After 6 weeks exploring ancient ruins, the Silk Road, civil wars and the economic consequences of the USSR’s collapse, I was in need of something a little lighter. A chance conversation with fellow tourists on my architectural walking tour of Beirut extolling the virtues of their home town, Liverpool, England, and its promise of a Magical Mystery Tour, a ferry crossing the Mersey and a museum devoted to British music convinced me it would be a perfect antidote to all the heavy history I had just encountered.
A quick 2 hour train ride from London deposited me at Liverpool’s Lime Station, beside the heart of downtown. My hotel was just a 5 minute walk away. Nearby were pubs galore, all filled with youngsters preparing for the Liverpool versus Manchester United football match, pedestrian walkways with restaurants from all nations, typical global stores and shopping malls, both indoor and out. Just 15 minutes away were the revitalized Albert Docks, famous for its maritime heritage. I’ll get back to that later, but this trip was about music and right outside the Mersey Ferry Building was not the expected statue of Gerry and the Pacemakers, but one of the Fab Four, aka The Beatles:
I signed up for one of a number of Magical Mystery Tours, on a bus painted like the album cover. Me and about 30 others climbed aboard. To the beat of Magical Mystery Tour, our guide gave a brief introduction to the city and The Beatles and off we drove, past the house where Ringo Starr was born, his elementary school and the pub his mother used to sing at, before stopping at Penny Lane:
With the music of Penny Lane playing over the speaker, our guide explained that the stores and people in the song were not really about Penny Lane (…Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs….) since it was mostly residential, but about its intersection with Smithdown Road, where the bus with the destination “Penny Lane” turned around and where John Lennon and RIngo Starr probably spent hours walking, just not together, as they didn’t meet until they were in their 20’s.
From there we drove past George Harrison’s birth house, a non-descript 2 bedroom, 4 room house with a toilet out back, to John Lennon’s childhood house at #12 Arnold Grove, before stopping at Strawberry Fields. It’s a green space currently used to provide training to disadvantaged youths, funded in part by John Lennon’s estate.
Paul McCartney’s childhood house has been taken over by the National Trust and tours are offered, as they are at John Lennon’s house. Both apparently are decorated like they would have been in the late 50’s, with the exception of a lot of The Beatle’s memorabilia. McCartney’s house especially is rich as Paul and John composed many of their future hits there. We drove past other buildings significant to The Beatles; the place where Lennon had gone to art school, the church where McCartney had been rejected in his attempt to be a choirboy, some girlfriends’ working places, manager Brian Epstein’s house, the street where John and his Quarryman band had played, all the while listening to The Beatles tunes and the guide filling us in on details of their lives.
We ended at The Cavern Club, on Matthew Street. The street is devoted to The Beatles and shops named Rubber Soul and Sargent Peppers line the alley. Strange statues of The Beatles appear along the way:
A statue of Eleanor Rigby is nearby. She was a scullery maid who died long before The Beatles were born, but her grave is close to where McCartney first met Lennon and her tombstone the inspiration for the song:
After The Beatles played in Hamburg, they returned to Liverpool and performed at the Cavern Club 292 times between 1961 and 1963. The original Cavern Club was demolished, but the current one is a reproduction using the original bricks and blueprints, located just a few hundred feet from where it once stood. Today, it has hourly acts paying homage not only to The Beatles, but other notable bands who played there including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Queen, Elton John and Eric Clapton. On the 2 occasions I visited, the audience was mostly baby boomers, humming along to golden oldies from their youth:
Although there are a few museums devoted to The Beatles, I decided to take a ferry, cross the Mersey River, in honour of the song popularized by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The ferry operates largely for the tourists , playing the song and with a commentator giving history of the area, the river and the ferry. Today, most people drive though the tunnels but the ferry offers a good view of Liverpool’s waterfront, including its most famous buildings known as the Three Graces:
The British Music Experience is a new museum, tracing British music from the mid-1950’s to the present. Every half hour, a hologram performs on the centre stage – this is Boy George from Culture Club singing Karma Chameleon:
I spent an enjoyable 2 hours walking though the exhibits and listening to the music, hearing everybody from Cliff Richard to The Sex Pistols to Amy Winehouse. The museum is interesting insofar as it tried to tie popular music culture to political and economic events – apparently Grunge rock was a reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s politics- which I didn’t always agree with, but I appreciated the attempt to integrate music into the wider environment.
Liverpool offers a lot more than just music. On a walking tour, the guide explained Liverpool got its city Charter originally from King John, of Magna Carta fame, who founded it as a port to launch attacks on Ireland. The newly constructed (2008) Liverpool Museum traces the history of the city, with an emphasis on life in the 1800’s in the tenements or courtyard houses. Nearby is the Maritime and Slavery Museum exhibiting Liverpool’s contribution to both. It was the main stop on the shipping triangle: loading cheap goods on ships to send to Africa, where the ships were loaded with slaves bound for the Americas before returning to Liverpool laden with sugar and cotton.
Liverpool was the first port to use a wet dock, making it one of the most important ports in Europe. In addition to earning huge amounts from slavery, it exported alcohol and passengers, and had a healthy ship construction industry. Container ships and airline freight popularized in the 1970’s sounded the death knell for the docks but ironically, its current rebirth is due to the sea; it has become a popular stop for cruise ships.
Architecturally, the city is used by the film industry as it can serve as anywhere: Moscow in The Hunt for Red October, Peaky Blinders, Captain America (New York) and Jack Ryan (New York) to name a few. There’s the standard British traditional and modern cathedrals, modern museums, and my favourites, fabulous ventilation shafts that resemble a miniature CN tower and the best in Art Deco:
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Liverpool. Much of it was spent humming favourite songs, reliving my teenage years when I had idolized Elton John and bragged about seeing Led Zeppelin, along with 500,000 others, at Knebworth field. I was pleasantly surprised how cheap it was, especially compared to London, the museums were good and the time I spent at the Cavern Club listening to music was a nice walk down memory lane.
Next: Cruising the Atlantic