Paul Unger retraces his childhood steps during a sneak preview tour of Liverpool Garden Festival site, currently midway through its restoration before opening next spring
After being locked out for 25 years there was almost an anti-climactic feeling to entering the Garden Festival site for the first time since I was ten years old on a school trip. What greets you is a big park in the progress of being cleaned up – all rather normal looking. There were none of the mythical villains or gateways to hidden worlds that a generation of bitter regeneration rows might deserve.
Gallery of images from the visit below
That said, the dragon's head remains and one Chinese pagoda but sadly much of the other detail such as the yellow submarine, Japanese summer houses and ornaments that made the short-lived festival so special in 1984 have fallen victim to arson, vandalism and thieving.
When completed, the £3.7m renovation funded by the North West Development Agency, will reinstate ten lakes, the Japanese garden and Chinese pagodas in 20 acres of the 60-acre site. There will be a new footbridge over the lower lakes taking you down to the River Mersey. The lakes, Oriental gardens and woodland walks will be fun in themselves but the most successful element is this glimpse of the river and the walk out of the middle of the park to the Mersey.
Our guide, Peter Swift of Planit IE, landscape advisor on the project, believes standing on top of the hill overlooking the two Chinese structures and main lake will offer the best views in Liverpool, stretching from the cityscape to the north, across the Mersey to Wales and to the industrial 'fairy lights' of Widnes and Runcorn to the south-east.
The derelict glass-strewn car park in the southern grasslands will be cleaned and patched up with new paths and a disabled ramp into the main park.
There are new gabion walls – stones inside wire mesh cages – at the entrance off Riverside Drive and around the large sloping path near the river. Vandals continue to break in and have already marked some of the walls with red graffiti. Turning the culture of vandalism around may take a lot longer than the 15-month physical renovation. Some could say this is of little surprise given that local kids have had the park to themselves all their lives with little deterrence.
The fence will remain around the site and gates will be locked from dusk until dawn. Residents may view this restricted access as a shame but many municipal parks are gated and the project managers say it will help protect the park, to be managed by the Land Trust, in the long term.
As a local resident, I have seen the river walkway along Otterspool promenade become more popular than it has been for many years having itself been well restored with public investment. The park will provide another attraction for walkers to enjoy. Similarly, people arriving by the short train ride from Liverpool Central at St Michael's have in the past turned left out of the station to explore Lark Lane's trendy bars and restaurants or visit the swans and Victorian palm house in Sefton Park. Turning right through Priory Woods to the Garden Festival will be just as popular if not more so in six months' time.
The park is scheduled to open in spring 2011 before the Easter holidays.
Meanwhile, developer and site owner Langtree has consent for 800 apartments and houses on the northern side of the 60-acre festival area, formerly home to the indoor exhibition hall, since removed, but will wait for the market to improve before starting on site.
Mayfield, Planit-IE and WCP Associates make up the project team on the garden festival restoration phase.
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