Statues of four young men
Culture & tradition,  England

Roll up, roll up! A Magical Mystery Tour

What is the first thing you think of when I mention the city of Liverpool? There’s a good chance you answered, the Beatles. The ‘Fab Four’ all grew up here, and it was here that they met. Many of their songs feature the places of their childhood and teenage years, and have since become iconic tourist destinations.

The group came together in stages. John Lennon had formed a skiffle group, the Quarrymen, in 1957 with some of his schoolfriends. Paul McCartney met Lennon at one of their gigs at a local church fete and was invited to join the group after demonstrating his skill on a guitar; the story goes that Lennon was impressed by McCartney’s ability to tune the instrument! It was McCartney who introduced his friend George Harrison to Lennon. Harrison was younger than the others, so Lennon took some persuading before allowing him to join.

The earlier members of the Quarrymen drifted away; a bassist called Stuart Sutcliffe joined; and the new group went through several name changes before settling on the Beatles. At first they had no drummer, but when their first manager Allan Williams arranged a residency in Hamburg for the band, Pete Best was recruited for that role. He was later replaced by Ringo Starr (a somewhat controversial move) and Sutcliffe also left. The legendary ‘Fab Four’ were in place and ready to take on the world.

Of course there is much more to their story than that; but that will suffice for a brief intro to our Magical Mystery Tour of Liverpool. This is a bus tour organised by the current owners of the Cavern Club, the venue made famous by the Beatles. We’ll get back to the Cavern Club later, but our tour starts by the Albert Dock on Liverpool’s famous waterfront.

Large brightly painted tour bus
Magical Mystery Tour bus at Albert Dock

A Magical Mystery Tour

With only a couple of days in Liverpool we thought this would be a good way of getting to some of the sights associated with the Beatles in a short period of time. It takes in their childhood homes; some of the most famous places mentioned in their songs; and a variety of other locations with links to one or several of the band members. The downside was that we didn’t get to go inside any of the places visited; that will have to wait for a future visit to the city.

On the plus side our guide was excellent and recounted lots of Beatles anecdotes. And of course some of their songs were played as we drove around.

So let me take you to some of those main sites. But I’ll start with an apology; we only got off the bus in three locations, so many of my photos were shot through its windows, with varying degrees of success!

Ringo Starr’s childhood homes

We passed the end of the road where Ringo Starr was born, Madryn Street; and nearby Admiral Grove where he lived with his mother from the age of three until 1963. The latter was on the wrong side of the bus for me to take any photos but I did manage to grab one of Madryn Grove which was on our side. Incidentally, I recommend the left-hand side if you take this tour; we chose it purely by chance but it proved to be the better side on the whole, despite missing Admiral Grove. And I did snatch a shot of the Empress pub, where his mother used to work and which featured on the cover of his first solo album, Sentimental Journey.

Madryn Grove and the Empress pub

The people in the foreground of my photo were on a cycle tour of Beatles locations. We bumped into them again several times.

Penny Lane

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit

The first place where we stopped to get off the bus was on Penny Lane, immortalised in the song of the same name. We were able to take photos of the street signs there. I’d read that these were painted on to the walls because Beatles fans kept stealing the regular signposts; but in fact they were of the usual variety so maybe they’d recently been replaced.

Our bus then continued along the famous street, and I was able to grab a photo of the barber’s shop mentioned in the song.

Penny Lane

In Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he's had the pleasure to know
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello

Our guide pointed out the bus shelter ‘in the middle of a roundabout’ where Lennon and McCartney used to wait for the bus that would take them into the city centre and to their different colleges. The various suburban activities and sights they observed while standing here later made it into the song.

St Peter’s Church

Church tower seen over brick wall

This is where John and Paul met for the first time. John was playing with the Quarrymen at a summer fete, and after the gig Paul approached him. There are various accounts of the meeting which disagree on the details, probably because it wouldn’t have seemed at all significant at the time – just two teenage boys chatting about guitars at a church fete.

As our guide told it, Paul impressed John with his playing of a Little Richard song, and also because he could tune his guitar, something John couldn’t do at that point.   

Strawberry Field

Let me take you down
'Cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

This was the second point at which we could get off the bus for photos. This was previously the site of a Salvation Army children’s home where as a child John Lennon played in the grounds. Our guide explained that he used to be told off for playing on what was private property. He would always answer, ‘They can’t hang me for it’, hence the line in the song, ‘nothing to get hung about’.

Strawberry Field

The house and grounds are still owned by the Salvation Army and are currently home to a training centre for people with learning difficulties. This is definitely somewhere I’ll return to if we visit Liverpool again; they have a Lennon memorabilia exhibition with, as its star exhibit, the piano that he used to compose and record Imagine. It’s on loan from the estate of the late George Michael, so I hope it’s still here when I do get the chance to come back!

John Lennon’s childhood home

Unfortunately we were told by our guide that the Magical Mystery Tour bus is not permitted to stop outside Lennon’s childhood home; you can see the forceful notices outside number 249 next door! But we did slow down long enough for me to grab a couple of photos. Again, sitting on the left-hand of the bus side paid off.

Lennon’s childhood home

John lived here at 251 Menlove Avenue with his Aunt Mimi from the age of five. His mother used to visit regularly. It was outside this house that she was killed in 1958, run over on her way to the bus stop on the opposite side of the road.

The house was in private ownership until 2002, when Yoko Ono bought it and donated it to the National Trust so that it could be preserved. The trust offers tours that visit the inside of this house and Paul McCartney’s childhood home. But these get booked up well in advance even in ‘normal’ times. And with Covid restricting numbers it is even more difficult to get tickets; we had left it far too late.

There is a blue English Heritage plaque on the front of the house (hidden by the hedge in my photos) which states:

JOHN LENNON

1940–1980

Musician

and Songwriter

lived here

1945–1963

Paul McCartney’s childhood home

In contrast McCartney’s former home at 20 Forthlin Road has no blue plaque, as these are only issued once a person has been dead for twenty years; Paul is very much still alive. Presumably the thinking is that this period of time is needed to determine if the person’s fame has any longevity; but I have a feeling that in his case they don’t need to worry!

This was the third and final point at which we were able to get off the bus. This is the house where Paul lived from 1955 (when he was at secondary school) until he moved out some years after becoming famous. His mother died soon after they moved there so his father brought him and brother Mike up alone. Many early Beatles songs were written there by Paul and John.

Brick terrace house
Paul McCartney’s childhood home

If you have time it’s worth watching the episode of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke in which he visits this house with McCartney: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjvzCTqkBDQ. You get to see inside and hear Paul’s stories about his childhood and teenage years there, as well as his memories of writing songs with John in their early years together. The visit to the house starts 7.35 minutes into the programme. Our guide told us that it was a Magical Mystery Tour group who were there when the pair left. They got a huge surprise to see Paul outside his old home! He also told us that McCartney spent a long while chatting to people and signing autographs, much longer than was shown in the programme.

Another of our guide’s tales here involved a neighbour who, when the pavement was being replaced, saved several of the old paving stones from outside the McCartney home. He later broke them up and gave a piece to each of the regular tour guides as a souvenir; both McCartney and Lennon would have walked on those stones many times. I got the impression that unlike the residents of Menlove Avenue, those in Forthlin Road were proud of their association with the history of the Beatles and happy to see tourists here.

Just a bus stop

Large brightly painted tour bus
The ‘Day in the life’ bus stop near Paul McCartney’s childhood home

I took this photo of our tour bus parked at the top of Forthlin Road. This is where Paul would catch the bus to college, later immortalised in ‘A day in the life’:

Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke

Of course in those days you could smoke on buses but only upstairs.

The tour also passed the Art College where Lennon studied, although he apparently spent more time in the local pub, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms. Chris and I visited the pub later that day for a drink so I got a chance to take photos there.

Large pub room with ornate ceiling and dark wood walls
The Philharmonic Dining Rooms (taken later that day)

Nearby we saw the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, where Paul was a pupil. In the 1990s he acquired the building, with Mark Featherstone-Witty (founder of the Brit School in London). Together they established the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), a performing arts higher education institution.

Mathew Street and the Cavern Club

The tour ended near the famous Cavern Club, in Mathew Street. We walked along the street, taking photos of the statue of John Lennon and the Wall of Fame.

Street with bars and restaurants
Mathew Street

John Lennon and the Wall of Fame

The tour price had included entry to the club so of course we went in. From ground level upwards this is not the original building. That was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a ventilation shaft for a planned new underground railway loop. The railway was never built; and in the 1980s the cellars of the site, which had been filled in with rubble, were excavated as part of the redevelopment of this side of Mathew Street. Unfortunately it couldn’t be restored in its original form for structural reasons. So (according to our guide) the present-day club is an authentic copy in every detail except that it was turned through 90 degrees. Claims that is unauthentic or wrongly located are strongly refuted by the present-day owners, who say that it occupies 70% of its original site.

The Beatles played here 292 times! And many other famous acts also played here in their formative years, including Gerry and the Pacemakers; Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas; the Searchers; Cilla Black. Later The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Hollies, The Kinks, Elton John, Black Sabbath, Queen, The Who and John Lee Hooker also performed here.

We descended the stairs to find ourselves in a fairly simple but atmospheric space, its walls lined with display cabinets telling the club’s history. The stage was set up but empty; however in the next room we found a performance about to start. The club advertises almost continual music throughout the day, with an assortment of artists playing old Beatles songs (naturally) and other favourites. We were lucky that Covid restrictions had been lifted enough to allow these performances to resume. So we bought some beers and settled down to listen for a while. Incidentally, back in the Beatles’ era no alcohol was sold here, only soft drinks – not all changes are bad!

This was a pleasant way to round off what had been a very enjoyable tour. I highly recommended it if you find yourself in Liverpool and have any sort of interest in pop music history.

I visited Liverpool in 2021

40 Comments

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Good to hear from you Jo, and yes, Liverpool is definitely enhanced by the links to the Beatles, although I take Margaret’s point below about the forced or invented connections!

  • giacomoasinello

    As a life-long Beatles fan. I’d love to do that tour. I really enjoyed Carpool Karaoke and thought what a lovely man Paul McCartney was – I actually met James McCartney’s nanny when Paul was on tour here in Italy many years ago, and she confirmed that he is, indeed, a genuinely nice individual.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, any Beatles fan would enjoy this – or perhaps even more so the tour that Leighton did, linked in his comment below. I’ve always got the impression that Paul was genuine and down to earth, so good to have that confirmed 🙂

  • slfinnell

    Got to hear a group that imitates the Beatles at a local event. This group was put together by George Harrison’s sister they said. They sounded very close but you couldn’t get the looks right, especially up close. lol But the crowd sure enjoyed singing along 🙂 Nice post !!

  • Easymalc

    Another super post that has me thinking back in time. I was just 12 years old when I bought their first hit single in 1962 (Love me Do) and bought everything they ever produced on record until the time they split up. As you might expect, when I reached my 60th birthday in 2010 I spent it in Liverpool. As a special treat I had a personal taxi tour to the places you’ve just mentioned plus a personal visit to the Casbah which was the club The Beatles used before The Cavern. I even have a picture of myself with Rory Best (Pete Best’s brother). It was certainly a birthday to remember.

  • margaret21

    I love Liverpool, a city which is to me what Newcastle is to you. But though I’m very much Beatles Generation, is irritates me beyond measure that you can’t go anywhere or do anything touristy in town without someone, somewhere finding a Beatles connection, or inventing one. I’ve got to the point of turning round and going the other way when such a connection is mentioned. However, given that this is the entire point of this tour, I might be persuaded to make an exception!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I do know what you mean Margaret, but having grown up in the 60s the musical influences from Liverpool were the main thing I knew about the city. Well, that and the Liver Birds! As a child I really wanted to be old enough to live in a flat with another girl like they did 😆

      I think things like this tour and the museums are reasonable, but even in two days I did get a bit fed up of every shop selling Beatles this and Beatles that!

  • salsaworldtraveler

    I need to see more of England. London and Bath (strangely enough) are it. Your post has made Liverpool and a Beatles tour a must. It is interesting that childhood memories seem to have played such a major role in their songwriting. Perhaps the loss of moms at an early age for John and Paul are part of that and the fact that they came from the same place and shared many experiences. Wonderful post! John

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m not sure that having visited Bath is so odd – it’s one of my favourite English cities 🙂 But yes, there is much more to the country than that, and it certainly isn’t typical of our cities!

      I think you’re right about the impact of both losing their mothers on John and Paul, and certainly it seems to have been a bond between them. They came from rather different backgrounds and went to different schools but that along with their shared love of music must have drawn them together. Liverpool is one of those cites which the locals are passionate about and feel strong ties to, which maybe also explains why the locations feature in so many of their songs?

  • I. J. Khanewala

    Enjoyed this pilgrimage. I would have thought that walking is more to my taste. But I’m not a Beatles otaku, so the stories told by the bus driver would be very welcome

  • sustainabilitea

    Despite the fact that I’m not a huge Beatles fan, I enjoyed your post a lot. I remember seeing them on TV for the first time in the US on the Ed Sullivan show (just accidentally) and my parents and grandparents exclaiming at how long their hair was…and that was their short hair days! 🙂 I’ve always liked that Ringo Starr became part of Thomas the Tank Engine.

    janet

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Janet 🙂 I don’t think you have to be a huge Beatles fan to enjoy this (I wouldn’t classify myself as such), just have an interest in pop music and some memories of that era perhaps. Yes, the fashions that the older generation used to be horrified by seem very tame in comparison with those that came later, don’t they?!

  • leightontravels

    Well this is an article after my own heart if ever there was one. I enjoyed reading your experience of a bus tour I’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t experienced first hand. I did a very similar tour with a man called Ian Doyle, who offers a variety of ‘Mad Day Out’ experiences in his custom designed taxi Dear Prudence. There is huge amount of competition (from Ian’s side at least ha ha) between himself and the Magical Mystery Bus Tour, so thought you might be interested to read my review. I think whatever tour you take, getting to see Liverpool’s Beatles spots is an unforgettable experience. https://leightontravels.com/category/mad-day-out-beatles-taxi-tour-part-i/

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’ll check that post out for sure – I must have missed it when reading some of your other Liverpool ones, which partly inspired our own trip! But that taxi tour didn’t seem to be an option when we were there – maybe not operating under Covid restrictions or maybe (though I hope not) gone out of business as a result of the pandemic?

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Ah, maybe I missed him somehow in my research, or we went just too soon to catch him. Another time perhaps – I much prefer a private tour 🙂 Although with numbers restricted on the bus, ours was probably a pleasanter experience than it would normally be. I think there were only about 15 of us on a bus designed to hold 50!

  • Nancy Gordon

    If I ever get to Liverpool a Magical Mystery Tour would be a must. You did a great job with pictures from your side of the bus. Sometimes Jeff and I sit in opposite sides of the bus instead of next to each together so we can pictures from both sides 🙂 I saw the wonderful James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke in which he visits this house with McCartney. I think it’s wonderful how Paul spent time to chat with fans there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Nancy 🙂 That’s a good idea to sit on separate sides of the bus, but Chris is rarely as fussed about getting photos as I am – he prefers to wait until he’s outside and can compose shots properly, even if that means he doesn’t get all the sights.

      If you’ve seen that Carpool Karaoke you’ll also have seen Paul playing an impromptu gig in the pub I mentioned, the Philharmonic 😀

  • Marie Nicholson

    And another thing (not many people know this – as Michael Caine might say), if you ever find yourself in Bremerhaven there’s a statue there to Elvis as this was the first European place he set foot when he arrived in Germany as a serviceman of the USA.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Well I certainly didn’t know that, so maybe Michael Caine had a point! Interesting bit of trivia from me – when we visited Hoi An last year we slept in the same bedroom he stayed in while filming The Quiet American there 😀

  • Marie Nicholson

    Great to read this as a friend and I are thinking of a 4-day trip to Liverpool to see the city in general, cross the Mersey, and do a Beatles Tour. You’ve given me a nice intro to it and a warning of what I won’t see if we do the Magical Mystery Tour which, in all other respects, sounds just right. I’ve just got to get my head around travelling again and feeling safe away from comfortable surroundings!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you found this useful Marie 🙂 I certainly recommend this tour, it was probably my favourite of the various things we did in the city. I’ll no doubt be posting about some of the others in due course. I was disappointed with the Mersey Ferries cruise (I would suggest just getting the regular ferry across, as the commentary didn’t add much to the experience and nor did the extra time on the water) but otherwise we had a great time!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    I recently read another blog about a similar tour but one you do in a “special” taxi rather than a bus. Both sound like a great way to explore Beatles history. We’re pretty much decided that if circumstances bring about another UK tour for us then Liverpool will definitely be included.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We certainly enjoyed our stay there and there’s plenty to do – not all of it Beatles-related! We didn’t come across a taxi tour (maybe not operating at the moment?) but there is a cycling one and also one in a minibus booked through the National Trust which takes you inside the Lennon and McCartney homes. We left it too late to book that but I would do it if we ever go back!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I seemed to remember reading about that in your blog at the time you posted it, so I just checked back and yes, I did 🙂 It’s something to bear in mind should I ever be there – thanks Don!

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