Above us only sky’ is a line from the John Lennon song Imagine, and as you walk into the arrivals hall of the Liverpool John Lennon Airport, you might just feel as if you’re treading on holy ground.
The legacy of The Beatles is sacrosanct, you understand, and it weighs heavy around the city’s collective neck. Ireland is to blame, of course, for if it wasn’t for the Famine in the mid-1800s – and its accompanying mass immigration to the UK and far beyond – you can be certain that Liverpool would be a different place with a different accent.
The similarities between Liverpool and Ireland are uncanny. In Paul Du Noyer’s book, Liverpool: Wondrous Place, he writes: “The Irish shaped many facets of Scouse character – a taste for defiance and a subversive way with verbal ingenuity among them – but their greatest contribution was the view of music as one of life’s necessities.”
Indeed, Liverpool skips to the same beat as Ireland does: there’s a compulsion to perform and to engage; the wit might be dry here, but it’s always on tap.
Religion also plays a part; as the thousands of Irish famine victims huddled into Liverpool and its suburbs to work on the docks, tunnels and railways, so Catholic churches were built. In the 1840s, Liverpool already had a large Catholic population, and as the decades passed by, the Irish elements of the city – by now stitched into the fabric of the place – altered the local politics to the extent that politicians changed religion in order to grab the Catholic vote.
On the weekend I visited the city, as a Blue Badge guide was showing me around a suburb, our conversation regarding the significant strides in the development of the city was interrupted by an Orange Order parade.
Affecting surprise, my guide (Catholic, as it turned out) informed me that such a show of faith wasn’t unusual. Happily, sectarianism is not an issue, but the magnanimity shown towards what would quite possibly in Ulster be a contentious display proved that Liverpool is as Liverpool does: relax, don’t worry about it, people are people and let them get on with it.
Another example of Liverpool’s lassez faire attitude came with an anecdote from the same Blue Badge guide. On duty some time back at one of the Tourist Information Centres, a man asked her where precisely was Liverpool’s gay quarter.
Taken aback more by the question than by the nature of the question, the guide informed the man that there was no gay quarter in the city because “we don’t put people in boxes in Liverpool – we’re all equal here, luv”. Now we’ve established that Liverpool is as egalitarian as they come, what do you do, what do you see and where do you go?
Firstly, like most major UK cities (the exception being London, of course), Liverpool is walkable. North John Street, Victoria Street, Ranelagh Street and St John’s Lane surround its core pedestrian centre. Within and edging onto these streets are the main shopping areas that host all the usual High Street stores with all the usual sales. Shopping, then, isn’t a problem (spending money might be, but you can worry about that on your return flight).
There isn’t a problem with the eating, drinking and nightlife departments, either. Restaurants range from award-winning (Viva Brazil, 36 Castle Street; vivabrazilrestaurants.com) and downhome (Salt House Tapas, 1 Hanover Street; salthousetapas.co.uk) to funky (Puschka, 16 Rodney Street; puschka.co.uk) and contemporary (London Carriage Works, 40 Hope Street; thelondoncarriageworks.co.uk).
Bars and nightclubs can be separated into two obvious areas: traditional and contemporary. The traditional lends itself to pubs such as The Grapes (Mathew Street), a grimy but great venue steeped in Beatles lore. The contemporary venues that are worth visiting are too numerous to list, but I reckon the best area for a small cluster of them is in Albert Dock.
By day, Albert Dock is a family-oriented visitor attraction with the likes of The Beatles Story and Tate Liverpool tending to most ages and cultural tastes. By night, Albert Dock hums. Actually, make that throbs. Bars such as Blue Bar (bluebarliverpool.co.uk) and The Pumphouse (no website) are the kind of places that add a few jolts to your system.
If you want something of a more cultural experience, then just look around you at some of the best architecture the UK has to offer. Unlike other comparable cities (Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle), Liverpool has inherited virtually nothing from its medieval past. It is, effectively, a modern city, from the 18th century onwards. Because of its history as a city driven by industry and commerce, older buildings were often bulldozed. What is here, now though, is sublime, grand and cautiously imposing.
It’s little surprise, then, that Liverpool was recently given UNESCO world heritage site status.
You can tell a city’s rising importance in commercial terms by the hotels it has; Radisson, Crowne Plaza, Hilton, Malmaison and Marriott already have a presence (and there are numerous mid-to-low budget accommodation options, too).
Yes, there will always be niggling items of bureaucracy, city planning and in some quarters a lack of aspiration to sort out – the city is still fighting back from the effects of unemployment, for example – but there’s little doubt that international recognition of Liverpool’s cultural and touristic importance has widened its appeal to visitors from all over the world.
Optimism is all over the place, and under-achievement is fast disappearing. Above us only sky? Below us the world at our feet, more like. You haven’t paid a visit to Liverpool yet? Perhaps it’s time you did.