#35 – UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Liverpool, Maritime Mercantile City
Liverpool, wow! Such a lot to see and do. I spent three very full days there and that was nowhere near enough. The purpose of my visit was, of course, to tick off another one of the English UNESCO World Heritage sites (which I did) and I also had a lot of fun besides.
Liverpool is listed by UNESCO as one of the best surviving examples of a ‘maritime mercantile city’, one of the world’s major trading centres, for its impressive architecture and industrial landscapes. The development and use of the docks in the 18th and 19th centuries gave Liverpool a pivotal role in the development of the British Empire and an opportunity to develop new technologies and new ways of dock management and it is this heritage which is significant. Dock activity and commerce is much reduced today but the buildings, canals and old docks are still in evidence and have been restored and developed into new uses as homes, offices, restaurants, shops and leisure spaces including many museums.
During the 18th century Liverpool was the focus for major movement of people, both as a key location for the trans-Atlantic slave trade and for emigrants, especially to America. In the 19th century, this focus changed to commercial goods including cotton, tobacco, rum, tea and sugar. The city’s cotton exchange was one of the most important in the world and laws developed in Liverpool governing the trade of cotton are still in use now. As a result of such major movements of people through the city, some of who came and settled rather than moving on, Liverpool’s population today is truly multicultural and includes a large Chinatown area; the first to be established in a European city.
So, why did all this expansion take place in Liverpool? It all grew from the small tidal inlet of the Mersey which came to a sheltered natural harbour known as the Pool. Boats would moor up in the Pool, unload their cargoes and take on more goods, then wait for the tide to arrive to refloat them before continuing their trade. The city realised it would be more efficient to develop an enclosed dock so they were less dependent on the tides, and opened the world’s first wet dock (now called Old Dock) in 1715. This quickly became the model for dock management worldwide.
As trade grew, warehouses were constructed to hold goods (including bonded warehouses for commodities such as tobacco) and methods of transporting goods to and from ports were developed including canal systems and railways. Associated industries grew up, including the Tate and Lyle factory for sugar processing, together with the infrastructure to support them.
Liverpool’s position as a lynchpin of trade in the British Empire is reflected in the wealth clearly displayed in the city’s architecture.
Fantastic and ornate public buildings include the Three Graces on the waterfront at Pier Head (the Royal Liver building, the Cunard building and the Port of Liverpool building) and in the William Brown Street area, the colossal St George’s Hall and the classical structures of the library, galleries and museums.
There was a lot of walking involved in exploring the Liverpool World Heritage site as it comprises six separate areas:
- Pier Head, home to the Three Graces and the centre of passenger transportation
- The Albert Dock, with its restored warehouses and fantastic waterfront views
- The Stanley Dock, largely derelict at present but site of the world’s largest brick built building and the start of the Leeds Liverpool canal
- The Commercial Centre around Castle Street/Dale Street area, site of much of the port’s commercial activity and therefore home to important merchant and industrial buildings
- The William Brown Street conservation area with its impressive civic buildings
- The Duke Street/Ropewalks area which became the principal residential area for the merchants of the port city
Visiting the city to learn about the history and importance of its docks was a fascinating experience. There are now a number of excellent museums, including exhibits on the port itself, Liverpool’s role in the Empire and the slave trade. I was both interested and appalled to learn how ships left Liverpool full of goods to trade with Africans in return for slaves, then sailed to the Caribbean and Americas transporting the slaves in such poor conditions that many of them didn’t survive the journey, to sell the slaves there into a lifetime of labour to produce more goods (tobacco, sugar, rum) for the ships to then bring back to Europe via Liverpool.
I enjoyed wandering around the Albert Dock taking in the views and enjoying the atmosphere, I was struck by the poignancy of the evident decay in Stanley Dock which illustrates the city’s decline and how close all this history was to being lost. I was awed by the ornate buildings scattered throughout the city streets. Learning about the rapid decline in industry, particularly due to the advent of container ships which dramatically reduced the need for dockyard labour, has given me an insight into the struggles of the city and its people in more recent times making its regeneration and reinvention all the more amazing.
In addition to the fascinating maritime history, the city has a lot else to offer. I enjoyed some excellent real ales at some fantastic pubs, including the Philharmonic which is furnished with fittings from a first class passenger liner and also features the world’s only Grade I listed Gents (I found a chaperone, so I was able to go and see for myself. It was smelly). I visited its two cathedrals: the red brick Anglican, finished in 1978 – the largest cathedral in Britain featuring the world’s highest and widest Gothic arch at 33m; and Catholic, built in the 1960s and one of the most beautiful and peaceful modern buildings I have ever visited due to the beautiful light streaming through the stained glass which is integral to its structure. Simply learning about the architecture of the latter was a fascinating hour.
I took the famous ferry across the Mersey for a commentary on Liverpool’s history and views of the waterfront from the river and I enjoyed fish and chips at sunset by the waterside. Despite three very packed days, I didn’t have time to do anything at all related to the city’s most well known sons, The Beatles! I guess I’ll just have to go back one day.
As a Southerner my impressions of Liverpool were of a grey, industrial city with little to offer. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting weekend and there’s definitely still more to see. I’d recommend a visit.
To learn more about Liverpool’s World Heritage listing, see: http://www.liverpoolworldheritage.com/
And if you’re thinking of visiting, now might be a good time as in 2012 UNESCO listed Liverpool as a site in danger due to plans to develop the dock area and radically change the city skyline: http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/890