Driving up Princes Road on a recent visit, my parents couldn’t help but marvel at the number of churches that we passed by. Regardless of whether or not religion is your cup of tea, it’s just one indicator of how many factors contribute to the bigger picture of Liverpool, a portrait that’s painted with dashes of different ideologies and attitudes. However, there is one religious structure that dwarfs every sight in the city centre, and it’s not either of the cathedrals. Coming down Hardman Street, it’s impossible not to notice St. Luke’s, more popularly known as the BOMBED OUT CHURCH, sticking out like a bruised and beaten thumb; a landmark, meeting place and symbol of defiance that refuses to crumble completely.
As a central hub in the war effort, Liverpool was the most bombed location in Britain outside London during the Second World War; just after midnight on 6th May 1941, an incendiary device delivered a devastating and gutting blow to St. Luke’s Church, nearly razing it to the ground. Deemed unsuitable for use, the derelict building was left dormant for half a century, given up to the elements. That was until Ambrose Reynolds and Urban Strawberry Lunch stepped in back in 2003.
Starting with a yearly event to commemorate the building’s destruction, Urban Strawberry Lunch became artists in residence and licence holders of the council-owned property, putting on an extraordinary calendar of events, which continues to this day: the average week at St. Luke’s can feature a rock concert, a Catholic mass, a yoga class and physical theatre. All the while Ambrose has been working towards the upkeep of the church, stabilising it as a community hub and a memorial to the destruction caused during the Second World War. But all this could be for nothing. News came through in March that a bid had been tabled by property developers Signature Living, with plans to transform the building into a hotel and wedding venue. After initial uproar, and a supportive gesture from Yoko Ono, the noise around these plans seemed to die down, with Mayor Joe Anderson declaring that he wouldn’t sell the church “for flat or houses”.
Following on from Urban Strawberry Lunch’s liquidation in April, St. Luke’s looked like it had suffered a further blow in June when it transpired that the church had had its live music licence drastically changed, to the point where the possibility of amplified music being played there was looking distinctly unlikely. Officially this is due to noise complaints, but Ambrose remains sceptical. “This bloke from the council came in and he was quite adamant that we weren’t allowed any more amplified music. But he was very ambiguous about it – they didn’t give any details of who had made the complaints, and what about.” A spokesperson for Liverpool City Council clarified to us that they “have advised the licence holders of the difficulties and potential consequences of staging live music events at St Luke’s, given that it is open to the elements and has the potential to cause noise nuisances,” but that “any decision not to stage live music events at St Luke’s lies entirely with the licence holder, who has to consider whether a statutory noise nuisance is likely to be caused.” The council also clarified that “the main issue relating to live music at the church is that when similar events took place in 2013 we received a number of noise complaints from residents living in the immediate locality that the music was too loud and occurred at times when people wanted to sleep.”
For a venue where live music and performance forms a large part of its programme, and especially with two large events, Liverpool Calling and Freeze’s Summer Sessions, booked in for July, this could present a pretty big stumbling block. “Usually, people come to me first,” Ambrose explains. “One time, a woman called me up because she couldn’t hear Coronation Street, so I turned it down a bit and the problem was solved.”
Ashley True, who has hosted several events in the Church as part of KYC Management, is even more insistent about its importance as a live music venue. “I reckon about 60% of our crowds come because it’s in the Bombed Out Church. The atmosphere is like nothing else. We always flyer the neighbourhood before a show; usually we have to contact the Environmental Health Agency… a lot goes into it, and it’s not like it’s all the time.”
Being able to see and hear what is going on from outside is key to the Church’s strategy in attracting punters, offering a sample before you enter. What’s more, St. Luke’s lies at a busy traffic junction in the heart of the city centre, where things are supposed to be bustling, vibrant and noisy. With the licence compromised – or at least under a lot of scrutiny – not only does the city lose a unique gigging space, but other events, such as the outdoor cinema, are potentially at risk. Ambrose heaves a sigh as he ponders the situation, but it’s not the lament of one about to bite the bullet, rather one who is doing his best to work within the situation. “Freeze have sold hundreds of tickets and they’re close to selling out, so the council haven’t done it by the book. It really is a blow to us as the big live events bring us in so much revenue.”
It’s admirable that, instead of backing down, Ambrose is working within the council’s parameters. The team plan to utilise the courtyard’s acoustics to make it the city’s premier unplugged music venue, which would bring the overall programme in line with the quieter, more meditative sessions that the Bombed Out Church also offers. They also plan to expand the number of workshops the Church puts on as part of a new conservation trust initiative in partnership with the council, dedicated to expanding people’s skillsets and training-up apprentices. They have enough ideas to fill the rafters, all in line with maintaining the building’s original structure – though the roof certainly won’t be returning under their plans.
To continue their work, a Crowdfunder campaign has been set up with an £18,000 target. That isn’t much in the grand scheme of things when you consider how this will be used to secure St. Luke’s as it currently operates. Half the money will be put towards repairs and maintenance, while the rest will be used to continue and expand the current activities within the Church. “It will work alongside the conservation trust we’re setting up with the council,” Ambrose explains. “We’ll be able to train people to use and maintain the space, so they can hand their skills on.” Furthermore, their aim is to set themselves up as a community interest company that gradually becomes self-sufficient and no longer needs the support of the council for the upkeep and maintenance of the building.
Though keeping hold of the Church is sure to be an uphill struggle, Ambrose and his team have a strong base of public support: so far over 27,000 people have signed a ‘Save The Bombed Out Church’ e-petition, with Yoko One even taking to Twitter to show her support. It is hard to emphasise just how much St. Luke’s is imprinted on the city’s consciousness. Silent Sleep’s Chris McIntosh, who wrote his track Meet Me On The Steps Of The Bombed Out Church during a homesick episode in Berlin, was also keen to do his bit when he heard that the venue was under threat. In May he posted an idea online to film a video for his song in St. Luke’s, with the aim of showing it off as a great community space in the middle of a heaving city. The response he got was overwhelming, with hundreds cramming in on the day of the shoot, representing a cavalry of woodland creatures. “I’d been thinking about doing it for ages, and I was in the studio when I heard the news and it seemed the right time to do it,” McIntosh recalls. “Ambrose has done so much for it. He’s turned it from a shell of a building into a place where cool things happen.”
McIntosh also hopes the video can do its bit in raising awareness about the cause. “It’s part of the city’s DNA,” he reasons. “I think it only hits you when people from outside the city ask you what it is. Initially you’re like ‘Oh, it’s the Bombed Out Church’ and you shrug it off, but the more you say it the more you realise it actually means something. We can combine the music video with the Crowdfunder campaign to contextualise it, so people understand the need to raise money so Ambrose can keep hold of the Church.”
Ambrose remains remarkably positive about delivering the next stage of developing St. Luke’s, as the team work on dovetailing the Crowdfunder campaign with their new blueprint for running the Church as a CIC and keeping it as an open space in the city centre for people to drop in and create. “We’ve got some great incentives lined up for the campaign,” enthuses Ambrose. “We’re going to get our guy who does aerial photography to shoot each of the gargoyle’s faces, and you can have a photo which you can proudly show off as your own gargoyle.”
Despite the liquidation of Urban Strawberry Lunch, Ambrose and his team maintain a strong sense of direction that underlines their determination to preserve the Church. St. Luke’s remains rooted in the city’s fabric – the stained glass hosts Liverpool’s oldest Liver Bird – and it is hard to imagine walking up Bold Street and not seeing it as it currently stands. “You can have a million hotels in Liverpool,” Ambrose reflects, “but there’s only one Bombed Out Church.”
The power now lies with us. If we want our city centre to be a vibrant, creative, open and noisy hub, then we need to make sure that St. Luke’s stay open and accessible to all. Against all odds it has remained standing against a number of assaults: with our help it can withstand this one too.