Ronnie introduces us to another of his favourite Liverpool places.
“We’ve already been to The Park, and I’ve told you about The Everyman Bistro. And I have in fact mentioned today’s sacred place before, during my Liverpool Mosaic walk a couple of weeks ago, but we only walked past. Today, we’re going to take a much closer look at The Cathedral. Like The Park, Sefton Park, it’s another place that, for me, gets its own definitive article. There is another cathedral in Liverpool, lovely in its own way, and we will have a look at it one day, but when I say to Sarah ‘I’m going to the cathedral’ – she knows it’s this one I’m talking about.
Both of our cathedrals are twentieth century creations, and this one, though it looks gothic and Victorian, is actually the newest, finished in 1978. Its architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, was only twenty one when he won the competition to design it. Building works started in 1904, and it took another seventy four years to entirely finish, eighteen years after its architect had died in 1960.
During the worst of the blitzes in the Second World War, Scott and some of the masons, builders and engineers, would sleep in the partially completed cathedral, so they would know immediately if it had been bombed. It wasn’t, but did suffer some minor damage when nearby homes were hit.
During my childhood I was barely aware of it. I was brought up in a different kind of Christianity and we were forbidden from entering ‘Protestant’ churches. So I first came to the cathedral when I was about eighteen, old enough to have grown into my own mind and stopped being any kind of Christian at all. It wasn’t finished then, and so for me, the Northern end of the cathedral, where its most spectacular stained glass windows are, is ‘the new end’.
And I loved it from the first moment I saw it. Many don’t. Many think it’s a huge, brutal and ugly thing. I think it’s the loveliest building, out of a great many lovely buildings, in Liverpool. It stands on a hill, overlooking the city centre, and to me it always seems as if it has its arms outstretched, holding and sheltering the city.
It’s made of Liverpool, made of the place, made of sandstone. Quarried a few miles away in Woolton, and brought to the cathedral site, itself a former quarry, that supplied the sandstone for many of Liverpool’s other great buildings. The former quarry is now a sunken garden that surrounds the base of one side of the cathedral, having been a graveyard in between times.
From all around the cathedral it looks spectacular. But particularly from the Western side, the ‘front’ as the sun begins to set, on a clear blue winter’s day like this one, and the sandstone shines like gold.
But good though it looks from the outside, it’s inside where I think it really works. It’s a vast, enclosed space which, to me – and I know many disagree with me on this – always feels warm and friendly. In my life, this has been an extremely important place.
Which may sound strange, given it’s a cathedral, and I have no religion. Well, the religion that’s practised in there by the Church of England is pretty gentle, extremely polite and a world away from the intolerant, bombastic Catholicism I grew up with. So it’s never bothered me at all. For me the place is a celebration of humanity and nature. Look at what we can do? Look at what we can dream of? Doesn’t it look great on top of the hill? Isn’t this stone gorgeous? Listen to this beautiful music! Listen to the sheer quality of the silence.
A decade after the building was finished, the cathedral became sacred to me and pretty well everyone else in Liverpool after one terrible day, 15th April, 1989. On this day 96 Liverpool fans were cruelly crushed to death at a football match in Sheffield. Everyone knew someone who’d lost someone. And we went to Liverpool’s ground. And we went to the cathedral. No one told us to, we just had to be together, to try and bear the pain. Every year since then, the day is marked in Liverpool. And when it was twenty years later, in April 2009, me, Sarah and the city stood in silence outside the cathedral as the great bells tolled slowly, 96 times.
I also feel like we got married in the cathedral. We had ceremonies elsewhere, but the one I most remember is just the two of us, the day after we’d decided, coming and lighting candles for our future, then sitting together on the ‘Henry Goss Custard’ bench (you’ll find it when you go there) watching them twinkle. That was our union.
And then in the breast cancer years, many more candles were lit, and much comfort was had on the bleakest of days, coming and sitting on ‘our’ bench.
Today, a Saturday, when I come here to take most of these pictures, the cathedral is busy. Mostly tourists, taking photographs, like me. But at three o’clock we are stopped. ‘Evensong’ is beginning. First the organ, then the choir, the sounds of the cathedral. Then the words. All of today’s prayers are ‘For Helen and everyone else who is in hospital at the moment’. I sit in deep peace and listen to the place. As I have been listening to it for years. Vast and sacred. My beloved cathedral.
And there’s more. We can go up the bell tower and see the great bells. We can even go all the way to the top and look out over Liverpool and over the river. But that’s for another day. This one ends in perfect peace, as the last notes of Evensong drift upwards, ever upwards, mingling with all the prayers and dreams that people like me have spoken and thought of in this lovely place.