30 September 2014

England: Liverpool and the ‘Ferry cross the Mersey’

Just like the old Gerry and the Pacemakers song, we took the ferry across the Mersey to visit the city of Liverpool – twice, in fact, from Seacombe (where we parked the car) to Pier Head, then back again late afternoon.

Luckily we set off relatively early, at 9am, to reach Seacombe by 10 for the 10.30 ferry. I say luckily because there was a long queue of folk waiting and thousands more wandering around the foreshore across the river. The reason was the Giants,  a small group of enormous puppets made and designed by French group Royal de Luxe and their director Jean-Luc Courcoult, which were on display in the city from 23 to 27 July and were leaving this very morning. There was to be a parade of the Giants through the city centre streets from 9am to 11-ish, then they were to be loaded on a ship at noon. We’d known about this but hadn’t expected so many people.

The ferry ride was good – it wasn’t just the standard commuter ferry but rather a River Explorer, so there was a commentary about points of interests (though we couldn’t hear well because of the buzz of chatter from all the excited passengers) and an extra stop on our side of the river before we crossed over the Mersey.

From left, the Royal Liver building, the Cunard building and the Port of Liverpool building

One of the Three Graces, the Port of Liverpool building
Victory tries to catch a Liver Bird with his laurel wreath!
Liverpool’s waterfront is impressive! Pier Head is dominated by the Three Graces, three huge beautiful buildings: the Royal Liver building, the Cunard building and the Ports of Liverpool building, magnificent monuments to Liverpool’s lengthy history as a seafaring and trading city. I loved the two huge statues of cormorant-like birds on top of the Royal Liver building, Liver Birds, the legendary birds that supposedly bring luck to the city.  

There are also newer buildings – the Museum of Liverpool, office towers and hotel edifices, and then the Albert Dock area, a series of huge brick warehouses, where sailing ships would have loaded and unloaded their cargoes in years past but which now house restaurants and shops, a branch of the Tate Art Gallery, a slavery and other museums, and apartments. It’s a great area for tourists and local visitors alike.

Some of Liverpool's wonderful old architecture

On arrival at Pier Head, we initially thought we’d hang around to see the Giants then found out that the parade had already finished, and we would have to wait for an hour or more for another glimpse of them being loaded onto their ship – not a particularly pleasant prospect standing on the hard pavement in full sun amongst huge crowds. (You can see photos of the parade here.) So, rather than wait, we went wandering the streets, a little aimlessly, with me marvelling at and photographing the buildings, their sculptural decoration – always a fascination – and the occasional pub sign – they will feature in a separate blog.

St George's Hall and the former Station Hotel

The Walker Art Gallery and the World Museum

After some meandering, we reached another area of amazing buildings, appropriately labelled the Cultural Quarter, where can be found the World Museum, the Walker Art Gallery, the Central Library, and various theatres, the former Station Hotel and Lime Street Railway Station, and in the centre of them all, St George’s Hall. With its classical façade, this hall is impressive on the outside but within it is quite outstanding. As well as an old courtroom and the holding cells underneath, at its core is the most splendid huge hall. Its ornate decoration is superb – ceilings, chandeliers, statues, a huge organ, enormous stained glass windows at either end – all incredible!

Inside St Geroge's Hall

By this time we were hungry but the huge crowds meant most places were full – no, we did not want to wait an hour for the privilege of eating at a Jamie Oliver restaurant, thanks very much. Eventually, we found a place at Albert Docks, where we had pub lunches and enjoyed a welcome sit down.

Fun modern sculpture

The Three Graces reflected in the modern Museum of Liverpool

We explored the Docks and waterfront area, and considered taking the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour but tickets were £8 each which didn’t seem worth it. And, to be honest, I was feeling rather weary – I think my five weeks of constant sightseeing, both in Morocco and here in England, were catching up with me. So, we sat by the waterfront, enjoyed a cold icecream and a drink, people-watched and relaxed until it was time for our ferry back across the Mersey to Seacombe.

The Three Graces from Albert Docks

The refurbished old warehouses of Albert Docks
It didn’t surprise me to learn after my visit that Liverpool achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004. Like Manchester, it is another city I would like to live in for a time – in fact, I would probably prefer it to Manchester because of its riverside and its being close to the sea and its plethora of amazing architecture and its wealth of culture and entertainment. Time to make a move?

29 September 2014

England: Dunham Massey and the Pirates of Penzance

While I was in Cheshire, I had two visits to Dunham Massey estate – it’s one of the National Trust’s most excellent properties so was yet another instance where I could use my newly bought annual membership card – such value for money!   

Our first visit was for entertainment and we arrived too late to tour the house but did have a wander around the charming gardens, with their dazzling display of roses, lush herbaceous borders and exquisite flowering shrubs. Kaleidoscopic butterflies fluttered from bloom to bloom and the leg sacs of pollen-gathering bees glowed bright yellow.

Delight then turned to hilarity, as we set up our deck chairs on the lawn, enjoyed our picnic dinner and the evening’s entertainment began. Illyria is an open-air touring theatre company that performs all types of plays, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Shakespeare, at venues ranging from stately homes to parks throughout the UK and in Europe. Their performance of The Pirates of Penzance was laugh-out-loud funny. Amazingly, there was no rain, the crowd was very good-natured, and the garden setting perfect, spoiled only slightly by the background noise of flights taking off from Manchester airport (which are more frequent in the summer months as holidaymakers head off to their favourite Mediterranean destinations). What better way to enjoy a warm English summer evening!

Our second visit to Dunham Massey was a week or so later. At the moment, due to 2014 being the centenary of the start of World War One, the mansion has been partly transformed back to how it was from April 1917 to February 1919 when Dunham Massey became the Stamford Military Hospital, one of the 3244 auxiliary hospitals created to treat the war-wounded. By the time it closed, 282 soldiers had found sanctuary from the trenches in Dunham’s beautiful surroundings.

The recreated hospital is based on original records from the Dunham Massey archives and several rooms have been transformed into wards, soldiers’ living room, an operating theatre, etc., with detailed displays quoting soldiers who were treated there and the personnel who treated them. The recreation was very well done, with messages from the soldiers written on the pillows of their hospital beds and sounds (of men struggling to breath or moaning) brought a touch of reality to the scene. There were also brief profiles of the soldiers, and actors silently recreating some of the activities – a nurse rolling bandages, a solider playing the card game Patience.

The rest of the house remains much as it was when the last occupant Roger Grey, the 10th Earl of Stamford, died in 1910 – he bequeathed the house, its contents and the 3000-acre estate to the National Trust. One of the more notable pieces of furniture in the mansion is the State Bed (above right). Raised on gilded feet and topped with ostrich feathers, it mostly dates from the 1680s – it has been altered twice in its 300-plus-year history. In those days, beds were the most expensive items of furniture in houses and were left to subsequent generations in wills. Amazingly, the crimson-coloured silk velvet, gold-coloured silk and silver-and-gold-embroidery all date from the 17th century.

Though a very grand house, some of the other rooms at Dunham Massey were quite homely and comfortable, finely furnished but with familiar items like photographs and piles of newspapers. I really liked that! And I loved the library – always a favourite place of mine.

After our walk through the house, we checked out the old water mill. The history of water mills on the estate dates back to 1347, though the present mill dates from 1616. Amazingly, it was working until March this year, when part of the wheel broke off. A shortage of elm (following the devastation of elm trees by Dutch Elm Disease) and the need to raise money for the repair has meant a delay in getting everything working again but the mill should be up and running by the start of summer 2015. It was originally used to grind wheat, malt and barley but was converted to a water-powered sawmill in the 1860s. It was fascinating to hear the guide explain the workings.

We also strolled along a couple of the long tree-lined avenues that radiate out from the house. The estate is well stocked with fallow deer and, luckily, these elegant creatures are not particularly shy of human visitors. We watched them for quite a time and were able to get close enough for good photos. A wonderful way to finish off a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon!

28 September 2014

England: Manchester – who knew?

An eclectic mix of old and new
What a great city! Vibrant and pulsating, full of colour and energy – these were my first impressions after spending just one day in Manchester.

It has quite a large, spread out city centre – or, at least, it felt like that after we had spent several hours walking from one end to the other and criss-crossing back and forth. Manchester is known as the first modern industrial city, built during the Industrial Revolution, and so is synonymous with cavernous warehouses and towering mills. For me, this is one of its attractions and I enjoyed its unique mix of old and new buildings, with their wonderfully eclectic architecture.

I saw more gargoyles than I’ve ever seen in one day before, as well as carved stone heads and full figures and other ornate sculptural ornamentation. I was warmed by the overall red tinge to the urban landscape, created by the red brick used to construct most of the older buildings. And, though there were many tall modern buildings, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by concrete-and-glass skyscrapers, as I sometimes do in big cities. The transport system also seemed very efficient – there are modern trams, rather than an underground, which were cheap, fast and efficient.

We caught the train from Northwich to Manchester, an hour each way as it stopped at several stations along the way (there are express trains for commuters), then the tram from Manchester’s Piccadilly Station to Deansgate to visit the Museum of Science and Technology. It’s a huge place, spread over five old buildings which are worth a look for their own sakes. One is the first railway station ever built, the former Liverpool Rd station, which opened in September 1830. Its interior has been restored and refurbished so you can relive the glory days of rail travel.

One of the museum buildings and a Langton-JAP speedway motorcycle

A 1911 Vulcan 4-4-0 locomotive and an Imperial Touring Car, dating from 1904
The exhibition spaces at the museum are large, well explained and have good hands-on activities for kids young and old. There is lots of working machinery, particularly in the Power Hall, which is full of engines and trains. In fact, transport is one of the major themes, with lots of transport-related exhibits, and, naturally enough, there are many displays related to Manchester’s industrial past, dominated by textiles and mill machinery. I can also report that the café had good food – yummy lunchtime pizza, and I was impressed with the museum shop – I bought a very cool tshirt that lists all the components of the human body on the front.

The John Rylands Library, side and front views

Next stop on our Manchester meander was the John Rylands Library, a truly magnificent building that has recently been restored and refurbished. John Rylands (1801-88) was, at one time, the owner of the biggest textile-manufacturing business in the UK, became Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, and was also an unpretentious philanthropist, sponsoring orphanages, homes for the elderly and public buildings. The library was founded, in 1900, by Ryland’s wife, in memory of her husband.

The Reading Room, the staircase, the cloisters - all magnificent!

The neo-Gothic building, with Arts and Crafts details, is like a cathedral that pays homage to the book. It has cloistered walkways with carved stone bosses, some in the shapes of flowers or leaves, others with dragons and griffins. It boasts double-height reading rooms, full of glass-fronted cases of wonderful old books – its Special Collections are reputed to be the best in Britain. Its ‘nave’ is an enormous reading room with stained-glass windows at each end, towering above and illuminating statues of Mr and Mrs Rylands. The staircase is more grand than any I’ve ever seen, with huge Gothic arches and a view up to the Lantern Gallery above.

Barton Arcade
And the exterior of the building is just as impressive, with an ornate façade on Deansgate and gorgeous gargoyles of all sizes and designs, sometimes sitting atop guttering hoppers and downpipes, other times perched at the junctions of window arches. The whole place was simply amazing, right down to lamps shaped like inverted cotton flowers because that’s how Rylands made his money. Highly recommended if you ever get the chance to visit!

After admiring the library we continued down Deansgate to the area of the city that was severely bombed by IRA terrorists on 15 June 1996. First, we detoured through Barton Arcade, a winding covered arcade with an ornate roof of glass and wrought iron that was built in 1871 and is still home to fashionable shops, cafés and bars, then wandered past the lovely medieval Music School building, built on the site of Manchester Castle.

Where the older buildings were destroyed by that massive 1500-kg IRA bomb, a huge shopping centre now stands but there are also plenty of open spaces, populated by benches where Mancunians can enjoy the open air and sunshine. We walked through Shambles Square, home to the extremely popular Old Washington Inn – the oldest pub in town, which was relocated to this site in 1999 – to Manchester Cathedral, another grand old building with fantastic gargoyles.

Shambles Square

Manchester's Anglican Cathedral
The pulpitum

Originally constructed in the late 15th century, the Anglican cathedral was extended and remodelled in the Victorian period, and received further repairs and restoration after the 1996 bombing. The interior is now a mix of old and new, which didn’t particularly appeal to me – colourful dangling decorations in a centuries-old doorway is not to my taste but does, I assume, make the building more appealing to the younger generations of worshippers. 

There were many wonderful old features, though – the choir stalls were intricately carved and rivalled Chester’s in magnificence, the screen (pulpitum) that separates the nave from the quire is particularly fine, as are the carvings on the misericords.

From the cathedral we headed to Albert Square where an area roped off for a jazz festival didn’t help with getting photos but I still grabbed several of the impressive Victorian Gothic Town Hall, a monument to Prince Albert and a gargoyle fountain that was erected for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria – presumably, no resemblance intended! 

Our route from there to the railway station, to catch the train home, took us through Chinatown, with its Asian restaurants and signs and a very grand archway. By then, I was footsore, a little sweaty and rather weary, but very impressed with Manchester. I will be back!

Manchester Town Hall

26 September 2014

Wales: Chirk and Pontcysyllte Aqueducts

We packed a lot in to our one-day trip to Wales. After leaving Chirk Castle, it was a short drive to Chirk Aqueduct, located just three miles outside the town. Constructed by that master of engineering, Thomas Telford, Chirk Aqueduct was opened in 1801. It has 10 spans of 40 feet each, stands 70 feet high, is 710 feet long, is made of masonry and stone, and carries the Llangollen Canal across the River Ceiriog from Wales to England.

Here it comes, there it goes

Beside it stands a railway viaduct, constructed both later and higher, apparently to suggest railway supremacy. Built between 1846 and 1848, Chirk Viaduct was the work of Scottish engineer Henry Robertson. The 100-foot-high stone structure has ten spans with round arches, and links Liverpool and the Wirral with Shrewsbury and the south. As luck would have it, an English-bound train crossed over while we were there, so I managed to get a photo of the viaduct in use. I imagine the view from the train would be superb.

As you approach these two impressive feats of engineering from Chirk township, you can’t help but wonder at first where the water comes from. In fact, when you’re standing at the viewpoint, the canal emerges almost directly under your feet, from the 460-yard-long Chirk Tunnel, flowing out into a small basin before continuing across the aqueduct.

There is a footpath alongside the water channel on the aqueduct so, of course, we walked across it. Though I’m not particularly fond of heights, it wasn’t too scary. The footpath is quite wide, so you don’t feel like you will fall into the water on one side or need to grasp for dear life onto the hand rail on the other. We walked a bit further along the canal and found a boatman selling traditional painted narrowboat crafts from his boat/shop so did a wee spot of shopping (a mug and a fridge magnet for me, a jug for Sarah), then turned around and walked back across the aqueduct just as some boats were coming over – perfect timing for photos.

England on one side, Wales on the other
The 46-mile-long Llangollen Canal is one of the most popular in Wales for recreational craft as we soon discovered, as more boats were coming through the tunnel when we got back to the other side. It takes the canal boats approximately 12 minutes to sail slowly through Chirk tunnel, which also has a footpath running along next to the water. So, though it was a trifle damp here and there, we walked through the tunnel to the other end and then back along the roadway at the top.

At this stage we realised, from looking at a local signboard and map, that we were not actually at the aqueduct we had particularly come to see so we set off in search of that. Pontcysyllte is Chirk’s big brother, both longer and much higher. Another of Thomas Telford’s constructions, it is 1007 feet long, rises 127 feet over the River Dee, has 18 piers made of local stone, and took 10 years to build, opening in 1805. It was one of the earliest aqueducts to use a cast iron trough, which is 11 feet 10 inches wide and 5 feet 3 inches deep. Fifty million litres of water cross the Pontcysyllte Canal each day to supply drinking water to south Cheshire.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was added to the World Heritage List in 2009, as a site of Outstanding Universal Value. It is the highest navigable aqueduct ever built and is recognised internationally as a masterpiece of civil engineering, and it is more than a little scary to walk across. This is partly because its footpath is much narrower than Chirk’s but also it is 30 feet taller and the wind flowing through the valley can reach quite high speeds.

Still, walk across we did! I would have stopped for photos but Sarah is much more afraid of heights than me and was freaking out just a little at the prospect. So, with dogged determination, we walked straight across, eyes looking straight ahead not down. It was mind boggling and heart thumping and knee knivering all at the same time – scary but also exhilarating!

Left, the bridge lifts up so boats can pass. Right, the old bridge at the bottom of the valley.
However, Sarah definitely didn’t want to retrace our steps, and we did want to get photos from down in the valley below so we headed down the road towards a narrow old bridge that crosses the River Dee at the bottom. From there, we had a splendid view of the aqueduct and of boats going across, before walking back up the other side of the valley to the small settlement of Trevor where the car was parked and where there is a small marina.

By this time it was 7pm. We were hot and needing refreshment as our delicious lunch at Chirk Castle seemed but a distant memory. So we enjoyed our dinner – appropriately enough I had a Welsh lamb burger – on the benches outside a pub by the canal side, before heading home, hot and weary but full of the joys of a wonderful day.

Left, the pub where we ate dinner