A Street named Hope (Liverpool, October 2011)

Last week I took my mother to the Wirral for a few days because she had never visited this part of the world and had long been intrigued by its reputation as “Liverpool Posh”. This still largely rural peninsular is indeed close to the centre of Liverpool and possessed of some pretty landscapes, upmarket retirement housing and old fashioned seaside towns but, for a family with the whole of East Kent to play in, it is nothing really to write home about.

What distinguishes the region is the easy access it provides to both Liverpool and Chester, both of which we visited with a great deal of success. Chester cathedral is a full-on medieval abbey that boasts the usual sumptuous mixture of thousand year old foundations, Victorian Gothic revival and well chosen examples of modern ecclesiastical decoration. Molly charmed her way into this lovely place by slipping on her uniform and helping Mum to get the wheelchair into all the odd little corners. She was quite overcome by all the attention – the dog, that is.

The two of them snoozed in the car while I took a little detour to Shrewsbury (well, it would have been a little detour if the roadworks hadn’t misdirected me into North Wales). I’d never seen the Abbey there and was very glad to have made the effort. Not having been cathedral-ised it has a delightful homey ambience, eleventh century tombs sitting comfortably alongside tea kettles and children’s toys. In spite of its place as the centrepiece in the recently televised Cadfael series, the roadsigns to it are attrocious. I came to the conclusion that today’s cash-strapped councils assume that all out-of-towners must have Satnavs while the locals have had a thousand years to learn where it is.

The tunnels which take you under the River Mersey from Birkenhead make Liverpool very easy to get to and Mum got used to counting out the change so that I could “chuck it in the bucket” at the automatic tolls. And I’ve become much more careful with my aim since an incident of scrabbling under the car for coins while a queue honked at me from behind. I must have missed the town centre signs again but, after a little detour around Everton Football Ground (no, I wasn’t going to stop for directions) we made it to the first of the two cathedrals we had come to see.

It would have been difficult to miss the largest Cathedral in England, claimed to be the fifth largest in the world, started before the First World War and completed after the Second. When I wheeled Mum into its monochrome, cavernous interior, she said “I don’t think I like it”. I immediately shushed her, surprised at how offended I felt on behalf of this beloved building, its construction watched over by three generations of Liverpudlians almost as it was during the great cathedral building period of the middle ages. I told her how the tower was completed in 1941 while the city was enduring the attentions of the Luftwaffe and that shut her up.

With the help of some lovely volunteer staff I was able to get Mum up into the gallery to see the embroidery. It was fabulous but we agreed that it does kind of put you off the idea of undertaking any handicrafts yourself. A quick coffee stop and we were ready to head out along Hope Street to visit “the other one” The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King, occasionally disparagingly called Paddy’s wigwam. For this is a part of England where age old conflict between the Protestant and the Catholic still occasionally hardens its heart and shakes its fist. Well, at football matches anyway.

When last I visited this highly unusual building, designed to represent a crown of thorns, there was water all over the floor. Massive renovations were required to preserve the cathedral, completed in 1967 after a design by controversial architect, Sir Frederick Gibbon. In fact, so many were the problems brought about by its hurried and cheapskate construction that it was at one time thought more sensible to knock it down and start again. Happily for its adherants, money has been found from various sources and a substantial part of the work has been completed.

Love it or hate it, this building is so much part of the story of Liverpool its loss would be a tragedy. Many are the tales of the Roman Catholic communities, nearly always in the poorest districts, collecting coins and putting aside part of their meagre wages for their very own cathedral, the foundations of a much more ambitious plan having stood abandoned for more than fifty years. Myself, I can’t help wondering what the obscenely wealthy Vatican Banks were up to while all of this penny pinching was going on. Bad design and shoddy workmanship are usually as expensive as quality to say nothing of the cost of the subsequent litigation.

I made the mistake of commenting on the newly installed Path of Light leading up to the entrance to the cathedral to one of the volunteer guides. I noted that the stained glass artist was German. Well, that trod on her corns and nothing could have prepared us for the diatribe that followed. Apparently when the Bishop went off for a conference in Europe he arranged for the work to be carried out by someone’s nephew who has a glass factory somewhere outside of Berlin. Nothing changes.

Many people speak of the two cathedrals as symbols of unity in the city of Liverpool but the appropriately named Hope Street which joins them actually take its name from a merchant by the name of William Hope who lived and died before either of them were even thought of. The whole district has been very much smartened up since it became a conservation area about ten years ago and few people slipping coins into an exhorbitant parking meter or entering a stylish capucchino bar would care whether you were Catholic or Protestant these days. But hope it inspires and so Hope it remains.



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