Remembering the Garden Festival

Another guest post with newly discovered photographs today from John Viggars.Garden Festival01This time John takes on a subject that, even thirty years after the fact, can still cause arguments when two or more Liverpudlians are gathered together.

It’s the early 1980s. We’ve had riots, mass unemployment, factories closing down by the day, you’ve seen how it is down at the docks, our democratically elected council is soon to be surcharged and banished from office – and what do we get to fix it all?

Well truth to tell many things are tried. Some work, most don’t. And there’s also the Garden Festival. So let’s hear about it from John – who had a season ticket!

“After my previous writings on here about time spent on the  North and South Liverpool docks I began looking through more of my old transparencies to see what other Liverpool related stuff I had bothered to keep. Going through, I came upon a couple of boxes marked – ‘IGF 1984.’ Yes, the International Garden Festival.Garden Festival07Garden Festival02

Trying to wrack my brains for memories, I was this time, not helped by Google. This temporary success for the Merseyside Development Corporation (MDC) does not seem to have had much recorded about it on the internet, plus I find my own memory clouded by the years that have now passed. I won’t dwell on the political rights or wrongs of the Festival and its lack of benefit to post riots Liverpool 8, I just want to share a few of my own recollections from that particular summer, knowing that this time Ronnie is likely chip in now and then!

Geoffrey Howe was reputed to have suggested that Liverpool should continue with ‘Managed Decline’ due to the devastating local downturn in trade and industry? I don’t know if that was really true but one person in the then government seemed to think Liverpool was not a lost cause.

As far as I am concerned it turned out all that ‘Tarzan’ Heseltine had promised happened at the site and we mostly got the weather too.Garden Festival03

Whilst Otterspool had seen the foreshore reclaimed in the 30’s by first becoming a rubbish tip (including where we put the rocks from the excavation of the Mersey Tunnel) and later turned into a public park in the 50’s, the strip from Jericho Lane to Herculaneum Dock was an industrial wasteland. This was known as the ‘Cast Iron Shore’, not a place to be visited. The area was partially a tip but much of it had been a site for oil storage and was as a result badly polluted. The International Garden Festival was to change all that.

So it was preparing to open and I had noted that the Festival was going to have ‘events’ throughout.

Whilst I was only mildly interested in gardening I decided to buy season tickets for my, by then, retired parents plus one for myself. Seeing summer coming with little planned for my spare time in the evenings from May to October, I saw an inexpensive way to pass some time.Garden Festival29

Much of what Thatcher’s government did was not positive for Liverpool however the IGF was, as it brought tourists to Liverpool for the first time in many a year for good reasons. In fact 3.4 million visitors passed through the gates during that summer to see the 60 gardens and other features of the 200 acre site. It probably did not really do much for the local residents. The schemes that the MDC launched during its tenure had mixed benefits (back to Ronnie for comment!) but it was a big step for Liverpool’s image post Toxteth riots (1981) when everything else was pretty much doom and gloom in the city.”

Yes John, the Merseyside Development Corporation was given what could reasonably be called a ‘difficult welcome’ by many of us in the city at the time. Naturally many were outraged that a large section of the city had been simply removed from democratic control. Many of us viewed it, in fact, as being under enemy occupation. So we’d have little truck with what the MDC were up to, being too occupied with being more or less at war with central government at the time.

A recent book ‘Militant Liverpool: A city on the edge’ has taken what seems to me like a fairly even-handed look back at it all and found that Michael Heseltine and the MDC did in fact try hard to create new opportunities and employment in Liverpool, but were largely let down by the unwillingness of the private market to invest in a city which much of central government was then trying to shut down.

My own observation now on the MDC is that they’d largely taken over land from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, which had in any case worked separately from the City since 1858. So hardly ‘under democratic control.’ Hence some of my fascination with the Docks these days. As a child they were somewhere separate from my Liverpool. Hidden behind a high wall most of us hardly ever got behind.

So back in 1984 you were walking on to largely unexplored territory.Garden Festival30Garden Festival09 Garden Festival10

“I visited on a regular basis. Initially I got to know my way around the vast site, then many of the international gardens, sculptures and other exhibits.Garden Festival16
Garden Festival19 Garden Festival20

This was the first IGF to be held in the UK so the concept was new to everyone. Of all the international ‘gardens’ I think the Indian, Chinese and Japanese were probably the most stunning for me.20150222221557_04

Garden Festival17Unfortunately the vestige of the site which remains today is a pale replica of what was once there, due to the way they allowed the site to decay for 25 years before the restoration began. (For a limited part of the original site.)Garden Festival05Garden Festival06

There were a number of sculptures.  On the prom there was the ‘Wish you were here’ group (which is now in the Museum of Liverpool). John Lennon, Laurel and Hardy, The Yellow Submarine (constructed by apprentices at Cammel Lairds), the Tea boat (sponsored by Typhoo probably  because they ran out of funding?) and ‘Sitting Bull’, a great favourite with kids and adults alike, to name just a few.

To take people around the site there were 15’’ Gauge steam trains. Loaned from operators around the country as they were also probably too expensive to purchase for 6 months use?Garden Festival11 Garden Festival12 Garden Festival13 Garden Festival14

They also built a jetty of sorts (replacing the old oil jetties).  So during that summer you could even get the ferry to the Garden Festival!

One feature of the site was a small group of show houses designed to showcase the subsequent development of the area after the IGF finished. On a much smaller scale than originally envisaged some were built but 30 years on we still have to see all the promised housing.

For events there were the Indoor arena (which became Pleasure Island) and a number of outdoor performance spaces.Garden Festival41

It was easy for me to pop onto the train at Seaforth and it was then a short stroll from St Michael’s station to the entrance. So in the evenings I often headed off there.

After such a long period my memory has failed me regarding listing of all the things I watched. This was not helped by visiting the Britannia Inn at the close of proceedings most evenings! I do however remember how much I enjoyed many a ‘free’ concert and various displays.Garden Festival08

There was quite a Japanese flavour at one point as we had displays of Ikebana with women in elegant Kimonos. The best related event was Kodo, a Taiko drumming group. The sheer rhythm and energy in the beating of many drums up to 4 feet in diameter was mesmeric to say the least.Garden Festival26Garden Festival31 Garden Festival32 Garden Festival33

Garden Festival15There were special events including an International Balloon Meet and I even ran a day out for my friends in the TVR Car Club which also tied in with the leaving of Liverpool by the Tall Ships that year.Garden Festival04Garden Festival23 Garden Festival24 Garden Festival25 Garden Festival27 Garden Festival28

I recall performances of many different types. There were folk groups, rock and jazz bands playing. They were mostly international, pretty much unknown but well worth listening to nevertheless. In my photos I found a number of acts (some remembered), the Peninsular Jazzmen, Kenny Ball, a Scottish Pipe band, plus both Greek and Russian dancers.Garden Festival34 Garden Festival35Garden Festival21 Garden Festival22

Garden Festival36 Garden Festival37 Garden Festival38 Garden Festival39 Garden Festival40

I certainly got my money’s worth that summer but did it achieve its goals? Well I think that’s again one for Ronnie to answer.”

I think, to be fair, it is looked back on fondly by many who remember it as something good happening here at last.

My own experience of it was very limited though. I lived just over the fence from it in some then new housing off Aigburth Road. So I could stand in front of the house and see the spectacular likes of the Red Arrows flying low over our estate. But also suffer the shocking sound of Chris De Burgh singing live there the day the Queen came to open it!

Throughout the summer I steadfastly refused to go for all the principled reasons I mentioned earlier. Though I’ve a half-memory that come the early autumn my curiosity got the better of me and I went for a reluctant look. But my main memory is of going several times in the early ‘Pleasure Island’ years with my young daughter. The site had been reduced in size by then, though not to its current ‘Festival Gardens’ rump. And before poor investment and maintenance took their toll it was good fun.

Years later Sarah and I had an idea about doing something of a social enterprise nature down there. But it wasn’t to be.

Meanwhile the City, as a municipal body, never took it to its heart and it still hasn’t. Which is a shame but an understandable one. We’re not short of parks, especially down the south end, and at no time in the last 30 years has it looked like a good time to take on the upkeep of another one.

But Big Events In Liverpool – we do love them don’t we? And in recent times the International Garden Festival might be seen as the one that got us going again. So thanks for reminding us John, and for digging out all your old slides.

See also this short film of the Garden Festival.
And this BBC film about Liverpool at the time of the Garden Festival ‘After ’81 they gave us flowers‘ (a very young Ronnie Hughes turns up at 5m10s!)


Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. The 15″ railway would have been loaned because such things are pretty thin on the ground in any case. I’d hazard a guess that each engine would have cost upwards of £20,000 or more each to build from scratch even back in the 1980s, there was possibly only one company who could provide new steam engines with any track record (as it were) of reliability or competence in design and construction, and the skills to run a public-carrying steam railway, even in miniature, can’t be taught in six months. Loans (the engine in John’s photos is normally based at the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway in Cumbria) would be the only way to achieve the objective in a reasonable time and at reasonable cost.

    (That particular engine actually has an interesting history, if you are of the anoraky persuasion – see and scroll down to No.3, “Muriel, then River Irt”…)

  2. What a cool group of photos and commentary. Something I never would have guessed to have happened in Liverpool in 1984. I like the idea that these photos came from preserved slides. Pretty soon the word “slides” will be reserved for water slides and playground slides. Such a shame. But that’s “progress” for you.

    1. Yes, the slides look great don’t they Jan. Spoke to John about them earlier and apparently most of them have been sealed up unobserved in their box since 1984, hence their quality. Used to be so great getting the slide projector out to have a really good look at your photos. At least by publishing them like this now you can, hint, click on each one and see it as big as your screen will allow!

      (This phone conversation, by the way, was the first connection between me and John not on Twitter or email. What times eh? You can do three blog posts together about our shared time on earth without actually speaking? We’re putting this even more right this Friday night. Going out for a drink!)

  3. Nice photos, brings back memories of a fine summer. I went one or twice myself, must dig up the photos that I took of it.

  4. This is great. As John says, there seem to be surprisingly few photos around of the Garden Festival. Our daughter was a baby then and we would often push the buggy through the gardens, sometimes with friends who had travelled to Liverpool to see them. John’s excellent photos brought back lost memories.

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