It’s not the leaving of Liverpool – Day 20 of Romilly’s One Island Walk for Street Children

Dog with tinsel ears sitting on pavement© James Forshall

(If you are new to the blog. I’m walking to John O’Groats. A leg infection obliged me to stop until I recovered. The journey starts with the post on the right, ‘Where shall we park the car?)

It was the leaving of Liverpool and it wasn’t;  not if Aintree is part of Liverpool, which on the map it looks as if it is.

I landed mid morning at John Lennon Airport and took the bus into the centre of the city. It was a fine Saturday morning and humming.

I wanted to change my telephone.  I spent quite a long time with Roy in the Vodaphone shop. By the time I left it the crowds were even thicker and it was after midday.  I walked down to the docks where I had stopped walking weeks earlier. Then I turned left and walked North East along the river front, past flattened warehouse space, empty docks, converted warehouses.

derelict ticket office, Liverpool, docks, mersey© James Forshall

I walked past dock gates with names like Victoria and Trafalgar, opening onto an an expanse of leveled hardcore and cobbles, the teeth of a city ground to the bone, then the thin gleam of the river, Birkenhead, and a sky like a dirty aluminium pan. I didn’t have a street map and had not yet worked out how to use the navigation tools on my new telephone, so was navigating from my 1:50,000 OS map and compass.  There was no one about.  It was quieter than early Sunday morning, except that it was Saturday afternoon and I wondered what it would be like on a week day.

I walked past a boarding house. There was a girl leaning against a first floor window talking on a mobile telephone and moving in time to music. She had blond hair and wore hot pants. Hotpants! Outside a large bearded man stood on the pavement. He wasn’t waiting. He was just standing. Something about him made me think he might be the exception that proved the rule that Liverpudlians are friendly and sociable. I walked on, past a magnificent Tobacco Warehouse, awaiting conversion to flats or demolition, then over a metal swing bridge and on until I decided that it was time to turn East. I wanted to join the disused railway line which is a public foot path and which would link to the Leeds Liverpool Canal.

Tobacco Warehouse Liverpool DocksTobacco Warehouse  © James Forshall

I was walking up hill away from the river.  I walked past an empty park. I badly wanted to pee and walked off my route to a garage, where I bought a sandwich. The man at the till told me that the w.c.s were for staff only. He told the same thing to the motorist behind me. ‘Blinking ‘eck. I’ve been peeing in here for the last thirty years and that’s the first time I’ve heard that’.

I walked up a street of terraced houses. A man came out of his front door wearing a grey track suit. He looked as if he had only just woken up. He lit a cigarette inhaled deeply arched his back, stretching his arms above him, exhaling smoke and revealing quite a lot of pale stomach skin.  I walked past a church yard, dark sooty grave stones, dark greens then to the dual carriageway intersection. I found a place to have a pee below an ornately carved 19th century coat of arms dedicated to the glory of the borough set into a concrete wall. I crossed under the intersection and continued east. Now I was walking down the street of salons: beauty, hair, tanning, pet grooming, nail painting, and pedicure interspersed with convenience booze stores and takeaways. Most of them were shut though some of the booze stores were open.

It was late afternoon, grey skies, empty streets, rollerblinded shops. I wondered where I would sleep.  I had an idea that I could find a place to pitch a tent on a piece of urban waste ground or on some of the green space on the edge of the city: urban camping. I kept on walking.  I knew I had to turn left or north somewhere here to meet the abandoned railway line.  I followed a street of terraced houses and to my amazement saw a blue cycle way sign. This must be the abandoned railway exactly where it should have been. I turned left or north onto it. I saw no one. It had taken me a long time to get this far and I was still a long way from the limits of the city.

The track followed a cutting whose steep banks were covered in willow and blackberries. I have never seen such big blackberries. It was as if they were cultivated. They tasted delicious, sweet and perfumed. I would have happily stayed to collect them in large quantities. As it was I would walk for a few minutes and then unable to resist,  stop, pick a hand full and cram them in my mouth.  I saw no one.  It must have been after 6.oo pm.  I came to a place where the track passed under a wide road. It was a bridge but felt more like a tunnel,  rectangular with an cinema screen of light at the end of the darkness.  I walked in.  There was little graffiti. I walked on. It became darker. I concentrated on the patch of light and wondered what I would do if one of the lumps dimly perceived  at the side of the tunnel rose up, men in rags and tried to attack me.  I couldn’t run.  But nothing happened except for the metalic rumble of traffic above.

I walked on and then in the distance heard a terrible cry, that of a soul in torment, rather than of physical pain, repeated again and again. I came to another tunnel though this one was shorter and then as I walked through it I heard the cry again louder. I wondered what awaited me.

The track swung out of the tunnel into a gentle curve to be crossed by another path. There was quite a lot of space, bracken brambles the kind of place I could conceal my small tent, I thought.  Then I heard the cry again, this time more like a cry of triumph and I saw a group of children running towards me on the upper path.

‘Welcome to Liverpool,’ One of them shouted.

‘Welcome to the shit hole’, shouted another ‘….Well not Aintree but here.’

‘Its a camper!’.

‘Let’s photograph the camper.’

‘We’re er yer from?   Do yer camp out every night? What’re yer doing it fer?’

I explained and handed them Romilly stickers. ‘I’ll sponsor you.’  ‘So will I.’  ‘Wher’ll you sleep tonight?’

‘I thought I might sleep out here on the railway track.’

‘Not ternight yer not’, said a diminutive boy.

‘Yu’ll be done over.’

‘Yu’ll be mugged.’  They looked at me worried.

‘You should go to the Premier Inn.’ Said the girl. ‘There’s one at Aintree. Here, let me see If I can find it for you.’  She consulted her mobile telephone and called. There were no rooms. The girl looked concerned. ‘I’ll see if I can find you somewhere else.’ The other children crowded round as she bent over her phone.

‘Ere, luke at the hair on ‘er’, one of them said. We all looked up. Three young people wearing a mix and match of army surplus, denim, and goth black were walking down the path: a different tribe. One of the girls had purple hair.

‘Hippies’, said one of the boys scornfully.

‘Ya, Puma warriors!’ jeered another.  The puma warriors kept on walking, wisely I thought.

The children called a couple of other hotels. None had rooms. They thought I’d find something in Aintree and gave me directions.

‘And if yer see a group ‘f lads and they asks you fer the time doan answer’

‘Say yer haven’t got a phone’

‘Say no thanks and keep walking…or they’ll do yer’.  I looked down at the pale half circle of their upturned faces. They were concerned.   I thanked them.

I found the Kentucky Fried Chicken and turned left down the high street.  I hadn’t gone more than a couple of hundred yards when I saw a railway bridge above it and a blue sign to the cycle path.  ‘What the heck’. I didn’t want to pay for a hotel. I walked back up some greasy stone steps to the path and turned east. But then there was sign which seemed to indicate that I was going in the wrong direction. Further down the path I could see the smudged outline of two people in the gloom. I got out my torch to look at my map.  That definitely seemed to indicate that the path went north east, but the sign seemed to be saying the opposite.

‘Alright?’ asked a friendly voice. The smudged silhouettes had turned into dog walkers. ‘Yes, thank you. Fine.’ I didn’t want to get into a long discussion. They moved on. I turned off my torch and the gloom closed around me, a pale path ahead through deep shadow.  I walked a few yards and came to a second sign. This too indicated that I was going in the wrong direction. I got out the map and my torch.

‘Lost?’ It was the dog walkers again. ‘No. Not lost but I’m not sure which direction to take. My map says I should carry on down the path. The sign says the opposite.’

‘You don’t want to stay on the path at this time of night…definitely not’, said the man. ‘There’s a premier Inn just down the road. Go there’ I explained about the rooms. ‘You can’t stay here. Y’ll be mugged. They’ll sort you out. Come with us we’ll show you the way.’  And so I did.

‘I wouldn’t come up here without my husband’, said the woman, ‘It’s the lads. Saturday night. You just don’t know. That’s why we came back. We couldn’t leave you up here on your own.’

And sure enough when I got to the Premier Inn the very nice girl at reception remembered that the there was a room without a television which they weren’t allowed to sell. A room without at telly: urban camping. Bliss.

If you would like to help Romilly help street children donate at http://virginmoneygiving.com/team/RomillysOneIslandWalk

 

 

 

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The Wirral to Birkenhead – Day 19 of Romilly’s One Island Walk for Street Children

(If you are new to the blog: I am walking to John O’Groats for the street children charity Romilly. The journey starts with the post on the right, ‘Where shall we park the car?’)

The Face of the NHSIt was the greatest good fortune to have met John Earle. He took my tent and most of the contents of my rucksack in his car. Even so the walk from the Harp to Birkenhead was hard.  Most of it was on tarmac and my right leg was painful. I wondered if this was tendonitis. According to my plan the next day would be a rest day and I hoped that that would sort it out.

But for it’s pink sandstone Birkenhead’s Hamilton Square could have stepped out of Edinburgh, which in a sense it did. The Scots played a leading role in developing both Birkenhead and Liverpool.  In the centre of Birkenhead John met me and took me back to his flat where he had very kindly offered me his sofa for the night.  When I examined my swollen leg John said, ‘You need to get that looked at mate. I tell you what: I’ll take you into A and E. They’re very good there’.

Man taking cash from dispenser Hamilton Square, BirkenheadHamilton Square underground station, Birkenhead   © James Forshall

The next morning John went out to get the ingredients for breakfast, an invention of his own which John called ‘Chicken Cheese Foo Wong’.  He came back and prepared this with great care. ‘This’ll set you up. It’s my favourite. You’ll love it’  and I did. Very good. Thank you John.

John drove me to the hospital where they thought that I  might have Deep Vain Thrombosis, but after bloods, X Ray and Ultrasound it was explained that I had cellulitis  (Yes, gentle reader, cellulitis not cellulite) and that I should stop walking until it had cleared up.   Cellulitis can turn to septicemia so should be taken seriously. This was a blow. How long would I have to rest? It could be a few days.  If only a few days I could catch up as I had done in Wales though it would mean doing at least 25 miles a day and cutting out the diversion west into the Lake District to walk up Helvellyon. No doubt further short cuts could be found.  But it could be longer. In the meantime I should keep my right leg up, rest and take the antibiotics.

John picked me up from A and E and took me to Marigolds (after the washing up gloves), the best fish and chip shop on the Wirral where we had lunch. After that he dropped me off at the ferry pier where I had finished my walk the day before. He had been very kind and hospitable to me. Thank you John.

Interior of U 534Interior of sunken U boat, U 534: sunk at the end of the war by British planes, in Danish waters. Since all the crew escaped it was not a war grave and was gifted to Liverpool by the Danish Government.    © James Forshall

I had chosen to walk up through the Wirral so that I could cross the Mersey on the ferry, which had been a treat for us, when as children Johnny and I came up to stay with my Aunt. I don’t remember it that well, a stiff breeze, quite cold, the grey river, grey sky, the lights of Birkenhead shining mistily in the autumn afternoon, people lining the railing in coats and macs and hats and caps of grey, brown and black and a sense that Birkenhead was smaller and drabber than Liverpool, which for us then held an impossible air of romance. This was before the Beatles and the tunnel, and the ferry was how you crossed the river.

Steve, one of John’s friends said, ‘I loved the ferry. We went across with mi Dad to football matches, all wrapped up. It was crowded with other supporters. You’d get tea and sandwiches downstairs but now…’ But now it’s a run as a tourist attraction.  What is it about tourism that kills meaning? Hear one thing. See another: the tinny music playing a bar or two of the famous song, then a metallic voice recounting the past glories of Liverpool, and outside the brown river, a port empty of ships, and a river front with an oddly Soviet look.

Liver pool sky lineLiverpool from Birkenhead     ©  James Forshall

The centre of Liverpool has been wrecked. In other parts of the city whole communities, streets of terraced houses, each street with its own pub were uprooted, the houses knocked down, and grassed over. It is as if they never existed. The people who lived in them were  moved into high rise blocks in outlying dormitory towns: not of course on the same scale as Stalin’s policies to the Nationalities, but the same mechanism, and all in the name of progress.

The odd thing is that although we use the word community more than ever we are less good at it than when it was almost never used.  Since 1960’s huge areas of urban Britain have been destroyed in the name of one fad or another, economic or political, or some town planning fashion, and with them the fragile ecology of local societies,  which had taken over a century to establish themselves. It is as if we feel that by using the word community often enough we will recreate those bonds of family, friendship, neighbourliness, mutual interdependence, mutual care, shared obligation which we destroyed.

Liverpool FC shop window

Four Boys and Four GirlsLiverpool may have been beaten up by German bombers and mad planners but it’s people are great. There are still many wonderful buildings and a sense of gaiety and pride. I loved the egg shaped central library, and the people who were so kind and helpful. You only have to look at a Liverpudlian and he’ll start talking to you, even in a library. I was drinking coffee, they have a coffee bar in the main part of the library, when a man asked me if I was looking at him. I said that I wasn’t. He asked me if he could sit at my table.

DSCF9644 Hillsborough Memorial © James ForshallJohn Fitzpatrick and the Hillsborough Memorial  © James Forshall

Jack Jones HouseHe was immensely proud of Liverpool.  He told me about the Hillsborough disaster, still hurting after all these years. He and his 7 year old daughter had been instrumental in raising the money for a memorial to its victims. He offered me a bed for the night. He showed me around the library and took me to the memorial.  He was still angry at the way the police had handled the crowd on that day and the enquiry afterwards.  He was a trade union official and we walked past his offices. He was an old school un-reconstructed socialist, a republican and a pacifist and had had a red T shirt made parodying the one with the crown on it and the slogan, ‘Keep calm  and carry on’.  On his the the crown was upside down and the slogan was, ‘Get Angry. Take Action’.  I think I’d like to buy one.

Tooling up for night outTooling up for a night out.

All photos on the Romilly’s One Island Walk posts © James Forshall

I’m walking a long way for street children.  If you would like to help Romilly to give them a chance in life, please donate at http://www.virginmoneygiving.com//team/romillysoneislandwalk