flung, up and up: churchill way flyover, liverpoolBack
Ports are places where people come with higher thoughts, with dreams about journeys and futures. Leaving the dock for the Americas, or beyond, in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, you were going to a place that, before photographs or film or Wikipedia, only existed in your mind’s interpretation of the stories and descriptions you’d heard and read. These days we say things like, You couldn’t imagine it. Then, you had to imagine it, and it was your imagination that supplied the momentum when it came time for you to step off the dock, step on the gangplank, and go. Maybe it will be like you imagine it, over there; if it is, then everything will be okay.
Those who came and stayed in Liverpool, or were born in Liverpool, shared that high imagination, either because it’s what brought them to the port before their own journey stalled, or because the effect of seeing thousands of people on the docks every day, all imagining themselves into some other place, was intoxicating. You might not be travelling, but you still want to be transported. Somewhere higher.
The practical manifestations of Liverpool’s transport reflect the yearning for higher spaces; everything is up, up; come to Liverpool, and you’re flung up and up. The Queensway Tunnel took people further under the riverbed than any tunnel in the world, but it was best expressed above the ground and into the sky, by the Ventilation and Control Station at George’s Dock, portland stone and concrete shooting for the clouds with its own peculiar grace, an uplifting vision of the thousands going under, every day, to cross the water.
Across The Strand, the Overheard Railway, the first, a commuter transport and a tourist marvel. To view the docks, to dream their destinations, you would ascend to the rails at Pierhead Station; or descend, to the underground stop at The Dingle, to be shot out from the sandstone tunnel on iron rails high above the dockside streets, with your seat to the left so you can take in the cranes, the shops, the workers, warehouses and water. Not that city-side to the right was not impressive, but here we were thinking higher things, overhead and elevating our imaginations to the height of a ship’s funnel, our thoughts piercing the mist like whistles.
Up in town, up into the air, St John’s Beacon is as high as radiowaves; you can talk from there to everybody in the city, a message before they tune out, and see them departing, great boatfuls down the river. In the revolving restaurant, for a while at least, you could track the ships’ progresses with each dinner turn. We revolve, they move further away, we revolve, they move further away; and each time we revolve, each time they move further away, we have to dream a bit harder to reach them. Which isn’t hard to do, up here.
And then there’s Churchill Way; the flyover. The car took over in dreams from trains, because this was transport you could own, take anywhere, off the rails; and Churchill Way took you off the rails and off the ground, into the sky, briefly, to view the city through a windscreen from a pigeon’s elevation. Humble walkers got to join in, on a walkway slung below the road deck; and aesthetics weren’t forgotten. The single, slender pillars, the sweeping kinks like a ribbon around the World Museum; concrete lending a dull gleam of the future to the Flyover.
They’re Peter Pan, those words, fly over; who hasn’t dreamed they could fly over? Churchill Way, though, is like those moments just after you’ve fallen asleep, when dreams begin to come but you don’t know what the images are going to try to mean yet. It was a first part of a larger elevated road network that would have formed an inner motorway, would have solved the M62 beyond its stumble at junction four; it was the first part, and the only part. Engineers said the system would only work, as a whole, if it was built as a whole, but only Churchill Way made it. It is its own system now, and it works, but what will its work be in the future?
For now, its work is still dreams. It could be demolished. But it could also be something else. The Friends of the Flyover believe it could be an elevated urban park, that might be the greatest dream of all; imagine leaving The Ship & Mitre, after a night of gin and speculations, and turning left onto the incline, the wide tarmac spread like butter across the concrete deck that takes you up, past the first floor windows, past the second floor, above the roofs, until there’s nothing between you and the stars except the exhilaration of nothing between you and the stars.
The overhead railway is gone. St John’s revolving restaurant is closed, its turning mechanism braked. The boats leaving the docks now take people to the places they’ve seen on YouTube. But that higher imagination is still propulsive. A walkway to the stars is still seductive. A port is still a port. It’s where you go, to go to the places you dream about.
Originally published in The City Talking: Liverpool, issue 02