Penny lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies.
— John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Penny Lane”
What do you know about Liverpool England beyond it being the hometown of the Beatles? I had limited expectations about what there was to see and do in Liverpool before our cruise stop there last month. I must beg the city’s pardon now for underestimating what it has to offer.
Yes, Liverpool IS the home of the Beatles (then and still) but it was also a vital travel and shipping port in the 1800s. White Star Line (Titanic) and Cunard (Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary) both had their headquarters here. When Phileas Fogg completed his trip (Around the World in 80 Days), he re-entered England at Liverpool, not Southampton. At one time this city’s interconnected dock system on the Mersey River was the most advanced port system in the world. Sections of the system now constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site. Over time the needs of ships changed and the port has declined in importance.
Liverpool has always had a rich musical culture. Emigrants from Wales and Ireland brought their love of music with them. Chinese music thrives here too. Liverpool’s Chinatown is home to Europe’s only classical Chinese orchestra (Chinese instruments and music). In the 1950s the port traffic gave young musicians early access to new records arriving from America, offering an alternative to staid BBC music. In the early Sixties Liverpool was home to the Merseybeat. Many groups formed in the area with some success, but groups just don’t get any bigger than the Beatles! (Cue the cheering and screaming.)
My shore excursion focusing on the Beatles began at The Cavern in Mathew Street (sic). The Beatles made the club famous, playing there 274 times; it quickly became THE place for hopeful bands to play. The club was small, below ground, with stone walls and no alcohol for sale but plenty of cigarette smoke. (People could tell if you had been to The Cavern.)
Our next stop was at one of the re-purposed dock buildings to see The Beatles Story. This exhibit recreates the timeline of the group’s formation and rise to fame with many photos, memorabilia and recordings, all explained with an audio guide.
We saw the small homes where John, Paul, George, and Ringo grew up. John Lennon was raised by his conservative aunt and uncle in the nicest of these homes; he preferred to spend free time at Paul McCartney’s home where his music was encouraged rather than regarded with suspicion.
As part of our drive through their formative neighborhood we drove the length of Penny Lane. Many of the landmarks mentioned in the song still exist near one end of this street. The barber shop and bank remain. There is a (now decrepit) “shelter in the middle of a roundabout” where people can wait for the correct city bus. Our guide did not point out any fire engines, clean or otherwise. These landmarks and the people/cast members under the “blue suburban skies” were part of the Beatles’ daily life. (And their “suburban” means a neighborhood more like Somerville or Watertown, not Acton or Sudbury.)
Before my visit to Liverpool, the only thing I knew about the city was the Beatles. It was interesting to learn about the historical base that nurtured them, but seeing the streets of their daily lives made the city lively in a human way which monuments and textbooks cannot.
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.
18 September 2014