20 years since the Glasgow Garden Festival

29 Apr 2008

As Pacific Quay rapidly transforms itself into Scotland's Digital Media Quarter the Evening Times celebrates the efforts that went into bringing the Garden Festival to Glasgow in 1988, an event that set the tone for Clyde Waterfront regeneration.


by Russell Leadbetter,  Evening Times

So there was Billy Connolly, Selina Scott and Scots Secretary George Younger in a hot air balloon ...

The unlikely trio found themselves in London in September 1985, to launch the Glasgow Garden Festival to an audience of business executives, tourist agencies and horticulturists.

There were some complaints that a flagship Glasgow event was being launched, not up here but five hours away in London. And the balloon had to be tethered at 30ft because air traffic controllers would not allow it to go higher.

But all of that would swiftly be forgotten as work continued on preparing the 114-acre festival site.

Glasgow had been chosen by the Government in November 1984, ahead of rival bids by Gateshead and Swansea.

Like others who led the city at the time, Mr Gray is full of praise for the festival.

"It brought people together. For years we had been saying Glasgow was miles better, that it was the Dear Green Place. This proved it.

"Eddie Friel, who was our tourism director, used to say Glasgow was the best-kept secret in the world. That gave us a chance to boost it."

A Glasgow delegation had visited Liverpool in 1984 to see what a garden festival entailed and to see if Glasgow could follow its successful example, "We approached Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine and he said Why not?' "We took it from there, and everybody rolled up their sleeves and worked together - the Scottish Development Agency, the councils, tourist board, Chamber of Commerce. We all knew Glasgow was the important thing."

He believes the success of the 1988 festival highlighted the potential of the riverside and helped pave the way for the facilities that now dominate the site.

"It proved to the world Glasgow was worth developing, worth investing in.

And the people of Glasgow started to believe it too."

To win, the Scottish Development Agency had, after tortuous negotiations, delivered the derelict Princes Dock site, which had previously been owned by Laing Homes.

For their part, Glasgow District Council and Strathclyde Regional Council had provided 100 acres across seven sites in the city so Laing could continue its house-building programme.

There was no doubt the festival was a coup for a city more used to financial crisis at that time. The festival, and the about-to-open Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre on the opposite bank of the Clyde, promised lasting benefits for Glasgow.

Dr Michael Kelly, a high-profile former Lord Provost who is forever associated with the successful Glasgow's Miles Better campaign, recalls: "The festival was a tremendous follow-up to that campaign.

"That had launched in 1983, so we needed a whole series of things running on to sustain the momentum that had got people interested in Glasgow, "Visitors had been surprised to see Glasgow's buildings being cleaned up. There was a motorway out to the airport, there was the Burrell, but we needed to demonstrate we could pull a really big project off.

"The festival gave people a perfect excuse to come here and see our beautiful city and drew their attention to the attractive potential of the riverbank.

"The festival was the first major national event the city had hosted after Glasgow's Miles Better. It was important it was pulled off properly - having built up all this expectation with the campaign, we had to make sure the festival worked.

"If it had flopped, it would have set Glasgow back 20 years."

He recalls the "enormous" amount of work that went on in the mid-80s to create the festival site at Princes Dock.

"For a start you had the sheer physical work of removing all the earth, then you had to create all the gardens and the various concepts, and even putting the tram line in.

"But there is no doubt the festival was an enormous success, first of all within the city, because people enjoyed having it, and coming to it."

He adds: "It impressed upon people Glasgow had changed; they were not looking at an old, decaying industrial city, but at a vibrant, new one looking forward to the future.

"The only disappointment was we were not able to retain at least some of it as a permanent garden. The council was very keen to do that, but I think the SDA dragged its feet on it.

"The economics were difficult, because it is a very expensive thing to keep up, and you can never guarantee visitor numbers. But I feel we could have retained maybe a quarter of it as a permanent feature that people would have used, given the growth of interest in gardening, and gardening programmes on television.

"You only have to look at the tremendous commercial success of the garden centre in Rouken Glen, an old Glasgow park. If the council had been left to do that at the festival site, we could have made it work.

"But as a promotional vehicle for Glasgow, as a landmark attraction, the festival did work very well."

Dr Kelly believes there is a direct link between Glasgow's Miles Better and the current facilities on the riverside, including luxury flats, the media village and the Science Centre.

"We might have been able to build another chain, but that was the chain, and the garden festival was a vital link in it. The festival was a test of Glasgow's mettle."

At the end of the festival, when its items were being sold off, Dr Kelly bought a Bonsai tree, and his brother-in-law bought a seat.

"I thought the seat wasn't a garden thing, but he was right," he says with a laugh. "My tree died, but he's still sitting in that seat ..."

Bailie Jean McFadden, leader of the council 1980-1986, was heavily involved in the plans to bring the festival to Glasgow.

"There was a great deal of negotiations to secure the land for the festival, and of course we didn't know we were going to win, because there were other cities involved.

"When it was announced we had won, I nearly kissed the main man from the SDA - I think he was shocked!"

Councillors visited Liverpool when it hosted the 1984 festival to see what the event entailed.

"Our festival had a great impact," Mrs McFadden added. "Lots of people bought season tickets for it. I had one, and I think I visited 25 times.

"My husband was in a wheelchair at the time and I was trying to take him as well. But a lot of the paths were gravel and to be pushed in a wheelchair over it was not very pleasant for him.

"Also, it was very hard for me - I ended up with sores in the palm of my hand."

Mrs McFadden also had the honour of taking Princess Anne round the site when she visited.

Today, 20 years after the event, she is still proud to be associated with the festival.

"It was the first of the big events Glasgow set out to get, to establish itself on the map," she says.

"Michael had started things off with the Glasgow's Miles Better campaign, and then we went for the Garden Festival. When I was still leader, we made the application to be City of Culture. Things have gone on from then.

"Labour had lost control of the council in 1977 and although we were the largest party, we went into opposition to regroup. I think that period in opposition was good for us.

"We took control in 1980, and we had a great team of councillors and officials. We all gelled and set ourselves various goals, including changing the city's image. And we succeeded.

"People today think Glasgow began re-inventing itself in the 1990s. That is not the case - it went back to the early 1980s."

Reproduced with the permission of The Evening Times (Glasgow) © Newsquest (Herald & Times) Ltd.


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