Robert Hampton

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7th July 2012

Festival of Fun

Festival GardensThe 1980s were not particularly rosy years for Liverpool. Commerce and industry were fleeing the city, Toxteth was set on fire, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood was banned by the BBC.

Against this backdrop of despair came the International Garden Festival in 1984. It was one of many initiatives by Michael Heseltine’s task force to regenerate Liverpool after the 1981 riots. The Festival covered a vast area of south Liverpool which had previously been home to various industries, but by then had become little more than a wasteland. The decaying docks, oil jetties and rubbish tips were swept away in favour of ornamental gardens (including the showpiece Japanese Garden), an extensive miniature railway, outdoor theatres, and the Festival Hall, a wonder of aluminium and polycarbonate sheeting.

Festival GardensMy family lived within walking distance of the Garden Festival site, and ended up visiting there frequently. I was too young at the time to remember anything about it, although Mum still likes to tell the story of how my two-year-old self fell into the moat surrounding the Festival Hall. Apparently I came home soaking wet, but upset at having to leave early.

The event was a big success, attracting over 3 million visitors from far and wide. Merseyrail kept a 6-car train on standby at Hunts Cross to bring the crowds to St Michaels station, which was specially refurbished for the occasion. A short walk from the station, through Priory Wood, would bring visitors to the main entrance. On the opposite side of the gardens, on the newly-constructed Otterspool Promenade, a landing stage was provided for the Mersey Ferries to tie up, providing a direct link to Pier Head and the Wirral.

Festival GardensDespite the success, there was little in the way of a lasting legacy for Liverpool. After the site closed, part of it was redeveloped for housing, but the gardens were allowed to fall into disrepair. A brief resurgence came when the Festival Hall was converted into Pleasure Island amusement centre in the early-1990s, but that venture failed after a few years, becoming little more than a magnet for scally kids bunking off from the local secondary school.

Until recently, the most lasting legacy was probably the Britannia Inn – built as part of the Festival and now a Crown Carvery. But, nice as that is, surely the Garden Festival should have left more for the denizens of Liverpool than a £3.50 carvery deal?

Festival GardensAfter Pleasure Island closed, the whole site became increasingly derelict and overgrown. The Festival Hall fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2006, despite a last-ditch attempt by campaigners to have it listed. Although plans for redevelopment were announced in 2006, various delays in the planning process meant that, throughout Liverpool’s Capital of Culture celebrations, this huge site remained forlorn and empty. It was an embarrassment to all concerned. It was not until 2009 that work started.

The reopening of the gardens was supposed to take place last year, but plans were thrown into disarray when one of the site contractors went into administration. Finally, on 23rd June 2012, the park gates were opened to the public.

Festival GardensI popped down last weekend to have a look round. It was a rare dry day, so there were plenty of families around enjoying the park. The restoration has been done very well – the Japanese and Chinese gardens look amazing, with no sign of the decades of neglect. There are open spaces, water features and woodland trails to suit any mood. The facilities are slightly haphazard at the moment: the toilets are in a portacabin, the cafe is housed in a converted bus(!) but I can live with that.

I’m sorry to say there was already evidence of graffiti and petty vandalism. There have been complaints of anti-social behaviour (although I didn’t see any), and while it may be a minority doing it, it will drive people away if it’s not nipped in the bud.

Festival GardensAlso, I’m a bit puzzled as to why the park shuts at 7pm. Surely during the summer that should be extended to 9pm or later, so people can enjoy the light evenings?

Ignoring those minor niggles, the park is a wonderful achievement. It’s a shame it took us nearly 30 years to get there though. The whole affair is a textbook example of how not to achieve a lasting legacy from a major special event. Are the London 2012 organisers paying attention?

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