Never walk alone Take a cul­tural guided tour of Liver­pool on foot

A walk­ing tour is a great way to take in Liver­pool’s unique at­mo­sphere and ar­chi­tec­tural riches

The Observer Magazine - - News - Words SER­ENA FOKSCHANER

It’s not just the his­tory but the sheer chutz­pah of these build­ings that fas­ci­nates me,” an­nounces Trevor New­ton, my guide to Liver­pool, as we meet un­der the loom­ing por­tico of the Town Hall. An artist and ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian, New­ton, 59, grew up here be­fore head­ing south to work in Lon­don as a topo­graph­i­cal artist in the early 1980s. He’s re­turned to launch Mag­nif­i­cent Liver­pool, idio­syn­cratic tours of a city that’s cap­ti­vated him since child­hood.

“There’s still an out­dated view of Liver­pool which dates back to the Tox­teth ri­ots and de­clin­ing docks of the 1980s,” says New­ton, “but the city has changed hugely since then. The ar­chi­tec­ture is spec­tac­u­lar – it has the most listed build­ings of any city out­side Lon­don – and the vi­brant indige­nous cul­ture is open to all. I’ve known this city all my life, now I’ve come back to share it with other peo­ple.” Dur­ing the fol­low­ing two days my per­son­alised itin­er­ary (you can book tours last­ing from an hour to a day or more) takes in land­marks brought to life by New­ton’s com­men­tary.

“Ev­ery­thing starts with the port,” he tells me, ges­tur­ing to­wards the fast-flow­ing, silt-brown Mersey. It was King John who de­clared the nat­u­ral har­bour a bor­ough in 1207. Coastal, Ir­ish and Eu­ro­pean ship­ping was joined in the 17th cen­tury by trade from the Amer­i­can colonies. By the 1700s, ware­houses and count­ing houses lined the docks. To­bacco, rum and cot­ton – com­modi­ties of slave­pow­ered trade – were dis­gorged, while salt, soap and ma­chin­ery were dis­patched to the rest of the world.

You can see that pros­per­ity writ large in the busi­ness dis­trict. Banks and of­fices – gothic, neo­clas­si­cal – line the pave­ments like palaces. The stamp of dis­tin­guished ar­chi­tects is ev­ery­where: John Wood the El­der; Charles Cock­erell; James Wy­att, who put the fin­ish­ing touches to the Town Hall; Her­bert Rowse, whose art deco ven­ti­la­tion shaft for the Mersey Tun­nel broods over the city like a prop from Fritz Lang’s Me­trop­o­lis . “These ar­chi­tects cre­ated a look that’s unique: it’s what gives Liver­pool its ex­tra­or­di­nary char­ac­ter,” says New­ton en­thu­si­as­ti­cally.

In­no­va­tion was en­cour­aged. I learn that Liver­pool has some of the coun­try’s ear­li­est fire­proofed build­ings, steel and stone struc­tures which paved the way for sky­scrapers, such as the Ed­war­dian Royal Liver Build­ing, with its cu­ri­ous bird sculp­tures perched on top: “Heron, cor­morant, no one knows. They’re a lo­cal mys­tery.” Without New­ton I would have missed Oriel Cham­bers, one of the world’s first build­ings to fea­ture a metal-framed, glass cur­tain wall – so avant-garde that The Builder at the time con­demned it as “a vast abor­tion”.

“When I was a child all these build­ings were filthy, I used to think that ev­ery­thing was built out of black stone,” New­ton says as we me­an­der down to the Pier Head. Now all has been scrubbed and spruced up. You can have tea in a dou­ble-decker, pose for a photo with a statue of the Fab Four or take a cruise in a colour­ful ferry de­signed by pop artist Sir Peter Blake. The Tate and Mu­seum of Liver­pool are also here, sym­bol­is­ing the changes which have trans­formed the city since New­ton left: “Liver­pool in the 70s was a bit grim and de­pressed. The docks had closed, build­ings were run down. So it’s won­der­ful to see a city putting its money where its cul­tural life is; week by week I see more tourists vis­it­ing.”

Some things have gone, like the gen­tle­men’s out­fit­ters with their glass-fronted cab­i­nets and hov­er­ing as­sis­tants. But in­de­pen­dent busi­nesses pre­vail. “There are very few chains and lots of small mu­sic venues and shops. It’s all part of the in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic Liver­pool spirit.” Café Tabac on Bold Street, opened in 1974, ex­udes retro cool. The veg­e­tar­ian Egg Café, a time-warp of red and pur­ple walls, is packed with pen­sion­ers and stu­dents. We flit through the Geor­gian-built Blue­coat, once a char­i­ta­ble school, now an airy gallery, café and mu­sic stu­dio. New­ton’s tour also takes in un­touched pubs such as Ye Hole in ye Wall or the tiny Globe, where we’re in­vited to linger. “Liver­pool’s like that,” says New­ton. “It’s an in­cred­i­bly friendly place.”

As Liver­pudlians pros­pered they swapped dock­side liv­ing for the cleaner air of the town’s up­per reaches. The next day we stroll through Rope­walks, its ware­houses con­verted into lively cafés and sleek ar­chi­tects’ of­fices, to the Geor­gian quar­ter. New­ton’s favourite is Percy Street, derelict in the 1970s (the Tox­teth ri­ots hap­pened nearby) now a “Lit­tle Ed­in­burgh” of re­stored stone town­houses. Wil­liam Glad­stone lived on Rod­ney Street – Liver­pool’s Har­ley Street – as did the Ir­ish pho­tog­ra­pher Ed­ward Cham­bré Hard­man, fa­mous for his at­mo­spheric shots of the Mersey Tun­nel. The Hard­mans’ House is now a mu­seum with his claw­foot bath for pro­cess­ing in the cel­lar, and a stu­dio filled with props: pil­lars for se­date so­ci­ety por­traits, leop­ard skins for racier poses.

All this went on in the shadow of Giles Gilbert Scott’s cathe­dral on St James’s Mount. Work started in 1904 and it took 74 years to build the long­est cathe­dral in Bri­tain. “The less en­thu­si­as­tic call it Odeon Gothic,” New­ton whis­pers as we en­ter the cav­ernous in­te­rior, en­livened by the bright Craigie Aitchi­son paint­ing in a chapel. Call me shal­low but I pre­fer Fred­er­ick Gib­berd’s 1960s “Catholic Cathe­dral”, a perky wig­wam of a build­ing where light floods through John Piper win­dows and the side chapels feel like con­tem­po­rary art galleries.

Our penul­ti­mate stop is Henry Bohn Books, a friendly sec­ond­hand book shop (op­po­site the Walker Art Gallery) where lo­cals con­verge to chat about art, pol­i­tics and foot­ball. I pick up a copy of Pevs­ner’s guide to Liver­pool which de­votes a chap­ter to our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion. St George’s Hall is a sprawl­ing, 19th-cen­tury com­plex of law courts and con­cert halls re­plete with col­umns, mar­ble and early air-con­di­tion­ing sys­tem. As we leave, New­ton points to doors em­bla­zoned with the let­ters SPQL: the Se­nate and Peo­ple of Liver­pool. A boast­ful spin on the SPQR badge of an­cient Rome, here’s Scouse chutz­pah at its most brazen – and won­der­ful. ■

Essen­tials Mag­nif­i­cent Liver­pool (mag­nif­i­centliv­er­pool tours.co.uk) has group tours that start at £6 per per­son; tai­lored tours for groups or in­di­vid­u­als can also be ar­ranged and start from £30. The Ti­tanic (ti­tani­chotel­liv­er­pool.com) has rooms from £105. Her­itage (eatather­itage.co.uk) is an award-win­ning restau­rant with small plates from £6.95; at Röski (roskirestau­rant. com), chef An­ton Piotrowski’s set menu starts at £45

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