David Lewis is an author and historian specialising in work relating to Liverpool. He very kindly agreed to contribute to The Bold Street Project and, one sunny day in June we went on an exploratory walk of Bold Street starting at the top of the street and working our way down to 52, former Music Hall, exclusive ladies outfitters (T.S Bacon and Jaegar) and now the home of drinking and dancing via themed bars Reflex and L1.
We wanted to focus on secret areas of Bold Street rarely seen by members of the public such as the interior of St Luke’s Church (opened at the moment by Urban Strawberry Lunch) Debbies Hair Design above Tabac, Busi & Stephenson (once a branch of Midland Bank) the basement area of Oxfam (former storage of the Rolls Royce car showroom Watson’s) and the Music Hall which in more recent times was a bookshop famed for its amazing hand-painted lead-lit window backing on to Wood Street. (See image)
David and I recorded our conversation (which can be accessed via this blog click here) the has also contributed a fantastic piece of writing - see below!
Bold Street Journey I
Bold Street in warm sunshine and hard shadows. A piece of found text on my way to the railway station set the tone for the walk; WHAT WAS PAST IS NOW. A touchstone, a mantra, a remembered line for the exploration of dead bank vaults, a burned out church, the dressing rooms of a Georgian concert hall, the soft cellar of a car showroom long concreted into shopped oblivion. Gloomy capitals and refurbished shops, a parade of shops and changing tenants, the gentle subtleties of change over two centuries. I stood in the FACT reception space and looked at old slate roofs, higgledy-piggledy chimneys, windows into empty rooms and attic flats, cool spaces and dead spaces. The newness of street art, Metroscopes; civic furniture, in a new urban space, Ropewalks Square; the pomposity of explanation derided by SK8BD graffiti, club stickers, underground movements, pictures of a leering Tony Benn advertising a Socialist rally, a discussion of democracy or a club night stealing the clothes of revolution.
The journey was to be from top to bottom or bottom to top. The buildings that would give us access to their hidden spaces and unknown floors visited in series as if on a journey, as if paralleling the street we would smash our way from one building to the next through a hundred first floor rooms; empty store room, office, unexpected bedroom, night club, bar, clothes shop, bathroom, brothel, concert room, classroom, hairdressers’; to emerge panting on Berry Street in a cloud of dust and falling brick, still twenty feet above the ground. Walking, the reality is always different. We saw more pigeon-spattered smokers’ haunts than I had expected. Met more people with stories, stoked more interest in unexpected people, broke the work crust to find interest and warmth beneath.
We began in the massive banking hall and redundant vaults of a dead bank that still gets customers; fine wooden doors, rich tiling, high plaster coving. Edwardian dignity broken now into cubicles, workstations, seating areas. Sunlight through dusty glass impossible to clean behind grilles, bars, mesh, the abandoned security apparatus of a building that stored gold bullion. The vaults were heavy, old fashioned, solid solid. Impossibly heavy doors that swung at a finger’s touch and had bolts the thickness of a man’s arm, open now and used for storing files. And behind the vaults, a second skin, brick walls and exposed pipework grimly suggestive of gas chambers. Walls that seemed to grow and shift in their subterranean darkness. They left grey corridors narrowing to nothingness, swallowed brick staircases, made spaces too small for live people and created overlooked rooms full of 1950s accounts, trade descriptions and arrangements with newly free African states; this on a street named after the slave-trading family that owned the land. (Distant earth-memories in damp and gloom, earth-memories of fields and trees and hedge-boundaries, rope walks and country lanes on the edge of the town.) Pale brickwork grey with moss, like a man-made world at the bottom of the sea, a place of endless darkness and soft strange creatures. The first of our ghost stories, a myth sprung to scare the young female office clerks, an erotic frisson connected to darkness and unexpected presence. Or the need to familiarise and populate that dead darkness, those indifferent shifting walls.
The street after such encounters seemed bright, temporary and fragile, a plane between worlds; the reaching walls and the attics and the gloom beneath the flags, the hopeless glass blocks, windows in the pavement, to allow some light into vault and cellar, as if they could stem the darkness, civilise the sheer underneathness. Another bank, large windows and tall iron columns hammered into a showroom for cheap furniture; stern glances and the lemon faces – Laura’s phrase – of disapproval. The street seemed warmer after that chilly room.
The unexpected pleasure of St Luke’s church, the crowning glory of Bold Street, visible the entire length. I have written about the church and explored its history but have never been inside. On this sunny day it was opened to the public by an alternative dance and workshop group, who had researched old photographs and commissioned new artwork. These stood at the base of the walls like abandoned placards from a demonstration. The open space, once aisle and chancel and organ loft, dominated still by the soaring reach of the Gothic tower. The walls were tall, proud, naked; amalgams of brick and stone and charred wood, the occasional tablet still smoke-blackened after fifty years of city rain, the occasional piece of stained glass that survived the bombing, as if the only glass to survive had been that which crept into the smallest niches. And an angel, a rare clear image, a face unaware of the incendiary device, a face still singing praises to God, a face alone in the walls of glass and colour; perhaps the second of our ghosts. A strangely unLiverpool experience, the inside of the bombed-out church. More European, or a London thing; in either it would have been celebrated many years ago, opened to the public, planted as a garden, a celebration of peace; here it has been shut away for half a century as if we are ashamed of this event, this scar on our history, shut away like the mad child in the attic. On this mild and sunny day the ground was covered with slow wild flowers and creeping plants but the crunch of glass and dust beneath, the iron window frames kicked up easily by our boots, they seemed to suggest that the building was only just safe to revisit, safe to walk in again, that the ground had only just cooled and that the charred wood was still dangerous, that walls might still fall.
The street seems different once you start seeing its secret places; it feels tilted, insubstantial. Back on Bold Street we found a narrow Georgian corridor, surviving plasterwork and heavily repainted doorframes; a tilt to the building as if the ground had shifted, unsettling staircases and joints, realigning floorboards. A hairdresser’s shop above the street, a great invisible dome of glass leaping out into space above the pedestrians, a woman full of stories and untold ghosts. Yet more support and interest, yet more unexpected enthusiasm. And yet stopping to stare you become an object of curiosity, an oddity. Who stops and stares on city streets? Who examines kerbstones and metal grilles, flagstones and drainpipes? Mad men and poets, thieves, drunks, charlatans. Who stops and stares at those already stopped? Bored secretaries, office staff, lonely men in dark flats, invisible yet aware of our presence, our analysis, our disruption of the street’s lack of self-knowledge or awareness.
The magnificence of the Oxfam building, built as a car showroom with a gigantic lift that took cars from ground floor to basement and back up to showroom. The slow soft bounce of rubber on smooth concrete, the smell of upholstery and leather, walnut and teak, the gentle purr of gigantic engines. An incarnation of the street as a place of commerce, a place to sell; in this instance luxury cars. Impossible to imagine the gleam of Armstrong-Siddeleys and Bentleys and Rolls-Royces in these tight, functional underground rooms, cluttered with boxes of books and rails of clothes. Only the brightness and sense of purpose survive, the hard work, the invisible energies. And yet the new electricity substation, installed this year by hacking a hole in the floor above – how useful the old lift would have been – is one of a series on the street whose smooth energy flow seems constantly disrupted, by power cuts, unexpected fusings, the sudden plunge into darkness. Stories of hidden rivers, lost power sources, perhaps of the street’s energy lines, the pull from top to bottom. As if the installation of underground boxes to channel electricity had jolted older power lines out of synchronicity, out of balance, and the power cuts were a result of this; or even as if the street itself, woken Quatermass-like by the digging, resented the intrusion. But these bright functional cellars held no stories, no mystery.
And then chance intervened, or the street decided we should see what we came to see. We took a chance and dived into Bar L1, that used to be Edward’s, that used to be Waterstone’s the bookshop, that used to be Macmillan’s nightclub, that used to be an exclusive clothes shop and a concert room. It was built from the 1770s, the earliest incarnation of the street, and sits on three sides of Bold Street, Concert Street (an unrelated echo of performance, this one commemorating outdoor music for the urban poor) and Wood Street. An iced wedding cake of a building, solid, square, punched windows crusted with sooty plasterwork. I was last in there when it was a bookshop, a quiet set of cream rooms lined with bookcases and collections of chairs, thoughtful emaciated readers and chubby girls in frayed jeans behind the counters. Today it is decorated like a jazzy gentleman’s club, a cross between deep leather elegance and glitter, a long sticky bar of granite resin. Upstairs the second floor of books had tall windows and was flooded with light like a piano nobile, a slower place than the ground floor, a place of reference books and classical music. It has become a 1980s club, a vivid swirl of a nightmare of epileptic glitter balls, electro-posters, drinks promotions, a giant’s causeway of platforms and raised dance floors under massive black walls. It felt as though, with difficulty, I had broken in to something that had slipped away through time, reclaimed a room that was no longer a part of my world, like revisiting the first house I lived in. But the elegant plaster ceiling has survived, painted a deep matt black, and the magnificent sweep of the staircase still takes dancers from the ground floor to the dance floor, as it always has. The tall windows are still there behind thick curtains, and the huge staircase windows, richly-painted rococo gold and orange swirls on great sweeps of leaded glass, have also survived; perhaps as garish to some as the glitter balls and 80s tat is to me. We were guided through a maze of rooms and staircases and corridors, bunches of keys and members of staff coming in the opposite direction. The last of our ghost stories, a woman called Mary alleged to haunt the upper floors; another myth of the upper floors occupied by prostitutes. Upstairs again to a tiny roof space, more pigeons and air-conditioning, and gazed up at walls towering another two floors above us. Hidden windows and unused roofs. Another staircase to the basement, the old Macmillan’s night club, memories of dark nights a quarter of a century ago, the ghost story of a Smiths gig here nearly thirty years ago, in a building that opened with a recital of Handel’s ‘Water Music’. (Like history, music always repeats itself; here where the music was played seriously to people for whom the Smiths meant something there is now a club that plays endless 1980s music to people who weren’t born when it first came out. Do the (modern, ironic) strains drift down the bricks to the basement, echoing damply through the walls into the building’s tiny, silent rooms? Does the building remember the Handel recitals? Perhaps in the future it will be possible to listen to the sounds stored in ancient brickwork.) It is impossible to reconcile the nightclub with the modern room-scape of beer kegs and offices and kitchens. And then, a kitchen store or was it an office; huge roof beams just above my head, the first sign of a Georgian building, rough beams fifteen inches square and twenty feet long; beams used in the earliest incarnation of the building perhaps but planted when the street was fields, in the 1690s. Their fields and woods have long gone but the beams survive, five or six of them visible in this neon food store office, built into the ground and history of Bold Street for two centuries and more. From them the ancient history of the building appeared; perhaps our enthusiasm persuaded the building to show us more. Georgian staircases reallocated as fire escapes, staff entrances, leading to empty rooms in the upper bowels of the building. Light through dusty windows falling onto bare wooden floorboards, the servants’ quarters. A vanished floor of rooms taken over by huge heating ducts and air conditioning systems, a recognisable building colonised by something alien and unwieldy. Long metal corridors, scales and warmth, the suggestion of nocturnal movement; holes punched in walls, floors ripped out to let the giant pipes slide from one space to another. But at the very top of the building, the very end of our journey, a long dusty corridor of rooms known as the changing rooms, perhaps used by artistes performing downstairs at the concert rooms. Servile decency, dignity, the threadbare grace of a butler’s room, a housekeeper’s pantry; large patches of overlooked sunlight falling onto empty corridors. I was reminded again of the high rooms in the city that are lit by daylight but see nobody from one year’s end to the next, a gentle rising of the sun, the sounds of rain on dusty glass, the hubbub from the street far below, the fading light, the orange street glow. At the very end, above us a roof of Georgian slates, unused chimneys, and a view through a skylight of high blue skies.
David’s Book Walks Through History: Liverpool published by The Breedon Books is available to buy from News From Nowhere on their website click here to access.