Liverpool: A trip down Penny Lane

By Sheriden Rhodes

Sheriden Rhodes has a pilgrimage to Liverpool to find the Beatles – and her dad

Beatles tribute band outside The Cavern Club, Liverpool. Photo / Supplied
Beatles tribute band outside The Cavern Club, Liverpool. Photo / Supplied

Many travellers come to the 800-year old port city of Liverpool on a Beatles pilgrimage.

They want to see where John and George met, where they first played at Woolton Hall, gawk at the working-class houses they grew up in and stand at the gates of Strawberry Fields. I admit, when my guide's car turns down Penny Lane, the catchy ballad blaring from the stereo, it's a magical, yet admittedly orchestrated moment. Pale sunlight streams through the car windows and I can see every landmark and shop; even where the late Mr Penny, a slave trader, lived along the meandering country lane that McCartney wrote about.

But I hadn't come for the fab four, even though they were intrinsically entwined in the journey. I'd come to learn about my late father. A Scouser who went to a private boys' college in Liverpool, he left its mighty Albert Dock in the 50s to travel by ship to Australia where he became an insurance broker.

They led polar opposite lives but I find my fathers' and the Beatles' story linked in many ways.

He filled the cigarette machine at the Cavern, where I find myself singing along with a merry crowd of enthusiastic fans to an authentic cover band Saturday Night with the Beatles. The Cavern, which celebrated its 56th birthday this month, is not the original site of the legendary music venue but an almost exact replica, complete with hot, claustrophobic interior. The lead singer, who closely resembles John, apparently sees himself as bit a celebrity and expects people to treat him like Lennon, my drinking partner yells in my ear. I try to picture my classical music-loving father filling the cigarette machine in a place like this with the Beatles performing to a sweaty crowd of mostly screaming women.

Surprisingly in a soccer mad city, the Beatles don't appear to have followed football, yet there are tenuous claims of a link between McCartney and Everton, where my father played in the B-side. Paul's uncles used to support the Toffees and it's understood that every now and then he would attend a game with them. I visualise this as I stand at Goodison Park which, apart from one main extension, looks exactly how it would have when my father played on the hallowed turf. My father lived not far from the grounds in the working-class suburb of Walton, not to be confused with the affluent suburb of Woolton, where Lennon grew up with his Aunty Mimi. As hard as I try I can't picture him here either.

What is so astonishing and refreshing about Liverpool is the way you can trace the Beatles' lives in places that remain as they were in the band's heyday. Sure there are Beatles' tours but they're discreet and respect the privacy of those now living in the former homes of the Beatles and their manager Brian Epstein. There's a museum, the Beatles Story, where you can relive the band's birth through to their solo careers yet again it's surprisingly tasteful, factual and thoroughly entertaining. Die-hard fans can even stay in the Hard Day's Night Hotel or check-in to a Yellow Submarine painted to look like the vessel on the cover of the record with the same name and floats on a mooring at the docks. That's about as garish as it gets.

Paul is the only Beatle who owns property in Liverpool and it surprises me to learn that he moved almost constantly as a child (10 houses in all) as his mother was a district nurse.

His last home, a narrow, nondescript brick home is the only council house to become a National Trust site. Paul and George met on the top deck of the school bus and my guide, Sylvia, points out the bus stop where McCartney would have stepped aboard that fateful trip.

She also points out where John rode his bicycle across the golf course to Paul's house to ask him to join the Beatles, and the old quarry which was the inspiration for the title of the British skiffle and rock and roll group the Quarrymen, formed by Lennon in Liverpool in 1956 and which evolved into the Beatles.

We also see St Peter's Church where a young John was a choirboy and the Liverpool Institute where George and Paul attended. It's next door to the Liverpool College of Art, which John attended.

That night at Blakes in the Hard Day's Night Hotel we dine on scallops from the Scotland island where McCartney has long owned a farm (he wrote Mull of Kintyre as a tribute to the picturesque peninsula). I think about how similar in many ways the young Beatles were to my own father, a Liverpudlian with a dream to leave the industrial port city and make something of himself. As I walked along the Albert Dock earlier that day, a biting wind whipping my hair into a frenzy, I realise that the Beatles and my father would have left from the same place, sailing away along the River Mersey to a more promising life. My father returned briefly as part of a trip through Europe when I was a child to show my mum, brothers and I where he was raised. At that time, the late 70s, Liverpool was in fact a rather depressing place that had seen better days. Today it's a buzzing city, proud of its roots, its magnificent architecture, maritime history, unrivalled music and sporting heritage. It was also voted the friendliest city in the UK for two years running by Conde Nast Traveller.

I think about how proud my dad would have been to see what became of his hometown.

But even here, I can't hear his footsteps or imagine him boarding a boat and sailing away forever.

Surprisingly, I find the connection I'm searching for at Liverpool's Lime Street Station, where a teenage girl stands at the entrance crying. Through sobs she tells me she'd lost her ticket. As I walk away, a workman stops me, and tells me that "It's wonderful that people still care". It's in that moment that I'm again a child looking up into my father's face. Being here and meeting others like him has helped me discover his roots, understand his ambition and drive, his nostalgia for the mother country, his passion for football, cups of tea, Mars Bars, poached eggs and even his family's endearing way of describing each other as "my Eileen" or "my Ted". So sure, come to Liverpool for the Beatles, but I promise you'll leave this magnificent city with so much more.


Trip notes

Getting there: Virgin Atlantic offers daily codeshare flights with Air New Zealand to London via San Francisco, Shanghai or Sydney. Virgin Atlantic Contact Centre, 0800 452 131 or visit VirginAtlantic.com.

Where to stay: Hard Day's Night Hotel offers rooms from £95, www.harddaysnighthotel.co.uk. Hotel Indigo offers contemporary rooms from £99, www.hotelindigoliverpool.co.uk The Yellow Submarine is a three-bedroom 25m converted houseboat featuring film, music memorabilia and designer furniture, priced from £165 a night midweek, www.yellowsubliverpool.co.uk.

• Tickets for Saturday With The Beatles cost £15. The Cavern Club, www.cavernclub.org

• A two-hour Magical Mystery Tour, which introduces participants to the lives of The Beatles, their homes, schools, birthplaces, Penny Lane, Strawberry Field and other landmarks, finishing at the Cavern Club costs £15.95. www.cavernclub.org/the-magical-mystery-tour

www.visitliverpool.com

- Herald on Sunday

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