We take the slow train into Liverpool, because its one of those cool trains which is just two carriages and more like a bus than a train. I don’t think it has any toilets either. It strikes myself and my girlfriend as somehow profound that we are travelling on the oldest passenger rail link in the world, the same one William Huskisson got killed on in perhaps the most ludicrous accident in political history. (my friend Jim has likened it to I think something like Jack Straw being hit by the shuttle whilst talking to Gordon Brown during the maiden voyage of the world’s first mass-space travel service, and then driven to hospital by Richard Branson, in the shuttle- the analogy presumes Virgin would win the space shuttle contract, of course) I’ve seen the Huskisson monument but actually I haven’t really, you can’t get to it because its fenced off, being next to the same train tracks he was fatally wounded at, of course.
I’d never been to Liverpool, but its really my kind of place. Its a lot scaffier than Manchester and seems to have a lot more character. When me and my girlfriend emerge from Lime Street we can’t stop giggling because its all so amazing. The statue outside Lewis’s department store is a particular fave, as is the big UFO radio tower. We find a brilliant antique/vintage clothes shop with a ‘first weekend of every month’ sale and have lunch at a quite-good cafe before having a look round a church with no roof (St Luke’s, blitzed out during the blitz).
The initial intention was to have a daytrip where we look round both the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals in Liverpool, but in the end we only have time for the Anglican one. That’s the one I wanted to see most, anyway. So, I will hencefore refer to the Anglican cathedral as ‘Liverpool cathedral’, or just ‘Liverpool’.
The first thing that really impresses about Liverpool is its sheer size. Its the largest cathedral in Britain- I have this book that (being old) claims that “when completed” it will be “the largest cathedral in the world, after St Peter’s in Rome.” Its not- its actually the 5th-largest, or according to a different source the 6th-largest, but whatever, its still really fucking huge. (interestingly, originally the plan for the Catholic cathedral was to make an even bigger cathedral, with the world’s biggest dome- they then ran out of money and eventually, after playing around with the idea of keeping the massive dome but on a smaller rest of cathedral, went with the modernist one) From the outside, its impressive. From the inside, in the huge ‘central space’ underneath the tower, its ridiculously awe-inspiring, dragging my jaw to the floor and forcing the rest of my body into something like an actual religious experience. Although, I think a lot of that might just be because of how closely it resembles the monastery of the Grand Mysterium in Anachronox. (I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but there were American people there…hmmmmmm) Another major factor was probably the Christmas carols being sung from the nave, behind me.
Behind the choir, the transepts sort of drop out into tunnels which gives you the impression of running about underground approaching the chapter house or the lady chapel (depending on which side). This is really cool as it gives the lady chapel the air of being some sort of secret underground lair. Another really arresting factor about Liverpool cathedral is just how empty it is. Being massive, there’s a lot of space to fill I suppose, but unlike, for example, Winchester, or Ely, or Wells or any of the great old cathedrals of the country, Liverpool hasn’t had the chance to fill itself up yet. So Winchester is bursting with local history in the form of all the worthies buried there over the years with their chantry chapels or whatever, but Liverpool hasn’t even been completed forty years. Part of what makes these old cathedrals so wonderful to visit is the little stories and details they’ve accrued over the centuries, but Liverpool is a great cathedral in pupae. I really hope that the modern world doesn’t snuff out that promise by like, you know, not needing cathedrals or whatever, it could be one of the world’s really special buildings given enough time.
As such, I’m really fascinated by the story of the building of Liverpool Cathedral. The existence of, say, Guildford Cathedral doesn’t seem that bizarre to me but the existence of Liverpool Cathedral does- I mean, I’d have figured that the biggest cathedral in Britain would have been built in the middle ages- I honestly did used to think it was Yorkminster- and especially not at the dawn of widespread non-committal amongst Anglicans everywhere. More than anyone else the building of Liverpool cathedral is associated with Giles Gilbert Scott (grandson of George, who designed St Pancras- often known as the ‘Cathedral of the Railways’- George was also a famed cathedral restorer and his son and Giles’s dad George Jr was also an architect- meanwhile his brother Adrian was the one responsible for the toppled ‘keep the big dome’ Catholic cathedral plan). One of my favourite pieces of stained glass in the cathedral (and Liverpool does have some really good modern stained glass) depicts Giles Gilbert Scott- as you go in the nave is full of stained glass with Edwardian-type figures and ends up looking like a cover of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists rendered in stained glass- can’t be a bad thing. Other stained glass is more biblical- but my personal favourite is probably the ‘good women’ window in the corridor leading up to the lady chapel, which has a lizard straddling the corner and plenty of wholesome faces of various hard-working benevolent Victorian (or similar) women. Giles Scott also, curiously enough, designed the Red Telephone Box and so there is also one of them in the cathedral which you can open up and play around in. Another cool piece of Scott memorabilia the cathedral houses is his vastly different original plan for the cathedral with which he won the competition to design it as an unknown at just 22 (also, this is in 1904- the cathedral wasn’t finished until 1978). It used to be mostly focused around two big towers on the west front- I’m glad he changed it.
Further to my interest in the building of Liverpool Cathedral, my girlfriend bought me a book about that very subject as a sort of early Christmas present in the cathedral gift shop. Later on, I wanted to walk all the way around the cathedral as a final cap to the journey (I always like to take in the circumference) but she didn’t want to walk around in the rain, so I had to not do it, for her. Which I guess is a sign of just how much I love her. (plus, it really is an amazing-looking book) The gift shop is one of the best I’ve ever been to, in a cathedral or elsewhere- other exciting buys included Anglican Cathedrals of England Top Trumps, which you can buy here: www.classictrumps.com (‘Classic Trumps’ seem like my sort of company- for example, if you look on the ‘Contact’ page, you’ll see that they refuse to conform to our now-largely faxless communication discourse)
My cathedral trip drew to a close (aside from gift shop visit) with a ticket on the ‘Tower Experience’, which doesn’t bill itself as a tour I guess because there aren’t any guides. You get to see the underside of the vault, and the bells (the heaviest ringing peel of bells in the world!) , so they’re both a plus, but mostly it involved taking a lot of lifts, which could only fit three at a time, so it also involved a lot of waiting around. At the top you got spectacular views of Merseyside, which was nice, but the only detraction from this was that obviously being at the top of the cathedral I wasn’t able to see the bit of the skyline I’d normally be most excited about. On the way back you can normally see some embroidery and go to the internal viewing balconies but, er, that wasn’t on the day I went to visit, or something. I still had to pay normal price though. (and they didn’t tell me before!) What a fucking rip.
I don’t hold it against you though, Liverpool Cathedral. I would definitely recommend a trip to this fantastic and fascinating masterpiece of a modern cathedral.