I spent most of last year exploring the Wirral, Birkenhead and New Brighton, and it’s been a while since I wrote something from a more familiar side of the river. I was overdue a day wandering round Liverpool (and needed to do some Christmas shopping) and this time I decided to go a little bit beyond the city centre…
It’s been a while since I’ve been into this part of Liverpool. In the last few years I’ve always skirted around it whenever I’ve come out of the city centre proper. The last time I ventured in was… It was that blasted field trip for the photography course I failed by way of the teacher not liking my work and my camera being, well, not a good one. A whole eleven years ago! So after dropping some books off at the Oxfam on Bold Street, where I get a long winded explanation about what Gift Aid is (No thanks… No need to muddle the taxman any more than he already is!) I decide that it’s high time I had a proper wander up this way again.
Beyond the Oxfam, Bold Street (and Liverpool as a whole) becomes less visitor friendly, less bustling city centre and tourism and more of a dodgy looking, ‘local things for local people’ kind of place. The buildings are tired, non-glamorous and in the cold of a winter’s late morning decidedly unwelcoming. For the most part these shops and restaurants aren’t places you would casually go in to look round or have a bite to eat. The only people who might come down here to do that sort of thing are hipster types… Saying that, there is an Italian café that looks like it might be worth a look one of these days. This fact also does not prevent me from diving into a scrubby grocery store in search of the long lost Artichoke de Jerusalem. It’s the right time of year for them but dang and blast, same old same old, they don’t have any. I’m beginning to think that the only way I’ll find any is if I somehow get hold of a couple of million smackers and move to the big L, to London… I’m thinking Greenwich might be nice. Snapping back to reality, however, I realise that this is a pipe dream and thanks to a number of factors (not only the unlikelihood of my suddenly landing enough money to move to London) I figure that this won’t be the way which I’m going to find the artichoke.
At the end there is a busy road and standing in the middle of it, seeming from this angle to be almost the same as the day it was built, is the church of St Luke. This is no ordinary church, however. Once around the side and through the gate I begin to see that the windows contain no glass and through them not a speck of shadow is cast. Clear light bounces through, right from the other side, and it’s quite clear that there’s no roof to keep the birds and the weather from getting in. The church is nothing but a shell. It has not, however, been abandoned or condemned. It is not a place that has fallen out of use, a place forgotten by the changing whims of the city around it. It has been left this way deliberately, as a memorial to those who died in the Second World War and especially those who perished in the Liverpool Blitz.
During the war Liverpool, thanks to the docks, was one of the principle targets of the German Luftwaffe and it is said that nowhere else outside of London suffered so badly, though I think the people of Coventry might have a thing or two to say about that one. On the night of 6th May 1941 the church was hit by an incendiary device and the interior completely decimated by fire as a result. It was decided to leave the shell of the church as it was, as a memorial. Today it is peaceful, calm, a place of reflection. There is a sombre air, and it isn’t just because the gardens around the church are decked out in their winter drag of patchy, muddy grass and bare branches. It is not possible to get inside the church today, but to walk around the outside is enough.
Coming out on the far side of the gardens from which I entered, I head further into the back streets, to places where tourists and visitors don’t often wander. A few might come out as far as St Luke’s, or follow either of the roads down to the Cathedrals, but in between is a nether world, a realm of side streets and Georgian town houses and back street chiropodists. There are scattered bars and restaurants in there, some places that might be of interest, but they’re mostly off the tourist radar. I admit, it’s hardly the unwelcoming side of Bogota or any of those places that the foreign office warns against travel to, this is still Liverpool and the chances of meeting danger are slim (at least in this part of the city.) It’s not what you’d call a ‘rough’ area but it still isn’t a tourist friendly one. There’s practically nothing here for the casual tourist.
As if to emphasise that this isn’t exactly a safe haven… I have turned the corner and following the road in the direction of the river. It isn’t exactly rough or downtrodden but it isn’t somewhere I want to hang around. Towards the end of the road there’s a modernist college type building… As I walk past two people come out of the main door and moments before I’m due to pass them they stop right in front of me. I’m not exactly invisible but, without any kind of common polity, they just block my way. It’s almost impossible to get around behind them so I have to briefly drop onto the road and pass in front, at which point I hear some offended tutting. As I carry on down the road I hear one of them say something, but don’t catch it. I do catch what the second guy says- ‘Nah… Just want to beat him up.’ Err… Well… Erm… They stop right in front of me… I have to get around them somehow… And this guy wants to beat me up for it? My imagination is doing loop-de-loops over what the other guy might have suggested. Something that isn’t just beating up… What’s worse than beating up? Shanking? Shooting? They don’t follow me, thank goodness, they go the other way up the street, but I’m left a bit worried. If they’d do that for something trivial (that was no real fault of mine) what might they do at something worse? It goes to show, even though this is only Liverpool (and not one of the really rough parts either) this is still somewhere you have to be careful, not somewhere you can just snap selfie after selfie.
I cross over and hurriedly head down the next street, watching my back the whole time. Then I turn again and I’m onto a road that is end to end Georgian townhouses. One of these will set the modern home buyer back a cool half a million, minimum. In somewhere like London they would be three times that, at least. Despite the expensive houses, however, it doesn’t look like an ideal place to live. It might be a bit nicer if it weren’t for all the cars and the semi-busy road and the back street chiropodists inhabiting every other building. It isn’t very well kept either. The pavement is poor quality, pockmarked with old chewing gum and mismatched slabs, and the bins that line the street are all overflowing.
I am here, on this street, for a singular reason. I want to see the birthplace of one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers, William Gladstone. He’s a man who, including in this very city of his birth, has become divisive. His humanitarian achievements, the great things he did, and he did do many great things, are becoming overshadowed by his connections to slavery and the slave trade. Liverpool University students have recently been campaigning to have one of their halls of residence renamed because of this connection. They are not incorrect in citing this connection or even bringing it up, Gladstone’s father was a slave trader and owner and Gladstone himself, in his early parliamentary days, worked to defend the trade and gain compensation for slave owners, but that was his early years. Gladstone’s greatest triumph was that whilst those early years are a matter of some shame and he did and said things that must be condemned, he made up for all that by becoming one of the most influential humanitarians and liberals that this country has ever produced. As he grew older he changed his ways and for that change and for the good things that followed he is rightly celebrated. He has buildings named after him for that reason. He is lauded for the man he became, not the arrogant youth that he was. No, we should not forget his dark side or the awful views of his youth or where he came from… But nobody, not even the proclaimed ‘great men’ are perfect. They are only human. Everyone has their skeletons, everyone did or said something or had views that we might today disagree with. To wholly condemn Gladstone for only one portion of his life, and a portion that he later made reparations for, is to do him an injustice.
What ought to be corrected, concerning Gladstone, concerns his birthplace. People still live there and that is fine. This is only a birthplace, after all, and there are plenty of Georgian Townhouses open to the public as museums. Apart from the connection, Gladstone’s birthplace wouldn’t be all that different- Although his adult residence, Hawarden castle, is not open to the public either. There is a plaque on the wall indicting that Gladstone was born here, but it is old, really old, and says little- Only Gladstone, Four Times Prime Minister, Born In This House 29th December 1809. There is no indication that this was the home of a slave owner, that it was paid for by slavery. There must have also been others on this street, I am certain. Surely, if anything is a whitewash of history, it is this. Why is there no marker to say ‘this happened here’? Could it be because it might be construed as a celebration of slavery? It’s a good point. It might be. It stands, however, that without some kind of marker the people who walk up and down this street, be they residents or people seeking somewhere to have the webbing between their toes removed, can have no idea of the bleak things that once went on here. Slavery and the slave trade are, without a shadow of a doubt, two of the most awful and horrible aspects of British history, yet in a huge number of places its legacy is swept under the carpet, as if it didn’t happen. Cities such as Liverpool were built upon the profits of slavery and to mark that, at the birthplace of a man who, yes, first went into Parliament to support slavery, but who later went on to redeem himself, would be a significant acknowledgment of that past.
It does, at the very least, look a nice building to live in. It would have been a much better house to be born in than those in which the majority of early nineteenth century Scousers were born. Many of those sorts of houses have been torn down, condemned and replaced, but these, that were built for the wealthy, who had obtained that wealth by both savoury and unsavoury means, still stand. They’re still occupied, still used. The answer as to why is, because, quite plainly, these houses were of a much higher quality. They were built to last whereas the houses for the poor were thrown together on the cheap, made with the cheapest materials and with many, many cut corners. The owners often could not afford to maintain them either. That this house still stands is testament to another shadow of history, the shadow of the poor and downtrodden. A majority of the upper and middle classes could not have given a fig about the poor. The poor were, it is a sad fact, treated little better than those who were slaves. They were seen as dirty, undeserving, and it was their own fault that they were where they were. If they were poor then they should do something to jolly well get themselves out of it… If the actions of the wealthy overrode the rights of the poor (and more often than not they did) then that was fine. There was no room to complain and nobody to complain to. Over the nineteenth century that would gradually change, thanks largely to men like William Gladstone, but at the time he was born this was still very much the prevailing attitude.
History is murk. History is shadow and foul deeds and things that are unforgivable in the modern world. This house is a testament to that. It is a place built by a wealthy man, built on the backs of the poor and on the ill-gotten gains of slavery… But in the gloom of history there are shafts of light, good deeds and good men. The man who was born here was one of those, and this house stands as a reminder of that. It is, on the whole, a conflicting, confusing building.
I do not spend long on this spot, staring at someone’s house for too long is more than a bit weird. There are other things I have to do today, besides wander these back streets where tourists fear to tread.
Back to the city centre I go, down Bold Street and then deep into the more tourist friendly hub of the ‘Liverpool One’ complex. I make my way through the shops, Christmas shopping as they call it. I don’t buy much apart from a picture frame and a Santa Gnome type thing for myself. I slip into Primark, Debenhams and John Lewis in the hunt for some new underwear but find that not only is there nothing I like, but packs of boxer shorts (three a pack) are damned expensive. For underwear, which nobody will ever see, I am not going to pay anything more than a fiver. In Primark they have some nice looking Hogwarts hoodies… But I am far too old to be wandering around in Harry Potter themed clothing, and they don’t have any Ravenclaw anyway.
Eventually I make my way to the Albert Dock and to my favourite museum, not just in Liverpool but in all the world. Whenever I get the chance (which isn’t all that often these days) I’ll come down here and look around one or more of the galleries. I have a fondness for the emigration gallery in the basement, mainly because it’s a huge mock-up of the Liverpool docks as they once were.
Between Liverpool One and the Albert Dock, however, there is a major road. It is not too bad to cross but I always think it worse than it is. Today I might just be in luck… I might get to cross before… No chance. I’m waylaid by a lady of dishevelled countenance just as I reach the crossing.
‘Excuse me,’ she begs, ‘I need help…’ I pause for a moment. ‘I need help to get into the YHA…’ Alarm bells start ringing. Firstly, if this were a genuine plea I couldn’t help anyway. How am I supposed to get into a YHA? Usually they have card locks and I don’t have a card. I’m not going to break in, if that’s what she wants. Shouldn’t there be a member of staff around to help her? A doorbell? Is there even a YHA near here? (There is, but it is still a fair distance from the crossing. I get the feeling that this lady is up to no good. I’m definitely not going to go off with a stranger either, especially in a situation as suspect as this one. I say I can’t help (which, even if this was real, I couldn’t) but she persists, continuing to beg, trying to make me feel guilty (another sign that she’s up to no good.) This crossing is full of people, she could ask anybody else, but she is fixated on me. She’s not letting this drop, I’m caught at the crossing (yet another sign she’s up to something) and I have, at best, a few seconds before I’m trapped here for another few minutes. The crossing man is red but I judge that I can get across just in time and so dart for the road. One car starts to move as I cross but it soon stops when it sees me. It was a lucky escape. The way I did it was foolish, but I had no other choice if I were to get away from this woman. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that she was a pickpocket or scam artist.
It shakes me up a bit, both the scammer and the nearly getting hit by a car during my escape, but a wander around the museum helps. I spend a bit of time in the Customs and Excise section before taking a good wander through my favourite bit, the emigration gallery, and then going up the stairs to the Battle of the Atlantic. Feeling a bit hungry afterwards, I end up on the top floor restaurant, the Maritime Dining Rooms. Taking a seat by the window, overlooking the waterfront, I peruse the menu and order an English muffin topped with bacon, eggs and hollandaise sauce as well as a nice, hot coffee. I’ve not done this for a while, had a proper meal somewhere I mean… It’s nice. The food is good too. I haven’t actually been in this restaurant before but I do like it. I sit, gazing out of the window, reflecting on the year gone, thinking about where I’m going next, and having an all-round pleasant time. I didn’t think I could love this museum any more than I already did but this place does make it so much better. I’ll come and eat here again, definitely.
There is more of the museum to see, the Titanic gallery and the International Slavery Museum, but I don’t really have any more time today. There’s a train I’ve got to catch and other things I’ve got to be getting on with.
For more of my travels, you can check out ‘A Journal Of Nearby Places,’ available in paperback from your local Amazon store for a reasonable price.