People always say it’ll never be the same again. You can’t recreate something that was really good, really special, so you should never go back. I sort of held with that for a while, a good while actually, but after thirty years I decided that the time had come to go back and have another look at Liverpool. It can’t have changed that much can it?
I first landed in the fair city of Liverpool in September 1981 and went hard at it for the next two years. I went in loads of Liverpool pubs, by no means just the student ones neither. Many are just a blur, amongst vague memories of clubs and bands. I remember the big town ones; The Crown, The Central, The Vines. The Grapes on Matthew Street and those down Smithdown Road. A few really stand out in my memory, for various reasons: The Everyman Bistro, Peter Kavanagh’s, The Philharmonic and The Somali club.
Everything looked pretty familiar as we walked out of Lime Street towards the neo-classical splendour of St Georges Hall, the Walker Art Gallery and Wellington a top his column. Roe Street was still busy with buses and women with shopping bags trailing kids and prams.
It wasn’t until we got onto Dale Street that I realised something was wrong. The heart of the business district seemed quiet, a bit like being in town on a Sunday afternoon, you know when Sunday afternoons were Sunday afternoons and not much happened. I looked round to see where everyone had gone as I walked across the empty street without even having to look out for traffic and all I saw were signs saying, ‘To Let. May sell’, above empty offices?
It was a different story at the Pier Head which was busy with tourists and reminded me of a set of Higson’s beer mats depicting notorious fictitious Scousers. Pierre Head being the one that came to mind, a sort of caricature on one side and a pen portrait on the reverse. I can remember some of the others but by no means all of them; Norris Green and Doc Road were two. I wished I’d collected a set now, instead I sat and tore dozens of them up. I must have pissed off loads of bar staff. Sorry, I don’t do it now – no ash trays.
We walked to the Albert Dock, which was somewhere the city burghers would have warned tourists away from when I was eighteen. I’ll be honest and say that the corporate coffee houses and chain restaurants of the development, the state of the art arena and the sort of connecting Liverpool One development aren’t really my scene, so we walked on down the Dock Road and left the half term visitors to their artificial world.
I was heading for the brooding red monolith of the Anglican Cathedral, principally because you can see it, but mostly because that’s where they presented me with my degree in 1985. I hadn’t intended going to The Baltic Fleet and it was still a bit early in the day, but we sort of just fell into it.
The Baltic Fleet is an island of Victorian pubiness in a sea of redevelopment and the only remnant of anything from the 1800’s within at least 100yds radius. Architecturally it’s a cracker, sort of a poor man’s flat iron building, almost a triangular pub. Inside it’s all a bit bare bricks and floor boards, and empty grey paint. As you walk in the door, having passed two dusty portals that seem no longer used, you enter a large room with the bar in the middle looking out through the windows onto the Dock Road. You can actually walk right around behind the bar through a little snug and into a back room which is served from a hatch.
As you enter there’s a redolence of resinous smoke, unfortunately it was the remnants of previous conflagrations and none of the wood burners were lit that lunch time, which was a pity because even though it was sunny there was that cold clammy breeze blowing up the river. I’d forgot all about the gelidity that climbs up from the Mersey, nithering every part of the town. What I hadn’t forgotten was that Liverpudlian wit and repartee that always guarantees a warm welcome.
It wasn’t busy when we called in and I’m only an average punter, but I was disappointed with the welcome, or lack of. The ditzy bar maid, looked like she had just walked off the set of ITV’s Cilla and was reserving conversation solely for the small clique of who were obvious regulars and the bloke who’s doing the brewing. Maybe she just thought we were just a couple of tourists, lost, searching for a spot of reality?
In terms of beer, I had expected a bit more choice. Altogether there were seven hand pumps on the bar, two were ciders, one had the clip turned round, which left us with a choice of four draught real ales. Surprisingly only one from the in house Wapping brewery, any further evidence of it’s existence, beyond the chalk board outside, being sparse to non existent? I’m not sure what the empty pump was, some gadgie was pulling ale through, holding it up, tasting it and throwing it away, it looked like a darker beer but it didn’t come on line while we were in.
The sole house beer, Wapping Summer ale (4.2%) was a pleasant easy going golden ale, Liverpool Craft Brewing Toast (4.2%), was a darker amber with, comparatively, just a touch of sharpness at the front end, but pleasant once you got going. Both were fresh and in excellent form though and I’d rather have a small selection of beer in good condition than a broader selection of mediocrity.
I was going to say I went in at the wrong time, the notice board said there were loads of events which would have attracted more than the dozen or so who were in at my visit (including three staff). Having said that, one thing that became noticeable over three days was that not much does happen in Liverpool during the day apart from shopping and people with kids looking at things. Either way, The Baltic Fleet was distinctly lacking in the atmosphere stakes and was either a taxi ride or too far to walk back to from town, so we left it at that.