Part of: Solo UK and France by Train
Liverpool is one of the few cities on this trip I haven't visited before, and I didn't have much time to research it before I arrived. I only learned enough to know the major sights I needed to photograph. And although these sounded great, I must admit my expectations for the city overall were somewhat low - mainly because I lived for two years in southern England, where they are not generally very complimentary about northern England! But I thought Liverpool was awesome, and I would recommend a visit to anyone.
First of all, they have done the most beautiful job of preserving and rejuvenating their historic buildings (especially the Albert Dock), and creating some very cool modern architecture right alongside them. There is a remarkable lack of the horrible, uninspired, concrete stuff from in-between periods, at least in the parts I visited. And the entire historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, called "Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City," which is a rare honor.
There are also many old buildings that have not been restored yet, but I thought they were pretty cool, too. Faded paint, missing windows, crooked bricks, plants growing out of walls, artistic graffiti... very fun, for a photographer at least! And they are not all in some run-down neighborhood, where they might make you feel unsafe or depressed, but are interspersed throughout the city in all their picturesque urban decay.
Liverpool also feels like a very authentic, working city that welcomes tourists without being "touristy." First of all, I saw few other recognizable tourists. Everyone seemed to be locals, just doing their thing - going to work, running by the river, going out to bars. And almost everyone I spoke to was very friendly.
And Liverpool so easily could have plastered Beatles stuff all over the city in order to give tourists what they expect and sell more mugs, but for a long time of wandering I didn't come across the Beatles at all. I was very impressed by that. They are clearly very proud of their "local lads", but instead of just giving tourists what they know to expect, the city teaches visitors what they should expect from Liverpool: maritime heritage, museums, two impressive cathedrals, good shopping (especially the new and impressive outdoor mall called "Liverpool "One"), and a contemporary music scene.
Those are my impressions, anyway.
I worked very hard in Liverpool, in part because I liked it so much. As soon as I checked into my hotel, I hurried right back out again because the light was so good. For my two full days, I was out from morning until night, including two extensive night photography sessions at the Albert Dock and waterfront, complete tripod and three-lens treatment at both cathedrals, two trips to the Anglican Cathedral, a visit to the Maritime Museum, a visit to the Tate museum of modern art, a two-hour Beatles bus tour, and walks along the colorful Bold Street. I also kept busy trying to keep my camera dry, or drying it off, or cleaning the lens, as it rained on and off throughout my visit. One night on my way back to the hotel, it poured torrents. I looked like a drowned rat by the time I made it back.
The result of my labors is a grand total of 4,512 photos, which I've been working my way through in whatever spare time I could find the last few days, often on trains. Unfortunately I don't have time to write much in the way of backgrounds or descriptions, but I hope you enjoy this visual overview of Liverpool!
The Albert Dock
The Albert Dock was built in 1846, and it was revolutionary in several ways: it contained no wood to protect against fire; it allowed loading directly into warehouses from the ships; and it featured the world's first hydraulic cranes. It fell into disrepair after World War II, but was beautifully restored and reopened in 1988. I thought it was quite handsome and spent a lot of time there.
The Waterfront (Pier Head)
The waterfront in Liverpool (as I call it; it's officially named "Pier Head") is a wonderful place, with lots of welcoming public spaces, a riverside path, and a fantastic variety of architecture. The three lovely historic buildings that face the water are known as the "Three Graces" and are, from left to right: the Liver Building (built 1901-11); the Cunard Building (1914-16); and the Port of Liverpool Building (1904-07).
The cool modern buildings that have recently joined them are: the Museum of Liverpool (2011); the Pier Head Ferry Terminal (2009); and a new apartment building of black glass still being finished. One of the nights, the full moon was rising behind the Three Graces and it was spectacular. It's too bad I can never capture that properly in a photo - it is too bright.
There are several painted animal statues along the waterfront, and they pop up in surprising places around the city as well. They are very cute, and I was trying to figure out if they were cows or what, when I found a label and got my answer...
I enjoyed both of the museums I visited, not least because they are both free and both welcome photography! The first, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, is quite interesting and very detailed - you could spend hours in there if you're into maritime history.
One major exhibit covers the sinking of the Lusitania, Empress of Ireland, and Titanic, all of which had close connections with Liverpool. There were large models of the ships, artifacts, re-created rooms, and lots of signboards explaining the history and significance of the disasters.
There is an extensive World War II section, with artifacts such as communication machines, uniforms, and an example of the bombs that rained down on Liverpool in the May Blitz of 1941.
One especially unique exhibit was entitled "Hello, Sailor!" and covered gay life in the navy. Apparently it was quite tolerated on the ships, but then the sailors had a very hard time adjusting when they returned to the real world. It was very interesting! I especially enjoyed the re-creation of a gay sailor's bunk, complete with dress and hot posters of Steve McQueen:
Also part of the Maritime Museum is the International Museum of Slavery, with exhibits on the African cultures from which the slaves were taken, the reasons for slavery, the horrible conditions, and eventually emancipation. It was rather harrowing, but very well done and important. It included this nice contemporary artwork with an American theme:
Tate Liverpool is part of the same museum as the more famous Tate Modern in London. It is located in the Albert Dock and has a nice, small collection.
Liverpool has two major cathedrals, one Anglican and one Catholic. Both were built in the 20th century and both are huge.
The Anglican cathedral, a.k.a. Liverpool Cathedral, is particularly impressive in size. When I first saw it, the word that immediately came to mind was "massive." I liked it more than most Gothic Revival churches I've seen, which I never like as well as medieval Gothic.
The Catholic cathedral is officially named the "Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King", but locally it is known as "Paddy's Wigwam." You'll see why. I wasn't personally a fan of this one, but it is certainly unique, and they allowed me to use my tripod which was awesome.
My second day in Liverpool I joined a "Magical Mystery Tour" of Beatles sites. It leaves from the tourist office at the Albert Dock and runs a couple times daily; thanks to the off-season the bus wasn't even half full. The guide had an entertaining and informative spiel, and he played Beatles songs in between. Most importantly, we got to see lots of sites I never could have made it to myself without a car: childhood homes, places that inspired songs, etc. I enjoyed it. The tour guide also sold a map of Beatles sites, and I used that to find several other places after the tour.
After the tour, my first stop was the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played 292 times between 1961 and 1963. It has unfortunately been reconstructed but using the same bricks on the same site, and it is becoming an important venue again with contemporary musicians.
Table at The Grapes where the Beatles were once photographed (displayed at left). They often drank here after playing at the Cavern Club because the club did not serve alcohol. A man was sitting at this table with a pint when I came in, and when he saw my camera and interest, he immediately moved to another table, saying he would get out of my way. I insisted he didn't have to, but it was nice to have it all clear for my photo. What a nice guy.
The Mount Pleasant Register Office, where John Lennon married Cynthia Powell on August 23, 1962. They married in secret with only a few witnesses, because the Beatles' manager feared the band would lose their appeal if they were married. Cynthia was pregnant with their son Julian Lennon when they married. I dragged my suitcase uphill in the rain to photograph this on my way to the train station! Good thing the door is a nice cheery yellow.
Various Other Sights
Same again. Bold Street is known for its bohemian, international flavor. I happened to visit during the Bold Street Festival, so there were also street performers, delicious-smelling food stalls from Chinese to Moroccan, and Chinese drummers.
My hotel was in a listed historic building in the "Ropewalks" district of Liverpool, about 10 minutes' walk from the Albert Dock. Here is the Google Street View of the building, dated September 2008 (if you can't see it below, click the View Larger Map link):
And here it is today:
My room was quite small, but the price was right (and they do have larger ones), and I was quite happy there.
I had two meals out while in Liverpool, and both were great. The first was at Pizza Express, an old standby that importantly offers free wifi, which is located in the Liverpool One shopping center.
The second, and much more memorable, was Sunday roast at a pub/restaurant called the Shipping Forecast just around the corner from my hotel on Slater Street. I was determined to find a Sunday roast on my first Sunday in the UK, and I'm happy it was so easy to find a good one. The pub was friendly and comfy and the meal was delicious. (There were four options for the roast; I chose pork with apple-sage sauce.) And while ordering at the counter I had a fun chat with a South African fellow customer and an Australian waitress, which was a nice social interval for a solo traveler.
Coming up next: York, including an excellent day trip to Selby Abbey and Castle Howard.