Outings: Tripping to the Mersey beat

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The Independent Online
A simple, 50-minute boat journey sums up the spirit of Liverpool and its complex history.

Nicola Swanborough on a journey across the Mersey.

Rivers have been immortalised in songs the world over - "Old Man River", "Oh Shenandoah", "Old Father Thames". But only the Mersey flows pure pop down to the Irish Sea, a biting, northern wind echoing to the strains of Gerry and the Pacemakers.

"Ferry 'cross the Mersey" has become the undisputed signature tune of the river Mersey - and its ferries make no apologies for belting it out full volume as they cross the murky waters.

Like it or loathe it, you can't avoid a moment of unashamed sentimentality: the engines slow as the boats approach Liverpool's Pier Head; the muffled overhead commentary crackles to a full stop; and Gerry and the boys give it their all.

In fact, Mersey Ferries only really allow you a quick burst of yesterday. Liverpool's famous waterfront has more to offer than mere nostalgia, although as the Liver Buildings dominate the skyline it's hard to rid your mind of the indomitable black-and-white images that the Mersey inspires: four boys with heavy fringes and dark suits singing "Love Me Do"; Cilia Black, pre-Blind Date, wondering "What's it all about Alfie?"; and Nerys Hughes and Polly James, all lipstick and Mary Quant, dancin' if yer askin'.

The Mersey is entwined with the era of TV/pop culture that flower-powered in the Sixties, but its history predates much of what the latter half of the 20th century has to offer. The Mersey Ferries is the oldest ferry service in Europe, having been started in the early 12th century by a group of monks from a Benedictine priory in Birkenhead.

The ferries have long since stopped operating purely as a commuter service. Relaunched as a tourist attraction in 1990, they now offer a 50-minute cruise with a stop-off option at any of the three terminals at Birkenhead, Wallasey or Liverpool.

Attractions include the tramsheds and priory at Woodside, Birkenhead, the hands-on aquarium at Seacombe Wallasey, and the Beatles Story and Museum of Liverpool Life in Albert Dock. It's more than a day's cruising to do the lot.

But to experience the real mood of the Mersey you have to stand on the top deck of the ferry, fighting the seagulls for your custard tart, sweeping your hair from the wrong side of your head and preparing to bellow with the boys "So ferry 'cross the Mersey".

The visitors

A-level student Helen Maffin from Wallasey took her cousins, Sam, six, and Craig Mooney, 10.

Helen: It would be easy for me to take the Mersey for granted. Our road leads straight down to the river, and you can see the Liver Buildings from our upstairs windows. But it's still something else to be on the top deck of the ferry sailing down the Mersey. You feel much more a part of it.

The river can get choppy, and you get some really strong winds coming in from the Irish Sea. But we were lucky; it was a brilliant day when we went.

We joined the ferry at Seacombe, where there's a new Pirate's Paradise adventure play area. I had a hard job getting the boys out of there; in fact we only just made the boat in time. We stayed on the ferry for the full cruise, although a lot of people seem to break their journey at one or other of the terminals. Being local we have the opportunity to visit the different attractions whenever we choose, so we opted to make the most of the boat trip.

You can buy refreshments on the ferry, so we were well catered for and well entertained looking at the waterfront views. I'm not a boaty person; I usually cycle along the Mersey, but the 50-minute cruise is really great, and just long enough. The boys loved rushing round the boat and watching the seagulls; they were very interested in the docks, too. It gives you a good taste of Liverpool and the Wirral and is a good starting- point to explore the waterfront. I'd really recommend that visitors go to the tramsheds at Birkenhead.

Craig: It was really, really good on the ferry. When we set off for the boat it was foggy but by the time we boarded it was brilliant sunshine and we had a great view. My favourite bit was the customs office in Liverpool: it's a lovely blue-and-cream building like a castle. There were lots of birds to look at, too - one of them landed on the boat.

We spent a lot of time exploring the boat and we got something to eat at the lunch bar. The Pirate's Paradise play area which we visited at Seacombe before going on the boat was good fun. There were lots of ropes to climb and a bouncy castle. I'd love to go again, especially with my friends.

Sam: There's lots to see from the top deck of the ferry, but it's quite blowy. We saw the captain's room but not the captain, and we saw the Isle of Man boat. The water looked quite inviting. I saw a fisherman catch an old boot and a crab but no fish, but he didn't look disappointed.

The deal

Location: Mersey Ferries (0151 630 1030) can be joined at the Pier Head, Liverpool; Seacombe Terminal, Wallasey; or Woodside Terminal, Birkenhead.

Opening times: Cruises sail hourly, seven days a week, all the year around, beginning at 10am, but it is best to check sailing times before departing.

Price: 50-minute Heritage cruise, adult return pounds 3.20, child (5-15 years) return pounds 1.65, family (two adults and up to three children) pounds 8.25, concessions pounds 2.25. Pirate's Paradise play area, child pounds 1.

Other attractions: Seacombe aquarium, adult pounds 1.45, child (3-15) 80p, family pounds 4. Joint aquarium and cruise tickets also available.

Pit stop

When you've finished cruising on the Mersey, take at look at the river from the Tate Gallery at Albert Dock - and head for the coffee shop (0151 709 0122) even if you don't have time to do the exhibitions justice. The savoury dishes here are all served with imaginative salads that sometimes use fresh herbs from the owner's garden. There are also filled rolls, baguettes and ciabatta from pounds 2.25. The likes of lemon cake (pounds 1.25) and chocolate almond cake (pounds 1.30) come from local bakeries. Facilities for children include a high-chair and changing area in the Ladies. Open 10am- 5.30pm.

From the Egon Ronay guide `And Children Come Too' (Bookman, pounds 9.99)