In 1967, The Beatles issued a love letter to Liverpool in the shape of a double A-sided single. Paul McCartney's jaunty Penny Lane reeled off a roll-call of characters of a real suburban thoroughfare and its surrounds. A short distance away was Strawberry Field, the Salvation Army children's home immortalised in John Lennon's psychedelic, dream-like Strawberry Fields Forever. Pop historian Paul Gambaccini wrote of the band's between-albums release: "The two numbers each made perfectly ordinary parts of Liverpool seem to be magical places of wonder."
Lennon's wistful tune certainly cast a spell. For decades, Beatles fans have flocked to the site in suburban Woolton to admire the original and then replica locked wrought-iron gates. In 2018, an estimated 60,000 people made the pilgrimage to snap a selfie, scrawl on the strawberry-red gates and pillars, and ponder what was taking shape beyond them on the patch of high ground that's been off-limits to the public for decades.
Now, all is revealed. In September , the Salvation Army opened the heritage site as a brand-new, multi-million dollar Beatles attraction, adding another facet to what's already an £82 million ($A150 million) a year industry for Liverpool (according to a 2016 city council-commissioned study of Beatles tourism). Traveller visited in July when tradesmen were putting the finishing touches to the light, bright minimalist building – a stark contrast to the slightly creepy Victorian mansion that Lennon would have seen after clambering over the back wall into the garden.
Built in 1878 for a shipping magnate, the house became a children's home – originally for vulnerable girls – in 1936. Lennon, his friends and kids from the home (boys also lived there from the 1950s) would play hide-and-seek and climb trees. He also adored the home's summer fete, begging his Aunt Mimi and Uncle George (Lennon lived with them nearby) if they could go as soon as he heard the Salvation Army brass band strike up a tune.
Fire ravaged the mansion and in the 1970s it was replaced with a smaller children's home that closed in 2005; it was demolished to make way for the new build. So what will visitors find inside the Nothing is Real exhibition?
The exhibit covers the site's Salvation Army history and Lennon's childhood, along with the writing and recording of Strawberry Fields, through archival footage, multimedia displays and interviews with Paul McCartney, producer and "fifth Beatle" George Martin and Lennon's half-sister and project president, Julia Baird.
Thanks to the British Library, there's a handwritten early draft of the song that reveals no mention of Strawberry Fields and the line, "There's no one on my wavelength" being reworked to, "No one I think is in my tree" – a more poetic version of the sentiment. Visitors can replicate the song's distinctive flute intro on a virtual Mellotron or pluck a swarmandal, the Indian harp George Harrison plays on the recording.
Strawberry Field mission director, Major Kathy Versfeld, says the visitors' centre sits at the heart of what is a place for spiritual reflection. The peaceful grounds include mature trees (perhaps the very ones Lennon climbed), thought-provoking lyrics from Lennon's body of work, new plantings, strawberry beds, parts of the original mansion refashioned as stone benches and, in a corner, the original gates that have come "home".
These gates have had quite the adventure. Thieves sold them to a scrap-metal merchant in 2000, who later recognised and returned them. They were kept in storage then displayed at The Beatles Story attraction for nearly two years, helping to raise funds for the Strawberry Field redevelopment. After being paraded through the city, they're now reinstalled in the grounds, leaving the replica gates in place along the front wall.
"I've heard people say that, for some, it's almost like a spiritual experience standing at those gates," says South African-raised Versfeld, who was born four days after Strawberry Fields Forever was released in the UK. "We want people to come through the gates and feel at home, to feel that it's OK to just sit and have a coffee or sit in the garden."
The garden is "where John Lennon played – where he sat and dreamed and had fun with his friends," she says. "We wanted it to be a refuge in the way that it was for John Lennon," she says. Lennon lyrics, such as "I hope someday you'll join us/ and the world will be as one" from Imagine, are placed in the grounds, inviting "people to explore the bigger questions of life", Versfeld says.
The venture isn't about making profits, she says. "Our faith is expressed in deeply practical ways and a key part of the central vision is that this place will be self-sufficient in due course," she says. "The commercial arm is solely to fund what we're doing in the Steps to Work program". This helps young adults with learning disabilities and other barriers to employment into training placements that might lead to work. The trainees can choose a placement at Strawberry Field to hone their hospitality, catering and retail skills.
The on-site cafe includes a "talking table" where a team member will chat to anyone sitting at it; visitors can also choose to buy a "suspended coffee" for a vulnerable person who wants a hot drink.
"Everyone recognises this is a pioneering venture," says Versfeld. "It's been an interesting journey because you want to protect the local environment and retain something of the essence of the place while laying infrastructure for the next chapter." Before parting ways, I ask Versfeld to name her favourite Beatles song. I should have known she'd say, All You Need Is Love.
FIVE MORE 'FAB FOUR' FINDS
BEATLES CHILDHOOD HOMES
John Lennon lived at Mendips (251 Menlove Avenue), around the corner from Strawberry Field, from age five to 22. The Beatles' Childhood Homes tour covers this and other sites, such as Paul McCartney's childhood home at 20 Forthlin Road, in a National Trust minibus tour. See nationaltrust.org.uk
THE BEATLES STORY
Head to Royal Albert Dock to see the world's largest permanent exhibition devoted to the story of the Fab Four and their rise to fame from humble beginnings in Liverpool. Memorabilia includes instruments, clothing and Ringo Starr's drum kit. See beatlesstory.com
Snap a selfie with a larger-than-life bronze statue of The Beatles that was placed at the Pier Head on Liverpool's waterfront in 2015. See visitliverpool.com
THE CAVERN CLUB
The Beatles performed the first of 292 Cavern Club gigs in 1961 and polished their stagecraft through lunchtime gigs with the audience just inches away before playing their final gig in the cosy venue in 1963. Today, you can catch tunes from the resident Beatles tribute band. See cavernclub.com
MUSEUM OF LIVERPOOL
The museum is hosting the free exhibition, Double Fantasy – John & Yoko, until November 3, 2019. See one of the earliest pairs of round, gold wire-rimmed glasses Lennon started wearing in 1967, listen to the pair's albums or slide into the glass-walled karaoke room to sing and dance along to one of their songs. See liverpoolmuseums.org.uk
Katrina Lobley travelled to Liverpool as a guest of Rail Europe.
Strawberry Field is open daily and is about a 15-minute drive from Liverpool's city centre (a bus departs from near the Wheel of Liverpool). Entry to the garden is free and to see the exhibition costs £12.95 an adult. See strawberryfieldliverpool.com
Liverpool can be reached from London by train in two hours, 12 minutes. See raileurope.com.au