This is probably a stupid question,” I said to our tour guide, “But what did they think of Margaret Thatcher here?”
He looked at me politely.
“Oh, they hate her up here,” he said.
I’m in Liverpool and we are standing in the Albert Dock, an area that has become the very emblem of this great city’s cycle of rise and fall. Once a hive of industrial activity, this part of Merseyside became a waste-ground in the seventies and eighties. Like so many former industrial centres in Britain and Ireland it has been regenerated and is alive once more.
Liverpool is proud again and rightfully so. For such a small city it has given the world so much, excelling in everything from inventions, Frank Hornby, to politics, William Gladstone, to football and of course music.
Liverpool is home to The Beatles and boy does it let you know. The Fab Four are everywhere and while cynics could accuse the city of overkill, if you’re a fan, you’ll love it. The Beatles Museum, located in the aforementioned docks, takes you on the band’s eight-year journey from the Cavern to their conquest of the globe.
For those who are familiar with Beatles Anthology box sets and biographies there won’t be too much that’s new in terms of the band’s story and people who suffer from claustrophobia won’t like some of the smaller rooms but overall it’s worth the (hefty enough) £14.95 entrance fee to see handwritten lyrics, tailored suits and the instruments that some of the greatest songs of all time were written on.
If you’re keen to continue on the Beatles theme you can take a Magical Mystery Tour from a kiosk near the museum (£16.95) which will bring you to the Fab Four’s childhood homes and sites such as Penny Lane and Strawberry Field (not Fields as in the song title). These areas are quite a distance from the city centre so the tour is probably your best bet in terms of value and lack of stress.
For those who want to stay in the Docks, there is plenty to see and do. The Tate Liverpool is a must for art lovers; a nicely proportioned museum with modern works by international artists such as Modigliani, Cezanne, Picasso and Jasper Johns along with their British contemporaries.
For those who want to find out more about local history, the nearby Civic and Maritime museums might be worth a stop. The dining room at the top of the latter offers wonderful views over the Mersey and surrounding areas and while the dining-room itself is fairly plain (it caters for large families) the food — I had battered fish and chips — was more than adequate and quite reasonably priced for an area dedicated principally to tourists.
Those who are keen to get to the top of the city will want to check out the omnipresent Radio City Tower — a former revolving restaurant that now houses a popular local station. The tower sits right in the heart of the somewhat robotically named Liverpool One.
This is the main shopping area and looks quite similar to Dublin’s Henry Street. One thing of note is Everton Football Club’s shop, humorously and purposely named Everton 2. The joke being that when punters call the shop they are greeted with a standard: “Afternoon, Everton 2, Liverpool 1.”
The city’s two biggest clubs are the other constant in the city’s fabric. On our taxi rides and tours we met more Reds than Blues. Liverpool are by far the more successful of the two clubs and for that reason their stadium, Anfield, has been developed as a tourist attraction. The club is an integral part of the city’s social fabric, and while the club’s triumphs under Shankly, Paisley and others are rightly honoured, the tragedy of Hillsborough is remembered in almost equal measure.
Even for people who are not fans of either the club or indeed football, the tour offers a fascinating insight into what makes the city tick and is well worth the hour or so it takes to get around.
Funeral Masses for many of the 96 fans who died at Hillsborough on that fateful day in 1989 were held in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral; the fifth largest in the world and also one of the tallest. The cathedral’s impressive exterior is matched by the sense of vast openness inside.
Decoratively the interior is relatively spartan; beautiful stained-glass windows merely suggest a dash of colour. When Liverpool was made European Capital of Culture in 2008 the windows were joined by Tracey Emin’s For You — a pink neon sign that reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me”.
Between the Anglican Cathedral and its Catholic equivalent, the monstrous “Paddy’s Wigwam”, lies the Georgian Quarter. This is perhaps the most genuine and beautiful part of the city. It was here that John Lennon spent his few short months at the still active Liverpool College of Art and many of the streets around the area have changed little since that time.
Hope Street is the heart of this neighbourhood and is home to the world famous and recently revamped Everyman Theatre and the Philharmonic Hall. Of equal fame is the Philharmonic pub and restaurant whose ornate decor has seen parts of it, specifically the men’s toilets, become a national heritage site.
This is a very pleasant and relaxing space more reminiscent of a tea room than a pub and the menu is fairly comprehensive too.
In fact fans of public houses have plenty of quality to choose from in Liverpool (that’s quite a compliment from a Dubliner).
Just off Hope Street, we popped into one of Lennon’s former haunts, Ye Cracke (£1.65 for a half), where we were greeted by a half-Irish half-Egyptian landlady named Patricia who gave us a quick run-down of her life story as she pulled us half a pint of ale.
“You’ve found out more about her in the last two minutes than I have in 10 years coming here,” said an elderly gent at the bar. He didn’t stop there.
“You see that room there,” he said pointing at a snug. “You see it has that sign over it saying ‘War Office’. This pub has been here for years and back when the Boer war was happening there was this group of people who used come in and talk non-stop about the bloody war. Eventually people got pissed off with them and told them to bugger off into that room there and talk about the war. It’s been the ‘War Office’ ever since.”
Liverpool is a chatty city and is less standoffish than other parts of England. People are not afraid to talk and give their opinion here. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Having left the Ye Cracke we strolled down leafy Mount Pleasant Street. Making our way back into the centre, we walked past Brian Epstein’s birthplace and the registry office where John and Cynthia Lennon were so hurriedly married. As the sun went down and the night owls started to come out from under their shells, a lone saxophonist played the melody of UB40’s Ivory Madonna.
UB40 in a city that hated Thatcher. Defiant Liverpool is definitely a place to see.
Aer Lingus recently began operating 15 flights per week between Dublin and Liverpool. Liverpool Airport is small and extremely efficient. We were through in less than 20 minutes. Fares from Dublin to Liverpool start from €19.99 one-way. www.aerlingus.com
We stayed in the recently revamped Hilton on Dale Street. At the time of our visit, the promising-looking pool and gym had yet to be opened and the staff were still finding their feet. What they didn’t have in terms of working knowledge they more than made up for in friendliness and courtesy.
The rooms (starting at €149) were very comfortable. The breakfast is an all-you-can-eat affair and sets you up for the day. In terms of location you couldn’t really be more central with The Cavern, Albert Dock and Liverpool One a short stroll away.
The opportunity to chat to Scousers and the best place to do that is in one of the many great boozers here. As well as Ye Cracke, The Ship and Mitre (across from The Walker Museum), Thomas Rigby’s, near the Liver Building are worth having a half in. The Cavern is also a must but just so you can say you were there.
Bistro Jacques on Hardiman Street in the Georgian Quarter does excellent French cuisine in a clean bistro style setting. (Three course lunch €10.50, pre-theatre €12.90 until 7pm).