The Beatles first rocked the walls at Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club
It’s hard to believe that 50 years have gone by since the Beatles first rocked the walls as a regular act at Liverpool’s famous Cavern Club. The club itself is still rocking, nowadays most often with artists performing Beatles’ covers for the legions of visitors drawn to the old maritime city just because it is the birthplace and hometown of Britain’s most celebrated musicians ever. In fact, the Beatles are the biggest single motivation for visitors to come to Liverpool.
Liverpool is England’s own “City of the Big Shoulders”: brawling, industrial, maritime Merseyside, hub of Irish Sea transport, home of great football and scouse. And more than any other, the city of Liverpool’s are the shoulders from which generations of English, Welsh, Irish and Scots made their way to the New World of North America or to Australia—more than 9 million of them between 1830 and 1930.
Those millions of immigrants are remembered at the Liverpool Maritime Museum on the waterfront at the Albert Dock. Liverpool’s Merseyside riverfront is a bright, affluent, bustling place strung with attractions, a basket of eateries, shopping and river traffic. Once the largest commercial docking facility in the world, Albert Dock is a natural starting place for visitors to Liverpool—whether you’re coming on a Beatles pilgrimage or drawn to the city’s other attractions. Among Albert Dock’s miraculously converted warehouses is the tourist information center, where affable folk are happy to supply maps, bookings and brochures on everything on Merseyside. I was on a Beatles pilgrimage.
My first stop at the Albert Dock was The Beatles Story, Liverpool’s permanent exhibition of the Fab Four, and one of the city’s most popular attractions. It is a walk through Beatles history: from their births in wartime Liverpool to their coming together, then the phenomenal career of the group in the 60s and their individual careers after the Beatles separated. Beatles’ history comes to life, and even the most ardent fan will discover fascinating new pieces of the story. Personally, I liked the Yellow Submarine.
The Beatles Story continues at a second site in the Pier Head Building just a few blocks down the waterfront. The Pier Head is the travelers’ center and quay for the Mersey Ferries that continue to ply the River Mersey routes across to Birkenhead and the Wirral Peninsula as they have since Benedictine monks began the service in the 12th century. It’s impossible to hang around here for long before hearing that ’60s Liverpool anthem by Gary and the Pacemakers, “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey.”
The Beatles Story at Pier Head features changing exhibitions as well as a special effects theater experience called Fab4D. I saw the collection of gold and platinum records awarded to the Beatles for hit after top-of-the-charts hit that chronicled my own teenage years. Both Albert Dock and Pier Head locations have extensive Fab4Stores, proffering one the largest collections of “official” Beatles clothing, posters, music, dust collectors and such in the world.
The obvious next station on my Beatles pilgrimage was the Magical Mystery Tour of the Beatles’ own bits of Liverpool. It couldn’t have been easier. Tickets for the two-hour guided coach tour were available right at the Albert Dock tourist office, and the bus departed from just outside. Veteran city and Beatles guide Paul Beesley easily marshaled the small group aboard, and we were off to see the Fab Four story.
It is several miles from Liverpool’s attractive waterfront and city center to the working and lower middle class neighborhoods where John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were born and grew up. It’s a modest residential sprawl, not an urban ghetto. The block of council flats where Ringo was born is in the midst of demolition. We saw all the birthplaces, as Beesley delivered the tale as enthusiastically as he has done so many times. A musical tape on the coach was ordered to break into the appropriate Beatles songs as the story unfolded.
Our next destination was Penny Lane and a photo op to prove we were there. The song came on. A Lloyd’s bank on the corner, with the “banker in a motor car,” is one of several recognizable scenes from the song’s lyrics still standing. On to the gates of Strawberry Fields, which we discovered was actually a Salvation Army children’s home. On to the church hall where John and Paul met, and to the McCartney home on 20 Forthlin Road, where they hung out as teens and began writing songs together. The two hours passed quickly enough, with a lot of information and a visual whirl of residential Liverpool. The difference was palpable as the bus returned to the congested city center and dropped us off near the bustling Cavern Quarter.
Anyone with a shopper’s eye will have trouble dragging themselves away from Liverpool
Just adjacent to the city’s expansive new Liverpool One shopping and entertainment neighborhood and just a few blocks from Albert Dock and the riverside, the Cavern Quarter grew from the fame of the Cavern Club. And the Cavern Club’s fame grew from the fame of the Beatles. It was 50 years ago, in the autumn of 1960 that the group began its unprecedented series of 296 appearances over a period of several years at the Cavern Club. Here, they became the rage—the king of the local hill among more than 200 bands in musical Liverpool. It was from this venue that the Beatles’ fame and worldwide success was launched.
Today, a visit to the shrine is absolutely required on the Beatles pilgrimage. Yes, the Cavern Club is still rocking with Beatles music—and full of visitors from around the world on their third beer in the middle of the afternoon. In the evenings, it’s jammed. There’s no doubt the place has the “vibe” of genuine, but it’s a far cry from the smoky coffeehouse of the early ’60s that featured not only the Beatles but many other Liverpool bands that created what became known worldwide as the Mersey Beat.
I opted to take my evening pint or two just a few doors down at The Grapes, a classic and venerable city pub also known as “The Beatles Boozer.” It was here that the lads used to take a pint or two themselves before and after a performance. The Cavern Club itself had no license then. The pub was bustling in the evenings, but there was always a congenial company of locals and visitors gathered. And there’s plenty of memorabilia around.
In fact, the several blocks of the Cavern Quarter are a veritable warren of pubs, clubs and restaurants, most of them nightly venues for live music. Liverpool is still a city with a vibrant live, local music scene, and this is its epicenter. The narrow, pedestrianized streets are teeming nightly with a good-natured mix of tourists and locals until the early hours. Over it all hangs the essence of the Beatles. On Mathew Street, just a few doors up from the Cavern Club, a life-size bronze sculpture of John Lennon lounges against the dark, red brick wall. On the other side of the neighborhood, a similar Eleanor Rigby sits unobtrusively on a Stanley Street bench.
Naturally enough, Liverpool is proud of the Beatles—the local boys that made good—and happy enough for the attention, and the millions of pounds, their “brand” continues to bring to the city. At the same time, so much of Liverpool lies beyond its musical legacy. It is the city’s great architectural heritage—the Royal Liver Building and its waterfront neighbors, St. George’s Hall, World Museum Liverpool, the Walker Art Gallery and those Albert Dock warehouses—that made Liverpool a World Heritage Site.
I spent several hours in the Maritime Museum, absorbed in the impact that now touristy waterfront had on world commerce and colonization. The dark part of that maritime history is told in the International Museum of Slavery, which occupies one floor of the Maritime Museum. “Write not that we were slaves,” implored one proud African in shackles, “but that we were strong.” I also walked through the restored Piermaster’s House nearby—furnished in detail as it was during the bombings of World War II.
It was an uphill walk from the waterfront through several blocks of unattractive warehouses, housing terraces and pubs (most touting live music) to the urban mesa of Liverpool Cathedral. Lost in the luster of its popular medieval counterparts, the city’s modern diocesan throne is elevated in one the 20th-century’s great ecclesiastical buildings, the masterpiece of architect Sir Gilbert Scott. It is the largest Anglican cathedral in Britain, houses Britain’s heaviest peal of bells and its largest organ. Besides the majesty of its soaring spaces, the cathedral offers lunch on the back terrace, and spectacular views over the riverfront.
Anyone with a shopper’s eye will have trouble dragging themselves away from Liverpool One. The new, three-level pedestrian complex of shops and eateries weaves around a grassy hillside on which folk lounge, lunch, take the sun and wade in the fountains. I lunched at an outdoor café on scouse, the city’s signature dish (a beef stew). Another evening I had a late dinner at the Red Hot Buffet. It was either be late or stand in the queue. The maitre d’ told me they serve 2,400 people a day. And it was good.
Alas, you cannot do justice to a world-class city like Liverpool in just a few days. No, I didn’t make it to Liverpool’s galleries and art museums, or ride the Mersey Ferry, let alone see a Liverpool football match. It is pretty easy to conclude, though, that even without the Beatles or any interest in them, Liverpool makes one of the best major city visiting experiences in Britain. Somehow, though, for everything that I did miss, the Beatles pilgrimage provided a real “feel” for the distinctive culture and friendly people of the historic northern city. Let it be, Liverpool; I’d love to come back.