Quality of Mersey

New Liverpool skyline from Birkenhead
New Liverpool skyline from Birkenhead
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Paul Kirkwood explores Birkenhead and Liverpool, viewing their better and less known buildings.

H amilton Square in Birkenhead has more listed buildings in one place except for Trafalgar Square,” said the guide on the Mersey ferry. That was four years ago when I was on board with my sister during a long weekend in Liverpool. Fascinated by old buildings, our appetites were whetted. There was lots more to see in Liverpool too so we decided on our return to explore both sides of the Mersey. Could Birkenhead match its rival over the water?

We started in style – at the giant entrance to Birkenhead Park. It was originally designed to be twice as big – and looks directly towards Liverpool over Birkenhead docks which opened the same day in 1847. The park’s dual claims to fame are that it was the first to be built in Britain using public money and was the inspiration for features of Central Park in New York. Two guides on the weekly tour led us over the Swiss bridge, past a bandstand-cum-boathouse and through a rockery designed to look like a mini-Switzerland. Local resident, Sandy Irvine, who died on Everest in the 1920s, climbed here as a boy.

We were also told how a Spitfire crashed into the park in 1942 with such force that it ploughed 18ft feet into the ground. It was excavated five years ago and the remnants put on display within Fort Perch Rock, a Napoleonic fort, just up the road in New Brighton. We knew where we were heading next. The curator, Doug Darroch, is the son of the man in charge of the excavation and also took part in it. Items salvaged included the engine, cockpit’s instrumentation, parts of the pilot’s seat and his sunglasses.

We spent the next day in Liverpool visiting places and meeting characters that were just as curious as Doug and his Spitfire. First up was the Hardmans’ house, home and studio of photographer, Edward Hardman and his wife from 40 years until 1988 when it was acquired by the National Trust. The couple’s era was the heyday of portrait photography (their specialism), well before the days of cheap cameras. Any child who had their photo taken professionally in the 50s or 60s will be instantly familiar with the slightly stilted, demure poses and hand-painted pastel finishes. Most of the house’s fixtures, fittings and photographic equipment have been maintained as they were found giving the house a time capsule feel. Equally interesting were the couple’s humble, cramped living quarters. They passion was photography and they had little time nor interest in home-making, the guides explained.

Just around the corner we nipped into what’s called “the bombed out church”. St Lukes, to give the place its proper name, was largely destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941 but the shell of the building (less its roof) survived intact. We entered to the sound of hip-hop music coming from speakers in the vestibule and walked up the nave which was occupied by an arts and crafts table and plants growing from old olive oil drums. We recreated the sound of church bells by bonging a set of four car wheels suspended on a length of pipe. All wonderfully Bohemian. The church is now managed by a music group called Urban Strawberry Lunch which, working as artists in residence, aims to bring the void back to life.

A quick cappuccino later, we were heading into the leafy suburbs for a tour of what’s best described as the other Beatle’s house. It was once occupied by Pete Best who was famously expelled from the group just before they hit the big time. We were shown around by his brothers, Roag and Ruari. These are men hanging on to the coat tails of reflected glory for all it’s worth which, at £7 per visitor, is quite a lot. Very much an alternative attraction, the tour covers the basement where their mother established the Casbah Coffee Club for her sons and friends – including the formative Beatles – to play music and hang out. John, Paul and George decorated the cellar and their designs are still there, perfectly preserved by the darkness. We stood on the stage, complete with barrier formed of an old garden fence and gate, and I had my photo taken with Roag. This, I figured, was as close as I’ll ever get to meeting a Beatle. By now we were flagging.

A snooze beside the beach at Crosby beckoned followed by a walk out to sea to get up close and personal with the melancholy iron figures of Anthony Gormley’s “Another Place” sculpture.

On Sunday, it was back to through the tunnel for a self-guided walking tour of Birkenhead and its Victorian architecture. At the centre Hamilton Square is so complete and unsullied it could be a film set. The former town hall proudly flanks one side and the campanile-like lift tower of the station equally catches the eye, still attempting to lure traffic away from the tunnel with a sign promising “frequent electric trains”. The highlight for us, though, were the ruins of the priory, the oldest building on Merseyside.

Its origins are pretty much those of Birkenhead, established in the 12th century on Bircheved which translates as “headland of birch trees”. From the chapel tower we peered over the wall and into the Cammell Laird shipyard. This, coupled with the priory’s incongruous location next to a trading estate, tell you all you need to know about the area’s transformation during the industrial revolution.

Our stroll ended at the U-Boat Story museum that tells the tale of a U-boat which was sunk off Denmark right at the end of the second world having mysteriously refused to surrender. The vessel is displayed outside in several sections, the end of the each sealed by glass through which you can peer into extraordinarily claustrophic – and, no doubt once noisy and smelly – interior.

We ended our weekend as it began: with some more fabulous buildings. These formed Port Sunlight, a model village built by Lord Lever for his soap factory workers which included a theatre, school, hospital and gymnasium. This is a world where roses really do grow around the doors. Verges are tidily trimmed, bowls are played on the greens, post-boxes still honour ‘GR’ and a car is a relatively rare sight.

It’s an architectural fantasy land, a mock Tudor embodiment of Merrie England and a vision of suburban utopia. As doors opened I half-expected costumed characters to bound forth regaling me tales of the past. But no. Everything here is peaceful and ordered.

So. Birkenhead or Liverpool? You can more than fill a weekend in each but Liverpool edges it for us. We just love the quirkiness of the places and the people. In my experience, no other British city has such a strong and engaging personality and, having not managed to squeeze in a visit to the new Museum of Liverpool and canal cut, we will be going back for a third helping.