Another guest post with newly discovered photographs today from John Viggars.This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunately 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
There 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.
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.
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.