THE morning after my arrival in Liverpool saw me return to the waterfront from where I would be heading north through what was once part of Lancashire but is now the county of Merseyside. To most people anyway, especially those born after 1974.
I imagine there are a few older folks who still refuse to accept that Merseyside exists; some people can get surprisingly irate about their counties. Fortunately I am above such things1.
Whether Merseyside or Lancashire, it was like this…
As I ambled along towards the Pier Head, a combination of a vaguely grid-like layout and the Royal Liver Building in the distance endeavoured to give the streets an oddly transatlantic feel; albeit one that evaporated the moment I heard anyone speak.
The Scouse accent is highly distinctive and markedly different even from neighbouring Lancashire or Cheshire. The passing conversations of strangers placed me firmly in Liverpool and nowhere else.
The Liver Bird
The Liver Bird has long been an emblem of Liverpool although it was originally rather generic rather than looking like a cormorant as it does today.
King John granted the town of Liverpool a charter in 1207 and its earliest known seal, in the 1350s, showed what was probably an eagle (a favourite emblem for King John) holding a sprig of broom (the emblem of the Royal House of Plantagenet) in its beak. Later versions of the seal — whether deliberately (as cormorants are rather more plentiful on Britain’s shores than eagles) or by dint of simple artistic incompetence — made the bird look less like an eagle and more like a cormorant.
It is now officially cormorant-shaped and is a well-known symbol of the city. Although somehow its local ubiquity didn’t stop Liverpool Football Club, which naturally includes one in its badge, from trying to trademark it in 2008. Amazingly, they succeeded in 2010, registering it with the Trade Marks and Designs Registration Office of the European Union. That’s the bird itself, not the bird-on-shield badge.
Liverpool FC’s aim was of course to try to combat the counterfeiting of club-related goods and that’s all they currently plan to do with it. So while they could, for example, take the Liverpool Echo (established 1879, which is 13 years earlier than Liverpool FC) to court as the Echo doesn’t now legally hold the trademark on the Liver bird in its masthead, it’s pretty unlikely for three reasons:
Firstly, it doesn’t affect Liverpool FC’s merchandise sales, secondly because English courts recognise prior usage and thirdly it would be PR suicide.
Having regained the waterfront, I wandered along it, taking in the majestic sight of the Three Graces on my side and distant Birkenhead across the water.
Ambling north, I soon left the Three Graces behind, passing as I went what I took at first glance to be a war memorial. And so it was, but that’s not all it was.
The Engineers’ Memorial is dedicated to the ship’s engineers of the RMS Titanic, who stayed at their posts operating electrical and pumping equipment to ensure that the ship remained afloat for as long as possible.
Commissioned and paid for by subscription in 1916, the design of the Engineers’ Memorial was altered on account of the outbreak of WW1 during the four-year interval between the loss of the Titanic and the erection of the memorial. It therefore also doubles as a memorial to mariners lost during that conflict.
It was shortly after passing the Engineers’ Memorial that I ran out of waterfront. My path north would henceforth be along dockside roads, charting a course through the post-industrial dereliction that characterises that stretch of the river.
Further up, there would be working docks but in the meantime there would be ghostly shells of commerce past, awaiting demolition or, like some sort of architectural butterfly, metamorphosis into luxury flats.
An open gate in the dockside walls gave me a view across Salisbury Dock and the River Mersey towards Seacombe.
The Victoria Tower is, as you can see, a clock tower in the Gothic Revival style. Completed in 1848, it then served a vital purpose by providing the accurate time to which captains could synchronise their vessel’s chronometers.
It also provided accommodations for the Pier Master, who lived in a flat inside the tower. Its architect, Jesse Hartley (1780-1860) was apparently inspired by the castles of the Rhine. It is Grade II listed.
Salisbury Dock used to be the principal hub for Liverpool’s coastal and barge traffic (as opposed to overseas traffic) and linked the River Mersey to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Although it still forms part of the canal, its buildings are largely derelict although regeneration is planned and indeed is underway.
One of Jesse Hartley’s warehouse buildings at nearby Stanley Dock has already been converted into office space and apartments.
Tate & Lyle Sugar Silo
Dereliction slowly gave way to industrial activity as I headed northwards beside the docks. Sometimes the two existed in combination, with both buildings in use and others abandoned and decaying on the same site. Most of the buildings followed the familiar patterns of big blocky warehouses, interspersed with the occasional decaying pub. Then up ahead I saw a building that looked as though Gerry Anderson had designed it.
Built in 1955, this massive shape is not an aircraft hangar or giant Anderson shelter (pun very much intentional) but is in fact a monument to sweet success. It is in fact a sugar silo constructed for Tate & Lyle, and is still in use although not by them and not for storing sugar.
An adjoining conveyor tower that used to carry sugar from dock to silo is in a state of tragic disrepair.
If the sugar Silo looks like a 1950s or ’60s vision of the future then the 1980s version of the future lay a little further up the street. Silos, tanks and industrial-scale piping were often the BBC’s choice for showing a futuristic complex when filing their 1980s sci-fi series Blake’s 7 (which largely had only two type of exterior terrain: refinery or quarry). So much so that the theme tune naturally pops into my head whenever I see this:
When I’d finished
murdering humming the Blake’s 7 tune I then mused about what might be stored in those silos. Fuel? Paint? Mind-bending chemicals? At no point did I ever guess what’s actually in the silos pictured above. Because it’s soybean meal.
More Dangerous Than You’d Think
Yes, soybean meal, which apparently has the consistency of breadcrumbs. I know, I know, that doesn’t sound very exciting. Soybean meal practically never explodes at all and silos and pipes are meant to contain explodey dangerous things. How can soybean meal be dangerous?
Well, we would just have to ask the poor chap who was delivering some in 2012 when eight tonnes of it avalanched down a pile of the stuff inside a silo and buried him. Not that he’d answer of course; eight tonnes of anything landing on your head will pretty much do for you.
In this case, the driver seems to have been particularly doomed as the stressful situation of asphyxiating under eight tonnes of soy meal appears to have also triggered a sudden heart attack. Poor blighter.
The back road that I was walking on (Regent Road — technically the A5036 but practically deserted) ended at some gates, forcing me to head up a side street and onto the actually busy A565 (called Derby Road at that point). This was the start of some fairly dull main road walking but it did mean that I walked past a petrol station where I could buy a drink and snacks.
Bootle & Seaforth
The A565 carried me up through Bootle, which was a tiny hamlet (‘Boltelai’) in the Domesday Book of 1086 before becoming a bathing resort in the early nineteenth century and an industrial dockland by the end of it.
Royal Seaforth Dock
North of Bootle was Seaforth, and my route carried me past the gates of the Royal Seaforth Dock, the largest dock facility on the River Mersey.
Opened in 1972 as the Port of Liverpool’s purpose-built container terminal, it and the advent of containerisation are, in a very real sense, one reason for much of the dereliction I’d passed that morning (the old un-containerised docks just ceased to be viable).
Seaforth itself takes its name from the Old Norse sæ-fjord (sea inlet) and was quite different in character from that which I’d so far traversed, comprising mostly Victorian terraced housing.
Potter’s Barn Park
There I found a small park — Potter’s Barn Park — and availed myself of one of its benches for ten minutes.
The particular part of town that I was in is known as Waterloo after what used to be the Royal Waterloo Hotel, which was erected in 1816, exactly one year after the famous battle. The Waterloo theme continued past the naming of the hotel and into the design of some of its surroundings so that the buildings of Potters Barn Park are not, in fact, remnants of an ancient farm but are in fact replicas of one: the park is a reconstruction of the farm of La Haye Sainte, which featured heavily in the battle.
The original, whose name rather bizarrely means ‘the holy hedge’, was held by Allied forces and repeatedly attacked by the French until they captured it after five hours of fighting. A couple of hours later, as the French retreated (the battle as a whole having gone against them), the Allies recaptured it again.
This year is the two hundredth anniversary of that battle and I wonder if the replica park will see re-enacted action or whether Wellington’s great victory will slip by largely unnoticed except by history buffs.
These days, the Royal Waterloo Hotel that named its surroundings has itself dropped the reference and is merely the Royal Hotel, while the park offers no clue as to the nature of its design.
In addition to being a replica of a Low Countries farmhouse around which a mighty battle raged, Potters Barn Park was also my signal to take a side street away from the A565 and back towards what was no longer the riverbank (being now north of the mouth of the Mersey) but was once again the coast.
Specifically, I was heading for Seaforth Sands, the site of a pioneering Marconi radio station in 1903 and a subsequent radio operators school.
The advent of marine radio communication made a huge difference to what was then the second busiest port in the world (after London) while radio officers trained at Seaforth served aboard ships all over the world. Jack Phillips, who remained at his post broadcasting a distress signal as RMS Titanic sank was an alumnus of the training school.
Seaforth Sands radio station was taken over by the General Post Office in 1909 and moved inland, before finally transferring to Anglesey in 1960. Other than a commemorative plaque erected this year, no trace of the station remains.
Liverpool Overhead Railway
From 1894 Seaforth Sands was also the northern terminus of the Liverpool Overhead Railway, the world’s first electric elevated railway, which linked Liverpool Docks with much of the surrounding area.
The railway ran for over half a century but structural surveys in the 1950s showed that the Victorian viaducts supporting the track needed repairs that the railway simply couldn’t afford. The entire LOR closed at the end of 1956 and its structured were dismantled in 1957. As with the radio station, no trace of the LOR station remains.
Sefton Coastal Path
At this point I found myself joining the Sefton Coastal Path, which runs north through that Merseyside borough all the way up to Southport and is by far the most badly waymarked footpath that I have ever tried to navigate.
Oh, it started promisingly enough, with a lovely sign that listed the distances to various places but, thereafter, signs would be few and far between, often with a single waymark halfway down a path rather than say, at a junction giving you some idea which way to go.
Still, I had a map, so all would be fine and, as I passed this initial sign, I had no idea that it was the only one I’d be seeing for ages.
Crosby & Blundellsands
Crosby Marine Lake
The actual path was easy going and metalled at this point, as it made its way around the edge of Crosby Marine Lake.
Across this body of water lay Crosby, the ‘-by’ element of whose name is a sign of Norse influences. Originally Old Norse Krossabyr (‘cross village’) it was recorded as ‘Crosebi’ in the Domesday Book of 1086.
For centuries, Crosby continued to be a tiny coastal village until 1848 brought the arrival of the Liverpool, Crosby & Southport Railway, after which it expanded considerably as a commuter suburb of Liverpool.
On the opposite side of the path from the marine lake was Crosby Beach, a three-mile stretch of glorious sand that was not short of visitors even on a cold January Sunday. A closer look revealed that while most of the beachgoers were moving briskly about in order to maintain some sort of viable body temperature, a number were standing dead still and staring out to sea.
The ‘Iron Men’, all one hundred of them, stand staggered across two miles of beach, letting the sea wash up and over them as the tide rolls in. They have to let it do that, really, on account of being cast iron.
Officially this artwork by modern British sculptor Sir Anthony Gormley is called Another Place but absolutely no one calls it that except him. It is simply known as the ‘Iron Men’ to those who go to admire their art, ponder their meaning as to man’s relationship with nature or simply point and giggle at their slightly unfinished-looking nudity.
The artwork was first erected in Germany in 1997 before moving to Denmark and then Belgium before reaching Crosby in 2005. The original plan was for them to then be taken to New York but, despite some heated debate, Sefton Council ultimately decided that they could stay at Crosby permanently.
I was somewhat sceptical about the ‘Iron Men’ as I’m not generally a fan of Gormley’s work, which is usually based around making cast iron moulds of his own body. In this case he’s made a hundred rough copies of himself and strewn them up and down the beach, mounted on sunken piles so that they don’t fall over.
This description really didn’t sell it to me at all and I fully expected to be far from impressed but the funny thing is that when I actually saw it I found that (for me at least) the installation works. There is something oddly moving, in a melancholic fashion, about the figures stretching off into the distance in various states of submersion. To my immense surprise I rather liked it.
MV Atlantic Cartier
I ambled north along the promenade beside the beach, watching as the tide rolled slowly in to submerge the ‘Iron Men’. Families with excited dogs and excited children ran up and down the beach while, a little further north, a Roll-on Roll-off container ship waited patiently for access to Royal Seaforth Docks.
The ship in the picture is MV Atlantic Cartier, built in 1985 and operated by the American-headquartered shipping company Atlantic Container Line, whose livery she wears.
Atlantic Container Line
ACL was formed in 1965 as a consortium of several shipping companies which expanded in 1967 when two further companies bought in. One of the latter was Cunard, long associated with Liverpool, whose similar British-flagged ships Atlantic Causeway and Atlantic Conveyor were requisitioned for the Falklands War, the latter being sunk in the conflict.
Today, ACL operates five RO-RO container ships, all persisting the ‘Atlantic’ naming convention; Atlantic Companion, Atlantic Concert, Atlantic Compass and a new Atlantic Conveyor are the other four. All five are about thirty years old.
At the northern edge of affluent Blundellsands, where Crosby Beach and the ‘Iron Men’ ended, I found an indoor swimming pool with an attached café.
The café was extremely limited but furnished me with tea and a biscuit, while I considered where I would end the day’s walk. Somewhere further on than Blundellsands was definitely the plan, though the place seemed pleasant enough.
Blundellsands is named for the Blundells, a family of Catholic recusants during the Reformation (i.e. they refused to become Anglican despite many legal penalties). The Blundells hailed from the nearby village of Little Crosby, which has remained overwhelmingly Catholic to the modern day.
Having been adequately tea’d and biscuited, I set off along the straight and narrow path that headed north from Blundellsands towards Hightown, which initially looked much like this:
As I headed along it, dunes began to rise up on my right while the path became less metalled and more meandering. At one point, I had a choice of two directions and (it being the Sefton Coastal Path) no signage, so I took the one that seemed most likely. This doubled back on itself then curved around again and, almost before I knew it, spat me out onto one of Hightown’s suburban streets.
This was a bit of a surprise, as it meant the path on my map had been the direction not taken, but Hightown is essentially long and drawn out and the street I was on would lead me right through it. I therefore put the dunes behind me and made my way up a lengthy street that would have fitted into almost any modern English suburb.
The Village Centre
Historically part of the Blundell Estate, the village of Hightown sits on the mouth of the River Alt and doesn’t appear to date back before the early eighteenth century. It is fairly small with a triangular village green, close to which was a pub where I bought myself a gin and tonic. Also close to the village green was Hightown Station (opened 1848) and I knew that, had I taken the path I thought I was on, it would have diverted to close by anyway.
Why would it have diverted? Well, I can show you. For my own satisfaction I cut across the village to the other path and then let it divert me back to where I’d just come from on account of this:
Altcar Rifle Range
The Altcar Rifle Range was established in 1860 and occupies almost all of the land between the railway line and the beach. With the red flags flying and the intermittent sound of gunfire echoing across the dunes, I didn’t need much encouragement to stick to such land as remained between the range and the train tracks.
Somewhere Near Grange Farm
As vast swathes of fencing aren’t that exciting I stormed along this section apace, only slowing when the range-side fencing gave way to a flimsier version, backed by impenetrable hedging. A splash of colour hopping about on the floor caught my eye and I perched upon the edge of a handy bench to watch this brave little soul nipping out onto the path and then racing back into the hedge.
Crossing the Alt
Leaving the robin behind, I followed the fenced-in path until it crossed the River Alt by means of a bridge and then opened out into a path across an open field. Here there was a footpath crossroads with no indication as to which way the Sefton Coastal Footpath should go.
Assessing the Options
Realistically, I had two choices: I could go straight on, which would lead me straight into Formby (where I had decided to stop for the day) and almost directly to the station, or I could go left.
Left would, in theory, lead me along the northern perimeter of the firing range and right down onto the beach. However, a little way before the beach a track road would meet that path and that would also convey me into Formby except that by going this way my route to the station would be three sides of a square.
Making My Choice
A smiley, happy dog-walker heading up from the left clinched it for me when she reminded me that that path went all the way to the beach, adding that the tide was in and it was ‘lovely’. Besides, if it made any sense at all, the Sefton Coastal Path must surely take the route near the coast, right?
I shrugged and went left.
The path down to the beach was narrow, unmade and muddy and I had just come to the conclusion that the official Sefton Coastal Path was definitely on the other, metalled path when I passed an actual waymark. It was partly hidden and so far down the path that by the time you found it you were already committed but it was a waymark nonetheless. Apparently I was on the right path!
I left it again a moment later but only temporarily. I reached the track that would take me into Formby but first decided to divert onto the ‘lovely’ beach. The trek across the dunes took longer than anticipated but when I finally reached the beach the tide was, as promised ‘in’. So was more litter than I’ve seen on a beach in ages; the loveliness was badly impaired.
I retreated back to the dunes and watched some wind turbines turn.
Time was marching on and I decided I’d better do likewise. I returned to the dirt track which first became wooded and then a metalled road. A couple having an argument fell silent as I passed by them, leaving me wondering what it was that one had been about to shout that the other one needed to realise.
I hurried on, entering Formby proper and turning off to my right when I drew level with the station.
The last minutes of my walk were once again along urban streets as they carried me to the station and train back to Liverpool from where I would catch another back to London. My first walking trip of 2015 was completed.
This time: 13 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,918 miles
1So long as we’re clear that Bournemouth belongs in Hampshire.