Fans will no longer have to peer through the gates – the Salvation Army garden immortalised by John Lennon is opening for the first time, with an interactive exhibition
“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!’”
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.
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. 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.”