Come fly with me – the brave new world of Liverpool’s flyovers

Liverpool’s changing cityscape over the decades is captured in several collections of photographs from the Archives Centre at the Maritime Museum. One series of images from the Keith Lewis collection shows the construction of the Churchill Way flyovers in the late 1960s, which became a familiar sight in the city centre for almost half a century. Robin Brown reflects on the aspirations and reality for these monumental structures.

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The demolition of the Churchill Way flyovers in 2019 brought down the curtain on an incredible plan of regeneration for Liverpool. What went wrong - and will we ever learn to love brutalism?

What happens when part of our everyday city changes seemingly overnight? Liverpool has had more than a few opportunities to ponder this question in the last few years, but perhaps none better than the rapid sequence of events that saw the 240 metre Churchill Way flyovers that connected Lime Street to Dale Street and Tithebarn Street condemned and demolished. It wasn’t just cars the interchange catered for: a mini maze of interlocking elevated footbridges – complete with underfloor heating to avoid icing over in the winter months – running under the flyovers allowed for pedestrian access, spiralling up from street level to straddle the A59. I visited them shortly before they were demolished and found a network of chilly, scrubby walkways – and a 1971 award from the Concrete Society. It remained an intriguing part of Liverpool and the last throwback to a plan of astonishing ambition. In concrete.

Concrete plaque on column supporting flyover with text: Concrete Society Award 1971
Concrete Society Award on the flyover © Pete Carr

As with much brutalist architecture, their passing was mourned by a few but the overriding view tends to be one of pragmatism, a shrug of the shoulders. There’s something else, though: the widespread view that architecture that uses concrete (the term brutalism hails from 'beton brut' – raw concrete in French, rather than a comment on its uncompromising style) is, in and of itself, unpleasant, ugly, depressing.

It was not always thus – new programmes such as the one that conceived the flyovers were once thought of as brave, futuristic, certainly utilitarian but also born of optimism. Towns and cities that were built up in the Georgian or Victorian eras, or through the great interwar dash for new housing (together they account for a vast majority of Liverpool’s vernacular) had not accounted for the explosion in popularity of the motor car, whose likely growth was likened to an emergency in 1963 by the then-government transport advisor Colin Buchanan in his pivotal report Traffic in Towns. Many urban areas in Britain were still stricken by Second World War bomb damage and the popular view was that ‘slum’ clearances were necessary to make way for progress. The need to prevent congestion from traffic and provide pedestrians with safe areas for negotiating the reimagined towns and cities of the future required bold thinking. 

elevated concrete roadway on round columns under construction, with museum building in background
Churchill Way flyover under construction, from the Keith Lewis collection, Archives Centre, reference D/KPL/P/B/67


In Liverpool - as with many other cities - that meant significant changes. Main shopping thoroughfares such as Church Street and Lord Street were pedestrianised, a new ‘Liverpool Inner Motorway’ (much as Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle have), which would have been elevated high above the ground running over or under buildings, would mean the flyovers would allow access from Lime Street to Dale Street unencumbered by the queues to the Queensway Tunnel. 

Two miles of ‘walkways in the sky’ - like those at Churchill Way - would separate out shoppers from the huge volumes of traffic chugging through the city centre and mean easy access to new buildings, such as St John’s Market, the Sandcastle on Old Hall Street and Moorfields (ever wonder why you have to go up to the first floor in order to access the underground train platforms at this station?). As recently as the noughties you could see elements of this extraordinary notion: footbridges and walkways on The Strand (the vestiges of which can still be traced at Beetham Plaza and the route through to Derby Square).

elevated concrete roadway on round columns under construction, with museum building in background
Churchill Way flyover under construction, from the Keith Lewis collection, Archives Centre, reference D/KPL/P/B/66


The idea was that the Churchill Way flyovers would allow drivers to bypass the queues of traffic that would logjam around the approaches to the Queensway tunnel, however the opening of the Kingsway Tunnel in 1971 meant that the flyovers became partly redundant almost as soon as they had opened. The abandonment of the Inner Motorway and the plan to extend the M62 deep into the city centre ensured that the flyovers would remain as curios – follies even. Google Street View images show the flyovers, walkways virtually deserted over the last two decades. 

Not all masterplans end up looking like good ideas. With the benefit of hindsight the plans that brought the flyovers and elevated walkways into fruition appear thuggish, car-centric and locked into a mindset for town planning that would quickly look outdated. Moreover, programmes that resulted in flyovers and similar large schemes could cut communities in two and lead to artificial no-go zones for pedestrians, cyclists and subsequent development. The Inner Motorway would have gouged miles of the city centre out to make way for vast, elevated skyways within a couple of hundred yards of Lime Street and both cathedrals. 

step and a ramp leading to elevated concrete walkway and road, raised on round concrete columns
The flyover and walkways in 2016, © Pete Carr

Still the flyovers have their own significance. A campaign to turn them into something akin to New York’s High Line attracted a lot of attention and revealed a surprising fondness for the flyovers. Liverpool City Council called their removal “the most complex highways engineering scheme in the UK”. The area surrounding St George’s Hall, Lime Street and the Queensway Tunnel approach is being rethought once again. History repeats itself. 

The flyovers and walkways were built partly out of fear for what cities might become under the thrall of the motor car - and attempt to navigate a route away from a fearful vision of perpetual gridlock. But conversely they were also part of a positive vision of how cities could serve people, not traffic; how man could bend his world to a kind of utopia through architecture. 

elevated concrete roadway on round columns, descending to street level in Liverpool city centre
Churchill Way flyover from the Keith Lewis collection, Archives Centre, reference D/KPL/P/B/75

Keith Lewis’ stunning images capture something of this brave new world, the gleaming white flyovers curving sensuously through the blackened Victorian architecture and angular roads. It brings to mind the visions of what the future looked like in the early to mid 20th century: clean, bold, new buildings and ways to travel that would lead the way to a brighter tomorrow; a time when brutalism was beautiful. 

Lead image: Churchill Way flyover from the Keith Lewis collection, Archives Centre, reference D/KPL/P/B/76