Friday, 28 August 2015

Episode 3 - Liverpool and beyond

 More bedtime reading. 

Our 2 weeks in Salthouse Dock in the heart of Liverpool was wonderful.   Very windy though and not too warm either while we were there.  It's a very 'touristy' city with big cruise ships calling in every day bringing lots of Americans, Europeans and people from the rest of the UK. 

So much to see too - with the Beatles featuring largely throughout the city.  There is even a yellow submarine at Albert Dock - used as a B&B.   Lots of places mentioned in their songs are actual places in Liverpool e.g. Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields etc. 
The Beatles in Jelly beans!

We  went to The Cavern where they were discovered - a huge underground place with lots of photographs of famous musicians around the walls.  It was absolutely packed with tourists!   We were there just 2 days before the death of Cilla Black was announced.   She started out as a hat-check girl at The Cavern and was allowed to perform occasionally between other acts.  The whole city seemed to go into mourning - it was like when Princess Diana died - Cilla was 'our girl' - everyone's favourite.

We visited the nearby Mersey Maritime Museum at Albert Dock housed in a huge former warehouse building.   The top floor was devoted to telling the horrible stories of the transatlantic slave trade which operated in the 1700 and early 1800s.  

 Another floor had a large Titanic exhibition - the supposedly unsinkable ship was built in Belfast but was owned by the White Star Shipping Line so was registered in Liverpool as its home port.  Many of the crew were from Liverpool on the maiden voyage in April 1912 when she hit an iceberg and sank with the loss of more than 1,500 passengers and crew.

The RMS Luisitania exhibition was on another floor.  This luxury ship was owned by the Cunard Line and also registered in Liverpool.  She was the largest passenger ship in the world when launched in 1906 and made many trans Atlantic crossings before being torpedoed and sunk in 1915 by a German U-boat off the Ireland coast after leaving Liverpool, with the loss of more than 1,000 lives.

Other ships including canal boats, the work of customs and smugglers were some of the other exhibitions on display.

We visited Liverpool Anglican Cathedral - the largest Protestant cathedral in Europe - it took 74 years to build and is twice as big as St Paul's in London.  Met up with a lovely guide here who gave us an extensive tour and then gave us a souvenir program of a special concert held earlier this year for the passengers of 3 huge Cunard Line Queens - the Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2 which were visiting Liverpool to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the famous cruise line.

Walked up the street to the large Christ the King Catholic Cathedral - totally different architecture, being circular and very modern (finished 1967) with lots of stained glass windows.  Think we preferred the older one.

Took a train trip up the coast north of Liverpool to nearby Crosby Beach where 100 cast iron, life-size sculpture figures by artist Antony Gormley stare out to sea - spread out along 3 Ks of the shoreline and they go almost 1 kilometre out to sea.  Called 'Another Place' the figures each weigh 650 kilos and are made from casts of the artist's own body.  Sort of spooky - although now people are starting to dress them up in all sorts of clothing so they look a bit funny as well.

Back in Liverpool we went to the Western Approaches - an huge underground bunker where the battle of the Atlantic was run from 1941.   Designed to be bomb and gas proof with a 7 ft thick roof and 3 ft thick walls it had 100 rooms covering 50,000 sq. ft.  The Royal Navy, Air Force and Marines worked there jointly to monitor enemy convoys and submarines to ensure successful delivery of supplies and equipment into Britain from the USA and Canada, with most coming into Liverpool which was Britain's main port during WW2.   Also enemy messages were de-coded in the bunker and sent to Downing Street.  All very hush hush and people who worked down there lived there as well - must have been very depressing.

Also went on an underground tour of the former port of Liverpool - a massive area being excavated by Oxford Uni archeologists.   It's now all covered over by Liverpool One - a huge very upmarket shopping complex, office and hotels.   

Visited Speke Hall, a half timber framed mansion set in glorious gardens on the banks of the famous River Mersey.  Built over 400 years ago it was handed over to the National Trust in 1942.   Beautiful house with most of the original furniture still there - now a favourite spot for weddings etc.  It's supposed to have quite a few resident ghosts but luckily they must have been on holidays when we visited.

Of course, as in the famous song we had to catch the Ferry Across the Mersey.  At present these are painted in 'dazzle' paint to commemorate some British ships in WW1 which were painted in camouflage paint to mislead German U-boat captains.  We thought they looked pretty spectacular.

On the last day in Liverpool we went under the Mersey by train to Port Sunlight.  This unique village of 400 houses was built by Lord Lever.  As a boy he used to cut up bars of soap for his father's grocery shop.  He eventually went into the soap-making business and bought some useless swampy land where he built his factory.  

Some of his brands were Sunlight Soap, Pears Soap and since becoming the huge Unilever company in the 1950s it makes most of the modern soaps, shampoos and washing powders used throughout the world.  Lever's belief was that even factory workers were entitled to good housing so he employed 30 of the UK's top architects to design the houses as well as schools (really special as boys and girls were taught in the same classrooms - a first!) village halls, a church and a pub. 

  He also built a glorious art gallery full of treasures he and his wife had collected during their lifetime because he said not only the rich should be able to enjoy art.   There's lots of parks and open areas and each house has access to community veggie gardens.  Even today it is managed by the Trust so if you buy a house there your front garden is cared for by the Trust's gardeners.  Everything looks so neat and well kept - it's just a beautiful place to live.

We left Liverpool in convoy again - on the windiest day ever!   Came back along the Bridgewater Canal and moored up next to a park at Worseley, a little village with pretty black & white timbered houses.  It was a Saturday afternoon and a bridal party came along for photo shots on the nearby bridge and along the canal.   It started to pour rain (again!!) and they were sheltering under a tree next to our boat.   Took pity on them so we lent them umbrellas so they could get back to their nearby reception place.   Even got invited to have a "drink of bubbly" at the reception!

Back on the Trent & Mersey canal we came to one of the canal system's engineering marvels - the Anderton Lift.   It was built in 1875 to lift cargo boats 50 feet from the Weaver River up to the Trent & Mersey.   

It worked until 1983 and was almost dismantled until funds were raised (about $18 million) for repairs and it reopened in 2002.  It works by hydraulically counter-balancing two watertight tanks that can each carrying two canal boats up and down.  While we were waiting to go onto it we were approached by a lady asking if we could take her husband on board for the trip down.  Turned out they were from Scotland on holiday in England and she said it would "just make his holiday".  The trip lasted about 10 minutes with bus loads of tourists taking photos from the side.   We spent a couple of days on the lovely Weaver River - quite big but not with a dangerous current - before making the return journey on the Lift up to the Trent & Mersey.

Five minutes later we came on a Salt Museum.   Apparently the whole Cheshire area has provided salt for centuries.   The museum showed how they pumped brine water up from underground into large pans.   These were heated for days from large furnaces underneath until most of the water evaporated.  The salt was then shovelled into wooden moulds and left to dry out for a couple of weeks before it was either crushed for table salt or cut into smaller pieces.  Another hot and dangerous job!   

Seems so much underground water was removed over the years that a lot of houses and whole villages just disappeared into the ground.    These days lots of lakes (former sinkholes) filled with water birds live around the area so some good has come from the salt mining.

The rain and cool weather continued all the way to Chester where we moored up right outside the old city wall built by the Romans.    

Sooz, Ten and the girls drove up from London to spend the weekend with us.   First time they have actually slept on the boat.   Olive and Iris were quite amused to think Mum and Dad were going to sleep 'on the table' not realising until the next morning when they saw that it dropped down to make a double bed.

We showed them around Chester - a very ancient city founded by the Romans in 43AD with many of the Roman ruins still on display.  It was originally an important sea port but one of the aristocrats in the 1500s changed the course of the river which promptly silted up so then Liverpool became the major seaport on the western coast.   We went through the Chester Cathedral which even had an 'Alice in Wonderland' exhibition which was a bit of fun for the girls.
Next came a tour of the city on a 1914 double-decker omnibus with a Victorian-dressed lady giving an interesting commentary about the city.
Back on the boat we set out for a couple of hours to Ellesmere Port where we had a look through a canal boat museum.  Amazing to see the living conditions on the old working boats - tiny cabins about the size of the kitchen on our boat where whole families lived while transporting cargoes.  

On Saturday night we went to a nearby South African restaurant where Ten & Sooz convinced us to try ostrich and crocodile! Next morning before we headed back to Chester the museum where we were moored  up had horse carriage rides and we followed a boat being pulled by a horse like the good old days before canal boats had engines.  Looks like hard work though!!

On Monday, Verena & Erwin, our neighbours from Ruffy, travelled down from the Lakes District where they had been walking for a few days, to spend a couple of nights with us.   We moored up near Chester station to meet them and then set out again for Ellesmere Port.  

This meant we had to go down a 3 lock staircase so Erwin was put to work winding down the paddles and pushing the gates - hope he enjoyed it!    We arrived at the museum only about an hour before closing time so it was a quick run around but they saw quite a lot of it.   Next day we motored back to Chester with Verena helping with the locks too.  We did the old bus tour to give them a general overview of the city.  

The same lady commentator gave some amusing facts - the English and Welsh (the border is just across the river) were always fighting so all the church towers and the town hall don't have a clock facing Wales as they 'wouldn't give them the time of day!"   Also some of the houses in Chester have bricked up windows as in the 1600s a tax was brought in on houses that had more than 6 window panes.  Of course this meant there was no light in these rooms so the tax was called 'the daylight robbery' tax.  We went for a walk around some of the city wall - it's more than 2 miles right round and then saw some of the many black & white shopping rows.  Verena & Erwin left early next morning by train to Manchester airport for a flight to Switzerland where they will be catching up with family before a cruise down the Danube.  Sounds fantastic.

Left Chester and travelled down the pretty Shropshire Union Canal.  Lots of black & white cows in the paddocks - must be to match the Chester buildings - as well as quite a few farm shops when we stopped at some of the locks selling veggies, eggs, homemade cakes, pies and preserves etc.   Even picked up a bunch of highly perfumed sweet peas at one place.  No one on hand to serve - just an 'honesty box' for `the money.

Just for something new the weather turned rainy again so we waited a day before tackling the Wolverhampton 21 (locks).  

 We're now moored up at the Black Country Museum on the outskirts of Birmingham where it is said there are more canals than in Venice - they head off in all directions so hope the navigator gets it right!

More news later.....