We take a guided trip round the old haunts of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison
'So, we'll drive around Liverpool visiting all the Beatles' locations in an exact replica of the Magical Mystery Tour bus?'
'That's right, mate,' the Scouse drawl comes down the phone. 'Unless the bus breaks down, of course.'
Despite this rather inauspicious start, I've always been keen to see where the Fab Four legend was born, so I book a place on the bus, grab a camera and make my way down to Liverpool's Albert Dock.
A Beatles fan since childhood, I feel I've gleaned my share of nerdy mop-top facts and have a suitably fervid Fabs obsession. I've walked the Abbey Road zebra crossing (bare-footed, of course) and stood, craning a neck, outside Paul McCartney's near-by house. However, the diehards I met there – a group camped outside for days, and there was a woman who retraces Macca's 1960s walk from his house to the Beatles' studio every day – made me slightly nervous of meeting the crowd on the Mystery Tour charabanc.
Before the tour started, though, I had got wind that the Mystery Tour coach was unable to stop outside either Mendips – John Lennon's childhood home – or the church where John and Paul first met at a village fête in 1957, and where, almost unbelievably, there is a gravestone for an Eleanor Rigby.
Not wishing parking regulations to deny me a snap outside these two top Beatles draws, I head to St Peter's Church under my own steam. At the spot where Lennon's group, the Quarrymen, played their set watched by a 15-year-old McCartney – now nestling between the grave of the uncle who helped raise Lennon and legendary Liverpool manager Bob Paisley – I come across another tour. A private group, two Milanese and a Columbian, are being taken round in a taxi by a very animated and intense Scouse tour guide.
'You not doing a tour then, mate?' he asks me. 'Tomorrow,' I say. 'The Magical Mystery Tour.'
'Not good?' I ask.
'They're ok, but a bit basic. They don't even take you inside the pub that was on the front of Ringo's [uncelebrated, 70s solo album] Sentimental Journey. Can you believe that?!'
He then leads his group, who I'm unsure have more than a rudimentary grasp of English, back to the taxi reeling off facts about Quarrymen ex-members, and I watch as the three imploring faces look out of the window as the cab makes it way to some other obscure location.
At Mendips, I am just having my photo taken when a car hares up on the side of the pavement and parks quite illegally and indecorously on the grass in front of the house. An impatient father jumps out and pulls his son onto the wall and takes a picture, and then gets back in, yelling to get a move on, because they have another five stops to go. Well, it's one way to do the tour, I guess. Any hopes of actually getting inside Lennon's home, where he was raised by his uncle and the formidable Aunt Mimi are long abandoned, as it's a National Trust property with a waiting list stretching into the months.
Both Lennon and McCartney grew up in Liverpool's pleasant leafy southern suburbs. Visiting today, it's not so hard to imagine their lives in Woolton and Allerton respectively; the area feels relatively unchanged.
This evening, Paul McCartney is coming home, playing the Liverpool Echo Arena, and there are posters and a buzz all around town. When I arrive at the Magical Mystery Tour departure point the next morning, it becomes clear that many of my fellow tour party were in attendance. A couple of Italians who tell me how incredible Sir Paul was.
'Don't you think his voice has gone a bit?' I ask, having witnessed the McCartney horror show at the 2012 Olympics. 'Oh, we were singing too loudly to hear what he sounded like,' they tell me. And I suppose this is the point. It doesn't matter what McCartney does now; it's what he represents.
We're welcomed onto the coach by the chipper tour guide ('Where are you from, love? New Zealand? And you? Finland? We haven't had many Fins. Manchester? You've come down here for the culture have you?'), and we're off. First stop: Ringo's home.
Ringo's old stomping ground is now all boarded up and looking rather sorry for itself, but still the cameras flash. Pictures are taken of everything. I even see one Japanese taking a picture of his ticket to join the tour, and when we pull up outside George Harrison's house, the tiniest one-up one-down you could ever imagine, I feel sorry for the residents inside as flashes pop outside their windows, a child tries to play outside, finding space around the tour party that takes up the whole of the ginnel-like Arnold Grove. The neighbouring house is up for sale; Harrison's besieged old house itself has a huge 'Beware of the dog!' sign.
Back on the bus we travel through the Liverpool streets, soundtracked by Beatles tunes and a running commentary on the sights and the history, though what the Japanese man, translating everything for his wife, makes of the intricate details of how The Beatles changed managers and their various contract wranglings is unclear.
The stories keep coming as we head to Mendips, and a plump mother and daughter duo from Birmingham, who have been looking emotional since we were queuing up outside the Mystery Tour bus, burst into tears as our tour guide recounts the tale of Lennon's childhood and the death of his mother. When we're informed that the bus won't be stopping, handkerchiefs are stuffed away and howls of complaint ring out. I sit back, smug that I came yesterday.
Our briefly beleaguered tour guide atones, as we pass Lennon's first house in Newcastle Road, with insider information that the secret bidder, when it was recently put up for sale, was none other than Yoko Ono. That seems to mollify our bus of Beatles nerds. Soon we're outside Strawberry Fields and the two Brummie blubbers are touching the (replica) gates and welling-up again.
It does seem rather surreal to be driving around Liverpool in a bright Magical Mystery Tour bus, and we become the object of Beatles spotters' attentions ourselves as we snake down Penny Lane and cameras are pointed our way as the bank where the banker never wore a mac, and the shelter in middle of the roundabout (pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray: absent), are pointed out to us. I note, however, one of our party has had a perma-scowl since we boarded the bus.
I ask his friend what's wrong.
'Oh – he has no interest in The Beatles at all. I'm the one who's crazy about them,' The non-Beatle Believer looks up from his phone: 'I've never even really heard them,' he says, glumly.
His friend has paid for them to come over from New York for this and has enough enthusiasm for both of them.
'I had friends who lived in the Dakota building when Lennon lived there. I walked past his open front door once. I saw his white piano!' he tells me with great excitement
'Don't tell the others here,' I tell him. 'They'll all want to touch you.' He suddenly looks uncomfortable, eyeing the 20-stone Canadian in the McCartney T-shirt, whose ears have pricked up in the seat in front of him.
Next stop is 20 Forthlin Road, Paul McCartney's childhood home. It is now another National Trust property with a long waiting list: only 15 people are allowed in at a time to see the re-created homes – Forthlin Road, with mismatching 50s furniture and tatty curtains to represent the lower class of the McCartneys, compared to house-proud Aunt Mimi.
We drive along past Dovedale Junior School, which Lennon and Harrison both attended, three years apart, and the church where McCartney was a choirboy, but the locations are starting to get a bit too obscure for me. The guide starts pointing out a park where Lennon's parents went on dates in the 50s and possible locations for each of the Fab Four's literal conception. As we pause at Beatles' manager Brain Epstein's favourite synagogue, I feel our two-plus hours on the tour is starting to peter out.
The rest of the congregation are all smiles though, and full of thanks and handshakes as we disembark for a final time outside the Cavern.
The Beatles aficionados mill around the rebuilt – fraudulent – Cavern Club, admiring the few genuine Beatles artefacts, while hovering with uncertainty around the signed photos of Ray Quinn and pictures of 'The Fonz' visiting the club. I take this chance to have a chat with our guide for a final time. He tells me that when all the touring bands come to Liverpool, they all join the Mystery Tour. The day before, The Flaming Lips were on the coach. Everyone wants to see the Beatles sights. This tour has been running since 1983 and it's not nearly the longest running in town. He hasn't had to research any of the stories or the places on the tour: 'You're just born with this kind of information in Liverpool.'
As the New Yorkers alight the bus I ask the reluctant tourist how he's finally enjoyed it.
'Yeah, it's pretty good.' he reflects. 'If you like the Beatles.'
And you can't say fairer than that.