A musical journey into the heart of Beatle land
The children were silent as they stepped into the tiny cellar. They looked with awestruck eyes towards the stage as the opening chords of A Hard Day's Night belted out around the pillars.
This full-size replica of The Cavern Club, and the Abbey Road studio where a certain beat combo recorded their first single with sceptical producer George Martin, are highlights of The Beatles Story exhibition in Liverpool's Albert Dock.
Although the home of the world-conquering Merseybeat sound has two magnificent cathedrals on the hill above its windy waterfront, this tribute to the Fab Four is probably the pilgrimage that today's children will recall from a visit to this absorbing city. The legend of The Beatles and their global impact on the 1960s burns brighter than ever, nearly half a century on.
My first visit to their hometown was in the sixties. I often wondered, on later visits, why it was so hard to find a hotel with good views of the Mersey. Maybe Liverpool's reign as European Capital of Culture 2008 solved that problem.
That event drew 15 million visitors to cultural events and big attractions, generated £800 million (Dh4.8 billion) for the economy, and established Liverpool as the biggest draw to foreign visitors outside London – with tourist numbers up nearly 190 per cent since 2000.
Now a string of new hotels, for all tastes and pockets, lines the waterfront alongside the Three Graces – the Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool buildings, all landmarks depicting the city's greatness in the 19th century.
Our base was Jurys Inn Hotel, next door to Albert Dock – named a World Heritage site in 2004 for its magnificent Grade 1-listed buildings – and a conference and convention centre that stages anything from concerts to political meetings.
A short walk away is the Liverpool One shopping centre, a £1bn scheme that has turned five acres of urban dereliction into such an array of designer names and quality shops that I fear for the rest of the city's traders.
Each morning, my son and I pulled back the curtains of our sixth-floor room to see ferries bound for Ireland loading cars and lorries on the Birkenhead side of the river. Distant lights twinkling in the dawn signalled a great city stirring slowly into life.
We emerged each morning on the quayside, clutching our plastic Liverpool mini-break cards for free and discounted entry to top attractions, and special offers on travel, dining and leisure across the city.
To pack the key sights into a short stay, get 24-hour tickets for the 'hop on, hop off' sightseeing bus that takes in The Cavern, Cathedrals, Chinatown, Albert Dock, Mersey Ferry terminal, the Walker Art Gallery and the Tate Liverpool. A bargain at £8 per adult, £4 per child.
To explore the Liverpool of the past, we headed for the Maritime Museum, which has astonishing tales of the bitter struggle between the Merchant Navy and Nazi subs in the frozen wastes of the Atlantic in the Second World War. Equally moving are the deckchairs and cushions plucked from the sea as hundreds were swept to their death in the notorious sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine in the First World War.
In the same building, the International Slavery Museum details the role of prominent Liverpool-based merchants among exhibits that include original shackles, chains and instruments used for slave punishment. Liverpool gets a brand new museum in 2011, in a huge waterfront building that is still boarded up.
Outside our hotel, a mini-bus service by the National Trust took visitors to the terraced house in the suburb of Woolton where John Lennon spent his early years in the care of his Aunt Mimi, and also to the childhood home of Sir Paul McCartney.
That service could soon be standing-room only, with the recent release of Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor-Wood's film about Lennon's early life.
On Friday evening, though, the mood was subdued in the hotel bar – the lull before the storm, they said, of a big clash at Anfield the next day.
Next morning, as a taxi whisked us up Scotland Road, I was suddenly going back to the Liverpool of grim terraces that I recalled from 35 years ago – though I would hardly have dreamed then that a shirt carrying the name of star striker Fernando Torres would sell for £99.50 in the club's souvenir shop, with no lack of takers. Back in the 1970s, that was almost a deposit for a house!
Premier League match-day breaks arranged by Thomas Cook feature an entertaining build-up to kick-off: a hot or continental breakfast; a gift (mine was a leather Liverpool FC wallet probably not large enough for Senor Torres); and a tour of the ground and its impressive museum before the crowds pour in.
With seats now fitted, I have to say, the stand at the end that they famously call The Kop (after a Boer War battleground) is a shadow of the place where I stood nervously as Anfield greats such as Ian St John and Ron Yeats hurtled fearsomely towards me all those decades ago. But when the ground belts out You'll Never Walk Alone before kick-off, you sense a passion unrivalled on any other ground in Britain. Fans may struggle to distinguish one Spanish midfielder from another, but their pride in their club and captain Steven Gerrard burns as brightly as ever.
Next day, alas, there wasn't time for much more than a sprightly walk around the Georgian and early Victorian terraces of Liverpool 8, the historic centre of the city – which produced prime ministers in the early 19th century and award-winning boutique hotels at the end of the 20th. Some of the oldest streets were saved in the Liverpool One project. The terraces of Rodney, Canning, Percy and other streets are so well-preserved that Liverpool has its own book in the Pevsner guides to Britain's historic buildings.
When 20th-century planners and developers ran wild, too many of the city's gems were hidden or flattened. At last, the mix of ancient and modern is just about right. In truth, there is little reason for leaving this Magical Mystery Tour before you see all you wish to see: the expansion of hotels has squeezed room rates, and the landladies who kept Liverpool afloat in dark days before tourist hordes descended must be bemoaning their luck.
In the evening, of course, it is time to explore Liverpool's numerous pubs, clubs and places to eat. The Monro is a gastropub, while Alma de Cuba, inside the conversion of the former Catholic Church of St Peter's, is among the most popular bars. Liverpool nightlife is, and always has been, in a class of its own.
- A number of international airlines including Emirates and Etihad Airways operate several flights to London and Manchester. From there, connections are available to Liverpool via air, road or train.
- Best time to go: Year-round.
- Don't miss: Albert Dock – for The Beatles Story, Tate Liverpool, classy restaurants and coffee bars.
- Need to know: National Trust urges you to book tours of Lennon and McCartney homes in advance on www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
- Don't forget: City Spots guidebook from Thomas Cook
- More information available on www.VisitLiverpool.com.
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