Thursday, 22 March 2012

Southern Shores

The northern part of the Overhead Railway is now a path through derelict docks, grimy industrial plants and a sealed off Freeport.  The southern part couldn't be more different.  It's gentrification writ large.

When it was demolished, Canning station was between war-damaged docks and an area of waste ground that used to be the Customs House.  Today, it would stand beside the Liverpool One bus station, the police HQ and the Hilton Hotel.  That's quite a change in fortunes.  It'd have been a great place for an interchange (even better if Merseytram had passed through as well, grumble grumble) and a magnet for tourists.  Not sure if the Hilton's residents would have been so keen to stare out at a railway station, but that would be their problem.

There were cobbles under my feet as I crossed the entrance to the Albert Dock and followed the Salthouse Dock.  I wondered if these were originals, or if they were "heritage" additions to the street scene, something for the tourists.

A Japanese family looked confused at the corner of Liver Street.  They were looking at the iron statue of a horse, The Great Escape, in the process of finally being relocated after being moved away from Church Street a few years ago.  I wasn't sure what was befuddling them; the size of the statue, the representation, or its location.  They gathered around its base and stared up, like pilgrims; I half expected them to drop to their knees.

The Baltic Fleet was pumping out an incredibly noxious smell; no doubt a by-product of its brewing process.  I covered my nose and pressed on to Wapping.  The old goods yard is now a car park and industrial units; I made a mental note to investigate further on another day.  In the meantime I was distracted by the only remaining piece of the Overhead Railway still in place.

The cast iron pillars set into Wapping's dock wall are the remnants of the viaduct supports.  Their sheer bulk is impressive.  I can only imagine that they were afraid it they removed them here the wall would come away as well.  The posts rose a lot higher than that, obviously.  It's nice to know there's still a trace of the LOR in the city, like the memory of a kiss.

The bases are inscribed with the name of the foundry - Francis Morton & Co, Liverpool.  I idly wondered where you could get a huge lump of iron smelted on Merseyside these days.

Further south, the main road swings away, towards Toxteth, and the dock road becomes a smaller, less important highway.  There are old buildings still, on the left, being repurposed into industrial units and cafes and even recording studios, but on the right, it's dockside homes.  Brick blocks of waterside apartments, tall enough for you to not be able to see any water from the road, surrounded by neat grass verges.

At one point I passed a building which pretended to be a shopfitting centre, but which I actually think is a rehearsal space for serial killers:

The little cul-de-sacs to my right all had names like "The Anchorage" and "Navigation Wharf", which seemed utterly twee to me.  They were such generic names for somewhere with a bit of water close by - not Liverpool specific at all.  I ducked down one of them, ready to sneer at the low aspirational living, but I was genuinely pleased by what I found.  The homes round the marina will never win an architectural award; you could stick these same buildings out in suburban Heswall or Ormskirk without any changes being made.  But their position on the water made them more interesting, especially with a low sea fog rolling across the city in the distance.  The cars around me were Fords, Vauxhalls, Toyotas - good honest cars driven by middle class succeeders.  The homes here weren't special, but if you were a couple in your thirties, no kids, you had  city centre living with a bit of a view for a much lower price than in the West Tower.

There's a danger that people view Liverpool's regeneration successes only though its big projects.  Liverpool One's great, but the apartments at One Park West are only for the top earners.  Same for the Beetham Tower, or the pinnacles round the Princes Dock.  These apartment blocks - less fashionable, less showy, but still turning empty land into successful homes - were providing the backbone to the regeneration.  These were the ones allowing moneyed couples to find a safe, pleasant home within walking distance of shops and bars and theatres.

It threw the aborted plans for Brunswick Dock, further along Sefton Street, into focus.  As an outsider, I'd thought that the council's rejection of the 51 storey tower a few years ago was parochialism at its worst.  "If someone wants to build it", I thought, "let them!"  Walking this way made me realise how wrong it would have been.  It'd have been like putting an Apollo rocket in the middle of a car park; a massively over-engineered and designed project in a space that didn't need it.  As time goes on, yes, I can see the southern docks slowly increasing in mass and population - but the tower would have thrown it completely off balance.

Instead, the Brunswick Dock is the same as it ever was - old dock buildings repurposed into small industrial and office units.  It was coming up to lunchtime, so I popped into the large Delifonseca to get a bottle of water and maybe a little snack.  This was a stupid move for someone who's dieting.  I was used to the little store on Stanley Street; I hadn't realised what a cornucopia of delights were waiting for me in the Dockside branch.  I eventually left without buying anything, in case I cracked and gorged on a lemon meringue  chocolate bar.

I passed Brunswick Merseyrail station, built on a former goods yard of the same name, and trekked past the many car showrooms that take up this part of the city.  A large ugly gas holder rose up behind a Citroen showroom, incongruous next to the newest, shiny saloons.  Lunchtime meant that the office workers started wandering out of the dockside estates in search of coffee and food; the Subway seemed to be doing very well out of it.

Herculaneum Dock was the end of the line, at least for a while.  When the Overhead Railway was first built, this was where it terminated; a later extension veered away from the old station, so it was turned into a carriage storage area.

The extension is actually the most fascinating part of the old railway.  The land along the docks is flat and regular, as you'd expect, but right behind it is the high sandstone ridge of the Dingle.  If the line was going to go anywhere other than along the coast, it had to somehow get past this ridge.  The solution?  A tunnel.  An overhead railway that went underground - it's a delightful contradiction.

I turned left at Jack Jones House (why I am not a firebrand socialist, part XVIII: I thought it was strange the Unite union had named its HQ after a lounge singer) and into the car park of Greens Health club.  Up above me was the portal to the tunnel, now bricked up but still proudly showing the Overhead Railway's name and date.

I'd have got closer, but a sign in the car park had an unnerving effect on me:

And I'm not just talking about that awful font.

Eyeing the cliff face suspiciously, I headed back to the road.  I just had the former Dingle station to visit now.  I thought I'd have had to go almost all the way down to the Garden Festival Park before doubling back on myself, but I happened to spot a tiny "public footpath" sign, so I ducked down the side of a luxury development to follow it.  I was carefully segregated from the apartment blocks and their fountains by a heavy metal fence - walkers were strictly barred from stepping foot onto their hallowed ground.  It was a bit of a pleasing irony to then find myself confronted by a mural dedicated to the struggle of the working man:

It was painted by the artist Alan Murray, as part of the City of Culture celebrations and commemorates the Trade Union movement.  (Note the Overhead Railway at the top!)  I love the idea that the young professionals in the nearby flats are waking up between John Lewis sheets, opening their hand made curtains, and staring at a portrait of Yosser Hughes:

The path lead to the Herculaneum Steps, the old dock workers' route down from Dingle.  They were deeply grooved with the footsteps of the men, as though they were made of putty, not stone.  The only person I encountered on them wasn't a gnarly faced man of toil, but a young black guy dressed in lycra, jogging down the steps with his iPod on full blast.

I made a slight detour at the top of the steps.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that Bread was a load of shite.  It's a terrible, terrible programme, with thieving dole scum Scousers shouting at one another and conning "de bizzies", in between Carla Lane's trademark soliloquies about the loneliness of existence and vegan farming.  It still turns up on UK Gold, and I'll try and watch it just for the sights of 80s Liverpool, but the truly awful writing usually drives me away in a few minutes.  (Though I always had a soft spot for Billy Boswell).

Still, it was a regular feature of a Sunday night when I was growing up, so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit Elswick Street, where it was filmed.  It's changed since then - the street's been designated a "Home Zone", so there are tubs of plants and traffic calming measures.  And it seemed a lot shorter than it did onscreen.

I was trying to work out which of the houses was Ma Boswell's when a door flung open, and a woman in a dressing gown and pink pyjamas walked out (it was the middle of the day, remember).  She strolled across the street and let herself in at another house.  Perhaps it was a more realistic show than I thought.

I crossed the battle-scarred streets to head for Park Road.  It felt like a lull in the middle of a bombardment; there was hardly anyone about, but there was a strange tension in the air.  The abandoned buildings and spaces of empty land added to the feeling of a momentary pause in the war.  There were Sixties blocks interspersed with older terraces; a combination of bomb damage and slum clearance, I guessed.

I can't quite take Dingle seriously.  I mean, Toxteth as a place of urban blight and sadness, fine, but Dingle? That's not a real place name - it's a home for the faerie folk.  It's even worse when people call it The Dingle, like it's a woodland grotto.

So while I wasn't going to check out the local estate agencies for available lets in the area, I thought it was a pretty decent inner city district.  It had its problems, fine, but it wasn't frightening or intimidating.  It got better as I reached Park Road, with some nicely done new apartment blocks, and the 17th Century "Ancient Chapel of Toxteth".

Opposite the chapel, for many years, stood the terminus of the Overground Railway - Dingle station.  An island platform had been carved into the rock, with a crossover at the far end and a couple of sidings.  Passengers came down a ramp from the ticket office and were soon whisked off into the city.

Today, it's a car repair workshop.  The tunnel still exists underground, and is used by the owners, but on the surface all you get is this rather ugly red construction.

I know it's hard to make a garage look attractive, but really, couldn't they have tried just a little bit harder?

Walking back into town, I thought about the Overhead Railway, and its sad demise.  I never like to see any railway close.  But I couldn't see a place for it in today's Liverpool.  At the southern section, only Dingle has the kind of population to justify it, as seen by the hundreds of buses that run down Park Road (every three minutes!).  Along Sefton Street you might get a few more passengers but I couldn't see it being an effective alternative to the Merseyrail line alongside or, indeed, a car.

And the other side of the city centre?  There's nothing there.  Perhaps when (if) Liverpool Waters is built, there'd be a possible need for it, but a tram route would probably do just as well.  You just wouldn't build an elevated railway these days.  I thought that if it had survived beyond the fifties, the LOR probably would have been demolished anyway in the Seventies, when the city was on its knees.

The Liverpool Overhead Railway was a wonderful thing in its day, but this is the 21st Century.  It's gone, but not forgotten.


Robert said...

It had its problems, fine, but it wasn't frightening or intimidating.

Mm-hm. Go back after dark and see if you still agree.

Scott Willison said...

ERM.... no.