Liverpool: The quality of Mersey
As Liverpool continues to celebrates its status as the Capital of Culture, Simon Calder discovers the remarkable creativity which attracts artists and audiences from far and wide
Saturday 16 August 2008
Liverpool is on the way to nowhere – and everywhere. In the 18th and 19th century, its location on the curve of the Mersey Estuary, protected by the Wirral peninsula from the worst excesses of the Irish Sea gave it supremacy in people-moving: first with the slave trade, which brought enormous wealth to the city, and later with transatlantic migration. Millions of northern Europeans passed through the port en route to the Americas. Although the days have long gone when a one-way ticket to New York cost £4 in steerage, the Mersey city retains a deep diversity.
In 2008 the world is returning, to celebrate Liverpool's year in the sun as European Capital of Culture. The honour – shared with another northern port, Stavanger in Norway – reflects the city's remarkable creativity. It is attracting artists and audiences from far and wide. Meanwhile Liverpool's most enduring cultural export, The Beatles, continues to import fans in their thousands.
The main rail arrival point is Lime Street station, which connects with the Merseyrail underground network around the city and across to the Wirral. Most places of interest, though, are within the relatively compact Liverpool 1 central area. If you arrive by air, Liverpool John Lennon airport is connected with the city by the Airlink500 bus.
The tourist information centre is, for one year only, known as 08 Place. It well-signposted at 26-28 Whitechapel (0151 233 2008; www.liverpool08.com), and opens 9am-6pm daily (Tuesdays from 10am; Sundays 11am-4pm).
Accommodation options are expanding all the time. One hot new property is the Hard Day's Night Hotel – a dramatic £20m conversion from 19th-century marble columned, Grade II-listed office building to 21st-century celebration of The Beatles. The four-star on the corner of Mathew Street and North John Street (0151 236 1964; www.harddaysnighthotel.com) has two penthouse suites – the Lennon Suite features a white grand piano, while the McCartney Suite has a suit of armour (a reference to the bass guitarist's knighthood). Double rooms start at £140, room only.
Liverpool has a growing number of boutique hotels, such as 62 Castle Street and the Malmaison, but the original was created in 1860 – or at least that is the date of the Venetian-style palazzo that now houses The Hope Street Hotel (0151 709 3000; www.hopestreethotel.co.uk). A double room costs £115 excluding breakfast on the Summertime Special promotion until the end of August.
The budget sector is increasingly well represented, with a well-located Express by Holiday Inn at the Albert Dock (0845 345 0000; www.ichotels.com) offering rooms for £70, excluding breakfast. Note that on nights when big sporting events are taking place availability can be very scarce and prices high. The same will apply in the next 10 days, as the city hosts the International Beatles Week Festival from 20-26 August
Ask the movie-makers: Liverpool is the most filmed city in the UK, outside London. Besides a wonderful collection of Georgian terraces, it has some superb Victorian architecture. A gratifying amount of the built heritage has survived the attentions of both bombers and planners. And, endlessly adaptable, Liverpool has reflected the changing tides of trade and industry by reinventing itself as one of the UK's most alluring destinations. Certainly, it has an improving range of big-hitter attractions – yet I always get an extra buzz from the place, a sense of the exotic that sets it apart from other cities.
Contrary to some views, the heart was not ripped out of Liverpool at about the same time as the Cavern Club was demolished. Although the place where The Beatles played nearly 300 times between 1961 and 1963 is no more, at the Albert Dock, there's a mock-up of the Cavern inside an attraction called The Beatles Story (0151 709 1963; www.beatlesstory.com) which takes you through the story of the Fab Five – as they were originally with Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best.
The past couple of years have seen much of the city centre uprooted to get Liverpool ready for its memorable year. Construction work has subsided; the centre is far more pedestrian-friendly; and, if you cannot bear to spend a weekend without spending, a new generation of shopping opportunities have been unveiled this summer – many of them within the dramatic Liverpool ONE complex.
Every successful "world city" has a hub around which tourists swirl, and for Liverpool it is the splendid Albert Dock complex (0151 708 7334; www.albertdock.com). The city's waterfront was awarded Unesco World Heritage status four years ago.
You can easily spend an engrossing day taking in the museums and galleries that now occupy the warehouses, not to mention the odd bar and restaurant. To get an overview, make the most of the current exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum (0151 478 4499; www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk; 10am-5pm daily; free). In "Magical History Tour – The Story of Liverpool", a time-travelling taxi driver guides you through the city's evolution. The exhibition runs until 27 September.
On the third floor of the building, the International Slavery Museum (same phone, website and opening hours; also free) makes no bones about the source of much of Liverpool's wealth. It begins with a glittering array of pre-Columbian gold jewellery, showing the achievements of the Americas before colonialism, but marches briskly on to the brutal business of slavery. Forced labour was an expensive resource. Slaves were bought along the coast of West Africa, sold by tribal chiefs in exchange for goods shipped from Liverpool. By the time a boat had been packed with humanity along the coast of West Africa, and sailed across the Atlantic, the price of a healthy slave matched a "gentleman's salary" for the year.
Despite strong opposition from Liverpool Corporation, the slave trade was finally outlawed and freedom finally granted in British colonies in 1838. Two years later Samuel Cunard hit upon the idea of transporting passengers voluntarily to the New World. The museum's mission: "Setting the truth free".
The great draw this summer at the Tate Liverpool (0151 702 7400; www.tate.org.uk) has been the Klimt Exhibition, showcasing the Austrian artist for the first time in the UK. You have the rest of the month to get along to the exhibition – but even after that the finest collection of modern art in the North is well worth a visit, not least for an excellent rendition of The Kiss by Rodin. Also essential on the cultural agenda is the city's fine Walker Art Gallery (0151 478 4199; www.walkerartgallery. org.uk), on William Brown Street (see panel, right) close to Lime Street station. Until 2 November it features Ben Johnson's mega-portrait of the city; open 10am-5pm daily, admission free.
William Brown deserved the street that takes his name; the 19th-century MP provided the land on which the Walker (referred to as the National Gallery of the North) and the city's library now stand. William Brown St, next to St George's Hall, has become one of the city's cultural gems – though the William Brown College of Technology has been reborn as World Museum Liverpool.
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