Liverpool, where the past survives in today’s bustling port
Liverpool is still one of our busiest ports, shipping more cargo than at any time in its history However, the shift of the main dock system downriver to new centres such as the Seaforth container-port complex means that many of the older docks are now quiet, and so more of the rich maritime history of the city can be appreciated. Several gaps in the miles of wharves and warehouses provide vantage points for watching river traffic.
The original Crosby was the hamlet of Little Crosby, 1Y2 miles inland, which has changed little over the years; the Georgian Crosby Hall stands beside the old smithy and a group of 17th-century cottages. The name of the village comes from two Norse words meaning ‘the place of the crosses’ and one of these survives – a wayside cross used to mark a resting place beside an old ‘church way’, along which coffins were carried to the burial grounds.
Modern Crosby, which retains a sense of period charm, began in the district called Waterloo, at the edge of the sea. It was there that wealthy Liverpool merchants, anxious to escape the bustle of the city for the peace and fresh air of’the seaside, built their houses. The area still has a strong Regency flavour, with terraces and crescents of late Georgian houses, wrought-iron balconies and verandas. Later settlers expanded Crosby inland, to make it a Victorian suburb of Liverpool.
The deep Crosby Channel runs parallel to the shore and less than a mile from the beach, and the district called Waterloo makes an ideal viewpoint for watching the busy river traffic. The sandy beach is safe for bathing, but small-boat sailors need to beware of the busy shipping lanes. The beachside Marina is a large enclosed stretch of water where beginners can learn to sail in safe surroundings. Other attractions include a model boating lake, a children’s playground, a heated indoor swimming pool, and bowling and putting greens.
During the 1970s Seaforth became the focus for the changes which totally altered the pattern of the Liverpool docks system as it had grown up in the last century. Seaforth Container Dock Terminal now handles the most modern cargo ships, including bulk-carriers of up to 75,000 tons each.
The road leading south into Liverpool provides a panorama of the older ways of cargo handling as it skirts the edge of the original dock system all the way into the city.
If Seaforth presents a picture of the modern shipping trade, Bootle provides an immediate contrast. This is the Mersey of the past, with a long line of docks stretching along the river, protected by a massive granite wall like the battlements of a medieval fortress, an impression reinforced by the round gate pillars and the frowning bulk of the massive warehouses within. These were built between 1824 and 1860, and many of them are still in use. Gaps in the 18 ft high wall give glimpses of lock gates, swing bridges and merchant ships from ports all over the world loading and unloading. Some of the dock basins have been taken over by ship-breakers, and the rusting, disembowelled skeletons of vessels being cut up for scrap point their ribs to the sky. Against this background, it is difficult to imagine that Bootle (the name comes from an old English word meaning ‘dwelling house’) was once a fashionable seaside resort like Crosby, until its new commercial role took over in the 1860s.
When Chester was a thriving port, Liverpool was a small fishing village, but from the early 18th century, when the silting up of the Dee cut off Chester’s trading lifeline, Liverpool began to grow into one of the biggest and most prosperous ports in the world. By 1880 lines of docks stretched for 7 miles along the banks of the Mersey, and 40 per cent of the world’s trade was carried in Liverpool ships. Today much of this vast industrial system has fallen into disuse, with the shift to bulk-carriers and containerisa-tion, and for the first time it is possible to take a closer look at this part of Britain’s maritime history.
Liverpool Maritime Museum, opened in the old Liverpool Pilotage Headquarters beside the Pier Head, is the nucleus of a major preservation scheme for the old dock area. The museum houses a good collection of objects from the past, including the original builders’ scale-model for the ill-fated
Titanic, a Liverpool ship. There is a restored piermaster’s house, and an exhibition recalling emigrants to the New World, including a reconstructed ‘steerage’ deck. Visitors can take in Albert Dock, built in the 1840s, and neighbouring Salthouse Dock, opened almost a century earlier.
A different viewpoint is obtained by approaching Liverpool from Birkenhead on the other side of the Mersey. The ferries unload at Pier Head, where disembarking passengers are faced by three massive buildings. To the left is the Royal Liver Insurance Company headquarters, crowned by the largest clock in Britain and by effigies of the mythical Liver Birds, which also appear on the city’s crest. To the right are the Dock Board offices, and in the centre stands the Cunard Building.
Apart from regular ferry services across the river, there are frequent cruises up and down the Mersey. The wide, open area of the Pier Head is a good point from which to watch coasters, passenger boats, tankers and container ships making for the refineries of Stanlow and the entrance to the Manchester Ship Canal.
Inland from the waterfront, there are other reminders of Liverpool’s maritime past. In an alley called Hackins Hey, off Dale Street, an inn called Ye Hole in Ye Wall was renowned in sailing-ship days, and the scene of at least one pitched battle between merchant seamen and the Royal Navy’s press-gangs.
Liverpool became a city in 1880 and now has two cathedrals. The Anglican cathedral was originally intended to be larger than St Peter’s in Rome, and even though the plans were later cut back, it still took 75 years to finish; it has the largest organ and the heaviest peal of bells in the world. At the other end of Hope Street stands the Roman Catholic cathedral, remarkable for its unusual circular design. Liverpool’s original parish church of Our Lady and St Nicholas, close to the Pier Head and known as the ‘Sailors’ Church’, was built in 1360. In 1810 the tower collapsed, and a replacement built the following year was the only part left standing after the air raids of 1941; the rest of the church was rebuilt after the war.
Liverpool has three major museums, a concert hall, three art galleries, and a planetarium.
What was once a riverside rubbish dump has been cleared, landscaped and transformed into a 3 mile long promenade with walks, car parks and a wide view across an open grassy slope to the Wirral shore beyond. Northwards from here to Liverpool’s Pier Head, the old Southern Docks block public access to the riverbank.
The Norris family built their magnificent half-timbered mansion 8 miles away from what was then the tiny fishing village of Liverpool. In 1490, when the house was begun, this involved a long and tiring journey over rough roads. The house was finished in 1612: its wings surround a central courtyard, and the entrance drive crosses the old moat by a small stone bridge. It has a Tudor Great Hall, beautiful plasterwork and tapestries, and two ancient yew trees called Adam and Eve in the courtyard. Like many houses of its period, it has hiding places for priests escaping persecution, and it played its part in the Civil War.
A by-road from the main Widnes to Liverpool road leads to the village of Hale. This was, in the 17th century, the home of the so-called ‘Child of Hale’, John Middleton, who was reputed to stand 9 ft 3 in. tall and was so renowned a wrestler that local landowner Sir Gilbert Ireland sent him to London to fight the champion of James I. Middleton won, and retired to the village with a prize of £20; he was buried in the churchyard, and is commemorated on the sign of the village inn.
To the west of the church are the ruins of Hale Hall, which belonged to the Irelands. The southern facade was redesigned by John Nash, who built the Regent’s Park terraces in London. A lane leads south from the village to the promontory of Hale Head and its disused lighthouse, overlooking a stretch of mud-flats and rock-strewn sand.
South of the headland the Mersey widens into its estuary, while upstream the view takes in the bowstring girder road bridge and stone railway viaduct which span the river between Widnes and Runcorn. Beyond the bridges, chemical works and refineries line the Manchester Ship Canal, and at night their distant lights form a spectacular horizon.
The Mersey narrows between Widnes and Runcorn, making this the first possible bridging point. Low land beside the river meant that considerable ingenuity in engineering was necessary to build bridges high enough to allow shipping to pass beneath. The London and North Western Railway carried its main line on a tall stone viaduct decorated by towers and battlements and approached by rows of arches. The original road bridge built at the beginning of the century was a transporter bridge, which carried traffic across on a gondola at ground level, slung from a deck supported between two tall towers. It was replaced in 1961 by an elegant bowstring girder bridge – at the time the third largest in the world.
Widnes has been a centre of the chemical industry since the first alkali works opened in 1847. The Victoria Promenade offers a breezy walk and a good view of the river bridges, unobstructed by the industry which lines the banks upstream.
Separated from Widnes by the 300 yd wide River Mersey, Runcorn is another centre of canals and chemical plants. The old part of the town is almost encircled by a pair of canals, one built at the very beginning of the Canal Age – the Bridgewater Canal of the mid-18th century – and the other the Manchester Ship Canal, built a century and a half later to carry deep-sea ships all the way to Manchester Docks.
The road link from the bridge to the M56 gives a spectacular view of miles and miles of chemical works, which at night glitter with light on an extravagant scale. A mile to the north-east the ruins of Norton Priory stand in 7 acres of woodland gardens, with a museum and exhibition centre.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Croxteth Hall and Country Park, 5 miles NE of Liverpool. Park, gardens and farm. Park daily; hall, farm and gardens daily in summer.
Prescot Museum of Clock and Watch-making, 8 miles E of Liverpool. Most days.
Pilkington Glass Museum, St Helens, 12 miles E of Liverpool. Daily.