Thursday 5 March 2020

Across the Mersey

Ferry Across the Mersey, approaching "The Three Graces" of
the instantly-recognisable Liverpool waterfront

Under the River by Train

Liverpool, one of Britain's greatest cities and at one time second only to London, has always been on my list of destinations for an adventure. I have been there a handful of times but never explored it properly, and recently I found myself there once again for a brief visit (by car, for several reasons, so not recorded in this blog) and while there started compiling a list of things which will have to be on the itinerary when we go there properly. And I did manage to get in one very short little adventure by train by myself, and the story of that can be told here!

I first visited Liverpool as part of a field course when I was studying Town Planning in the mid 1970s. At that time there had been several dock closures and the city was fairly depressed but still reasonably vibrant. We did tour the dock and saw much activity still going on, and in some free time I visited the historic waterfront and there were crowds boarding the Mersey ferries to cross to Birkenhead, the ferries then still playing a major rôle in the conurbation's public transport. Like the riversides of London and Newcastle, Liverpool's has changed much and yet in some ways has changed little. The "Three Graces", its distictive, instantly-recognisable waterfront office buildings, are still there, opposite the passenger ferry quay, and the ferries still operate, although now more for fun than necessity because, under construction when I visited in the seventies, the underground railway system now takes most of the cross-river passenger traffic, much quicker and more efficient but less exciting.

For my little adventure, I went across to Birkenhead by train, largely to visit the waterfront on the Wirral side; I had only ever been on the Liverpool side so far. I was aware from reading notices on my seventies visit that the improvements to the local railway system were basically a loop around the city centre and a link across it, joining up some suburban routes directly with connections to others, and that there was a selection of city centre stations at which I could board a train which would take me under the Mersey to Birkenhead. I had also heard that Birkenhead Hamilton Square station was interesting architecturally, and on the map it seemed to be the one that is served by every train across the river, so that made it my destination station for the adventure.

Birkenhead Hamilton Square station, with
ventilation tower for the tunnel
The underground line that crosses the Mersey loops around Liverpool city centre, calling at James Street in both directions and going one way via Moorfields, Lime Street and Central, each of which connects to other lines. I left my wife (only for a couple of hours!) at a museum near Lime Street and caught my train from there. The underground platform has a very similar ambience to London’s Underground stations and the trains are about as frequent, although much shorter, and I was soon on my way. Making my way to the surface by lift at Hamilton Square I emerged just a few moments later into quite a different world, much quieter.

I ambled down to the riverbank towards the Birkenhead Woodside ferry terminal (I have no idea why it is called Woodside: there is no trace of a wood, but plenty of water) and there happened to be a ferry about to depart, so I took a few photographs (one of which heads this blog post) as it cast off and crossed to the Liverpool side. Then I ordered coffee and cake and sat in the café at the Woodside terminal leafing through tourist brochures I had picked up there and decided that when we do the full Merseyside adventure it is going to have to be several days long in order to pack everything in, including the Manchester Ship Canal cruise and a heritage tram ride to the Wirral Transport Museum, whose vintage tram service has a terminal right by the Woodside ferry terminal, and that, too, must be on a future itinerary. Before catching the train back to Liverpool I took a short stroll in the direction of the museum and found it well within walking distance of Hamilton Square. A last look across the Mersey to the Liverpool skyline and it was time to head back to the city as my free time drew to an end. Every train in the Liverpool direction calls at all the stations on the city centre loop, and this time I travelled as far as Liverpool Central, handiest for the rendezvous with my wife. We enthused together about a future trip and agreed that we should indeed need several days to enjoy all that there would be to do.

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