“Oh my God, how did you get that?” I ask one of the guys about to gently shove me off the edge of the Anglican Cathedral. He has what looks like a zip running up the side of the ankle. Given that he’s one of the staff helping people freefall abseil down the cathedral’s West Doors, my mind is flitting through the exotic possibilities.
“He fell out of his van,” says another.
I am somewhat relieved to hear this, but the news also makes me aware that any amount of height can be dangerous if you approach it incorrectly. “Falling isn’t dangerous,” said a chap on the ground, cheerfully. “It’s landing that’s the problem.” Indeed.
As I wait to go out onto the roof I peer over the side of a gantry at what is the top side of the West Doors’ vaulted arch that houses the western entrance. It’s maybe 20 feet below, but in my heightened sensitivity to the perceived dangers all around me, this relatively short height is worrying. I’m also pondering whether I would go through the top and continue my freefall to the ground a hundred yards below in a rather less elegant way, should the gantry give way.
None of these things are likely to happen, but my subconscious is having a whale of a time winding me up. I concentrate instead on looking out at the phenomenal views across the city centre, up to the North end and far beyond. It’s a day of beautiful, bright sunshine and I’d estimate that you can see a good 50 miles to the Pennines, Blackpool, Cheshire and Snowdonia.
The geography of Liverpool always startles me when I’m high up. It never seems to tally with my mental map of streets I have walked for 15 years; the higgeldy-piggeldy nature of the city’s landmarks more like a 3D lego map than the Liverpool I can see in my mind’s eye.
Out to the extreme left I can make out the black waves of North Wales mountains. A little further around Birkenhead and the very edge of the Wirral, Fort Perch Rock. At 11 o’clock the sunlight is glancing on the slowly whirring blades of the windmills out near Crosby. Straight ahead I can see down Hope Street to the Metropolitan Cathedral and the back-to-front Royal (supposedly built the wrong way round due to an architectural error). Out in the distance are the weird between-spaces that connect Liverpool to Southport and Preston. Further around I can just about make out Anfield and Goodison – and then the incredible art deco magnificence of the Littlewoods Pools building.
Another 150 feet up, at the top of the Cathedral and probably the highest point in Liverpool, and the 360-degree panorama is startling. I make a mental note to get to the roof for one of the Twilight Tower nights, when the roof of the cathedral is accessible until 10pm.
I decide to attempt to calm Carol, who I’m descending alongside and with whom I climbed the 224 steps, as a kind of displacement activity. Carol is raising money for Help for Heroes – everyone has their own personal charity. But before I think of anything to say as a final word of encouragement, Carol has gone. She didn’t need any reassurance at all and is currently dangling 200 feet above the ground. That means that it’s my turn any second.
I concentrate on the view again and spot what looks like a neo-classical building out beyond Bootle. I can’t quite make it out without my glasses – left safely downstairs – and can’t identify it. But it gives me something to think about. And something, apart from the ground, to look at.
When it’s my turn I climb a short stepladder, and quickly strapped up to two different ropes. One will be lowered down as I go and prevent me falling to my doom – and a lurid Echo headline – should something go wrong. The second is the rope I’ll be feeding through my hands as I descend. And before I know it I’m being told to sit back in my harness and let go of the small gate that separates me from solidity.
“Hang on,” I want to say. “Now? Are you sure? Are these ropes definitely right? Just sit back, now? I’m not ready…”. But I know it’s time and I sit back and gently guide myself away from the sandy stone of the cathedral. And then nothing. Like any such experience, it ceases being frightening the second it’s actually happening. Below, people genuinely look like ants on the ground, shielding their eyes to look upwards at my backside gently descending towards them.
I could have stayed up there for half an hour, but there are dozens more people waiting their turn. All are raising money for charity and all have paid a registration fee. One lady says she spent some of her redundancy money on the abseil so she had something to look forward to. She certainly won’t forget it.
With about 30 feet to go I feel like I could release myself in the harness, the height seems so comparably short, like James May saying he nearly got out of a Bugatti Veyron at 70mph, having driven it at 260mph; the motorway speed seemed like barely a crawl in comparison.
As I reach the ground I get a polite round of applause from the gathered spectators; a nice gesture that everyone completing the freefall received. Like every exciting experience I want to do it again, but make do with a mooch around the cathedral buildings. I’ve been up to the roof, down to the St James’ Gardens and strolled around the building, but I never feel like I’m doing Liverpool Cathedral justice.
Events here range from opera to musical theatre to organ recitals to club nights to original exhibitions, including the Liverpool 2012 photo competition. There are two cafes with food from boutique caterers Couture. The two cathedrals are always at the heart of Light Nights and city events.
And the sheer wonder of the building – a building, lest we forget, that might be the biggest Anglican cathedral in the world – is startling. Bizarrely, it’s easy to forget how significant our cathedrals are – despite their hulking sizes. Whenever visitors come to Liverpool I always send them to the cathedrals; but I rarely seem to be there myself. Innovative events like the abseil leave me determined to make more use these wonderful spaces more frequently – and hope others do, even if they don’t go to the trouble of jumping off the roof.
A registration fee of £35 and a minimum £120 for the Cathedral Foundation, which helps keep the Cathedral free to visitors and supports its work in the community, are required to take part in the freefall abseil.