Approaching the Garden Festival site, as you round the corner from the Britannia Inn, you can spot a little brick building, half-hidden in the brambles. It’s a pocket-sized substation, built to safely remove all the noxious gasses which were fermenting beneath the reclaimed land, when the site opened in 1984.

It might have been better served to deal with all the hot air and flatulence released at the time: for there was much more of that generated than the methane.

Rising from the post-industrial hinterlands south of Herculaneum Dock, the gardens were Thatcher’s response to the Toxteth riots, but they were Michael Heseltine’s real masterplan.

The idea was nicked from Germany. It was based on their Bundesgartenschau: parks introduced in post-war Germany to breathe life back into areas damaged by the Second World War. Gardens as catalysts – economically, and metaphorically – for growth.

Over there the idea worked – and still does. Half a century later, the sites are going strong; nurtured by local councils, loved by local communities, and ringed by healthy industry and infrastructure.

“After the festival has gone, houses will be built here, jobs and industry will develop, and a very large part of it will be kept for the people of Liverpool as open parkland,” said Heseltine. “The world came to Liverpool!” proclaimed Liverpool City Council (of which Derek Hatton was Deputy Leader) – and, in fact, 3.5 million did. It was a huge success.

The legacy of the Festival was meant to be a unique riverside parkland gifted to the city and ‘available for all to share’. That a vibrant, public playground rose from the ‘cast iron shore’ (the Corporation’s riverside rubbish dump) was emblematic of the city’s hopes for a healthier post-industrial future. A city of culture, leisure and tourism.

The site lasted for six months. And for 26 years, the reclaimed land was reclaimed again – by nature, shopping trolleys and scallies.

Ironically, the Liverpool site was the first of a string of garden festivals across the UK – and the last to be salvaged – the others having long since found profitable new tenants in housing, retail and leisure.

A new housing estate was built on the northern part of the site in 1986, but a report four years later by the then Department of the Environment noted that with the impact of the festival fading, ‘there has been little conversion into regeneration’.

In short, we’d failed. Liverpool simply didn’t have a succession strategy. The site quickly became an eyesore and more a symbol of entropy than enterprise. The world wasn’t coming to Liverpool any more.

The late 80s saw Tomorrow’s Leisure group launch Pleasure Island – a mini theme park within Festival Hall – with promises of “a centrepiece of a planned housing, business and leisure development, for use as a multi-purpose sports and leisure centre”.

Yet, despite buying the entire site, TL only ever developed the domed hall: the rest of the 90 acres was left to continue its slow decline. The Council threatened to serve the consortium with a dilapidation order for failing to maintain the site in 1998, two years after Pleasure Island sunk for good. Shame it took the Council over ten years to wake up and smell the bindweed.

In 2007, the Council approved plans drawn up by St Helens-based developers Langtree, to return three-quarters of the site to public gardens again, with 25 acres set aside for housing.

Now, reopened for the first time in a generation, new owners Langtree (the Council has freehold, Langtree has a long lease) have come good on their promise to return the site to something the city can be proud of.

Yes, there were worries about giving the site over to a private developer – and fences aren’t the best way to border a parkland – but if the past quarter of a century has taught us anything, it’s clear that, whoever’s in power on Dale Street, garden maintenance has never been a priority.

Ironically, the site’s years in the wilderness have actually been to its benefit. Those old enough to remember the original site will recall a rather clipped and severe landscape of angular flowerbeds, implanted specimen trees, a brown-field cover up with a Blue Peter ship: it was all a little, well, artificial and temporary.

Walk around now and it’s hard to realise you’re in a newly planted scheme at all. The years out of the spotlight have allowed nature to soften the edges, and wiseley, landscape architect Peter Smith has cut back just enough to allow his scheme to sit within a framework of hedgerow, knee-high grasses and recolonised shrubs.

The effect is of a series of magical set-pieces: a three tiered waterfall, dazzling herbaceous borders, rock gardens with Snowdonian boulders the size of a Kia Picanto – gradually giving way to the dark canopy of Priory Woods, or the wildlife rich undergrowth.

That’s not to say all is loose and languid planting. The Chinese pagoda, the elegant boardwalks and dramatic stairway (which leads to the best view over the southern Mersey you’ll ever find) add a touch of formality and order, and a focal point for planned al fresco shows.

The Japanese Garden (r) – originally gifted to Liverpool by the Japanese government, and put together by master craftsmen – is back to its brilliant best too, and is as good a Japanese garden as you’d find anywhere west of Kyoto.

In short, we love it – it’s £5million well spent. Just ask the bees – we spotted dozens of them, merrily gathering pollen from the wildflowers along the water’s edge.

The site will be cared for by the open spaces charity, Land Trust, who’ll see that those idiots climbing the sculptures when we were there won’t run amok – and will constantly maintain the gardens, ensuring a year-round show of colour and interest (although it would be hard to beat the way it looks right now).

Soon, the site’s northern edge will see housing constructed – but the scheme is so well designed that we can see no reason why the two can’t live happily together: and the gardens will always be a public resource: never a gated community for those who chose to live here.

A lot has happened to Liverpool recently. But there’s something about a beautiful, peaceful open space that lifts the spirits more than any new exhibition centre can.

Now, Liverpool’s is the only original garden festival site that’s been returned to parkland – the others having to live with out of town shopping malls. You could say we’ve won. But, just like the fact that we scraped in Liverpool ONE moments before recession hit, you have to admit: we’ve been lucky. Let’s not push our luck quite so hard in future, yeah?

Big ticket schemes like the Garden Festival (Millennium Dome…Olympics…) rarely lead to sustainable regeneration. Maybe nature knows best. All it needs is a little love and attention.

Liverpool Festival Gardens
Riverside Drive, Otterspool
Open daily til 7pm

Pics 3,4,5: Pete Carr

  • KT

    The ‘Cast iron Shore’ actually referred to the Mersey Iron Works located along Grafton Street in Dingle till the 1920s, though there often is a lot of confusion over that.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cast_Iron_Shore

  • Absolutely Crabulous

    Now if they could just do something with the colossal shithole/Scal haven that the Britannia has become, the area would really be on to something. The best location for a pub in Liverpool, bar none, and its a total shit tip.

  • Doug.

    A great article, and yes this site is something we should all be proud of. I took my family for a picnic the other week (during one of our rare sunny days) and we had a lovely time. The oriental gardens are lovely, the facilities are good (with the exception of a better kids play area required) and the location is a perfect anchor for ferry trips to town and linking the city with Aigburth and Sth Liverpool. City Council needs to keep a handle on it and keep it maintained, scallies need to be kept under control and most important of all, the people of Liverpool and visitors to the city need to keep the place busy.

  • Steven Knight

    Cracking article David. I remember going when I was 2-3 (yes – it feels like a long time ago, I’m thirty next week!!!) with my Nan and Grandad when it was the original festival gardens and those were some of the happiest times of my life. I always thought it very very sad whenever I drove past and saw the degredation year upon year how the memories of so many people had been left to rack and ruin. I genuinely hope Langtree can stick by their promises because from what I can see here, the gardens have been restored back to their former glories (presumably minus the Chinese Dragon slide?!).

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David Lloyd

    No Chinese Dragon slide, alas, Steven. Cheers.

  • Liz Miller

    Brilliant article. I remember the original festival and how amazed we all were (even the naysayers) to see such a transformation. Not been to new one yet cos of the rain but feel so lucky to have it on doorstep. We need to keep eagle eye on rest of the parks so keep up the pressure!

  • Louise

    I am so pleased its been regenerated to such an amazing standard, and its finally been opened to the public, after passing it so many times after pleasure Island had gone and the enormous dome demolished, left such a eyesore on what was beautiful parkland. The pictures which followed showing the ruin of the site was quite upsetting but none more so that the dragon slide, which was unable to be salvaged! But I’ve visited the new site with my new little babies and its a lovely regeneration which we will visit time and time again 🙂

  • http://www.byjmj.webs.com John

    Only a couple of downsides for me – the Chinese pagoda is too unsafe to stand inside, the original Chinese characters haven’t been restored, there’s not a bench or eye catcher at the top of the Grand Axis steps, the pagoda, in the Japanese garden is still missing (along with the wooden jetty/viewing platform), the India garden was bulldozed to put in a wide path, the toilets are horrid and the Rangers’ Hut is hidden away. Apart from that, I love the gardens and have loved visiting them again after a 28yr wait.

  • Pete Swift

    Thank you for probably the best article anyone has written about Festival Gardens. I am the ‘Peter Smith’ referred to in the article, so a correction would be appreciated but not necessary.

    John’s comments are all valid, there are reasons for all the points he raises, and solutions in progress for most (in particular the bogs!!!).

    As designers, we sometimes forget the privileged position we hold. Everyone’s words and comments are more important than any fees or awards.

    Thank you – and watch this space, because after all, we have only started something – not finished it…..