Liverpool Capital of Culture
“What’s so special about Liverpool?” As a boy, with it being my hometown, I used to conclude, “Well, quite simply, a lot”. Unfortunately not many outside the city would have agreed. It was a well-kept secret. But things have changed. Now everyone is in on the secret. It’s a unique place.
In fact, it is so unique that it in July 2004 it was granted World Heritage status and has been designated the 2008 European Capital of Culture. Liverpool is now the most “happening” city in the UK. Its economy is growing at ten times the national average, and tourism is booming, with a new top-range hotel seemingly appearing on the scene every month. Liverpool now ranks with Edinburgh and Bath as the only UK cities to acquire World Heritage status.
World Heritage Sites are deemed to be places of “outstanding universal value”. Liverpool won the heritage award because of its world-famous buildings, historic docks and cultural quarter, which houses the finest collection of civic buildings in the UK. The award was also based on Liverpool as a maritime mercantile city and reflected the city’s significance as a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence.
I recently returned to my home city and my first stop was at the Maritime Museum, housed in a former bonded warehouse, and part of the historic Albert Dock on the banks of the River Mersey. It tells the story of one of the world’s greatest ports and the people who used it, and its collections reflect the international importance of Liverpool as a gateway to the world, including the city’s bloody role in the transatlantic slave trade and then later, emigration.
The Albert Dock near the city centre is a brilliant architectural triumph. Opened in 1846, it soon became home to precious cargoes from all over the world. Today redevelopment, costing in excess of 100 million pounds, has transformed it into one of Britain’s busiest and most cosmopolitan centres and a top heritage attraction. The 19th century warehouse buildings have been converted into an award winning attraction, housing cafe bars, restaurants, shops, the Beatles Story, the Maritime Museum, Museum of Liverpool Life, Tate Liverpool and top end hotels.
On leaving the Albert Dock, I headed toward the city centre and had almost forgot just how stunning the city’s architecture really is. Office blocks and impressive ornate Victorian buildings rose from the banks of the River Mersey, blanketed in mist, and resonated to the sound of seagulls and appeared truly haunting. A triumvirate of must-see magnificent early 20th century buildings, constructed to demonstrate the city’s importance and wealth, dominate the Pier Head, the focal point of the waterfront. The Port of Liverpool Building always exudes an air of supremacy with its St Paul’s-like dome and the Italian palazzo-style Cunard Building sits next to it, adjacent to the iconic Royal Liver Building, the city’s crowning glory. It is not hard to imagine why, on first seeing the city, most visitors would be almost overwhelmed by the Corinthium columns and porticos of the many imperious buildings, designed to mirror French Renaissance styles or classic European palaces.
Eventually I headed away from the river, toward the edge of the centre and soon found myself surrounded by a host of elegant and imposing Georgian terraces. The city has more Georgian buildings anywhere else in the country, outdoing even Bath. Rising up from the terraces is the enormous monolithic red sandstone neo-Gothic Anglican Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Britain and the fifth largest in the world. From the top of its tower it is possible to pick out many of the city’s gems, including the majestic St. George’s Hall, possibly the finest neo-classical building in Europe. Completed in 1854, its interior is arranged around a central axis, combining the scale of a Roman bath with the delicacy of a Greek temple.
Beneath Liverpool’s architectural facade however, beats the city’s heart. The Capital of Culture accolade was awarded not just because of the mercantile past, but because Liverpool remains a thriving cultural centre. During my visit to Walker Art Gallery, the national gallery of the North, a visitor proudly informed me that it houses one of the most comprehensive collection of art outside of London. Visual treats include Rossetti’s Dante’s Dream, Millais’ Lorenzo & Isabella and Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience. Other classic Victoriana include Lord Leighton’s Perseus & Andromeda and WF Yeames’ And When Did You last See Your Father? The gallery also has an important collection of Italian, Flemish and Impressionist artworks. As if to underline its cultural role, Liverpool has more museums and art galleries than any other UK city outside London, and even hosts the Tate Liverpool, which is the home of the national collection of modern art in the north of England and the largest gallery of modern art outside London.
Culture is more than galleries and museums however. It’s a living thing. Out of all Britain’s provincial cities, Liverpool is generally recognised as possessing the strongest sense of self-identity, reflected in the people’s down to earth attitude and the many achievements and events it gives rise to. The city is in the Guinness Book of Records for being the Capital of Pop because more artists with a Liverpool origin have had a number one hit, than from any other location in the world. It seems quite natural therefore that the annual three-day Mathew Street Music Festival in August is the biggest free city centre music festival in Europe, and one of the most prestigious. It takes place in over 50 city centre venues and on five large outdoor stages, which cater for an audience of over 100,000 people. The world famous Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Mathew Street Festival contribute to make Liverpool Britain’s number one music city.
There are numerous events taking place throughout the year, including the Festival of Comedy, and Liverpool’s own version of mid-summer madness takes place in July when a series of concerts are staged at Kings Dock. Artists like Sir Elton John, Paul Simon and Sir Paul McCartney have appeared at the spectacular Big Top venue at the water front.
In the birthplace of The Beatles, you would not expect their music to be too far away. And in August it’s everywhere as the city hosts International Beatle Week. For dance music lovers, Creamfields, UK’s No.1 dance festival, is a must and takes place in the same month, and there is also the International Street Festival, showcasing more street theatre than you can imagine.
Liverpool’s 24th Mersey River Festival in 2004 broke attendance records, with more than 150 vessels taking part, alongside 100 plus events. The four-day jamboree brought in more than a quarter of a million visitors to the area. The river is brought to life and makes the city a fabulously vibrant place to be. The festival is hugely popular throughout the UK and internationally.
My jaunt around the city centre was almost complete but one more port of call beckoned. As you would expect from such a city, there are restaurants serving food from around the world and pubs galore, from the modern theme bar to those offering old world charm soaked in a seafaring past. But I chose to rest my legs in Liverpool’s famous Philharmonic pub, indeed it is one of the most famous watering holes in Britain. Inside it’s all mosaic floors and Victorian tiles in rich shades of green, rust and claret. From the chandeliers to cut glass decanters, and from the opulence of the mosaic floors to the burnished copper engravings set into the bar-front, the whole place is a monument to perfection. It’s a tourist attraction in itself.
Liverpool’s treasure trove of events and sites have been kept a fairly well kept secret until recently. However, in the wake of it gaining World Heritage and Capital of Culture status, the whole world is now in on the secret. So what’s so special about Liverpool? – Almost everything. And what’s on offer? – Nearly anything you like.
The writer is the author of the book Chasing Rainbows in Chennai.