“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes. There beneath the blue suburban skies.” It hits me. You can’t argue about the cultural significance of The Beatles, but it’s not like I’ve ever been a true fan of the Fab Four. But on the corner of Penny Lane, with the words of the infamous song ringing in my head, I have a moment. I’m standing where Paul McCartney and John Lennon used to meet up to take the bus into Liverpool town as young guys, to talk music and strum guitars. It feels like a pretty significant historic sight. And just when I think the moment is over and it can’t get much better than that, our guide Phil says, “hop back on the bus, we’re going to Strawberry Field”. Forever please!
I’m on a magical mystery tour through The Beatles haunts of Liverpool, in England’s north with Trafalgar as part of their Best of Britain guided holiday. They’ve lined up local expert, Phil, a bonafide friend of Paul McCartney and a pretty decent John Cleese lookalike [confirmed after my group make him do a ‘silly walk’ Monty Python style]. Phil’s job is to give us the insider experience, and you can’t get any more ‘inside’ than hearing about all the times Phil and Paul have hung out together around Liverpool. This guy is the real deal.
We start at the imposing Liverpool Cathedral. The slightly overachieving 22-year-old architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, won a competition back in 1903 to design a new cathedral for Liverpool. The building was a work in progress through two world wars and many historical moments until completion in 1978. It’s now a seamless blend of old and new – with contemporary art and sculpture, like notable English artist Tracy Emin’s prominent pink fluorescent light installation that says ‘I felt you and I knew you loved me’ in her own handwriting, through to a 15th century wood statue of the Kneeling Madonna by Giovanni Della Robbia. But why is this on The Beatles tour? Phil points out that way back in the fifties, Paul tried out for the prestigious cathedral choir and was rejected. Wonder where that choirmaster is now?
Right near the Cathedral is the Liverpool College of Art campus on Hope Street, where John Lennon was a student in the late fifties. Phil shares that Paul and Yoko Ono have since become ardent supporters of the college, donating millions and that he was lucky enough to go to the opening of a new building as a guest of Paul’s. Phil definitely gets by with a little help from his friends!
Next up is Penny Lane, were Phil pumps the song through the bus speakers. Besides having my ‘moment’ there, I also get totally swept up and have my photo taken with the sign, and enjoy little walk down the lane, singing. The song really comes to life as I see where the bustop, the barbershop and the bank were.
I always thought the song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was about Strawberry Fields in New York, having not grown up with The Beatles, so I’m surprised when Phil announces the next stop, Strawberry Field (no ‘s’) to see the ornate red gate and field. We drive down a small country lane, covered with a pretty avenue of trees and the song comes over the speakers. When John was young, he lived with his Aunt Mimi nearby on Menlove Avenue, now a National Trust property and our next stop, and used to enjoy picnics at Strawberry Field. When he was older, he would grab his mates and hang out in the field. Even though it’s named Strawberry Field, John would always call it Strawberry Fields with an s, hence the song became Strawberry Fields Forever.
After driving past a few obscenely big mansions owned by local Liverpool football stars, we come back down to earth as we pull into Forthlin Road to see the childhood home of Paul. It’s an unassuming street lined with grey government housing. But as I approach the house, which is now also a National Trust building like John’s home, it’s hard not to imagine a young Paul hosting the other Beatles in the garage as they get their sound ironed out. Feeling another moment coming on, I look to the end of the street and see a beautiful rainbow arcing across the low, grey sky and realise the magnitude of the spot I’m standing. The National Trust believe (and market!) this property as the birthplace of The Beatles, and it’s significance isn’t lost on me, particularly with the support act of the rainbow!
The final, and much anticipated stop, of Phil’s insider tour is having a beer at The Cavern Club. The Trafalgar bus takes us on the journey where Paul and John would meet at the end of Penny Lane and travel all the way into Liverpool city to perform at The Cavern, in their early days. Ringo Starr was the first Beatle to perform here, playing drums in 1957 with the Eddie Clayton Skiffle group. Phil shares that skiffle is a style of folk music with a rock’n’roll influence, normally played on cheap guitars and utensils found lying around a kitchen.
John invited Paul to play at The Cavern with his skiffle band, The Quarry Men, in 1958. It wasn’t until 1960 that The Beatles in their first form (with Pete Best on drums, not Ringo) played the club, followed by the first time as the foursome of John, Paul, George and Ringo, in 1962.
As we take the spiral staircase down what feels like five floors underground, you can imagine the excitement that would have built with each performance The Beatles did here before being released to the world. All up they performed 292 times here, alongside other Liverpudlian bands like Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Merseybeats, The Searchers and Cilla Black, cementing The Cavern as the place to experience music in this city.
These days the club still has live music every day. The day Phil takes us we are lucky enough to see a young threesome playing Beatles tunes, which sounds cheesy, but is actually the perfect ending to the tour – visualising the low roofed, brick walled cave as it would have been back in the day as the Fab Four carved out what was to be one of the most significant music careers in history.
You can learn more about John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono at her new exhibition War is Over (if you want it!) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The exhibition runs until 23 February, 2014. Visit www.mca.com.au for more information.
Trafalgar have a number of guided holidays that include Phil’s insider tour, such as the Best of Britain (from $2725pp). For more information visit www.trafalgar.com/aus
Accommodation: Liverpool Marriott Hotel in the heart of the city served as the perfect base for walking Liverpool.
Getting there: Virgin Trains run hourly from London to Liverpool, for extra comfort book a first class ticket which includes a light lunch.
I travelled as a guest of Trafalgar and this piece was originally published on Total Travel, you can read it here.