14:45

Liverpool

Liverpool. I have never been before – nor much to the north-west unless en-route to places north of the border and the Lake District – real sin of omission of which I am not proud.

First impressions arriving by train are not good. Walking from the station to our hotel which was on the edge of the old docks and main shopping plaza was a journey back to the seventies. The scars of the war are still there in widespread dereliction, buildings with greenery sprouting from the roof and window-ledges and almost every vertical surface covered in fly-posters. This is in the very centre of the city. Our hotel – modern and comfortable - looked over boarded up windows and roofs of only few slates and exposed timbers and we were only a few hundred yards from a huge John Lewis. It was raining.
Photographs in the station show the extent of the wartime devastation: it isn’t Dresden or Hamburg but not far off – and much of the city is reminiscent of places like Cologne where the famous cathedral is bracketed by run down buildings from the fifties and sixties. This and the collapse of the docks along with imperial wealth have given Liverpool a dragging sea anchor that wasn’t helped by far-left government in the eighties and the centripetal pull of London and the south east over the last two decades. Its famous children, the Beatles, noticeably went to live elsewhere and never returned except for sentimental reasons.

Things are changing – but slowly and in patches. The Albert Docks with its museums, restaurants and shops is a triumph with its modernist buildings contrasting magnificently with the iconic Liverbuilding on the front. The shopping centre nearby is as windswept and anodyne as any other in England – but all the brands are there. The people are friendly and the liverbirds pretty and there are many active bars and clubs.

We spent an afternoon at the two cathedrals which dominate the skyline and are architecturally contrasting twentieth century takes on how an archbishop’s seat should look. The Anglican cathedral has the longest nave of any in England and is the work of Giles Gilbert Scott who was only twenty-two when he was selected for the task of building only the third cathedral in England since the Reformation against over a hundred challengers. He was also a Catholic. He was working for someone else at the time and produced his scheme in his spare time having only designed a pipe rack before. He is principally known for both the Tate Modern’s home and the Battersea Power station and was prolific if not always beautiful. I spent five years of my life living in one of his creations at school. It looked like a bunker - as does the New Bodlean library on Broad Street in Oxford. His Liverpool masterpiece is a happier creation – magnificent is not too strong a word and built with a solidity in sandstone that allows it to sit comfortably with its glorious medieval counterparts.


The Metropolitan Catholic cathedral was conceived to serve one of the largest catholic populations in England – many of them Irish refugees from the famine in Ireland. It took a long time to get out of the ground principally because the mainly working class congregation was very poor and the money was spent on education and other more pressing social needs. When the hierarchy finally got round to commissioning Lutyens in the early twentieth century it was on the site of much misery – the workhouse which had once housed nearly four thousand indigents. His design was extraordinary in scale. It would have been the largest cathedral in the world with a dome thirty foot wider than that of St Peter’s in Rome – almost dwarfing its Anglican neighbour. The main thing that strikes you about it, apart from the scale, is that it is as if Lutyens had taken the Catholic Westminster Cathedral – a Byzantine inspired creation – and dumped the dome of St Paul’s on top of it. Cost and two world wars got in the way but the Lutyens crypt, vast in scale, did get built and is a must-see.

The final commission was won in the sixties by Frederick Gibberd who was a modernist disciple of Meis van der Rohe. His creation is pretty hideous from the outside – a concrete wigwam is one of the more kindly descriptions - and its execution with faulty or untried materials meant that it nearly disintegrated within twenty years of its completion. The interior is much happier – if not beautiful then certainly an arresting circular space bathed in multicoloured light from the John Piper stained glass surrounding the central lantern. If the Anglican cathedral is about the glory of God, the Catholic version more about the needs of his people.



I won’t be moving up to Liverpool to live – not least because I already live about four hundred miles too far north and the gray skies would kill me – but I will certainly visit again.
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