Welcome to the centre of the universe

29 October 2012
Ben Pentreath

“It’s all very well coming from the capital”, said the taxi driver this morning, “but what does it feel like being in the centre of the Universe?”

Welcome to Liverpool. And I think he has a point.

I’ve just been up to Liverpool for the first time in my life and what a fantastic time it’s been. Will, Maggie and I boarded the train at Euston early on Saturday morning and got home last night. The purpose of the visit was purportedly the brilliant Turner/Monet/Twombly exhibition at the Tate; but if that was the catalyst, the reason (for me at least) was to get to know for a little bit this city which I have been reading about and wanted to know, and see, more.

We arrived on a brilliantly clear day. Light radiated about, reflecting off water, sky and stone. I knew about the Docks, but I didn’t expect the great streets and squares of the Georgian Quarter, or the beauty of the quiet decrepitude of decaying warehouses, or the remarkable classical buildings in the city centre, or how friendly it would be.  It’s a little hard to avoid using cliches when thinking about Liverpool. So there we are. Lots of contradictions, lots to think about, but definitely as close to the centre of the universe as I’ve been for a while.

Cool car.

Beautiful engraved numbers in the memorial pavements at St James’s Gardens.

I didn’t love Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican Cathedral, a dark hulk on the skyline; but I did love this Greek Revival Necropolis and overgrown wilderness next door:

The excellent new Kernaghans Antiquarian bookshop at the Bluecoat, where I found a rare book on typography that I’d been looking for (for years). They opened a less than a week ago, not that you’d know it from the superbly well-stocked shelves. And then we walked down to the waterfront and the Docks.

The beauty of the waterfront is marred only by the Museum of Liverpool building, daft, ugly and ridiculous in equal measure:

I was reading a bit more about it this morning. The Danish architect, Kim Neilsen, of 3XN, is quoted on the BBC website  as saying that ‘We had to be very respectful for that site, it is a World Heritage Site, actually a site where you should not have built maybe’. Shame he didn’t take his own advice, really.

Joined by this piece of total junk on the other side of the basin. Black. Crap. Poor Liverpool.

But within seconds your mood is restored by the extraordinary power and beauty of the river, and Albert Dock:

Looking back to more rubbish ‘junkitecture’. Poor old Liverpool, although of course this is the sort of junk that collects everywhere. But it’s just that here the contrast is all the more painful. The grand simplicity of the Docks rebukes these surrounding attempts. And one suspects will last for a great deal longer.

This morning, we started at the Catholic Cathedral, and Lutyens’ mighty Crypt, which sort of made me glad that his Cathedral remained in the imagination only…

Rising above the Lutyens Crypt is Frederick Gibberd’s Cathedral, which grew out of the ruins of the Second World War, and a changed belief system. It is curiously successful as a building, and as a monument on the skyline. I think the Lutyens building, which exists as a giant model only, might have been a bit scary.

We found the echo of this graffiti on the side of the building.

Well, that’s a point of view. But He hates people who can’t use apostrophes in the right place a lot more.

Back down to the Docks, we came across this building that we had somehow missed yesterday, and without a doubt is my favourite building in the whole of Liverpool:

Rust red cast iron columns, which are hollow and ring like a deep bell when you hit them. Perfect.

The Tate was brilliant. I’m afraid that yesterday was the final day of the superb Turner Monet Twombly show, which we loved.  Turner, to be honest, scored highest marks.  Sublime.  And a beautifully curated show.

The Tate itself scores lots of points in my book. It was nice to pop into a gallery which doesn’t always have white walls to display crazy things (Mark Wallinger’s Royal Ascot is something that is going to stick in my mind for a little while). Check out this turquoise blue, chrome yellow or hot pink. Bonkers, but good.

I’m not sure who made this piece but it was nicely reminiscent of a stand at Bridport Market.

From Tate, to the Maritime Museum, where we loved the giant model ships (don’t you like this nice pale pink hull?):

and where one or two pictures gave one a hint of the old Liverpool docks:

And where the Titanic displays (and passenger death lists in particular) were remarkably moving.

We left the Docks and went to the Walker, which is like every gallery you’ve ever been to in London, rolled into one.

I forgot to take a photo of Banksy’s Cardinal Sin which couldn’t help make you smile. So thank you to ManafineArts for this picture:

We were knackered. It’s busy spending time in the centre of the universe. But we had an hour to spare before our train. We jumped in a taxi so that Maggie could make a pilgrimage to Penny Lane.

The pre-requisite soundtrack played on my iPod. The taxi driver could not believe it when we wanted to just turn around and go back to the train station again. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” he said. But then started chuckling. “You could have bought a Penny Lane street sign in the gift shops for £3”. “But it’s not the real thing”, we said.

And Liverpool is the real thing.


20 comments on this post

Hi Ben, a really enjoyable piece. Such a atmospheric place. Distinct and pleasing lack of (visible) gentrification of those Georgian streets. The new junki-tecture is shocking. An even bigger mistake than some of the 60’s stuff. Will we ever learn?!
A slight pang for life BC (before children) when we could just up sticks and go and look at places.
If you go again, Port Sunlight, on the other side of the Mersey, is well worth a look. J


My trick is – use a lot of zoom, and wherever possible, shoot into the light!

Mrs Hsays:

Good grief. I’m astounded. I was so sure you were going to list some fancy £600 lens.

Well, they do say it’s the eye and not the camera that makes the photographer. Thanks so much for letting me know, even if the news does make me despair about my own photography.

Mrs Hsays:

I’m back again. I can’t stop looking at these gorgeous pictures.

Would it be cheeky to ask you for some technical information about the camera you used? I think you’re using an ultra-wide-angle lens and if so, would love to know some specifics.


Hello! No problem. I use a Panasonic Lumix handheld point and shoot, they are very basic to use and I think very very good.


Really wonderful photos


I never imagined Liverpool to be so beautiful (excuse my ignorance). Port cities seem to have some real hidden secrets, Southampton & Marseilles being the two prime examples.

I am really stunned by your pictures.


You captured the Liverpool I know and love. Born and brought up there (tho not born of Scouse parents) it is indeed a place of contradictions. You capture the beauty that many are blind to… Did you go to the Philharmonic Hall or the Phil pub while you were there? Perhaps on your next visit.


Ben, how bizarre that only 3 weeks ago after many months of reading your blog, I was outside your shop in Rugby St ( a bit early) peering in to see if anyone would open up thinking you’d love Liverpool.
Glad you came to my hometown but a shame as you could have come and give me some advice on my Victorian renovation.
Anyway if you come again you must see Cressington Park and some of the city’s parks.
Glad you enjoyed it so much.


Hi Joe, I really did enjoy it and I am looking forward to coming back! Thanks for visiting the shop too! Ben

Mrs Hsays:


Thank you for this great post, so beautifully written and even more beautifully photographed.

I went to day school in Liverpool in the early 90s and have immensely fond memories of the city and especially its people. The restoring of its architectural heritage has had a very cheering and civilising effect – Scousers are proud of their city now in a way they weren’t when I was a young teenager.


Ben, as a newly adopted son of Liverpool I must confess I loathe the place… but you have shown it
in a new and favourable light perhaps I should give it a second chance?
PS I too love your new book!

Kevin McKeonsays:

The furniture splayed out like an axe head in the Tate is an early piece by Tony Cragg. Part of what was called New British Sculpture in the 80s. I love his work. Also very fond of that Tracy Emin bronze that Niall mentioned.
Never been to Liverpool either but these photos really temp me to go, excellent. Looks strangely empty of inhabitants mind you!


I love Tony Cragg too, and I wondered if it was (let’s face it, I could have checked the label). And I like it because of its familiarity with my junk market too. When I was fifteen we got taken to the Tate to see Tony Cragg’s exhibition having just won the Turner Prize. I still remember it. I bought the catalogue, the first exhibition catalogue I think I bought.

Liverpool was fab. The streets were empty because everyone was shopping!!!


I wonder if you noticed the Tracy Emin sculpture in front of the overgrown mausoleum? I think it is called Standard, as in Roman Standard, as it depicts a little bird perched on top of a staff, all in bronze. I have always thought it is a very poetic piece and hope to see it one day, although I had assumed it would probably have been removed after the city of culture celebrations, so it was nice to spy it in the photograph looking both defiant and fragile. I Also wondered what you thought of Stirling’s work at Albert Dock?


Darn it Niall, I had read about the Standard, do you know the awful thing I was so busy taking in the mausoleum and the buildings (and my dislike of the Cathedral) and where we were headed next… I did not see it. But I now have a reason to go back. Plus I missed the giant Lutyens model I was rude about, which was in the Museum of Liverpool I was even more rude about.
I loved the conversion of the docks. Although they say that Stirling’s work has all itself been made over, the Tate felt much more naughties than eighties.


More Grade 1 listed buildings, more junkitecture since the 1950s, more dereliction. I was born in Liverpool but grew up in Oxford. My grandparents married in Falkner Square – church long gone. You capture the grandeur and the loss. Your book is great too!


Thank you for this visual treat of Liverpool. I made a visit myself in 1995 and it was good to revisit via your post. What urged me to write a comment was the fact that your aesthetics for buildings echoes that of my own. I live in Western Australia and our current Government has spent oodles of money on a new entertainment complex that actually makes me feel physically upset when I see it….all angles and sharp jagged points with seemingly no consideration for it’s placement in relation to the surrounding river and other heritage buildings of our city. You say ” Poor Liverpool” and I second that with “Poor Perth!”

Phil Abelsays:

Wonderful pictures of a great city. Next time try Otterspool Promendade in Aigburth which has wonderful river views. Must go back…


Wel, blow me down. I never imagined Liverpool would be so proud and glorious and, I feel, a little bit triste. With your unerring eye, you captured the old lady. Thank you for taking me there….

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