Starting mileage: 18700 km
Day started: 10:00 / 8:30
Day ended: 23:00 / 22:00
Our plans for Ireland had to be adjusted somewhat due to ferry timetables and free slots; instead of going for Dublin and from there up to Northern Ireland, we’re going straight for Belfast, on Saturday morning. That means we have all of Friday to visit the fair city of Liverpool.
Unlike in Chester, we didn’t have an itinerary of sights lined up; rather, we just strolled the streets, savouring in the atmosphere and trying to avoid anything related to either Titanic or the Beatles for as long as possible.
Our experience in Liverpool was bookended by things and people not working as they should have: car park ticketing machines, ATM, the Post Office, all failed us in various ways which probably had nothing to do with the city itself, but left a sour taste on our tongues nonetheless.
The city centre has a certain unique flavour, more continental than English; the buildings of the harbour are all monumental, epic in scale; the UNESCO-inscribed waterfront is a well known sight – and one that induced in me a strong feeling of deja vu until I remembered where I had last seen it: Bund in Shanghai, pretty much a direct copy of this place, built by home-sick English merchants – but surprisingly the two most prominent buildings on either side of the skyline are not the iconic Edwardian “Three Graces” – the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool building – but the fantastic, Gotham-esque Art Deco towers which aren’t marked in any way. Like the twin towers from Lord of the Rings, they face each other across the Mersey: the one on Merseyside slender and gleaming white, its opposite in Birkenhead dark, brooding and menacing. Between it and the equally menacing Cathedral further up the river, the city seems oppressed by some dark architectural forces.
The towers hold ventilation shafts of the Mersey tunnels, each nearly two miles long, which connect Merseyside with the docks and industrial zones of Wirral. The Birkenhead is the poorer sibling of the grand waterfront, made of soot-blackened red brick and rusting steel.
Unexpectedly, most of Liverpool’s centre, apart from the immediate waterfront, is transformed into a huge open mall, Liverpool One, the largest of its kind in Britain. It is an interesting concept – the network of living streets of the old city incorporated into a new commercial and residential district – but ultimately, it is just a vast shopping centre, and as in every shopping centre, walking about it gets tiring very fast.
Nearby neighbourhoods, as far as we could tell, were also transformed into shopping districts, including the Cavern Quarter, built around a copy of the original Cavern Club, created for clueless tourists; by now seriously exhausted with trying to find our way around the countless and seamless storefronts we headed for the area between Bold Street and Duke Street, where we expected to find Liverpool’s answer to Soho – indie cafes, alternative restaurants, galleries, that sort of thing. We found only two (good) cafés, run by the same owners, and a slightly overpriced (even by London standards) bistro; the rest looked like a run-down high street in the middle of a small Welsh town.
We then had to go for our passport interviews, and after that our day in Liverpool was over; we drove to the Stena Terminal, where we planned to wait overnight for the morning ferry to Belfast.
I still couldn’t figure Liverpool out; it is a city with lots of potential and a great legacy, but we could see very little of it on our one day tour; perhaps we looked in all the wrong places. I could feel neither the youthful vibrance of Bristol, nor the elegant glory of Chester; there was the epic, slightly oppressing monumentality of the waterfront buildings, but there was nothing on the human scale. And yet, at the same time, there was something rather provincial about it, once you got past the gleaming facades. In this, too, it reminded me of its Oriental twin, Shanghai.
It wasn’t until we started departing from the terminal, passing the Three Graces, that I began to feel something stirring inside me; we were “leaving Liverpool“, like the tens of millions before us, even if just for a few days. This was the port of the world, the scene of so many farewells and heartbreaks, successes and failures; a place firmly set in the history of the world, for better or worse.
The journey to Belfast was as peaceful as it was boring – 8 hours on a fairly small ship, with only free wi-fi and an occasional sight of a distant Cumbria shoreline for entertainment.
There is a surprising dearth of campsites in the immediate vicinity of Belfast; in fact, there doesn’t seem to be that many good campsites in NI at all; the two nearest are permanently full, and so we had to drive all the way to the shores of Lough Neagh, to the Six Mile Water campsite on the outskirts of Antrim.
The site was a curious introduction to Northern Ireland. Expensive (£23), surrounded by a metal fence, with gates that close at dusk, and facilities accessible only with magnetic card; neat and precise on the outside, slightly run-down on the inside; the worst of all however were the infamous Lough Neagh midges: thankfully of the non-biting variety, they nonetheless rose in vast clouds in the evening, getting into every nook and cranny of the van despite shut windows.