Cities in the rain

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By David Lewis:

Once, in Amsterdam, it rained forever.  Rain spattered the aeroplane window and the strange and beautiful journey to Centraal Station, rain shrouded the Hotel Botel’s solid presence on the swollen Ij river, rain seemed to drain the flat sky of the last of the light.  For three days we woke to the rain outside the cabin, felt a cool rain-wind in our faces on the deck, watched a coot’s nest bobbing in the wake of a passing barge. Rain on the red-brick façade of the railway station, darkening the old walls, rain on the cobbles, rain in the canals, falling softly, unceasingly.  Our days were dominated by water.

We were guided by the memories – not the ghost, for he is still mooching through the rain, still causing trouble - of writer Jeff Young, fresh with Amsterdam stories when I first met him thirty years ago.  From his Amsterdam days I inherited a brown leather jacket and a heavy Dutch butcher’s bicycle, and in my mind’s eye he limps along Herrengracht in his junk shop overcoat, turns a corner, disappears. We drank in his bars, smoked Dutch roll-ups, had coffee in the windows of his brown cafés.  I remember young leaves on the trees along the canals, the endless silver curtain of the rain, soft, gentle, almost apologetic. In the flea market on Waaterloplein I found a battered book, sepia images of the vulnerable doorways and ornate windows that we passed daily, generating a sense of déjà vu, of having known the city in the past.  It gave a watery depth to our walks: we never seemed to be dry. From the Rijksmuseum the old painters reached out to us through the rain, washing the tall counting houses along the great canals in clouds and bright skies, illuminating street conversations with a sunshine we never saw. I remember the Frans Hals canvases in Haarlem, scrubbed puritan faces in blacks and greys, explosive white lace flashes at throat or cuff: outside, the rain-crunch of gravel, the green shine of leaves in a clipped garden, the screaming of swifts falling on us like an unseen cloudburst.

Amsterdam was a sea city on the edge of Europe.  At night we walked home through Centraal station, beneath the great trains silently leaving for Antwerp, Rome, Vienna.  It was city of wet golden distances and black waters, a city of brick streets, cyclists, walkers.  On the evening of our last day we drank in the little hotel bar, a glass box on the deck, the golden lights and blue flags outside smeared by the streams of water.

If we choose, if we are fortunate, places do not leave us.  Liverpool too is a sea city on the edge of Europe and, cycling along old brick streets to city parks and smoky bohemian cafes, I allowed Amsterdam to tint the whole city.  Eventually all Jeff’s gifts continued their journeys without me – the butcher’s bicycle was given to the elderly American in the flat downstairs; beyond repair, the leather jacket was artfully displayed on a dustbin and walked off on its own.  And it was not hard to imagine the city as a water-city, as had once been dreamed; canals and huge industrial channels opening from the Mersey, seeing Liverpool’s old streets as a criss-cross of narrow waterways. Gradually this feeling slipped away, and the old streets felt less watery.  But even today, if I am lucky enough to walk the city in the rain, the belief that Liverpool is a city of ghost canals rises to the surface once again.

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David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Runcorn Wonderland

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By David Lewis:

Note: Runcorn is an industrial town and port in Cheshire, England. The small old town was surrounded in the 1960s by huge housing estates to rehouse people from Liverpool. 

 It is the midwinter visits I remember the most, the hour’s journey on a half-empty bus – always, in memory, flooded with cold sunshine – to the cobbled, mutilated streets of old Runcorn.  As I walked to Windmill Hill along the Bridgewater Canal, the wind passing over the shadowed sweeps of canal ice would make a haunting, unearthly sound, a canal-song, a vague whoo-whoo; especially eerie at night, but fading as the water slowly froze.

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My friend Iain was a yoga teacher with a gentle soul, passionate about walking.  We would walk for miles to discover and rediscover strange and unusual things – ice houses, walled gardens, spice factories.  We walked out to scuffed, eighteenth-century pubs, we watched giant container vessels on the Manchester Ship Canal, and often we walked at night.  Here I developed my love of midwinter pleasures – silence, darkness, cold – and it was with Iain in Runcorn that I learned to walk creatively.

On the short winter afternoons we often walked down from Windmill Hill through the edgelands, a silent, watchful place of abandoned fields and unused roads, ribboned by railway and canal; the smoke rising from distant farms added to the faint air of menace. Yet just over the hill was the pretty village of Daresbury, where Lewis Carroll’s church crouched in the yew trees, carved from thick chocolate-red blocks of Victorian sandstone. We often sat for a smoke or two in the cold gloom of the rear porch, staring out at the bare woods and fields, and once the curate showed us the Lewis Carroll window, a gentle riot of Turtles and Hatters and Alice. Afterwards, brandies and bitter beer in the Ring O’ Bells, a polished-wood-and-brass Victorian public house of stained glass windows and bright, cheerful ghosts. The cobbled car park smelled of long-gone horses, straw and flurries of snow.

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As the light began to fail, we started the journey home over Keckwick Hill, a fragment of old rural darkness, silently overseeing the concrete tower of the particle accelerator and the industrial landscape beyond. No sunlight reached the woodland floor in midwinter; the frost bubbled and broke the footpath down to the canal.  After twenty minutes of towpath walking - the morose hunch of a fisherman, a startle of duck, the plopping of water rats into the silky blackness - the lights of Windmill Hill rippled on the dark waters.  Street lights appeared.  Stone bridges became concrete ones with Wonderland graffiti, ‘How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual.’  Daresbury’s English pastoral ran beneath the concrete.

Beyond the Wonderland bridge was the Barge, a pub converted from a canal warehouse, warm and invitingBut we had spent most of the day as hedge-walkers, and were intimidated by the bright lights and the smart early evening drinkers.  One beer rarely led to a second, and with the darkness came an unease about last buses and cancelled buses, about timetables and homecomings, as if the outside world had woken in us once more.  We blinked in the harsh lights of the space-age Runcorn Shopping City, fumbled for the morning’s folded tickets, mumbled clumsy goodbyes; and I spent the long journey home thinking back along dark footpaths through muddy woodland.  

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Catholic Ghosts on Vauxhall Road

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By David Lewis:

Note:

Liverpool has a small old Jewish community but, as Islam and Hinduism are traditionally not strong faiths in the city, even now there are few mosques or temples.   The religious landscape, fading or vigorous, is overwhelmingly Christian.  Once the division between Catholic and Protestant was deep and strong.  Protestant Orange Lodge marches and Catholic celebrations of St Patrick’s Day could lead to violence.  Schools were segregated on sectarian lines and even the football teams were divided between Catholic Everton and Protestant Liverpool.  These faultlines have largely disappeared. 

The new city can pall; too much glass, too much steel, too many towers.  I turned inland to hunt ghost pubs, the alcoholic ruins along Vauxhall Road, where derelict Victorian public houses stand like broken teeth in a new urban landscape.  The Atholl Vaults, boarded and violated, plaster crumbling; the Castle, alive but closed; the Glasshouse on the corner of Eldon St; and wildernesses of bramble and buddleia behind faded advertising hoardings, the sites of mourned pubs like the Great Mersey, their ghosts silent.

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On Eldon Street I turned to the Catholic church of Our Lady of Reconciliation.  Scaffolding and tarpaulins dripped with rain and melting frost, as if the huge church had just risen from the bottom of the sea. This was a strong Irish Catholic district, fiercely political.  The area returned a Nationalist MP to the British parliament for over forty years, and a store of pre-IRA weapons was found in the cellars of a local pub in the late 1800s.   But I found that this pub too had been demolished, leaving only a brick scar.  I thought about taking one of the old bricks, to have a small piece of Liverpool Irish Nationalist history.  But why?  Perhaps one day the sounds in inanimate objects will be heard; the anxious voices, the thuds and curses as the boxes of rifles were manhandled downstairs; but not in my lifetime. 

From lost pubs, I began to see Catholic ghosts in road names and old churches.  This was now a meander across a landscape of invisible parishes, destroyed shrines torn apart in the mechanised Reformation of the 1960s when Liverpool savagely regenerated many of the older districts.  On Titchfield Street I found cobbles beneath the tarmac, stone Victorian ghosts, which took me to Trinity Catholic Primary School.  A trinity of Anglican churches - St Martin’s in the Fields, St Alban’s and St Titus’s - were lost many years ago.  The towers and walls of the Catholic St Sylvester’s survive, but they are embattled, razor-wired against vandals and arsonists, gradually being smothered by buddleia.  St Brigid’s has suffered even more.  Demolished for the Kingsway Tunnel, a slash of Brutalist concrete, it survives only as a place name behind St Sylvester’s, a clustering of Catholic names gathered as if for safe keeping. 

There are deep echoes of the Reformation on these old streets.  St Sylvester’s stands near Latimer Street, named after the bishop who was martyred for his Protestant faith.  Catholic churches, Protestant streets.  Churches stand empty, street names have lost their meanings.  Nobody in Liverpool takes these divisions seriously any more, only rain-tramps like me, trudging these darkening streets; only gutter-historians, church-watchers, people who care for the memories of the city.  And we do not believe, we just remember. 

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The people are still here, of course.  Old terraced houses have gone and bungalows and semi-detached houses with gardens and driveways line the streets.  Pubs and churches are the last to go, closed, abandoned to the weather, and then demolished, their love and faith dispersed, forgotten.  But the people remain, living modern lives in a landscape of fading Victorian ruins, architectural, cultural, theological. 

My last ghost was a church that I had watched disappear.  St Gerard Majella’s was a strange brick and concrete church near Scotland Road, and I watched it’s demolition over a month or six weeks.  The brick tides of the city have closed over this sunken church, and the name survives only in a street and a new courtroom.  I contemplated a further walk to Cranmer Street, another martyred bishop, another faded street bookended with ghost churches; but the rain was heavier and the day was darkening.  I turned towards the river, and walked slowly down to the warm shiny truths of the new city. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Late of Kings Turning

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By David Lewis:

One grey day in early summer I found myself unexpectedly alone, so I stole a long day to go walking and exploring.  The town was quiet and warm, and the air was scented with the rich musk of lilac and a soft suggestion of wisteria.  Great pale purple bunches hung over the road and curved gently across the faces of old houses.  The country lanes were bordered by long grasses and frothy, gentle wild flowers - cow parsley, herb Robert, buttercups.  The hedge thickened around an overgrown brick step and a sturdy white iron gate, as the ground rose into the cemetery.

We all have cemetery stories, ancestor tales.  My maternal grandparents and great grandparents are buried in a sloping graveyard overlooking the Welsh town of Llangollen, but my Lewis ancestors were either cremated or lie in an unmarked grave in Toxteth Cemetery, Liverpool.  There is a poetry in these places, the poetry of time and loss and hope, stories told in grass or written on stone pages.  Far from being depressing places, cemeteries are full of wildflowers and a rich meditative silence broken only by the birds.

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This was a very Protestant cemetery and I saw only one Catholic crucifix on my slow walk.  Carved from the local grey-brown stone, the heavy Victorian headstones were sombrely decorated with calligraphy and curlicues rather than angels, although many headstones wore small panels of spring flowers, symbolic of Easter and the Resurrection, an eternal stone garden mirroring the lush greenery in the hedgerows outside.  The headstones’ crisp edges had been softened by a hundred Welsh winters, and names and dates were fading beneath lichens and mosses.  As a landscape it was defined by giant yew trees, dark and gloomy, beneath which the grave plots were widely spaced, a lawn sprinkled with tombs.  Gothic ironwork disappeared into thick ivy; older tombs were smothered by wild undergrowth.  There were more Celtic crosses than in an English cemetery, but very few Welsh inscriptions.

Yet the stories reached back through time to the landscape around the town.  Older graves were often carved with the names of large houses, hill farms and town houses, places I passed daily.  Bridge House, Stapleton Court, Tan House.  Late of Kings Turning, read one.  In this border cemetery the names were Welsh and English – Hatfield, Davies, Jones and Roberts – and I found many Thomas Lewises, my paternal great grandfather in that unmarked Liverpool grave.  Many families were haunted by infant mortality, the children’s lives cut short which sadden all visitors to a nineteenth-century graveyard.

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But in rural Wales, the dead are part of the stories of the living and old stories fade slowly.  King’s Turning is a bend in the road, a field, a footpath on the outskirts of town, named for a fleeting visit by Charles 1st, so the story goes.  Welsh family storytelling creates a weave of story unconnected to chronological time, in which the dead are present through story and anecdote.  In Wales, as in William Faulkner’s Deep South, the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

A winter pilgrimage

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By David Lewis:

In the shortest days I make a secular pilgrimage from the small town of Presteigne to Limebrook Priory, about eight kilometres away.  My one long annual walk, my one communion with the natural world, is sacrosanct and taken aloneIt is a pilgrimage of solitude. 

On this cold grey afternoon Presteigne is deserted.  The old town ends abruptly at the last wall of stone and lichen, and the river Lugg leads me into a wide valley of sheep fields, slashed with lines of hedge-snow.  My mind slows to the touch of a thorn hedge and the crunch of my boots on wet gravel, and the silence folds itself around me.

Silence is walking’s greatest pleasure.  I work in heated buildings and electric light, and I value a cold wind and the rain on my face.  Solitude too is a rare gift, and I do not expect to meet other people on this journey.  I am not a serious walker, often stopping to appreciate the moments of stillness: a pheasant in an empty field, a buzzard rising on a thermal, a shaft of sunlight through a cloud.  It is quiet enough to hear the buzzard half a mile distant; already even the quiet shops of Presteigne seem a long way away.

After four miles, the valley narrows and deepens.  This is the loneliest and darkest stretch of the journey.  The river is sullen and powerful after recent snows, and walls of tall sombre pines darken the light with a slow sighing of branches.  There is a legend that defeated soldiers escaping the medieval battle of Mortimer’s Cross passed wearily through this gorge.  Was the mud as deep, the river as menacing?  I break through ice into mud, stumble over the frozen ground in their footsteps.  There are ravens overhead, breaking the silence with their wary croaks and the air with their ragged bullet bodies. 

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In the next wide sheep valley the grey light returns, but there is no sign of human life – no farm, no house, no road, no vehicles.  The pale fields are bare, cut by the wind with the raw smells of winter fields - sheep manure, dry grass, mud – until the wind drops behind a shoulder of hill, and an old thorn hedge-line takes me to the Lime brook.  Usually the nuns’ stream is light and playful, but today it is a powerful torrent surging to join the Lugg.  An isolated farm road for ten minutes’ brisk mud-free walking, and the Priory appears around a corner.  I have arrived.  The pilgrimage is over.    

Stone still stands on stone, walls still stand, but Limebrook Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII and  has been a ruin since 1539.  I arrive at 3pm, when the nuns would be preparing for the mid-afternoon service None, but grass has grown even over the ruins, and I struggle to imagine vegetable gardens, refectory, the nuns’ cells, the church itself.  I do not stay long, but always leave something of my journey for the nuns’ memory; a makeshift staff, a pile of leaves held by peg or river stone, even just a thought.  In the nuns’ steep, narrow valley daylight is lost early on winter afternoons, and I repack my rucksack and climb into the grey light above the Priory.  The valley has already folded protectively around the old stones and the walls can barely be seen.  With every year, Limebrook Priory belongs more and more to the natural world. 

On this little-used road I nod to the only people I see all day.  Hooded and muffled against the wind the hedge-layers are strangely medieval, with a hill’s arc of stem and trunk behind them that the nuns would recognise as a well-laid hedge.  I have a long road still to walk, and half an hour after leaving Limebrook I start to lose the light.  I imagine the rush lights and candles being lit in the Priory behind me in time and space, the preparations for the dusk service, Vespers.  My dark road bends through woodland and fields until the lights of Presteigne appear through the trees and hedges.  Wet and exhausted I stumble up the hill past the old houses, their warm rooms a long way from the mud and cold thorns of the dark path behind me.  Yet my winter pilgrimage is a celebration of these contrasts.  This floundering walk over saturated fields and narrow roads is a rare slowing of personal time, when the only sounds are the wind, the river, a distant bird.  And for me the annual ritual of the journey, towards an appreciation of daylight around the winter solstice, is pilgrimage enough. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Am I Alone In Dreaming Of Rubble

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By David Lewis:

I am walking through a blunt triangle of empty terraced streets, dominated by a long low red brick church, closed and boarded up; a hole in the boards allows local children to once again play in the church porch.  It is starting to get dark.

Twenty years ago, in a period of deep, isolated research, I began to have dreams about Liverpool.  I was studying the city’s churches, curious about how they define the city; how their spires contribute to the roofline, how their architecture dominates a street, how the city is changed on the date of their demolition.  I worked alone, spending weeks in the city’s Records Office poring over memoirs and old street plans.   Days were spent immersed in the stark and beautiful photographs of Liverpool in its Victorian prime, and in the dark and destructive 1960s when many of the city’s older churches were demolished.  I took many long journeys to find the sooty, bruised survivors, only to discover that this destruction was ongoing.  In some cases I arrived only days after the final clearance, to a raw slash in the urban landscape, a sense of wounded stone and dust settling.  I began to see all buildings as temporary, as part of a rolling history of the fabric of the city.  Lines began to blur. 

And I started to dream.  Carl Jung famously dreamed of the city; mine were more prosaic. They have always been short and in black and white, and fall into two categories.  In the first, I can see small details of the city - street corners, ruined walls, unnamed streets reduced to fields of rubble.  Some districts appear time and again; Edge Hill, Toxteth, Netherfield Road, places that have been in a radical process of decay and regeneration since the 1960s. I started to record the dreams as accurately as I could, in a staccato, notebook style.  Sometimes they help me remember more detail; in other cases they are all that is left of the dream. 

Unknown derelict dockland streets, ironwork, weeds, tall closed warehouses.  A steep cobbled street called St George’s Place, behind a railway station. Early morning. 

The dreams were fuelled by the photographs, but I came to realise that they were also reviving memories.  The Liverpool of my childhood was a city partly in ruins, and blitz-memories were still strong.  Older people talked of evacuation to north Wales, of nights in air-raid shelters, of bombers over the city.  The destruction continued after the war, when in a spurt of self-loathing the city demolished with a frenzy, and on car journeys to visit relatives in the northern reaches of the city I saw miles of cleared terraced streets.  In those days all gaps in the landscape were known as ‘bommies’, a word which meant bomb sites but also bonfires; urban folk memory overlapped urban function.  I had a recurring dream of a large square black building in the middle of a demolished city, a composite view of the boarded-up churches and barely-open pubs I saw on the disappearing streets of north Liverpool. 

In the other dreams, I see residential areas associated with my grandfather’s family.  Vincent Lewis was born in 1904, and grew up surrounded by family in the working-class streets of Liverpool 8.   As a child I knew many of the streets with family connections, and as an adult it was these places that began to appear in different dreams; sometimes in ruins, sometimes full of people, sometimes just streets of alleyways and tall brick walls. 

Cockburn Street in the early morning.  There are no cars and the street is deserted but I can see down another cleared street to the Mersey below me, gleaming silver.  Tall walls behind me. 

I came to realise that all these dreams, these blurrings of old photograph and old memory, are a creative response to the demolition of my grandfather’s city.  The books I have written on Liverpool are an attempt to understand and articulate the Victorian city that is gradually disappearing.  Yet the pace of urban evolution is so quick that one day all our familiar places will have gone or been radically changed and everyday memories, however commonplace, will have become history.  I still walk the vulnerable city as often as I can, exploring and recording amputated streets, stretches of cobble and redundant warehouses.  Often after these long walks I dream once more of the city in ruins, feeling now that our rubble dreams tell us more than we know.      

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

The War Memorial in the Sea

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By David Lewis:

On a grey summer’s afternoon the Crosby beach is busy with holidaymakers.  The waterfront of Liverpool follows the great curve of the Mersey as it pours into the Irish Sea, but at Crosby the urban sprawl runs out of enthusiasm and is broken with open spaces – playing fields, parks, farms.  At the end of the long promenade there is a Lifeboat station, an ice cream van, a car park.  Here the long beach starts, the hard sands that run along the coast to the Lune river estuary fifty kilometres or so north.  This is a raw coastline.  The Irish Sea is a cold expanse of water, emptier than it once was, although the slow container ships still slip quietly in and out of Liverpool.  There are cruise ships now as well, vast white hotels drawn by the renaissance of the city centre.  Haunted by the cries of gulls, the coastline sprawls beneath vast mutating cloudscapes and feels wary and unpredictable. 

Beyond the Lifeguard station a low flat field of broken stones runs for two hundred, maybe three hundred metres along the shore.  At the beach’s edge the stones are slippery with seaweed; pools form among the stones, limpets colonise the surfaces.  It looks like builders’ rubble and most visitors ignore it in favour of Antony Gormley’s famous Another Place sculptures and the great expanse of hard golden sand.  But there is deep history here, old stories in these stones, there is remembrance, and there is forgetting.

Close up, this is unusual rubble; Victorian bricks dissolved by the salt water into gritty, lumpy, mosaic sand, chunks of sea-glass worn pale-grey and smooth, ancient bleached china electrical fittings. But the clue to this landscape does not lie in the bricks.  There are larger pieces; not uncut stones, not quarry-refuse, not landfill.  They are architecture. 

Some of these pieces are small, a metre long, but others are quite large – the size of a sofa, say, or an upright piano.  Some are hand-carved sandstone, deep flowers fading into sand; others are granite, untouched by seaweeds or limpets, as sharp as the day they left the mason’s yard in the 1870s.  Some have letters carved into them, a teasing suggestion of names and landmarks.  I have often wanted to identify the buildings they came from, through old photographs and architects’ plans.  Would it be possible to separate these small piles of loss back into individual buildings and fit them together like a sea-worn jigsaw puzzle?  Ultimately they could be restored to the street; the cornices and friezes, words and titles once again seventy feet above the pavements.  But what would this achieve?  Standing on the shore, this dream no longer seems possible or even desirable. 

These ruins were taken from the cityscape of Liverpool and especially Bootle, cleared after the terrible blitzkrieg unleashed by the Germans in 1940 and 1941.  Once these fragments were parts of banks, insurance offices and hotels, buildings which added dignity and strength to the streets.  Every stone comes from a bombed building, every brick comes from a bombed house, perhaps from a house where people died.  And so this long field of stones and bricks is a war memorial.  Not a solemn classical monument at the heart of the city, but a war memorial nevertheless.  4000 people died in Liverpool in the Blitz, and Bootle alone lost over 400.  This is an informal war memorial open to the elements, a war memorial washed twice a day by the tides, a war memorial covered in seaweed. There is no forced solemnity, no guards, no flags, no eternal flame.  No Dulce, no Decorum.  Children scramble over these ruins, they hunt for shrimps in the pools among the weedy stones, sit on the warm sand with their backs to giant lumps of the city.  Adults take pieces of brick as souvenirs, perhaps to remember the dead, perhaps remembering the war itself.  Most do not know the history of these fragments, these splinters of city.  It is irrelevant.  Nothing can be done to them without heavy machinery, no amount of souvenir hunters can damage the integrity of these stones and bricks.  Three hundred metres long, but how deep?  Without massive human interference, only time will fade these ruins.

At dusk in the summer the beach is clear.  This is not the Mediterranean; the cool air from the Irish Sea means that on the warmest day the heat does not linger.  The lights come on in Wallasey three kilometres away across the Mersey, and the ruins fade into the dusk again, as they have done every night since the late 1940s.  I do not think that this memorial-landscape should be formalised, protected, solemnised; this should be a quiet place to remember our unknown dead in a very Liverpool way, informal but never unserious, to the lament of waves running across the evening sands and gulls crying in a grey sky. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

The Great Ruins of Love Lane

Image: David Lewis

Image: David Lewis

By David Lewis:

Cities are in a permanent process of evolution, fast or slow, and districts within a city change at different speeds, depending on investment, need, attitude.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Liverpool, which is no longer the crumbling monochrome city of the early Beatles photographs, but a modern holiday and conference destination.  Confidence roared through the city again from the late 1980s, building luxury hotels and celebrity-chef restaurants, revamping museums, opening new visitor attractions and developing the huge Liverpool One shopping development complex, a shopping mall in the heart of the city. 

A slower, more varied pace of change can be seen in the 1840s docklands north of the city centre, which have evolved since 1945 through bomb damage, obsolescence and redundancy.  This has left a bruised landscape of old warehouses and railway yards, closed pubs and overgrown vacant lots.  There is silence here, and sunlight, and huge empty skies.  The Mersey is never far away.

It is precisely this neglect that makes the docklands vulnerable to development.  Slowly, with altered attitudes, the pace of change is quickening and the confidence is spreading northwards.  New uses have been found for giant survivors; Jesse Hartley’s Stanley Dock buildings have become the Titanic Hotel, and the hulking Tobacco Warehouse next door, once the largest brick building in the world, is being converted into urban apartments.  

Image: David Lewis

Image: David Lewis

I walk these streets now with a new sense of urgency.  Blackstone Street, Cotton Street, Saltney Street, Dublin Street - I am at home here, clearing street dust to discover cobble or street railway, granite kerb, a softness of old sandstone.  These ground-level Victorian ruins add colour – rusts and steel blue-greys – to the streets.  Old Liverpool is a city of brick, and walls snake through the old districts; ubiquitous and invisible, shiny red or gleaming hard blue-grey; heavily sooted, organic, hand-made.  On the oldest warehouses the brick folds into narrow doorways and narrow barred windows capped with sandstone or rusted iron.  The bricks and mortar have flaked away after 170 years of river weather, but these structures add fluidity and definition to the city and warm colour – chalky reds, dark blues – to the streets.  Each brick was hand-laid decades ago, on bright days or damp days, sooted with river fogs and steam-smuts or laid in warm sunshine as the city roared north along the river; brick by brick, wall by wall, street by street.

This hinterland is full of oddity and unexpected glories.  Gateposts, fragments of walls, arches in stone or brick, monolithic survivors like ruined sandcastles left behind by the tide.  Some have found new uses and stand, silent and dominant, in new fences, new boundaries.  There are also ghost places, vacant lots full of buddleia and butterflies which once housed large railway yards or churches, their histories forgotten.  Nothing survives of the Martyrs’ Church, St. Augustine’s on Chadwick Street; nothing survives of the giant goods stations of Waterloo, Great Howard Street, or Canada Dock, apart from stumped walls and fragments of story. 

Ruins can be invisible here.  Love Lane lies beyond the huge railway arches carrying commuter trains up the coast, and is connected to whole streets of redundancy, truly empty places, scenes for a car chase or a clandestine meeting, film sets for unmade films.  Sprainger Street, Little Howard Street, streets of walls and graffiti, windows and doors bricked up, more buddleia and more grasses, silence, a beautiful decay.  Nobody seems to be here. The air smells of rotting rubbish, vegetation and illegally-dumped engine oil.  At night the few streetlights illuminate the darkness rather than dispel it, sending a weak light spilling across the cobbles to create great polygonal slabs of velvet darkness.  These lost streets are dominated by the amputated, hacked remains of another railway viaduct, overgrown and crumbling, a lost route to the lost station of Liverpool Exchange.  The bricklayers’ art has created great swirls of brick, smooth and close-fitting like dragon scales or armour.  These arches are muscular, seeming to crouch, tense and full of unexpressed energy.  They have the deep calm of gigantic Roman ruins, solid and seemingly permanent. 

Image: David Lewis

Image: David Lewis

And yet these old walls, these folds of brick and obsolete arches, are increasingly vulnerable.  A grandiose, long-term plan called Liverpool Waters is promising apartment blocks, and open squares of bars, restaurants and shops along the waterfront.  Everton Football Club have confirmed a £300m move from Goodison Park to the Bramley-Moore Dock.  At ground level, the Ten Streets project will deliver new work/living spaces, renovated buildings, more public space. 

I believe that cities need dark streets and grey areas, places of awkward, disjointed history and ambivalence.  Cities need to regenerate periodically, but they also need the old, the quiet, the derelict, a sense of faded history.  Is it not possible to have rough edges to our cities, dark corners, un-developments?  We should be able to discover something of our cities for ourselves; not everything should be signpostedPerhaps these old streets are where the city has most potential, perhaps these scraps of buildings and stumps of walls remind us that all things are possible within a city; perhaps without decay there can be no sense of potential, and ultimately no regeneration.  Our ruins should be left to their decay. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter