwarfs the others and commands a certain “ownership” over Liverpool.

The other is more curious. More distant than the others and quite a fair way off to the right, outside of the city limits. It’s so far back that it’s almost only a silhouette given the typical British lack of daylight, yet one can still clearly see it’s shape. Its design gives it a timely appearance. Again symmetrical, but more square than the first building mentioned, one could make a fairly accurate model of it out of three or four Lego blocks. It’s an imposing figure that looks slightly out of place given that it’s so far away from the other major buildings of Liverpool, and it sparks intrigue as to exactly what could this be.

The former turns out to be the Royal Liver Building, built in 1911 and remained the tallest storied building in the whole of the United Kingdom until 1961. It’s a building that is perhaps most impressive because of its location looking out over the river, although one could imagine that it could be just as impressive sandwiched between other high rises more central to the area.

One could also imagine how much more incredible such a megalith would have appeared in 1911, with no peers to take any hint of attention away from it. It was the pride of Liverpool and in many ways continues to be, left largely on display for people to see and admire.

Today, the height is nothing of astonishment. It remains an imposing figure when you stand right up beside it, but it pales in comparisons to buildings you’ve likely seen elsewhere on your travels. What is impressive is the sheer weight of this building. Not only is it tall, but it’s wide and deep too. Nowadays, its design is probably considered unaesthetic or it’s energy rating would be too low to be approved.

This is one of the delights of exploring the centuries old world. The lack of policies and paperwork meant that these kind of projects could go on largely uninhibited and the product could likely be anything that the designer had envisioned.

Today, licenses, cost cutting and other restrictions prevent these glorious and grand structures from likely ever being built again.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Conveniently, one of them happens to be the second impressive structure that was visible from the boat upon entering.

This turned out to be the Liverpool Cathedral.

Ah, but of course! Who else could authorise and have approved such a gigantic and costly project than the Church of England?

This thing is incredible, awe-inspiring and ghastly all at the same time.

From afar, with its bulky silhouette and surrounded by near leafless trees in the parklands around, it appears like the perfect abandoned haunted mansion.

When the Church in France, Spain or Portugal try to appease the Lord, they pour funds into beautifying their religious monuments – lining them with gold trimmings and ensuring they have the best possible location in the city centre.

Not here in Liverpool.

No, here size is key to appeasing the gods. If you build it, they will come and the Liverpudlians made sure that there could be no way the faithful couldn’t find this place.

The cathedral is a prime example of the dirt riddled red-brick constructions that were mentioned at the top of this post and this, combined with a lack of intricate detail on the externals, made a visit to the building grounds a somewhat disappointing affair.

It appeared old and dated and one got the impression that after a century or two of providing service, it was time to upgrade.

Yet it came as a surprise that this construction was only officially completed and opened in 1978, making the building no older than the Liverpool Airport. This isn’t really an accurate description of it’s age, however, as construction started in 1904 and suffered delays throughout the world wars. Still, the seventy-four years that it took to construct this beast gives you an indication of just how large it is.

Although ghastly from the outside, the building is quite impressive from the interior. Don’t expect walls lined with mosaics and golds like those found in France – the surface area of the walls here would be far too large to accommodate that.

Instead you’ll find a more modest, clean interior, with the stone being protected from the ravages of pollution that the exterior had been rotted by. Here, in the interior, there is slightly more variance in the architecture. Arches and large, sweeping beams that act as supports span the columns. The immensity of the structure takes on a whole other level from the inside and the ceiling feels as if miles away.

Keeping to the theme, the stained glass windows are massive also. Their details remain just as intricate however and are a delight to gaze upon. The windows here also manage to do the impossible, as if to amplify the little sunlight that the British skies shines upon them and, combined with the help of some artificial lighting, the interior creates a warm, cosy and welcoming atmosphere.

There also isn’t a large number of tourists flocking on this and, combined with the expanses of the floor area, this provides a refreshing loneliness to the exploration of the building which, it should be pointed out, is well encouraged to explore most cracks and crevices without caution from the authorities.

The only exception is going to the rooftop, upon which you’re asked for a five quid fee. It’s hard to say if the result is really worth the five pound – the rooftop area is quite small and underdeveloped, but it does provide good views of Liverpool from above and on the way to the roof you will get a very good view of the church bells – if you’re into that sort of thing.

Liverpool is much more than two buildings, however. These buildings took special place in this post because they’re both worth visiting if you’re in the area.

Liverpool is very much a standard designed city with the commercial hub in the centre and large, flat residential areas in the surrounds. It’s quite a flat landscape with not many areas providing a vantage point or lookout.

The commercial centre itself is quite a bustling and active scene, both for business and for fun. One gets the impression that Liverpool is still doing quite strong economically. There’s a little bit of a high stress, cutthroat atmosphere protruding from the businessmen/women that rush around town that suggests a bit of a stressful lifestyle here but it’s nothing compared to that observed on the streets of London.

The transportation options here are adequate enough, without being abundant, but the options and possibilities are there. It’s a similar story with the parklands – they do exist and are quite nice when you visit them, but they’re not very centrally located.

There is history on display here, but nothing that comes close to rivalling London or Cardiff.

Liverpool participates in the great English tradition of sharing of knowledge and there are a multitude of museums to visit – all of which are, of course, free for entry. Here one can learn many fascinating facts about the city and it’s history amongst which is a display documenting that the Metropolitan Cathedral was originally intended to be even larger than the Liverpool Cathedral.

There is also a nice exhibit documenting the footballing history in the city – a history that matches or even exceeds that of the prestigious history in Manchester.

And of course, it would remiss of me not to mention the extensive amount of tourism on offer for Liverpool’s most famous export – The Beatles. Although it was pleasing to see that the propaganda for this was not overwhelming in any way. It certainly existed, and certain museums made a large point in displaying it but it wasn’t as if the town relied on this for its tourism.

Having said that, Liverpool didn’t have a large or obvious touristic population. Walking around town and it was very rare to notice other tourists, which was a refreshing experience. The only part of town where tourists were overwhelming was along Mathew Street, famous for hosting the Cavern Club and many sites significant to The Beatles’ history.

Liverpool is famous for its music history but it’s fair to say that even today is has a magnificent independent music scene around town. There are loads of dive bars where live acts play and many of these seem to be ad-hoc establishments made out of abandoned warehouses or garages.

The atmosphere around town at night on the weekends is really buzzing, and the population is really supportive of the local music and nightlife scene, which allows the smaller establishments to stay open and provides more variety to the night.

Liverpool is a city of mediocrity. That sounds bad, but in many ways it’s actually a positive thing. There are not many things in Liverpool that are bad, per se. At the same time, there are not many things that are exceptional and stand out as the best in the world, the United Kingdom, or even England.

But this is a balance that Liverpool seems willing to maintain and although in the past Liverpool was criticised for trying to promote its wealth and grandeur with self applied tags such as “the New York of Europe” and the construction of excessive structures, the city is now a much more modest and calm entity.

Of all the cities in the United Kingdom visited so far, Liverpool appears by far to be the most liveable of them. The economy is strong enough, meaning that not only can jobs be attained, they are in a world-competitive market, and it manages to hold this position without the stress resultant from heavy expectations such as those seen in London or Paris.

While they may not be the most conveniently located or the best the world has to offer, there are parks available to relax in, there is an active social life to enjoy here and there are a variety of events held throughout the year.

But this newfound equilibrium is a delicate balance and it appears that so easily it could fall in the wrong direction and slip into the realm of other British cities below it – Bristol or Birmingham. This presents a problem because the city can’t rest on its laurels to maintain this balance or it soon becomes stagnant and outdated.

It needs to continue progressing into the modern age and it needs to do this while protecting this delicate balance. Right now it appears in safe hands. But it’s worth visiting Liverpool now and then again in ten to fifteen years to see, if it remains content with it’s mediocrity, if it can maintain it without slipping into the forgotten lands, remembered as a city that was once thriving.

4 Responses to “Liverpool: Delicate balance”

  1. ryanfitzphotography

    Liverpool is a great city to visit and live in. You obviously did’t get to see Williamson Tunnels, Everton Heritage Trail with great views of the city, The Iron Men at Crosby beach. We have the the most listed buildings outside London (which for me is a dump) Our nightlife is one of the best in the country and the people of this city are what makes Liverpool what it is not like London where money does.

    • christopherbadman

      No I didn’t get to see those things you mentioned, but I’ll make a note of it for the next visit.

      One of the things that separates Liverpool from the rest of England is that it’s one of the few cities that I actually do intend to visit once again.

      I agree with your point about the nightlife. Regrettably, I didn’t get to meet too many locals during my stay (stay tuned for the next post soon for more on that), so that’s also something I would be keen to do next time I’m there too, but the city did feel like it had a real communal feel to it so I whole-heartedly believe you about you and your townsfolk!


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