There used to be an annual Paradise Gardens festival every summer in Victoria Park. A refreshing mix of music, fun and arty stuff, all free, to bring the populace of south Hackney and Tower Hamlets together. And then last year's event never happened due to lack of funds, which was a shame. So it sounded like good news when a festival of the same name re-emerged a few miles away on the edge of the Royal Victoria Dock in West Silvertown. Even better that this was the inaugural event at the London Pleasure Gardens - a brand new event space across what's previously been derelict undeveloped dockside. Yesterday and today, entrance free, and somewhere I've been dying to get inside for ages.
As it turned out, I wasn't alone. Hundreds of people had turned up at the scheduled opening time of 1pm only to find they couldn't get inside because something wasn't ready. Even at 3pm, the omens weren't good. Arriving via the DLR at Pontoon Dock, there appeared to be an extensive queue snaking along North Woolwich Road but not that many people actually inside. Oddly we didn't have to join them, instead we crossed a footbridge from the station that's never normally open and queue-jumped, apparently legitimately. Here we joined the throng trying to pass through the single-entry-gate security bottleneck and get inside [photo]. It was only bags the friskers seemed interested in, specifically so that they could throw away any drinks or food you might have brought with you. That's par for the course at any festival site, which is (over the next two years) what these Pleasure Gardens are intended to be.
A number of site-specific artworks were scattered around near the entrance [photo], including some lovely glass globe lamps containing debris collected from around the site, and some skeletal equine sculptures, and a Mad Max-type red-sailed bar for serving non-existent drinks. Along the dockside was a large white dimpled hemisphere containing a major performance space, filled with dancing couples or jazz bands by day, and the £10 after-show party by night. A few street-theatre types were wandering about... you know the sort. Four garishly dressed stilt-walkers with flags. Some earnest girls with brollies warning of climate change. A troupe of actors in white performing to a crowd who were almost watching. That sort of thing.
But I was most interested in the decaying ten-storey building across the water [photo]. This is Millennium Mills, an Edwardian flour mill on a monolithic scale, which has somehow escaped the destruction wreaked on almost all of the surrounding area [photo]. Inside it's a derelict asbestos-packed health and safety nightmare, much beloved of edgy urbanoff-limits adventurers. Outside it's been a frequent backdrop for film and video, for example several episodes of Life on Mars. According to the map in the programme there was a path round the dock, leading rather closer to the façade, but this was blocked off and the art on the other side remained uninspected [photo]. Ah well. Blocked too was access to Silo D, the one remaining grain silo round these parts, more reminiscent of a gun battery than the manufacture of food [photo]. It's Grade II listed, and would be the location for the evening's "spectacular" fireworks, but for now another case of not quite near enough. [photo]
Some of us were here for the architecture, but most had come purely for a good time. There was a distinctly twenty-something, maybe thirty-something vibe, with plenty of trendy beards and tattoos on display. They queued for beer (cans of lager £4.50, pitchers of Pimms £22), they queued for ice cream and they hunted for food. But there appeared to be a blockage halfway round the site, as the crowd massed behind temporary barriers unable to reach all the attractions on the other side. I can't say I was surprised. The entire Gardens had been supposed to open last week as part of the London Festival of Architecture, but didn't, and there was a definite air of last-minute unpreparedness all around.
When the barriers were finally removed, a significant proportion of the crowd dashed not for the main tent but for the cash machines. Money was essential if you fancied chicken, tagine, noodles or coffee from one of the dozens of food stalls beyond, considerably greater in number than the paltry "craft market" shoehorned to one side. There was also a funfair, although much smaller than any previously enjoyed back in Victoria Park [photo]. And there was dust [photo]. The entire site is dustyunderfoot, which yesterday the wind occasionally whipped up into a none-too pleasant spray of whirling grit. For an event described in the programme as a "smorgasbord of culture", the paradise vibe was somewhat lacking.
The main attraction however, both this weekend and into the future, is the big blue-striped marquee. The list of bands was running way behind schedule, having had no punters to watch anything for two and a half hours, but the DJ was playing some blinders to try to hype up the atmosphere [photo]. A middle-aged mod with whopping sideburns stood motionless in front of the stage - I suspect he was waiting for Jerry Dammers. Today there'll be performances from Musical Youth and Alabama 3, as well as an attempt on the world Hokey Cokey record. Even bigger names are promised on subsequent weekends and during the Olympics, as well as bass-pumping club nights into the early hours, but for these you'll have to pay for entry. For the Olympic "Last Mile Festival" no details are yet available, which is alas another hint that organisation isn't the organisers' strong point.
I had been planning on returning last night for the Silo D pyrotechnics, because they sounded great. But, after my afternoon experience, I was less than convinced that greatness would be achieved. Add to that thousands of people trying to exit the site afterwards through one small gate to a DLR station that probably couldn't cope, and I gave it a miss. Maybe I missed a treat, you tell me. Fascinating location notwithstanding, the London Pleasure Gardens ain't no Eden.
Michael says: The fireworks were prettyimpressive... but they started late, and didn't finish until close to 11pm - and then they closed the main gate, and tried to force the thousands of exiting visitors to go over the temporary-looking bridge to the DLR station. Needless to say, the DLR shuttles couldn't cope with the demands of thousands of people all wanting to use them at once, resulting in a horrible, dangerous crush, which was absolutely appallingly managed.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.