Since moving up north three years ago, I’ve been meaning to visit Liverpool. Finally the opportunity arose last month, so I jumped on the train with fellow photographer and Fuji enthusiast Richard Gascoigne, for the one and a half hour journey to Merseyside.
I think it’s not a stretch to say modern Liverpool is most famous for The Beatles and its premier league football club, rather than its mercantile history. Like its northern siblings, it suffered a long painful period of stagnation and decline as traditional industries collapsed or were made obsolete. It’s only comparatively recently (the last 20 or so years), that serious efforts have been made to revitalise and regenerate the city. Its skyline now has its fair share of gleaming glass and steel office blocks, standing incongruously with elegant Victorian structures thankfully protected for future generations. Unlike in Leeds and Manchester, the process of regeneration feels less complete, and in many places appears stalled entirely. No where is this more evident than the sprawling northern docks. Listed buildings and world heritage sites lie surrounded by temporary barriers, or locked behind tall metal gates with vast swaths of empty land that no one seems to have much use for.
Luckily for me as a photographer at least, the pause in activity buys a little more time to document what’s been left behind. Indeed if you want to go and see what’s left before it’s all turned into impossibly expensive flats and great vacant office towers, your time is certainly running out.
When I was researching where to explore in the city I came across endless shots of the Liver Building and the prettier bits of the waterfront. As a result I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid including images of them here. The parts of the city that interest me most are those that are living on borrowed time. The only glimpse you’ll get of the Liver Building here is in the background of a few shots. Given the limited colour palette and gritty feel in a lot of the images, I’ve decided to publish these all in black and white. This allows a bit more freedom in pushing the tones to bring out the texture and detail. For those interested, I’ve processed all the shots in Silver Efex Pro 2.
As you can see above, much the dockland has been scrubbed clear. What little that is in use is home to light commercial and industrial buildings, huddled like imposters behind the grand old dock wall.
Amid the network of empty docks stands the impressive Victoria Clock Tower. It looks rather worse for ware, but as a Grade II listed building has been spared demolition. It was announced in 2010 that it was going to be repaired, but it doesn’t look like anything has been done in the five years since.
Another impressive and largely un-redeveloped area is Stanley Dock. Home to an old tobacco warehouse that is one of the largest brick buildings in the world. It boasts 14 stories and covers an area of 36 acres according to Wikipedia. It’s certainly vast and impressive even in its current state.
I presume this little booth, clinging to the side of the southern warehouse, was for the operator of the hoist that’s directly above it. It appears that you had to climb in through a window after scaling the ladder, not how I’d want to get to work every day! This is the sort of little detail that probably won’t survive redevelopment so it’s nice to have a chance to capture it.
The northern side of the dock has been developed into a vast (empty looking) luxury hotel from where this and the following two images were shot. Surrounded by derelict industrial sites it feels rather out of place and a bit ahead of its time given the general state of redevelopment in the area. At the back of the dock is an old grain silo that’s in really poor shape. I’d be surprised if this isn’t torn down soon – either that or gravity will do the job itself.
A straight side on shot of the Tobacco Warehouse gives you an idea of it’s huge scale. If you worked on the top floor I bet you wouldn’t have relished the prospect of using that fire escape! The steps are made from bars so you’d have been able to see straight down to the ground.
Here’s a closer shot showing the rows of metal columns holding up the vast weight of all those millions of bricks. I hear a ‘heritage market’ used to be held in the space beneath the warehouse until 2011, I wish I’d had the chance to visit.
Detail of the crane and slowly collapsing gantry on the side of the grain silo.
I was pleasantly surprised to see some interesting old buildings and features left around the Canning Dock area that look fairly untouched. The temporary fencing is out in force around here though, which makes photographing various parts more challenging. The Great Western Railway warehouse by the dry docks looks really nice and is in surprisingly good condition, leading me to wonder if its already been restored to some degree. Notice the great glass brutalist monster blocking the skyline behind it though.
Both the dry docks were in use when I visited, but it was tough to get a good angle without prying apart the bars on the damnable temporary fencing to poke the camera lens through!
Preserving historic buildings in this country usually means one of two things – turning them into trendy bars or expensive apartments. There are plenty of examples of both in Liverpool.
Unfortunately even in the city centre some buildings are still struggling for survival, like this wonderful old cinema. Developers want to knock this lot down and replace it with something bland and ‘modern’. Sadly the Futurist is not listed or in a conservation area so its future looks pretty bleak. Another one to photograph and appreciate while it’s still there.
I thought I’d end with this shot of the eclectic Liverpool skyline, as I think it sums up the battle being fought between those seeking to modernise the city and those trying to protect its heritage. It’s a delicate balance to achieve and at the moment it feels like the heritage side is losing out to commercial interests keen on filling now vacant land with generic apartment blocks and commercial buildings. So much so that UNESCO has Liverpool on its list of world heritage sites in danger. Let’s hope sense prevails and that the important, and in many cases beautiful, old industrial buildings can be brought back in to use as part of a modern Liverpool.