On the lookout for some culture in Liverpool, NIGEL ROBINSON finds that he just can’t escape the Beatles.
Liverpool has always had something of an image problem, especially among soft Southerners who don’t know any better. It’s become a byword for economic and cultural deprivation, remarkable only for the fact that it’s the home to a couple of rather good football teams.
Trouble is, no-one’s told Liverpool that. Yes, unemployment is among the highest in the country, and to be honest there are parts of the city which are pretty grim, but along the way Liverpool has somehow been voted the UK’s hippest city and the area around its historic waterfront is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Because we’re taking about regeneration. You could say it started in 2008 when Liverpool was made European City of Culture and played a blinder, but it goes back further than that with the 1980s redevelopment of the Albert Dock (albertdock.com). It’s now Liverpool’s top tourist destination with first-class museums, swish restaurants, arty craft shops and a Tate gallery (Albert Dock, tinyurl.com/bc89nwk) easily the equal of its two big sisters in London.
You can’t escape the River Mersey here. It’s there in the wind whistling in from the Irish Sea and in the seagulls swooping down to nick that Prêt BLT out of your hand. Just behind the Tate, the Maritime Museum (Albert Dock, liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime) looks over the river and its four floors track the city’s mercantile past right up to the present day. An exhibition centred on the Titanic is one of the big crowd-pullers here, but be certain not to miss Hello Sailor!, a camp and compulsive history of being gay in the merchant navy at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.
To get a proper take on Liverpool, head on to the award-winning Museum of Liverpool (Liverpool Waterfront, liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/mol) just down by the Pier Head where, yes, that Ferry still crosses the Mersey to Birkenhead every 20 minutes or so (merseyferries.co.uk). The ferry’s still used by regular commuters, as well as camera-clicking tourists eager to get a shot of the iconic Liver Building in what must be one of the most recognisable skylines in the world. Half of the museum’s top floor is given over to Liverpool’s massive influence on popular culture, and music in particular, featuring the likes of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, OMD, Cilla, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and superclub Cream (cream.co.uk). And the Beatles.
Ah yes, the Beatles. Just as you can’t escape that wind coming up from the Mersey, then you can’t escape the Beatles either. They’re everywhere you look, they’re on every street corner, and they even named an airport after one of them. You can buy Beatles tee-shirts and postcards from every corner shop, and if they aren’t playing Love Me Do down the local HMV in the spanking new Liverpool One mega-shopping centre (liverpool-one.com), it’s probably because you took the wrong train and ended up in Manchester instead. You can sleep in a Beatles-themed hotel (harddaysnighthotel.com), knock back a pint in the pubs they used to drink in, or roll on up for a Magical Mystery Tour Bus (cavernclub.org/the-magical-mystery-tour) – or even catch a Fab Four cab taxi tour (fab4tours.co.uk) – to the real-life Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields. You can argue that it’s all a blatant and cynical attempt to cash in on the name, but there is a genuine pride in, and affection for, the “four lads who shook the world”.
The Beatles Story (King’s Dock Road, beatlestory.com) is also on the Albert Dock, opposite the Echo Arena, and the Liverpool Big Wheel, and follows the careers of the Fab Four to the present day. There’s even the chance to take a trip on the Yellow Submarine.
The centre of 21st-century Beatlemania is Mathew Street (mathew.st) , just a short walk up from the Mersey. A statue of John Lennon leaning nonchalantly on a wall greets you as you enter the street and during the day you can’t move for Japanese tourists and film crews.
Its main claim to fame rests on the fact that this was home to the Cavern Club where the Beatles were discovered back in 1961. The Cavern’s still there (10 Mathew Street, cavernclub.org), although how much of it the surviving Beatles would recognise is a moot point. It’s still an atmospheric venue though and plays host to live gigs from up-and-coming talent, as well as a number of tribute bands. It also organises the annual International Beatles Week in August.
Down the street is the old Grapes pub (25 Mathew Street), where the Beatles used to drop in between gigs. If the Beatles really did drink in all the Liverpool pubs people say they did, they’d have been too sozzled even to get on stage, but the Grapes is the genuine article. It still has the feel of a pub for locals and jobbing musicians and is well worth a visit, and not just as another place to tick off on your list of Beatles things to do.
Just around the corner is the city’s gay quarter, centred on Stanley Street. There’s always been a gay presence around here, especially given its proximity to the docks, but in the past couple of years, the council has been actively promoting the area, even putting up rainbow street signs on the major gay roads, making it the first UK city to do so. Whether this will help to make Liverpool’s gay village a rival to Manchester’s Canal Street remains to be seen, but there’s a definite buzz to the area at the weekends and Liverpool Pride is one of the fastest growing in the country. And every November not just the gay village but the whole of Liverpool is taken over by Homotopia, a month-long festival of queer art and culture (homotopia.net).
Grande dame of Liverpool’s gay scene is the Lisbon (35 Victoria Street), a large basement bar with a tiny dance floor housed in a Grade 2 listed building. Some of the staff and drinkers have been here forever (not necessarily a bad thing) and it seems to be happily stuck in an 80s time warp. You’re unlikely to meet the buff boy or girl of your dreams here, but there’s a good and friendly no-frills vibe to the place which draws in a wide range of ages and backgrounds.
If sexy sailors are more to your taste, then the Navy Bar (27 – 29 Stanley Street) brings in a friendly and up-for-it young crowd at the weekends, and it’s only a short sashay from there to the Masquerade Bar (10 Cumberland Street, masqueradeliverpool.com) with drag DJs, karaoke, and cabaret on Sundays. Saturday nights usually end up in Garlands (8-10 Eberle Street, garlandsonline.com), one of the city’s fiercest dance nights that has been packing them in for two decades and shows no signs of letting up yet.
About fifteen minutes away, Liverpool’s two cathedrals look down with saintly indifference on the sins and shenanigans of the gay quarter. The Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral (Mount Pleasant, liverpoolmetrocathedral.org) is a stunning modern-day building whose tepee-shaped stained-glass roof has earned it the local name of Paddy’s Wigwam. Just ten minutes’ walk away, its Anglican equivalent (Saint James Mount, liverpoolcathedral.org.uk) is a masterpiece of Gothic grandeur, the largest cathedral in the UK and the fifth largest in the world.
The two cathedrals are linked by Hope Street which the Academy of Urbanism recently voted the UK’s Greatest Street of 2013. It’s not hard to see why. Close to the city’s two universities, it’s the heart of trendy and arty Liverpool, packed with some great restaurants like the London Carriage Works (40 Hope Street, thelondoncarriageworks.co.uk) and cool, right-on bars like the Casa (29 Hope Street). Each year the Hope Street feast celebrates the start of the academic and cultural year with a day of open-air theatre, food stalls and free music performances (hopestreetfeast.com)
The pumping heart of Hope Street is the Everyman Theatre (everymanplayhouse.com), one of the great theatres of England. At the cutting edge of drama since 1964, its downstairs bistro is also the de facto staff canteen for locals and luvvies alike. Currently closed, it’s due to reopen in 2013 after extensive rebuilding work.
If the Everyman is one of the great theatres of England, then the Philharmonic Dining Rooms (36 Hope Street, tinyurl.com/d5aflew) down the road must be one of the great pubs of England, if only for its elaborate Victorian interior, all crystal chandeliers and Art Nouveau woodwork, and its Grade 1 listed status. And don’t even get me started on the marbled magnificence of the gents’ loos. It’s said that if you sit in the “Phil” long enough, sooner or later everyone you’ve ever met will walk in.
And yes, the Beatles did drink here as well.