Festival of Britain

In 1951 Battersea Park hosted the Festival Pleasure Gardens, one of the major exhibitions of the Festival of Britain.

Judith Taylor (nee Reid) joined the Festival of Britain project in 1949 and worked as Personal Secretary to the Entertainments Manager of the Festival Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park during 1951. Here are her thoughts from a visit to the Park in 2002.

When I was invited by The Friends of Battersea Park to come and view the restoration work done in commemoration of the 1951 Festival Pleasure Gardens, I did not know what to expect. I had worked in the administration offices of the Pleasure Gardens during the summer of 1951 but I had not been back since, and The Friends were interested in what my reactions would be. The work is being done as part of a much larger park restoration project with a grant of £6.9m from the Heritage Lottery Fund plus a further £3.4m from Wandsworth Borough Council.


After such a long time I actually have little detailed memory of the layout of the Pleasure Gardens as a whole, and all I knew about this part of the restoration project was that it was focussed on the Grand Vista and Fountain Lake, designed by John Piper and Osbert Lancaster, and the Flower Gardens designed by Russell Page. But the idea of commemorating the Festival Pleasure Gardens by restoring some of the landscaping was appealing, and these two areas seemed appropriate ones to choose, which should fit in well with the rest of the park. I was able to do some preparation for my visit by looking at the Wandsworth Council website about the restoration plans, and by refreshing my memory with my souvenirs, a guide, plan and photographs of the Festival Gardens in 1951.

Unfortunately the day of my visit in February was very cold, with flurries of sleety snow and rain, not the best of conditions for our purpose. But we had the use of a two-seater electric buggy in which to do our tour, and this was a blessing, as I was able to see much more of this beautiful park than I had seen in 1951, when I stayed within the perimeter of the Pleasure Gardens themselves.

The Grand Vista was instantly recognisable with its flights of shallow steps leading to the two rectangular ponds on either side of a central walk. I believe it has in fact remained since 1951, with some restoration, and it now has rows of seats down each side where originally there were arcades of shops. There are only two relatively small structures now standing in the ponds, a token I presume of the more numerous structures of the original, which included two pairs of pyramidal fountains.

Sadly I could not see the fountains switched on in the Fountain Lake because the temperature was below 5º, at which level there is an automatic cut-off to prevent the fountains freezing up. And of course the Vista is no longer finished by the Giant Fern House (a huge glass conservatory if I remember rightly), which in 1951 stood at the end of the Lake. The vista is now open through the trees to the rest of the park, and can be enjoyed in seated comfort in the warmer weather. The Russell Page Gardens will need to be in flower to get the full effect of the restoration there. The layout is less distinctive in terms of design than the Grand Vista and Fountain Lake, but I noticed that there is still an Aviary at one end on the site of James Gardner’s original, and if this gets some refurbishing as well, it will make a pleasing background to the Flower Gardens when viewed from the west.

The Tea Terrace however, (originally known as the Pavilion Buffet I believe), which has been partially reconstructed along the south side of the Flower Gardens, seems somewhat out of place on its own there, with no similar structures around to keep it company. The yellow painted cupolas look like a temporary frivolity, intended to come down at the end of the season, and although this was of course the case with all of the Festival structures in 1951, they do not seem consistent with the Project’s goal of achieving stylistic unity in a present-day context. Perhaps some delicate Victorian-style cast-iron work would have been more appropriate here. It seems a pity too that the cupolas interrupt the otherwise clear line of view from the Bandstand, (rebuilt some time ago on the original Festival site) right up to the Buddhist Pagoda.
It was difficult at this barren and bitter time of year to visualise what the final effect of the restorations will be when they are on full display. I hope to come back again later in the year to see if the promised planting, lighting and fountains have really succeeded in recreating “the exuberance intended by the original designers”.
On a purely personal basis my visit was one of interest and nostalgia, but left me with a feeling of sadness and loss, and I wondered if I should have left my memories untouched by today’s reality. It was like returning 50 years later to a house where you have lived a happy and busy family life, but which is now empty, a place of ghosts and memories only. With the coldness of the day there was virtually no-one in the park, and as I stood looking up and down what was The Parade, I found it hard to believe in the throngs of people, the colour and sounds and structures of fairyland, the excitement and delight of those days in my past.

Below are some of the postcards showing scenes from this period.

[nggtags gallery=pleasure_gardens,funfair ]