How did I rate my visit to two unusual National Trust properties in the leafy suburbs of Liverpool? I’ll tell you.
I spent an unhealthy amount of time, during my early 20s, taking the Tube to most of the important Beatles sites around London, in the opinion that it was here that the real John-Paul-George-and-Ringo phenomenon took place and that Liverpool was merely the provincial city from where they came (so what?). However, after the passing of many years, I realised that I had been both snobbish and naive in this approach, when the idea of paying a visit to the childhood homes of the Beatles became very appealing. I came to think that such a visit would in fact constitute a fascinating pilgrimage to mark my 40th birthday, while leading to a much greater understanding of the familial and social circumstances that sewed the seeds for the incredible Beatles story.
Having seen the light, I read again of how McCartney and Lennon ‘sagged off’ school and wrote ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ in the front room of the modest terraced house that belonged to Paul’s dad. I was fascinated particularly by a photograph, taken by Paul’s younger brother Mike, of the two young songwriters playing barre chords on their acoustic guitars in the corner of this same room, while composing a tune on a notepad. It amazed me to think that I had it in my power to go and stand in that room myself, in the very same late 50s/early 60s condition as in the picture. This, I found out, had been the case ever since the National Trust bought the house in 1995, before acquiring Lennon’s childhood home from Yoko Ono and restoring both properties to their former condition and opening them up to the public, via pre-booked small-group tours. I was therefore majorly excited about seeing the two houses, which can only be described, in accordance with local tourist-guide-speak, as constituting the ‘birthplace of the Beatles’.
It was on a fine Saturday in October, then, that I motored up the M6 with my partner and booked into the Jurys Inn hotel near to the Albert Dock, from where we were to board the National Trust minibus to the Lennon/McCartney houses on the Sunday morning, the same morning, as I was annoyed to hear, as the Liverpool Marathon. This proved a good location to first explore the wonderful ‘Beatles Story’ museum, notable, I thought, for its display of the white piano that Lennon played in the ‘Imagine’ promo, together with the gold-rimmed granny glasses that he wore on that occasion. And, fortunately, the marathon runners didn’t cause us too many road problems next day when we made our way to the Liverpool suburb of Woolton, to rendezvous with our tour guide, Ian Doyle, at ‘Mendips’ (251 Menlove Avenue), where, as detailed on the blue plaque above the door, Lennon lived between 1945 and 1963.
I discovered Mendips to be an attractive, semi-detached building, with a spacious garden around the side, where a replica of Lennon’s bicycle, as seen in a contemporary 50s photograph, was left propped against the wall – for added authenticity. The house was also, of course, where the fabled disciplinarian Aunt Mimi took care of the young Lennon after his parents separated, with his father Fred leaving for the high seas, and his mother Julia going to live with her new boyfriend, John Dykins. And as I stood in the well-tended front garden, with a group of around ten, Ian Doyle proved to be a very genial guide who knew every last detail concerning the house, like when it was built, when Mimi moved in with husband George, when George died, how Mimi subsequently kept it and took in lodgers, and how she coped with John’s increasing rebelliousness and liking for American rock ‘n’ roll. He even went so far as to point out what he considered to be ‘bent-backed tulips’ growing in the garden, as featured in “one of John’s songs”, though he struggled to recall which. He also informed us of how John would have been instructed by Mimi to receive guests at the kitchen entrance (or the ‘tradesman entrance’), one such guest being his “little friend” Paul McCartney. At this point I stared out towards the road and imagined the fledging songwriter appearing at the gates of the house on his bicycle, with his guitar strapped over his back, after having cycled over the golf course dividing his street from John’s. Humble beginnings, indeed.
As we entered the kitchen it really felt like entering the world of the houseproud Aunt Mimi, being well stocked with the china, pots, pans and foodstuffs that she would have kept, with the atmosphere of a proper working house. Ian then took us to the front room, before giving us time to explore the whole house freely. I rushed upstairs to see John’s bedroom, obviously the focal interest of the house, despite its small size, because it was here that he plotted his rise to musical stardom. There were flowers in the window to mark his recent birthday of 9 October, and all around was the kind of clutter he would have kept, like singles by Roy Orbison, Lonnie Donegan and Elvis, Goons memorabilia, a picture of Bridget Bardot, a guitar in the corner, and a copy of his favourite book, Tom Brown’s School Days, on the bed. There were also some of John’s actual childhood writings, such as his Daily Howl musings (his very own ‘newspaper’) and a letter, written on Mimi’s bird-themed writing paper, to his Aunt Harriet. Suitably impressed with such period detail, I then went downstairs to have a look in the porch, where John most often practised his guitar, sometimes with Paul, because of the acoustics, and where he most likely put together ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please, Please Me’, the first bona-fide hit for the Beatles. I spent some time sitting here on my own, and yes, I did sing a few bars of ‘Love Me Do’…very quietly.
I wasn’t expecting to get as much out of visiting the McCartney house as the Lennon one, but it quickly dawned on me that 20 Forthlin Road, about ten minutes’ drive away, is probably more significant in terms of its place in Beatles history, even though it looks like the most normal working-class house in the world. This is because the two songwriters did most of their early composing and rehearsing here, for the simple reason that Mimi was usually at home during the day and didn’t want to be disturbed, while Paul’s dad, Jim, was out at work. In the living room, we heard a recording of McCartney himself welcoming us to the house and recalling his time here as a youth, when there had been “a lot of good times and a lot of sad times”, the sad times obviously being when his mother Mary died of breast cancer in 1956. We were then informed that the piano in the room replicated the one that belonged to his dad in the late 50s, as did the antique television, the whole scene being perfectly in tune with the aforementioned Mike McCartney photo of John and Paul playing guitars here (magical!). From the living room, we headed into the kitchen, where Jim did the cooking for his two boys as a single parent. But the back room was where all the Beatles (John, Paul, George and Pete (Best)) assembled to rehearse, and where the first recordings of the band were made. We were then given time once more to wander around the house on our own, taking in Paul’s simple bedroom above the front door, as well as Mike’s room overlooking the police grounds at the back. It was all absolutely fascinating, although I was not keen on the way a couple of young dudes on the tour started hammering out Beatles tunes on the downstairs piano, even if they were allowed to! I was, on the other hand, touched to observe a plaque above the front door saying ‘In memory of Jim and Mary’, obviously to remind us, at the McCartneys’ request, that the house was originally the modest home of a simple working-class couple, before it had become the ‘birthplace of the Beatles’ and a shrine to Beatles fans.
At the end of the tour, I felt wonderfully fulfilled as a Beatles fan to have been inside these two houses. I was certainly unable to share one man’s opinion on ‘Trip Advisor’ of the Lennon house: ‘Nothing to see here… not really a tourist attraction, just the place where John stayed and his mother killed’ (insensitive, or what?!). I was also opposed to another reviewer who wrote of the McCartney house: ‘a Liverpool home where a celebrity used to live’ (again, a little insensitive). Personally, I regarded this whole trip as providing a thoroughly rewarding glimpse into the early life of John and Paul, and the social environment that spawned the biggest band the world has ever seen. Oh, and the little National Trust booklets that I got from both houses were also very good indeed – well worth a read!