The Mersey – the river at the heart of Liverpool history


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The Independent Culture

In a 1976 play Alan Bleasdale had a scene in which a gang of Liverpool dockers accidentally let a crate of tinned food fall from a crane and into the river. "Oh well, at least there's salmon back in the Mersey," someone says.

With his landmark 1980s television drama Boys from the Blackstuff, Bleasdale produced a hymn to the underprivileged and a scathing critique of Thatcher's Britain. But no single line he wrote then was more improbably prophetic than that joke from Down the Dock Road. Salmon really is back in the Mersey, as an amazed angler has just discovered while fishing in Warrington. And as Bleasdale himself pointed out last week, "That's quite a long way upriver. It's not as if it turned back at New Brighton".

If the Mersey really is to be seen as a new-found model of sparkling cleanliness, then it amounts to nothing less than yet another reinvention of a river with a unique legacy of industry, glamour, and deprivation. Bleasdale, for one, is delighted. "When Michael Heseltine came here after the Toxteth riots and we had the rejuvenation of the docks, I thought it was just wallpapering - a sop." But 20 years on, and Bleasdale thinks that the waterfront redevelopment really works. "It's more than just posh housing. It's opened the river up to people and brought it back to life."

Of course there is no getting away from the fact that the Mersey is cleaner because - industrially speaking - it's emasculated. Little other than the container depots at Seaforth is a reminder of an age when trading ships arrived with exotic bounty from the Americas and Cunard's liners sailed resplendently in and out. But Bleasdale says a Liverpudlian generation has grown up less inclined to look back than to see the Mersey as the source of leisure which has always been an important part of its function.

On the ferry last week from Pierhead on the Liverpool side to Birkenhead on the Wirral side was 80-year-old James Dixon, born locally and with memories that stretched back to the 1920s, and of crossing the Mersey to the attractions of New Brighton. "It was a great day out," he said. "You should have seen the people." For those arriving from the Wirral side today, this mighty channel of water, overlooked by the civic splendour of the Liver Building, really does evoke something of the New York of the early 1900s.

For the Liverpool-born writer Stan Hey, ferry rides to the Wirral were an indelible part of his 1950s childhood. "I guess it was the equivalent of people from Manhattan taking the ferry to Coney Island. There has always been a romance about the Mersey. I know of three lads who proposed to their girlfriends on the ferry." Then there was the novelty act bordering on freak show that was part of ferry legend: a one-legged man who sought to entertain arriving passengers by diving off the New Brighton pier before his partner went round with the hat.

Nobody has the Mersey in their blood quite like the singer Gerry Marsden, whose 1964 hit "Ferry, Cross the Mersey" is a paean to the city he grew up in that ranks with the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”. At 59, and still touring with his band the Pacemakers, he remains as much in love with the river as ever.

"We were making a feature film, and it needed a title song," Marsden recalled from his home on the Wirral last week. "It was going to be our Hard Day's Night, and 'Ferry Cross the Mersey' had already been decided upon. So I had to write to those words. It might easily have been something rock'n'roll, but I went down to the docks and watched the ships come in. They came in so beautifully slowly, and I knew then that it had to be a ballad."

Marsden points out that it isn't, as is sometimes thought, “Ferry Across the Mersey”, but "Ferry, Cross the Mersey" - an exhortation to come to Liverpool and find friends in "the land I love". One verse goes:

People around every corner

They seem to smile and say

We don't care what your name is boy

We'll never turn you away

For that reason, Marsden thinks his song is far from an elegy to a lost world. "It's really about the people of Liverpool. And they haven't changed."

Marsden said he didn't use the ferry much these days. "I've got this thing called a car," he explained. "Life is so fast now that if I have to go into town, I jump in it and use the Mersey Tunnel." Marsden does love fishing, though. Maybe those salmon will lure him back.