Friday, 30 January 2009

Liverpool City Centre

The Royal Liver Building

Something a bit different today: a city centre walk around Liverpool, courtesy of last summer's edition of the the Ramblers Association Walk magazine. A description of the walk is available online, but only to members.

The walk begins at Lime Street station and you cross the street to St George's Hall. Originally separate design competitions were held for a new hall for concerts and public events, and for a new assize court. Both were won by the young architect Harvey Lonsdale Elmes, then aged only 25. Elmes later proposed combining the two functions in a single building which would express Liverpool's civic pride and be bigger than Westminster Hall, St Paul's Cathedral and - most importantly - Birmingham Town Hall. Work started in 1842 and the Hall was opened in 1854.

It is hailed as a triumph of neo-classical architecture, but personally I have always found it heavy and oppressive. Inside however is a different story. You can now visit the cells and the courtroom which are both quite interesting. But the most wonderful thing is the that the massive tiled floor of the Great Hall, which has been covered by a wooden floor for most of its existence is currently exposed to view, and is in sparkling condition. The tiles are by Minton.

A virtual tour of the Hall is available on the BBC Liverpool website. Immediately adjacent are the splendid Walker Art Gallery, the Central Library and the World Museum.

You then walk down Victoria Street, turn left onto Stanley Street past the "Cavern quarter". Mathew Street, Cook Street and Castle Street bring you to the Town Hall. The core of the building dates from 1749-54 and is by John Wood. The dome and portico were added by James Wyatt in 1802 and 1811 respectively. It was disappointing to see how dirty this fine building has become: it urgently needs a facelift.

From here you go to Water Street, leading down towards the Mersey. In Water Street you can look into the India Buildings with its wonderful coffered ceiling over the long central arcade. It was built in 1930 and designed by Arnold Thornely and Herbert Rouse. It was damaged during the war and rebuilt under Rouse's supervision afterwards; the arcade is in fact a later addition, presumably during the rebuilding. We were given a very warm welcome here and provided with explanatory leaflets.

Almost opposite, is Oriel Chambers. It dates from 1864, but its cast iron frame and expanse of glass have accorded it the status of a modernist icon. I have seen similar buildings in Prague and Vienna which date from 40 years later. Pevsner described it as "one of the most remarkable buildings of its date in Europe".

At the end of Water Street you cross the road to reach Pier Head and the three buildings known locally as the Three Graces: the Royal Liver Building (1908-11), the Cunard Building (1916) and the Port of Liverpool building (1903-7). They occupy the site of the former George Dock which was drained in 1899.

Port of Liverpool building

Skirting the building works for the new museum, you then reach the Albert Docks. It was designed by Jesse Hartley and built in 1843-7 without any combustible material. Joseph Sharples, in the invaluable Pevsner architectural guide to Liverpool, describes it as "one of the great monuments of C19 engineering" and refers to its "monumental solemnity".

This is Piermaster's House taken from the swing bridge.

And this is the dock itself, from the same position.

Leaving the dock, you walk back along the Strand and turn up James St, and then continue up Lord Street and Church Street to return to the beginning.

On the corner of James St is the White Star Line offices (1895-98). I was struck by its resemblance to Old Scotland Yard in London and was delighted to discover that it was by the same architect: Norman Shaw.

Finally, just of Church Street down Church Alley you come on the oldest surviving building in the city centre: the Bluecoat Chambers, begun in 1716. Originally built by a sea-captain, Bryan Blundell as a school for poor children it is now a centre for the arts. It is not clear who the architect was.

Rating: four stars. A really interesting walk, with some unexpected treats.

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