Liver Birds and Lambananas – Liverpool, England.
“You’re going to Liverpool?” The barber’s eyes widened, as though I had just told him I was off to some no-man’s land in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Yes, I’m going up there for a few days to see some friends.”
“Well, look out for the Scouse accent – it’s like they’re not even from the same country. And be careful.”
It’s no secret that Liverpool has something of a bad reputation around England; ask a Londoner or a Mancunian about the city and they will most likely come out with something that is neither positive nor complimentary.
But my experience of the city was quite different – I discovered one of the most underrated destinations in the region. A city on the up; funky, vibrant and laidback. And if you happen to be interested in maritime history (like myself), then this is a place you have to see.
I began to like Liverpool the very moment I stepped outside Lime Street Station. Immediately I could feel the cool sea breezes coming up the Mersey Estuary, and within five seconds I had spotted the iconic Liver Building (pronounced LIE-ver) in the distance. Instinctively I started walking down the street in its direction, without the aid of a map. All I had to do to get to the waterfront was follow the signage and the gentle slope of the terrain.
Along the way I passed through well-kept pedestrianised streets lined with brand new buildings – a far cry from the image that the rest of the country seems to have of Liverpool. When I did reach the waterfront I was awed by its sense of history. Cobblestones and impressive warehouses in red brick harked back to a time when 40% of the world’s trade passed through these docks.
It wasn’t long before I found what I was looking for. I stepped into the Merseyside Maritime Museum and soon I was surrounded by models and exhibits of the great ocean liners I had grown up reading about. I couldn’t help oohing and aahing as I took in the actual builder’s model of the Titanic and some artifacts from its wreck. In another gallery there was even an old oil painting of Hong Kong from the 1880s, when the harbour was twice the width it is now.
Directly above the Maritime Museum is the sobering International Slavery Museum. As one of Britain’s premier ports, Liverpool played a crucial role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the late 17th century until its abolition throughout the British Empire in 1807. It was the vast profits from the slave trade that made Liverpool one of Britain’s wealthiest cities of the time.
After a quick lunch by the quayside I strolled up the Strand towards Pier Head to get a closer look at the ‘Three Graces’, a beautiful architectural ensemble that has stood on the waterfront since the turn of the 20th century. They consist of the Liver Building, built for the Royal Liver Assurance group; the Cunard Building, former headquarters of that legendary shipping line (think Queen Mary and Elizabeth I and II); and the grandiose Port of Liverpool Building.
At the top of the Liver Building stand two large birds in copper, each with a sprig of seaweed in their mouths. These are the mythical Liver Birds, the much-loved symbol of Liverpool present on everything from the flag and coat of arms of the city to the badge of its famous football club.
Part eagle, part cormorant, these birds were used to represent Liverpool since medieval times. The pair on the Liver Building are of different genders and have specific roles – the female looks out to sea, waiting for the seamen to come home, while the male watches over the city to see if the pubs are open. It’s said that if they were ever to fly away, the city would cease to exist. And so they are permanently chained to the building, irrespective of the fact that they are made out of copper and not real feathers.
Since 1998 Liverpool has had an additional mascot by the name of “Superlambanana”. A bright yellow 17-foot sculpture, it is literally a cross between a lamb and a banana, both of which were once common cargos in the city’s docks. I didn’t see the actual sculpture but as I was walking around I did spot a few small ones on pavements and in shop windows.
Seeing it reminded me of the gigantic flower dog in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao, and how it became a well-loved symbol of the city within a very short space of time. And just like Bilbao, Liverpool has undergone an amazing transformation in recent years. Fitted out with new architecture, new museums and new streetscapes, it is no longer the rusting, down-at-heel port city it once was.
In 2004 six areas in the historic centre – including the waterfront – were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The explanation was that Liverpool presented “the supreme example of a commercial port at a time of Britain’s greatest global influence”.
And that wasn’t all – in 2008 Liverpool held the coveted title of European Capital of Culture. Among a host of grand cultural events, 125 scaled-down replicas of Superlambanana were placed throughout the city, while a giant mechanical spider roamed the streets. I bet the rest of the country was baffled by the choice, but for the city that gave birth to the Beatles, it was time to step back into the limelight.
After a while I decided to follow the gaze of the male Liver Bird and head inland, towards Liverpool’s two magnificent cathedrals. My first stop was the Metropolitan Cathedral, built in the 1960s for the city’s burgeoning Catholic community. Known affectionately as “Paddy’s Wigwam”, it marks the influence of Irish immigrants on the city’s 800-year history. No other city in England has such strong Irish heritage; even the local Scouse dialect is clearly influenced by Irish pronunciation.
The Metropolitan Cathedral is a building that must be experienced both from the inside and the outside. Walking around the structure will bring you to a massive plaza at the back, where the size of the building becomes most apparent. In the interior the modern stained glass windows are breathtaking.
The two cathedrals – one Catholic and the other Protestant (Anglican) – are connected by a road named ‘Hope Street’. Though remarkably apt, it was in fact named long before either one was built.
The formidable Anglican cathedral was built relatively late (1904-1978), but it retains the immense scale and grandeur of older Gothic cathedrals. Architecturally it is the opposite of the Metropolitan, and its towering spaces hint at the building’s superlatives – largest cathedral in the UK and 5th largest in the world. Especially beautiful is the Lady Chapel, the oldest and most ornate part of the church.
Just two blocks away from the Anglican Cathedral stands the elaborate pailou (archway) marking the entrance to Liverpool’s Chinatown, home to the oldest Chinese community in all of Europe. Chinese mariners first came to Liverpool in the early 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that many of them settled in the city. Eventually their numbers peaked at around 20,000 at the onset of World War II. Some of these men married local working-class women, producing a sizeable Eurasian community and the first cohort of British-Born Chinese (BBCs for short). Unfortunately most of the Chinese seamen were forced to leave after the war, leaving behind broken families and children who would never know their fathers.
After reading about the tragic history of the Liverpool Eurasians a few years back, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage of sorts to Liverpool’s Chinatown, before leaving England for good. So here I was, standing below the largest pailou outside China and watching it glinting in the late afternoon sun. I thought of my own family’s experiences in the Americas and my great-grandfather who left China for New York in 1899. He was lucky – unlike the Liverpool seamen he could choose to stay in America or leave voluntarily.
It was a moment of quiet contemplation before realising that I had completely lost my sense of time. I promised my friends I’d be in their town by six but now it was 17:55 – I was 15 minutes away from Lime Street and it would be another 40 minutes before the train pulled into their station.
So then I was left with a dilemma: do I ditch Liverpool or my friends? Deep down I wanted to stay a few more hours but my head said no. So I picked up my things and started to run.
Clearly, I had gone superlambananas.