Liverpool Cathedral

I am in awe of Liverpool. It is a lionhearted city. Its waterfront and docks along the River Mersey stretch for almost seven miles and the atmosphere of power and strength is overwhelming. The Liverpool poets do not exaggerate its romance either.

‘The daughters of Albion/ arriving by underground at Central Station/ eating hot Eccles cakes at the Pierhead/ writing ‘Billy Blake is fab’ on a wall in Matthew St…

Adrian Henri eulogises the urban idyll and sees the sweet papers in the streets and the rubbish stuck in suburban privet hedges as welcome evidence of human company.

The raw Liverpool does not appeal to everyone – the boarded up corner shops , the condemned Victorian and Edwardian  streets, the  weed-filled waste grounds and cut-price furniture stores –but as Margaret Drabble points out,’ Liverpool is the kind of city which people have to assemble for themselves, from unpromising materials — a collage city, for those who can love what is there, rather than yearn for what is gone’.

Liverpool_Cathedral_(7684928648)The pride has certainly not gone and past monuments only kindle the fire. Perhaps the greatest Victorian monument to civic pride in Britain, St Georges’s Hall, still sails its 60ft high Corinthian columns above the teeming traffic by Lime Street Station. On the waterfront too, bold as brass, are Liverpool’s vainglorious symbols of Edwardian prosperity — the Royal Liver Building, the Dock Board Offices and the Cunard Building. But surely the greatest celebration of the Liverpudlian spirit  and the supreme testimony of the faith and determination of a community which was never deflected, not even by two world wars, is Liverpool Cathedral. The building began to rise in 1904 when times were brilliant and wasn’t completed until 1978 when they were not.

Today the cathedral soars over the city, on St James’s Mount – eighteenth century Liverpool clustered nearby and beyond the broad sweep down to the dockside wharehouses and commercial monoliths. It is the largest Anglican church in the world and the second largest cathedral after St Peter’s in Rome. It is my favourite cathedral in Britain. The 16th Earl of Derby, whose family seat is on the outskirts of the city, chaired the original meeting in Liverpool Town Hall in 1901, which marked the start of the realisation of a dream. A national competition was then set up and the 22-year-old Roman Catholic Giles Gilbert Scott submitted the winning design out of 100 entrants. From then on, Bishop F J Chavasse, the second Bishop of Liverpool was the leader and inspirer of the project. ‘It must be a cathedral of the people,’ he said, ‘built by them, thronged by them; their pride, their glory, their spiritual home.’ All three men are buried here.

The cathedral stands beside an abandoned quarry, dramatically deep and wooded with a graveyard in its depths. It is built of local Woolton sandstone — a sort of dark pinkish colour which resembles milk chocolate in some lights and still looks crisp and pristine despite the city’s salty, sooty atmosphere. Over the entrance is  Elizabeth Frink’s  sculpture of Christ on the cross.

Once through the doors, the scale is awe inspiring, the vastness and strength of it sublime ‘Don’t look at my arches,’ said Scott. ‘Look at my spaces.’ Everything is plain, dignified and gigantic. The height at the undertower is about the same as Nelson’s Column and the Gothic arches are purported to be the largest ever built. There can be few greater enclosed spaces in the world. This is a monument and a half— but then nothing in Liverpool is done in half measures.

‘Then down the hill,’ writes Henri, ‘THE SOUND OF TRUMPETS/ cheering and shouting in the distance/ children running/ice-cream vans.’

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Miguel Mendez


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