Off the Mersey beat: a tour of Liverpool’s unsung cultural treasures | Liverpool holidays
At a Liverpool city council meeting in 1974, in response to an application for the installation of the first Beatles sculpture in Mathew Street, a councillor reportedly sniped: “What have the Beatles ever done for Liverpool?” One current estimate suggests an annual £100m in tourism, for starters. But while the city remains best-known globally for the Fab Four, Aintree, its football clubs and the Albert Dock, it also boasts 2,500 listed buildings and a bounty of public artwork and sculptures.
Thanks in no small part to Tommy Calderbank – who some call “the spirit of Liverpool” – the city’s residents have also fought hard to rescue some of their beloved buildings, including arts venue The Florrie and Toxteth town hall, and fund-raised for artworks such as the Bob Marley and Brian Epstein statues in the city centre.
Liverpool is both familiar and alien to me. I know it from pop culture, the Beatles, films and sitcoms, yet I’ve visited just a handful of times. This is why I’m meeting up with Tommy for a lunchtime pint in Ye Hole in Ye Wall, the city’s oldest pub (founded 1726), built on an old Quaker burial site.
Hidden down a sidestreet, this old boozer is wood-panelled, carpeted and decorated with stained glass; a gaudy fruit machine is the only jarring presence. Tommy has devised a pub walk bookended by Liverpool’s oldest and most eccentric, and peppered with architecture and artwork overlooked by most visitors. “This is definitely not another Beatles-themed walk around the city,” he says, and hands me a hand-drawn map before heading off for his part-time job – as a Beatles tour guide.
Warmed with ale, I leave the pub on Hackins Hey, turn right on Dale Street and left down Castle Street, two of the seven medieval streets on which Liverpool was founded in 1207. Traces of anything pre-medieval are almost nonexistent but these streets offer other rewards, particularly if we look up. Some of the city’s most grandiose buildings are here, reflecting a time when Liverpool handled 40% of all world trade.
The area remains dominated by the bombastic majesty of old Victorian banks, shipping offices and insurance companies in red and yellow sandstone, and decorated with Doric columns, statues, mosaics and onion domes. The Queen Insurance buildings on Dale Street and Royal Insurance on North John Street are perhaps the grandest of all. Impressive and opulent they may be, but Liverpudlians do not shy away from the fact that all of this sandstone glory was built on colonialism: the International Slavery Museum on the dock teaches a history that others may prefer to ignore.
Halfway down Castle Street, I turn into Cook Street then North John Street and then the city’s most visited locale: Mathew Street. Eschewing Beatles-themed everything, I seek out instead a bust of the psychiatrist Carl Jung, in a wall cavity of Flanagan’s Apple, below which are his words: “Liverpool is the Pool of Life”. Jung never visited Liverpool but famously wrote about a dream he once had in which he was walking through the city at night and found a magnolia tree on an island, surrounded by water and bathed in light. In 1974 entrepreneur Peter O’Halligan bought a warehouse here and established the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun, believing the spot to be the location of the magnolia tree.
The area became the centre of Liverpool’s counterculture in the 1970s; it is also where theatre director Ken Campbell first staged the now-legendary eight-hour adaptation of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy, utilising the talents of a cast of young unknowns that included Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Drummond and Campbell’s future wife, Prunella Gee.
Following Church Street, Ranelagh Street and Mount Pleasant to the top of Hope Street, I reconvene with Tommy outside the Catholic Metropolitan cathedral.
“If you only have a few hours you could do worse than actually start here and do the cathedral walk either way. It’s such an important, culturally rich street,” he tells me.
Hope Street is bookended by the city’s two cathedrals, years apart in age and design. The Metropolitan, with a crown of thorns design and completed in 1967, is known locally as Paddy’s Wigwam. The interior is illuminated with dazzling colours from the stained glass. Around the cathedral’s circular wall, artworks include wall hangings, landscapes, abstract modernist paintings and Sean Rice’s Stations of the Cross sculptures, in metal. Another gold statue, Risen Christ, is by Liverpool artist Arthur Dooley, more on whom anon.
Down Hope Street we pass Liverpool’s Everyman theatre and, further down, the Philharmonic Hall. Just inside the entrance, a bronze plaque honours musicians from the city who continued playing – to calm the nerves of the doomed passengers – while the Titanic sank into icy waters.
On the other side of the road we stop for a cheeky refreshment in what is arguably Liverpool’s most elegant bar, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms. The interior is spacious and wood-panelled, with chandeliers, stained glass and snugs named after the composers Brahms and Liszt. When asked in the 1960s what the worst thing was about being famous, John Lennon replied: “I can’t get a quiet pint in the Phil.” It even boasts the only Grade I-listed gents in the country, opulently decorated with marble, mosaics and exotic tiles. (Women are granted unofficial free tours.)
At the bottom of Hope Street, we encounter the Gothic presence of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and descend into St James’ Cemetery, far below street level. With the cathedral looming overhead we drink the healing waters from Bridie’s Well. Liverpool Cathedral is home to two works by Tracey Emin. For You, a neon message reading “I felt you and I knew you loved me” sits above the inside front wall, while the twice-stolen and easy-to-miss Roman Standard – better known as sparrow-on-a-stick – is in the grounds of the Oratory, opposite the entrance. On the left, in a gloomily lit section of the cathedral, Tommy shows me Redemption, another work by Dooley, with embroidery by Ann McTavish.
From here, along Upper Parliament Street and Princes Avenue, we take in what is popularly known as Dooley’s Black Christ on the front of Princes Park methodist church. For Tommy, this Dingle-born former boxer is “arguably England’s greatest self-taught worker artist of the 20th century, and the reason I set up a day in his honour: Dooleyday”.
Certainly, few artists are as represented in the city as Dooley, who has 20-odd religious sculptures around the centre, including the folk-horror weirdness of Four Lads Who Shook the World on Mathew Street, depicting three babes in the arms of a faceless deathmonger-cum-Virgin Mary and a separate baby Lennon giving off a Hammer Horror killer doll vibe. Black Christ has a similarly haunting quality, and typifies Dooley’s rough and unfinished style. “I was scared of it for years,” Tommy admits, “this spectral figure that looks like it was dragged out of a bog.” Now, however, he has nothing but praise for Dooley’s work, and was instrumental in refurbishing the statue.
We retrace our steps, continue to Parliament Street and head right into the Baltic Triangle and Jamaica Street. Halfway down, past the mural of Jürgen Klopp, our final destination is easy to miss – a bohemian underground bar known as the Hobo Kiosk, and a twisted, maximalist work of art in its own right. It is the vision of owners Delia and Tristan, and offers a carnivalesque cornucopia of repurposed dolls’ heads, milk ghosts (Halloween-style carved and decorated milk containers), 3D murals and old signs. “We are the bohemian version of Narnia,” Delia declares.
I buy another round and thank Tommy for crafting a tour that demonstrates that – much as we both love them – the Beatles do not define Liverpool. Tommy laughs. “Like it or not, the thing about this city is that wherever you go, you’ll find Beatles references in the most unlikely places.”
“Even here?” I ask.
Ascending the stairs of the Hobo Kiosk, Tommy points to a small hole in the hand-sculpted wooden rail in which a tiny magnifying glass lens has been inserted. I peer through. On the wall behind is written a single word, the word that first brought John and Yoko together: Yes.