A hard rain falls as we set off to visit this city’s two cathedrals. As the old Irish Liverpudlian song puts it, “If you want a cathedral, we’ve got one to spare…”
They squat on opposing hills, and the one going spare is probably a matter of taste. We begin with Liverpool Cathedral, sitting square and high on St James’s Mount.
Perhaps it accounts as an odd thing for two atheists to do, but we visited four cathedrals or minsters during our holiday at home (Beverley, Halifax and Liverpool times two). Those without belief can still be lifted by a good church.
Liverpool’s two cathedrals are modern. Liverpool Cathedral, which we enter dripping, took threequarters of a century to build and was completed in 1978. This Church of England cathedral was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who knocked off the red telephone box (there is one inside the cathedral). Other commissions included Battersea Power Station and the Cambridge University Library.
This is, as they will proudly tell you, the largest such building in the UK, and the fifth largest in the world. The size is undeniable, but puzzling: why in the 20th century was such an enormous building deemed to be a good idea?
Liverpool Cathedral is hugely impressive, with its red-brick vaults, yet it is also quite gloomy and has architectural oddities, such as a beautiful stained-glass window blocked by a bridge. A clever modern addition tucks the café on a high shelf beneath another stained-glass window.
That hard rain is still falling as we leave to see how the opposing team compares. Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is known by the locals as Paddy’s Wigwam, thanks to its distinctive shape, with a prominent central tower and a surrounding low roof that slopes in a tent-like manner. The truncated conical tower is topped by a crown of thorns rising into the (grey and damp) sky.
This cathedral could have been as massive as its opposite number. In sense it is, but only underground. The original plan in the 1930s had been for a traditional cathedral. The architect was Sir Edwin Lutyens, who died while the crypt was being completed.
After the war, amid shortages and more desperate needs, the work was suspended. Lutyens’ crypt lies beneath the modernist cathedral and the remains are vaulted and vast, hinting at how huge would have been the finished church. Well worth three quid for this surprising visiting below the surface.
The church above ground was commissioned in 1960 in a competition won by the modernist architect Frederick Gibberd, who had earlier been planner for the new town of Harlow in Essex.
Gibberd’s design is simple and beautiful, with circular seating so that all worshippers are close to the central pulpit. Lovely smaller chapels line the outer circle, each lit with different shades of stained glass. The conical tower is filled with stained glass, throwing coloured light into the building, or at night beaming the same light out across the city.
It’s all a matter of taste, but to my impartial eyes, the Catholics kick architectural ass in Liverpool.
It wasn’t all churches…
Don’t get carried away with the idea that we did only churchy things in Liverpool. We visited the Keith Haring exhibition at the Tate (fabulous), went on an open-topped bus tour where the guide picked up a guitar and sang Beatles songs (and sang them well). This tour stopped off at Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields and glimpsed down Paul McCartney’s old street, where tourists thronged outside his old house; an odd sight, but you can’t escape the Beatles in Liverpool.
We also visited the maritime museum with its properly unsettling slavery museum, and the Museum of Liverpool, which had the moving (but temporary) exhibition Double Fantasy, about John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
There are many fine quayside buildings in Liverpool, with the most famous being known as the Three Graces: the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building. The Liver Bird building was the first major building in Britain to be built using reinforced concrete.
We also slept in an old prison (or tried to, as the church next door tolled all night long) and visited two great pubs in Dale Street to fulfil my need for holiday beer. One was a modern bar, the Dead Crafty Beer Company, the other a perfect beery pub, the Ship & Mitre, where we quietly played Scrabble among the chatting locals.
There was no pen or paper, so we played without scoring, although I’m pretty sure I lost as usual.
We loved Liverpool and will be back.