Food Feature: Day tripper

Searching for traces of the Fab Four in Liverpool

Travel 2618
Photo credit: File
Beatles' monument

It is in the lobby of my hotel where I first meet the guy I would later refer to as "the Beatle freak." I consider myself a Beatle freak, having left family and friends in London while I took a 215-mile side trip to Liverpool to see where the fab four were from — but this guy is unreal! Long hair, paisley shirt and a pair of granny glasses that make him look more like a mad assassin than a pop star from the psychedelic era. Every word that comes out of his mouth is somehow Beatles-related. When he shows me a picture of his Japanese girlfriend, I'm tempted to ask if he's carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye.
Beatle Freak's name is Rob, and he's actually a pretty nice guy, even if his enthusiasm is a bit overbearing. We take a double-decker bus tour of the city. Each time we pass a Beatle landmark, drool spills from his lips and he starts to pant. "Just think," he gasps, his hands pawing at the bus window. "George Harrison may have once walked down that street." Considering we are passing the childhood homes and driveways of the Beatles, his observations are flagrantly obvious.
The bus takes us past the dark gates of Strawberry Fields and on to St. Peter's Church, where Paul McCartney met John Lennon at a Sunday fête. A plaque now marks the spot where they first shook hands. In the graveyard behind the church is a stone with the name "Eleanor Rigby" carved on it. Paul's claim that he made the name up makes the gravesite visit an eerie experience, especially when you consider the lyrics: "Eleanor Rigby, died in the church and was buried along with her name, nobody came."
Another Beatles song comes to life as we drive through Penny Lane. Beatle Freak points out everything he sees as if I can't see it myself. "There's the barbershop, the roundabout and the fire station," he says frothing at the lips. "My God! It's just like in the song!"
After our bus tour, Rob and I walk the streets around the Lime Street train station. As expected, Beatle memorabilia is scattered about like cheese to attract tourists to the little Beatle traps that can be found, here, there and everywhere. There's an Abbey Road Oyster Bar, a Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds Cafe and a John Lennon Bar, all showing considerably less imagination than their namesakes.
I skip the theme restaurants (and leave Rob, who is trying on T-shirts that are way too small for him) in favor of a more authentic Beatle meal. Walking to the Mersey River I stop at a little stand to buy fish and chips and a Coke, which I eat wrapped in newspaper, just as the lads would've had it back in 1961. It tastes like crap.
At Albert Dock, I watch the ships come in. In its heyday, Liverpool was a major seaport, the last destination for slaves and immigrants as they made their way to the New World. More so than any other place in the city, the docks give a feeling of what it must have been like to grow up in Liverpool in the 1950s. John Lennon and George Harrison's dads worked on the docks and Ringo's dad drove the ferry across the Mersey.
The city's distinctly working-class weight can be felt strongly at the docks — a fertile sense of desperation, fueled by poverty and accented by the gray skies and cold wind coming in from the Atlantic. I pull my jacket tighter around my neck.
I take a cab back to Matthew Street, the short and windy road where the Beatles got their start. At the end of Matthew Street, located in the basement of a Victorian warehouse, is the Cavern Club. Between March 1961 and August 1963, the Beatles played here a staggering 275 times. Other luminaries to have played the Cavern include the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds.
In its day, the Cavern was a sweaty, stinking, rollicking place — "a cellar full of noise," as Beatles manager Brian Epstein put it. The original Cavern Club was partially destroyed during a retail expansion in 1973. Unfortunately, the reconstruction (and the adjoining Cavern Walks shopping center) has a bit of a suburban feel to it. It's more like the kind of place where people would do the Electric Slide than the birthing room for one of the greatest bands in rock 'n' roll history.
It's outside the Cavern that I find a more poignant monument to the Beatles. The bust of an angel protrudes from an industrial age brick wall across the alleyway. Phone lines cut in front of it and a drainage pipe runs not far from its side. In her arms, the angel is holding three cherubs. At her feet a sign reads: "Four Lads Who Shook the World."
I pause to look at it. Paint is peeling around the edges. The angel itself is dark, like stained concrete. "Why is she only holding three?" I wonder aloud, talking to no one in particular.
A passerby, a middle-aged British man, hears me and stops to look up. "It's John," he says. "The one who's missing. That's John." As he walks away, I remember reading in a magazine article that John's first wife Cynthia once said John wanted to stay young forever.
Looking up at the angel I realize that, in the most unfortunate way, that's exactly what happened.
Liverpool hosts an annual Beatles convention at the end of August. Accommodations include the Embassy Youth Hostel (0151 707 1089), the Campanile Hotel (0151 709 8104) or the more luxurious Britannia Adelphi Hotel (www.britannia-hotels.co.uk/).
Paul McCartney's childhood home, located at 20 Forthlin Road, has been made into a National Trust site. Tours depart from Albert Dock at 10 a.m., 10:50 a.m., 11:40 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and from Speke Hall at 3:10 and 4 p.m. Open March 31-Oct. 28 Wed.-Sat. and Nov. 1-Dec. 12 on Saturdays only. Call 0151 427 7231 for information.