Traces of yesterday

The gates of Strawberry Field.
The gates of Strawberry Field. 

On the Beatles trail in Liverpool, Sheriden Rhodes uncovers some moving connections between the Fab Four and her father.

Many travellers come to the 800-plus-year-old port city of Liverpool on a Beatles pilgrimage. They want to see where John and George met, where the band first played, gawk at their working-class childhood homes, and stand at the gates of Strawberry Field.

I admit, when my guide's car turns down Penny Lane, the catchy ballad blaring as she points out the butcher, the barber and the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, it's a magical yet orchestrated moment. Pale sunlight streams through the windows as I take in the landmarks - even where the late Mr Penny, a slave trader, lived along the meandering country lane that McCartney (primarily) wrote about when he composed one of the Beatles's most-loved songs.

Top class...Raffles Singapore.
Top class...Raffles Singapore. Photo: Ruth Duncan

I hadn't come to Liverpool 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 boy's college here, he left its mighty Albert Dock in the 1950s to travel by boat to Australia, where he became an insurance broker.

But while leading polar opposite lives, I find my father's and the Beatles's story linked in many ways. One of his part-time jobs was filling the cigarette vending machine at the Cavern, where on my first night in the city, I sing along with a merry crowd of enthusiastic fans to an authentic cover band, Saturday Night with the Beatles. The Cavern, which recently celebrated its 56th birthday, is not on the original site of the legendary music venue, but it is an almost exact replica. The lead singer, who resembles John, apparently sees himself as a bit of 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. Nope, I can't imagine it.

Surprisingly in a soccer-mad city where you're either red (Liverpool) or blue (Everton), 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 family has an old black-and-white photo of my father, young and fit, centre-front with the team, his coach wearing a black trench coat, a scarf and a jaunty gangster-style hat. 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 aunt, Mimi. As hard as I try I can't picture him here either. What's so astonishing about Liverpool is the way you can trace the lives of the Beatles in places that remain as they were in their heyday.

I join Blue Badge guide Sylvia O'Malley on a fascinating driving expedition of her home city - which last year celebrated its most famous export's 50th anniversary - but she is discreet, and respects 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, which again is surprisingly tasteful, as well as factual and thoroughly entertaining.

Diehard fans can stay in the Hard Day's Night Hotel (the Lennon Suite features a white baby grand piano) or check in to a "Yellow Submarine" painted to look like the vessel on the cover of the record with the same name and which floats on a mooring at the docks. That's about as garish as it gets.

Of the two surviving Beatles, only Paul owns property in Liverpool, and it surprises me to learn (thinking he was the one who had the more privileged upbringing) that he moved almost constantly as a child (10 houses all up), as his mother was a district nurse. His last home, a narrow nondescript brick residence, is the only council house to become a National Trust site. Paul and George met on the top deck of the school bus, and Sylvia points out the very 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 his band , and the old quarry that was the inspiration for the title of the British skiffle and rock'n'roll group the Quarrymen, formed by Lennon in Liverpool in 1956, which evolved into the Beatles.

We also see St Peter's Church where the young John was a choirboy, and the Liverpool Institute where George (the only Beatle encouraged to be a musician) and Paul attended. It's next door to the Liverpool College of Art where John went, in the city's Bohemian neighbourhood still populated by sculptors, painters, writers and poets. It makes me smile to see young hopeful musicians carrying guitar cases around the city, and Sylvia tells me you can take a degree in Beatles music at the Liverpool Hope University, while McCartney established the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts in 1985 and visits regularly.

That night at Blakes restaurant in the Hard Day's Night Hotel, I dine on Isle of Mull scallops from the Scottish island where McCartney has long owned a farm (he wrote Mull of Kintyre as a tribute to the picturesque peninsula), and 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 had walked along the Albert Dock earlier that day, a biting wind whipping my hair into a frenzy, I realised that both 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 first left as an 18-year-old and returned briefly a few years later when his own father died. He then sailed to Australia for good, where he met and married my mother, a Sydney dental nurse, only returning once briefly as part of a family trip through Europe to show us where he was raised.

At that time, the late '70s, Liverpool was not a pretty picture, in fact it was a rather depressing place that had seen better days. Mum admits she couldn't get out of there fast enough.

Today it's a completely rejuvenated and buzzing city, proud of its roots, its magnificent architecture, maritime history and incredible music and sporting heritage.

It was also voted the friendliest city in Britain for two years running by Conde Nast Traveller.

Dad, all these years laters, would have been proud to see what became of his home town. But even here, treading the well-worn cobblestones that surround the docks, I can't hear his footsteps or imagine him boarding a boat and sailing away forever from his home, his family and his country.

But I do finally find the connection I'm searching for - at Liverpool's Lime Street station. There, a teenage girl stands at the entrance crying. I walk by her, but something in her tear-stained face prompts me to turn back. Through sobs, she tells me she's lost her ticket. While I'm there, another passenger and a rail staff member stop and check on her, too.

As I walk away, a workman in a hard hat stops me, and says to me in the most charming singsong scouser accent that "It's wonderful people still care".

It's in that moment, his rough working hand on my arm, that I'm again a child looking up into my father's face. In his voice and distinctly scouser appearance, I find my dad. 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 soccer, 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.

LIVERPOOL BEYOND THE BEATLES

In a stunning converted warehouse, the Tate Liverpool celebrates its 25th anniversary in May. It houses the national collection of British art from 1500 to the present, as well as international modern art; see tate.org.uk/visit/tate-liverpool.

Take in the atmosphere of a home game at either Everton (Goodison Park) or Liverpool (Anfield) football clubs; see evertonfc.com, liverpoolfc.com.

Wander the 19th-century UNESCO World Heritage Albert Dock, boasting Britain's largest group of Grade 1-listed buildings and home to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum and the Wheel of Liverpool; see albertdock.com.

Admire the trio of landmarks at nearby Pier Head, another World Heritage site, featuring "The Three Graces": the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building.

Liverpool ONE is a £1 billion ($1.5 billion) retail and residential development; see Liverpool-one.com. A stroll along the historic "Rope Walks" brings you to Bold Street for bars, cafes and the Church of St Luke, which was bombed during WW2.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Virgin Atlantic offers daily flights to London (23hr) via Hong Kong with new seamless connections to Manchester from Sydney and Melbourne starting March 31. Sale fares start from $1839 from Sydney and $1853 from Melbourne, until February 28 for travel March 31-May 31 and September 1-November 25. Phone 1300 727 340; see virgin-atlantic.com. TransPennine Express offers regular fast train connections (45 min) from Manchester Airport to Liverpool's Lime Street Station; see tpexpress.co.uk.

Staying there

Hope Street Hotel is an 89-room historic boutique property in the city's cultural quarter with Egyptian-cotton sheets, Bang & Olufsen TV and sound systems, wooden free-standing baths and excellent in-house restaurant. Rooms from £124 ($189) a night; see www.hopestreethotel.co.uk.

Hotel Indigo offers contemporary rooms, a short walk from Albert Dock from £99; see hotelindigoliverpool.co.uk.

Hard Day's Night Hotel is a tasteful Beatles-inspired hotel, restaurant and bar. Rooms from £95; see harddaysnighthotel.co.uk. The Yellow Submarine is a three-bedroom converted houseboat featuring film, music memorabilia and designer furniture, priced from £165 a night midweek; see yellowsubliverpool.co.uk.

While there

Book a tour with Blue Badge guide Sylvia O'Malley, priced from £90 for a three-hour walking tour and £200 for a three-hour car tour; +44 780 300 2464. Tickets for Saturday with the Beatles cost £15; see cavernclub.org.

Rub shoulders with the city's smart set at The Restaurant Bar and Grill, offering fantastic steaks and cool cocktails; see individualrestaurants.com/bar-and-grill /liverpool. Liverpool's best coffee can be found at the Bold Street Coffee Company; see boldstreetcoffee.co.uk.

Enjoy live music and a drink at the Epstein Theatre and Brian's Bar - a theatre named in honour of the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein; see epsteinliverpool.co.uk.

More information visitliverpool.com; visitbritain.com.

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Visit Britain, Virgin Atlantic and VisitLiverpool.

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