NOTE: This piece is also available (along with loads of other pieces) in A Journal of Nearby Places – Available from Amazon
There’s only one way to get to the Wirral. In this case it isn’t a cliché as there is only one way for me to get there. The trains aren’t running due to maintenance work, I don’t drive and walking is definitely out of the question. You can also put swimming right out of your mind. That leaves only one option, the ferry across the Mersey- That which was immortalised in song by Gerry and the Pacemakers, the best way to fully appreciate the UNESCO world heritage site of the Liverpool waterfront and a boat so famous that a trip on it must be taken at least once in a lifetime. Even if all the above weren’t in play, the ferry might be better anyway. If I am to venture into that strange land across the Mersey I can think of no more elegant or interesting way to get there than this… If that sounds pretentious then it probably is.
When my train arrives at Lime Street I have ten minutes before the next ferry leaves and there’s no way I’m going to catch it. I’ll have to get the one after instead, which is in an hour. I thus take my time in ambling through Liverpool city centre towards the waterfront, taking in the rooftop of the central library along the way and climbing all the thousand or so steps up to it because I only, stupidly, remember the lift when I get to the top. It was worth it though. I meander through the gardens at the back of St George’s and then passed all the shops, down Paradise Street, where a lady accosts me. She shoves a slip of paper in my face. My brain fails to function. The slip of paper has writing on it, English, not badly written English either, but for some reason I can’t make sense of it. I get away as fast as possible, suspecting that she might be some kind of a pickpocket. It’s the kind of tactic they use. They distract you and whilst you’re distracted their partner in crime comes along and lifts your wallet or clones your credit card or snatches your camera from out of your bag.
Despite ambling I reach the waterfront with plenty of time and decide to spend my spare ten minutes in the Tate. As soon as I am through the revolving doors I am again accosted, this time by a beardy hipster guarding the main gallery entrance.
‘You’ll have to put your bag in the cloak room,’ he tells me. Reasonable… But for ten minutes it isn’t worth the hoo-ha so I say that I won’t bother going in. Beardy hipster takes this as ‘I want to wander around with my bag’ so I have to convince him that I want to leave before I finally can. It’s only modern art anyway so what does it matter? Nothing much, in my opinion. This doesn’t stop me being disappointed and bitter as I wander up to the ferry terminal, ambling at an ever slower pace and stopping to stare at the statues and monuments along the riverside. I notice that Billy Fury has become a target of the local seagull population and this disappoints me further. Fury already gets an undeservedly short shrift when compared to other musicians, even in his home city. Most of the people coming to take a look at him are pensioners. There is guano dribbling down his cheek. There’s something not right about that.
At the ferry terminal I buy a reasonably priced ticket that will take me across the river and bring me back again. I then wander around the little shop. It isn’t all that exciting, even as far as little shops go. When the ferry arrives a few minutes later it makes its presence known by blasting out a couple of lines of that song. As the boat crosses over, in between a commentary on the sights, it will blast out several more times. Bill Bryson once remarked that this was ‘a kind of Liverpool tinnitus.’ As much as I like Bill Bryson and loathe as I am to disagree with him, I’m going to disagree with him. I wouldn’t call it a kind of tinnitus at all. Tinnitus is a continuous sound, I believe. This comes in short bursts, only ever a random line of the song, and is much more like Tourette’s. To add to the insult the commentary is for some reason delivered by two different people, like it has a split personality. I later establish that one of the commentators might be Toyah Wilcox.
The ferry which approaches, The Snowdrop, entered service as The Woodchurch in 1960. In machine years that makes it a staggeringly ancient four hundred and two. Its sister ship, The Iris, came into service the same year. Back then the ferries were an integral part of the Liverpool and Wirral transport network, carrying thirty million passengers a year throughout the fifties. The drop that followed was steep. By the late eighties it was only a couple of million and the ferry service, the last on the Mersey (where once there were a fair number,) was in danger of being abolished. The restrictions on busses travelling through the Mersey tunnels being lifted in 1986 and the economic and industrial decline of the whole area were both to blame for the situation, though to be fair the rot had set in long before that. The rise in car ownership throughout the sixties and the opening of the Kingsway Tunnel in 1971 played a significant part as well. As we know the ferries were saved- A small commuter service was kept up and a tourism geared rebrand was put into place.
In 2015 the Snowdrop, this ship, underwent a paint job for the centenary of the First World War. Designed by Peter Blake (he of Sgt Pepper’s fame) and entitled ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle,’ the ship is supposed to resemble the Dazzle camouflaged ships of the First World War. The whole purpose of ‘Dazzle’ was to confuse the enemy but nobody could figure out if the technique worked or not. Looking at Snowdrop I can’t see how it would do anything other than make the enemy laugh at its ridiculousness.
A member of staff opens the tunnel down to the landing stage and myself and the group that has gathered here being a slow march to the ship. This is so slow it becomes about as ridiculous as the camouflage. It’s like we’re marching to our doom, to a prison ship, about to be transported to Australia. The feeling isn’t helped by the weird noises the ferry is making, even the landing stage operator seems worried. As I step aboard I am overcome by a gnawing dread. I feel disaster is about to strike. A ferryman points to the stairs, making a point that the vessel is full of stairs. That’s nice to know and might just be the most interesting thing I’ll learn over the next couple of hours (or not!) All the other passengers head straight for the bow but I decide not to follow the crowd and go instead to the rear, to a spot where I can look back to Liverpool and forwards to the Wirral.
I listen as Toyah delivers a set of safety instructions (followed by a brief blast of that song) and then as the ferry begins chugging away down river I decide that I could do with a coffee from the on-board café place. The cappuccino isn’t bad but I’ve had better. The foam is better than the liquid, I find. I settle down at a seat and watch the scenery rolling by, keeping my ear on what Toyah and her friend have to say. I get up and head to the side when they point out Fort Perch Rock, a place I intend to visit sometime. It can’t really be seen thanks to a fug that is hovering about in the distance. Then, a short way beyond the central waterfront, the evidence of the decline that once nearly killed this ferry becomes more apparent. Regeneration hasn’t reached this part of Liverpool. The dock buildings there are tired, worn out or non-existent. This, once one of the most important ports in the world, is nothing but emptiness and weeds. Liverpool is booming, certainly, but in some places outside the city centre it is still as poor and as rundown as it was in the eighties and early nineties. As a side note Stanley Dock, which we pass by, was used for the filming of Captain America: The First Avenger.
I go back to enjoying the commentary, the ride. I could do this forever, sail all the way to Australia if we were going that way- It would take about four months, as Toyah helpfully points out. The boat passes up and over the river at a leisurely pace and I take several photographs, most of them of the Liverpool waterfront.
After twenty minutes we dock at Seacomb, home, as both Toyah and a sign on the landing stage point out, to Spaceport- An interactive museum type of place. I won’t lie, I thought about getting off here and taking a look. When I visited Liverpool Cathedral some years ago I had a leaflet for the place foisted upon me by a member of staff who was insistent on pointing out every single attraction in the vicinity, most of which I had already visited by that point. It looked interesting and it is on my ‘maybe pile’ of things to do on the Wirral. For today there isn’t the time, not if I’m going to see what I want to see. I watch as a few people get off whilst at the same time three or four more come ambling down the ramp in that same slow fashion as before. They look like they’ve been hypnotised, like they’ve had a close encounter with the third kind. Honestly, I’m not in a hurry to be probed by aliens so staying on the boat is the thing for me I think.
Another short sail later and we arrive at Woodside terminal, Birkenhead. This is where I get off. Birkenhead gets overshadowed by the big beast across the river, it isn’t on the tourist trail, but it has plenty to be proud of. It is home to the world’s first civic park, which in 1850 was visited by American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, inspiring him to design something similar for the middle of New York; Central Park. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it. Hamilton Square has the second highest concentration of grade 1 listed buildings in the country (Trafalgar square is first.) Famous shipping company Cammel Laird, which is still going and currently in the process of building a ship which apparently won’t go by the name of Boaty McBoatface, is also based here. Next door to that is an old priory, which I am disappointed to find is closed throughout January. It was the childhood home of war poet Wilfred Owen, there’s a small museum to him here, and it is from this town whence hailed the actress Patricia Routledge, though I’m sure her alias, Hyacinth Bucket, would shudder at the mere mention of Birkenhead. Elvis Costello also lived here for a bit. Woodside, where the ferry terminal is situated, is the headland after which the town is named. Birkenhead literally means ‘headland overgrown with birch.’
This isn’t quite virgin territory for me, I’ve been to both Birkenhead and the Wirral before but I’ve never had the chance to explore properly. The last time I was over this way was a geology field trip some ten years ago and the previous time I came to Birkenhead was when I was six, over twenty years ago. That was to collect some shoes for a wedding (I wouldn’t care, they weren’t even my shoes) and I have a vague memory of Birkenhead market, a vast expanse filled with shops and stalls. That was the wedding where I managed to ruin half the photographs by sticking my tongue out at the photographer, who I took a dislike to, as I recall. Nobody noticed, not even the photographer, until the photographs actually came back. Anyway, enough of naughty children. Finally, I have set foot on Terra Wirralis- THE WIRRAL.
The thing I’ve come all this way to see rests in four pieces nearby- U534, the remains of a German U-Boat built in 1942, sunk off the coast of Denmark in 1945 and salvaged from the seabed in 1993. I’ve wanted to see this for a long time. It used to form part of the Warship Preservation Trust, alongside HMS Plymouth, Onyx and Bronington and with LTC 7074, the last survivor of the D-Day landing craft. The trust went into liquidation in 2006, following the decision to redevelop its adjacent buildings and turn the site of the ships into a car park. U534 was moved here and given a purpose built museum. How long it will remain here is anybody’s guess. Due to Mersey Transport’s need to save money it is being suggested that one of the Wirral ferry terminals should close. The likely candidate is Woodside, a move that will undoubtedly have an impact upon the museum and may even lead to its eventual closure. What then for U534 I wonder?
It’s apt that it should have ended up here for it wasn’t far away, just over the river in fact, that the Battle of the Atlantic was orchestrated. This river, this whole area in fact, played an integral role in the war, something which is not much known about today. The area does make good use of its role though, more than some places might. The Merseyside Maritime museum has some good displays and Western Approaches, the command centre for the Battle of the Atlantic, is worth the entrance fee if you are interested enough. This here, however, is the other side of the story, the war as it looked from the German perspective.
The museum is free if you have a ferry ticket but otherwise it’s £7.50. At that price I wouldn’t have been satisfied I don’t think. At the ticket booth, just by the exit to the ferry terminal, I’m given a plastic bit of Nazi gold to get me through the barrier. There are other people as well, two of whom go through before me and some who come after. The gate is open but something tells me to wait until it closes. It takes an age and I begin to feel really awkward and stupid as the people behind me are waiting impatiently.
Beyond there is an exhibition space with information about the sub and artefacts lifted from the seabed. There is also a short film detailing how they salvaged the thing and a few interactive displays. I try a few of the interactive displays, such as one where you have to pump air into a tank of water to lift a model sub, but none of them are working. I watch the little film and look at the rest of the exhibits but there is not a great deal to see. The archaeologist in me really wants to see more on how they found, salvaged and preserved the sub.
I head outside to see the sub. It used to be in one piece but when that car park was built it had to be chopped up so that they could move it here. It’s better this way because now, unlike before, you can see inside by way of Perspex windows at the places where it was cut up. Well… Supposedly. The windows are grubby with little fingerprint marks and I have to lean in close just to get a good look. It would be difficult enough to see even without all those marks because the interior of the sub is dark with no lighting, not even a soft, minimal damage causing one. At the back most window I come across a window cleaner who huffs and walks away, his job half done, whilst I’m stood at a display board and looking for the hole that sank this beast. I’m captivated by a pair of wellies in one part of the sub, just left there and forgotten, and then walk up the steps to the gun platform. Here a whopping great howitzer is ready to fire upon Birkenhead. I find that I actually do like this place, this museum, even despite the grubby windows and the interactive displays not working. The sub is well presented, the exhibition informative, and my only wish would be that it was a bit larger.
By the time I leave through the exceptionally tiny gift shop, where they are shockingly charging £6.50 for what looks no more than three bits of chocolate in a cardboard box, I have half an hour before the next ferry comes along. I decide to take a walk along the riverside, up to one of the tunnel ventilation shafts. Toyah pointed it out earlier and it peaked my interest. Along the way I must keep an eye out for squirrels… Because Wirral Squirrel, that’s why. I don’t actually expect to see any this time around. I need somewhere greener… Maybe a purpose planned trip to seek them out? The actual ventilation shaft, when I reach it, is huge- An enormous, art deco, brick monstrosity. Unlike post-war architecture, which is all concrete and without feature or imagination, as with the ventilation shafts for the other road tunnel, this has a modest and practical kind of beauty to it. Sure it would never win any awards but it isn’t what I would call ugly. It blends well with the cityscape, it catches the eye. Alright, it does look a bit like the lair of some Batman villain but that actually makes it cool. I take a walk around the perimeter of the building, which takes me to a deserted car park, and then I head back to the ferry where I stop off in another car park to have a look at yet another submarine.
This one is an experimental Victorian sub, one of the first powered subs in the world, no larger than today’s ROVs, called The Resurgam- Which literally means ‘I shall rise again.’ It is only a replica, however, as the real Resurgam sank somewhere off Rhyl in 1880. It’s something else Birkenhead should be proud of for it was nearby that this was originally built. Walking around it, taking a look, provides a nice contrast with the other submarine, a way of seeing how the technology changed from being something small to the larger machine of death more resembling the submarines we know today.
Time here, for now, has run out and so I make my way back to the ferry. It hasn’t arrived yet. I pick up a Wirral transport map and look it over whilst I wait. It might come in useful sometime. The landing stage is opened and myself and pretty much all the people who got off the ferry last time it docked here walk down it at a decent speed. There’s no ferry at the bottom. This concerns me. I look up and down the river. I can see the Liverpool terminal across the water, no boat. I can see Seacombe… No boat. No boat in between or further up towards the mouth. No boat anywhere. I begin to get really worried. Has my earlier premonition of doom just come true? Has the ferry sunk in the middle of the river? No. It hasn’t as, to my relief, it eventually pokes its head out from around Seacomb. Thank God, for if it had sunk I would have found myself stuck in Birkenhead.
One ferry ride later and I am back on familiar ground. But I can feel a problem rearing its head in my stomach as I depart the boat and head along the waterfront back towards the city centre. I feel a bit ill. I feel… Oh heaven’s above… It’s seasickness!