Liverpool Albert Dock and Three Graces Walking Tour

If you’re visiting a city and want to get the inside story on its history and attractions, who should you go to? A tour guide of course.

I know Liverpool well but I’m always interested in finding out more. That’s the reason why I went on a tour of The Albert Dock and the Three Graces. I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered many new facts.

For instance, I didn’t know that the Albert Dock is the largest complex of Grade 1 listed buildings in the UK, that it was a state-of-the-art building when first built in 1846. I knew already from a tour with historian Quentin Hughes that it was nearly demolished. That was in the 1970s when the Albert Dock was in a derelict state, the basins were silted up and the entire district was closed off. The proposal was to demolish the buildings, fill in the docks and replace them with a car park. Thankfully the Albert Dock was restored and is now Liverpool’s top tourist attraction. It is a unique place – inside the solid brick warehouses house restaurants, apartments, shops, the Tate Liverpool, the Beatles Experience and the Liverpool Maritime Museum, incorporating the Museum of Slavery. The Albert Dock is a must-see for all visitors to Liverpool and a regular haunt for those of us who live in or not far from the city.

There are many reminders of its past – the Dock Traffic Office with its Roman style portico – actually the pillars are hollow and made of cast iron. It was used as a studio for Granada Television. Round the corner there’s a curious ‘helter-skelter’ chute on the exterior of the building. I’d never even noticed it before. It was used to carry ice cubes from the upper floors to a cart where they would be transported to the homes of Liverpool’s wealthy families. The Pump House – now a restaurant – contained the hydraulic pumps used to open and close the lock gates. The Piermaster’s House has been furnished in the style of World War II, when Liverpool was a major target for bombing. You can imagine the Piermaster and his family listening to the wireless and then hearing the air raid siren echoing over the docks.

A few minutes walk away and we come to the three magnificent buildings which are the most famous symbol of Liverpool, often referred to as the ‘Three Graces’. They were built on the site of St George’s Dock. Around the turn of the 20th century it was filled in and two streets were extended across it – Brunswick Street and Water Street. dividing it into three rectangles. On each of these three sites, three buildings appeared: The Port of Liverpool building, the Liver Building and the Cunard Building, completed in 1907, 1911 and 1916, respectively.

The Port of Liverpool Building was designed by Sir Arnold Thornley and F.B. Hobbs and is magnificent inside and out. It was the headquarters of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board until 1994. Today the building is used by private companies. I was surprised to discover it is only Grade II* listed. It has many superb architectural features. The dome is similar to St Paul’s Cathedral and Belfast City Hall. Many people are not aware that it’s possible to go inside the lobby and admire the magnificent view up towards the inside of the dome. It is a building with ‘wow’ factor. The exterior made of Portland Stone.

It’s important to note that up until the 1960s the exteriors of all three buildings were blackened by air pollution. I will never forget visiting Liverpool in the late 1960s just after they were cleaned. The Port of Liverpool Building seemed to me like a gigantic wedding cake made of pure white icing sugar. Today, in bright, clear sunlight, the exterior for me has a ‘singing ringing’ effect. There are many parallels between architecture and music, but that’s another story!

Next door to it is the Cunard Building, which is also Grade II* Listed. This was once the terminal for wealthy passengers boarding transatlantic liners. They would complete their paperwork in the grand hall and make their way to the front lobby to await embarkation. Our tour guide painted a vivid picture of the hall, with its elegant interior and perhaps a string quartet playing tasteful music. Today that area is the British Music Experience, a permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of popular British Music. It’s not possible to go to the upper floors of the Cunard Building. This is a working office building, and surely one of the best addresses in Liverpool. The building was designed by William Edward Willink and Philip Coldwell Thicknesse, and was inspired by the Farnese Place in Rome. It was the headquarters of the Cunard Line until the late 1960s. Since 2015 it is owned by Liverpool City Council. The office of the Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson, is in the Cunard Building. One interesting fact: It is slightly wider at the rear and so has the shape of an uneven rectangle. Like the Port of Liverpool building it is faced in Portland Stone.

The Liver Building is the most famous building in Liverpool. It is made of granite and so the exterior colour is rather dull. But due to its unique design and the two clock towers at either end, topped with the world famous Liver birds, it has become a powerful symbol of Liverpool. Local people are very proud of the building, which can be seen from many vantage points in the city and across the Mersey. It is a building of superlatives. It was Europe’s first skyscraper. It was the tallest building in Europe from 1911 to 1932. The clock faces are bigger than those on the Elizabeth Tower of the Houses of Parliament – more commonly known as Big Ben. The Liver Building is inspired by architecture of the USA, reflecting Liverpool’s rich transatlantic connections. It was designed by Walter Aubrey Thomas and is rightly Grade I listed. Two mythical Liver Birds at the top of the building soon became the symbol of Liverpool. They were designed by the German woodcarver Carl Bernard Bartels.

Originally from Stuttgart Carl Bernard Bartels settled in England and became a naturalised British citizen. He won the commission to design the mythical birds which were completed in 1911. Despite having British citizenship he was interned on the Isle of Man during the First World War and was deported in 1918, leaving his wife behind. He returned and spent the rest of his life in the UK.

The interior of Liverpool’s most famous building may surprise many visitors. Unlike the other two buildings, the Liver building has an interior space. After renovations, the lobby is contemporary in style, with some original features visible, including a plaque dedicated to Carl Bernard Bartels. Looking up through the glass roof of the lobby into the inside space, you will see that the interior walls have been covered with a modern style glass cladding. It’s invisible from the outside of course, but in my opinion, it spoils the character of the building. In my opinion the building should at some time in the future be restored to its original state.

And after we emerged from the side entrance of the Liver building, our tour came to an end. Our Blue Badge guide Tony Boner really entertained and informed us with his deep local knowledge and Liverpudlian sense of humour.

My advice to anyone, anywhere: Even if you’re a local, book a guided tour with a knowledgeable guide. You’ll learn many new things!

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Featured book: Liverpool Then and Now

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The changing face of the city has been a dominant theme in my photography since the early days. It was fitting therefore that I was commissioned by Anova books in 2011 to take the ‘now’ photos for the book Liverpool Then and Now.

I was presented with a list of ‘then’ photographs drawn from various sources including the Liverpool Records Office and Anova’s own collection of heritage images. My task was to find the locations and take the ‘now’ photo from as close as possible to the viewpoint of the old photo.

Soon I had embarked on a fascinating journey of discovery through the Liverpool area as far as Southport in the north to Speke in the south.

I also crossed over the River Mersey to visit locations on the Wirral, and in the first half of September I took photographs from Seacombe ferry terminal of visiting cruise liners docked by the Pier Head. One of these images appears in the opening pages of the book.

Liverpool Pier Head and Mersey Ferry

Locations featured in Liverpool Then and Now include: the Royal Liver Building, the Albert Dock, Lord Street, Lime Street station, the Anglican Cathedral, Bold Street, The Strand and many more.

I also discovered many lesser known places including the former observatory on the Wirral, now a private residence, the Liverpool Institute, now LIPA, the Florence Institute in Toxteth, and the exact point where the East Lancs Road begins. The old photo depicts the opening ceremony. It took me a while to discover where it had been taken but eventually I found it.

Some of the places depicted in the old photographs were impossible to locate and had to be omitted.

And I can reveal one location is wrong! The fountain I photographed in Sefton Park is not the one in the old photo.

About three months after publication I was walking in Sefton Park and discovered that the fountain I should have photographed is the one next to the Peter Pan statue in the middle of the park. No one has noticed so far!

One of my favourite views was from Everton Brow I did the panorama and the editors decided to include it even though that old photo wasn’t a panorama.

View from Everton Brow

In many places I found the people I met to be very warm and friendly, for example the man who lives near the ‘Florrie’ or Florence Institute who saw me taking a photograph, came out to tell me all about it, and gave me some leaflets.

The staff at the Town Hall were also very welcoming and helpful, and I was given a guided tour around the Liver Building and the former Speke Airport terminal, now a hotel.

Photographing Liverpool Then and Now was a great experience and I really got to know Liverpool very well indeed.

I was very proud when in mid-2012 I found the book, ‘my’ book, on the shelf in the bookshop at Lady Lever Art Gallery. I have also seen it on sale at the Walker Art Gallery, Waterstones, in the Albert Dock and at the Museum of Liverpool.

If you’d like to buy a copy of Liverpool Then and Now from Amazon.co.uk, please follow the link to the right. If you’d like a signed copy for yourself or as a gift please get in touch.

Part way through the project, local author and historian Mike Royden was commissioned to write the text. His descriptions are very interesting, and demonstrate his deep knowledge of the city. The team at Anova Books in London – editors Frank Hopkinson and David Salmo – did a great job. The layout is excellent and the quality of reproduction of the photographs is very good indeed.

I am very proud to have helped to create this visually fascinating book on what is arguably the UK’s most visually fascinating city.

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Best view in the UK – Liverpool waterfront seen across Mersey

EYEWITNESS 2015 blog by Aidan O'Rourke

Liverpool Waterfront seen from across the river Mersey at dusk

Liverpool Waterfront seen from across the river Mersey at dusk


 
For years, the Liverpool waterfront has been one of my favourite subjects. I’ve photographed it quite a few times, especially at dusk. For me it’s the best view in the UK. Better than London, because the skyline is not so crowded and the river is wider. Better than Newcastle, although Newcastle’s great, with its series of bridges, and better than Glasgow which has quite a wide river but lacks the cluster of tall buildings that we have in Liverpool.

It’s been spectacular for decades. In the late nineteenth century, they decided to fill in St Georges Dock and create the reclaimed area of land known as the Pier Head. Three buildings were erected directly on the foundations of the three former docks, which explains why we have three architectural gems standing side by side.

Silhouette of the Liverpool skyline April 2005

Silhouette of the Liverpool skyline April 2005


 
Almost as soon as the Liver Building was finished 1911, it became a major landmark and symbol of the city. The Cunard and Port of Liverpool building were completed a few years after. Over the course of the twentieth century, more buildings appeared on the Liverpool skyline: The Anglican Cathedral, The Metropolitan Cathedral, St John’s Beacon, now known as Radio City Tower. A few were lost, including the Customs House, which was damaged in the war and could easily have been restored. The Liverpool Overhead Railway was another integral element of the waterfront which sadly closed in 1956.

In the 70s the ‘Three Graces’ were cleaned and for the first time, the pristine-looking white stone could literally shine in the afternoon sunlight. As a child on visit to Liverpool, I was visually captivated by the buildings – for me they seeme to sing. Out on the Mersey on one of the famous Mersey ferries, the waterfront even more magnificent than before.

Liverpool Waterfront from Seacombe 2003

Liverpool Waterfront from Seacombe 2003


 
But in recent years, still more new buildings have appeared at the north end of the waterfront, around Princes Dock, including the Beetham Tower, Katherine Tower. The Unity Building appeared just behind St Nicholas Church, now the oldest building on the waterfront.

Since 2004, Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City has been a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site

After some controversy surrounding the addition of a ‘fourth grace’, the Museum of Liverpool appeared in the second half of the 2000s. It stands at a respectul distance from the older trio, and the views from inside are stunning.

It seems the waterfront has never looked better. But there has been a threat to the UNESCO world heritage status. Officials have expressed concern at the height of proposed buildings that are part of Peel Holding’s Liverpool Waters development to the north of the waterfront. In late 2015 the situation wasn’t clear though Liverpool City Council were said to be ‘taking the threat seriously’.

In December 2015, the Liverpool Waterfront was chosen as England’s greatest place in the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Great Places award.

I’ve taken the view of the waterfront many times from both Woodside and Seacombe, the two ferry terminals on the Wirral side of the river. But perhaps my favourite view is at dusk from Magazine Promenade. I often go for a walk there and like to look back at the waterfront as the light fades. There’s nothing more magnificent than the skyline, its light shimmering above the water.
 

Liverpool waterfront with rainbow and rainy skies

Liverpool waterfront with rainbow and rainy skies

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Hidden facts about the Liver Building and the Liver birds

Liverpool Liver Building and Pier Head with St Nicholas church

Liverpool Liver Building and Pier Head with St Nicholas church



The Liver Building is Liverpool’s most famous building. It’s a symbol of the city and home to the two Liver Birds that stand at the very top at both ends. It’s said that if they ever fly away, Liverpool will cease to exist.

It’s well-loved landmark in Liverpool but if you ask people “When was the Liver Building built?” “Who was the architect?” “Who designed the Liver Birds?” not everyone will be able to tell you, so here are a few facts:

It was built from 1908 to 1911 for the Royal Liver Assurance Company.

It was designed by architect Walter Aubrey Thomas.

The style is similar to buildings in Chicago and Shanghai.

It’s made out of reinforced concrete.

It was the tallest building in Europe from 1911 go 1932 and the tallest in Britain until 1960.

The Liver Birds were designed by German sculptor Carl Bernard Bartels

It is 322 feet tall. (98 metres)

The clock faces are 25 feet (7.6 metres) in diameter, bigger than Big Ben in London.

I have photographed the Liver Building many times from a number of different angles. From the distance, the clock towers are often seen above the skyline, silhouetted against the sky.

The Liver Building is one of the three magnificent buildings known as the ‘Three Graces’. Many people don’t know that the three buildings were built on three former docks, part of St Georges Dock, which was filled in to allow the waterfront to be extended out into the river. The ground plan of the building is the same shape as the dock.

In past times, the the Liver Building and its neighbours were blackened by smoke and pollution. In the late 1960s and early 70s they were cleaned. The Liver Building has a darker tone, which some people say makes it look rather drab. I disagree, its distinctive colour is part of its idenitity and makes it unique.

When I was taking the photographs for Liverpool Then and Now, I had the opportunity to go inside the Liver Building and unfortunately I was very disappointed at what I saw. Much of the original interior had been modernised. The walls on the inner courtyard have been covered with a modern glass facade.

I felt it was sad that such an important building has been compromised on the inside, even though it’s not visible from outside.

Despite that, the distinctive features of the building are much the the same as they were when it was first built and it continues to fascinate visitors and local people.

I would love to go up into the clock towers but I don’t think there is a tour of the interior of the building.

For me, the Liver Building is symbolic of Liverpool’s maritime heritage. Its very shape and location are influenced by the docks which were there before. It looks out towards the river and the sea, reminding us of Liverpool’s connections with other parts of the world, whether the Isle of Man, Ireland or across the Atlantic to North America and beyond.

Liver Building sketch by Aidan O'Rourke

Liver Building sketch by Aidan O’Rourke

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