Day two of my recent road trip around North West Wales, visiting some Beatles locations along the way.
After spending the night in Porthmadog we were up and out early and heading towards the west coast of North Wales.
Originally I’d thought about driving to Pwllheli to see the site of the Butlins' holiday camp where Ringo had appeared with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes in 1960.
However, a bit of research beforehand confirmed the site as it was back then had been obliterated by redevelopment and I thought it was unfair to drag my family to look at something that ‘used’ to be there.
Instead we headed North to Caernarfon (or Caernarvon as the English used to call it).
Like Harlech, the small town of Caernarfon is dominated by another English-built castle, this one counted amongst Wales's most prized architectural treasures. As you approach, it’s easy to imagine how formidable it must have appeared in medieval times.
In addition to being one of the largest castles Caernarfon is also one of the best preserved and much of the structure is still intact.
Unfortunately due to the current lockdown restrictions the Castle wasn’t open to the public. In fact most of Caernarfon was shut, either due to the pandemic or the earlier recession. Even the charity shops looked to have permanently closed down. The Specials should write a song about it.
So, we didn’t get to go inside the castle this time, though we have done on a previous visit. This was a little disappointing because I wanted to take a Now and Then style photo recreating the image of the Harrison family taken on the grassy central area here in the late 1940s, on pretty much the same spot where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969.
Instead we settled for a nice pint at the Anglesey Arms, enjoying the fresh outdoor air on the harbour front and admiring the views of the Island of Anglesey just across the Menai Strait whilst sitting suitably socially distanced from other customers.
The Harrisons: George's sister Louise, George, his father Harold and his brothers Peter and Harry snapped on the same trip to Wales.
In 1956, Ringo Starr, then plain 15 years old Richy Starkey, was hired as a bar waiter on the TS St. Tudno, one of three pleasure steamers operated by the Liverpool and North Wales Steamship Company. From the 1890s until 1963 the company would ply their main route from Liverpool and Llandudno along the Menai Strait and around Anglesey, carrying up to 2,500 passengers a day during the summer season. Richy saw it as a stepping stone towards joining the Merchant Navy, which he thought would exempt him from National Service.
Being a sailor had a certain appeal for the ladies as well, Ringo later recalling chatting up girls using the line 'I'm in the navy. I just got back'. The suitably impressed young lady would then say 'when did you leave?' and he'd reply 'Ten o'clock this morning.'
He lasted about 5 weeks, arriving for work hung-over and insolent one morning he had words with his boss and was sacked on the spot.
We should have ordered food at the Anglesey Arms while we had the chance. Getting something to eat would be a problem for the rest of the day as we discovered at our next destination, Bangor
Bangor, about 10 miles north of Caernarfon is the oldest city in Wales.
The Beatles famously stayed here over the August bank holiday weekend in 1967.
On 24 August John, Paul, George and their partners attended a lecture by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on Transcendental Meditation held in the ballroom of the London Hilton.
The Beatles were given front row seats and later that evening met with the Maharishi in his hotel suite. During the meeting he invited them to be his guests at the ten-day seminar in Bangor (unbeknown to the local organiser).
George: Maharishi happened to be having a seminar in Bangor and had said ‘Come tomorrow and I’ll show you how to meditate.’ So the next day we jumped on a train and went.
Ringo wasn't present at the Hilton due to the recent birth of his and Maureen's second son, Jason. He got three late night phone calls from the other Beatles telling him to pack a suitcase.
Ringo: We all went to Wales to meet the Maharishi. The man was so full of joy and happiness and it just blew my mind ... I thought 'I want some of that.'
Professor Chris Collins (Bangor University): George Harrison had become very interested in what the Maharishi was teaching and he'd taken John and Paul to a session in London, which was immediately followed by the retreat here in Bangor at what was the Normal College, now part of Bangor University. They simply jumped on a train and were here within hours of deciding to do that.
Famously Cynthia Lennon got separated from the group at Euston station and the train left without her. Neil Aspinall drove Cynthia to Bangor, in a journey lasting around six hours, so she could rejoin the Beatles’ party.
George: Mick Jagger was also there. He was always lurking around in the background trying to find out what was happening. Mick never wanted to miss out on what the Fabs were doing.
In Bangor, a local Daily Post journalist called Iorwerth Roberts got wind of the story and informed Coleg Normal Bursar, Mr Gwyn Thomas, that the Beatles were on their way, accompanied by friends Marianne Faithfull and Mick Jagger.
Thomas was able to make some arrangements to accommodate the new guests in the residential warden flats, and to deal with the inevitable journalists and fans, who would come in their wake.
Professor Chris Collins:
Professor Chris Collins:The press were certainly very much clued into what was happening. There was a great interest in the fact that The Beatles seemed to have discovered eastern mysticism and there were suspicions around that in the press at the time. It really brought everyone to Bangor to follow them, as well as creating great interest locally.
It was not just the press who came - the fans flocked too. A large crowd had gathered at Bangor station to greet their arrival.
Ringo: (Maharishi) didn’t know who we were then, which was really fabulous. Only when we got off the train and he saw all the kids running, I think he might have felt ‘Wow, things are looking up for me’. They ran right past him and were looking in our faces and I think he realised that these boys could get his message ‘cross real fast.
Normal College, now part of the University Management Centre, viewed from College Road (2020) and the reverse view (1967)
Paul McCartney: The seminar was in a school, you sit around and he tells you how to meditate, then you go up to your room and try it. It was a bit funny going to those camps because it was like going back to school. Just the nature of it meant staying in a classroom and we’d been used to our nice comfortable homes or hotels so to be staying in an old school on a camp bed was a little bit disconcerting. Then trying to learn to meditate. It’s not that easy, you don’t just pick it up like that, it’s an effort and you’ve got to be involved, so it was like going back to school. And of course the food was all canteen food. But we were interested enough to learn the system, which we did. (Many Years From Now, Barry Miles)
Me outside Alun Hall, where the Maharishi stayed.
Dyfrdwy Hall, where the Beatles stayed 25-27 August 1967
A clip of the press conference can be found below.
Paul McCartney: There was a press conference. It was suggested that as we were going with the Maharishi, it might be a good idea to accommodate the press; it also saved them waiting around outside our windows. I don’t remember that we specifically said that we’d given up drugs – but at the time I think we probably had, anyway.
Senior Chinese Restaurant (on the right of photo)
On the Friday evening the group, plus partners, Mick, Marianne and Hunter Davies went to the Senior Chinese restaurant, the only such establishment open late in Bangor. At the end of the meal they realised they didn’t have enough money between them to pay the bill.
Hunter Davies: We went out to a Chinese restaurant in Bangor and ate on our own – just the Beatles, myself, maybe one or two others. When the bill came, we couldn’t pay. The Chinese waiter amazingly didn’t recognize them, and he was afraid we were going to do a runner. Suddenly, George put his bare foot on the table and opened the sole of his sandal, where he had hidden a £20 note. The Beatles were like the royal family. They didn’t have money, didn’t use money. But George had put this £20 note there just for this sort of situation.
The Senior, which proudly advertised itself as the first Chinese restaurant in North Wales stood in Bank Place, Garth Road, alongside the clock tower. The site has been redeveloped as a shopping precinct.
Saturday 26 August 1967
The Beatles leaving Dyfrdwy Hall on their way to see Maharishi. (L-R) Paul, still favouring yesterday's shirt and swerving the reporters, Ringo, George, Patti, Cynthia and John surrounded by the press.
The day after their arrival in Bangor the Beatles attended another seminar given by the Maharishi once again held in the main hall of the Hugh Owen Buildings.
The Lecture hall today is known as the John Phillips Hall and can be viewed via the entrance immediately after the Management Centre on College Road. The hall is not accessible to the public and usually requires student / staff swipe card to enter the building.
26 August 1967
Sunday 27 August 1967
On their second full day in Bangor the Beatles were individually inducted into Transcendental Meditation by the Maharishi.
Ringo Starr: It was another point of view. For the first time we were getting into Eastern philosophies – and that was another breakthrough.
Paul McCartney: The actual ceremony in Bangor when we got given the mantra was nice. You had to wait outside his room as he did people one by one, and then you got to go into the inner sanctum, just a room they’d put a lot of flowers in and a few drapes around, and lit a few joss sticks. You had to take some cut flowers to Maharishi as some sort of offering. It was all flowers with Maharishi, but flowers were the symbol of the period anyway so it was very easy. So you got your flowers, you took your shoes off and went into a darkened room where Maharishi was. It was quite exciting. It reminded me of Gypsy Rose Lee’s tent in Blackpool.
Marianne Faithfull would later recall that George and Patti were the "real spiritual seekers" and Lennon also, "in his own way", but McCartney was "very cynical" about the venture. Her observation is perhaps given some weight by the final sentence in Paul's recollections above. Was he ever fully on board on the journey to spiritual enlightenment?
Marianne Faithfull: We wanted to know about other disciplines of living. What the Maharishi told us was something to do with individuality, something whereby you could live without other people.
The strangest thing about that was that at the moment they were being given a philosophy in which they could live their lives as individuals, at that very second, Brian died. The one who had wanted them to be as a group.
While the Beatles sat at the feet of the Maharishi seeking spiritual enlightenment at his hands fate dealt them an appalling blow. It was in Bangor that they learned the shocking news of the death of their manager Brian Epstein. Tired and despondent over the weekend and unable to raise any friends Brian had retreated to his home in Chapel Street, Kingsley Hill.
On the evening of Sunday 27 August Epstein was found dead in his locked bedroom, apparently from an accidental overdose.
The Beatles were in the college grounds enjoying a late Sunday lunch when the pay phone in their dormitory began to ring continuously. Eventually Jane Asher answered it. Peter Brown, Brian's assistant asked to speak to Paul and gave him the shocking news. The Beatles were stunned.
Paul McCartney: It was stunning because we were off on this ‘finding the meaning of life’ journey and there he was dead.
George Harrison: It was very strange for it to happen at that precise moment when we’d just got involved with meditation. That may not sound like a big deal, but actually it was. It was a very big change in your life when you start making the journey inward, and for Brian to kick the bucket that particular day was pretty far out.
Somehow news of Brian's death had already reached the reporters still gathered outside the college.
Shortly after the phone call: A shell-shocked Paul McCartney and Jane Asher leave for London without speaking to the assembled press (including George Harrison of the Liverpool Echo - see above).
It was clear that the remaining Beatles wouldn't be left alone until one of them gave a statement.
Cynthia Lennon: The others came to our room to talk about who should speak on their behalf. John said he’d do it.
George Harrison: So we just packed up and went outside where the press where. There is footage of us saying we were ‘shocked and stunned’.
Ultimately all three decided to face the flashbulbs, giving an interview to Derek Bellis of Harlech Television (now part of ITN)
John Lennon: I don’t know what to say. We’ve only just heard, and it’s hard to think of things to say. But he was just… He was one of us, you know, and it’s terrible.
Q: What are your plans now?
Lennon: We haven’t made any, you know. I mean, we’ve only just heard.
Ringo Starr: Yes, you know, it’s as much news to us as it is to everybody else.
Q: John, where would you be today without Mr Epstein?
Lennon: I don’t know.
Q: Are you driving down to London tonight?
Lennon: Yes. Somebody’s taking us down. Yeah.
Q: You heard the news this afternoon, I believe, and Paul’s already gone down?
Q: You’ve no idea what your plans are for tomorrow?
Lennon: No, no. We’ll just go and find out, you know. And…
George Harrison: We just have to play everything by ear.
Q: I understand that Mr Epstein was to be initiated here tomorrow.
Q: When was he coming up?
Harrison: Tomorrow, just Monday. That’s all we knew.
Q: Had you told him very much about the spiritual regeneration movement?
Harrison: Well, as much as we’d learned about spiritualism and various things of that nature, then we tried to pass on to him. And he was equally as interested as we are, as everybody should be. He wanted to know about life as much as we do.
Q: Had you spoken to him since your, since you became interested this weekend?
Lennon and Starr: No.
Harrison: I spoke to him Wednesday evening, the evening before we first saw Maharishi’s lecture, and he was in great spirits.
Q: And when did he tell you that he’d like to be initiated?
Harrison: Well, when we arrived here on Friday we got a telephone call later that day to say that Brian would follow us up and be here Monday.
Q: Do you intend returning to Bangor before the end of this conference?
Harrison: We probably won’t have time now, because Maharishi will only be here till about Thursday and we’ll have so much to do in London that we’ll have to meet him again some other time.
Q: I understand that this afternoon Maharishi conferred with you all. Could I ask you what advice he offered you?
Lennon: He told us not to get overwhelmed by grief. And whatever thoughts we have of Brian to keep them happy, because any thoughts we have of him will travel to him wherever he is.
Q: Had he ever met Mr Epstein?
Lennon: No, but he was looking forward to meeting him.
Q: Have you a tribute that you would like to pay to Mr Epstein?
Lennon: Well, you know, we don’t know what to say. We loved him and he was one of us.
Harrison: You can’t pay tribute in words.
Q: What are your plans now?
Harrison: To return to London, and do whatever we can.
Q: Did the Maharishi give you any words of comfort?
Lennon: Meditation gives you confidence enough to withstand something like this, even the short amount we’ve had.
Harrison: There’s no real such thing as death anyway. I mean, it’s death on a physical level, but life goes on everywhere… and you just keep going, really. The thing about the comfort is to know that he’s OK.
Derek Bellis: It was a strange occasion, I suppose surreal is the word that sums it up. John did most of the talking and he said that the Maharishi had said they were to remember the happy things and the constructive things. It felt as if the Maharishi had made some quite neutral remarks, as you might describe them.
Ringo Starr: If you look at our faces in the film it was all a bit like ‘What is it? What does it mean? Our friend has gone.’ It was more ‘our friend’ than anything else. Brian was a friend of ours, and we were all left behind.
Paul McCartney: When anyone dies like that there is a huge shock of them being wrenched out of the picture, when you think ‘I’m not going to see him anymore.’ I loved the guy.
After driving Cynthia up to Bangor Neil Aspinall had gone to see friends who were on holiday in a caravan nearby. He didn’t attend any of the lectures. On the Monday morning when the news about Brian broke Neil was in Bangor where by pure coincidence he met Gerry Marsden on the beach in a rubber dinghy (like a small ferry). He told Gerry ‘and it was a real shock to him.’
George Harrison: We got in the car and drove back to London.
As for us, we got in the car and drove to LLandudno Junction where we finally managed to get some fish and chips.