Liverpool is famous for its comedy clubs and Scouse humour. We take an Astra BiTurbo there to find out if happiness walks the city.
As I arrive in Liverpool, our Astra Biturbo has just braved winter at its most miserable. But while the notion of discovering the meaning of happiness in this weather seems absurd, we’re willing to give it a go, with the help of the renown Scouse sense of humour.
The history of Liverpool has been full of ups and downs, and happiness – in whatever form you care to label it – has been transient at times. To drive alongside the Mersey is to experience, in the space of 10 short minutes, the changing fortunes of Liverpool’s relationship with the sea, and by the same token, take a retrospective look at the rise and fall of the British Empire.
Our transport for this journey of discovery is one of the most potent Astras in the current Vauxhall range: the 141mph Astra BiTurbo diesel, with 195PS and 400NM of torque, clothed in a subtly-enhanced five-door Astra body. The BiTurbo engine is a gem, using a small turbocharger for low rev response and a larger unit for all our power production higher up the rev range. The result is an engine that offers the best of both worlds, yet teams this remarkable performance with admirable fuel consumption – 55.4mpg is the combined figure claimed.
Albert Dock has been the epicentre of Liverpool’s regeneration: completed in 1846, it was the first enclosed, non-combustible dock system in the world – a trailblazer – but within 50 years it was obsolete, a victim of a rapidly-changing industry. The docks were sympathetically renovated as a leisure and residential location, opening fully in 1988. It’s where we base ourselves for the majority of the trip, in the shadow of the observational Wheel of Liverpool and with constantly-piped Beatles music drifting out of the ‘Beatles Story’ entrance.
Meanwhile Seaforth Dock, opened in 1972, is the main container port in Liverpool in the modern era. A steady stream of articulated lorries queues up outside here, in readiness to unload their cuboid cargo, while giant colourful stacks of containers line up in rows behind the fence like a child’s building blocks. The next stage of Liverpool’s history as a port is due to open this year: the new Liverpool2 will be able to handle 95% of the new Post-Panamax freighters (the largest container ships in the world), increasing the port’s capacity by over 100%. Once again, Liverpool’s relationship with the sea is on the up.
Liverpool is well known for its nightlife, but a wet, cold Tuesday evening doesn’t look too promising at first glance. The streets are quiet, many clubs are closed, but the comedy clubs in the city will do trade this week, with major stars and local acts appearing, and things will be in full swing by the weekend. We end up in the Cavern Club, arguably the spiritual home of the Beatles; or that is to say, the modern Cavern Club. The original, opened in 1957, closed in 1973, but the present club, just a few doors further up the street, occupies about 75% of the original site, albeit further underground and larger.
A Beatles tribute act is belting out the covers at punishing volume as we descend the multitude of steps deep underground, the club home to groups of locals on the beer and an assortment of tourists from around the world. For the tourists, the experience may well feel genuine – and most appear to be singing along and enjoying their pint of beer.
The next morning, we take a look around Liverpool’s city centre, and in particular, the Liverpool ONE shopping area that forms the centrepiece of the city’s vast retail offering. Having breezed past all the usual high-street names, we move onto the art galleries and museums that give the city centre such gravitas. We chat to people around the city, and disarmingly friendly they are, too: our impromptu V Magazine joke competition is won by two nurses with the gag: “What’s red and hurts your head? A brick.” (It helps if you deliver it in the correct Scouse accent…)
Later, we leave the endless first-second-first-gear shunting around the city for some enjoyable country roads inland from Crosby, further up the coast. The trip is a chance to revel in the extraordinary surge of performance that the BiTurbo engine delivers, especially given it’s a diesel, and the excellent refinement it possesses too. The sports chassis tune for the BiTurbo includes a 6mm lower ride height and the car stays notably flat and poised as the road becomes twisty across the fen-like roads, helped additionally by the UK-specific steering configuration unique to Astras in this home market.
“The trip is a chance to revel in the extraordinary surge of performance that the BiTurbo engine delivers”
Crosby Beach is a long expanse of sand facing the North Sea. From the moment I set foot it, I’m rueing leaving my woolly hat back at our hotel: the wind is laugh-out-loud cold, but the sunlight and freshness of the scene certainly makes you feel alive. Given these circumstances, it’s all the more bizarre that the sculpture that marks the end of our journey involves nudity. I mean, on a day like today, you’d be turning blue within seconds, and then bits might simply drop off…
Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’ is the kind of large-scale sculpture installation that leaves you aghast and contemplative for minutes on end. It seems simple enough in theory, but to see the naked cast-iron figures – taken from a mould of the artist himself and numbering 100 – stretching out at seemingly random points as far as the eye can see, conjures mixed feelings inside: a sense of freedom tinged with melancholy is about the best I can summarise it as.
We all take different things from art such as this, but for me it’s making a point about being closer to nature. Can we only find true happiness by being at one with the natural elements and creatures around us? It’s a popular belief, but given that happiness is a completely personal experience, I’ll leave that question to you to answer.
With a final glance out to an inhospitable ocean, the photographer and I nearly break into a sprint, so keen are we to reach the sanctuary of the Astra and close the doors behind us with a ‘whump’.
For me, the right car is a very important part of my inner happiness: try the Astra BiTurbo and you might discover some on-road happiness of your own.