The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields opens forever

Fans will no longer have to peer through the gates – the Salvation Army garden immortalised by John Lennon is opening for the first time. Plus five more Fab Liverpool sites

“Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields” urged John Lennon in 1967. Now, for the first time, everyone will be able to walk in his footsteps, when the gardens immortalised in the classic Beatles song are opened to the public on 14 September, alongside a new visitors’ centre, cafe and shop.

Housed in a sleek, modern, light-filled building, it is a stark contrast to the original Gothic mansion that stood there when Lennon was a young boy and would bunk over the wall to climb trees and play hide-and-seek in its garden. Built in 1878 for a shipping magnate in the wealthy Liverpool suburb of Woolton (the family of prime minister William Gladstone lived nearby, in another long-gone pile) it was bought by the Salvation Army in 1934 and turned into a children’s home.

Lennon lived round the corner with his Uncle George and Aunt Mimi, and as well as sneaking into the garden with friends, he loved the summer fete held at Strawberry Field (in the singular, Lennon added the “s”). His aunt once recalled: “As soon as we could hear the Salvation Army band starting, John would jump up and down shouting, ‘Mimi, come on. We’re going to be late!’”

Strawberry Fields visitor Centre and Exhibition.
The interactive exhibition, including a projection of the original Strawberry Field mansion. Photograph: Gavin Trafford

Years later, Lennon took this nostalgic post-war memory of summer tea parties and brass bands and, through the prism of psychedelia and LSD, used it as the inspiration for one of the most groundbreaking songs of the 1960s. The Beatles spent a then unheard-of 55 hours of studio time on the record, creating what Time magazine called a song of “astonishing inventiveness”, adding, the band “have bridged the heretofore impassable gap between rock and classical, mixing elements of Bach, Oriental and electronic music with vintage twang to achieve the most compellingly original sounds ever heard in pop music.”

The old house was demolished six years after the song’s release, and replaced by a smaller children’s home, which closed for good in 2005. But the locked gates didn’t deter Beatles fans turning up to peek through at the overgrown Strawberry Field – the Liverpool tourist board estimated that about 60,000 visitors did so last year.

The Beatles Strawberry Fields Forever promotional film, shot in Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent.

Owned and run by the Salvation Army, the attraction gives fans access to the last major missing piece in the Beatles jigsaw: the band has been so forensically analysed – with books chronicling every day of their existence and every note of music. Income generated from the exhibition will fund the charity’s Steps to Work programme, which helps young people with learning disabilities find employment through training, mentoring and work experience.

The interactive exhibition (adults £12.95, concessions £8, family of 3+2 £35) explores the history of both the Salvation Army and Lennon’s life, focusing on his childhood and the writing and recording of Strawberry Fields through archival footage, multimedia and interviews with Paul McCartney, George Martin and Julia Baird, his younger half-sister and president of the project. The most fun feature is the virtual Mellotron that teaches visitors to play the song’s unmistakable opening notes.

Strawberry Fields visitor Centre and Exhibition.
The visitor centre and garden. The stone bench in the foreground was part of the original Strawberry Field mansion. Photograph: Gavin Trafford

Another star attraction is the set of iconic wrought-iron red gates – or rather, both sets. The originals were stolen in 2000 but when the crime made the news the thieves realised what they had on their hands and dumped the gates at a local scrap metal merchant, who returned them the following day. Kept in storage ever since, they will now sit in a quiet corner of the garden, while the heavily-graffitied replicas – the site of a million selfies – will remain in place on the road at the former entrance.

The smart red-and-white cafe and landscaped gardens are free to enter, the latter designed to encourage meditation and spiritual reflection. The trees Lennon may once have climbed are still here, and in a clever touch, sections of the original mansion walls and steps (made from the same local red sandstone as Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral) are scattered around the garden, to be used as benches.

Lennon’s sister, Julia Baird, 72, who is honorary president of the Strawberry Field project, said the grounds of the home had been a “sanctuary” for the musician as a youngster.

She said: “I suppose as children we all have somewhere that’s a bit ours, a bit special. It might be a little hidey-hole under the stairs or it might be up an oak tree but it’s somewhere we take ourselves. It seems from the song that this was John’s special place.”

“The first time I visited John in New York I was struck just how closely his gothic Dakota Apartment building resembled the old Strawberry Field mansion. Perhaps he was searching for another sanctuary.”

MAGICAL HISTORY TOUR: five more Fab sites

Where they grew up

The lounge at ‘Mendips’, the childhood home of former Beatle, John Lennon in Liverpool.
The lounge at ‘Mendips’, the childhood home of John Lennon. Photograph: Phil Noble/PA

The childhood homes of John and Paul have been painstakingly restored by the National Trust to look almost exactly as they did in the 1950s. There is quite a contrast between Paul’s modest council house and John’s large middle-class semi, though the respective bedrooms – where John wrote Please, Please Me and his partner first strummed Love Me Do – are very similar. The attention to detail creates a wonderfully intimate atmosphere but what really brings the houses to life are the cracking family tales told by the guide/custodians: Sylvia at Paul’s and her husband Colin at John’s. At Paul’s house, even the aromas of the period have somehow been preserved: as I walked in I was instantly transported back to my great-aunts’ front parlours of the early 1970s.
Entrance by tour only, booking essential, adult £25, child £12.50 (£9.50/£4.75 for Trust members),

Where they met

The headstone of Eleanor Rigby in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church, Woolton.
The headstone of Eleanor Rigby in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church, Woolton. Photograph: Gavin McOwan/The Guardian

Lennon and McCartney famously met on July 6, 1957 at a summer fete at St Peter’s Church in Woolton, when Paul was introduced to John and his ragtag skiffle band, the Quarrymen. He impressed John with his superior playing of rock’n’roll numbers and was invited to join the group soon after. The church hall is occasionally open to visitors for tours and events, especially during Beatle Week, but perhaps of more interest is the gravestone of Eleanor Rigby (1894-1939) in the church cemetery over the road. While Paul has always denied the headstone inspired his 1966 composition, it is hard to believe he didn’t clock the name at some point, at least subconsciously – a mystery which adds a layer of intrigue to the song. Football fans should also look out for the grave of Liverpool legend Bob Paisley, the most successful manager in the history of English football.

Where they started out

Paul McCartney on John Lennon, then still known as the Quarrymen perform at their first concert at the Casbah Coffee House on August 29, 1959 in Liverpool, England.
Paul and John at the Quarrymen’s first concert at the Casbah Coffee House, on August 29, 1959. The stripy ceiling, which was painted by Paul, is still there. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

“People know about the Cavern ... but the Casbah was the place where it all started,” Paul McCartney has said. “We helped paint it and stuff. We looked upon it as our personal club.” The Casbah Coffee Club was opened in 1959 by Mona Best, mother of the band’s original drummer, Pete, in the basement of their large house in West Derby. It’s a far more atmospheric venue than the Cavern Club, the DIY interior has hardly been touched since the Quarrymen/Beatles played here. In fact the handiwork Paul refers to is still on show, inches above your head on the low basement ceilings that Mona ordered them to paint, as well as a silhouette of John on the wall by his wife-to-be Cynthia. Because they were done in lead-based paint, they have stood the test of time. The Casbah is run by Pete’s younger brother, Roag, who is also the founder and curator of the Magical Beatles Museum, which opened in Mathew Street last year. Growing up around the band and later writing about them, he has amassed an enormous personal collection of Beatles memorabilia, which has been intelligently curated here.
One-hour Casbah tours by arrangement, adults £15, 10-16s £7.50, under 10s free. Museum tickets: adults £15, under-16s £7.50, family £35

Come together: the complete story

SGT PEPPER costumes at the Beatles Story, Liverpool

The Beatles Story in Albert Dock holds the world’s largest permanent Beatles exhibition, with thousands of pieces of memorabilia displayed along an immersive journey that includes walk-through models of the Cavern, Abbey Road Studios and more. It’s the perfect introduction for Beatles beginners but there’s also plenty of obscure details and photographs here for fans to get excited about. Prize artefacts include John Lennon’s last piano, which he played the day he was killed; the so called “Holy Grail” demo disc pressed by Brian Epstein, which got the Beatles into Abbey Road for their first recording session; and George Harrison’s first guitar, which he purchased from a school friend and soon accidentally broke.
Adult £17, child £10-£13, family (2+2) £45,

The Ballad of John and Yoko

Imagine Peace sign at the John and Yoko Exhibition, Museum of Liverpool
The John & Yoko exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool Photograph: "PR

The Double Fantasy: John & Yoko exhibition at Museum of Liverpool has been visited by more than half a million people since it opened last year, and its run has been extended until 3 November. The exhibition is told through art, music, film and over personal objects loaned from Yoko, such as the couple’s famous Give Peace A Chance bedspread and her sunglasses mirroring Lennon’s wire NHS specs. The eminently quotable Lennon’s soundbites that are plastered all over the walls are as thought-provoking as they were when he ranted them half a century ago. These messages in bold black type are accentuated by gallery’s impressive all-white design, including a music room overlooking the Mersey, which evoke the famous grand piano video and the dreamy message of Imagine. But it’s not all peace, love and bed-ins at posh hotels. Given how protective Yoko has been of John’s legacy it seems surprising that she agreed to include recollections of their split in the 1970s; and one extract, about her husband’s infidelity at a party they arrived at together, really does show a differnet side of the man..
• Entrance free,

Where to stay

The Hard Days Night Hotel in the city centre, around the corner from the Cavern, is the place for the full Fab experience. It’s a large, modern hotel but the Beatles’ concept has been well thought out, all the memorabilia and photos making it a fun place to stay (though perhaps best avoided by non-Beatle-maniacs – they play nothing else in the bar, foyer and restaurant).
Doubles from around £90,

The trip was supported by Visit Liverpool. Travel was provided by Virgin Trains, which operates an hourly service between London and Liverpool from £17.50 one-way.


Gavin McOwan

The GuardianTramp

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