THE NATIONAL GARDEN FESTIVAL 1986 - STOKE-ON-TRENT
The festival was the second in a series of National Garden Festivals following Liverpool in 1984 and followed by Glasgow in 1988, Gateshead in 1990 and Ebbw Vale in 1992. The programme was the initiative of then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine and was designed to reclaim and regenerate large areas of derelict land in cities suffering post-industrial decline.
The Stoke festival was on the site of the former Shelton Bar steelworks and the site was cleared and landscaped by former steelworkers. They planted 300,00 trees and what at the time appeared to be an adhoc planting scheme has today resulted in a varied mature woodland that closely matches natural growth patterns.
The National Garden Festival ran from May - October 1986. There was an extensive programme of commissioning artwork for the site - including early works by artists who would go on to have eminent careers, including Anthony Gormley, Cornelia Parker, Richard Wilson and Maggie Howarth. Most of the artworks were removed after the event and either re-located to other sites in Stoke, returned to the artist, or cannot be traced today.
Following the end of the Festival St Modwen, a property development company with a very significant presence in the city, were invited to develop the site. They have now created a retail park that features brands such as Toys R Us, Morrisons and Boots; a cinema and bowling complex; and an office and light industrial park that features major sites for companies such as Vodafone and the head office of Stoke-based Bet365.
Thirty acres of the site remains as an urban park, under the management of St Modwen but open to the public. Traces of many of the artistic features of the original Festival remain including:
The sculpture Windborne - The Phoenix
Traces of the Sky Stakes sculpture
The trigonometry point installed by Ordnance Survey. The Anthony Gormley sculpture stood next to this point.
Traces of Sky and Moon Pool by Maggie HowarthThere is also a stone circle, wooden suspension bridge and traces of the flat stone maze area.
Several pieces, such as the Maggie Howarth, the Sky Stakes and the maze area, are rapidly decaying in a few years their presence will have disappeared. Thirty years after the original festival we aim to highlight their state and encourage greater awareness and debate in the city over the site and the works on it.
The 1986 Festival attracted in excess of 10,000 visitors per day and was a hugely significant initiative in the regeneration of the city - modelling on a grand scale how the transition from heavy industry to the post-industrial and knowledge economy could be made. Now, as Stoke is challenging itself and its cultural sector to think more ambitiously than ever through a bid to be UK City of Culture in 2021, is a perfect time to reflect on the impact that the Garden Festival had on Stoke thirty years ago, and what Stoke might look like in thirty years time.