The wonders of Liverpool, City of Culture

All the publicity states that Liverpool is the 'City of Culture' 2008.  What is about to follow is an account of alternative places to visit in Liverpool - the 'Alternative Wonders of Liverpool' if you like - which largely adheres to the view that yes, Liverpool has an enormous amount to offer on the cultural and historical front.  However the more cynical amongst us might also conclude that Liverpool is the 'City of Building Sites and Cones' 2008 which must present many embarrassments for tourists and visitors expecting a pristine view of the Mersey or an unhindered journey around the city centre.  Still, living in Leicester, itself a building site, has made me pretty oblivious to smoke and noise so I will dwell on it no more as it was not that detrimental to the visiting experience.  What is detrimental is that Blogger will not let me upload any pictures so I am going to have to use all my powers of description to bring to life the Alternative Wonders of Liverpool.  Which have nothing to do with The Beatles by the way.

The First Alternative Wonder of Liverpool: Sudley House, Mossley Hill
Sudley House was discovered through following a brown sign glimpsed on the way to Morrisons at Speke.  If it hadn't been shut we would have spent two hours in a supermarket however as luck would have it we instead found ourselves learning about the life and times of one of Liverpool's merchant families, the Holts, who made their money from shipping and built themselves a pretty house atop Mossley Hill.  It has fine views all the way to the Welsh mountains, the large pink sandstone house still surrounded by park and so retaining some of its external grandeur.  Internally it is quite different however.  When Emma Holt left the house to the City in the early 20th century they sold off most of the furniture, although they retained her father's, George Holt, impressive art collection.  There are works by Turner, Millais and other noteworthy paintings all presented in un-pretentious fashion.  Interpretation is through short films from the point of view of the house's former inhabitants so 'George Holt', 'Emma Holt' and 'the maid' who tellingly is not deemed worthy of a name.  It is effective (with subtitles and BSL for those who need it) in the absence of actual characters but more information would be nice.  Upstairs there is no attempt to recreate the house as it was and there are typical displays of costume and children's toys.  At the time there was a fascinating display of photos taken of wealthy middle class 19th century houses showing that whilst people might have had money they could not buy taste with hideously overdone recreations of 18th century, gothic, Oriental room settings - showing also that the taste for retro and clutter is nothing new!  Still, it's a sweet little house which has the potential to have more community or local history.

Second Alternative Wonder of Liverpool: Tate Liverpool
Okay so this is cheeky as the Tate is not really off the beaten track slap bang as it is in the Albert Dock.  But the third floor was definitely less well visited in that the crowds were much thinner and the oxygen levels depleted... so I made that last bit up.  Anyway what I found amusing was that the levels of pretentiousness in the interpretation and quality of artwork seemed to increase the higher up you went so by the time we were at the third floor the artwork and its explanation were increasingly at odds.  A fabulous game I thought would be to remove all the labels and get the visitors to try and match them to the object.  One in particular resembled a large chewed piece of chewing gum with a slash through it which was described as representing the infiniteness of being and the vast emptiness of space.  Ambitious these artists can be!

Third Alternative Wonder of Liverpool: The Conservation Centre
I'll annoy my mum and dad now by saying that the Conservation Centre is a good place to go for lunch - after finding the Tate full and the Maritime Museum out of food in their two cafes, it was refreshing to find it was empty.  My mum remarked she was quite pleased it was less popular.  However I would urge you to visit if you find yourself with a spare moment in Liverpool.  It is an interesting Centre which describes how museums conserve and interpret the objects that they put on display.  It gets quite scientific in parts but presented in an accessible manner.  Also on display is the original statue that used to sit on the top of the Walker Gallery, it was only here that I realised that the one on the Gallery is a replica.  Currently they have an exhibition 'Metropolis' which showcases photographs from Liverpool's history showing the growth of the city in the 20th century.  Although the exhibition shows only a teeny amount of the archive owned by the City there are plans to digitise the collection so that it is made more accessible.  Alongside the shots of buildings and vanished railways there are images of workplace parties, kids with their smiling faces turned to the camera and dressed in their finery, those who built with their sweat the impressive buildings around us today and reminders of the more mundane such as shop displays (including one for National Corset Day which we learn took place on 17-22 of May).

Fourth Alternative Wonder of Liverpool: St James' Gardens
I love how Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral continues to dominate the skyline of the city, perched as it is on a rocky escarpment, despite the best attempts of skyscrapers to outdo it. Built between 1905 and 1978 it is a largely soulless building, the 'Guinness Book of Records' of cathedrals my dad christened it because of its obsessive need to tell us that it is the world's largest this and the world's largest that.  Hence why I was much more interested in St James' Park, the former cemetery, sitting deep in the bowels of an even earlier quarry at the foot of the cathedral.  This quarry, as a pillar at the centre of the park tells us, effectively built most of Liverpool!  You enter the cemetery through a steeply sloping tunnel, lined with gravestones, and emerge into an atmospheric basin largely created through an air of decay and rot.  Most of the gravestones have been stacked around the edges of the park and it is sad to see that few are tended - only one grave to Kitty Wilkinson who provided baths and care to poor orphan children was marked by flowers.  The cemetery is notable for the grave of William Hukisson, the Labour MP who became the first victim of a railway accident when he was knocked down and killed at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester railway in the 19th century.  His tomb is a tall, ornate rotunda which dominates the park; close by is Liverpool's only remaining spring which flows into an unappealing murky pool.  Even more interesting were three plain stones listing orphans from the workhouse and Blue Coats medical school, something which I have never seen in a cemetery before.  The gravestone of a sea captain from America who died on route had a very strange eye on the back sculpted as if part of a masonic code - again I would love to show you a picture but sadly it proves impossible (Any ideas Amy??).  It was a grey and overcast day which meant the park was relatively empty, although its popularity with dog walkers made it a hazard as anyone who has visited an English park will understand.

Fifth Alternative Wonder of Liverpool: Crosby beach
Whilst I was in Liverpool I also visited Crosby beach to see the Anthony Gormley installation, 'Another Place', basically 100 naked statues cast in iron of the artist fully naked (and it was a freezing cold day with sandstorms whipped up by the wind).  I imagine it would look better at high tide when the figures are partly submerged, and perhaps when slightly misty.  It was impressive however to see how far out they went and we wondered if people in passing ships would see them?

To end, we wanted to see other things including the newly opened Bluecoats gallery and Cains brewery however it proved impossible to fit everything in.  That's good however because it means more to see next time I'm in Liverpool - I also intend to walk along the former track-line of the overhead railway which used to run on iron rails suspended in the air, earning it the nickname of the 'Docker's Umbrella.'  This ran along the pier in front of the Liver Building, from Seaforth to Dingle and passing through most of the docks and warehouses that littered the edges of the Mersey estuary until 1957 (I think, I have a terrible memory for dates).  But what do you think about my choices?  Are there other 'alternative' wonders of Liverpool that you think should be considered?


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