The journey over, I’m resting my feet - and also my blogging - for the month of November. I’m hoping that the break will give me some time to start to process this experience of walking the M62, and prepare me for my return to everyday work. So if you come here (or here) seeking fresh material, sorry: you won’t find any till December, but please do enjoy flicking through the archive pages, revisiting the journey ... that’s what I’ll be doing.
So this is an opportunity to thank all who have walked with me, literally and by supporting and encouraging me in many ways, including you, blog reader, and you who have enriched this site with your comments.
Thanks to the Liverpool Diocese Department of Lifelong Learning and other sponsors: Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, Archbishops’ Council Christian Unity Department, St Aidan’s College Charity, St Boniface Trust and the In You We Trust for the use of Cushendall Tower artists residence.
Thanks to the people of the Church of the Good Shepherd, West Derby, Liverpool for permitting me time and space to behave in this odd obsessive way, for Mark Coleman, Helen Bennett and other colleagues and friends of the neighbouring churches for their support, and to Neville Black and other clergy who have more than made up for my absence.
Particular thanks for help, hospitality, conversation and company on the road, to: Barbara Routley and Catherine Evans, Andy Dorton, Peter Harrison and the staff of Longhill Link-up Cafe, Paul Schofield, Andy and Michelle Simpson with Tom and Claire, Chris and Catherine Taylor, Dick and Gemma Bonham, Dan Ingram-Brown, Simon Brewis, Beci Thomas, Ellie Harrison, Jamie Fletcher, Tony Vino, Chris Meredith, Joff Williams, Steve Watters and other members and associates of Imprint and Pointed Arrow, Leeds, Barry Parker, Stuart Rogers, Paul and Tash Whitaker, Dot Gosling, Tony Zimnoch, Tim Chapman, Stephanie Buchanan, Nicki and John Smith, Jim Buchanan, Anne Haigh, Jo and Amos Rand, Rob Hilton, Brian Hibbert, Phil Smith, Alex (Manchester Psychogeographical), John Sears and Patricia Allmer, Adrian Rees, Doreen Massey, Ben Broadbent, Allison Claxton, Pippy Haywood, Bob Dickinson, Mark Coleman, Andy Pryce, Robert and Joan Jones, Joe Moran, Fran Lovett, Les and Audrey Davies, Dave and Christine Roberts.
Regrets to those who I’d hoped to meet but in the end for various reasons, couldn’t. Thanks for your interest, and hopefully we’ll find another time.
Finally, thanks to those who have over recent years encouraged me to keep working away at urban walking and reflection on 'reading the everyday', in particular friends at Greenbelt who’ve given me opportunities to develop my thinking in these areas, Ruth Harvey at Coracle, Nick Thorpe at Third Way, Sheffield's Urban Theology Unit, many of the people mentioned above, and to Jim Hart who got me started on this with a walking tour of Toxteth which he led in 1995 and who continues to be a provocative and encouraging companion on the journey.
Enjoy November - I’m off-line till Advent!
“The people of Liverpool, in their indiscriminate rage for commerce and getting money at all events, have nearly engrossed this trade.” This might have been said last week during the awakening news reports on the massive, growing trade in scrap metal which has created a countrywide crime wave of thefts of lead from school and church roofs. Had I chosen to do a linear walk today, along the dock road, I might have reflected on the metallic mountains lining the north docks and on Liverpool’s pre-eminence as exporter of these mangled goods, and brought that quote to mind. It’s actually from William Matthews of Bristol writing in 1794 of Liverpool’s slave trade fixation.
Interesting though it would have been to do a reverse route of the one I took almost a year ago with Paul and Emma [see here and here], following the river out from the centre to the suburban edge, I chose not to. Rather, for my last day’s walking I took on a quite different challenge: to retread the roads most familiar to me, the roads of the area which was home for the first twenty years of my life and has been for numerous years intermittently since, the place which nurtured my closest friendships, the continuing seat of our family life, where I was educated (after a fashion) and where I own (a mortgaged) property. The challenge: to carry with me the words of Eliot, as quoted on my very first blog on this website, and to see how they felt today: whether ‘to arrive where we started’ would be to ‘know the place for the first time’. It was, a bit, of course, and then in other ways, it wasn’t.
It was a meander, from leafy Crosby through the complex mix of terraced housing, rented flats and historic seafront homes large and small which make up Waterloo. I found myself taking in some of the key sites and routes of my early years. These included Moorside Park where I played Sunday football and messed about on mopeds as a teen, Victoria Park, closer to home, where I stood awhile on the patch of green where we used to spend virtually every available hour in the school holidays, again kicking a football around. I photographed the very spiked railings which once punctured my newly-purchased expensive ‘casey’ after virtually the first kick we’d had with it.
My journey took in the roads where the two sides of our family converged many times weekly: Queensway, where my Mum’s mum lived and where today I took a photograph which replicates one I have on the wall at home: the view from my Grandma’s house, directly along the sun-kissed terraces of Kingswood Avenue; Dean Court, the high-rise flats where my Dad’s mum lived out her later years (interested to note how Sefton Council have - justifiably - kept faith with their high-rises whereas Liverpool City Council have spent the last decade daftly demolishing theirs); and then the most pivotal site of our family life in my childhood: King Street, where numbers 11 and 13 were occupied by Davies’s. Many of them were born there, and the cramped kitchen of number 11 was the hub of all our activity (on the way to the shops, you popped into Nana’s for a cuppa; on the way home from work, you popped into Nana’s for a cuppa; after church, you popped into Nana’s for a cuppa; on a Saturday morning, you popped into Nana’s for a cuppa. And there you met aunts, cousins, Grandad reading red tops and smoking, neighbours. Sometimes you checked out Grandad’s prize pigeons in the yard. Sometimes you met yourself coming back).
I had a real revelation whilst walking down St John’s Road. In Hull I delighted at the rich range of independent shops which made up the Hessle and Holderness Roads and said ‘I struggle to picture any equivalent road in Liverpool’. It was here under my nose all the time. For on the block where I own a top-floor flat, just a small segment of long St John’s Road, the shop fronts read:
Feathers Victorian Tea Room and AntiquesThe whole of St John’s continues in this variegated vein. The only observable difference between it and Hessle Road is that today St John’s wasn’t all that busy. But it’s not at all bad for a suburban street without a bus route.
Charlie Chans Chippy
Azanin Costume Hire
Fast Booze (Crosby’s Finest Off-Licence)
Outreach (Sefton) Ltd (Care in the Community)
Pets Aloud (Pet Foods and Access)
Plaza Cinema Support Shop (local folks saved the commercial cinema from closure and now run it themselves with charitable help)
Porterprint Design and Print Solutions
Eterna Bespoke Dressmaking Service
Ian W. Elsby Footfitters (Established 1966)
After a good lunch at my Mum and Dad’s we walked the very short distance to the end of the road and we were on Crosby beach, to bring to an end my coast-to-coast journey at a place which captures my beginnings. When I played on that beach as a child I would ruin socks and trousers with the oil slick wastes I picked up. It is pretty clear of pollution and it’s full of lifesize Antony Gormleys now - they’ve been there almost two years and like most locals and our many visitors I love them.
Gormleys or not, I could (and I do) spend hours here, gazing out at the point where the Mersey opens out into the Irish Sea, the ever-changing light and tides revealing and then hiding views over to the hills of North Wales (Snowdon on a good day), up the coast to Blackpool Tower and - out, out, squint your eyes or stare for long enough like the Antonys and you might just see - a hint of Ireland.
I took pictures today of things I’d never have thought of taking elsewhere: empty parks, rows of ordinary houses, a level crossing over an empty railway, a plain back alleyway. I took these, of course, because each one was imbued with personal meaning for me. Made me think that perhaps next time I do one of these walks I’ll take pictures exactly like these in very plain places which I don’t know, then spend my time finding local people who can interpret the meaning in them to me.
To conclude this overlong blog at the end of this rewarding two month journey, I share the one thing which moved me emotionally today. Turning the corner of Blucher Street onto Oxford Road to check out the little row of shops opposite St Edmunds RC Primary School. Part of my masculinity was formed here, as from a boy to a young man I regularly visited the barber on this block, Maurice, and he treated me as he treated all the customers, with integrity and a firm but gentle hand. Maurice led me in unintrusive but quietly interested conversation about school and later work and occasional forays into sport or world affairs. I guess I learned a bit about the art of conversation-making from him.
Though he himself preferred the look of Mark Lawrenson in his ‘prime’ nevertheless Maurice was a decent man who gave a decent trim and I realise now, as never before, that he is among the number of adults who, quite unwittingly, had a formative influence on me.
As I turned the corner I imagined that Maurice would be long gone by now. There was a ladies’ hairdresser on the corner, as there always was, with two very young women at work, and now carrying a modish name. Perhaps the barbers’ business may have continued too, I thought, though it would probably now be called something like STUDZ STYLISTS. But no - as I investigated more I saw that Maurice’s was still there. And glancing through the familiar red and white shutter blinds I saw that there, inside, was Maurice himself, working away at a customer’s head, his own hair grey now but still full, and his 1970s moustache still in place. And this is where I found myself unexpectedly but profoundly moved. I staggered across the road and held on to the school crossing railings for a minute or two.
I can’t explain why I was so moved to find that Maurice was still there. Maybe a reaction to all the changes I’ve put myself through over the past few weeks; all the changes in our city and society I’ve been tormented about and toying with in the company of others on this questioning journey. Maybe seeing Maurice was the first real sign to me that I had come home, and a reminder that home means a lot to me, and an affirmation that after all, home still tangibly, if tenuously, exists.
The penultimate day of my little adventure, spent with Fran, who lives in a house directly beneath Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and who spends her days (employed by Mission in the Economy) among the retailers and regenerators of the city centre. So we had a good walk around a city which changes by the minute, and soaked in the complexity of it all.
In the Cathedral precincts: gates which lock outsiders out and residents in at night, something Fran can’t (and hopefully won’t) get used to, something based on a misguided notion of what makes public places safe ... surely that’s not going to be an absence of people?
Down Seel Street: the site of a new apartment block, where earlier this year one of our many Polish builders lost his life when a crane collapsed.
At what used to be the Methodist Central Hall, Renshaw Street: a goth paradise! A place I’ve been in many times for concerts and conventions, which was sold off in the nineties, became a nightclub for a while, and has now become the ‘new’ Quiggins, Liverpool’s ‘alternative’ marketplace. This ex-worship arena is an ideal place for it: underneath the (probably still playable) great organ are people selling t-shirts announcing IF JESUS RETURNS... WE’LL KILL HIM AGAIN (which is true, we would); underneath the glorious central dome, outlets are retailing lights and crystals and many other aids to people’s nascent spirituality.
Inside Lewis’s: the story of another store which has reimagined itself; cut loose from its original owners, now the vast department store which was once the city’s flagship, is filling with willing franchisees selling quality goods to quality people (like Fran and me, of course, though we didn’t, ahem, buy anything there today).
Down Ranelagh Street to the crazy massive building site which is The Paradise Project, an inversion of the city centre by the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor group whereby the riverside edge of the city will become the new focus for retail activity (causing the perfectly named Joe Edge, director of the Albert Dock, to gush wrongly but tellingly the other day, “We are slap bang in the middle of everything.”) Fran and I have mixed feelings about all this but we’re polite to the lady in the Paradise Project shop as she talks us through the scale model of the new city centre, and we move on helpfully when asked by security men at the gates to the vast new Debenhams site. Astonishing to see something of such scale and ambition spring to life; concerning to consider what it may do to the rest of the city’s retailers, and whether the ‘gated’ mindset will overrule any civic spirit amongst those who will take up residence here next year.
Along School Lane, one of our oldest and loveliest thoroughfares which has been for many months a mess of machinery and manic concrete-cutting activity. In the window of the shop where I bought my hair clippers, a sign reads,
THE OWNER OF McMURROUGH LTD WOULD LIKE IT TO BE KNOWN THAT, DESPITE THE BEST EFFORTS OF LIVERPOOL CITY COUNCIL, GROSVENOR HOLDINGS AND VARIOUS BUILDING CONTRACTORS TO MAKE HIS PREMISES INACCESSIBLE TO HIS CUSTOMERS, HE WILL BE TRADING FROM 35 SCHOOL LANE FOR THE NEXT TEN YEARS. THANK YOU TO ALL MY LOYAL AND CONCERNED CUSTOMERS FOR THEIR ONGOING SUPPORT AND BUSINESS.My journey (nearly through now) reaches a significant point as we cross beneath the great River Mersey by train, take time for a good cup of tea in the wondrous heritage building of Birkenhead’s Woodside ferry terminal, and have a long conversation ranging over many things pertaining to how and why a city reinvents itself, and when it does what happens to the goths and the skateboarders (our prime concerns). And then, as the light began to fade: the iconic, emotional, unfailingly splendid journey back over the water to Liverpool.
We chose to end our day like this for a view of the new waterfront, filling up with speculative apartment blocks and skyscraper hotels, the Liverpool Echo Arena (whose shape and form I really like) and the beginnings of the new Museum of Liverpool Life. In this scene The Liver Buildings still stands out, but Our Lady and St Nicholas seems to be shrinking beneath tasteless unimaginative residential towers. It’s the new Liverpool. Hallelujah. It’ll be different again in twenty years time.
Today, a wander around the museums and galleries of the Albert Dock, on an investigation into what the city of Liverpool is saying about itself on the eve of the Capital of Culture year.
The Maritime Museum has a new exhibition about the city’s history and it says all of the things which the canon historians of Liverpool have already sanctioned. This allows for a small amount of conflict here and there: representations of different sides in the antislavery debate; a brief display given over to workers’ disputes and the role of Militant politics in the 1980s; and (the highlight of the whole thing for me) a video ‘conversation’ between Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby, William Moore, businessman and Mayor, and Thomas Ansloe, ‘commoner’, which is set in their era (16th Century) and based loosely on the famous ‘I look down on him...’ Two Ronnies sketch.
This is illustrative, rather than illuminating, like much of the other material on show. And of course the Magical History Tour exhibition fails to tell much of this history from the ‘underside’. I want to see it acknowledge some of the mess and the clamour which has built Liverpool (and at times almost destroyed it), to let visitors feel the tension and the anger and the shame and the tears which our filmmakers, dramatists, musicians - and in-your-face citizens - have expressed so well over the years. I’m left a bit cold by this effort.
But maybe that’s because there’s more deeply personal stuff going on for me here. Nearby the history exhibition is a display describing the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Again it reiterates the sanctioned, canonical version of the story, which fails to dig too deep into the complicity of The Admiralty and its first Lord, Winston Churchill, in the loss of hundreds of lives, an act which (some would say knowingly) would bring the United States into the First World War. I get emotional about that because John Davies, my great-grandfather, was on that ship that day - one of the many crew members from North Liverpool - and though he survived the ordeal, the trauma of it never left him.
Like those who still fume about the whitewash of the Hillsborough investigations, like visiting Italians who must be shocked at our city’s almost total erasure of Heysel from our accounts of recent history, I get angered that the ship’s captain Turner was scapegoated for the loss of the Lusitania while the state and Churchill in particular escaped any censure. I didn’t get angry like this in the museums of Warrington or Rochdale. Guess that’s another sign that I’m home.
Over at The Tate there is the jollity of a little manufactured conflict, as the annual media commotion The Turner Prize comes to town. This is to be welcomed: I don’t think it’s ever been out of London before and this affirms Liverpool’s provincial pre-eminence when it comes to the arts. Four artists are shortlisted and on display, and as with most conceptual art there’s much in their work which the many visitors didn’t ‘get’. We do get the chance to have our say at the end, and on my paper I voted for Mark Wallinger, for his work called State Britain, a precise reconstruction of Brian Haw’s anti-Iraq war protest which Wallinger installed at Tate Britain months after police had cleared Haw and his placards from opposite the Palace of Westminster. Brian Haw had been there for five years prior to the passing of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which outlaws protest within a 1 km radius of Parliament Square without prior police permission.
Two things I didn’t know before about this protest-project: that the 1 km exclusion zone partly bisects Tate Britain, which added an extra edge to Wallinger’s display there [critiqued by the Stuckists here]; and that Brian Haw, by the grace of God and the Metropolitan Police, has been permitted to occupy a space on the pavement outside Parliament measuring three metres by two, in which he sits and continues his protest.
After all my wanderings in strange towns I relate to Haw the maverick outsider. With my surprising seething, random, anger on my return home I relate all the more (though his anger is focussed and righteous and to be affirmed). And all this adds up to overwhelming reasons for me voting for Mark Wallinger, whose work has often dealt with the confused human blundering through matters of life, identity, belief, conviction and faith.
At dusk on the day I reached the end of the M62, two boys, Kieran (7) and Guy (6) attempted a short-cut home by riding their toy scooters across the M56 motorway in Preston Brook, Runcorn. In the growing dark they were unsighted until close up. The drivers of three vehicles hastening home at the end of the rush hour could not avoid hitting them. The boys died instantly. As for the adults involved - drivers, parents, neighbours who spoke to the boys minutes before - something terrible has been awoken in them by this awful incident. In their troubled TV interviews, you can see it in their eyes.
All along this journey I seem to have been sensing ghosts. The villages of Holderness lost to the brutal North Sea. The dead roads sundered by the building of the motorway and its service routes. Noises - under the M62 Ouse Bridge (cracking, clanking, like chain-bound bogeys); in lanes of trees between IKEA and the M62, Birstall and on cobblestoned Philips Park Road by the motorway near Whitefield (hissing, slashing, whispering spectres). The village of Outlane viciously severed, its nerve ends exposed to the M62 which fires ferociously through what used to be the high street.
The Rocket invokes the ghost of William Huskisson MP who was killed by a train at the Rainhill Trials and who, as Rebecca Solnit points out, was not mourned by the crowd then or by anyone since, our heads having been turned by the speed of the motorised vehicle. And all along my route, on motorway bridges and beside every other form of carriageway I have seen floral tributes tied to trees and lampposts, memorialising those who died just there at their or someone else’s wheel, and whose spirits hover in horror and condemnation.
Most of the ghosts I have seen have hands and faces. I have seen them whilst standing on motorway bridges overlooking hundreds of vehicles rocketing beneath, the deranging violence of their motion rocking the bridge stanchions, exposing my sense of vulnerability. I have seen the fixed look on their faces, the greyness of their eyes and the whiteness of their wheel-grasping hands and I have over and again heard a voice from Eliot come to me, describing this eidolonic scene: I had not thought death had undone so many.
Their death (my death, for I drive these roads too) is in a deep disconnection betweeen themselves and their environment, themselves and those around them, themselves and their context... themselves and their own bodies. Continuing her contemplation on Huskisson, Solnit writes,
In a way, the train mangled not just that one man’s body, but all bodies in the places it transformed, by severing human perception, expectation, and action from the organic world in which our bodies exist. Alienation from nature is usually depicted as estrangement from natural spaces. But the sensing, breathing, living, moving body can be a primary experience of nature too: new technologies and spaces can bring about alienation from both body and space.I am certain that those who have unwittingly killed pedestrians in road accidents have hardly been aware of the destructive power at their steering wheel hands, until it has been fatally revealed to them. I am certain that children are often the victims of such incidents because they have not yet had their senses dulled - not yet been estranged from the natural spaces through which they move at natural speeds. I am certain that many of those who behave aggressivbely towards other road users whilst behind the wheel, feel ashamed of themselves even whilst in the act. I am certain that those who only ever walk from house to car to workplace to car to leisure place to car, know that they are killing something in themselves, but feel impotent to resist their slow death.
The more I have been pummelled in the tumult of motorway ghosts speeding past me on my slow journey, the more I have become convinced of the deadliness of the disconnections our society has accepted. A people who can no longer move at walking pace, a people who must wall out children or run them down, a people radically disconnected from each other (whilst sharing the same spaces), a people radically disconnected even from our own bodies... I think we either have already died or are in an irreversably critical condition.
If you walk the upland paths of England you may occasionally fantasise that you can see the shape of Roman Legions moving towards you on the straight green avenues beyond. In its day this would have been a frightening vision: one to send you scurrying to safety, deeply fearful of the deathly power in those booted feet. One day - and it won’t be in my day but perhaps in a day which the classmates of Kieran and Guy will see - the motorways will become dead roads, mossed over, and people will fantasise about the roaring violent convoys which once used them.
After the oil runs out, or some inevitable catastrophe hits our dying civilisation, future people will look back on us that way. We will be ghosts to them. But now I am troubled by this question: what is to become of those of us who can see these ghosts today, and who know we are among them?
For the pedestrian, simply crossing from Broad Green shops onto Edge Lane Drive requires bravery, ingenuity, determination. A vast flyover carries Queens Drive - the Liverpool Ring Road - over a junction where local roads, slip roads and the M62 all converge. It is at all times of the week a forbidding mass of metal growling and groaning in walls of grubby concrete, and perhaps the planners had it right when they decided that those who wanted to use their legs to keep the connection with ‘the other side’ of this chasm, would have to do so by going underground. There are just two subways, quite some distance apart, one by The Rocket and the other near a side entrance to Broad Green Hospital, Cardiothoracic Centre. My head was telling me to transgress and try to cross the carriageways under the flyover but thankfully my heart was too weak to take the challenge.
A walk along Edge Lane, former city boundary line and the road once considered to be the route to continue the motorway right into the heart of Liverpool city centre. The planners are still looking to stretch Edge Lane sidewards, as far as the residents of Liverpool 7 allow, and that is why the M62 ends at Junction 4: there’s room for three more yet, they think, those behind The Edge Lane Project who have decorated Edge Lane Drive (inbound) with posters announcing, ACCESS TO LIVERPOOL WILL SOON BE A BREEZE! This is on a stretch of road where traffic roars into the Oak Vale suburbs off the M62 mocking the 30mph signs, and where many trees have flowers tied to them to mark the occasion of collisions which have taken lives.
I’m simultaneously delighted and scared to see an elderly lady taking her own route across four lanes of Edge Lane Drive rather than detour to a pedestrian crossing further down the road. By her attitute and aptitude for this she must be a long-term resident. There is an edge here - in the sense of deep conflict between road-users and pedestrians, between passers-through and residents.
This edge becomes even more evident a couple of miles further on in Kensington where much of Edge Lane is boarded up, compulsorily purchased, awaiting demolition, and what isn’t boarded up is being left to decay, except where just a small number of residents are digging in, holding out. They are keeping their front steps clean and gardens lively in the face of the metalled grey tin covers on all their ex-neighbours’ windows, and in protest against the garishly confident enormous billboards designed to be read by rows of queuing drivers and announcing the bright new dawn for the Edge, in these familiar words: COMMERCIAL! RETAIL! RESIDENTIAL!
I’m feeling edgy as I walk this route. Frustrated by roadworks all along Edge Lane (the city council is laying new edgings to the pavements along all the major inward routes in preparation for Capital of Culture year) which prioritise the movement of vehicles and leave pedestrians to fend for themselves, unprotected at messed-up juctions. After about four minutes waiting among dust and traffic cones at the Retail Park ‘crossing’ (4x4s squealing past en-route to Hollywood Bowl or B&Q) I say to the young mum alongside me with her child in a pushchair: “Let’s take a chance.” She agrees as we dash across: “We’ll be stood here all day otherwise.”
I’m feeling edgy as I walk this route. Tormented by an inner conflict about regeneration. It’s great to see that the old Littlewoods building is being given an Urban Splash makeover, (COMMERCIAL! RETAIL! RESIDENTIAL! of course). It is an art-deco masterpiece and a deep part of the city’s modern history, which sits on ground which once hosted the Liverpool Exhibition, a fantastically bold statement of the city’s confidence in its heyday. And further in, it’s great to see a bold new expansion being built on to the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, one of the city’s lesser-sung but most significant achievers.
But my walk along Edge Lane, Kensington makes me wonder what has happened to all those displaced people edged-out by the road-widening obsession. I’m saddened to see another great Edge Lane landmark, St Cyprians, closed, at the worst, most choking junction of all, alongside Durning Road. And I pass the offices of Nugent Care, a Roman Catholic agency whose work I know well - trying to relieve the extreme poverty of the most vulnerable individuals and families of our city who are most mocked by the developers’ COMMERCIAL! RETAIL! RESIDENTIAL! drive.
A boundary marks two sides - and in debates about regeneration it’s easy to take one or the other. But a boundary also consists of a line, which might be gingerly trod, a tightrope which may be beneficially balanced. I see other signs on my walk that it may be possible to take a third way through this edgy territory. I thrill (as always) at St Andrew’s Gardens, a wonderful piece of civic planning when built between the two wars of the Twentieth Century, one of those gigantic, curving five-storey tenement structures with a beautifully concealed inner court. This has been converted to student accommodation, as has the majestic gothic hotel on Lime Street, and that’s good, that’s imaginative.
And it strikes me for the first time (as I get to the bottom of London Road and try to see the city centre through fresh eyes) that St John’s Beacon, a bit of a 60’s folly built as a revolving restaurant and never quite fulfilling itself, is a perfect structure to house a radio station ... which is what it now does: Radio City broadcasts from there and it seems so appropriate that it should.
From the edge to the centre. A bite to eat in The Walker Art Gallery, a smile at the pigeon sitting on Lord Wellington's head atop the pompous column on William Brown Street, a thrill at every singsong Scouse voice carrying that accent which to me denotes vigorous life and energy. My feet are out. But I’m almost home.
'Approaching landing level; please take care,' the automated female voice repeats as each customer passes a sensor on the escalator connecting George to the Food Hall at Asda, Huyton. I discovered this while searching for the loos in there this morning.
‘Approaching landing level; please take care’. Useful advice for me as I dragged my weary feet just a few miles further, on a Huyton - Page Moss - Court Hey - Broad Green cycle linking M62 J6 and J5 and ending (as the motorway itself ends) at J4, The Rocket, at lunchtime today.
I’ve landed back in Liverpool. I took care to be aware of the precise point when this happened. Avoided crossing Page Moss Lane when I noticed that the telltale wheelie bins were different colours on each side of the road. Page Moss Lane marks a boundary, so I elected to continue walking among the brown bins of Knowsley, keeping my distance from Liverpool’s purple bins for just that little while longer.
The precise point where I entered into Liverpool was on the crossing where Roby Road, Court Hey becomes Bowring Park Road and there is a break in the concrete walls separating the deeply-channelled M62 from the golden-treed suburbs above it. A concrete footbridge crosses the motorway here, carrying walkers through an arch under the Liverpool - Huyton railway line on the Swanside side.
I stood in the centre of the bridge, surveying the wide upward sweep of the motorway to the crest marked by Motorway End and 40 mph signs, from which it descends to the flyover at The Rocket, suddenly integrated into the city’s south-central A-road jumble.
The Rocket, for the uninitiated, is besides the Philharmonic perhaps the most famous pub on Merseyside. Unlike the Philharmonic this is not because of its decor (though it’s nicely done up inside) nor its history (though its name of course recalls a pioneering transport experiment which happened on the railway just here 178 years ago). It is famous because numerous times daily local media traffic reporters mention its name. Usually in connection with tailbacks, sometimes with accidents blocking exits. As much of the traffic arriving in or leaving the city passes through The Rocket junction at Broad Green, it often clogs up, and when it does thousands are affected.
No clogging for me today; plenty of space to wander up and down the side of the carriageway taking many pictures of no interest to anyone but myself: pictures of road signs telling me that at last, after all these miles and under all that silly sunshine over the past 55 days, I am back in my home city. I was delighted to be greeted on my arrival by three good friends who came variously by bike, taxi and car to share a celebratory drink or two at The Rocket.
‘Approaching landing level; please take care’. That’s the challenge for me now, as the walk continues for a few days more, on into central Liverpool and around the city for a bit. Take care to land well, and carry well all I’ve brought with me, without dropping it or forgetting it. It’ll be interesting to see if ‘home’ seems different, to notice whether I’m seeing it differently or not. The Rocket certainly felt different this lunchtime. But like Huyton’s Bluebell Estate and Bowring Park and Golf Course (‘The First Municipal Golf Course in England’), today was actually the first time I’d been there. So, even in a city I mistakenly believe I know, the discoveries go on.
I'd structured in a day walking between J7 and J6 today; but that's hardly any distance at all. Perhaps when I was planning this walk I thought I'd need to be gentle on myself towards the end of the journey. Actually, it would have been gentler to get myself back to Liverpool one day sooner. I'm ready for that now, a place of my own to rest in, though the walking will go on till the end of the month.
But like virtually every other day on this long, enjoyable journey, today felt like a gift too. Because of the gorgeous unseasonal weather. Because of the chance to discover parts of the Mersey Forest I'd never seen before (including a bit of Widnes, a town I've often bypassed, never embraced), and in particular an opportunity to rediscover an old haunt from way back in my past: Pex Hill.
The walk from Rainhill to Pex Hill was perfect today. Dropping down across gently rolling farmland, around the motorway junction by a generous set of walkways and cycle routes, down past a long-abandoned sewage works which is beginning to look megalithic (a set of large wide sunken circles with single pillars in the centre, all deep with moss) and winding through rich old woodland to the base of Pex Hill.
This small hill is a remarkable place. On the one hand it is busy with all sorts of users: walkers around its reservoirs and picnicers enjoying viewpoints across the Mersey basin, kids on bikes, astronomers visiting the hilltop Leighton Observatory and rock climbers there to scale the variously challenging walls of the sandstone quarry which is dug deep into the heart of the hill. Alternatively, Pex Hill can feel deeply still, timeless even, particularly to those standing on the rugged ground of the quarry floor in a maze of pathways beneath its mature trees and imposing high red walls.
More often than not though, people up to various things share this complex and fascinating space. While I was there this morning a solo climber was scaling The Lady Jane Wall, two men wearing fluorescent jackets were talking and pointing at things by the footpath entrance, four dogwalkers clustered in conversation, three lads were enjoying jostling their mountain bikes over the rugged surfaces of the quarry floor and - this being half-term - a grandmother and grandfather were trying to distract their very lively grandson from doing what he had found amusing: shouting loudly and listening to his shrill voice echoing around the angry red walls.
I went climbing here a few times about 25 years ago. I was never a great climber and I recall being most comfortable on the sidewards routes, practicing fingerholds with only a four feet drop below me whilst other friends attempted routes like one called The Rack which according to one climbing website is 'HVS 5a: Reachy climbing between spaced holds. Harder for the short (but not that hard). Very soft touch for E1. Be careful not to fluff the top out (very sandy)!' It shows how long it is since I climbed as most of that description makes no sense to me at all today.
In other ways nothing has changed. We used to climb on summer evenings sharing the quarry with groups of youths who were rattling their two-stroke trial motorbikes up and down the lumpy floor. Today, I stopped to think that it's actually been like this all the way on this journey. My motorway-following route through public spaces has seldom offered silence and stillness to me, the natural retreatant. Every little quiet lane seems to have contained a lorry driver stopping for a sandwich; every canal bank a series of fishermen (who must equally be aware of the number of distracting walkers who pass them by). That's without mentioning the astonishing noise and provocation of the major roads which have always been a near presence. Or the fuss and bustle of many shopping centres.
I'm one for silence, when I can get it, but I've chosen to live my life mostly in public these past weeks. I've found that sharing your space with others - it's good, if you let it be. Pex Hill illustrates this well. Or when it's not good, then negotiating and reassessing shared space (like helping gran and granddad find that shrieky little boy something else to do): that can be enriching too.
BICC was Prescot, Prescot was BICC, it says on the BICC Memories website. The cable manufacturer's factory complex took an enormous acreage, at the base of the hill on which the town sits. BICC dominated the town as an employer and as a presence, and were major suppliers in the cable industry. Cables made there gave electricity to homes in Canada, Australia and China, to the London Underground and to railway lines in India. When the company began to decline from the late 1980s the factories were flattened and the wasteland stood as a silent but looming witness to BICC's demise and the global changes in manufacturing industry.
I walked through and around this site today. In long-shot (looking across the old Cables site from Prescot railway station) a modest sliver of it is now the Cables Retail Park, with its flagship Tescos and a very busy half-term MacDonalds, and a number of other large stores which each seemed to be trading far better than the shops in Prescot Centre up the hill. Most of the old BICC site, though, remains a vastness, witness to a shrinking city. Whilst constructors mark out a corner of it for housing I sensed that nature was still winning the silent contest to return the major part of this area to green wildness.
Today was a day for following the cables, for my destination was Rainhill, where I have spent numerous significant days and nights at Loyola Hall, the Jesuit retreat centre known for a wonderful, lush, semi-wild garden across which runs a line of enormous overhead power cables. Some guests at Loyola on a silent retreat are wise enough to anticipate that 'silence' will never mean a complete absence of sounds, so they are prepared to spend afternoons sitting peacefully in those wild gardens with a loud buzzing around their ears.
Those same cables originate from a substation at Sutton Manor, yesterday's end point, and after Rainhill cross the M62 (J7) at nearby Rainhill Stoops, famed staple of local radio morning traffic tailback reports. They also branch from Sutton towards Eccleston Park and Prescot, and so (trying to journey without the map) I knew that I would be on an approximately correct course today if I kept the pylons in view.
Following the cables, then, took me through parts of St Helens I'd never seen before (the tidy suburbs and redbrick terraces of Thatto Heath, a road and area called Portico on which sit Our Lady Help Of Christians, and Willowbrook Hospice). Following the cables took me over the Liverpool - Wigan railway line which will continue to be a presence on this walk till the end of the motorway and on into Liverpool city centre. Following the cables got me a bit lost in Eccleston Park and landed me in Whiston Hospital (where I climbed to the top of the new multistorey car park to get the best view of the tremendous redevelopment of that site).
And following the cables then got me on to my intended visit to Prescot, where possibly the very cables I'd been following had originally been created and ravelled, before their lasting employment as carriers of power across the wide Mersey Forest.