It’s taken a long time, but at last the site of the 1984 International Garden Festival has reopened, giving Liverpool a new, freely accessible park.  The site has been derelict since 1997 when Pleasure Island, a rather shoddy theme park that occupied the site following the Garden Festival, finally closed.  The other day I took a walk through the 90 acre open space, now named Festival Gardens: I came away impressed with the quality of the restoration of some of the best features of the Garden Festival and with the beauty of the gardens.

Entering the park from Otterspool Promenade, the first sight that greets the visitor is a lovely wild flower meadow, bright with ox-eye daisies, cornflowers and poppies.

Care has been lavished on the paths and walkways, with some board walks extending across water features.  The opening of the site to the general public has been delayed for several months, but the benefit of this is that the plantings are now fully mature, with none of the raw sparseness that greeted visitors to the Garden Festival in 1984.

The International Garden Festival took place between May and October 1984.  The aim was to promote tourism  and revitalise the city of Liverpool following the decline of port and traditional industries, and the riots of 1981. The plan was supported by the Conservative Environment Minister Michael Heseltine, appointed Minister for Merseyside after the riots. The festival was hugely popular, attracting 3.8 million visitors, including ourselves – with our daughter, born that year.

The Yellow Submarine was one of the highlights of the Festival.  After the Festival site closed, the Submarine found a home for several years in Chavasse Park (now part of Liverpool One) before being retired from public view when its condition deteriorated.  It was subsequently renovated and found a new home at John Lennon airport in 2005

Apart from the Yellow Submarine sculpture and the Typhoo Tea ship, the star attractions of the original Garden Festival were the Chinese and Japanese gardens.  Both of these have now been beautifully restored.

Two Chinese Pagodas formed the centrepiece of the Garden Festival in 1984. In the years since, the original pagodas had deteriorated from lack of maintenance and the adverse effects of weather, with one sinking into the ground.  Now they have been restored by experts from around the world, including a team of artists who worked on the pagodas’ painted beams, recreating the original vivid colours. Five thousand decorative tiles for the pagoda were sourced from China.  The original waterfall has been reconstructed and the pagodas now look out across a beautiful lake.

For many visitors, the Japanese garden was the highlight of the festival site; now, it has been brought back from a state of overgrown dereliction, with a landscape architect from the same company which designed the original garden brought from Japan to oversee the work.  The original garden was presented to the people of Liverpool by the Japanese government in 1984, with the features of the garden, such as the plants and the waterfall, all authentic.

The focus of the Japanese garden is the azumaya, or rest house, which was redesigned and re-built after the original was burned to the ground.   The garden is entered via two traditional Japanese arches.

Liverpool was the first of five garden festivals held across the UK – the most successful being in Glasgow. The site in Govan, which attracted five million visitors, is now a thriving digital media hub and the home of BBC Scotland.  In the north-east, the Gateshead event of 1990, which preempted the creation of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, was hailed as a triumph and the site now houses a nature reserve. Similar events were held in Ebbw Vale and Stoke-on-Trent, both of which also suffered serious industrial decline in the 1980s.

When the Liverpool Garden Festival closed its doors, a large part of the site was developed into residential housing, while the remainder went through various incarnations as leisure and entertainment facilities, until finally it was left derelict in 1997 and fell into disrepair.  The Festival Hall dome was demolished in late 2006.

Until I came across these old photos of the Garden Festival on the BBC website, I had forgotten how extensive the site was.  The photo above shows the entrance to the Festival at the old Herculaneum dock, with the newly constructed Britannia Inn.  Herculaneum dock was afterwards redeveloped as City Quay, a new dockland residential development where our daughter now lives.

Another feature of the Garden Festival that most people remember was the Moon Wall.

This photo of the Moon Wall during the decade when the site lay derelict comes from the Land Trust blog.

The Moon Wall has been fully rebuilt – part of the restoration process that began in November 2006, when local companies Langtree and McLean announced plans for the site that involved the construction of more than 1,000 new homes around the cleared dome area, as well as the restoration of the original Festival gardens.  In 2007, Liverpool City Council granted Langtree planning permission to develop a residential-led regeneration scheme of the Festival gardens which included the restoration of the formal gardens and the development of 1,300 homes.

The redevelopment work finally began in February 2010, having been delayed by the collapse of McLean, the building company that had been responsible for the City Quay development. There’s a revealing photo on the Seven Streets blog, taken when the area had been derelict for a decade.

The Festival Gardens project is managed by The Land Trust on behalf of the land owner Langtree and Liverpool City Council and benefitted from a grant of £3.7m from the Northwest Regional Development Agency.

In the thirty-odd years since the Garden Festival, the initial tree plantings have reached maturity, with the pleasing result that there are shaded woodland paths that wind uphill, eventually arriving at a viewpoint looking out across the Mersey to the Wirral and the Welsh mountains beyond.

Directly across the Mersey from the viewpoint is another former landfill site at Bromborough, soon to be be transformed into the ‘Port Sunlight River Park’.  Over the next 3 years development partners – including Biffa Waste, The Land Trust, the Forestry Commission, Wirral Council and Port Sunlight Village Trust – plan to develop a community woodland, open space and a major new waterfront visitor attraction on the site.

It’s a shame to end on a negative, but the day I visited Festival Gardens, Radio Merseyside had reported instances of vandalism on the site.  I found this example, an information board pretty thoroughly defaced by someone who must have taken some minutes to do this.  Langtree  have responded by saying that they plan to recruit wardens to patrol the site. Not a bad idea: when I was there, there were dozens of young lads racing around on bikes, bathing in the lake by the pagodas and hurling the ornamental pebbles on the shore into the water.  It’s great that they have discovered a wonderful space to expand into, but the presence of one or two figures of authority just to ensure things don’t get out of hand would be no bad thing at all.

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4 thoughts on “Festival: after all these years, a new park for Liverpool

  1. Long before my daughter was thought of my husband, brother and his then girl friend, my mother and I drove to Liverpool to the Garden Festival. We left Reading at the crack of dawn and returned that evening it rained heavily all day. We had a great day with fond memories and pictures. Little did we know that nearly 25 or so years later our daughter would go to Liverpool Uni and cycle to the ‘garden’ from time to time.

    1. Time passing, children moving on…as I indicated in my post, our memories of the Festival site and its subsequent history, are tied up with those of our daughter.

  2. Please visit the only dedicated appreciation group to the Festival Gardens and their legacy. See Facebook’s Festival Gardens Park Liverpool group and view over 1,000 archive pictures of all 5 Garden Festivals – Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Glasgow, Gateshead and Ebbw Vale (Wales).

  3. I was there with my wife, my father and my son in 1984. My wife and I revisited the site a couple of weeks ago. What a sight! There is hardly anything left. The larger Chinese pagoda looked ready to fall down. There was no sign of the smaller one. The Moon Wall (“fully rebuilt”) had been graffitied and had a large crack in it, with a few grey bricks missing from the top of the arch.

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