Birkenhead Priory

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In 1150, an order of Benedictine monks established a Priory church at Birkenhead on the estuary of the river Mersey. They were the first Mersey ferry men, supervising travellers on their journeys across the river. The Benedictine community seems to have lived quietly on the site, though there are records of some of the monks having had colourful pasts, including one who had been convicted of murder but had travelled to Rome for absolution from the Pope before commencing a life of religious devotion at Birkenhead.

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Over the next 200 years, the site was developed with the addition of a hostel and scriptorium. A small monastic community lived at Birkenhead until the Priory was dissolved in 1536, after which it was sold into private ownership.

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The Priory is small and has a tiny but pretty garden which includes a couple of herb beds, sadly having lost their characteristic scents as winter looms. I imagine it’s peaceful sitting here in the warmer months.

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By the 19th century, the chapter house had been left to become a ruin but is now back in use for religious services. The congregation must be small but what a lovely place to gather.

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Above the chapter house is the scriptorium which is dedicated to HMS Conway, a navy teaching vessel which was founded in 1859  to improve the training of merchant navy officers. The original ship was replaced twice over the next hundred years but the new ships retained the name. At the time of my visit one of the Conway ‘old boys’ was on hand, talking to visitors about his time on board.

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The ship was moored at Birkenhead near to the Priory before being moved to Anglesey during World War II when German bombers started targeting Liverpool, England’s second major port. She met her end in 1953 when returning to Birkenhead for a refit, and running aground.

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Behind the church, the outer wall has been transformed and spotlights added. This must make a stunning sight by night,

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The Priory undercroft is smaller than I had expected and slightly cluttered by the addition of some exhibits which I felt took something away from what could have been a very serene space. However, cleverly arranged lighting showed the exquisite arched ceilings.

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From the undercroft a stair case leads up to the tower and to a spectacular view of Birkenhead and Liverpool but the day was declining and I had another place to visit, so I wasn’t tempted to climb the 100+ spiralling steps.

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The links to the river have remained. Camell Laird ship building yard provides an interesting juxtaposition as a large yellow crane looks down on the Priory grounds.

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William Laird set up the Birkenhead Iron Works in 1824, its prime purpose being the manufacture of boilers. His son, shipbuilder John Laird, joined him 4 years later and the company soon became pre-eminent in the manufacture of iron ships. John Laird & Sons joined with Sheffield firm, Cammell Johnson in 1900.

John Laird became Birkenhead’s first mayor and was responsible for bringing about great improvements in the town, including maintaining a police force. He also served as the town’s first MP from 1861 to 1874. He is buried in the graveyard next to his shipyard.

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For me, this was the perfect time of year to walk among the fallen leaves and enjoy the battering of the coastal wind against ancient stones which have stood for nearly a millennium and may still be there for another.

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Birkenhead: Stories of war and sea (and hidden treasure)

A hundred years ago today, English war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in northern France, just one week before Armistice Day – 11th November 1918 – marked the end of World War One. I was first introduced to Wilfred Owen at school, and during the decades since then I have been moved and disturbed in equal measure by Owen’s graphic depictions of the realities of war through the eyes of one who lived it.

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This year marks the centenary of the end of the Great War and has engendered much media attention, including the story about the unveiling of a statue of Wilfred Owen in his home town of Oswestry in Shropshire. I was surprised to read that the poet spent a significant part of his life in the town of Birkenhead where his father had worked on the rail network, mainly at the now demolished Woodside Station near to the docks.

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The Wilfred Owen Story in Birkenhead is run by a charity and celebrates Owen’s connections to the town and his war poetry. The weekend of the 100th anniversary of his death seemed like an ideal time to take a look in combination with visits to two other local places of interest. Unfortunately, this was not to be. The Wilfred Owen Story is only open on three weekdays for just a few hours, with no exception being made this weekend despite the historic occasion.

After exploring other parts of Birkenhead, I returned to Hamilton Square en route to my final destination. Even though it was just 3 o’clock, it was a grey afternoon and the sun hadn’t broken through the cloud cover all day. The elegant Georgian Square was all but deserted and I enjoyed the colours of autumn in solitude as I walked the pathways by the cenotaph.

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A chance encounter led to another war time story and a tale of treasure salvaged from a distant sea bed. As I trained my lens on the cenotaph, the only other person in the Square paused so as not to walk into my shot. I thanked him, and this led to an interesting conversation.

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Keith ‘Scouse’ Cooper told me the story of a world record breaking salvage operation which took place in 1981 in the Barents Sea 240 km off the coast of Russia and Norway.

Over 400 bars of gold bullion were retrieved from the wreck of HMS Edinburgh which was scuttled by her crew on 2nd May 1942 to avoid capture, three days after being hit by torpedo fire by German U-boats. The gold – worth about 1.5 million pounds (about 65 million in today’s money) had been loaded just days earlier in Mumansk, Russian part-payment for supplies and military equipment, and was on its way to Britain.

After nearly 40 years on the sea bed, the  bulk of the gold was finally brought up from the designated war grave more than 800 metres down. Keith was one of the divers involved in the international salvage operation. I asked Keith if he’d got rich from his share of the proceeds; he told me the money was long gone.

Back home, I found this film online, which follows the Salvage of The Century  operation as it unfolds and the gold is hauled up by ‘Scouse’ Cooper and the other divers.

Scouse’s story linked perfectly to my next port of call which was a few minutes’ walk away next to the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside landing stage. Before going in, I spent a few minutes looking across the river Mersey to Liverpool waterside which looked quite lovely as dusk started to descend.

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Woodside terminal
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The commercial district
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The two Cathedrals

The U-Boat Story is an unusual museum and is well worth a visit. It offers an opportunity to see what life was like on board the actual German submarine, U- 534, the last U-Boat to leave Germany, which was brought to Birkenhead in 1993.

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It is still a mystery as to why U-534 and the two other type 22 submarines which accompanied her defied the German command to surrender on the morning of 5th May 1945 when World War II was declared over. Instead, her crew fired torpedoes at the British coastal command bombers which had spotted the German subs off the coast of Denmark. After some exchange of fire, a depth charge sank U-534. Almost all of her crew escaped and were rescued.

In the 1980s, suspicions arose that this last U-Boat to leave Germany might have been carrying Nazi treasures to be hidden in Norway and reclaimed after the war. She was eventually raised from the bed of the North Sea but no treasures were discovered. She was cut into the five sections, making it possible for visitors to see her interior.

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It’s impressive to see how the submarine survived four decades on the sea bed, and the interesting and informative audio visual recordings make it easier for those of us who are not mechanically-minded to make sense of what we are viewing.

 

 

 

Inside, the exhibition centre has an interesting display which includes U534’s time line and houses additional artefacts which were recovered.

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A display of everyday items including wine, board games, shaving equipment and personal nick-nacks remind visitors of the ordinary human lives combatants lived before and during the conflict, and that those lost were not just militia, but men.

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Anthem for Doomed Youth -Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

 

 

 

Crosby Sands: Another Place

Blundell Sands, Crosby, sits along the estuary of the river Mersey to the north of Liverpool. It’s the site of Another Place, a brilliant art installation by sculptor Antony Gormley (now ‘Sir’ Antony). I’ve seen several of Gormley’s installations, including arguably his most famous, The Angel of the North, but Another Place is my favourite and is in the north west of England which is where I live. I recently went to see the iron men again.

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The installation consists of a hundred solid cast iron figures which stand at intervals along the beach. At low tide they can all be seen but my favourite view is at high tide when some are partially submerged. Some appear to be sunk into the sand whilst others are raised and stand proud. All of the figures look out to sea.

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Gormley cast the figures in 17 different moulds made from his own body, so he’s sharing more than just his artistic vision. I wonder how he feels whenever he returns to see a hundred iron selves, barnacled and briny as they stand stoic, tide after tide, year after year.

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Gormley’s idea was to “…test time and tide, stillness and movement, and somehow engage with the daily life of the beach” as well as a “meditation on emigration.” Looking   in the same direction, all of the figures could be pondering new horizons beyond the Irish sea, some wading out to their destinies with the turning tide .

Birkenhead docks doesn’t make for the most enchanting backdrop but for Gormley this was real life and not romantic escapism . Although Another Place will now remain at Blundell Sands, it didn’t come into being there. Its first home was in Cuxhaven, Germany where, as in Crosby, busy container ships would pass by along the river Elbe.

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A figure observes Burbo Bank offshore wind farm or maybe he’s more interested in the other figure who can just be seen to the left partially covered by the water.

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After Germany, the installation was sited in Norway and Belgium before it arrived in Crosby, and should have voyaged on to New York, but it had become so popular here that a decision was made to make the figures permanent features, something which Gormley approved of.

Not everybody is a fan of Another Place; some local people hate it. I think they are very lucky!

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Internet image shows Gormley with one of his iron man creations

 

 

 

 

 

The Bombed Out Church – St Luke’s, Liverpool

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Bold Street is my favourite place in Liverpool; a quirky, alternative spot, home to some fabulous places to eat, international and organic food retailers and ethnic and arts shops. Look towards the top of Bold Street with your back to the city centre and you will see what first appears to be an ordinary church; but things are not always what they seem. Any native of Liverpool will be able to tell you why this church, St. Luke’s, is different. For those who are not ‘in the know’, keep on walking and you’ll find out…….

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St Luke’s, colloquially known as the ‘bombed out church’, stands as a proud shell of its former self – literally. It was built to serve the Anglican community of city centre Liverpool after Lord Derby granted the land on Leece Street to the Church of England in 1791, apparently on condition that it be always used as a church and that no burials take place there. The building was completed in 1831.

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The good people of the city worshipped uninterrupted at St. Luke’s for over a hundred years until a fateful day in the spring of 1941. Britain was at war with Germany and nightly air raids were commonplace, affecting many British towns and cities. Outside of London, Liverpool was the most targeted location in the country, due to it being a major port. In May of that year, the German Luftwaffe attacked Liverpool for seven days in a row. St Luke’s was hit by an incendiary device, thankfully at a time when nobody was within. The church blazed for three days before finally revealing all that was left – a roofless shell. Some photographs of the blitzed city and church are displayed within the modern space.

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After the war, Liverpool Council planned to demolish the remains of the church, but there was a public outcry; to the people of the city, the ‘bombed out church’ was a symbol of survival and strength. Happily, the plans were dropped, but over the years the site became neglected.

About fourteen years ago Ambrose Reynolds, founder of local arts organisation Strawberry Urban Lunch, sparked a regeneration of interest in St. Luke’s by using it to host arts events in commemoration of the blitz and its survivors. Within a few years he was granted stewardship of St. Luke’s and through a lot of hard work and receipt of financial support, he and his team were able to open the space to the public once again.

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The building has been put to some creative uses during the last decade, including live music and outdoor cinema events, educational projects and art exhibitions. It has even been a wedding venue. Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono have counted amongst its patrons, though despite the high-profile support, St Luke’s has struggled for its survival over the last few years as austerity cuts have hit the north west particularly hard. Ambrose Reynolds and his team have fought this all the way, determined to preserve this amazing space and living museum for the city of Liverpool. Thanks to sheer hard work and determination and whatever financial support they have been able to get their hands on, these brilliant people have been able to secure the future of the bombed-out church, at least for the next thirty years.

The space is currently used for an eclectic range of activities from daily Tai chi and yoga through to performance art. The thing I really love about this special little place in the big city is that it has not, despite its iconic status, developed affected arty airs; it stands in simplicity, displaying its war wounds: charred timbers, glassless windows and warped metalwork, a real symbol that life goes on and human spirit survives conflict.

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