Woolton like its near neighbour Gatacre, is rather ‘posh,’ but we weren’t just there to mingle with the locals. No, this was to be a pilgrimage. I came here many times in my youth, often on my bike which weighed about two hundred times more than the one we’d seen outside Coast, but this was Marigold’s first ever visit.
You see, Woolton is much more than a well-heeled village full of desirable cottages and enticing restaurants. It’s where one of the greatest influences on my youthful self first came into being. There are many clues scattered about, but first of all we went to visit a graveyard.
Regular blog readers will know we do like a good graveyard, but this one has been attracting thousands of visitors every year for half a century now. I was pleased to see only a woman and her dog were in attendance. Some days there are dense crowds in here. Most of them, but not all, come to look at a simple headstone marking the last resting place of Eleanor Rigby.
Yes, of course you know that name…
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?
All the lonely people Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people Where do they all belong?
Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working
Darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there
What does he care?
All the lonely people Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people Where do they all belong?
Died in the church and was buried along with her name
Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved.”
Surely, that’s one of the most poignant song lyrics ever written. When Tommy Steele was performing in a show in Liverpool in 1981, he made an offer to Liverpool City Council to create a sculpture as a tribute to the Beatles. His fee for the commission would be three pence (half a sixpence)*
If you don’t ‘get’ the half a sixpence reference, you’re obviously too young. In which case, you’ll be quite used to asking Google about this. Or even Alexa, if she’s not in tyrannical mood.
The offer was accepted by the Council, as it would be expected to increase the tourist trade of the city, and they made a donation of £4,000 towards its cost. The statue took nine months to make, and was unveiled by Tommy Steele on 3 December 1982.
Dedicated to ‘all the lonely people,’ the statue forms part of a bench situated in Stanley Street, not far from the site of the original Cavern Club in Matthew Street, Liverpool.
In the dim and distant past, back when we were in gainful employment, Marigold worked in a Barristers’ Chambers on Stanley Street and I used to sit next to Eleanor on the bench outside while I waited to collect her at the end of the day.
I must have been asked to move to allow a tourist to take a seat on dozens of occasions. I was also asked, many times, if I knew where the ‘Beatles Song’ bench was, to which I could reply, ‘I’m sitting on it. Meet my friend Eleanor Rigby.’
I’ve referenced my teenage visits to the Cavern Club elsewhere in this blog - look out for 'Brexit and Beatles' - but this trip today was to explore an even earlier period in ‘Beatles’ history.
The woman with the dog turned out to be an amazing woman named Mary. I don’t think we were properly introduced to the dog, but like Border Collies everywhere there was no need; her job was to round us up and herd us in a bunch to where we were going.
Mary was of similar ‘vintage’ to myself and her recollections of her early life mirrored my own in so many ways. We knew all the back streets of Liverpool from long ago, had both also lived in the pretty village that Huyton used to be before it expanded so drastically, and not in a good way. Fabulous company, we loved her gentle old dog as well.
She walked with us to the Eleanor Rigby gravestone and said she always came here on every visit to Woolton. Paul McCartney claims to have forgotten how his choice of the name Eleanor Rigby came about, but as a ‘local’ he certainly spent many hours in this area as the graveyard was a popular venue for young men of the time to meet up, drink beer and smoke illicit substances.
We agreed Woolton was a special place, one of the very few surviving villages of ‘old Liverpool’ and had lost little of its appeal over the years. Yes, it’s got vibrant bars and cafes, several of the millionaire footballers playing for Liverpool and Everton live here, and it’s undeniably ‘upmarket ,’ but it’s still a village with all of the charm that word conveys.
Mary was also a Liverpool FC fan of long standing. Not as long as me, very few can reach that level of devotion over almost an entire lifetime, but she had at least half a century of constant support behind her. It was gratifying, therefore, to be able to take her just a bit deeper into the maze of gravestones to find the other place of pilgrimage for which this burial ground is famous: the grave of one of the greatest former Liverpool Managers, Bob Paisley. Mary was thrilled and said she would bring flowers next time to add to those decorating ‘Sir’ Bob’s grave.
Two huge ‘attractions’ in one graveyard, but St. Peter’s Churchyard wasn’t finished with us yet. Also here is the grave of George Toogood Smith, the uncle, through marriage, of John Lennon.
George Smith married Lennon’s Aunt Mimi and they set up home in a semi-detached house called ‘Mendips’ at 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton. John lived with ‘Uncle’ George and his Auntie Mimi for the majority of his childhood, and George was a big influence on the young John, reputably taught him to read, draw and paint, and bought him his first mouth organ.
Thank you, George.
Opposite the graveyard is the church hall and it was here that John Lennon first met Paul McCartney on 6th July 1957. John had formed a skiffle group called the Quarry Men – because Woolton was surrounded by sandstone quarries, and Lennon attended Quarry Bank school.
The Quarrymen played outdoors at the St. Peter’s summer fete, then again in the evening at the church hall, where Paul was introduced to John by a mutual friend; within a few weeks he had joined the group. George Harrison, a younger, very shy lad from Speke later joined as well and the line-up that included three of the future Beatles performed at the Village Club in the centre of the Woolton in 1959. The events that would change the lives of many millions of teenagers, including me, were set in motion.
We went for a walk around Woolton, it’s not a very big place so not too arduous a task. Lots of restaurants, the Istanbul Bistro was full with people queuing outside, many independent shops and cafes, very much our sort of place. This village is ridiculously pretty with lots of lovely cottages bedecked with flowers. There was a wedding party filling the street outside the church, all shapes and sizes and all dressed to the nines. We shuffled past feeling a bit scruffy amongst all those peacocks.
Woolton Picture House is a real old school cinema with a garish red entrance. It opened in 1927 and its Art Deco styling is unmistakable while the public baths displayed a notice advising us that both John Lennon and Paul McCartney swam there. Both attractions are under threat of closure and making full use of the Beatles connection.
There were numerous mansions in the area, this has been a haven for seriously wealthy people for a century or more, all constructed from sandstone taken from the many quarries that surround the village with demand for stone being constant throughout the Victorian Age. One Woolton quarry supplied the stone to build Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Now that’s a lot of stone!
‘Is that it now? No more Beatles stuff?’ I can always tell when Marigold is flagging. I instantly assured her the rest of the day would be devoid of Beatles references; a pledge I was (somewhat inadvertently) forced to break within half an hour.
We were on the way out (a phrase I suspect doctors mutter to themselves every time they see my name on an appointment list) of Woolton when I realised what road we were driving along.
Avenue is a very long, very busy road, made even busier by tourist buses doing the ‘Beatles Tour.’ Fortunately, today, outside number 251 we were the only gawpers.*
*Gawpers. I’m reasonably confident this has been the first time I have ever written this word. I say it out loud quite often, Marigold says it even more frequently, but as for writing it down, never.
We noticed a house for sale in Menlove Avenue, rather grander than number 251, with a guide price of ‘offers over £2,200,000. Well, that takes us out of the running.
‘Mendips’ was bought by Yoko Ono in 2002 and donated by her to the National Trust. They opened it to the public on Saturday 29 March 2003. Paul McCartney’s childhood home was not far away, number 20, Fortlin Road in neighbouring Allerton, but we’d done enough ‘gawping’ for one day.
Well, not quite, as it turned out as I found myself singing Strawberry Fields Forever and took this to be a sign! We went to the top of Woolton Hill – officially the highest point in Liverpool – where there’s a water tower and from this vantage point it was easy to get to our own high spot of the day.
I used to do a little light trespassing in the grounds of the former ‘Sallie Army’ home at the age of about 14. Most of my distinctly dubious mates from Inner Liverpool were no strangers to this area and the Salvation Army Home was the main reason for coming.
John Lennon had been a frequent visitor to Strawberry Field, both on official visiting days and otherwise. He wrote the song as Strawberry FIELDS and everybody I knew in my youth used the same term - always Strawberry Fields, never Strawberry Field, despite the self evident fact of those famous gateposts bearing the words ‘Strawberry Field.’
Those red gates were never, as far as I recall, locked and the ‘Sallie Army Kids’ were often out and about in the village and mostly went to local schools. Despite it being a place we were told to stay away from, hence making it even more attractive.
The ‘inmates’ weren’t offenders, this place wasn’t a Borstal, they weren’t orphans either, just children from the poorest areas of Liverpool whose parent’s couldn’t afford to feed or clothe them. I played football with boys who didn’t own any shoes and actual poverty was a reality back then in the early 1950s, unlike the alleged paupers of today. Not owning a Play Station doesn’t mean you’re poor.
My friends and I made friends with several ‘Strawbs’ and a couple were even allowed to join ‘our’ gang. Obviously this was a great honour.
‘New gates,’ I said to Marigold on arrival. Nothing stays the same and the big old house I remembered so vividly has long gone, but the new gates were still the same intense shade of red.
The Salvation Army’s children’s home at Strawberry Field was in existence from 1936 until 2005 and the young John Lennon, like most of his contemporaries (and a few years later mine too), used to play in the grounds, often being told off for this when he got home.
He referenced the vivid imagery used by his Aunt Mimi whenever his many transgressions came to light and I’ve always assumed this explained the ‘nothing to get hung about’ reference in the song lyric.
‘Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields.
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.
Strawberry Fields forever.’
Strawberry Field is still owned and operated by The Salvation Army, but nowadays, like so many areas of this city, it’s part of ‘Beatles Tourism’ and visitors are welcome. Not for us - best part of £30 to wander around the grounds and visit a gift shop – no thank you. We prefer young Lennon’s system of nipping over the back fence.
Not that we did that today, of course. Marigold frowns on such antisocial behaviour. I told her she’d have struggled to be accepted in our gang. She didn’t appear crushed by the revelation.