“Life goes on day after day”, sang Gerry Marsden in his 1960s grammatically-challenged ode to Liverpudlian waterborne travel, Ferry Cross The Mersey.
And life on the ferry boats does indeed go on to this day, despite their mirroring of Liverpool’s slump in fortunes during the two decades that followed Gerry’s Top 10 hit. But, during the 90s and 00s – and in particular, after their prominent role in Liverpool’s 2008 European City of Culture celebrations – the famous ferries have been rediscovered as a tourist attraction by the ever-increasing number of international visitors to the city.
And so, on the eve of our next extended trip away from the UK, I decided it was time to take a journey down memory lane to see how the ferry crossing had changed from when I was a kid. When I’d take the crossing with my dad and then connect with a bus to take us to Goodison Park to watch Everton take on the best that England and Europe had to offer.
Only this time the roles would be reversed as, along with Nicky, I’d be taking the trip with my daughter and grandson.
A bit of history
But first, a bit of history.
It might surprise you to learn that, as far back as 1150, Benedictine monks in Woodside, Birkenhead would row fare-paying passengers across the River Mersey to Liverpool. Of course, through the centuries the rowing boats would eventually be replaced by fully rigged sailing ships, paddle steamers, and ultimately the modern day incarnations as they are now.
Meanwhile, other ferry services came and went along the Wirral Peninsular coast, including those at New Brighton, Seacombe, Rock Ferry and Eastham.
In fact, until the late 19th Century, the ferries were the only way to travel between the Wirral and Liverpool. But the opening of the Mersey Railway Tunnel in 1886 and the Queensway Road Tunnel in 1934 (both from Birkenhead), signalled that increased competition was on its way. Nevertheless, 30 million passengers travelled on the ferries at their peak in 1950. However, by 1971 that number had dwindled to less than 2 million.
Nowadays, there’s a rush-hour shuttle service for those traditional commuters who prefer the mild discomfort of a cold river crossing to the sanitised charms of the underground railway. And, during off-peak hours, there’s a regular River Explorer Cruise, essentially a tourist service that runs in a loop between Woodside, Liverpool and Seacombe, accompanied by an audio commentary.
The ferry terminal at Woodside actually featured in the film Chariots of Fire, although the original ticket office and gangway that appeared there have now been replaced.
Nevertheless, I remember the excitement that, as a kid, would rise inside me after we bought our return tickets and made our way along the gangway down to the floating platform. With any luck, there’d be a ferry already on its way over from Liverpool and we could watch it come in. Which, on a cold December evening, with the wind blowing in off the Irish Sea, couldn’t come quick enough.
This time I wondered if my grandson, Rory, would have the same sense of anticipation. But he seemed more interested in just running up and down the gangway with an almighty grin on his face.
Down on the platform, it was as if nothing had changed. The waters of the River Mersey still resembled a huge soup bowl of silt and industrial waste. The rickety drawbridge still stood to attention, waiting for the moment to be lowered onto the ferry and carry the weight of passengers trudging in either direction.
But a couple of things were noticeably different.
Firstly, the “classic” black and white lines of the approaching ferry had now seemingly been replaced by a full-on explosion of colour. As if the job of refurbishment had been handed to a group of Liverpool art students after a good night out. Still, that’s progress, I guess.
And secondly, the Liverpool skyline. Sure, the iconic Royal Liver Building and the twin cathedrals were always instantly recognisable. But with the redevelopment of the docklands areas, the erection of skyscraper hotels and the controversial introduction of ultra-modern architecture mixing with the classic Georgian buildings of old, the skyline has taken on an altogether different look.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s not meant as a criticism. If I was pushed I’d argue that it’s now on a par with, if not superior, to the view of South London from across the Thames.
Once on board, the autopilot inside me took over as we eschewed the option to sit inside the warm cabin area for the breezier alternative on the top deck. Something I’m sure Gerry would have approved of.
On this particular November day, however, the wind was doing its best to add whatever chill factor it could to the already freezing conditions. And when we started moving it really kicked into gear. Even the guy on the recorded audio commentary seemed to be speaking through chattering teeth.
But no matter, we were on our way and not even the thick rainclouds looming over Liverpool could dampen our enthusiasm.
The audio was by this time in full swing. We learned about the shipbuilding industry at the famous Cammell Laird docks in Birkenhead – birthplace of the HMS Ark Royal. We were told about the redevelopment of the previously ruined Albert Dock and how it has now become an iconic Liverpool destination in its own right. And we were asked to believe that the stone “Liver Birds” sat atop the building of the same name are actually male and female. That the female bird looks out across the Mersey protecting the city, while the male looks back across the city waiting for the pubs to open.
True story. Probably.
But whatever chills the weather could throw at us, the sight of the glorious Georgian Pier Head buildings as we approached sent a shiver down my spine as they’ve always done. And the crazy light that shone through the dark storm clouds only helped to accentuate the amazing architecture of those three iconic landmarks – The Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building.
And, of course, our journey was completed to the sound of Gerry Marsden proclaiming that Liverpool is the “land I love, and here I’ll stay”.
Alas, unlike Gerry, we couldn’t stay too long as the last ferry back was due in three hours. Just enough time to walk to the Liverpool One for some late lunch and a quick visit to the historic Baltic Fleet pub to sample a couple of locally brewed beers.
All in all, an extremely pleasant way to spend an afternoon. And an apt one given the seafaring connections between the city of Liverpool and the USA – the next destination in our world travels.
I’m not sure if Rory’s memories of the trip will be as vivid as those from my own childhood. But I’d like to think that the ferry service will still be running when he eventually takes his own family across the murky waters of the Mersey.
As for the city itself, it was clear from the ferry landing at Liverpool’s Pier Head that The Beatles Story has taken centre stage as the city’s major tourist attraction. Indeed, the Pier Head ferry building doubles as a Beatles memorabilia outlet. And you don’t have to walk too far outside to stumble upon a life-size set of statues representing John, Paul, George and Ringo.
And, quite right, too. There’s no doubt that the Fab Four put the city on the map and they still pull in fans from across the world.
But there’s a lot more to Liverpool. In fact, if you do have more time to spare I can wholeheartedly recommend a few days in this brilliant city. You’ll already know about its Beatles connections, football heritage and its people’s reputation for quick-wittedness. But you may be less aware of its incredible architecture, flourishing arts scene and pumping nightlife. Indeed, it’s had a renaissance over the past twenty years or so that compares with New York City.
But don’t just take my word for it – check out this excellent post from a local’s perspective.
And, if you’re visiting England for the first time, you just might want to consider it as an antidote to London.
Via Woodside and its ubiquitous ferry, of course.
What did you think? Have you travelled on the Mersey Ferry? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting Liverpool soon. Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.