"Don't eat your breakfast on the balcony," said the scouse waitress, "or the seagulls will steal your food." I was on top of a very unusual hotel in the heart of Liverpool that goes by the unimpressive name of 30 James Street (but the hotel's subtitle is intriguing: "Home of the Titanic.")
Liverpool is the only British city I would like to live in (I'm currently based in Bucharest, on the other side of Europe) but I struggle to explain to sceptical outsiders what's so amazing about the place. Ken Pye, a local historian, says "Liverpool has an outstanding history and is a dynamic, creative world-class city that is currently undergoing a major renaissance."
I first came to Liverpool in 1982, to study history and politics at the university. Back then the city seemed more run-down than anywhere I'd seen before and it hadn't recovered from the collapse of colonial trading (Liverpool was once the shipping hub of the British Empire). In 1981 it experienced three days of rioting in the Toxteth district and respectable Brits avoided the city.
There was a windswept, abandoned, desolate feel to the place but I revelled in the atmosphere and the raucous humour. The central area around Pier Head had grand, imperial buildings built on colonial profits but were in rack and ruin. The Albert Dock had been empty for years and the population was in constant decline.
Liverpool is Rising
Liverpool is rising from the ashes. The grand old buildings around the Pier Head have been renovated and almost a billion pounds was sunk into Liverpool One, an open-air shopping mall that is built on a network of ancient streets. Huge events take place there (the biggest catwalk ever held took place on Saturday 4th of July) and the nightlife is wicked.
Part of this renaissance is an unassuming scouse builder called Lawrence Ken Wright, the man who renovated the hotel I was having breakfast in, a building that was once the head office of the White Star Line (the company that owned the Titanic) and had lain empty for over 30 years. The building is an important part of Liverpool's heritage and narrowly escaped the wrecker's ball.
As the seagulls swirled overhead, the waitress told me the story of this beautiful stone and brick building on Liverpool's Pier Head: Mr and Mrs Wright started out by renting out one apartment to groups having hen parties; they expanded, acquired 12 apartments and now they have foreign investors who are impressed with their flair and project management skills.
I wanted to meet Mr Wright but the waitress got sheepish and obviously didn't know how to arrange it. But she sent me to speak to the marketing manager, a chap from Wigan called Lee Hill, who was working in another historic building that is being renovated into the world's first football-themed hotel (the "Bill Shankly Hotel"). I went to his office, we got chatting and he introduced me to a young man in jeans who, it turned out, was Lawrence Ken Wright.
Saving Liverpool's Heritage
"I only want to get involved in buildings that need to be saved," said Mr Wright, "only London has more listed buildings than Liverpool. You can pick them up for nothing from the Liverpool council but most developers just sit on them and wait for a grant. But the days of the grant are over. It's a scandal they're not being developed, and when you consider that you don't have to pay rates on listed buildings it doesn't make any sense."
When he told me about the renovation of 30 James Street ("Home of the Titanic") I understood there is something very different about Mr Lawrence Ken Wright: a builder who comes in under budget! I have never even heard of such a thing. The budget for renovating 30 James Street was £7.5 million but they managed to do it for just £3.2 million.
How was this possible? I asked. "Simple," he replied, "we have a team of hardworking scouse builders, we keep the design and project management in-house and we finish ahead of schedule." I can think of a lot of builders and project managers who could learn something from this guy.
His concept of hotels is quite different from anything I have come across before. The rooms are soundproofed, huge and full of massive beds and sofas. You can get up to ten people in a room and the idea is to cater for big groups - weddings are a speciality. Connected to the underground spa is a luxury dormitory for 30 people.
William Ken Wright is a man to watch and his impressive "Home of the Titanic" hotel is on my list of "must see" locations in Liverpool, England's most interesting city. I might even risk having breakfast with the seagulls.