Last time I was in Birkenhead I didn’t have much time to look around properly, owing to my need to catch the ferry back. There was also the fact that the place I wanted to see, the priory, was closed. So before I could move on and begin to explore the rest of the Wirral I had to make a return journey.
In A Lost & Lonely Part of Town
In Which I Return To Birkenhead
Shoved under a seventies office building, Liverpool’s James Street station is a strange place. It’s one of Liverpool’s ‘big four,’ right in the city centre, practically a stone’s throw from the waterfront, but nobody ever uses it. The only reason I’m using it now is because this is the only one that’s currently running trains over to the Wirral. Alright, I could go by ferry again but that takes forty minutes and the train takes three. It leaves a bit more time. Like I said though, it is a strange place. Supposedly they refurbished it in 2012/13 but it still looks like it hasn’t been touched since the seventies. Everything is a sort of whitey yellow colour. There’s no natural light and the floor… Jesus. That’s the kind of floor that early nineties shopping centres had. I remember being dragged around Runcorn ‘shopping city’ as a kid and it had a very similar kind of floor. It was a similar kind of hell as well and this place where I now find myself also has the same seedy atmosphere to it.
After I buy my ticket I head for a lift, one of about seven, and as the door opens into a horribly large metal capsule about seven or eight other passengers are corralled in after me. This is not a nice lift and nobody looks comfortable, least of all the old lady who has stopped opposite me. She looks around as the doors close and the lift doesn’t move.
‘Does somebody have to press the button?’ she asks innocently. I say that I’ve already pressed it. It was the first thing I did… Well actually that was the mile long stroll across the lift to get to the button because I want to spend as little time in this metal box as possible but after that it was the first thing I did.
It finally begins to descend, squeaking and clattering towards the bowels of the earth, through a blackness unseen. It is an uncomfortable, unnerving ride deep down into Liverpool’s underworld, which when the doors open is revealed to be a confusing labyrinth of yellow corridors. Somewhere down here, I think, there’s going to be a deformed creature challenging lost passengers to games of riddles. Signs point to platforms but I have no idea where I’m going so I just follow everybody else.
Eventually there’s an atrium sort of place, a conjunction where the tunnels of the maze meet. There’s a station worker here pointing people down tunnels.
‘Chester this way… West Kirby down there,’ she calls out. Great. But which will take me to where I need to go? Which way for Hamilton Square? It probably doesn’t matter as it’s only the next station along the track and there’s no other way to go but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. I could ask which it is but I’m too much of a coward. I go for the West Kirby tunnel, thinking that’s the more likely.
The platform is a damn sight prettier than what I’ve seen of James Street so far, a damn sight prettier than much of the rest of the Liverpool underground network actually. It kind of reminds me of the London underground. This is evidently the bit that got refurbished when they did the refurbishment. Kind of pointless if you’re not going to refurbish the rest of the station though.
Onto a train, a good one as far as Merseyrail goes, and three minutes later off at the next stop. It’s the kind of distance I’d normally walk… Only I can’t because some idiot put a damn river in the way. Speaking of that river, I saw a thing on the television where people were actually swimming in the thing- SWIMMING! In the Mersey! You won’t catch me doing that. I know the river is supposed to be all cleaned up these days BUT that is besides the point. Swimming in rivers, clean or not, is really dangerous. Besides currents and potentially freezing temperatures below the surface, here the Mersey is running through a major city on one side and a small town on the other and further up there are STILL massive factories and chemical works. There are boats going up and down it all the time, up to and including massive container ships. You don’t know what is being pumped in there- Anything from hormones to skin burning acids to DNA altering ooze. Swimming in there you might catch weal’s disease or at the very worst bump into Elton John (See Footnote). Basically, don’t go swimming in that river if you have a modicum of sense.
Getting off at Hamilton Square I could be forgiven for thinking that the train hasn’t gone anywhere, this looks exactly the same- The same sort of platform, the same long corridors- I trek through them, alone, the only passenger to alight, looking for the way out. I find corridors to other platforms but no exit. I decide that going in an upwards direction should be the best policy. I find myself in a large, liftless room and then end up going through a door and climbing the stairwell from hell. When I say stairwell from hell… It’s positively ancient, reeks and is definitely not used on any regular basis. It breaks practically every health and safety rule in the book- Crickety, cracked steps, missing tiles, a sense of foreboding, exposed pipework… Am I even in a public part of the station? I don’t know. I expect to find some door leading into a plant works at any moment and I expect some brusk engineer to come out and send me all the way back down the well, which by now is quite a way. The trouble is there are no doors. The only way is up.
I start to wonder how deep underground I am here. This just goes up and up and up. I begin to think that when I reach the top I’ll come out onto the roof of the station. Not so as after many, many miles of climbing up the crickety, cracked steps of the stairwell from hell I find an actual door and it leads me into the station lobby. There’s little more than a ticket barrier and a counter and those lifts I didn’t find. I’m on the wrong side of the barrier. I’ve come through without having to show my ticket. I think the two bored looking guards lurking here will stop me as I come through the door but nope. I stop, slightly befuddled, and then silently slip out into Birkenhead.
As I walk down the street towards the square I notice there is something a bit off. Everything is quiet, deserted. Everything appears a bit strange, as strange as James Street Station. I reach Hamilton Square proper and there’s a taxi coming down the road but nothing and nobody else. There are cars but the owners are nowhere in sight. There’s an old Palladian building- The former Birkenhead Town Hall from before Birkenhead was absorbed into Wirral. It’s a standard, nice looking building- Not stand-out, but alright. I notice that the rest of the buildings around the square don’t look too peaky though. A lot of them are supposed to be Grade I listed but they appear neglected. They are drab, worn out. They are a sign of how forgotten this town is, how much it isn’t on the tourist trail. If this were London or Bath or Liverpool this square would be shining and clean and packed with tourists. It would be listed in tourist guidebooks and on travel websites as a must visit destination. But this is Birkenhead. Nobody remembers Birkenhead. Nobody much cares. Nobody comes here.
That’s when I realise. Since leaving the station I’ve seen the taxi and one man in a suit. There’s just nobody around. It’s like a ghost town, less Birkenhead and more Birkendead. I don’t know if it’s just this part of town or the whole place but it is discomforting. Sometimes empty streets and towns can be cool, you can feel like the king of the world. Not here. Here it is creepy. It’s not even a drab day. It’s a bit chilly, but not drab. On days like this there are usually dozens of people bunking off work. Their lack makes me really uncomfortable and I hurry on to my intended destination, Birkenhead priory.
I pass down a street of terraced houses, the sort that filled every industrial town and city in the country once upon a time. Most of the houses look empty, the windows smeared with white wash so people can’t stare in. The prevailing image of the modern terraced street comes from Coronation Street; a flourishing fantasy boulevard of cobblestones and cheery northerners shouting ‘ey up duck,’ and things like that. Cars can go up and down that place with ease. There’s a jolly pub that does stirling business, a supermarket, a newsagent, a factory and God only knows what else. Ok, so the entire place is pervaded by an endless cycle of misery and it has without a doubt been put under a gypsy curse, but let’s forget that fact as far as the present argument is concerned. The truth is that Coronation Street is nothing like reality. The real northern terrace has no cobblestones and no chirpy people shouting ‘ey up duck.’ It isn’t wide enough for a car to park on, let alone drive down. The houses, like they are here, are not usually in any decent condition and quite often the kinder thing to do is condemn the whole lot and rebuild to modern standards. There’s a pub at the end of this one, sure, but on most terraces this sort of thing is rare. If they do exist they are usually dive bars. The pub is called ‘The Swinging Arm’ and it doesn’t look much like a dive, it has a sort of ‘Ghost Rider’ mural on the outside wall which is cool, but how business is doing I couldn’t say. Apparently, according to some stuff I just looked at, it is an ok place.
The road down to the priory is even more isolated, desolate, run down and forgotten. The only sign of life is an engineering college from which a car pulls out and quickly drives away. The rest is scrap yards and decrepit garages and fences topped with barbed wire. For what is perhaps the first time in my travels I feel like I am in a very lonely place, a place insignificant to the grand scheme of things. Ahead I can see the cranes of Cammell Laird, the last vestiges of the industry this town crystallised around. All up the river were once dozens of shipyards like that one, builders and commercial docks too, but in their place are now buildings that look like retirement apartments or these backstreet scrapyards and garages. This, I can’t help thinking, is a great example of something that is happening right across the world. Post Industrialisation means that the towns and cities which once blossomed and thrived thanks to all of that now vanished industry, towns like this one, either have to find a new purpose or face decline and eventual death. Because it is well overshadowed by the metropolis across the river Birkenhead faces an uphill battle to achieve the former and from what I can see around me it is almost certainly well along the road to the latter.
The road ends with a gate and a car park and there next to me, at last, are the remains of the priory. Founded in 1150, this is supposed to be the oldest standing building in Merseyside and where the first Mersey Ferry service was begun in 1318, supposedly making the modern service the oldest still running in Europe. Parts of the church were demolished in the seventies due to health and safety reasons but the tower and what remained of the old priory buildings, for instance the scriptorium, were left standing. It had long ceased to be an actual priory thanks to some dude called Henry VIII (even then, at the time of the dissolution it only had seven monks) and it had been for a while just a church, but one hardly used thanks to a lack of any parishioners, which was all due to redevelopment of the surrounding land and the building of the Queensway tunnel. A small chapel remained on the site, and that still remains to this day.
What is left has been turned into a museum and the first thing I see as I enter from the car park are the white walls of the old church interior, stretching out likes arms (or angel’s wings?) to welcome visitors. I see that in the corners, against the walls, they’ve scattered bits of the old church architecture and I can’t help but wander over and have a nosy. This must look all kinds of weird, standing in what amounts to a half dead patch of grass with poorly maintained paths and closely examining a few bits of rubble, but there’s no one around to see so I’m not so bothered by that fact.
Thank goodness nobody sees what happens next either. I begin to look around the place and the first bit I come to is the tower. The door is open so in I go and hey, you can climb to the top. This is a terrible idea. My mere presence at the top of a church tower is going to look like a recreation of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (It’s the same reason it isn’t a good idea for me to go anywhere near Paris) and I also forget that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of small, high places. I don’t mind the height… It’s the edge I don’t like. If there’s plenty of space (like at the top of a mountain or on a roof terrace) I’m fine. Here there’s not much between myself and a bloody splat on the concrete below, which is where the problem begins.
I’m only a few feet off the ground and I start worrying.The stairway up is a rickety spiral and feels precarious. There’s only a hand rail on one side and I cling to it for dear life as I work my way up, one step at a time. Somewhere above me I think can hear building work going on. It’s actually coming from neighbouring Cammell Laird. Then the top. A bell and a door onto the ledge greet me. This is where everything turns really bad.
The wind is strong. It isn’t strong enough to knock me off the tower but I don’t like it and so I initially shelter in the doorway like the cowardly Quasimodo that I am. I take a couple of pictures and then I try and venture out to have a better look. NO! I jump back inside. I really don’t like it. Maybe if I keep low… I sneak out again and try and get around the corner, keeping low and now looking more like Quasimodo than usual. I get a picture of the view from Wirral side of the tower but now I am almost shitting myself. I want to walk around the tower but this is hell and so I chicken out, scampering back to the safety of the windless interior. Going down again is just as terrible.
Back on terra firma, feeling relieved, and developing a hatred of that tower, I explore the rest of the priory. I first find the chapel, the only bit of the site still used for worship, and admire it for a bit. I’m want to take a picture but in here it feels a bit naughty. I decide to go for it when, horror of horrors, I hear voices.
Why does this always happen to me? I find somewhere nice and quiet, somewhere peaceful and away from crowds and then other people come along to ruin it. Hellfire on them I say! Their approach means I can’t take my picture so I hurry away and plan to come back later, heading over to explore a bit more around the old remains and the cloisters before eventually slipping into the exhibit space.
At first I think it might just be a rubbish kind of shop and not a proper exhibit. The items in the first display case don’t look to be any kind of exhibit fodder at all; a rubbish children’s book and some cheap, tacky handcrafted jewellery. They even have a price tag on them. The rest is better, a worthy series of displays of archaeological artefacts, model monks and a detailed history of the church and priory. In the corner there’s a life size waxwork and he kind of reminds me of a friend of mine. The resemblance is uncanny! He’s secretly been working as a waxwork model, I’m sure of it. There’s a staircase in the corner and I think that there might be another floor of displays but no… It’s just a classroom.
I again try the chapel to see if I can get my picture but nope, there’s a lady standing in front of the altar and she looks determined not to move. This isn’t a place I’m likely to come back to so I guess I’ll never get that picture. It does provide me with the perfect advertising slogan though- Other people, ruining my life since 1989… (Which is before I was born, I know, but 1989 worked better, alright?)
My final stop is the scriptorium which is dedicated to HMS Conway, a training ship which ran aground in the Menai Strait not far from my home city of Bangor, in the fifties. Until the war it was moored off nearby Rock Ferry and I discover that I’ve seen a part of the ship before. The anchor lies in Caernarfon, outside a public convenience that used to be a maritime museum. I’ve long been fascinated by maritime history so for me this is one of the most interesting parts of the priory. I take my time in this bit before I have to leave and return to Hamilton Square to catch my train back.
I notice, on the wall of the old town hall as I pass it by on my return to the station, a faded sign pointing out the disabled entrance for another museum, the Wirral Museum. I keep an eye out for a sign pinpointing the regular entrance but the first is so faded that I begin to suspect that the museum is no longer here. I was right. It isn’t. It closed in 2010, around the same time as Caernarfon Maritime Museum, and it goes to show that this town is so forgotten that even the main museum is forced to close. Three museums have closed for good in this town at some point during the last eleven years- The Shore Road Pumping Station, The Warships Preservation Trust and this one. There’s still an art gallery and transport museum but for how long, I wonder? Can anything of that sort survive the decline of Birkenhead and the difficult times that lie ahead, not just for this place but for the entire country? Can the priory survive? It’s a lovely place, an ocean of calm in a lost and lonely part of town, but I fear that is not enough to save it.
FOOTNOTE- In ‘Stop The Cavalry,’ which is set in Runcorn, Will mentions that his childhood nightmare was that the Grim Reaper looked like Elton John. Later on he, of course, ends up in the river where he nearly drowns and starts hallucinating that Elton John dressed as the Grim Reaper is swimming towards him. I’m changing it to Phil Collins with the next edition (which is also the paperback edition) because Phil Collins looks more like the guy from The Seventh Seal and with him as Grim then Genesis can be shoehorned in as the four horsemen of the apocalypse as well.