The story of Festival Gardens: From wasteland to international spectacle and back again

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The Festival Gardens site in Otterspool is an important part of Liverpool’s modern history.

The gardens are part of an 100 acre former landfill site that was redeveloped in the 1980s to play host to the International Garden Festival in 1984.

This site hit the headlines again this week when Liverpool City Council said they intend to submit a new planning application to develop the Festival Gardens site by the middle of next month .

Bought by the council in 2015 for £6 million, the site is now earmarked for the construction of 1,500 new homes – but development has been held back by legal challenges and the discovery of decades of waste on the site.

Liverpool Festival gardens
Liverpool Festival gardens

Even today, the event still divides opinion in the city – with some viewing it as a token gesture from a Tory government at a time when the city needed more serious economic regeneration.

We took a look back at the International Garden Festival and what’s happened with the site ever since.

What was the International Garden Festival and why did it happen?

The idea for the festival was born out of an attempt by the Thatcher Government to do something to regenerate Liverpool in the aftermath of the Toxteth Riots in July 1981.

 

After the riots, the government sent Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Heseltine to Liverpool as ‘Minister for Merseyside’, tasked with coming up with ways of regenerating the area.

Mr Heseltine established the Merseyside Task Force, a body made of up of senior civil servants devoted to carrying out projects aimed at regenerating Liverpool and the surrounding area.

Michael Heseltine Secretary of State for the Environment seen here touring Toxteth following the riots. 25th July 1981

The International Garden Festival originated as an idea in 1981 designed to revive tourism in the city at a time of economic strife.

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A mammoth 100 acres of severely polluted land in the area of Dingle was selected to be transformed into a sprawling plot of gardens.

 

Previously, the Otterspool site had been used to store rocks from the excavation of the Mersey Tunnel.

The Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984 was an attempt to bring tourism to Liverpool to try and regenerate the city.
The Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984 was an attempt by the Conservative government to bring tourism to Liverpool to try and regenerate the city.

A public park was built there in the 1950s but the area from Jericho Lane to the Herculanuem Dock was an industrial wasteland.

Alongside the display gardens, the site would also house a water park and a grand exhibition centre, Festival Hall.

The whole process took fewer than two and a half years from commissioning to completion.

Her Majesty The Queen is led through one of the gardens by Sir Leslie Young as she officially opens the site on 2nd May 1984.
Her Majesty The Queen is led through one of the gardens by Sir Leslie Young as she officially opens the site on 2nd May 1984.

One historian marvelled at the achievement and this feat of planning: “That so heavily polluted and disturbed a site could be cleared in such a short time was remarkable.

“But to do so while simultaneously addressing the complexities associated with the preparation of a major exposition made this a doubly significant achivement.”

 

The festival was presented as “a five month pageant of horticultural excellence and spectacular entertainment”.

The Liverpool International Garden Festival was formally opened by the Queen on May 2, 1984.

The site consisted of 60 individually constructed gardens which included the now iconic Japanese garden and Indian pagodas.

Liverpool’s International Garden Festival. Over 3 million visitors flocked to the International Garden Festival on the site of what had been the derelict Herculaneum Dock, near the Dingle 7th July 1984

The site also saw the construction of a pub, The Britannia, and also included a Pathway to Honour, a tribute to Liverpool stars including Cilla Black, Ken Dodd, and Nerys Hughes.

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One public piece of the art from the festival that endured is the Yellow Submarine.

Built by a group of 80 apprentices at Cammel Laird’s shipyard, the model was designed as a tribute to The Beatles.

The Yellow Submarine in Liverpool. It was built by a group of about 80 apprentices from Cammell Laird's shipyard for exhibition at the International Garden Festival in Liverpool in 1984.
26th April 1984.
The Yellow Submarine in Liverpool. It was built by a group of about 80 apprentices from Cammell Laird’s shipyard for exhibition at the International Garden Festival in Liverpool in 1984. 26th April 1984.

After the festival ended the Yellow Submarine was initially housed at Chavasse Park, which today forms part of Liverpool ONE, before its condition worsened and it was removed from public view.

In 2005, after the model was restored and renovated, the Yellow Submarine was moved to Liverpool John Lennon Airport where it remains to this day.

 

The festival proved a resounding success and more than 3 million people came to Otterspool to the gardens that summer.

Why was the festival controversial at the time?

Though it might not sound like it, the International Garden Festival was very controversial at the time.

Liverpool was suffering from crippling unemployment in the early 1980s following the closure of the docks and the shrinking of the city’s manufacturing industry.

Between 1972 and 1982 Liverpool lost 80,000 jobs.

In 1983, the Militant wing of the Liverpool Labour Party took overall control of the City Council, promising to cap rent rises above inflation and set an illegal budget to deliver the spending the city needed.

Militant took control of the Liverpool City Council in 1983 and would look to set an illegal budget to counter cuts from central government and rising unemployment

‘Jobs not trees’ was the cry of many people in the city when the festival was announced.

The decision to organise a garden festival at a time when the city was suffering from cuts from central government and unemployment was seen by many in the city as proof that the Thatcher government was not taking Liverpool seriously.

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British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is led by Sir Leslie Young through the Victorian Garden at the International Garden Festival which was held in Liverpool from May to October 1984.

There was further controversy over the creation of the Merseyside Development Corporation, the central government body tasked with organising the festival.

Local politicians saw the creation of this body as an undemocratic power grab by the Thatcher government that froze out the local Council from working on regeneration projects.

However, despite the controversy surrounding the festival it an undoubted success, bringing 3.4 million visitors through its gates.

What happened to Festival Gardens after 1984?

Despite the popularity of the festival and the hope that it would leave a legacy in the area, the site fell in to disrepair in the years after the festival.

From the 1980s until 1996, the Festival Hall was used as a Pleasure Island amusement park.

An aerial view of the International Garden Festival site
An aerial view of the International Garden Festival site

The festival site has been passed between different owners since 1984 and half of the grounds of the festival has been turned into housing. 

 

In 2006 the Festival Dome was torn down, symbolising the steady decline of the gardens.

A shopping trolley dumped in the lake at Festival Gardens. Picture by Andrew Teebay
A shopping trolley dumped in the lake at Festival Gardens. Picture by Andrew Teebay

The remainder of the original site was bought by the council in 2015 for £6 million.

The council promised that £10 million of funding from Homes England would be used to build 1,500 new homes on the former Festival Gardens site.

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The council’s ambitious plan would preserve Festival Gardens and would turn the land into a £700m “cultural garden suburb”.

But plans were stifled by the discovery of further contamination that would cost £29 million to clear properly.

If the council’s plans for the landmark are eventually realised, the site could provide attractive new homes but also preserve an important piece of Liverpool’s modern history.

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