A Beatles pilgrimage to Liverpool

As Sgt Pepper celebrates 50 fab years, Jamie Healy finally took a trip to the spiritual home of the band that shook the world

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For any worthy disciple, there comes a time when a pilgrimage to the holy land must be made. And as a worshipper at the church of saints John, Paul, George and Ringo, that means a trip to Liverpool.

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I may be a lifelong Beatles believer, but I also have the needs of a young family to consider. And selling the idea of a city break that doesn’t involve passports and sunshine on tap is always a tricky proposition.

Fortunately, an abundance of budget hotel accommodation in the regenerated Albert Dock area makes Liverpool a very affordable city to visit. And staying in the docks puts you in the heart of Beatles country.

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I began my visit with The Beatles Story, a permanent exhibition that guides you through a cherry-picked chronology of the Fab Four’s career. An audio/video guide is included in the ticket price, featuring archive contributions from the band and specially recorded interviews from the likes of John’s first wife, Cynthia.

The early days, from Paul and John’s first meeting at Woolton church fete, through to the band’s residencies in Hamburg and at the Casbah and Cavern clubs, are particularly well evoked. And a room dedicated to their psychedelic years is an acid-hued delight, complete with a life-size recreation of the Pepper album cover and a climb-aboard Yellow Submarine.

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There’s also plenty to excite the seasoned Fabs follower here. Look in the nooks and crannies and you’ll find the only copy of the White Album on blue vinyl (and the story of how it came to be), a rare alternative Pepper cover shot and the draft letter from Lennon to the Queen where he famously returned his MBE, citing “Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, our support of America in Vietnam and for Cold Turkey slipping down the charts.”

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The area devoted to the group’s solo years is a bit of an afterthought, but Bob Gruen’s photos of Lennon in New York are attractively presented, while a mock-up of the all-white room from the singer’s Tittenhurst Park home (where the Imagine promo was filmed) ensures you leave on a serene note.

If you do have children and they’ve struggled to master the audio/video gizmo that accompanies the exhibition, the Discovery Zone offers plenty of opportunities for them to get creative with colouring pens, mess about with interactive displays and fathom the divine mysteries of playing vinyl.

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Since opening in 1990, The Beatles Story has regularly updated its exhibits and played host to special events. Last year, it added a display commemorating the 2016 anniversary of Macca’s signature Hofner violin bass, while four reproduction Sgt Pepper suits (taken from the band’s original measurements) were recently introduced to coincide with this year’s album celebrations.

Having navigated the reproduction relics in the sprawling gift shop and made your exit, you’re presented with two choices: jump on the Magical Mystery Tour coach tour or explore the rest of the dock and Pier Head.

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The four-wheeled option is a good way of getting your Beatles bearings around the city. The two-hour excursion takes in such landmarks as Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, plus the birthplace of each of the Fabs. Paul and John’s homes are owned by the National Trust, but you’ll need to book a separate tour to gain admittance to those. And do plan ahead to check what days they’re open – they were closed when I visited.

I chose to continue on foot instead, heading towards Pier Head (put on your Beatles blinkers now to avoid being distracted by the Tate gallery, the Museum of Liverpool and the Maritime and Slavery museums – all free entry), where your Beatles Story ticket gains you admittance to a sister exhibition devoted to the British beat invasion of America in the 1960s. Don’t miss the opportunity of a free drumming lesson from Ringo on one of the few interactive features.

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Liverpool likes to immortalise its famous sons and daughters in bronze. Statues of varying size, quality and likeness to their subject are all over the place. The best of the bunch has to be the larger-than-life evocation of the Beatles that stands along the waterfront.

True, Paul looks like he might have been on a bit of a pie-bender, but the statues capture the band’s world-conquering swagger brilliantly, and allow you the perfect opportunity to kneel at their collective feet, touch the burnished hem, or maybe just grab a cheeky selfie.

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From the city’s iconic shoreside, you can also enjoy the views of the famous Liver and Cunard Buildings, the latter now home to the British Music Experience, a major exhibition that moved here from London’s 02 that charts the history of pop music in the UK.

Liverpool being a compact city to walk around, you’re now close to the city’s Cavern Quarter. Compared to the pristinely renovated dockside, there’s a rough-and-ready feel to Matthew Street and the surrounding area that probably hasn’t changed much since the beat boom.

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The original Cavern itself was torn down in the early 70s (a statue of cloakroom-attendant-made-good Cilla marks its exact location), but its present incarnation is just a few doors down.

As you descend the stairs to its subterranean inner sanctum, the smell of beer and bleach that greets you indicates that the Cavern is still a working live venue, with tribute acts preaching the gospel of the world’s most famous songbook night and day.

Rather than just being the pokey, tunnel-shaped room familiar from all those old newsreels, it’s a surprisingly, um, cavernous, place. A separate lounge area with a large stage and plenty of seating is ideal for groups and families. And the seat in the far corner marks the spot of the original site’s stage, so is worth grabbing.

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The Cavern’s walls are lined with memorabilia-stuffed displays (the hand-written lyrics to Cheese and Onions from Fabs-spoofers the Rutles being of interest, Cilla Black’s ringmaster jacket from Blind Date less so), and there’s more of the same in The Cavern Pub across the street, which has the added bonus of serving bar snacks.

Those with a larger appetite might like to check out Blakes restaurant in the Hard Day’s Night hotel around the corner (“Fixing a hole” the menu promises). However, by this point, my family had enough of the Beatles being rammed down their throat; and one of their Fab Four burgers washed down with a John Lennon-ade was sadly off the cards.

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Liverpool has enough to keep even the most evangelical Beatles apostle in raptures. But worship comes in many forms, and the city’s shopping, football, art treasures, architecture and cathedrals all inspire devotion of a different kind.

It’s enough to warrant a second coming.

Paul Merton’s Beatles is on Monday 27 May on Radio 2, 10pm

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