In 1982, the largest reclamation scheme ever undertaken in the country at the time commenced on a former household tip site adjacent to the River Mersey. The site was transformed in 1984 into the country’s first ever garden festival. Billed as “a five month pageant of horticultural excellence and spectacular entertainment" the International Garden Festival was part of the now disbanded Government quango Merseyside Development Corporation’s regeneration efforts for the city in the wake of the Toxteth riots and industrial decline.
Running from May to October, the International Garden Festival attracted some 3.4million visitors with its mix of 60 ornamental gardens from all parts of the world and the centrepiece Festival Hall which contained various floral displays.
The success of the Liverpool show led to a number of other garden festivals in town and cities around the world which tried to emulate the success of the Liverpool show.
A range of public artworks were also commissioned for the Festival many of which are scattered now around the city including a life sized creation of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine which now greets visitors at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport.
The Festival finally closed its doors on October 14th 1984 and subsequently a large part of the site has been redeveloped into a new residential neighbourhood overlooking the river as per the original long-term vision.
A new road, Riverside Drive, was created to open up other development opportunities within the remainder of the site and the improvements to the promenade provided a permanent link from Otterspool through to the emerging business and leisure areas around Brunswick Dock. This in turn linked to the city centre through Liverpool Marina, Kings Dock and Albert Dock.
Following the closure of the Festival, the site was sold into private hands and a number of attempts to deliver a lasting and viable use for the site pursued. Unfortunately, all have failed including a brief period when the site was used for the Pleasure Island leisure park which eventually closed in 1997.
Since 1997, the site has remained closed to the public, unused and allowed to fall into a state of neglect and disrepair. During this period, the then site owners attempted to promote a series of unachievable development proposals which failed to find favour with the City and thus a stalemate ensued which led to a further deterioration in the fabric of the site.
In 2004 an opportunity to acquire the site became available and Langtree, a Merseyside based property company, sought to acquire the interest. A full masterplanning exercise commenced with the brief to create a residential scheme which delivered a new waterfront park that benefitted the site and maximised its riverside location and elements including the Chinese and Japanese formal gardens.
The site was split into two main elements comprising the area around the original dome building (circa 28-acres) and the balance of the site (circa 67-acres). Langtree worked within the policy principles set by Liverpool City Council in evolving the design before carrying out an extensive public consultation exercise which took some 18 months. A planning application was submitted in November 2006.
Planning approval was unanimously granted by Liverpool City Council in May 2007 but later called in by the Secretary of State. A long and lengthy public enquiry ran during December 2007 and January 2008 with consent finally granted in July 2008 at a time when the residential market was in recession.
In an effort to maintain momentum, discussions commenced with the NWDA for them to assist in delivering the park element of the scheme in advance of the residential development being brought forward. Funding from the NWDA was secured in December 2009 and works to the park began in February 2010 which will complete in Spring 2011.
As part of its obligation to manage the restored gardens, Langtree has entered into a partnership with The Land Trust who will be responsible for the long-term management and maintenance of the gardens once the works are completed.
The grant, which was announced in August 2009, will be used for the restoration of the Festival Gardens and the first five years of its operation as publically accessible park. The process of restoration and management is being coordinated by The Land Trust.
In the gardens themselves, nature was left to take its course. Watercourses, pathways and open areas have been left to become overgrown and despite being secured, vandalism has left its unfortunate mark.
The neglect has now become recognised in some senses as a blessing in disguise with nature being given a free reign for a quarter of a century. The gardens now boast an almost unique ecosystem with its mixture of flora and fauna.
The job of the partnership is to slowly peel away the layers of overgrown weeds, carefully trim back trees and shrubs to allow the gardens to breathe again.
The centrepiece pagodas in the oriental gardens are to be restored to their former glory along with opening up new access routes into the gardens which will allow better and safer access to the site than ever before.
This work is the first step in the regeneration of the site which will ultimately see new residential development sitting alongside the newly opened park. The creation of the park and the new residential community will finally deliver a long term sustainable scheme for this strategic site on a major gateway into the City.
This new dawn for the Festival Gardens has been a long time coming and this restoration work represents a unique opportunity to ensure the future of this site is secured for the public to enjoy.
A future that is befitting the spirit of the Garden Festival movement.