I've got a couple of days break at the end of reading week so I've headed up north to do a bit more of the coast to coast walk that Eleanor and I started last October. Today was a drive up to Liverpool, where she's been scouring archives maritime archives for her research, and a chance of an afternoon explore.
I don't really know the city very well at all, but it seems to me quite unique. The sloping rope walks down from the University and Cathedrals to the Mersey offering a faded memento of the mighty enterprises on which the docks were built - coffee, sugar, slaves. The sound of seagulls, the ever present mystery of the Liver bird gracing the tall buildings, motif ed on the street signs and painted into the stained glass of Victorian windows. The absurd taken for real, the ludic for lyric and everywhere a sharp sense of being on the edge of things. One moment laughter, the next tears. Does anywhere wear its sense of good humoured resilience more proudly than Liverpool?
We headed off to the weird and wonderful subterranean Williamson tunnels in Edge Hill and were given the last guided tour of the day by John, an eccentric mountain climber and retired geography teacher who's been clearing out debris and rubbish from the folly for the last twenty five years. The tunnels stretch for miles and only a tiny section has up to now been reclaimed.
Nobody's quite sure why they were initially built. The most persuasive theory is that Joseph Williamson who made his money in tobacco, believed in the dignity of labour and philantrophically set up the project to provide employment for soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. Another theory is that he was part of a fanatical religious set and was preparing a vast underground city for the people of Liverpool to retreat into come Armageddon. Whatever the reason when he died in 1840 work immediately stopped.
What will become of them? Hard to tell. John leads a tiny band of volunteers who fund raise to keep the clearance going through the tours, an occasional jumble sale and the running of a small kitchen selling waggon wheels and cups of tea to the police station on the other side of the street. Whatever Williamson's reasons for starting to dig into the soft sandstone I'm sure he'd be proud of the persistent determination of the local enthusiasts who are keeping alive his mysterious legacy. They've clearly inherited his spirit of exploration.