Friday, November 16, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 10: Waterloo and New Brighton

[Originally posted on]

Yes, I'm back with a new installment of "longest and most boring trip report ever"!

Today we visit not Abba's Waterloo, or Napoleon's. The Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" will not be visible from here.

This Waterloo is Liverpool's first beach town. I don't think it's ever been a proper resort, but it's the closest place to the city with a proper beach, just north of Bootle and Seaforth and the dock system, far enough out into the mouth of the Mersey that it has a sandy strand which appears to go on forever. The shoreline is lined with the sort of pastel Victorian row that is familiar to anyone who has visited an English seaside, though these are lined up a LONG ways from the sea. Inland, Waterloo is a pleasant middle-class village gone slightly to seed.

You get there on Merseyrail, passing under the slums of North Liverpool, past the docks, past the excitement of Bootle with its standard-issue Soviet-style sixties towers in the center.

We came to see the Gormleys. Antony Gormley installed his artwork "Another Place" here in July 2005, and since then the 100 iron figures, each one nearly 1,500 pounds, modeled on the sculptor and looking out to sea, have received over a million visitors, plus dogs. Plans by the local Sefton council to remove them last year were scuppered and the statues apparently will be staying.

They were worth the visit. Spread out over two miles of the broad, hard-packed sand, some up to their chest in the water, with the new turbines of the Burbo Bank Wind Farm in the distance, and the Seaforth Container Terminal to the south, they are beautiful. Evocative of emigration, perhaps, from what was once the Empire's biggest emigration port, and of man's relation to the sea, they
cast long shadows in the setting sun, and have a fantastic patina of rust. People respond to them in a way that modern sculpture rarely achieves. I loved them, and we stayed out here for hours.

I couldn't tell you where "Waterloo Beach" ends and "Crosby Beach" starts, if indeed there is any difference at all, but we're definitely down at the Waterloo end, close enough to see the control tower for the port. There's a popular beach park with miles of paved paths, a couple of lakes and scrub grass between the strand and the road, with dog walkers and joggers, and a slamming wind. The lakes are sporting signs warning that allowing the water within them to come into contact with your skin will cause you to dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West, or possibly just get an itch. But it's a lovely park.

Heading into the town, we went straight to the Volunteer Canteen, a small traditional pub. Despite the many and various glories of central Liverpool drinking establishments, this is my favorite pub in Merseyside and thus in Britain, and I was glad to see it again. It's nothing special as far as pubs go, which is precisely what makes it special. It's what you might call an "old man's pub", with NO MUSIC, pleasantly old-fashioned decor, and excellent beer. I could sit and read in the saloon bar all night if we didn't have places to go, while the public bar is a more boisterous room for people seeking loud cheery conversation.

We are here in Watlerloo this late for a reason. On the seedy but neighborly shopping street of St Johns Road lies a bit of a surprise for North Liverpool: one of the best Indian restaurants in the world. I don't know, maybe it's the best. The only one I've ever been in that comes close is Vij's, in Vancouver, BC.

Unlike almost all curry shops in Britain, this one is South Indian and Sri Lankan instead of Pakistani or Bangladeshi. That means Hindu, not Muslim, and instead of halal, they serve pork. And not just any pork; I had a Sri Lankan "black pork", which is cooked in spices roasted a dark coffee brown -- one of the best meals I have ever eaten. The lamb and chicken dishes going around our table were outstanding as well -- not just "spicy" as in hot, but delightfully aromatic and electric with bright, fresh flavors, not buried in an ocean of the usual glob (I say that as a great aficianado of glop). I can recommend the dhai bhalla dumplings and masala dosa starters as well; so much more interesting than the usual samosas. The prices are quite modest, too, for Britain. In a country where my US dollars turn a street kebab or curry takeaway into a meal costing more than a moderate sit-down restaurant in Seattle, this place was perhaps twice as much as that kebab, and considerably less than any number of mediocre "fancy" places in the center of Liverpool. It was comparable to most of the other Indian restaurants we visited in price, but the food was just outstanding.

I honestly doubt there's an Indian restaurant in London that can match it -- I KNOW there isn't one in New York. And it's tucked away in such a difficult-to-get-to place, a considerable walk from the rail station. Really, if I lived in England, even far from here, I'd be making special trips just for this, but then, I really love Indian food!

The owner or partner who greeted us, Neil Brown, turned out to have spent a great deal of time in an even harder-to-get-to part of our part of the world, Omak, Washington, in the Okanogan Valley, where he had something to do with something technical that I've forgotten. What a lovely, unexpected place this was!

On the way home we stopped at our friend's house in Seaforth -- a modest terraced house with a sweet garden out back -- and watched enough of the new Liverpool Football Channel on his giant TV to suit me for a lifetime. This was I believe their second day of broadcasting, and to fill the hours between replays of their thrilling 2005 European win they were already resorting to the sort of call-in chat show hosted by a fat fellow who once scored quite an impressive goal back in 1978 or some such thing, which was mostly entertaining for the accents of the callers. I can do a mediocre general Liverpool accent, based at least in half on John and Paul and George and Ringo, but our friend John's accent is softer and drawlier and has almost a Gaelic click to it -- great to listen to. I can't identify the variations but I can hear them. Liverpudlian is lovely speech most of the time.

The next day we went to New Brighton.

New Brighton is Liverpool's Blackpool, the closest place with all the traditional seaside amusements -- arcades, rides, rock, soft ice cream, sandy beaches, overflowing rubbish bins. It's very small, and very declined from its heyday, but to me that just makes it all the more attractive. It's at the very top of the Wirral, the San Francisco-shaped peninsula across the Mersey from the Liverpool mainland. We took the train to Birkenhead first.

We didn't see much of Birkenhead, but we wandered around the center a little bit. The fine Georgian terraces of Hamilton Square -- one of the nicest and most overlooked in the country -- were of less interest to us than the old industrial zone down towards the water, along Shore Road. The outstanding monument there is the huge Art Deco ventilation tower for the Queensway Tunnel under the river, by Herbert Rowse. There are a few nice old warehouse buildings as well. Most of the dock system has been disused so long that even the ghosts of the working port are gone; there's an odd submarine up on plinths, and some informational boards, but not that much to see, really. Maybe we missed the good bits.

Back on the train, we went up through Wallasey Village to New Brighton. On the main shopping street, Victoria Road, leading down the hill to the sea, we ate in a spectacularly grotty but very friendly cafe, with horrible carpet, mismatched furniture, and weeping windows. The sun was burning off the morning fog. I had a sandwich called a "dustbin lid", for its size, which was about as good as it sounds. It was big, I'll give it that credit; big as a dustbin lid, but drier. The street looked like it had seen better days, indeed it looked as though those better days were beyond the living memory of any of the inhabitants.

Down at the sea, though, things brightened up considerably. From what I had been told, I was expecting total dereliction, but the place was jammed with people, mostly families with small ones. There was a great deal of construction going on, as well, which surprised me; I don't know if City of Culture money gets this far out, but someone is paying to fix up the gazebo and the promenade. We walked out the causeway to old Fort Perch Rock, but the fort didn't look worth the admission. The view was great, though, and so was the buttery ice cream back on the prom.

Up from the fort is the amusement center, with all the usual suspects -- a bowling alley, an arcade, a row of seaside shops where I purchased a few packages of "Booze Flavoured Rock" for my more discriminating friends, and a funfair with rides. For all the horror stories and Martin Parr photographs of the place, showing morbidly obese people swimming in floating piles of discarded chips and cigarette butts, I didn't think it was bad at all. On a beautiful sunny day like this, with the shouts of children in my ears and a Cadbury's 99 Flake in my hand, and a rundown row of Art Deco classics to look at, I was as happy as could be. I wasn't much tempted by the water, though.

From New Brighton the Promenade runs several miles all the way down the coast of the Wirral back to the ferry, and that's what we did. By this time in our trip my feet were misbehaving, so my progress was slower than it could have been, which is probably a good thing. You get a miraculous view of the Liverpool skyline across the water, from the brooding presence of Salisbury Dock with its great gates and Stanley Dock behind, all the way to the Pier Head, the shifting angle as you walk down the prom always changing. The coast here is interesting too -- not just boring sand but rocks and pools and sealife.

South of New Brighton along the water, enjoying this tremendous view, the neighborhood quickly moves upscale; this appears to be some of the choicest real estate in Merseyside, with some grand houses along Magazine Promenade. Wallasey Town Hall is the most dramatic building here, but my favorite is, surprise, surprise, the Magazine Hotel -- a charming pub in an even more charming village setting, with white cottages clustered around curving streets, almost like the countryside. It WAS the countryside once, when these houses were first built, some in the 1600s. The pub's not that old, but it's old-fashioned, a warren of little snugs and rooms. The room we were in was marred by a hideous fruit machine the size of an industrial refrigerator, and smelled very faintly of carpet cleaner, but I didn't mind, and we had a fine pint and a view of the sea.

Of course, the pint of beer on a walking tour is always a mistake with me, and within seconds of setting out down the promenade again I had to pee. This is not a new or unusual sensation for me, so I carried on, but by the time we got to the jetty which is all that remains of the old Egremont ferry dock, I was forced to do something which will shock the conscience of all decent persons: I went into a pub and used their toilet without buying anything, while wife and friend waited outside. Fortunately, everyone in the packed house was watching the start of Man Utd v Chelsea, so I don't think anyone noticed.

Further down we went, to the ferry home, at Seacombe. One of the dubious joys of this famous ride, if you take one of the tourist boats like this one on the weekend, rather than the commuter boat during the work week, is that you get some of the same commentary we had before at the end of the Manchester Ship Canal cruise, extolling the wonders of the etc. etc. And at the end you are treated to Gerry and the Pacemakers' hit "Ferry, Cross the Mersey", which is a nice enough tune, but surely must have every ferry employee wanting to strangle Mr. Marsden after hearing it so many times. Or maybe they don't hear it at all anymore.

And that's pretty much it for Liverpool this trip.


[Note: I never got around to Belfast and Dublin; this is the end of it.]