Inside Princes Road Synagogue: prepare to be dazzled

Inside Princes Road Synagogue: prepare to be dazzled

For several years, when the Heritage Open Days come round, I’ve wanted to see inside Princes Road Synagogue. But tickets for guided tours go so fast that I’ve always been disappointed – until this year. This time I got a place, and I was dazzled by what I saw.

The synagogue is a Grade II listed building which was completed in 1874. It was designed by two architect brothers, William and George Audsley, who created an unusual confection of Oriental, Moorish and Gothic features after they had travelled around Europe to gain inspiration for the design with its richly painted and gilded interior. The brothers went on to pioneer some of the first skyscrapers in New York.

The building cost £13,000 to build, a huge sum – over £100m in today’s money – entirely funded by members of the congregation, which, as our lively guide pointed out, was far removed from the image some might have of one composed of impoverished refugees from eastern Europe. The synagogue is a testament to the wealth and social position of Liverpool’s nineteenth century Jewish magnates, a group with wealth and taste that included David Lewis, founder of Liverpool’s once-famous Lewis’s department store. Continue reading “Inside Princes Road Synagogue: prepare to be dazzled”

Toxteth’s cathedral beneath the water

Toxteth’s cathedral beneath the water

Liverpool in 1847 was a grim place to be if you were poor, perhaps a recent immigrant fleeing the famine in Ireland. Being poor meant whole families living in single rooms in ramshackle tenements or in damp cellars, with no sanitation or fresh air. Drinking water – from a well with a pump if you were lucky – was often contaminated by raw sewage from a leaking cesspit. One historian, Gerry Kearns, has described Liverpool at this time as having been ‘created in haste by commerce – by men intent on immediate gain – reared without any tender regard for flesh and blood.’

But that year Liverpool Corporation did something remarkable, appointing the first Medical Officer of Health in the country, Dr. William Henry Duncan, who for the next fifteen years oversaw a programme of works that would see clean water supplied to the poorest areas of Liverpool for the first time, the installation of sewers, and a significant reduction in the number of families living in cellars and other unhealthy dwellings.

Alongside Dr. Duncan the Corporation appointed the first Borough Engineer, James Newland, who, together with the city’s first water engineer Thomas Duncan (another Duncan, but no relation) gave practical effect to Dr. Duncan’s vision by constructing a series of city reservoirs fed by gravity from a major new reservoir at Rivington Pike, twenty miles away in the Lancashire fells.

The Heritage Open Days this month gave me the opportunity of taking a look inside one of the city reservoirs designed by Thomas Duncan to hold water from the Rivington reservoir. The Toxteth Reservoir is still there at the top of High Park Street, a Grade II listed building completed in 1850. Inside the massive external walls of sandstone you enter a massive space, floored in brick with high vaulted brick ceilings supported on cast iron columns. This Victorian cathedral of brick columns and arches was submerged under water until it was finally decommissioned in 1997. Continue reading “Toxteth’s cathedral beneath the water”

David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia

David Kynaston’s <em>Family Britain</em>: different times, but no nostalgia

In his brilliant social history of Britain David Kynaston doesn’t deal in nostalgia. Nevertheless, I can’t resist recording this moment in Family Britain when he interrupts his account of the country between 1951 and 1956 to devote a whole page simply to a list of products whose names will instantly cause time to run backwards for anyone who lived through those years: Continue reading “David Kynaston’s Family Britain: different times, but no nostalgia”

A roomful of apricots, the heart of a dog and moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds

A roomful of apricots, the heart of a dog and moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds

As the daylight hours shorten and the leaves start to fall I think back to the beginning of this summer when our dog very nearly died. It’s a memory brought into sharp focus by a recently-watched film and the book I am reading at the moment. Laurie Anderson’s essay-film Heart of a Dog has a lot in common with Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, The Faraway Nearby: both are digressive, looping, meandering disquisitions on storytelling and memory, and the connection between love and death. Continue reading “A roomful of apricots, the heart of a dog and moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds”

As You Like It in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain

<em>As You Like It</em> in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain

And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it.

There are reasons, I guess, why I am so bewitched by Shakespeare’s pastoral dramas, notably the great good fortune of an untrammelled fifties childhood in rural Cheshire, and then coming of age amidst the swirl of hippie values in the sixties – waving the flag for peace and love, rejecting materialism, and yearning to get back to nature.

The pastoral vision of a lost world of innocence and the simpler life of the countryside, with its potential for love and renewal, flowered in this year’s production of As You Like It at Chester’s open air Grosvenor Park Theatre. In the last few years it’s become a summer Shakespeare ritual for me and my daughter to chance the English weather and take our seats in the terraces (some covered, others not) of this theatre in the round. Continue reading As You Like It in Chester’s Grosvenor Park: magical despite the rain”

Mark Cocker: ‘swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve’

Mark Cocker: ‘swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve’

A fine piece in today’s Guardian Country Diary by Mark Cocker. In a poetic column about the departure of swifts from the skies above his Norfolk home as they head south on their long migration he writes, ‘Surely more than anything else in British nature, swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve. It has the certainty of a steel blade. It is shaped like a strand of cobweb weighted with dew. It has the line of the Earth’s own rim mid-ocean, and a memory of it hangs momentarily in the air like breath on a winter’s morning.’

Here’s the full article: Continue reading “Mark Cocker: ‘swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve’”

Plus ça change: Labour was a house divided in 1952

Plus ça change: Labour was a house divided in 1952

The current mental state of the Labour Party is like a nagging headache that’s impervious to repeated doses of paracetamol. Michele Hanson bottles the zeitgeist wittily in her column for today’s Guardian, while Helen Lewis offers a detailed and thoughtful analysis of attitudes on both sides of the divide in the New Statesman.

I had intended to avoid burdening this blog with more wasted words about it all, but then, while reading Family Britain, the second volume of David Kynaston’s brilliant social history of post-war Britain, I came across the following passage. It’s October 1952 and in a windswept Morecambe, a stormy Labour party conference is taking place a year after the Tories had swept the 1945-51 Labour government from power. Continue reading “Plus ça change: Labour was a house divided in 1952”