lEven before Covid I was a fan of the snug, the cabin, the alcove. Call me anti-social, but I’d rather focus on the pint than the bustle of the bar or ‘talent’. Consequently, the Bridewell pub in Liverpool has my ideal layout, with five cozy cells – formerly used to house miscreants – providing private, dimly lit spaces for a drinker with or without friends.
The pub was recently voted the best in Liverpool by Camra – despite stiff competition – and while the gong is mainly due to its impressive range of bottled, draft and cask ales, it also gains in historical importance for me. It’s in the Ropewalks area, just west of Chinatown, where rope and cod services were once provided to ships. The pub is in an 1840s police station, no doubt home to an occasional drunken sailor; the high red brick wall was designed to keep curious parkers out and crooks in. Bridewells were minor offenders’ prisons or penal houses, named after the first such facility in the former Bridewell Palace, near Fleet Street in London.
In addition to a lock-up, the building (allegedly) served as a POW camp and, from the 1980s, a rehearsal space for local bands (including Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Icicle Works), a gourmet restaurant, and a cocktail bar. A plaque commemorates a story that Charles Dickens was sworn in as a special agent in Liverpool for one night to collect material for The Uncommercial Traveller.
We start our walk at the Pier Head. A ferry terminal and bus station, it was built above George’s Dock, not far from the muddy cove or pool from which the town takes its name. There is much to see here, including larger-than-life bronze statues of the Beatles and Tom Murphy’s statue of naval hero Captain Johnnie Walker DSO, the Merchant Navy War Memorial and the famous Three Graces that gave the city UNESCO World Heritage status – as well as large, modern buildings that helped him lose it.
From here we head south, sticking to the waterfront footpath, past the shops and museums of Albert Dock (opened in 1846), the exhibition centers and concert spaces of King’s Dock (1785) and the marina at Brunswick Dock (1832). You can’t help but notice the juxtaposition of handsome, sleek old harbor buildings and drab “show apartments”. Many so-so homes have been built near the city center – many of them in the 1980s, when Liverpool thought it would always be poor and unemployed – but at least the river isn’t overrun with high-end blocks of flats. Behind it rise the two mighty cathedrals of Liverpool, the Radio City Tower and the stacked city center.
At the entrance to an estate is a statue of John Hulley (1832-75), in which “Liverpool’s First Olympian”, also known as “the Gymnasiarch”, can’t choose between running or boxing. For a spell, light industrial sites are taking over from residential, with bits of historic construction being lost amid faceless developments. There are stretches of wasteland. If this were Spain, or London’s South Bank, it would be full of restaurants or sidewalk cafes. On the Mersey is a Chinese and a pub.
Across the river are the two doors of Camell Laird’s shipyard and the Tranmere Terminals where oil is unloaded and, hazy in the distance, the refinery at Stanlow – as celebrated in the OMD song Stanlow. With binoculars you can see Eastham on the Wirral, where the Manchester Ship Canal begins. Maritime history is everywhere; helpful information boards indicate that this part of the river was once the port of Harrington and Herculaneum. A red brick clock tower is all that remains of Toxteth Dock. If you look inland you will see long rows of terraces atop a cliff; it’s the Dingle, as seen in TV series including Boys from the Blackstuff and Bread. The docks were mainly built on reclaimed land.
When all the visual cues get a bit much, there’s always the river itself, always flowing, always changing. I caught it at half tide on a glorious cloudless day, with exposed tidal flats creating glittering islands. The Mersey is wide enough to absorb the attentive gaze as you walk and ponder. There are plenty of places to sit, watch the fishermen and walkers, or enjoy the sun.
The views widen along the Festival Gardens site, which was created in 1984 as part of Michael Heseltine’s ambitious regeneration plan for Liverpool when he was Merseyside minister. The site is being transformed into even more riverside homes. The arterial road here, known as Otterspool Promenade, is also opening up, attracting more pushchairs, cyclists, skaters and scooters.
It is possible to walk along the river as far as Speke Hall, but it is quite a slog. I bend the boulevard inland to see something of the inner city. Any route back is interesting as Liverpool’s quarters are a rich mix of homes and people, but I recommend going through St Michael-in-the-Hamlet, Sefton Park (turn left at the ice cream parlor), Lawrence Road, Crown Street Park , the Georgian Quarter and Chinatown. The route showcases Liverpool’s medley of residences, from Victorian piles to student blocks in the “Knowledge Quarter”, and its cultural diversity (Sikh temples, Chinese pagodas, African barber shops, Halal supermarkets), bringing home the hubbub and chaos of urban environments and the plain truth that the river is a balm and a redemption.
Google map of the route
Get started pier head
Distance 9 miles
Time 4 hours
Total increase 235 meters
difficulty level Moderate
The Grade II listed Bridewell was acquired by Fiona and Dominic Hornsby in 2019. “Pubs should be at the center of the communities they operate in, and we’ve tried really hard to do this,” says Fiona. As well as the Camra award, the pub was shortlisted in the Liverpool City Region Tourism Awards for Pub of the Year – which was won by their other pub, The Denbigh Castle.
It has cask, continental and craft beers. “We also try, for laughs, to find as many unknown ghosts for the bar as possible to add a little color,” Fiona says. There are wine, gin, beer tastings, quiz nights, TV sports – Fiona is an avid Evertonian, Dominic a St Helens rugby league fan, both love the gee gees – and afternoon talks by the likes of former league player Adrian Morley and, soon, Andy Gray. There is a nice enclosed patio and seating in Campbell Square.
Where to stay
The Lock & Key is located in a Georgian townhouse with 14 smart bedrooms, created in collaboration with designers House of Sloane. The period-style decor has contemporary touches and features botanical wallpaper, velvet headboards and, in some rooms, a drinks trolley. There is a great breakfast/brunch menu (full breakfast £8.50, granola £6); burgers, pizza and pasta served for dinner, and a cocktail bar.
Double from £85 room only, lockandkeyhotels.com