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Rapidly diminishing heritage

This is a sort of short follow up to the most recent blog post on the Futurist cinema, which was demolished against the wishes of a vocal number of Liverpool’s citizens.

Another planning application raising eyebrows is one put in to demolish parts of the Rapid Hardware building on Renshaw Street. This is a well known landmark for anyone who’s spent any time in the city. It also happens to be where I first bought a lot of archaeological health and safety kit!

Petition

It was brought to my attention by a petition which was set up, as petitions are, to give voice to those who were troubled to see more well-known buildings from being replaced with (probably, allegedly) anonymous and generic boxes, or more student flats.

Funnily enough, Dave Bridson, who set up the petition has commented on Facebook how he did so because he thought it was right, not necessarily because he desperately wanted to see the buildings saved. As it turns out, not many people have signed the petition, especially compared to the Futurist campaign. Dave has since said that he’s happy to have given people a voice, and that the voice has not spoken very loudly against the plans.

Sexy buildings

This highlights some really important points. For a start, Liverpool is not stuck in the past, wishing to preserve every old building for the sake of it (this is what I pointed out in the previous post). Landmark (or, in Richard MacDonald’s apt post) ‘sexy’ buildings will attract support, while more run of the mill buildings will not.

I think it’s true to say that any city would value a building like the Futurist, whereas the Rapid building might not be seen in such envious light. And this shows that those who campaign to save old buildings (especially when it comes from grass roots) do assign more value to the better buildings.

Heritage landscapes

Is this a good thing? It probably is, as it shows some thought goes into requests to stop or slow down development when it puts something historic and valued at risk. However, the other side of the coin is that more ‘standard’ buildings like terraces of houses or small shops are ignored when the likes of the Futurist distract attention. For example, the row of shops on Lime Street surrounding the Futurist was a neat little group which formed a cohesive whole. For sure, they were probably as neglected as the cinema, and as fragile after all this time, but they would be as important to the historic landscape which is Lime Street. In the same way that the Eiffel Tower would be a different thing altogether if surrounded by high rise apartments, it’s the ‘normal’ buildings which give the special ones their elevated status. Perhaps if the Futurist had been kept, it would have been swamped by the new development anyway.

With that in mind, looking at the loss of all or part of the Rapid building might not seem like a great problem. It’s not a ‘sexy’ building, but it is familiar. It’s part of the landscape and the streetscape, and it affects how the street itself feels – the light, the air, the walking experience. The question of whether to ‘save’ the building (and/or object to whatever replaces it) doesn’t need to hang on whether the building is architecturally or historically important, nor whether it’s simply ‘loved’. It should consider whether replacing the building (or part of it) with something else improves the street.

It’s hard to see that element when we’re looking at one building, and a campaign or petition is probably not the best way to save (or encourage good decisions about) an entire streetscape. Whether there is any way we can generate the kind of awareness which would suit the preservation and improvement of streetscapes, instead of solely headline demolitions, is perhaps something that we should start to consider. There are plenty of groups who already think along those lines, such as English Heritage and the various civic societies, but it’s time that kind of thinking permeated into the more general consciousness.

This post is not really a comment on whether the Rapid building should or shouldn’t be saved, but really a reaction to how we regard the ‘everyday’ buildings as well as the landmarks.

The future and the Futurist

And so the Futurist cinema is coming down.

It’s been on the cards for a few months, and now people are generally coming to the opinion that it was inevitable (for which read ‘the Council pretended it wouldn’t be demolished, but always intended to demolish it anyway’). But I’m not here to debate conspiracies, because you get nowhere, and what’s done is done (by the time you read this).

I’m interested in the arguments which have grown up around these events on Facebook and Twitter. There are, naturally, many many people who are saddened by the destruction of a beautiful building, and there are more who are dismayed at the unfulfilled promises of keeping the façade intact. And then there are those who are encouraging us to ‘crack on’ (Joe Anderson, that one) and to ‘quit living in the past’.

For them, the Futurist was a building that has come to the end of its life. It was falling down, no one had found a need for it, and it is high time someone put something useful there.

Both these sides of the argument can be understood, but I think they’re missing the point. Of course, people have memories associated with old buildings (especially social places like cinemas), and for that reason they want to keep them around, like a keepsake. And of course, that’s the easiest argument to dismiss – we can’t just keep accumulating old stuff because we can’t bear to part with the memories.

The Past is the Present

But even if we free ourselves from the need to accumulate old stuff, we can’t escape the fact that old stuff does accumulate. It’s there all around us, and not just in the form of old buildings that are derelict or in use.

The street layout itself is a product of history, of events, practices and goings-on. St George’s Hall is on a perfect spot to welcome visitors into the city from the station, but it was built at a time before that kind of consideration was made, and it was a plot freed up by the demolition of the first Liverpool Infirmary in 1824. Such is the luck and serendipity of these things, and now we have a brilliant plateau of architectural gems at the gateway to the city.

We are gifted our historic landscape by the people who came before us. Through action, inaction, use and disuse, we are left with a collection of buildings which we must decide how to use. Old buildings are never demolished purely because they are old, and new buildings are not thrown up just because the previous lot are past some sell by date.

And so it follows that every new building to be built, and every existing one to remove, must be considered carefully. We need to keep the best of the old, and pass it all on, while making way for the new where appropriate. It’s all about checks and balances, and curating a collection of buildings and streetscapes which are the best they can be, incorporating both new and old.

What do we want? Great buildings! When do we want them? Now, and in the future!

The reason why people like me (who don’t remember the Futurist in its heyday) want to retain these old buildings is because they add character to the places we move through. We know that many new buildings lack architectural interest, or try so hard to have character that they seem to dive out at you from their façade, screaming and shouting “Look at me, I’m architecture!”

Photo of School Lane, Liverpool

Some buildings seem worried that you might not notice them

At the Pier Head, both the set of Mann Island buildings and the new Museum of Liverpool (and the ferry terminal) came in for criticism. Again, people were accused of being anti-new. Did you know that “They” complained when the Liver Building was erected? In a few years you’ll love the black blocks!

But it was clear that the Mann Island development got (and still gets) the most scorn poured onto it. The Museum of Liverpool building has its critics, but isn’t usually seen in such a negative light. I believe this is because the Mann Island buildings lack character: they have no external detail, they don’t vary, and their black colour is already broken by residents’ very reasonable practice of opening windows and blinds at different times.

They are buildings which don’t respond well to real life, in the way that real life actually happens. The museum is better: it’s more interesting without being a gaudy design; it has texture on it and the eye is drawn across the surface as you look at it.

The ferry terminal is basically what a five year old draws when they’re ‘inventing’ a car, or a wardrobe with crayon.

Historic buildings of the present

Liverpool has been called a city of radicals, and its social and political outlook is forward-looking. But it also holds its history dear, and with good reason.

The people of Liverpool value the interest and layered meaning that all those centuries of history lay down. We still have statues of chained slaves, and the International Museum of Slavery, which shows that we’re not shy of the darker periods of our past. We have St George’s Hall Courts and cells, and we preserve that other court – the court house – as a valuable reminder of how far we’ve come. We don’t hide from the past.

As a modern city, we pride ourselves at how enjoyable it is to simply walk around the city, whether that’s the centre, the suburbs or the parks, or even taking a ferry across the Mersey. Liverpool is a brilliant place to simply be in.

And so when we’re faced with a carbuncle, or a row of blocks in place of a much-loved cinema and varied (if dilapidated) shop fronts, don’t be surprised if people put up a fight. And don’t argue that we must move on, because keeping historic buildings is moving on, and taking those buildings with us into the future.

Sure, we can’t save every old building, but we should do our best to save every interesting building, however old. And when the public start to feel like the wool has been pulled over their eyes by those they suspect have something to gain, then the problems deepen.

The plan now is to ‘depict’ the Futurist cinema on the front surface of the new development. So even now there’s an admission that the old building is superior in appearance to the new plans.

Neolithic Anglesey and the Merseyside connection – a trip with the NSG

Anglesey and North Wales are very close to Liverpool hearts. Countless Welsh builders helped create some of our inner suburbs in distinctive yellow brick, and the red bricks of the University are Welsh too. More recently, there can’t be many Scousers who haven’t had a day trip or two to Llandudno, Conwy or Beaumaris.

On the weekend of 13th to 15th May 2016 I joined a Neolithic Studies Group tour to Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, to have a look at much older remains of Wales’s inhabitants, and inevitably ponder on how old the links to Merseyside could be. You’re probably two steps ahead of me already, but I’ll catch up with you in good time.

Neolithic Studies

The Neolithic Studies Group meets once a year on similar trips, as well as smaller meetings at other times. It’s a loose collection of archaeologists interested in the Neolithic, but the range of people on this trip shows that you can’t group them much more succinctly than that. And then there’s me, who once was an archaeologist, and wrote two dissertations on Neolithic tombs in North Wales (one theoretical, one practical) about a decade ago. Despite not practising much archaeology for years, I couldn’t wait to get up to Môn and re-acquaint myself with some craggy friends who I’d last seen in about 2004.

It turns out that some can change more than you’d think.

First things first

We made the most of Twitter, the hashtag for the tour being #NSGAnglesey2016. There, you can see a ton of rocks, rock art, tea, cakes and scenery. Nobody can say the Neolithic Studies Group is stuck in the Stone Age.

Seren Griffiths was our organiser, who pulled together two handy sheaves of notes on the tombs, and secured access to at least two tombs not normally open to the public. And there’s a lot more unglamorous tasks involved in making sure that the weekend went smoothly, such as organising food and herding us cats onto buses and into cars when necessary.

On the topic of access, if you want to follow in our footsteps you’d better check first that the tomb is accessible to the public. Most you can get to along short paths from the road, and are well signposted, but I can’t be held responsible if irate wardens chase you off private land. Do your own due diligence!

Finally, though I think this is the order we visited the tombs, the itinerary was changed to suit our timetable, so I may get it wrong here and there.

Friday 13th May

It was Friday the 13th as we approached the old abandoned hotel…

Not really, of course. Beaumaris on a sunny Friday afternoon is a beautiful place, with views of Snowdonia (and perhaps Snowdon?), which look like another world across the Menai Straits. It’s also got a satisfyingly ruinous castle, which nestles modestly at one end of town. But that was far too modern for our tastes this weekend, so a visit will have to wait.

Having done a brief detour to the astonishing Portmeirion (of which maybe more in future) we checked in, had a two minute lie down, and then headed to the Bulkeley Hotel to meet up with the other trippers.

Tiny monoliths of cheese, and cream cracker cairns were our sustenance, the cheese being local. The wine was less so, but we quickly settled into an introduction from Professor Tim Darvill, an NSG co-ordinator and Neolithic specialist, who gave the floor to Frances Lynch. Frances literally wrote the book on Prehistoric Anglesey, as well as contributing to Prehistoric Wales and many other papers and books. She was easily the author I relied on most during the writing of my undergraduate dissertation, so it was brilliant to see her in person, holding the audience with her detailed yet good-humoured overview of the tombs we would be seeing (and more). She’d excavated some herself, and knew the material inside out. It’s also the first time in a while that I’ve sat through a talk with actual slides, and a vintage slide projector which is probably archaeological in its own right. You can get a little taster of this from one or two tweets which went out that evening.

Our archaeological and physical appetites whetted by the evening, we managed to find a late-night eatery and ponder what was in store for us in the morning.

Saturday 14th May

Plas Newydd

Saturday dawned sunny but chilly, and we piled into a minibus headed for Plas Newydd, a National Trust property focused on an 18th century house. But we paid that no attention, heading towards the gothic stable block and cricket pitch where our first tomb stood waiting. This is a tomb I’d only been able to see across a fence and field when I popped by as an undergraduate, so I was thrilled to get up close.

Photo of Plas Newydd burial chamber

Archaeologists examine Plas Newydd burial chamber on Anglesey

Kathy Laws, the National Trust’s own archaeologist for the region (and what a region to cover!) gave us an overview of the tomb’s history, while Penelope Foreman debuted a home-made device which reads the colour of the rock which makes up the tomb. For those like me who are fascinated by the details of these gadgets, it was based on an Arduino board with a sensor giving out RGB (red/green/blue) values which Penelope noted down for a growing spreadsheet. A future version of the device (already tastefully presented in a Ferrero Rocher box) should be able to log the colours itself.

Plas Newydd:

Bryn yr Hen Bobl

I gradually became fascinated by the myths surrounding the tombs, particularly the origin myths often reflected in the name. Bryn yr Hen Bobl literally translates as ‘Hill of the Old People’. Whether these ‘old people’ are people in the ancient past or pensioners I’m unsure, but either way it attributes some kind of history to the place, of which I’d find more later.

Photo of Bryn yr Hen Bobl burial chamber on Anglesey

Tim Darvill surveys the scene at Bryn yr Hen Bobl

Bryn yr Hen Bobl: The tomb is unusual in that it has a long arm projecting out of the east side (the far side in the above photo). Researchers have suggested that this was built to match a natural ridge on the west side, but the idea is still debated. I myself could see that there was such a ridge, but I think its age is unknown as yet.

Bryn Celli Ddu

If you’re keeping up with your Welsh here, then you might know that this is also a ‘Hill of…’. In this case it’s ‘in the dark grove’. Well, there’s some landscape history for you, as the rapidly warming sunshine on this exposed rise is as far from a dark grove as you could imagine. At one time it must have been a little more hidden in woodland. Frances Lynch’s Anglesey book mentions that trees were once a more prominent feature of the island, but whether that theory is still current is up for debate.

But the most important aspect of Bryn Celli Ddu for readers of this blog is that it’s the tomb most often cited as being a parallel with the Calderstones in Allerton, before the mound that covered those stones was destroyed in the 19th century (and possibly robbed before that). Part of the parallels lie in the arrangement of the stones making up the chamber and passage, but an additional aspect is the pecked lines and patterns carved on the stones. One monolith stands (possibly erroneously) outside the ‘back door’ of the tomb. This is a replica of the original so-called ‘Pattern Stone’, which is in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and stands where it is originally thought to have done so. The ‘back door’, and the outside location of the Pattern Stone, are both the result of the rebuilding of the mound in the 20th century, which created a smaller hill than would have been in the original.

Photo of the Bryn Celli Ddu burial chamber

The ‘rear’ of Bryn Celli Ddu, with stones and the Pattern Stone which would have originally been under the mound

Another fascinating element of the site is that the tomb was built over an older henge monument, and excavation found an oval arrangement of stones, matching pairs. The Pattern Stone may have stood in the centre of this henge, explaining why the patterns cover both sides (which would have made less sense if the stone was only ever part of a tomb wall). Finally, the central chamber has a monolith within it, which is oddly smooth and circular in section. It may be a petrified tree, as evidence of shaping with tools is not obvious.

The tomb and passage are aligned with the midsummer sunrise too, and so the rays of the rising sun on June 21st shine on the back of the chamber’s interior. I wonder whether the Calderstones were once like this?

Photo of the entrance Bryn Celli Ddu burial chamber

The entrance to Bryn Celli Ddu

Photo of the replica Pattern Stone at Bryn Celli Ddu

The Pattern Stone (replica) at Bryn Celli Ddu, with parallels on the Calderstones

What a thing to have had in Liverpool’s suburbs if the Calderstones mound had survived intact!

The group generally agreed that the information boards in the car park and around the site were a little ambiguous, with atmospheric illustrations yet little concrete information on the uses and history of this complex monument.

Lunchtime

Brilliantly, lunch was pre-ordered and waiting for us at Hooton’s Farm Shop (beef and horseradish sandwiches recommended). After we’d stuffed our faces and considered the purchase of 7 pound packets of sea salt, Cat Rees gave us a talk on excavations of Neolithic houses at Llanfaethlu. There are three buildings there, though it’s not yet been established if they were ever in use at the same time, or one at a time, or something else. Nevertheless, Neolithic domestic archaeology is a rare thing, and these excavations go to show how our knowledge of this period is contantly changing, and our methods improving.

The stunning view from Hooton's Farm Shop, our lunch stop

The stunning view from Hooton’s Farm Shop, our lunch stop

Bodowyr

Next on our journey was Bodowyr. This tomb can be seen from the road, and sits in the middle of a field of nervous sheep. We often ask ourselves about the ‘landscape context’ of a tomb, and whatever the thoughts of the original builders, the views to the Welsh mountains were almost as good as that in Beaumaris.

It’s under the protection of CADW, part of the Welsh government, and is surrounded by a fence. The capstone is a huge mushroom shaped affair, and sits precariously atop three other stones, with two more stones sitting on the ground.

Photo of Bodowyr burial chamber on Anglesey

Bodowyr burial chamber, with Snowdonia in the background

We had to skip Din Dryfol, as time was tight. This was a shame as the site is hard to find, and on my 2004 visit I wasn’t sure I’d got to the right place!

Instead we headed straight to Ty Newydd, which was a classy little number that I’d also visited before, though I’d forgotten about the beautiful brick columns which now hold the capstone in place! Got to admire the pointing, though.

Photo of Ty Newydd burial chamber on Anglesey

Ty Newydd, complete with 20th century stone brick/concrete/cladding supports

The thick, narrow captone is held up by these modern pillars because a picnicking party in the 19th century decided it would be rather splendid to light a bonfire on top! The heat from the fire cracked said capstone, leaving it in a precarious state:

“and though the stone was five feet thick, the action of the fire and the air split the ponderous mass right through the middle, crossways!”

quoted at http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/430/anglesey.html

Barclodiad y Gawres

Another name to conjure thoughts of mythical beginnings, Barclodiad y Gawres means the ‘giantess’s apronful [of stones]’, evoking a frustrated woman casting a pile of rocks which she was carrying, them landing upon a spectacular cliff-top on the western coast of Môn.

Aerial view of Barclodiad y Gawres

Aerial view
Barclodiad y Gawres (from Isle of Anglesey Boutique Tours)

The frustration was all ours, however, as this jewel in Anglesey’s crown is currently being refurbished and re-presented by CADW, and is currently closed to all! It’s another tomb with carved/pecked artwork in, evoking parallels with the Irish tombs like Newgrange and others in the Boyne Valley. Indeed, you can see the Wicklow Mountains on a very clear day, and it’s a reminder that the Irish Sea was far from a barrier to Neolithic people – it was a great route to contact other communities from Ireland, Scotland and the Lancashire and Welsh coasts.

So we were restricted to looking through a fence at the cleaned-up entrance, and standing on its summit to take in the views of Cable Bay (where the Atlantic telegraph makes landfall) and the surrounding green hills. However, our bonus was a visit from Rhys Mwyn, an archaeologist and musician who has recently published a Welsh-language book about North Wales archaeology – the first of its kind apparently! He told us of the plans to make the site more accessible, and of one-day events which take place now to promote Welsh prehistory. People come from afar afield as Yorkshire and Gloucestershire on these days just to look at the one tomb! I’m not surprised, as recalling my previous visit during my dissertation research it would be well worth it. I’m looking forward to seeing what CADW do with it, and to coming back in the future.

Photo of Barclodiad y Gawres burial chamber

Barclodiad y Gawres, currently undergoing work by CADW to improve its presentation

Saturday night was an opportunity to chat about the day over a curry and beer, before retiring to take over the Liverpool Arms in Beaumaris.

Sunday 15th May

Amazingly, the sun shone for us all day again as we assembled outside the Bulkeley Hotel once more. This time we formed a convoy of cars, allowing people to peel off to go home when necessary, as some had come from far afield. The first stop was at Trefignath.

Photo of Trefignath burial chamber at Holyhead, Anglesey

Trefignath burial chamber, near Holyhead (seen in the background)

Trefignath is an evasive tomb. The Neolithic builders clearly sought to hide it away from the road in the shadow of an aluminium smelting facility. However, GPS came to our rescue and we were soon standing on a rocky outcrop which had become the home of a multi-phase mound.

Although the mound itself is no longer in existence, many of the stones which made it up were still there (or rather replaced by excavators) and this exposed skeleton gave us a great view of the entrance walls of early phrases, subsequently overtaken by later mound phases. Referring once more to archaeological drawings, it eventually became clear that the central chamber had collapsed since it had been recorded in the 1980s. This highlights the ever-evolving shape of these remains, and the importance of constantly renewing the protection of them. Good luck to CADW at Barclodiad!

Another significant drawing is that made by the antiquarian John Aubrey, who sketched Trefignath in the 18th century after a supposed visit. I’m no expert on the manner in which tombs collapse, but I very much doubt that Aubrey had anything more than a six word description to go on when making this sketch. You cheeky git, you.

 

Presaddfed

My final tomb of the day, at least as part of the tour, was Presaddfed, far inland (for Anglesey, anyway). It’s another two-chambered tomb, although one is much better preserved than the other. Reports of a number of small stones surrounding the two chamber remains suggests that a single mound once covered both, but there’s no evidence of that any longer.

Photo of Presaddfed burial chamber

Presadded burial chamber, with the supposedly once inhabited chamber on the left

There’s also a story that the better-preserved chamber was actually occupied by a family in the 18th century. Whether they supplemented the meagre shelter with walls is unknown, but it’s certainly an evocative place to live!

Leaving of Anglesey

At this point we said our thanks and goodbyes, though many new connections have been made. The rest of the group went on to lunch, and a couple of other sites (including – gasp! – an Iron Age settlement) in the afternoon. Sue and I then began our long journey home, taking in the spectacular route across Snowdonia and stopping off at a bonus tomb, Capel Garmon, which in shape more closely resembled the so-called Cotswold-Severn group of southern England.

Photo of Capel Garmon burial chamber

Capel Garmon burial chamber near Betws-y-Coed, Snowdonia

I’m still buzzing from all the excitement of the tour, and am so glad to have been able to get back to Anglesey after more than a decade. I’ve found a score of people to follow on Twitter, and keep up to date with their researches.

As I mentioned, a big thread for me running through the weekend was the Irish Sea links between north Wales, Ireland, southern Scotland, the Isle of Man and Lancashire. The Calderstones were mentioned more than once, which shows how well known that site is outside of Merseyside. Anglesey, because it’s still very rural, is lucky enough to have seen relatively good preservation of so many tombs. But the question I’d like to ask is: would Liverpool and south Lancashire once have had the richness of remains if urban development had not taken off? We know from the famous Allerton map of 1568 that there were likely other prehistoric remains in the area, and it’s accepted that our distribution maps of tombs and the like is more an accident of preservation and research than something related to the original distribution. It’s a question we’ll probably never know the answer to, at least until Stephen Hawking invents that time machine.

The only thing left to say is another thank you to Seren for organising the trip, Ben Edwards for driving the minibus with such panache, Rhys and Kathy for coming along and talking to us, the National Trust and Marquis of Anglesey for giving access and Frances Lynch for giving Friday’s introductory talk.

And thanks to Sue for driving us all the way there and back, and letting me know about the trip in the first place! 🙂

A compendium of Liverpool history compendia

In this post I’ve collected together a few articles and pages which delve a little deeper into aspects of Liverpool history. They’re either longer, detailed articles about one topic, or they bring together a whole range of sources.

Read more

Spirits of Place: Where historic landscapes collide (with folklore and fiction)

There’s nothing like a gathering of like minds to get the keyboard fingers itching to put down a few words! And this past Saturday (2nd April, 2016), the Spirits of Place symposium held at the Calderstones Mansion was just one of those gatherings.

The organiser was John Reppion, who’s written a book on 800 Years of Haunted Liverpool, as well as countless articles on Yo! Liverpool, comics and no doubt more that I’ve not come across. His opening talk set the scene for the day, and kicked off a full set of varied takes on Liverpool’s past.

Setting the Scene

John reminded us all that history is embedded in the bricks, mortar, and bedrock which surround us. This is exactly my take on landscape archaeology and history: everything I write about looks the way it does because of what came before, right back to the beginnings of human habitation. It’s a point Richard Macdonald would come back to nearer the end of the day, but John also said that stories are part of this.

A recurring theme of the symposium was that we all tell stories – from horror writers to archaeologists! – and that they are all part of the creation and recreation of history. Also of course, history feeds into fiction, and fiction into history. It’s a creative cycle which benefits both sides of it, and which we’d revisit as the day went on.

Tragedy off the Dublin Coast

Next up, Gill Hoffs told us about the human stories surrounding the wreck of the RMS Tayleur. The Tayleur sank just off the coast of Dublin, when it should have been sailing merrily south down the Irish Sea on its way to Australia.

Gill’s talk was less about ships and shipping (although we found that the Tayleur was built in Warrington of all places!), and more about the tragic circumstances which caused the boat to be less than seaworthy. You might feel all too familiar with the lackadaisical attitude to testing of ships by certain shipping companies (the Tayleur belonged to the White Star Line, and we all know what happened to their most famous vessel…) and issues of class and gender which meant that only 3% of the female passengers survived compared to 60% of the male.

A Punk Double Bill

Psychogeography’s (excellent definition here) having something of a renaissance moment right now, what with the likes of Iain Sinclair and J.G. Ballard finding a new generation of fans interested in the darker corners of the urban landscape.

Gary Budden and David Southwell gave a two part talk between them on engaging with landscape in less ‘official’ capacities, and how landscape features might be active participants.

The most interesting point I took (as I scribbled notes furiously) was that the Allerton Oak, a 1000 year old tree which stands in the grounds of our Mansion venue, has had many histories associated with it. It was supposedly the gathering place of the Hundred Court of Allerton, became a popular Victorian tourist attraction, and gained a large crack down its middle from the explosion of the Lotty Sleigh gunpowder ship in 1864. (I’ve seen some postcards of the tree from around 1900, and it doesn’t look like the crack is there then.)

Whether any of the stories attached to the tree are true in a historical sense matters less than the fact that such stories somehow come to incorporate the tree. The tree seems to be reminding Liverpool that it still exists by, every now and again, playing a part.

We also found out that acorns and leaves from the tree were sent to soldiers on the Western Front, expanding the ‘Calderstones landscape’ by many hundreds of miles for a short spell in its life.

A Walk on the Wyrd Side

We explored territory a little further from archaeology at the start of the second half, with Adam Scovell from the University of Liverpool (amongst other places) here to give us a guide to the odder places of Wirral.

I’d never heard of the Granny Rock, nor Thor’s Stone near Thursaston village, but these are places from Adam’s childhood ramblings around the area.

Adam’s favoured phrase for the stories which surround these historical/geological features is ‘folk horror’, which I think brilliantly sums up the unease and yet homely familiarity which we find in everyday life, especially as kids.

He also told us that the Wirral is something of an ‘edge’ or liminal location – it’s not quite urban Liverpool, nor rural Wales, nor “posh” Cheshire, but rather it’s all three and none at all!

Liverpool itself is full of these edges, or liminal spaces: the docks border international travel, St James Cemetery was once on the edge of town, where industry was pushed out to, away from the town, and the three large parks (Newsham, Sefton and Stanley) were placed on the edge of the Victorian city, enclosing a little of the rural within urban fences.

Urban Prehistory

Our next instalment was from Kenneth Brophy, whose adopted name the ‘Urban Prehistorian‘ was something that caught my eye instantly when I first saw it a few years back on his blog.

Kenneth is one of those dastardly archaeologists (by his own admission, in response to earlier accusations of story-telling!) who weave ‘tales’ about the past just as much as novel writers and comic book producers. Apparently it’s up to us to decide which ones we’ll take on board. 😉

His blog takes us to those oddly sited standing stones, stone circles and other megalithic monuments which have found themselves with a new life in the middle of modern housing estates or shopping centres. Although there’s a historical element to the study of these features, Kenneth is mostly interested in how modern locals see their monuments: do they trash them, love them, hate them, ignore them? Of course, they do all this and more.

In particular, Kenneth talked about the Cochno Stone, which is a colossal (a truly, truly colossal, at 12m x 8m) stone outcrop covered in carvings. The carvings have been made right across prehistory and history, and have been modified, painted, expanded on and damaged across the centuries. Debates have raged as to whether we cover the original to protect it (until when – when the locals have ‘learned’ not to damage it?) or leave it open to the elements.

This is a very interesting topic, as heritage professionals often make decisions which affect the general public, and inadvertently make judgements on that public’s ability to treat historic features ‘properly’.

Robin Hood’s Stone in Liverpool has rails around it. Why is this, and is it the best solution for that monument. If not, what else should be done? And when we rescue the Calderstones from the vestibule in which they currently stand, where should they be placed, and how close should the public be allowed to get? These are decisions that will need to be made fairly soon, so it’s great to spread that conversation as widely as possible.

Merseyside’s Oldest Inhabitants

In a change to the billed roll-call, Ron Cowell replaced Dee Dee Chainey in the running order. Ron is the Curator of Prehistoric Archaeology at the Museum of Liverpool’s Archaeological Services, and has worked for 35 years excavating the oldest of the county’s remains. And, just on the verge of retirement, he’s become involved in perhaps the greatest site of his life, at Lunt Meadows in Sefton.

Ron’s easy command of the prehistoric material demonstrates his deep knowledge and experience, but it was when his talk turned to the latest work that he became most animated. A feature excavated at Lunt Meadows is something he’s never seen the like of before for the Mesolithic period in Lancashire, Britain and even Europe as a whole! It’s not every archaeologist who can say they’ve found something altogether new in their field (so to speak), but the Mesolithic is still a relatively difficult period to study, with a lack of sites in north west England (mostly due to urbanisation).

Ron pointed out that Neolithic sites are often quite bold and clear – think of the Calderstones themselves, and West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire. But Mesolithic sites are almost not there: just colour changes in the soil might give clues as to the former presence of a wattle dwelling, or pits of shells or tool working which only show through some painstaking archaeological work.

At Lunt Meadows Ron has recently excavated an odd feature which consists of a lump of Fool’s Gold, set in an arrangement alongside flint and sandstone nodules in what Ron reluctantly labels ‘ritual’ (a much maligned and vague term in archaeological circles these days). I look forward to hearing more about this in the very near future, although the site itself will probably only be excavated for another year or so. Details of site tours will be forthcoming.

The Past in the Past’s Future

Something drilled into us at university was that prehistoric monuments (as well as the things which came later) do not simply disappear when they stop being used, only to reappear in guidebooks in the 1940s. They sit there in the landscape all through the centuries, and often take on new roles in the community.

Richard Macdonald, Heritage Stories Maker at the Reader Organisation, and who works at Calderstones Mansion, was here to tell us about the Calderstones in those twilight years between their last use as a burial chamber (probably around 2800BC) and their location today in the Park.

They appear on a map of 1568, when they mark the boundary between Allerton and Wavertree parishes. They thus played an incredibly important legal role in the 16th century, even when their original use was lost.

Then in 1837 Joseph Need Walker, owner of Calderstone Mansion, commissioned a plan of his estate. The resulting plan marks the parish limits again, but the Calderstones themselves are not marked at all. Richard suggested that this was because, in this age of Science, the old stones were no longer needed as a reference – this accurate map was all that was needed! This again demonstrates the changing fortunes of the monument, as it falls from the gaze slightly.

At a similar time – in 1845 in fact – Walker completed the destruction of the tomb by removing the remaining stones from their original settings and placing them in the middle of a nearby junction. This is the still-existing circular wall at the junction of Druid’s Cross Road and Calderstones Road. Apparently the ruined tomb was a little too messy for Walker’s liking, so he constructed his own ‘druidical’ circle to impress visitors (and establish a little bit of permanency to his estate by drawing on ancient remains). Again, the Calderstones’ use and meaning is altered.

The stone wall which contained the Calderstones after Joseph Walker moved them from their original location in 1845

The stone wall which contained the Calderstones after Joseph Walker moved them from their original location in 1845

Finally, the story comes up to date, with the removal of the stones to the vestibule in 1986 (after an extended stay in Garston for ‘conservation’ from the 1950s). The Stones, like their neighbour the Allerton Oak, insert themselves into other histories at this date, because it is only their presence in the vestibule which saves those last remains of the Harthill Botanical Garden from demolition. Were the stones extending some force of self-preservation here? Perhaps, or perhaps not.

Still, the Calderstones are soon to be moved once more, because the vestibule is not a good place, either for their preservation or for public access. Richard is heavily involved in the decision about where they will be placed within the Park, and how close the public will be allowed to get. And so Richard had brought us back to John’s opening point about how our heritage is embedded in the landscape, is influenced by it and in turn influences it. We have inherited the Calderstones in a certain state, and we can only go forward, not back.

The Pool of Life

In perhaps the widest deviation from ‘normal’ archaeology, Ian ‘Cat’ Vincent took us on a spiritual journey around Liverpool’s landscape. Ian is a journalist and magician, and has an interest in the less tangible aspects of the cityscape.

He started with Jung’s dream of Liverpool, and suggested that the city has the power to get deep into people’s psyche. Merseyside has been a portal between the Old and New Worlds, a nexus for trade, commerce and migration, and it is this position which created the unique circumstances to give us a certain four-piece musical ensemble and a creative scene which still thrives.

Apparently there is also one hell of a ley line running down a Matthew Street manhole…

He also explored the ways in which the modern world has tried to tame and control nature, but nature keeps coming back. Just as Kenneth Brophy’s prehistoric monuments refuse to give way in the face of modern housing estates, Ian’s nature (for example buddleia) will find a foot hold under bridges, along railway embankments and in the nooks and crannies of the city.

How can we incorporate them into our environment, rather than trying to fight them all the time?

Oh, the Horror (Writer)

Ramsey Campbell is an author who has long embedded the landscape of Liverpool in his horror fiction. His slot was a little different to the rest, as he was ‘in conversation’ with our host Mr. Reppion.

John prompted him to reminisce about his beginnings in fiction, his influences, and how he came to set his novels in his home city of Liverpool. It turns out that he was so influenced by that master of horror, H.P. Lovecraft, that he set his early stories in Massachusetts, like Lovecraft himself. Needless to say he was advised to change the location to somewhere more familiar to Ramsey, and despite a dalliance with fictionalised Severn Valley towns and villages, started to set his tales on Merseyside.

The main discussion revolved around the extent to which Ramsey made up his tales, and whether he invented parts of Liverpool too. He admitted that he did so much research for some books that he can’t recall which parts of the book are based on real events, and which are complete inventions! This is another format in which history and fiction intertwine – for who can say that an entirely made-up plotline has not got historical origins in some article or book read years before?

Having seen his books on the shelves of shops around Liverpool, I finally bit the bullet and bought Creatures of the Pool from the man himself. I’d had this on my to-buy list for a while, as it’s supposed to be the book where Liverpool’s landscape is most heavily felt. This was backed up by Ramsey, who told me that if my interest was in the historic make-up of the city, then this is the book of his to get. I’ll let you know how I get on with it!

The Spirit of Liverpool

Considering Spirits of Place was apparently John’s first attempt at organising something like this, the day went extremely well. I’ve got to thank John for putting together such a great list of speakers, and the Reader Organisation and Calderstones Mansion for keeping us all fuelled with top notch coffee, tea, hot food and cake.

There was a suggestion that this could become an annual event, and if so I’ll definitely be coming back. It was great to see how the disciplines of archaeology, history, fiction and even the edges of the occult can brush up against each other to such great effect.

I certainly hope to keep up to date with a few of the speakers, and no doubt we’ll cross paths again in the future.

Spirits of Place was largely publicised on Twitter. Even if you’re not active on that site you can browse through people’s reactions by looking through the #spiritsofplace hashtag. That page includes some photos taken on the day too.

Featured Image: John Reppion interviewing Ramsey Campbell at the end of the day, by Gary Budden.

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