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CULTURE TRAVEL FOOTBALL HERITAGE LIVERPOOL

- since 2011 -

Did you hear that too?


Wednesday, 24 August 2011


Notes on some obscure Liverpool delights #2

Where was I? Ah yes, ghosts and stuff… It was a world's-end kind of day, deep midwinter and dismal with it. I was trudging through Liverpool's gloomy, rain-stained streets past people with bloodhound dispositions and pigeons scavenging for St John's wort outside Holland & Barrett, as all the seagulls had flown off to see their mates in Lanzarote.

Relic from the original Corn Exchange, blitzed in 1941

Relic from the original Corn Exchange, blitzed in 1941

On Fenwick Street just off Castle Street I called into the Corn Exchange to see if they still had the 12 signs of the zodiac, made from plaster casts, on the wall of their old newsroom, having read as much in Terry Cavanagh's excellent Public Sculpture of Liverpool. (You'll find horoscopes on a few Liverpool landmarks, like the old Exchange Station on Tithebarn Station and the Cunard Building on the waterfront - astrology was an ancient tool for navigation and this was, after all, the erstwhile HQ of a great shipping line).

Sadly the star signs were deep in storage, having been dismantled after the Corn Exchange was flattened, like so many buildings in this part of town, by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. All that had been left standing was the main doorframe - photographed here - which would've been comical if it hadn't been so devastating.

Did I want to see it? The caretaker led me back outside and around the corner to the Exchange's side-entrance on Brunswick Street, opposite the India Buildings, and there above the stairs of the foyer was a rectangular block bearing the inscription THE ATLANTIC. Underneath it said: This stone was for many years the lintel over the Fenwick Street entrance of the old Corn Exchange buildings which were destroyed by enemy action in May 1941. The lintel survived and was preserved for incorporation in the new Corn Exchange buildings in 1957. The sign dates from 1854 and refers to The Atlantic Newsroom, an organisation that was swallowed up by the Liverpool Corn Trade Association in 1893.

"They reckon spooky things used to happen here, but they seemed to stop when they put that sign up," said the caretaker. "I've never really had any problems here, but I had a strange experience at another building I looked after." Upon cue, as he spoke it seemed to get darker outside and a sudden wind blew eerily through some unseen vent - either that or his mate in the basement had just let one rip.

The building was no42 Castle Street, he revealed, the one next to the old Adelphi Bank with the beautiful bronze doors that now houses Caffe Nero (look high up and you'll see a pair of mermen on its cornice, blowing their conches). "I was locking up there late one night," he continued. "I'd done the top of the building and was just finishing up on the ground floor when I heard someone closing a door upstairs and locking it. Then they walked across the landing to another door, slammed it shut and locked that one too. Now I'd just been up there and know for a fact it was empty. There was no one in that building."

What did he do? "Walked out fast and never went back." The moral of this story: never work late to impress the boss - you never know what might go bump in the empty office upstairs.

'AS' leaves his/her mark upon St James Cemetery

'AS' leaves his/her mark upon St James Cemetery

Let us go then, you and I, where the vegetarian bake is stacked above the pork pie and we impatiently read each label. Let us go, through certain half-deserted aisles with trolley-scoured tiles and one-off special deals flaunting two-for-one offers on oven-ready meals. Or instead let's swerve the Tesco Metro and head uphill to the grounds of the Anglican Cathedral - there's something else I want to show you.

I have someone called Mike Faulker to thank for a little gem secreted in St James Cemetery. He runs a website all about this open-air museum of Liverpool history, a vast man-made crater hewn from the natural hill once known as Mount Zion and converted to a burial ground when the sandstone was exhausted in 1825. Laid out on similar lines to Pere-la-Chaise in Paris, it's accessed by tunnels and ramps that its original architect John Foster lined with catacombs. Rows of headstones commemorate local luminaries, ship captains and those who perished at sea. In his seminal 1964 book Seaport, author Quentin Hughes writes: 'This setting of immense scale is one of the most powerful and picturesque spectacles in Liverpool, awe-inspiring in its mouldering decay'.

When I met him, Mike was filling a small plastic bottle with water from an ancient spring at the eastern wall, said by one 18th-century writer to cure 'nervous disorders, lowness of spirit and weak eyes.' Mike claimed his plants just preferred it.

A few feet away, carved into the bare rock, were the initials JC and the date 1876. 'There's older graffiti than that," he said. And there, 100 yards or so away in the north-east corner, in the shadow of the colossal cathedral, someone with a craftsman's flair had chiselled AS 1727 into the rock face that'd been scoured with striations left by horse-drawn drays laden with quarried sandstone. In one idle moment, or perhaps out of vanity, a mason decided to record his work here for posterity. Over 280 years later it's still being appreciated.

Just another winged gargoyle operating a drill

Just another winged gargoyle operating a drill

While we're here, may I also draw your attention to the decorative sculpture upon the cathedral itself, in particular the two winged, goggled and mask-wearing gargoyles - one grappling with a pneumatic drill, the other riding an aeroplane, naturally.

More historic initials? Back in town, occupying almost an entire block between Old Hall Street, Ormond Street, Bixteth Street and George Street, is the Albany Building. Completed in 1858, this grand palazzo was a meeting place for Liverpool's cotton brokers and a storage space for their bales (the current Cotton Exchange next door wouldn't be built for another 50 years) and today it houses 'luxury apartments'. Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, can vouch for them: on New Year's Day 2010 I saw him standing in the doorway, presumably waiting for a cab to the Empire Theatre where he was appearing in panto (Captain Hook in Peter Pan).

RCN's pride and joy: the Albany's decorative façade

RCN's pride and joy: the Albany's decorative façade

To the right of that main entrance is the carved monogram RCN representing Richard Christopher Naylor, for whom the Albany was built. A partner in Liverpool bank Leyland & Bullins, in 1848 he retired aged 34 when he and his brother inherited a fortune from their uncle. He also bought Hooton Hall near Ellesmere Port from the Earls of Derby, who had to sell their hereditary home to pay off gambling debts. Naylor himself loved horseracing: in 1863 his horse Macaroni won the Derby, and in 2002 his collection of racehorse paintings were auctioned by one of his descendants at Sotheby's. The eleven canvases by John Frederick Herring Snr, a stable lad who became one of the top equestrian artists of the 19th century, fetched over £300,000.

In its central courtyard the Albany boasts one of the best three spiral staircases (in my opinion) in the city. Another resides at 16 Cook Street, the modernist masterpiece designed by Peter Ellis as far back as 1866, where it twists through four storeys enclosed on the outside by a glass cylinder. The third is in the Athenaeum on Church Alley, an old-fashioned establishment populated with Rowley Birkin types slumped in armchairs that appear to be swallowing them alive/asleep.

Athenaeum staircase: it's an elliptical thing

Athenaeum staircase: it's an elliptical thing

Founded in 1797, the Athenaeum was originally sited at the corner of Church Street and Parker Street and moved to its current premises in 1928. It was one of a handful of private venues in Georgian Liverpool including the Artists Club on Eberle Street and the Lyceum at the bottom of Bold Street. The Racquets Club, relocated from Parliament Street to Chapel Street after the first Toxteth riots, came much later in 1874. It's still members-only, but there are tours available.

Strictly speaking, its staircase is elliptical (oval), curving elegantly up three floors to a library and reading room (60,000 items) with a vaulted ceiling, classical columns and three mythological paintings by local artist Edward Halliday entitled The Story of Marsyas; Athena and Arachne; and The Contest between Athena and Poseidon for the Patronship of Athens (don't quote me on it, but I think Athena wins 4-0).

Apropos nothing but the theme of sweet retreat, let's wind up at the Spanish Garden of St Philip Neri Church on Catharine Street, which can usually be accessed by a phone call and polite request. This was a labour of love for John Garvin, the reverend in the early 1950s, who paid a visit to the rooftop garden at Barkers department store on London's Kensington High Street and decided to create his own secret paradise on the Blitz-scarred land adjacent to his church.

Nice jug: Spanish Garden naiad

Nice jug: Spanish Garden naiad

Highlights include the naiad or water nymph, a couple of marble columns reputedly from Rome's Colosseum via Lowther Castle in Cumbria, and - allegedly again - a fragment of a pillar from William Gladstone's old address on Rodney Street. At the height of its splendour the garden featured tiles from Bilbao, quartzite from Italy, orange trees from Casablanca and a riot of fig and bay trees, vines and passion flowers that brightened each morning for a generation of office workers (my mother included) passing by on the top decks of buses. Liverpool would be all the poorer without it.


"They reckon spooky things used to happen here, but they seemed to stop when they put that sign up," said the caretaker. "I've never really had any problems here, but I had a strange experience at another building I looked after"


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