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”

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

Jellyfish 3

Blue light till dawn

When it’s Biennial time in Liverpool, all kinds of oddities turn up in the most unlikely places.  Walking down Park Lane by Liverpool One the other day with my daughter Sarah we encountered an avenue of trees wrapped in what can only be described as knitted woolly trunk-warmers.  They were created by an army of knitters for Yarn Bombing, part of ‘a carnival of the built environment’ to celebrate ‘the hidden creativity of the argybargy in art’. Obvious really.

Tree warmers

Leg-warmers for trees on Park Lane

Then last night the two of us were on High Park Street, a fairly desolate stretch of Liverpool 8, waiting to see a Biennial installation that had been recommended by friends.  Behind the steel shutters rolled down over one of the empty shop-fronts that pepper this once-thriving street, there were jellyfish, and at ten pm the shutters were due to rise to reveal them.

Jellyfish a1

Waiting for jellyfish on High Park Street

We had thought we would be the only ones mad enough to turn out at ten on a Saturday night to look at jellyfish in a derelict shop window.  But when we arrived there was already a small crowd, and more people gathered as we waited for the magic moment.  Clouds had rolled in off the river after another sweltering day, and rain began to fall.  Umbrellas went up. The event was late.  Then, by remote control, the shutters began to roll up, revealing a large fish tank filled with tiny jellyfish peacefully floating in gentle blue water.

Jellyfish a1a

The shutters go up

This installation, by Walter Hugo & Zoniel Burton, is called The Physical Possibility of Inspiring Imagination in the Mind of Somebody Living, though somebody alongside me muttered, ‘Where I come from, we call this an aquarium’.  The blue light and the gently shifting jellyfish were undoubtedly soothing, and drew the kids in close.

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A ‘secret, magical window’

The installation is described by the artist duo as a  ‘secret magical window’ and as a ‘psychedelic display, intended to have a discordant presence within the building and to intrigue those in the surrounding area’.  But what I found most intriguing – and what turned out to be the subject of nearly all the photos I took – was not the installation itself, or the jellyfish, but the incongruity of a crowd of people, adults and children, gathered on a darkened street as warm rain fell, staring at an illuminated fish tank.

Jellyfish 4  Jellyfish 2 Jellyfish 1

Gazelli Art House in London is supporting the project and live-streaming a video from within the tank into their gallery. They say, ‘The projection is viewable both from within the gallery but also from the street outside, creating a virtual corridor between the two cities’.  I hope David Cameron drops by.

There are more images of the installation on Gazelli’s website.

High Park Street, Liverpool 8 1982

High Park Street, Liverpool 8, 1982 (photo  by Steve Howe)

Back in the 1970s, we lived in a top-floor flat on Princes Road where, from the back kitchen door that led to the wooden fire escape, we could look out along High Park Street. As now, this was a deprived area, but then the broad street was always bustling. There were shops, pubs, a bakery – and the local social security office.  Now it’s a desert.  The controversial Pathfinder programme depopulated the area, leaving the once-homely Welsh streets tinned-up and decaying (fellow-Liverpool blogger Ronnie Hughes keeps an eye on what’s happening there; his most recent report is here). Most shops have gone, a lonely chippy hangs on, along with one pub – Ringo Starr’s old local, The Empress, a local treasure that draws Beatles aficionados from all over.

At the top of the street is another treasure – the grade II listed High Park Street reservoir. Built in 1845, it’s a rectangular structure half the size of a football pitch, with a tower at one corner. It’s one of the earliest examples of public health engineering in the world, and once held 2 million gallons of water, serving thousands of homes in the area.

High Park Street reservoir

High Park Street reservoir: outside

But since 1997, the reservoir has been redundant. Now it’s being managed by a social enterprise, Dingle 2000, which is looking at uses that could be made of it that would benefit the local community.  Ideas include growing crops on the roof and selling the produce at a farmers’ market inside the building.

Because there is an inside.  The blank external walls conceal a spectacular piece of Victorian workmanship, with high vaulted ceilings, a grid of cast iron columns and a series of brick arches, reminiscent of the Albert Dock constructed just a few years earlier.  At the moment it often serves as a dramatic backdrop for scenes in films or TV dramas.

Liverpool High Park Street reservoir building

High Park Street reservoir: inside

I’ve never been inside the reservoir (it’s sometimes opened up to the public on annual Heritage Days) but next door is another historic building with whose interior I was once familiar – the High Park Social Security office.

High Park St Social Security office 1969 www.liverpoolpicturebook.com

High Park St Social Security office 1969 (www.liverpoolpicturebook.com)

Built in 1865, this used to be Toxteth Town Hall, and it has Grade Two listed status.  Over the years it served as a register office, morgue, police cells, medical dispensary, Coroner’s court – as well as the local DHSS office for social security and unemployment benefit claimants.

Empress pub

Ringo Starr’s local – featured on the cover of his album ‘Sentimental Journey’

We left a small crowd still peering at the jellyfish installation.  On the next block the light from the open chippy door revealed that it was empty. A little further along, the door of Ringo Starr’s old pub, The Empress, had been left open to let in some air on this hot night.  A few regulars stood, illuminated in the warm glow of the interior.  Denizens of their own floating world.