Walking Class Hero: Speaking out against the madness
It’s rare I cast the Thatcher government in the role of hero but surprisingly in the case of the Albert Dock and the regeneration of Liverpool in the 1980’s it’s hard to read the story any other way. Designed by Jesse Harwood and Philip Hardwick, opened in 1846, the Dock and warehouse complex was the first British structure to be built from cast iron, brick and stone with no structural wood. (Substantially reduces the risk of all your expensive goods going up in flames.)
Revolutionary at the time it very quickly drifted into obsolescence as progress marched on. During WWII it was extensively damaged in air raids and following the end of the war its future looked bleak. The Mersey Docks & Harbour Board was deep in financial crisis, containerisation was foreshadowing the end of the docks in UK cities and the order of the day was to leave them to slide into dereliction.
The Albert Dock finally closed its gates in 1972 and where it was once an emblem of Liverpool’s prosperity it now stood there as a symbol of its collapse. Despite public bickering it was obvious that all of the major players – Liverpool City Council, Merseyside County Council, Mersey Docks & Harbour Company (note the sly name change there) and various property developers – were just following a policy of wilful destruction that would lead to demolishing the buildings. (The city council proposed it as a landfill site for pity’s sake.) Fast forward to 1981, post inner-city riots and enter Michael Heseltine, the Minister for Merseyside, who set up the Merseyside Development Corporation with a responsibility for the regeneration and redevelopment of Liverpool’s docks. The rest is as they say is history, including the Richard & Judy hosted ITV breakfast show This Morning with Fred Talbot and the floating map of Britain transmitted from the Dock.
Standing on the Birkenhead side of the river, gazing across to the iconic Liverpool skyline it’s hard to imagine that such a catastrophe was nearly allowed to happen. Today, Albert Dock is an essential component of Liverpool’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most visited multi-use UK tourist attraction outside London. The view is spectacular – from the Three Graces on your left, past the newly built Museum of Liverpool, all the way along to the Echo Arena. Incidentally a Birkenhead native told me that the ‘Three Graces’ is a modern coining and that it was always just called the Pier Head when she was growing up.
Just bear all this in mind the next time some corporate suit seems to be offering you the false choice between jobs and heritage. As far as I can work out the average Merseyside resident around in the 1980’s also vehemently opposed the destruction of the docks – they wanted, not unreasonably if you ask me, jobs, heritage and community. They were just as outraged in 2000 when they turned up to see the QEII sail up the Mersey and were prevented from viewing it, and the Liverpool skyline, from about where I’m standing pondering this in 2012, by illegal obstructions blocking the path.
The Twelve Quays Campaign was founded by Wirral resident Graham Handley. Over a period of 12 years campaigners fought to get the historic section of embankment re-opened and the campaign was soon supported by more than 40 local and national organisations. This included the Ramblers, who Graham initially approached for help in getting the route shown on the Definitive Map, having discovered strong evidence that the walkway should remain open to the public.
All those involved should be congratulated on their perseverance. An initial joint application by the Wirral Ramblers and the Wirral Footpaths and Open Spaces Society to the Council for the route to be recognised as a public right of way was rejected, but they made an appeal to the Secretary of State and the Council was directed to make the Order to add the path to the Definitive Map. In 2005 the joint applicants worked with the Council and Peel Holdings, the new owners of Port Authority, and came to an agreement to avoid the cost and delay of a public inquiry. Arthur Cheetham, Past Area President of the Merseyside and West Cheshire Ramblers said, “We are delighted that we have been able to negotiate a satisfactory conclusion to the Twelve Quays Campaign and avoid the cost and uncertainty of a public inquiry. This would not have been possible without the cooperation of Peel Ports and ensures an excellent outcome for all involved.”
I don’t know if I’m a typical visitor to Liverpool – I’ve been here for the football at both Everton and Liverpool, a couple of gigs at Eric’s, a barely remembered trip to Cream, and to address the Merseyside & West Cheshire Area at their AGM a few years ago – but I always try head to the riverfront at some point. It’s great to know that on future visits I can take the ferry across the Mersey, disembark at Seaforth, walk along the 12 Quays path, gaze at the opposite bank, have a quick visit to Birkenhead’s impossibly elegant town square and then head back to Liverpool on the ferry. Urban walking at its best.
- The Ramblers
- Albert Dock
- 12 Quays
- Liverpool City Council
- Merseyside County Council
- Mersey Docks & Harbour Company
- Fred Talbot
- Liverpool UNESCO World Heritage
- The Three Graces
- Liverpool Ramblers
- Wirral Ramblers
The Stone Roses – Mersey Paradise
Gerry & The Pacemakers – Ferry Cross The Mersey – 2002 Digital Remaster
Jegsy Dodd & The Sons Of Harry Cross – Downtown Birkenhead
Crosby, Stills & Nash – Long Time Gone
Jason & The Scorchers – Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
John Lennon – Working Class Hero
Andy Williams – Moon River