If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember what happened to our ill considered first effort at camper van ownership: the Citroen van discovered in a barn that ended up in Liverpool. Almost thirty years after that trip to see the van in its new guise, we turned up in Lark Lane again last week.
We drove through Sefton Park, a Grade One listed park, at one time part of the 2,300-acre Royal Deer Park of Toxteth. There aren’t any deer around the place these days, but the Liverpool 8 district encompassing Toxteth, the epicentre of serious rioting 40 years ago is now rather genteel. Yes, that’s a relative term, but I read last week that Toxteth has seen the biggest surge in house prices this year in the whole of England. We’re both long term fans of Georgian terraced houses and Toxteth is awash with them, so it’s no great surprise.
Sefton Park has a lake, several statues, all the flora and fauna you’d expect to find in a long-established inner city park, but it’s the magnificent Palm House that’s the main attraction and that’s graced Sefton Park since 1896. During World War 2, Liverpool was the most heavily bombed area outside of London, my grandparents’ house being just one of the many that were reduced to rubble, and one particular raid shattered all the glass within the Palm House. Repairs were eventually made, but the work was evidently carried out by ‘cowboy builders’ as every pane of glass fell out again within a few years. The ‘wrong sort of putty,’ apparently.
The last time we were here the Palm House was a virtual ruin, but following a lengthy campaign it was restored to its former splendour and it now looks magnificent. Sadly, we didn’t go inside so couldn’t check if the palm tree I remember looking a tad sickly last time I visited was still there, but I asked around in Lark Lane and the famous palm tree is apparently flourishing once more.
Moving on, we parked in Ivanhoe Road, right next to our intended destination and where the jazz singer and all round odd bod George Melly was born and spent his entire early life. I was a big George Melly fan, both as a charismatic live performer and as an erudite and extremely opinionated film critic. We walked up and down Ivanhoe Road, not a blue plaque in sight. Disappointing.
We were obliged to walk into Lark Lane itself as there’s a one way system in place now; a Covid related scheme intended to keep us all safe. The locals aren’t big fans. The owner of one of the shops I remembered very well, an antique shop with the wonderful name ‘Remains to be Seen,’ had appropriated a great many of the hideously inappropriate traffic cones and displayed them in his shop front under the caption ‘a load of bollards.’ Good man, we thought.
We wandered around. Meandered may be a better description. We loved the eclectic mix of shops and the almost uniquely cosmopolitan nature of our fellow browsers. Places we remembered and places that have sprung up in more recent times. Lark Lane is rather like the Portobello Road in miniature, not as upmarket as Totnes, it has its own niche among our favourite places.
Haile Selassie the Emperor of Ethiopia, lived in exile on Waverley road just off Lark Lane during World War 2. My Uncle Joe, a merchant seaman on the convoy ships during the war, while on shore leave came across The Emperor on several occasions, always accompanied by a retinue of bodyguards.
The Albert is still around, one of the legendary pubs of Liverpool and still ensconced firmly in ‘boozer’ category. The day The Albert offers champagne and canapés to its clientele we will know we have entered a parallel universe. Thirsty matelots from the Merchant Navy long since adopted The Albert as their local when in port and it still retains that rough and ready ambience. For those wanting more, Lark Lane by night is transformed with crowds thronging the street and the scores of bars and restaurants all doing good business. We’re here in the daytime and it’s very different, yet just as interesting.
Our former favourite café has long since disappeared, a serious blow, but we were not exactly short of options. While Marigold attempted to decipher a shopkeeper’s ripe Scouse accent, failing dismally while understanding only one word in ten, I broke a solid rule and took a look at an upstairs café. They’re steep stairs too, very far removed from anything I would normally contemplate, but one glance inside was enough.
I nipped back to Marigold, do a quick translation and allow her to buy a pair of wacky earrings.*
*Marigold only ever wears wacky earrings. She doesn’t do ‘normal’ which makes us both very happy.
‘Brilliant,’ Marigold said as we walked up the stairs to The Third Café. Yes, that’s exactly the word. Walls covered in artwork, picture and posters illogically grouped, and no sense of conformity whatsoever, the owner has definitely nailed the elusive art of presenting the venue. When something ‘just works’ it’s such a joy.
There’s seating, unmatched obviously, on the first and second floors and the food on offer just blew us away. Okay, it’s vegetarian/vegan, hardly a prerequisite for us, but once again, we were reminded of the skill involved in attaining excellence like this in a deliberately haphazard manner.
After spending an inordinately long time looking at the choices on offer, we both chose very similar dishes. This just does not happen. Ever. We order different dishes, then we swap half way through. It’s our system. I should add we don’t do this ‘in company,’ only when it’s just us. Two bowls of salad, with bread and a few side dishes, may not sound much, but this was a great breakfast.
Mozzarella and Halloumi cheese, baby tomatoes and the sun-dried version as well with basil and crunchy soda bread along with a real treat, Rose harissa. We know all about harissa, a spicy sauce from Tunisia which can be very fiery indeed, but rose harissa contains both rose water and dried rose petals which takes away the bite of the chillies. We love it and just one tiny taste brought back so many memories of times in North Africa. In Algeria, we once tried a version of the harissa spice blend containing finely chopped apricots, but have never found that anywhere since. Marigold vowed to attempt to recreate it one day, it’s not happened yet.
We both wished we lived nearer, this would be our ‘local’ on a daily basis. We chatted to the owner, I think her name was Carol, after praising everything, including the superb soda bread. This is her third café, hence the name, and she’s transferred over to Lark Lane from Green Days, a café/restaurant situated on the other side of the Park.
I went upstairs and found two old men nursing cups of coffee in a corner.
‘You’re not thinking of coming up here, lad, are yer? Private club, this. Members only.’
Marigold would have apologised and darted back down the stairs, but I took a seat at a table opposite the speaker.
‘Worth a try,’ he said as they burst out laughing. ‘It’s worked up till now.’
They explained they were brothers and hiding out from ‘the tyranny of women,’ specifically their daughters who had planned to take them into the city centre to choose outfits for a wedding. I sympathised and vowed to keep their secret.
That ‘tyranny of women’ remark suggested a background completely at variance with face value as they were both unshaven, not in a well groomed sense, and wearing clothes that most people wouldn’t even wear to put the bins out at dead of night and so it proved. Both brothers had been doctors, in Rodney Street no less, widely regarded as Liverpool’s version of Harley Street.
Old men, far older than me so that means ancient, and happy to pass the time of day with strangers can be richly rewarding company and I was delighted to see Marigold arrive in the doorway. She loves a bit of ‘craic’ with eccentrics and these two qualified in every sense. Marigold got the full treatment, the very warmest of welcomes and I was relieved to see the tyranny of women reservations didn’t extend beyond their immediate family.
We talked about trams, the Pier Head, barrow boys, the Beatles, football, the Overhead Railway, the devastating effect of container ships on dock workers, Derek Hatton and the Militant Tendency era of local politics, all of which were familiar subjects to me and quite a few other subjects about which I knew nothing. Talking about the first arrival of C and A in the city one of the men was told by his mother that C and A stood for ‘caps and ‘ats.’ He insisted he believed this to be the case for the next five years.
Mainly, we just listened as the brothers were on a roll. ‘That was special,’ said Marigold as we walked back downstairs. Indeed it was. If you’re at all interested in the Social History of an area, locate a couple of garrulous old men in a pub or a café and just let them talk.
Outside it had started to rain. We ran over the road into yet another bar/café/restaurant, this time it was The Bookbinder, owned by the same man who runs Love and Rockets and Polidor, two Lark Lane venues best described as ‘lively’ by night. We’d already had breakfast over the road so this would be just a coffee stop until the rain eased off.
The place was pretty full, possibly because it was raining outside, but I suspect it’s always this busy as there were many ‘full English’ breakfasts being served and they did look inviting. A noisy table for six opposite us were causing Marigold’s brow to crease. ‘Can’t tell a word they’re saying,’ she whispered. Ah, is there a worse crime than a group of people speaking loudly in a restaurant, but other diners still unable to hear the conversation? I tried my best, my useless deaf ears flapping, but couldn’t work out what language was being spoken.
A passing waitress said she thought they were speaking Brazilian. We didn’t bother to tell her there’s no such language as they speak Portuguese in Brazil, but we’re familiar enough with Portuguese to rule that out.
Our experience with foreign tourists in England trying out our breakfast options is varied. Either they want the full works or they treat every single offering with deep suspicion. When we first lived in France, admittedly in a rural area of the Loire Valley, our French neighbours would rather starve than accept anything even vaguely suggestive of being ‘English food.’
In their houses we ate escargots, frogs’ legs, improbable meals created from the parts of animal the rest of the world regards as inedible, some of it fairly disgusting – gizzard, served ‘rare’ a case in point - but we ate it all and never refused anything. Just simple manners. Sadly, even a cup of tea, if it was English ‘builders tea’, was treated with great suspicion.
Things have obviously moved on and the next generation of ‘foreigners’ entering the U.K. seem far more willing to risk the food served up over here. I read a remarkable statement recently in the The Lonely Planet Guide to Britain – this is a direct quote - ‘tourists tend to enjoy traditional English breakfasts because they don’t eat such things at home. If they did, they would die.’*
*Yes, that really is an absolutely accurate quote, in an odd context.
Marigold spent a good half hour ‘chatting’ in Larks, a ‘sort of boutique,’ according tothe the young woman behind the counter. The chief subject of conversation appeared to be exotic ear rings, but as I had little to contribute, make that nothing at all, I wandered around for a while and on my return the ear ring topic had now moved on to big, dangly necklaces. Talk about a shared interest.
We left, eventually, Marigold now the owner of yet another pair of eye catching ear rings.
We couldn’t leave Lark Lane without asking about one of its most memorable residents. All I knew was there was no chance he was still alive. We were directed back to Remains to be Seen Antiques and immediately spotted a reference to Mojo above the door.
Mojo was unforgettable, but as I had already guessed was no longer with us. He was an Alsatian who visited just about every shop on the Lane and took up residence wherever the mood took him. He didn’t move much, in fact he slept most of the time, but once he had settled on a place to rest there was no shifting him. Mojo seemed indifferent to humans, not unfriendly just disinterested. All that mattered was getting his head down for a kip and humans would just have to put up with it if he chose to sleep across the entrance to a shop.
Which was invariably the case. I can vividly remember stepping over Mojo in the doorway of the Amorous Cat bookshop on more than one occasion. When he died the community raised money for a commemorative plaque honouring his residency in Lark Lane.
George Melly, Haile Selassie and Mojo, what an eclectic group of former residents. Lark Lane is a one off, just a short, narrow street in this most cosmopolitan of all British cities, yet it has a unique character. Liverpool evolves, as all cities do, to suit the times we live in, but almost everything I remember from my first ever visits to The Lane so many, many years ago is still the same. That Bohemian vibe I always associate with the 1960s, it’s still here. The characters who gravitate to such places, they’re still very much in evidence. It’s no time warp theme setting, this is a real place with real people, but there’s a cosy familiarity and a link with past times, that I found wonderfully comforting, living as we do in a world obsessed with change for its own sake.
We’re finally off on the road very soon, it’s imminent, so expect a resumption of our travel blog very soon after a very long intermission. No idea where we’re going, spontaneity is de rigueur.