Out on my usual weekend bike ride recently, I ended up in the village of West Malling. Seeking a cup of tea and something to eat before riding home, I found that my favoured West Malling tea shop, The Hungry Guest, had diners overflowing through the open shop front onto a sunny pavement. There was no tea to be had there. Pondering my next move I spotted a blue plaque on the wall of an establishment calling itself the Rain Grill. It had the air of a tiny public library, which for some reason had a sign over the window showing pictures of hotdogs and kebabs.
What was a blue plaque doing on a building like this? I went closer to have a look.
1960s ROCK BAND
FILMED THE START OF
THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
Getting home after my ride, I decided to find out more. It turned out that the Rain Grill was a newsagents in 1967, where John sells tour tickets to Ringo at the beginning of Magical Mystery Tour. This was part of extensive filming in the village and at the nearby airfield. Reading about the famous I Am The Walrus section, I learned that the vaguely post apocalyptic setting for the performance was actually an area of monolithic anti-blast walls at RAF West Malling. That area, and the airfield it was part of, have both now disappeared beneath a housing development called Kings Hill, which I actually rode through on my way home.
It seemed a shame the Beatles were not commemorated in the road names of Kings Hill. There is no I Am The Walrus Close. Deciding to become a pop archaeologist – which I know is not a real job – I set to studying maps and pictures, trying to work out where the blast wall location used to be. There were two groups of walls protecting aircraft dispersal pens, one to the east of the airfield and one to the south. The Beatles used the eastern group.
Have a look at this still from the Magical Mystery Tour shoot:
John is standing beside a dispersal pen, a series of blast walls marching away in a line to John’s left, the North Downs visible in the background. This would put him roughly in the location indicated by the red arrow on this 1960 aerial view of the airfield, overlaid with a street plan of Kings Hill. I have circled the sequence of dispersal pens visible behind John:
The overlaid street plan seems to indicate that the photo of John and his piano was taken in the vicinity of what is now a roundabout where roads called Beacon Avenue and Glenton Avenue meet.
I rode back to Kings Hill a few days afterwards, taking a mystery tour of my own. There was a certain thrill in setting out to find a roundabout, rather than, say, Buckingham Palace.
Here are the results of my adventure. As far as I can tell, this is the same view as that seen in the Magical Mystery Tour photo, 52 years on:
You can see the top of the North Downs behind the roundabout. Where the sequence of blast walls once stood there is now a public garden. Perhaps we can see a faint visual echo of the lost walls on the roundabout, which is topped by a blocky installation of broken stone, as seen below:
So that concludes my little piece of pop archeology. It might only have taken me to a roundabout, but such a humble destination seems oddly fitting when you’re thinking about a mystery tour.
Pop philosopher is no more a real job than pop archaeologist, but I will leave you with this thought – it’s the idea itself of a mystery tour that is the most interesting place it takes us. A mystery tour is a journey carefully planned so that the people taking the trip don’t know what the plan is. There is a mixture of purpose and aimlessness about it – in fact aimlessness is the entire purpose of the trip, an idea which I came to see as rather inspiring. Next time you feel lost, try thinking of your situation as a magical mystery tour where not having a clue where you are and where you’re going is all part of things proceeding just as they should. It’s a different way of expressing that famous line from All You Need Is Love: “there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”