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Travel

Exploring Tittenhurst Park: John Lennon's 'Imagine' house

@SamWKemp

If you’re looking for a visual representation of how drastically John Lennon’s life changed, you’re best off comparing two photographs. The first is of the Beatle standing in front of his pebble-dashed childhood home on Menlove Avenue, Liverpool, with his aunt Mimi. The second is of the same man, now much years older, clutching Yoko in front of their ivory manor in Ascot. It was here, at Tittenhurst Park, that Lennon recorded the video for ‘Imagine’. Indeed, despite only housing the former Beatle for a few years, Tittenhurst saw many of Lennon’s most iconic moments. The famous picture of Lennon playing his white grand piano was taken in the mansion’s home studio, where he also recorded the vengeful ‘How Do You Sleep?’, an unashamed stab at his former bandmate Paul McCartney.

Today, Tittenhurst Park is a very quiet place, but back in 1969, it was filled with life. The Georgian, Grade II listed building dates back to 1737, although its stunning facade is from around 1830. At the height of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1869, Tittenhurst was the property of Thomas Holloway, a philanthropist who founded both the Holloway Sanatorium and the Royal Holloway College. By 1898, the mansion was in the hands of Thomas Hermann Lowinsky, the general manager of a coal mine in Hyderabad, India. Lowinsky was digging things up at home too. As an active member of the Royal Horticultural Society, he was an avid gardener and, on purchasing Tittenhurst, set about transforming it into a botanical haven, planting an award-winning rhododendron garden and transplanting countless rare trees from around the world.

This little microcosm of the empire fell into the hands of countercultural figurehead John Lennon in the late 1960s. In an attempt to escape the mayhem of London, John and Yoko bought the property with the money from the sale of their home in Kenwood, Surrey. It’s said that the Beatle was immediately attracted to the mansion because it bore a striking resemblance to Calderstone House in Liverpool, where Lennon had spent many a sunny day in childhood. For £145,000, Lennon and Yoko secured not only the mansion but a mock Tudor cottage, various servents’ cottages, and the gardens.

The pair quickly set about adapting Tittenhurst to their tastes, planting only black and white flowers in the garden, building an artificial lake flanked with cherry trees, and transforming one of the neoclassical outbuildings into a temple for the Hare Krishnas. There were even a couple of donkeys wandering around. It was from these same gardens that a young Vietnam veteran called Claudio would emerge one summer day to approach Lennon for a bizarre and fascinating conversation. The 23-year-old American fan had travelled from America to meet his hero and had sent countless letters to the address in the months leading up to his arrival. In the 2018 Imagine John Yoko book, Dan Richter – the pair’s assistant at the time – notes: “Apparently Claudio was a shell-shocked veteran who was due to be released from the hospital”. According to Lennon, Claudio’s letters always said the same thing: “I’m coming and then I’ll only have to look in your eyes and I’ll know”.

Lennon’s team assured him that the “mad fan” wouldn’t actually show up, but of course he did. Initially, Richter wanted to call the police and have Claudio arrested, but Lennon told them to let him in and give him a cup of tea. Claudio both wanted to meet join and vehemently believed that he was John, or at least that they had some spiritual connection. For the next hour or so, Lennon attempted to help Claudio realise his beliefs were utterly detached from reality. John recalled the meeting in an interview held the week after: “[Claudio] looked in my eyes and he didn’t get any answer. He thought the whole thing was about him and I said, ‘No, it’s about me.’ It might strike a corresponding chord in your experience because we all have similar experiences but it’s basically about me and if it’s not about me, it’s about Yoko. I said. ‘You better get on and live your own life, you’re wasting your time trying to live mine’.”

Following the Beatles’ split in 1970, Lennon and Ono built a recording studio on the estate grounds, naming it Ascot Sound Studios. Clearly, they intended to stay at Tittenhurst for many years to come, but it wasn’t to be. In 1973, Lennon sold the house and grounds to Ringo Starr after deciding to live long-term in New York. Starr kept Tittenhurst ticking over, changing the name of the studio to Starling Studios and making it available to other artists. T. Rex filmed chunks of their Born to Boogie film there, and cult folkie Nick Drake is even said to have dropped in for a cup of tea at one point. Heavy metallers Black Sabbath and Judas Preist also recorded at Tittenhurst, with the latter intending to use Starling Studios to record British Steel. They later found the house itself to be more suited to their needs.

The music-making came to an end in 1988 when Starr sold Tittenhurst to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and former ruler of Abu Dhabi. Since then, many of the remnants of John and Yoko’s time at the house have been removed or sold off, with one auctioneer offering an original Lennon/Yoko toilet seat for the sum of £235. The Sheikh’s renovations of the property, designed to return the property to its original Georgian style, also saw all of Lennon’s wall paintings destroyed.

You can view footage of The Beatles’ final photoshoot at Tittenhurst Park below.