Immortalised in song by the 1960s British Invasion band Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool’s famous River Mersey ferry service is a popular visitor attraction in the North West of England. Now, however, the boat ride is only part of the experience. Although Liverpool has enjoyed a tourist industry for many years – thanks in some part to the legacy of The Beatles – the towns of Birkenhead and Seacombe, across the Mersey on the Wirral peninsula, offer less appeal to outsiders. Merseytravel, the public body that operates Mersey Ferries, therefore needed something to occupy passengers on the other side, before they boarded the boat back to the ‘Pool.
By Owen Ralph 21 October 2009
Spaceport opened in 2002 at Seacombe Terminal and was the first part of a so-called tourism triangle, created by Mersey Ferries and completed this summer with the opening of the U-Boat Story at Woodside Terminal in Birkenhead, and an extension of The Beatles Story at Liverpool’s Pier Head.
But why a space-based attraction on the Wirral? “Just down the road from us is the Astrophysics department of Liverpool John Moores University, ” explains Spaceport manager and Merseytravel representative Ken Moss. “They wanted to open a visitor centre, and we had some space that needed using next to Seacombe Terminal. It just made sense, and as we are a some distance away from the National Space Centre in Leicester, there was no competition.” This summer Spaceport unveiled Alien Wars, a walk-through attraction for seekers of extraterrestrial thrills, plus One Small Step, an exhibition celebrating 40 years since the first lunar landings. These complement the facility’s existing interactive exhibits, motion theatre and Planetarium Show.
Further along the promenade in Birkenhead, the U-Boat Story has proved a hit since it opened at Woodside Terminal in February. The attraction dissects into quarters one of only four remaining German World War II submarines and allows guests a glimpse inside through glass walls at each end.
The vessel, U-534, was sunk in 1945 while en-route to Norway, and raised from the seabed in 1993. After several years with the Historic Warships Museum at Birkenhead, it was acquired by Merseytravel in 2007, whose chief executive Neil Scales adopted the U-Boat Story as his pet project. Aimed originally at the “grey market, ” this simple yet well-executed attraction has proved to have a wide reach. “We’re getting visitors from all over the world, ” says Scales. “The U-boat seems to be capturing the imagination of all ages.” Many of them, one imagines, will be young boys. Indeed, Moss confirms that school groups are an important market for all of Merseytravel’s attractions.
Back in Liverpool
Many of The Beatles’ original fans now fall into the “grey” demographic, but the group’s music enjoys enduring appeal. When I visited The Beatles Story this summer, the pre-teen crowd enjoying the Fab4D attraction seemed word perfect on nearly all the songs played.
Produced by Red Star 3D, Fab4D is the anchor attraction of the new Beatles Story annexe at the Pier Head, just a 10-minute walk from the original outlet at the Albert Dock. The film plays inside a 40-seat 4D theatre (provided by Simworx) and brings to life several of the Beatles’ best-known songs with 3D visuals and special effects including fruit scent (Strawberry Fields) and water and bubbles (Yellow Submarine). Fab4D merchandise is available inside the Fab4Store, which appears on the top floor of the Pier Head Terminal alongside a new Beatles exhibition space.
The new Pier Head Terminal building (below), which opened in May, takes Merseytravel’s investment in the Mersey Ferries business over the last 10 years to around £60 million ($98m). As well as River Explorer and new terminal-based attractions, Mersey Ferries also derives revenue from its summer cruises along the Manchester Ship Canal, which entertained more than 20, 000 passengers last year, plus parties and private bookings.
There has been a ferry service linking Liverpool and the Wirral for over 500 years, but many journeys defected to road and rail after the opening of tunnels beneath the River Mersey (the most recent completed in 1971). Until the ‘70s, ferries also served the resort town of New Brighton, but its decline, and the tunnels, eventually killed the route off. Ever since, the ferries themselves have been the attraction.
Today, passengers can admire Liverpool’s World Heritage waterfront and the (mostly abandoned) shipyards of the Wirral during up to nine daily 50-minute “River Explorer” cruises, plus a direct commuter service between Liverpool and Birkenhead. Originating from the 1960s, the three distinctive boats used, Royal Daffodil, Royal Snowdrop and Iris, were refurbished at the start of the century.
“We are legally obliged to provide a ferry service for the community, ” highlights Moss, “but now with the completion of the tourism triangle, Mersey Ferries provides a full day experience.”
Local families can take advantage of the “Big Mersey Adventure” (www.thebigmerseyadventure.co.uk) annual pass which allows two adults and up to three children unlimited use of the U-Boat Story, Beatles Story, Spaceport and the River Cruise for £99. Since its year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, Liverpool city has placed renewed emphasis on tourism, and the waterfront is home to an increasing array of attractions. The Albert Dock, for example, is already one of the UK’s most visited tourist venues, home not just to the Beatles Story but also the new BugWorld Experience, a branch of the Tate Gallery, International Slavery Museum, Maritime Museum, Yellow Duckmarine, Shiverpool Ghost Tours, bars and restaurants. Next door sits the Echo Arena and BT Convention Centre, across the road the £1 billion Liverpool ONE shopping development.
Set to open by the Pier Head in 2011 is the new Museum of Liverpool, whose 3XN-designed shell sits controversially in front of the city’s “Three Graces, ” the UNESCO-recognised trio of maritime buildings. There are also plans for high rise development on the other side of the water in what, if this were Manhattan, would be New Jersey.
Of course Liverpool is not New York, but it has a similar sense of self-belief, and as the skyline changes here and in Birkenhead, passengers on Mersey Ferries will continue to enjoy the best views.
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