Western Approaches surprise ascent to highest-rated museum in Liverpool

World War Two Bunker now open 7 days after ‘incredible’ nine months since reopening…

Travel review website TripAdvisor published updated rankings this week, with Western Approaches, the secret wartime bunker under the streets of Liverpool leapfrogging the World Museum, Museum of Liverpool and the Maritime Museum as the highest-ranking museum in the city region. Indeed, whilst it sits at number 2 in the museum list, it is topped only by the Walker Art Gallery which has been categorised as both gallery and museum by the website.

Western Approaches was the nerve-centre of the Battle of the Atlantic during World War Two, playing a role as important as the Cabinet War Rooms in London or code-breaking centre Bletchley Park in the fight against Hitler’s Germany. The bunker sprawls over 30,000 square feet under Exchange Flags, was built in secret just before the outbreak of war, and at its height housed close to 400 mostly young women who managed the movement of hundreds of merchant ships that carried supplies into the UK via Liverpool during the war. After the war, the site was sealed up, only to be rediscovered and reopened as an attraction in the early 1990s.

Despite being nationally important, it fell into neglect until last year when a change of ownership saw the operation taken over by Big Heritage. The Chester-based non-profit organisation have a strong track record in engaging communities with history and heritage across the North West, and since reopening in October last year, visits to the site has ‘sky rocketed’ with the newly reinvigorated attraction winning plaudits from visitors, heritage experts and even World War Two veterans who have visited.

A Yearning for something real?

Dean Paton, founder and Managing Director of Big Heritage has built the reputation of the company around creating ‘maverick’ heritage projects, ranging from Pokémon GO history events through to sending teams of Plague Doctors out at night to stalk the historic streets of Chester. This time however, Dean credits an ‘old school’ approach for the success of Western Approaches.

When visitors enter, they are greeted by a building that has remained largely untouched since wartime, and there is a real sense of timelessness experienced by guests. There are a few important video and audio clips shown, but these are kept to rooms that were not important during the war, so do little to detract from the sense that time has stood still in this complex of rooms and passageways deep under the heart of Exchange Flags.

Dean said, “It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been, but there is a strange and almost assuring sense of place about Western Approaches – it’s as if the history of the building has been trapped within the concrete and steel, and many visitors describe having an emotional connection in the place. Our team felt this too, so took a decision to keep computers, touch screens and technology out of the building, keeping the interpretation to a minimum and let the building tell its own story – or rather the story of the mostly women (and some men) who worked here during the war.”

The results have vindicated this approach, with visitor numbers higher than ever recorded and TripAdvisor, the world’s largest Travel Review site ranking it #2 museum in the city region, out ranking all the area’s national museums, and beaten to the #1 slot only by the Walker Art Gallery. TV historian Dan Snow visited recently, describing the vast Operations Room as “breath-taking” and “a national treasure.”

Dean credits his Front of House team as being the key to the TripAdvisor rankings – “Whilst our team are exceedingly knowledgeable, we recruited people who were friendly and warm first and foremost.  Its not hard to train people to learn the history of a building, but it’s much harder to train someone to naturally make visitors feel valued and welcome, be that a 5-year-old or a 95-year-old. All of our staff glow with enthusiasm for the place, and we know from feedback that this rubs off on our guests.”

So what’s next for Western Approaches?

The site has now started opening seven days a week for the first time ever, and plans are in place to develop the experience further. Large parts of the site remain inaccessible to the public, with several rooms still sealed since the end of the war. Without any government or local authority funding, it remains a massive challenge for the Big Heritage team to continue to operate the site, but they are hoping to raise the money to open more of these areas in 2019 and share even more of the story of one of Liverpool’s best kept secrets.