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RIP The Garden Festival Hall

by John Connolly

Driving down Riverside Drive I happened upon a pile of rubble that once housed the mighty Garden Festival Hall. Not unlike a hackneyed sit-com were some character or other reminisce over the loss of a former lover, I found myself getting all misty eyed and nostalgic at what was the centre piece of my youth for three summers. A true marvel of modern architecture, the dome was built in 1984 for the inaugural ‘International Garden Festival’ on my doorstep in dat der Liverpool.

The Garden Festival was the brainchild of Minister for Merseyside Tarzan Heseltine and one of the first major projects undertaken by the Merseyside Development Corporation; a body set up to in the wake of the Toxteth riots to regenerate Liverpool in the early 1980's. The legacy of the Festival was meant to be unique riverside parkland gifted to the city and "available for all to share". Hezza’s heart was in the right place but if he thought spunking a load of cash on a fancy garden was going brush the cities recent social and economical woes under the carpet, he was wrong. Infact, the Garden Festival was the ultimate paradox. Here was Liverpool, 3 years on from riots that were tantamount to civil war and the streets of Toxteth still resembled a WW2 bombsite, we had 50 million unemployed and Degsy Stalin and his comrades held the seat of power at City Hall. Slap bang in the middle of the war torn neglected city was a multi national, corporate sponsored showpiece. The site created a lot of jobs for the city but the main contracts were handed out to firms from outside the city limits. A disappointment but not a surprise for Liverpool, after all, when Parliament Street was raised to the ground in 81’ – Heseltine decided to plant trees next to the smouldering remains. Does a Liverpool gardening firm do the job? Does it shite, landscapers from Manchester are called info the job!

None of this mattered to me, a fantastic playground was about to be built on my doorstep. To begin with, we didn’t believe it would happen. A keen egger, I often spent my spring/early summers trawling the Cast Iron shore (immortalised in the fabs ‘Glass Onion’ fact fans) for all manner of bird eggs. I watched with curiosity and splendour as the former dump (not a term of endearment, the majority of the site was a former landfill site) was moulded into the International Garden Festival.

The Festival Hall itself was true wonder. I can remember gazing in wonderment when the Jolly pub was built on Leo’s car park. A circular building! I thought nothing could top that until the first steel arches for the Festival Hall were erected. This hall was designed to house the festival's main exhibitions. With a single surface area of 7500 square metres, when the Festival was over, the Hall was to be divisible into three sections, fitted out for a sports complex including a swimming pool, a sports arena and a club. Here’s the science bit: It had the shape of an elongated dome made out of a light steel structure to which are affixed 16-mm thick polycarbonate panels providing interior lighting similar to that found in a glasshouse. The structure was designed to support solar panels to heat water for the building's future intended use. I can imagine the townsfolk of Manhattan getting a similar giddy feeling when the Chrysler building was thrown up. Even today, the design hasn’t aged at all. The problem was there were so many companies with their finger in the pie, that whenever anything constructive was to be done with the building, and indeed the site itself, 100’s of cash driven shysters stuck their oars in and hands out.

At the time, I didn’t care. For three glorious summers, this was my playground. The Queen opened proceedings on Wednesday May 2nd 1984 and from the off it was clear this was going to be success for the local youth. Rival gangs put petty differences aside to share their bunking in knowledge (behind the Greek Garden within earshot of Aigburth Cricket Club was our gateway). I admit, I paid in on the first day – a concession price because it was after 16:00 and Liz and her heavy mob had fugged off taking the majority of the out of the tourist crowd with them. Plus I kept the ticket and used it as proof of entry for months before the security cottoned on and started stamping tickets. Months before the site opened, locals were given a pre-opening invite and to be honest it looked a very shabby. Apart from the ace mini railway the site looked a million miles from an International tourist trap. But when it was finished, it looked superb. Basked in the glow of scorching May afternoon, we couldn’t believe our luck that this place was on our doorstep, perhaps forever!

We set about marking our territory, sussing easy touches for what promised to be a bumper summer. First easy thing we noticed were the abundance of ice cream stalls that were left unmanned 30 minutes before the place closed. Not only were these left unmanned but so were the international sponsored tents. The Dutch garden (windmills, tulips, fist fucking) was sponsored by Oranjeboom, come closing time we’d sneak in with empty lemonade bottles and fill them with this watered down excuse for a beer. Beggars can’t be choosers though and I certainly didn’t quibble as we scoffed gratis cornetoes a plenty washed down with lashings of Arie Haan’s urine.

The Garden Festival was such a success that it re-opened the following year, albeit on smaller scale. The sponsors or owners decided they could coin it in by turning the gaff into a kid friendly zone. This year the Festival Hall was turned into a giant garden. Giant mushroom, flower pots, forks, spades and so on were stroon around a mock garden. Better still were the new inflatables, made to look like plants and flowers were stuck in (not sure what sort of plant the disco bounce was), as well as a ball pool. They had a laser dome plus they threatened to start using the venue for big concerts.

The first and subsequently only real big gig held there was none other than Chris De Burgh! For some reason, the Argy Spud folk-warbler had become a semi scally cult figure, no really, he was! This was pre ‘Lady in Red’, post ‘High on Emotion’, and not only was it to be held on my doorstep, but it was to be televised live on BBC2. Again, I’m not ashamed to admit this but I paid in. Yes, it was my backyard etc. but the kid’s tickets were only £2 and this meant we could get in early, get to the front and get on telly. Others decided to chance their hand using the well documented bunking in specs, some said they hid in the Blue Peter ship, though if everyone who said they were there actually were there, the ship would have resembled the Zong on route to the Caribbean. There was a mini riot outside as around 50 lads rushed the gates but for £2 was it worth it? Was it shiote. Anyway, I got on telly by jumping on my mates shoulders, if anyone’s still got the concert on tape (come on Swinesters, own up) you’ll see me with a Head jacket on and mop of hair like Chad from ‘Wait Till You Father Gets Home’ pretending to laugh when really I’m thinking ‘which ones Chris De Burgh?’

The following year the owners went all out in an effort to turn the site into Disneyland. Fairground rides were all over he place. My mates brother was in charge of the Mexican Hat and got sacked for making it go backwards. A non-stop Muppet Show played twice a day (people dressed up in costumes, not the puppets), which was very funny and for the Summer Bank Holiday, they had local pop extravaganza. Acts included The Farm, who still had a brass section and stoner scall covermiesters Ground Pig who were massive. Though not as big as Half Man Half Biscuit. They were to support China Crisis on the closing night and a load of us got to the front for the mighty biscuits. From the opening ‘Jesus Christ, COME ON DOWN!’ they shook the roof off the Festival Hall. Unfortunately, when they finished we couldn’t get away from the front. We had to stay there and endure China Crisis. Now they did have some half decent songs but they weren’t punk enough for us. During some slow self indulgent drivel, we decided to blow their cool by pogoing in a mosh pit stylee and chanting CHINA CHINA CHINA. This was enough for the security to lob us out, thank god.

Anyway, I’m rambling, now, the site will no doubt have ‘luxury’ flats all over it quicker than you can say ‘the listed building façade will have to stay, unless we burn it to the ground like’. The Hall has gone but the memories, like talking about CND, the U.S. in El Salvador and Carry On Screaming to Jon Pertwee while he was in full Worzel Gummedge gear, ask Terry Wogan where he got his pink kecks from while he was making the worlds biggest pot of scouse, chasing Debbie Greenwood and Amanda Burton around the car park for a kiss though secretly want them to star in a remake of Beloius Some’s Imagination video with me, will last forever…





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