Sunday, March 15, 2009


We went to Liverpool this weekend to see Maggie and Michael. We met them when they came to Richmond two years ago as part of a committee called the Triangle of Hope. Although we weren't sure exactly where the work of the committee was going, we liked them and wanted to pay them a visit. So off we went on the train through the west countryside through Birmingham to Liverpool .

The great thing about visiting Maggie and Michael where they live is that they had so much to show us and were able to help us understand the meaning of the places in their context. The experience was infinitely richer for this. Maggie's knowledge and involvement in the life of the church in Liverpool, both in her own parish church and in the life of the Cathedral meant that we benefited from her perspective on many things. This ranged from the deeply telling and close relationship between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishops and Cathedrals to the whimsical - knowledge of the particularly ornate bathroom facilities of a pub along the way.

Ducking into the symphony hall, an art deco structure on Hope Street as we made our way from one cathedral to the other gave me an opportunity to talk to Michael, Maggie's husband and an architect, about building in Liverpool. This widened to include the fact that Liverpool is full of sculpture and art in unexpected places. The example, a pile of stone suitcases and guitar cases invited us to sit on one of the scattered pieces of "luggage" was right across the street. On the evening before we were driving down the freeway at night as our car passed underneath an arch of sparkling blue lights fitted to an overhanging stainless steel sculpture. What one would mistake at a glance for a man walking down the sidewalk on the Liverpool docks turns out to be a bronze statue, a tromp l'oiele set against the wide and turbulent Mercy river on one side and the blocks of grand imperial architecture of the merchant city that once dwarfed London on the other.

Liverpool Cathedral could be considered a topographic feature of the landscape. Having almost the highest point in Liverpool at its top, the reddish sandstone structure creates its own weather. The wind picks up around the base of the cathedral on a normal day but today, the first sunny day we've had in a long time, the wind was gusting heavily, capping the waves on the Mercy with white foam and making me feel insecure walking up a staircase. After walking through the shadow of the great building for a few minutes we finally gained the great doorway. We retreated out of the gusts into the huge but surprisingly warm space of the cathedral. The wind was put out of mind for awhile while we had lunch and climbed around the multiple levels of the Narthex. Thanks to Maggie's connections and her magic key we were given a special tour of the Cathedral tower. We made some of the 8 plus floor trip using an elevator, but much of the climb was made by climbing winding narrow staircases. As we climbed higher and higher , the wind became the dominant feature again, the sound dwarfing even the huge carillon near the top of the tower.

At first we entered the bell ringers' gallery, an industrial looking space strung together by steel girders with a large wooden stage shaped like a doughnut built in the middle. The ropes for the heavy bells hung down in order around the circle. One rope hung unobtrusively from the center, looped up out of reach. I learned that rope belonged to "Big George," the 14 ton bell rung only on special occasions and never rung in a peal. I also learned that Liverpool Cathedral's ringers currently hold the record for the longest Peal. (4 and a half or 5 hours I think I heard)

Climbing further up the tower, we heard the shrill of the wind whistling through the pierced stone walls of the bell tower. As we entered, we saw the carillon filling the floor space of the tower, but the dim space above it receded like outer space. In what appeared to be the far distance, a staircase zigzagged up the inside wall of the tower to the top. As we walked around and up, the tower itself sang with the wind and I couldn't help imagining what it would sound like with the addition of the bells. It struck me that the sound generated by the bells might actually be stressful to the masonry of the building. This turned out to be true -the sound had shaken some small bits of the masonry loose last year.

I thought that was a great image. The sound of bells, of music, of joy or mourning was more powerful than stone, brick and steel. Transient sounds like the peal of bells seem more alive than the permanent shell of the great building, yet the bells like the people, need it to contain and shelter them and give them a home.

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