Roll up for the mystery tour

6th February 1998 at 00:00
The Fab Four, cathedral splendours, microscopic marvels. . . Gillian Thomas on the beat in Liverpool

Put the flea of your choice under a microscope and see it magnified on a television screen. Learn how to identify smugglers. Watch historic film of Beatlemania. Find out what fate awaited African slaves and how priceless manuscripts are preserved.

The city that facilitated mass emigration and later gave the world the Beatles offers an unexpectedly diverse choice of topics for investigation for a school visit.

A climb to the top of its huge Anglican Liverpool Cathedral provides the best introduction for first-time visitors. It was completed after the Second World War, like the nearby Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

It is immediately clear how important the River Mersey is to the city's geography and history. The massive brick warehouses of the Albert Dock - the largest group of Grade 1 listed buildings in Britain - were erected in the 1840s, and converted in the 1980s to a modern shopping and entertainment centre.

Nearby is the quayside where the great transatlantic liners once moored. Beyond, miles of old docks lead to the modern container port, which now handles more cargo, though with a fraction of the manpower.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum, part of the Albert Dock, has evocative galleries dedicated to ships, slavery, emigration, smuggling and the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. Schools can take part in role-play sessions and demonstrations, but as there is so much to see visits are probably best confined to one of the specific subjects available.

The top-secret control centre from which the wartime convoys were controlled, hidden deep under a nearby office block, has been restored to its Forties condition. Now the Western Approaches Museum, it gives a vivid impression of the dangers the ships faced.

A trip with Mersey Ferries will take in the massive docks and cross the mile-wide river. There's no better way to see and appreciate the role the Mersey has played in Liverpool's development.

The Tate Gallery's modern art collection in Liverpool - reopening in May after refurbishment and extension work - occupies another part of the Albert Dock. Schools can arrange for small parties to work there with an artist.

Also at the Dock is the Museum of Liverpool Life, which is devoted to everything from the television soap opera Brookside to the Grand National, including politics, housing and industries such as car production and printing (visitors have the chance to operate a hand press).

The Conservation Centre is a relatively new arrival in Liverpool. The only museum of its kind in Europe, it shows how experts preserve and restore objects such as paintings, manuscripts and furniture and also shows their study of the insects that can inflict so much damage.

Though the exhibition area is small, its relevance to history, science and technology is obvious. Schools can arrange for small groups (of over-sevens) to go behind the scenes to see the conservationists at work.

In an era when information can be flashed on a screen at the touch of a button, a visit to Liverpool's Central Library will surely kindle an awareness of the wonder of books. Tours cover the technique of cataloguing and include a visit to the circular Picton Reading Room, where 15,000 rare volumes are kept.

Across the Mersey on the Wirral, the industrialist and philanthropist Viscount Leverhulme created Port Sunlight, a "model" - in the sense of "ideal" - village for his soap factory workers. Its Heritage Centre explains the origins of the village, revealing that the houses were based on the architectural styles of the countries of Leverhulme's major markets, particularly The Netherlands and Germany. But the village had no pub because the Viscount strongly disapproved of alcohol.

The Lady Lever Gallery contains Viscount Leverhulme's remarkable collection of art, furniture and Wedgwood china. Many of the paintings were bought by Leverhulme because they were useful for reproducing in soap advertisements.

Also on the Wirral are Ness Botanic Gardens, part of Liverpool University. There are mapped-out trails for young children, who are allowed to handle the plants and do pond dipping as well as look behind the scenes. The weather station and tropical and desert glass houses are open to teachers.

You don't need to be a Liverpool football supporter to enjoy a visit to the football club's new museum at Anfield stadium. You will learn as much about the crowds and how their lives have changed over the years as about the club and its players. Highlights include the chance to try and score a goal and direct television coverage of a match.

A Grand National Visitor Centre is due to open in the summer in the new stand now being built at Aintree. Its highlight will be a "virtual reality" jockey ride round the course. Visitors will also be taken into the winner's enclosure and jockeys' changing rooms.

Liverpool now does its most famous sons proud, even if Beatle tourism was originally sparked off by the arrival of Japanese tourists in search of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. Fans can take a Magical Mystery Tour bus around the "fab four's" old haunts - where they were born, lived, went to school, performed and the places they used as inspiration for lyrics.

The Beatles Story Exhibition in cellars in Albert Dock does it in a nutshell. There are artefacts, photographs, models and original film footage to see and, of course, recordings to hear. It is an entertaining and informative portrayal of a unique period of social history.

A further page in the Beatles story will open later this year. The National Trust recently bought its first council house - the Fifties terrace house where Paul McCartney grew up - and is now refurnishing the house the way it was when McCartney was a boy. Groups will be taken there by bus from the National Trust's nearby Speke Hall at Garston.

Merseyside Tourism Bureau: 0151 709 3631

Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican): 0151 709 6271

Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King (Catholic): 0151 709 9222

Merseyside Maritime Museum: 0151 478 4441

Western Approaches Mersey Ferries: 0151 630 1030

Museum: 0151 227 2008

Tate Gallery Liverpool: 0151 709 3223

Museum of Liverpool Life: 0151 478 4080

The Conservation Centre: 0151 478 4999

Central Library: 0151 225 5459

Port Sunlight Heritage Centre: 0151 644 6466

Lady Lever Gallery: 0151 645 3623

Ness Botanic Gardens: 0151 353 0123

Liverpool Football Club Museum: 0151 260 6677

Grand National Visitor Centre: 0151 523 2600

Magical Mystery Tour: 0151 709 3285

The Beatles Story Exhibition: 0151 709 1963

Speke Hall: 0151 427 7231

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