PETER FROST visits Merseyside in the year, 2008, that Liverpool became City of Culture
It’s a Grand Trail. Louis Napoleon the third was so impressed when he lived here that when he returned to rule France he ordered his architects to remodel his capital in the pattern of the classic Lancashire resort.
The Parisians replicated Southport’s broad tree lined boulevards, walkways and arcades and created the elegant Paris we can see and visit today. Later, other architects from South America would also build another copy of Southport’s elegant townscape; in Rio de Janeiro of all places.
It’s the kind bragging the people of Southport go in for, and who can blame them. They are immensely proud of their hometown and sing its praises whenever they can.
Neither elegant Southport however, nor copycat Paris became European Capital of Culture for 2008. That honour went firmly to the scousers and their home town just down the road. That’s why we were heading for Liverpool.
Did you know that Queen Victoria called Liverpool the first city of her Empire. Now that’s the kind of story they like to tell to visitors in Liverpool. When it comes to bragging about their town they are every bit as good as Southport folk.
So Liverpool bound we headed south through a network of wild and windswept sand dunes that fringe the wide estuary of the River Mersey.
Much of these fascinating dune systems are either nature reserves or country parks. There are many reasons to explore them but we stopped off to try and spot two of Britain’s rarest creatures that make their home here.
There are plenty of marked footpaths and walks though these dunes. Along the way you have a good chance of seeing one of the rare beasts we are seeking – the Red Squirrel.
Britain’s native squirrel – the red – has long been threatened by an American immigrant, the grey. Now both reds and greys are being threatened by a new and fearsome black squirrel that has arrived in British forests and woodlands.
There is a very good chance you will see the rare red squirrel in the dunes north of Liverpool but our other quarry is much more secretive and harder to spot.
The dunes are also a stronghold for the natterjack or running toad one of Britain’s rarest amphibians. Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of the little critter you will certainly hear him. The distinctive chirruping mating call has given it the local name of the Formby Nightingale.
Ann kissed a toad or two, she has always believed in fairytales but no handsome prince came forth so we drove on towards Maghull for me to pay my respects to a man who bought me real joy as a little boy and still does today. We are looking for the home of one of Britain’s greatest inventors.
Maghull’s favourite son is Frank Hornby. Frank was prolific indeed any one of his inventions would have made him a legend. In fact he invented Meccano, the boys’ toy that started many a famous British engineer on his career.
When Alex Issigonis, the man who designed the Mini retired from British Leyland he asked that his leaving present be a Meccano set.
Frank also made Dinky Toys and they are still collected and admired by little boys from four to eighty four.
Lastly Hornby gave his name to table top train sets. His inventions earned him millions and the gratitude of millions of big kids like me and the first ever blue plaque outside of London.
As you drive through the flat cabbage fields towards Maghull look out for the distinctive steeples that spike the landscape. Four of these local church towers became the markers for the first ever steeplechase back in the 1820’s.
It’s a sport that seems to have caught on hereabouts. Today they still run the occasional steeplechase. They have one called the Grand National and its run just up the road at Aintree.
Liverpool has it own coast with seaside resorts from Southport to the city. Crosby is just one of these holiday towns. We were heading there for high art rather than sun and sand beach life but first we had to consult our tide tables.
Antony Gormley’s impressive collection of one hundred cast iron men dot the Crosby sands and seem to go out to sea for miles. Each is a slightly bigger than full size replica’s of the artist’s naked body and each is just a little different. The sea washes over them all at every tide.
In the background the wide Mersey is busy with shipping heading for the still busy port of Liverpool and as the tide retreats the art work is revealed.
Each low tide brings crowds of visitors to the beach. Everyone has an opinion of the sculpture and as this is Merseyside the chances are they’ll share their opinion with you.
From Crosby we moved on and reached Liverpool. There is no doubt about it, Liverpool is still the Beatles and the Beatles always were Liverpool.
How could four working class lads with only guitars, drums and unusual haircuts have had such an effect on the entire culture of a city or indeed the world?
Who would have believed in the sixties that in time both Paul McCartney’s and John Lennon’s childhood homes would be open to the public courtesy of the National Trust.
The popular Beatles museum in the restored Albert Dock tells the whole remarkable story with memorabilia, pictures and of course sounds. It is a must but in many ways we enjoyed better the little things that reminded us of the fab four as we wandered about in the city.
You can walk down Penny Lane or peer through the gates into Strawberry Fields – once a Salvation Army children’s home – where John used to climb over the wall to play with his mates before he even thought of starting playing guitar with the local band called the Quarry Men.
John Lennon can still be seen as he stands outside the Cavern Club he knew so well. Today he is only here as a fine bronze. But the spirit of the Beatles still hangs heavy in the city.
Eleanor Rigby is also to be seen resting on her bench. Another reminder of the fab four. But who was Eleanor?
Take a Beatles Tour and they will show you the gravestone from which John and Paul nicked her name to use in the song that gave the real Eleanor a strange kind of immortality she could never have dreamed of.
Lest you think the city is only about the Beatles this year the streets are alive with works of art, the many galleries are bursting with exciting shows and all the grand public buildings are being used for performance art of all kinds.
Two of those spaces are the city’s twin cathedrals. One is at each end of the appropriately named Hope Street. The Catholic cathedral is a modern masterpiece of Sixties architecture.
Gilbert Scott’s Anglican structure is a traditional English church – if a very large and imposing one – the largest cathedral in Britain no less. It was actually completed more than ten years after its much more modern looking sister at the other end of Hope Street.
Liverpool is still a busy port and although the commercial shipping has mostly moved down river the waterfront is still buzzing. Ferries still bustle ‘cross the Mersey and the splendid Albert Docks are now home to museums, shops, bars, restaurants and, star of the show the Northern Tate Gallery.
On the waterfront you will also find the city’s MaritimeMuseum. It tells the story of a great port but one with a dark history. You’ll discover the sad but hopeful story of mass immigration from Ireland, Britain and Europe to the New World.
A brand new museum opened this year uses live actors and all kinds of modern techniques to spell out the epic tale of the obscenity of the slave trade still a dark shadow on the history of a proud port.
We couldn’t leave Liverpool without a visit to one of its two proud football teams. Rivalry between LiverpoolCity and Everton is Legendary but always sporting.
Local hero and LiverpoolCity manager Bill Shankly showed the way. “The city of Liverpool he said has two great teams, LiverpoolCity and LiverpoolCity reserves”.
But the late Bill Shankly will always be remembered for another gem. “Is football a matter of life and death?” he was asked “No” he answered “it is far more important than that.”
This article first appeared in Practical Motorhome Magazine in 2008