On the Mersey beat: a walking tour of Liverpool

A guided walk is a great way to take in the city’s architectural and cultural riches

‘It’s not just the history but the sheer chutzpah of these buildings that fascinates me,” announces Trevor Newton, my guide to Liverpool, as we meet under the looming portico of the Town Hall. An artist and architectural historian, Newton, 59, grew up here before heading south to work in London as a topographical artist in the early 1980s. He’s returned to launch Magnificent Liverpool, idiosyncratic tours of a city that’s captivated him since childhood.

“There’s still an outdated view of Liverpool which dates back to the Toxteth riots and declining docks of the 1980s,” says Newton, “but the city has changed hugely since then. The architecture is spectacular – it has the most listed buildings of any city outside London – and the vibrant indigenous culture is open to all. You can go on tours themed around football or the Beatles, but I wanted to offer something that draws on my background as an architectural historian and a Liverpudlian. I’ve known this city all my life, now I’ve come back to share it with other people.

“My father worked at the Liverpool Echo,” Newton continues, as we plunge in to the midday bustle of Water Street. “He’d bring unprinted newspaper home for me to draw my favourite buildings on – so my love of architecture began when I was a child.” Newton knows the city well. During the following two days my personalised itinerary (you can book tours for groups or individuals lasting from an hour to a day or more) takes in landmarks brought to life by Newton’s commentary:, “a dusting of dates” spiced with anecdotes.

Olde worlde charm: Ye Hole in Ye Wall pub.
Olde worlde charm … Ye Hole in Ye Wall pub. Photograph: Alamy

“Everything starts with the port,” he tells me, gesturing towards the fast-flowing, silt-brown Mersey. It was King John who declared the natural harbour a borough in 1207. Coastal, Irish and European shipping was joined in the 17th century by trade from the American colonies. By the 1700s, warehouses and counting houses lined the docks. Tobacco, rum and cotton – commodities of slave-powered trade – were disgorged, while salt, soap and machinery were dispatched to the rest of the world.

You can see that prosperity writ large in the business district. Banks and offices – gothic, neoclassical – line the pavements like palaces. The stamp of distinguished architects is everywhere: John Wood the Elder; Charles Cockerell; James Wyatt, who put the finishing touches to the Town Hall; Herbert Rowse, whose art deco ventilation shaft for the Mersey Tunnel broods over the city like a prop from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. “These architects created a look that’s unique: it’s what gives Liverpool its extraordinary character,” says Newton enthusiastically.

Innovation was encouraged. I learn that Liverpool has some of the country’s earliest fireproofed buildings, steel and stone structures which paved the way for skyscrapers, such as the Edwardian Royal Liver Building, with its curious bird sculptures perched on top: “Heron, cormorant, no one knows. They’re a local mystery.” Alleys were clad in white tiles to bounce light into adjacent buildings. Without Newton I would have missed Oriel Chambers, one of the world’s first buildings to feature a metal-framed, glass curtain wall – so avant-garde that The Builder at the time condemned it as “a vast abortion”.

Birds of a feather: the Royal Liver Building.
Birds of a feather … the Royal Liver Building. Photograph: Alamy

“When I was a child all these buildings were filthy, I used to think that everything was built out of black stone,” Newton says as we meander down to the Pier Head. Now all has been scrubbed and spruced up. You can have tea in a double-decker, pose for a photo with a statue of the Fab Four or take a cruise in a colourful ferry designed by pop artist Sir Peter Blake. The Tate and Museum of Liverpool are also here, symbolising the changes which have transformed the city since Newton left: “Liverpool in the 70s was a bit grim and depressed. The docks had closed, buildings were run down. So it’s wonderful to see a city putting its money where its cultural life is; week by week I see more tourists visiting.”

Some things have gone, like the gentlemen’s outfitters with their glass-fronted cabinets and hovering assistants. But independent businesses prevail. “There are very few chains and lots of small music venues and shops. It’s all part of the individualistic Liverpool spirit.” Café Tabac on Bold Street, opened in 1974, exudes retro cool. The vegetarian Egg Café, a time-warp of red and purple walls, is packed with pensioners and students. We flit through the Georgian-built Bluecoat, once a charitable school, now an airy gallery, café and music studio. Newton’s tour also takes in untouched pubs such as Ye Hole in ye Wall or the tiny Globe, where we’re invited to linger. “Liverpool’s like that,” says Newton. “It’s an incredibly friendly place.”

Ticket to ride: a sculpture of the Beatles at Liverpool Docks.
A sculpture of the Beatles at Liverpool Docks. Photograph: Alamy

As Liverpudlians prospered they swapped dockside living for the cleaner air of the town’s upper reaches. The next day we stroll through Ropewalks, its warehouses converted into lively cafés and sleek architects’ offices, to the Georgian quarter. Newton’s favourite is Percy Street, derelict in the 1970s (the Toxteth riots happened nearby) now a “Little Edinburgh” of restored stone townhouses. William Gladstone lived on Rodney Street – Liverpool’s Harley Street – as did the Irish photographer Edward Chambré Hardman, famous for his atmospheric shots of the Mersey Tunnel. The Hardmans’ House is now a museum with his clawfoot bath for processing in the cellar, and a studio filled with props: pillars for sedate society portraits, leopard skins for racier poses.

All this went on in the shadow of Giles Gilbert Scott’s cathedral on St James’s Mount. Work started in 1904 and it took 74 years to build the longest cathedral in Britain. “The less enthusiastic call it Odeon Gothic,” Newton whispers as we enter the cavernous interior, enlivened by the bright Craigie Aitchison painting in a chapel. Call me shallow but I prefer Frederick Gibberd’s 1960s “Catholic Cathedral”, a perky wigwam of a building where light floods through John Piper windows and the side chapels feel like contemporary art galleries.

Our penultimate stop is Henry Bohn Books, a friendly secondhand book shop (opposite the Walker Art Gallery) where locals converge to chat about art, politics and football. I pick up a copy of Pevsner’s guide to Liverpool which devotes a chapter to our final destination. St George’s Hall is a sprawling, 19th-century complex of law courts and concert halls replete with columns, marble and early air-conditioning system. As we leave, Newton points to doors emblazoned with the letters SPQL: the Senate and People of Liverpool. A boastful spin on the SPQR badge of ancient Rome, here’s Scouse chutzpah at its most brazen – and wonderful.

Where to eat

Bunch, a cosy wine bar with tasting rooms specialising in natural wines (bottles from £10). Salt House Bacaro, bustling and central, generous small plates with a decent wine list (starters from £3.95). Hanover Street Social is a lively, centrally located restaurant with brasserie-style food (starters from £5.95). Set in a converted townhouse, Wreckfish’s robust dishes include cauliflower risotto or pork osso bucco, (starters from £6). For tea, Cuthbert’s is a cheerful tearoom serving classics like lemon drizzle and red velvet cakes. Cow & Co is a two-floor design shop and cafe in a Scandi-style setting.

Where to stay

Hope Street Hotel (doubles from £103) is central, comfortable and near the Philharmonic Hall, theatres and museums. Aloft Liverpool (doubles from £71) is a modern, well-equipped central hotel in a Grade II-listed building. The Nadler’s (doubles from £53) white walls and exposed brickwork set the tone for this central, well-priced hotel (there is no restaurant). The Richmond (doubles from £75), a 10-minute walk from the main sites, has both rooms and apartments with a brasserie and restaurant.

What to see

The Museum of Liverpool is an intriguing, presented introduction to the city’s history with temporary exhibitions of local culture (Double Fantasy: John & Yoko is on until 22 April 2019). The Walker Art Gallery has modern British gems, damask-lined rooms of Old Masters and artworks dating back to the 13th century. At the World Museum, dip in to the Planetarium, Egyptian Gallery or bug house at the city’s oldest museum. From tobacco to the Titanic, unravel the city’s seafaring story at the Merseyside Maritime Museum and International Slavery Museum, both set near the Albert Docks. The Hardmans’ House is where society photographer Edward Chambre Hardman lived and worked until the 1950s. The Bluecoat is an inviting gallery and craft shop plus cafe set in a Georgian charitable school. Williamson Tunnels is a fascinating underground network of tunnels created by eccentric philanthropist Joseph Williamson.

Way to go

For more information, go to Visit Liverpool. Magnificent Liverpool has group tours that start at £6pp; tailored tours for groups or individuals can also be arranged and start from £30. The Titanic has rooms from £105. Heritage is an award-winning restaurant with small plates from £6.95; at Röski, chef Anton Piotrowski’s set menu starts at £45

Serena Fokschaner

The GuardianTramp

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