I HAVE never been a big fan of The Beatles.
I know the words to the Fab Four’s biggest hits, learning by osmosis during a childhood when the radio frequently featured tunes by the lads from Liverpool, but that’s about as far as my interest goes.
So when I find myself spending a day deep in the heart of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s home turf I expect to be bombarded with Beatles trivia and tales.
I’m visiting Liverpool during a Trafalgar Tours jaunt through England and Scotland and our tour manager Gary Willment has arranged for a Beatles aficionado to show us around the settlement beside the River Mersey.
“Let me wave the hand that has shaken the hand of a Beatle,” Trafalgar guide Phil Cappell chortles as my travelling companions and I settle into the comfortable seats on our coach at the start of our Liverpool excursion.
“I taught photography at the art college in Liverpool and got to know many of the people that knew The Beatles when they were students, I have a masters’ degree in The Beatles and pop music, and I have been lucky enough to spend time with Paul when he’s been back in Liverpool over the years.”
Credentials established, the tour starts at St George’s Hall – where John Lennon started a brawl during a dance – before passing Lime Street Station, the Adelphi Hotel where Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger took the grand staircase to the balcony, and the Catholic Cathedral with the world’s largest freestanding stained-glass structure.
We see the Philharmonic Hotel popular with the town’s musicians, hear the story about Liverpool’s rubbish bins being an inoffensive shade of purple because it blends the colours of the town’s two football teams, and motor along Huskisson St, which Phil describes as “the most filmed street in Britain”.
“If you want to be in movies, Liverpool is the place to be,” he says as we crawl past the terrace at No.22, which was Soames’ house in the 2002 version of The Forsyte Saga. ‘
“If you want to make a film in London you need an Act of Parliament to close a road, but in Liverpool you pay enough and we will close the whole city.
“In The Name of the Father was filmed at St George’s Hall, 50 per cent of Captain America was filmed at the docks, the exterior shots of Sherlock Holmes were done here, one edition of The Fast and the Furious was set in London but filming was done in Liverpool.”
I realise Phil is combining Beatles anecdotes with other stories about the Liverpool landmarks we’re passing, aware that not everyone on his bus can remember where they were the day John died, and I start to appreciate the outing as I hear about everything from the beautiful Georgian architecture to bygone migration patterns.
We stop at the imposing Anglican Cathedral – Britain’s largest, with the world’s highest Gothic arches and England’s largest organ – and learn about architect Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the iconic red phone box, and the day Paul McCartney failed a choir audition because he couldn’t read music.
We drive through the gardens where George Harrison played as a child and discover that Liverpool is England’s greenest settlement, with more than a million trees or two for each resident, and the donation made by the now-famous resident because he felt guilty about smashing windows in a park building as a boy.
The coach cruises down Penny Lane and Phil points out the bank, barber and the bus shelter while explaining The Beatles “wrote the song as if they were still on the bus” and we stop at the bright red front gates of Strawberry Field and discover John only added an “s” because it suited the melody.
We pause outside the Woolton house John shared with his Aunt Mini, and see the vestibule the Fab Four were forced to rehearse in when Mrs Smith refused to let scruffy band members into her home, and walk along Forthlin Rd to spy one of the nine dwellings the McCartney clan lived in when Paul was young.
“This is the last house in Liverpool that Paul lived in,” Phil explains as we stand on the footpath outside No.20.
“They lived in so many different houses because Paul’s mum was a midwife, and she would be assigned a new place to live every time she went to work in a new part of town, and Paul sent every home in this street 10 tickets to his concert last time he played in Liverpool to make up for the fact that the street is often awash with tourists.”
On our way to the hotel we do a lap of Liverpool’s historic waterfront precinct, a neighbourhood that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, and see the ornate building that was White Star Line headquarters when the Titanic order was placed and the elegant art-deco buildings that line the waterfront.
Phil points out the new buildings that flank older structures and explains the city was the target of 68 air raids during World War II – 50 per cent of buildings destroyed, more than 50,000 people killed – with German pilots aiming at the port-side community because it was the destination for Atlantic convoys.
Our tour finishes with a visit to the Cavern Club, the underground venue that was home to early Beatles performances now considered to be the “cradle of British pop music”, but I give the subterranean haunt a miss when I hear a Guns N Roses classic booming from the deep and instead follow the sunset back to the waterfront.
I see the Merseyside memorial to the engineers who continued to toil in Titanic’s engine room as the great ship sank before wandering past the former Cunard base on Canada St to the historic wharves that once marked the world’s second-busiest port.
As I explore I remember Phil noting during the tour that before the Beatles there was no tourism in Liverpool but today the industry brings $3 billion into the city.
I can see the Beatles are a big part of life in Liverpool but, after my day with guide Phil, I see there’s more to this buzzing English metropolis than four talented blokes with a knack for music.
The writer was a guest of Trafalgar Tours.
Liverpool sits on England’s west coast, 340km from London, and Virgin Trains make the journey between London Euston and Liverpool Lime Street every hour, with the journey taking a little over two hours. See virgintrains.co.uk
Trafalgar Tours has a number of itineraries that visit Liverpool – including Best of Britain, which spends 11 days exploring England, Wales and Scotland and costs from $2725 – with Phil Cappell’s local expert tour a highlight of a stay in the city on the banks of the River Mersey. See trafalgar.com
If you’re keen to visit Liverpool independently then the Liverpool Marriott Hotel City Centre, on the edge of the CBD’s network of pedestrian malls and an easy wander from the historic port, is a great option while the Malmaison Liverpool Brasserie is the place for an elegant meal. See marriott.com and malmaison.com
For more information on planning a trip to Liverpool explore the Visit Liverpool website. See visitliverpool.com
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ESCAPE ON SUNDAY, MARCH 1, 2014