“Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields,” music legend John Lennon famously sang in 1967. On Saturday, for the first time in 70 years, Beatles fans will finally be able to take Lennon up on his offer.
A renovation project headed by the Salvation Army has reimagined the immortalized patch of Liverpool — which has stood derelict since the Strawberry Field Children’s Home closed in 2005 — as a combination Beatles-themed visitor center and learning hub for young adults with special needs.
The hope is that it will enable both Beatles fans and school leavers experiencing hard times to discover and benefit from the same tranquillity that drew Lennon to Strawberry Field as a boy.
“John found it was a sanctuary when he was going through troubled times that nobody explained to him and were inexplicable to anyone else,” Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, 72, tells PEOPLE.
“He found sanctuary there and a bit of comfort too — a bit of safety and security as well as a playground. And these youngsters are being offered exactly the same. They’re being offered a sanctuary.”
Featuring an interactive visitor exhibition called Strawberry Fields Nothing is Real, the visitor center details the history of both the Salvation Army and Lennon’s life, particularly his childhood.
“John felt drawn to Strawberry Field as a place of safety,” adds Baird, who is Honorary President of the Strawberry Field project. “In the exhibition, there’s a lovely photo of John in his ‘How I Won The War’ getup saying, ‘Anyone who’s done acting knows there’s lots of time to hang about.’ He was writing a poem at the time and he just kept coming back to it and revising it. During that time, ‘Strawberry Field’ as a name wasn’t even mentioned [in the poem]. That came in later back in Abbey Road [recording studios] with George Martin and Paul. It had a really deep meaning for John. He was thinking back to his place of sanctuary. He once said, ‘It is my only psycho-analytic poem.’”
Inside the exhibition, Strawberry Field includes a virtual Mellotron, where budding musicians can try to recreate the famous opening chords from Lennon’s iconic song. Fans can also sample local Merseyside produce at the Imagine More community café and pick up some genuine Strawberry Field history at the gift shop.
In a move that Lennon would no doubt have approved of, a calm garden space has also been created for spiritual reflection.
“The gates that were on the road have been moved to the meditation garden, which is a really lovely idea,” says Baird. “When they came in it was a really lovely moment. Lots of people were very tearful.”
Strawberry Field will be open every day. While it’s free to see the original gates, visit the café and explore the grounds, the interactive visitor exhibition costs £12.95 ($16). All money raised from the site will support Steps to Work, a Salvation Army project that helps local school-leavers gain employment. The program began in January and will begin operating from the state-of-the-art learning hub on Saturday.
“The youngsters who started nine months ago are already different people,” says Baird. “One young girl, who is desperately, desperately shy and has special needs – she wouldn’t have said boo to a goose when she arrived – we asked, ‘What has this done for you?’ She said, ‘Well, I was nothing. Now I’m not.'”
Baird herself has also found the process of creating the site something of an emotional journey. Like Lennon, she was raised in the streets near Strawberry Field and would visit once a year “for a summer fête to play games and listen to the Salvation Army band.” Yet she never had the same connection as her brother, who was tragically murdered in New York on Dec. 8, 1980.
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That has changed since she became involved with the project. “It has become very special,” says Baird. “I get it now. If John were alive it wouldn’t have been me talking here, it would have been John. But the guitar would have been against the wall for a bit of a sing-song.”