South Liverpool may not be short of foliage, but the fate of one of its new spaces was once the source of a near diplomatic incident.
The Festival Gardens, the only bit of the 1984 International Garden Festival that has survived in any meaningful sense, included some beautiful and extraordinary Oriental gardens that contained many rare specimens brought over from Japan and China in the spirit of international brotherhood (through the medium of foliage).
When the gardens were left to rot in the years following the festival – left to the vandals and the weeds – the experts and diplomats who had spent time and money on providing the specimens were understandably less than impressed. And, frankly, anyone with any sense should have been less than impressed about the fate of the garden festival site.
Conceived by Michael Heseltine as a means by which to regenerate areas ravaged by the wholesale retrenchment of Britain’s industry, garden festivals sprung up all around the country throughout the 80s and an 90s in places like Gateshead, Stoke and Liverpool in an effort to drive tourism and kickstart regeneration in those cities.
But when the Liverpool garden festival was over not much happened. A few cul-de-sacs like Moel Famau View appeared on the former site, while the Walk of Fame (think Hollywood transported to the Mersey promenade; replace Jimmy Stewart with Jimmy Tarbuck) can still be seen on the waterfront, as can the big red bull from the Indian gardens and the Yellow Submarine can still be spotted wherever it is these days.
The site passed through the hands of various developers, with numerous attempts to develop the site. Rumours of heavy metals in the soil and political skulduggery dogged the site – not to mention unsympathetic development plans thought beyond the pale by even our lip-licking council – and the former magnificence of the gardens faded to the inevitability of entropy and the irresistable force of nature.
Up to a few years it was childishly easy to get onto the site – the NME conducted a photoshoot there with Shack in 1999 – and the post-acpocalyptic vibe of the site was eerie indeed. So we were chuffed when developers Langtree announced their intention to redevelop the site in 2009.
The Oriental Gardens and woodland trails would be restored and the car-parks and Festival Hall site – essentially a load of concrete and weeds – would be developed for private use; a not-reasonable quid pro quo.
We went along to see the site as a work in progress a couple of years ago, to go and see what was largely a very muddy site, but the plans looked promising.
The idea of a maintained parkland bridging St Michael’s to the river – after years of presenting a massive obstacle to traverse, should you wish to walk from the station to the river – was wonderful; and the idea of going for a meal or drink in the Summer at the nearby mixed-use developments also pleasant.
Then in Summer 2011, with the site weeks from opening to the public, the main contractor went into administration, putting back the opening indefinitely. It looked like, once again, the site would be left in limbo.
However, the remaining touches were completed and last week the site reopened to the public. The key aspects of the old site – the pagodas, waterfall and numerous ponds – are all in place and the site is rather pretty again.
On a sunny Sunday evening the site was being enjoyed by lots of people, young and old and of many creeds – and the signs were good that the existing flora and fauna have been relatively untouched.
The site is essentially split into three areas: the original Oriental gardens; a wetland-ish biodiversity area; and woodland paths. All of the site is fenced off from the surrounding roads and promenades and gates are locked every night at 7pm; an unfortunate fact but probably a necessary one to prevent the site being misused.
This touches on an aspect we’re not sure has been sufficiently addressed. Numerous posters around the site call for dogs to be kept on leads, bikers to dismount or else travel very slowly, people to keep out of the ponds and out-of-bounds areas and for parents to be watchful over their children in an environment that could pose some dangers to the unwary.
On our visit – less than a week after the site had opened – we could see numerous dog walkers letting their canine chums trample excitedly over flower beds and into water features – and had to make way for a mountain biker who apparently assumed he had accessed some hitherto-unknown obstacle course.
What’s more the site is well within striking distance of Aigburth and Toxteth – and its resident dog owners. We hope the festival gardens are not destined to become another public space dotted with small, black offerings – a shitty minefield it you will – at every fence post like The Dream. We hope too that others use the site responsibly.
The gardens will be maintained by The Land Trust, funded by an endowment from Langtree for the first few years. Beyond that, by our understanding, the redevelopment of the adjacent spaces for private accommodation will fund the upkeep of the gardens. We hope it’s enough, because the site looks fairly high-maintenance to us.
The new festival gardens are fearsomely neat and tidy; not sanitised but very new. But there are still odd little relics of the former site.
Head towards the river and there are still signs of the original festival; rusting buoys and little stars for Doddy and Tarby. Head the other way to Saint Michael’s station and there’s a strangely quiet wooded area with little bridges and gateposts.
It is a pleasant place; perfect for hazy Summer nights (should we ever get any), spotting the creatures that have been drawn to this area in its fallow period. We saw bumblebees, dragonflies, damselflies, tadpoles, whirligig beetles and thousands of waterboatmen.
A pair of brave moorhens on the main pond, a couple of house martins (or possibly sand martins) above the biodiversity area and the call of distant pheasant could also be seen and heard.
The numerous kinds of habitats also provide an excellent home for many, many flowers, shrubs and trees too – and it is to be hoped that the area will be a little haven for all sort of different species.
We wish the Festival Gardens were open a bit later in the Summer though; despite the unseasonal weather the option of going for a walk among the meadowlands, water features and woodland paths is a lovely one.
The legacy of the Festival was intended to be a unique riverside parkland gifted to the city and available for all to share. By those standards Langtree seems to have got it largely right thus far.
The southern grasslands – rather scruffy and unkempt but a haven for wildlife – will remain undeveloped and the city gets a new, lovely open space.
It may have taken the best part of 30 years but it is to be hoped that finally this very odd, unkempt, abandoned and unloved area of South Liverpool will get a bit more love and attention.