Soon we're hitting all the biggies: Strawberry Field, a Salvation Army children's home sporting a Beatle graffiti—covered gate; Penny Lane, once a commercial street and now the name of the entire area (even if it technically ended at the roundabout in the song); the boyhood homes of all four Beatles. Nothing brings to life the band's working-class-hero origins like seeing the 1930's semi-detached house at 251 Menlove Avenue where John lived with his Aunt Mimi from 1945 to 1963, and Paul's narrow brick quarters at 20 Forthlin Road, the only council house to become a National Trust site.
Or, for that matter, walking down the brick alley leading to the re-creation of the Cavern Club, the hall where the pre-Ringo Beatles played 292 times. This is at the last stop of our pilgrimage, the Beatles Story, a museum in a refurbished brick warehouse on the Albert Dock along the river Mersey. It follows the trajectory of the Beatles' career in elaborate detail, displaying such memorabilia as the EMI tape machine on which the Beatles recorded much of their music. But equally cool is what's ersatz: in addition to the Cavern Club, the museum houses a replica of the passenger cabin of the Pan Am plane that brought the band to New York, and an explorable yellow submarine.
We've gotten what we wanted out of this trip, but how about our kids?Was our journey to Britain just one of those self-gratifying adult ideas dressed up to look as though it might be "fun for the whole family"?
We get our answer later that night, back at our London hotel. "Gabriel, can you help me write a letter to Ringo?" we hear Charlie ask. Gabriel looks up from the telly, which is tuned to the original British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It's couples night on the show, and, amazingly, the question is "Which Beatle was barefoot on the cover of the Abbey Road album?" Though the pair in the hot seat is stumped (as is their "lifeline"), Gabriel isn't. "Paul," he answers blithely, then settles down on the rug to transcribe the letter his brother dictates. "Dear Ringo," Charlie begins. "I really, really like you. . . ."
Richard Panek's forthcoming book is The Invisible Century (Viking). Meg Wolitzer's new novel, The Wife (Scribner), will be out in April.