A conversation with a friend from University, Abi O’Connor
Regular readers will know I’ve been walking in the city of Liverpool most of my life. From the tiny boy in Stanley Park to now and writing this love letter of a blog these past nine years. And by ‘the city’ I mean, like I always do, the wider place I think of as home. Both sides of the river, all round the edges and currently being called the Liverpool City Region. With the city in its middle and the beaches, towns and all kinds of neighbourhoods and countryside round its edges, this place.
And so to this blog post. Which isn’t all about me and my opinions, out on one of my usual walks, for once. Because my co-writer here, Abi O’Connor, will have different experiences and some contrasting opinions to me as we set off on this first writing conversation together. Writing about walking in Liverpool.
I met Abi O’Connor pretty much the minute I arrived back at university after my forty year absence. She’s a year ahead of me at school. A year further on with her Liverpool and stigma PhD than I am with my utopian one, so she’s been a huge help. We talk sociology, socialism, LFC and Liverpool. Not being from here she might be more objective than me, though she’s also nowhere near newly arrived. As she’ll tell you herself, next.
Hello, and a bit about me then.
I grew up in Wiltshire, in a small village in the Wylye Valley between Bath and Stonehenge. However I’ve always felt at home in the North West, having spent lots of time here throughout my childhood as this is where my family are from. Whilst my parents moved South in the 1990s my wider family stayed in and around Merseyside, meaning some of my most treasured childhood memories are up here. My mum’s from West Kirby and my dad from Birkenhead, with their own families coming from across both sides of the water. These family connections and frequent visits to Anfield to watch my beloved reds cemented my yearning to come and live in the city permanently once I’d grown up. So in 2014, after having spent a year away in Australia, I arrived at the University of Liverpool to be a Sociology student – and I haven’t left!
After I finished my undergraduate degree I went on to complete my Masters before starting the PhD Ronnie mentioned in September 2018.
I’ve always loved walking as something which connects me to others and to where I am. My dad even sent me off to university with an A-Z of Liverpool (which confused my student housemates) so I’d be able to navigate my way on foot around the city. Whilst I grew up walking for pleasure across the rolling hills of Salisbury Plain my first walking in Liverpool was purely for purpose, to get to my destinations as quickly as my maps would get me there. The sort of head down, shoulders hunched walking which leads you face first into lampposts, dustbins or other walkers. By walking in this way, seeing only what’s immediately in front of you or below eye level, we can unknowingly, if quickly, come to navigate our ways around a place without ever actually seeing it. So I guess you could say that whilst I’ve always walked through the city, I hadn’t always walked consciously within it and properly noticed it or truly got to know it, until I began to look up and look around me.
Before moving here I’d imagined that large tower blocks, tightly packed buildings and grand architecture would be the most overwhelming differences between my rural home and Liverpool, my new place. However, that change was made less dramatic by my having lived in Sydney for a year in between. Sydney having even more high rises, both commercial and residential, and leading Liverpool to feel spacious in comparison. Less clinical, more accessible, more welcoming and ready to be considered a home. Some cobbled streets certainly help with this, not least because they slowed me down. So here I found myself doing something which I’d not done much before. Looking around me, and more specifically, looking up.
Yes, looking up always makes me think of Bold Street. Up beyond the shop fronts to, well have a look there next time you’re there. Or on Wavertree High Street where you can still see little bits of almost rural past. And then there’s looking up at the Mersey Tunnel Ventilation shafts, for both tunnels, both sides of the river. Profoundly not rural and a joy every time, to me. Because we all see our own versions of the city don’t we?
From the parks and beaches, to the promenades and urban streets, this Liverpool City Region is beautiful to me for so many reasons. Not least the multitude of landscapes. Including places you can’t get to by road, like Hilbre Island, for the escapism and tranquility but still being close to home.
Well yes, there are the roads and the difficulties they cause. Notoriously bad for cyclists and really not much better or safer for us walkers. It’s a car city, a car region and has been for decades now.
Cars prioritised over people, unfriendly road layouts it’s hard to get across. Even new junctions like the ones up around the long-delayed new Royal. A city of too many brutal, impatient and self-entitled drivers, aggressive to cyclists and walkers alike. Parking, often right up on pavements like they’ve all got ‘optional parking space’ notices on them. Like all us walkers with all of our differing mobilities don’t matter at all, never mind people caring for others. I could go on.
And, while I’m ranting, there’s the messy and expensive public transport around the region. Because some of our best walking, like Abi mentioned, involves getting on buses and trains to get there.
I’ve written a whole separate blog post about how I think our transport could be, but for now the train routes are limited and too expensive and the bus arrangements are a joke. Forcing far too many people to feel they have to get into their cars every time they leave the house. Which is where this rant began.
But despite all that it is a lovely place, as Abi reminds us, and I do walk around it lovingly and relentlessly, despite the cars on the pavements. And we are, after all, surrounded by water…
Being so close to the water, both of the City Region’s rivers and the Irish Sea too brings further personal, emotional and family connections to Ireland for me, like so many of us, that are a complete blessing. A favourite of all walks being from home in Wavertree, through Sefton and Otterspool Parks to the Mersey, then along the promenade to the Pier Head & beyond, an astonishing walk that encapsulates so many elements of the region that I love. The green spaces in the parks and the openness of the waterfront allowing me to feel detached from the city centre, while the short but dramatic walk to the Pier Head reminds me that we’re never detached from each other, or the places we’ve come from.
Both sides of the river and all round the edges we are walking in the city, all of us alone and yet together, in Abi’s spaciousness and the human scale of the place. Despite my occasional ranting.
Thank you for the peace, the conversation and the reminders Abi. Let’s walk on?