'Strawberry Fields forever' proves an illusion as Lennon's favourite childhood playground closes

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John Lennon's blissful summer days flogging lemonade bottles for a penny apiece at garden parties in its grounds inspired one of the Beatles' greatest tracks and has made it a shrine for millions.

John Lennon's blissful summer days flogging lemonade bottles for a penny apiece at garden parties in its grounds inspired one of the Beatles' greatest tracks and has made it a shrine for millions.

But the children's home immortalised in "Strawberry Fields" has become commercially unviable and is to close, it was revealed yesterday.

The Salvation Army, which runs the home, a five-minute walk from Mendips, Lennon's childhood house in Woolton, Liverpool, said that the current preference of placing children with foster carers rather than institutions had meant that the number of children being cared for there had dwindled to three.

"Care for young people has moved on significantly and we are responding to that change," said Marion Drew, the Salvation Army's North-west divisional leader. Foster parents will be found for the home's remaining children and its 30 staff re-located.

The redundancy of the Victorian building comes 11 years after Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, donated more than £50,000 in 1984 to keep it afloat, in identical circumstances. Lennon also left money to it in his will, prompting a unit geared towards 16 to18-year-olds on the verge of leaving the establishment to be built as Lennon's Court.

The orphanage, which was founded in 1936, was something of a forbidden place for Lennon, whose guardian, Aunt Mimi, believed that the orphans would lead him astray.

But Lennon, who was given up by his mother after his father walked out on them, felt rather that the orphans were his kindred spirits. When arguments ensued on the matter at home he would retort to his aunt: "What are they going to do, hang me?"

Thus the song's immortal opening lyrics: "Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields. Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about."

The period when Lennon composed the song was one of momentous change and dislocation in his life. His marriage was failing, the Beatles had just retired from touring after one of their most difficult periods and, significantly for the song's surreal lyrics, he was using increasing quantities of the hallucinogenic LSD.

The result was released in February 1967, part of a double A-side single with the McCartney composition, "Penny Lane". The song had its roots in the nostalgia of days with his childhood friends, Pete Shotton and Ivan Vaughan, at the Strawberry Field orphanage (Lennon added the 's'). Despite being regarded by many Beatles fans as one of Lennon's best songs, it was the band's first single after 'Love Me Do' not to make No 1 in the British charts.

Down the years, the song has enticed thousands of fans to the distinctive, graffiti-laden perimeters of the home, on Beaconsfield Road, Woolton. Four years ago, the well-known red wrought-iron gates were stolen, only to fetch up in a nearby scrapyard. A year later, to mark the 60th anniversary of Lennon's birth in October 1940, a playground was opened at the house.

Yesterday, the British Beatles Fan Club called on Ono, or some other benefactor, to intervene and preserve the site. "It's a pilgrimage site for many Beatles' fans," said the club's spokesman, Dave Bedford. "Along with The Cavern and Penny Lane it's one of the main places they want to see when they visit Liverpool."

Ono has contributed handsomely to Liverpool's Beatles industry, laying out £150,000 to purchase "Mendips", on Menlove Avenue, for The National Trust two years ago. But the chances of the same treatment for the orphanage seem remote. Both Liverpool City Council and the National Trust indicated yesterday that they had no preservation plans for Strawberry Field.

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