In 1984, thanks to Michael Heseltine, the International Garden Festival transformed a large derelict industrial site on the banks of the River Mersey into horticultural heaven. More than 3 million people turned up, including Harry and Edna from Brookside, to enjoy the flowers, the pavilions, a Yellow Submarine and several zoned gardens. But if legacy was ever the intention, things turned out badly. The site was sold into private hands and half of it used for housing, but the remainder was closed off to the public and grew increasingly unkempt. In 2006 a Merseyside property developer signed up to create a residential scheme surrounding a new waterfront park retaining the heart of the original gardens, but the recession pulled those plans apart. As yet none of the new housing has been built, but thankfully the developers were asked to complete their relandscaping task first, and Festival Gardens reopened to the public in 2012.
The main entrance is off Riverside Drive, close to St Michael's station, past a decorative gabion wall. They do like their gabion walls in the Gardens, these I assume a later addition bringing a little resilience and security to an isolated site. The Festival's rescued fragment focuses around two Eighties favourites, the Chinese and Japanese gardens, the centrepiece of which is a repainted pagoda beside a shallow lake and switched-off cascade. The derelict Moon Wall has been restored, and a series of new bridges added across an attractive area of wildflowers and pools. The park's Grand Axis has been retained, rising up terraced steps to a swirl of forested paths, now considerably more mature than the saplings 1984's punters enjoyed. And from the top of the mound there's a half-decent view across the river to the Wirral, and could those be the mountains of Snowdonia glowering beneath the cloud?
The Gardens are no longer huge, but large enough for a half hour stroll amongst well-maintained scenic surroundings. Again they weren't busy, in part because they're not especially near anywhere, but mainly because it was still raining. A couple of dogs led their owners round the back of the lagoon, while one very patient mother humoured her young son as he searched for Pokemon by the pagoda. And I ended up down on the promenade beside the ragingly grey Mersey, a waterfront link built with future residents in mind, and just far enough from the city centre that few would ever head this way unbidden. Overlooking the murk was a large sign for the long-stalled housing redevelopment, with an optimistically bubbly graphic, and featuring the address of a website that hasn't been updated since 2011. One day the area will bloomagain, but thus far only Festival Gardens provides a welcome renaissance.
Normally when you ride a heritage tramway it's proper heritage. But this brief run along the Birkenhead seafront is only 20 years old, and even though some of the trams look ancient they're of similar vintage. The project was part of a council-sponsored attempt to redevelop the old Docks, a particularly rundown part of town, with the help of expertise from the Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society. The line's been extended over the years and now covers three-quarters of a mile, but Wirral Council decided to get rid of its assets in 2010 and the entire enterprise is now run by volunteers (weekend afternoons and bank holidays only).
The tram waits at Woodside for the Ferry to come in, not that anybody was attempting to interchange on a damp Saturday. There were loads of empty seats to choose from upstairs, the front taken by a family with a small lively child for whom travelling on the tram might be the highlight of his day, ably aided and abetted by the jolly conductor. We trundled for five minutes or so along Shore Road, past a repurposed arts centre, the Mersey Tunnel's ventilation shaft and various still-industrial buildings, not that any of these were easy to see from behind steamed-up glass. At one point we paused so that one of the volunteers could take a photo of the tram with a duck in front of it - I believed it was shooed on afterwards - before turning inland to our destination.
The tramshed at the end of the ride doubles up as the WirralTransport Museum. Here you'll find trams in various states of repair, plus grease-covered blokes maintaining them, and a variety of other forms of wheeled transport including motorbikes and an Austin Seven. Up the back several old buses gleam, and are occasionally let out of the building to revisit New Brighton, Port Sunlight or Oxton Circle. The 'local' aspect is particularly strong here, with more information than you should probably ever need on the peninsula's individual former tram routes. But the most popular exhibit appeared to be the model railway layout, where several small lively children had gathered to banter with the line controller until finally dragged away by their parents.
I'd heard so much about thisplace over the years, it being the world's oldest publicly funded civic park, and the inspiration for Central Park in New York to boot. Arriving after an all-day downpour meant I didn't see it at its best, the sylvan landscape dulled and drizzled, and the only activity a pair of football teams changing after a sodden match. I met not a soul on my circuit of the ornamental eastern lake, sharing the Swiss Bridge in the centre with a mob of feral pigeons. At the oddly modern visitor centre a member of staff looked up briefly from her information desk, then ignored me, and the café's clientèle had fled long before closing time allowing the cleaner an early finish. Another visit another time.
Centrepiece of the Victorian arts quarter, the Walker is home to a world-class collection of paintings. This year I made sure to arrive during opening hours, and toured the upper galleries to discover, aha, the legendary And When Did You Last See Your Father? Here too was Peter Getting out of Nick's Pool, a Hockney which won the John Moores Prize in 1966, plus a gallery displaying the finalists in this year's competition. Downstairs there's more to drink and less to see, one very contemporary touch in the craft and design gallery being a collection ofmen's dresses contributed by a 90 year-old cross-dresser. And yes, kind reader, at your behest I did pop into the library nextdoor to view the striking circular reading room, and to go wow at the soaring glass-metal beehive roof of the adjacent modern upgrade.
I did try to look inside Gibberd's crownlike Catholic rotunda, but arrived just in time for the day's organ recital to begin, which meant no wandering around, and it was a long trudge back down those wet steps. Still, I think I saw enough elsewhere.