Ropewalks and Chinatown

Penelope, Wolstenholme Square Liverpool for creative tourist

Jorge Pardo’s Penelope, Wolstenholme Square, installed during Liverpool Biennial 2002; for Creative Tourist

Your travel guide to the Ropewalks and Liverpool Chinatown

Occupying the narrow run of streets between Argyle Street and Renshaw Street is a part of Liverpool that combines old and new: the Ropewalks. Once crowded with warehouses and merchants’ houses (and later, slums), this area was built for the city’s seafaring trade. Consider its long, straight streets. They were actual “rope walks”, used to weave rope for sale to ships docked in port.

So when Liverpool’s maritime fortunes faltered, the Ropewalks stumbled too. By the 1970s the place was largely derelict. Since then, however, it has reinvented itself as the city’s “independent quarter” (including the “ropewalks” re-brand). Today it is the natural home of indie shops and bars, while the mish-mash of historic streets and renovated warehouses, creative cafes and music venues makes it one of Liverpool’s best districts to explore.

At its heart is Bold Street. Once the retail destination of choice for Liverpool’s well-heeled, Bold Street is bookended by the Lyceum and St Luke’s Church. The Lyceum opened as a subscription library (said to be the oldest in Europe), but now lies mournfully empty. Thankfully, there are more successful remnants of Bold Street’s grand retail past. The Cripps Building, for example, is a mid-19th century shop with an elegant glass frontage. It is currently a branch of Waterstone’s.

First-time visitors to Bold Street may notice a few too many empty shops and dubious bars than befits its “Bond Street of the North” history. Concert Square, for example, is a public square that, in the early 2000s, was the place to head to for a stylish night out. Now, a glut of chain bars including Walkabout and Yates’s mar its late-night appeal. Head instead to the excellent Shipping Forecast on nearby Slater Street.

Roughly halfway up the hill is Reconciliation, a sculpture by Stephen Broadbent that serves as a reminder of the slave trade. From here on in, things take a turn for the better. We particularly recommend both Bold Street branches of home-grown interiors store Utility and the family-run art supplies shop, Rennies. Long-standing radical bookshop News from Nowhere occupies its own five-storey building towards the top of the hill while Bold Street Coffee is the hangout of choice for any self-respecting Scouse hipster (good for specialist coffees and exhibitions). Close by, independent teashop and bar LEAF offers victuals and must-see events. If you have time, try The Italian Club is small, traditional and spot-on for a relaxed bite to eat.

Vintage lovers can also secure their second-hand fix around these parts: try the enormous Oxfam outlet or pop along to The Music Consortium’s Vinyl Emporium – a specialist record shop with coffee and occasional events. On Renshaw Street, 69a sells everything from  dusty 1970s ceramics to pre-war telephones. Looking for culture? Head to FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology. Home to the city’s arthouse cinema and purveyor of interesting (if patchy) digital art exhibitions, it also houses a ground-floor café and first floor bar.

Walking the warren of streets that lead away from Bold Street takes you to more independent shops, particularly along Slater Street. There are clubs and drinking dens a-plenty, from the opulence of Alma de Cuba, a spectacularly- restored 224-year-old church, to the indie cool of arts café and bar, Mello Mello. And there are traditional pubs-gone-gastro, such as the excellent Monro on Duke Street, and pubs-with-a-past, including former clink, the Liverpool One Bridewell. Opened in 1861 as police cells and offices, it was here that Charles Dickens enlisted as a special constable (part of the author’s investigations into Victorian working class life).

A small cut-through off Duke Street (known as Tunnage Square but really just a good-looking alleyway) leads to Wolstenholme Square. The home of Cream, which made the city’s clubbing name in the 1990s, the square is dominated by Jorge Pardo’s colourful sculpture, Penelope, installed here as part of the Liverpool Biennial in 2002. Until late 2012, this was also the home of Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS); live music venue the Kazimier remains open and a remains a reason for visiting. Tunnage Square is also a good place to sniff out street art (including that by emerging artist Tomo), although the Ropewalks itself arguably serves as a large-scale canvas, from the officially-sanctioned wall art created for Liverpool Biennial to the unofficial graffiti by Banksy.

Liverpool’s trading past may be little in evidence on today’s streets but its long-standing international links are obvious thanks to monuments such as the Chinese Arch. Decorated with 200 Chinese dragons, it marks the beginning of Europe’s oldest Chinatown and is the focus of the Chinese New Year celebrations along Nelson Street. Opposite is The Black-E, a 19th century former church which is now a community arts centre.

Back along Berry Street and at the top of Bold Street is St Luke’s, AKA the “bombed out church”. Liverpool was vital to the British war effort due to both port and location. The Germans targeted it mercilessly – Liverpool was the most heavily bombed city outside London during WWII – and the bomb that dropped on St Luke’s in 1941, completely destroying its roof and interior, was one of many. Today, the neo-Gothic shell of St Luke’s provides an atmospheric environment for occasional plein air arts and film events. It’s a strangely appealing setting. Bold Street runs down the hill, traffic roars past and, while it’s not remotely peaceful, there’s something to be said for sitting on the steps of St Luke’s and watching the city reinvent itself.

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