Lively Liverpool – 800 Years Young

by Bob Barton (courtesy of VisitBritain.com)

Not content with one, they’re celebrating two anniversaries in Liverpool this year. While the 800 years since this maritime city was granted a royal charter by King John in 1207 will be marked with months of merrymaking, the reconstructed Cavern Club, where the Beatles first rose to fame, will enjoy its 50th birthday with a year-long party. Liverpudlians love to party as much as they love football, and the 2007 events will merge neatly into 2008, when the city is again en fete, this time as European Capital of Culture.

Some 300 events are organised for this year’s 800th anniversary: a veritable feast of concerts, conferences, exhibitions, flower shows, processions, re-enactments, walks and talks. It reaches a peak on August 28, dubbed Liverpool 800 Day, whose festivities climax with one of the world’s largest firework displays.

The celebrations couldn’t have a better setting architecturally. Liverpool, which rose to prosperity as a trading hub of the British Empire, is filled with grand buildings radiating from its centre to one of Europe’s finest river frontages, along the wide River Mersey. UNESCO declared a large swathe of the city, including the river frontage, a World Heritage Site several years ago. With impeccable timing, the neo-classical St. George’s Hall – built on an imperial scale complete with statues, a Minton tiled floor and an upstairs concert hall embellished with gold leaf and mirrors – reopens on St. George’s Day (April 23) after a £23 million makeover.

Contrasting with these largely Victorian gems are some stunning modern structures, as the city undergoes a 21st century renaissance. Hotels, apartments, bars, restaurants, stores and new public areas are springing up everywhere. A big development, called the Paradise Project, will provide all these as well as a pleasant walkway linking the city centre and the Albert Docks, where more museums and visitor attractions are located. Biggest development of all is the King’s Waterfront, with a new landmark, The Arena and Convention Centre Liverpool, resembling the wings of a giant bird, taking shape on the waterfront. This will be the venue for concerts, exhibitions and conferences from 2008 as well as providing another public piazza.

The city boasts the greatest concentration of National Museums outside London – and admission is free. They are joined by another in August when a £10 million International Slavery Museum opens: Liverpool’s role as a lynchpin in the slave trade is something the city is coming to terms with, 200 years after its abolition. Modern art lovers can’t fail to be impressed by the Tate Gallery, which occupies a former warehouse in the Albert Docks. The gallery will host the prestigious Turner Prize this autumn – the first time it has been staged outside the capital. The Walker Art Gallery is equally renowned, while the World Museum is filled with hands-on delights for families. The National Maritime Museum is popular, too, not least with thousands of people from overseas, whose ancestors passed through Liverpool as emigrants to a new life. It also houses a new Titanic exhibition: the port was headquarters of the ill-fated ship’s White Star Line.

Visitors can stay in any one of a growing number of boutique hotels such as the new Malmaison and the Hope Street Hotel, the last named popular with celebrities and dignitaries such as US Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice. Next door is the London Carriageworks, one of a growing number of good restaurants which pride themselves in the use of fresh, local produce.

The Cavern Club in Mathew Street sits at the hub of its own quarter of the city, filled with reminders of the 1960s when Beatlemania was at its height, but still turning out great bands, like the Zutons. (Liverpool is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having more number one records than any other city.) A highlight of its year is the Mathew Street Festival, when the area is alive with music. The subterranean Cavern – which still manages to evoke the same electric atmosphere as in the heady days of Merseybeat – gets international calls every day from bands that want to come and play on its hallowed stage. These days, Sir Paul McCartney prefers to play in the vast setting of the great Anglican Cathedral – the world’s largest – where he premiered his classical Liverpool Oratorio.

Climbing to the top of the cathedral tower gives you a breathtaking view of the city and on towards day trip attractions such as the Roman city of Chester with its medieval, galleried shops; a coastline dotted with championship golf courses and, to the east, the bright lights of the city’s friendly rival, Manchester.

There is a feeling of youth and vitality everywhere. Students dominate the city centre population, having more than doubled in number in the 1990s and helping fuel the vibrant nightlife, particularly at weekends. Wherever you go – whether it’s on board a ferry across the Mersey, on one of the daily tours at Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, or on the Magical Mystery Tour to the numerous Beatles sights, you are constantly reminded that the people have a great pride in their town. In the words of Peter Smith of Liverpool Vision, “The people can see the city changing for the better, but our biggest challenge is changing the perceptions of those outside it.” The Liverpudlians are determined to move their city forward, no longer prepared – in the words of Lennon and McCartney – to simply “Let It Be”.

Further information: www.visitliverpool.com

Liverpool800 event highlights

  • April 22 – May 20 – Seafarers and Emigrants Exhibition, The Swedish Seaman’s Church.
  • April 23 – Gala reopening of St. George’s Hall.
  • April/May – Coming of Age: Liverpool young people in every school celebrate their generation and place within the city’s culture.
  • Mid-June – The River Mersey hosts a festival of tall ships and naval vessels, with emphasis on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the international slave trade.
  • June 29 – September 23 – Peter Blake at Tate Liverpool. Major retrospective of ‘the godfather of British pop art’.
  • July 2007 onwards – Magical History Tour at Merseyside Maritime Museum. Exhibition documenting the city’s history overt the last 800 years, told through the lives of ordinary people.
  • August 24-27 – Mathew Street Music Festival. Europe’s biggest free city centre music festival.
  • August 28 – Liverpool 800 Day – civic and community procession, thanksgiving service and firework display marking the 800th anniversary of the granting of the city’s first charter.
  • September 1 – 30 – Heritage Open Day season with local property openings and events organised by the Civic Trust, City Council, societies, museums and others.
  • September 15 – Clipper Round-the-World Yacht Race Start.
  • September 14-16 – The Big History Show at St. George’s Hall.
  • September 21 – River Mersey Cruise Liner Facility – official opening with the QE2 liner sailing in on its 40th anniversary.
  • October 19 – January 13 - Turner Prize Exhibition opens at Tate Liverpool.