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.
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 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.
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
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.
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’.
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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