Arts and Design

Glasgow archaeologists dig for lost treasures from 1988 garden festival


How does an operational railway, an entire rotunda or indeed a three-metre tall working sculpture of a floating tap manage to go missing? For five months over the spring and summer of 1988, each enjoyed a home on Glasgow’s riverside alongside hundreds of other rides, attractions and exhibits, as part of the city’s garden festival. But then, in the mists of time, they disappeared.

Now an online project appealing to the public and an archaeological dig, which starts this weekend, will attempt to uncover the whereabouts of these long-lost objects.

Many Glaswegians recall with nostalgia specific rollercoasters, installations and artworks. The memories of that summer led Lex Lamb, from nearby Greenock, to begin the arduous process of tracing and documenting the festival’s features.

His website, “After the Garden Festival…”, already lists more than 270 objects and 180 images, alongside information crowdsourced from the public and archival research.

A mother and child sit on the saucer of a sculpture of a giant cup, with a giant teapot in the background – one of hundreds of attractions at the festival.
A giant teapot and cup were among hundreds of attractions at the festival. Photograph: Image Scotland/Alamy

Meanwhile, archaeologists from the University of Glasgow, with the support of Glasgow City Heritage Trust, have begun digging at the site.

“The scope of archaeology is not defined by a period of time having passed but rather by a set of techniques,” explains Dr Kenny Brophy, senior lecturer in archaeology at the university and excavation leader. “Memories fade and written records are often incomplete, so an archaeology of the recent past is a great way to fill out our understanding of why things happened as they did, or document things that were simply never documented.”

Taking place on the disused Govan dockyards on the south bank of the River Clyde, the garden festival was seen as symbolic of Glasgow’s transformation from a post-industrial city synonymous with poverty and crime to a global cultural hub. The 120-acre site was opened by Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and attracted millions of visitors from Scotland and beyond. Two years later, in 1990, Glasgow was named European City of Culture.

“The festival, alongside other major events, brought Glasgow to its international prominence,” says Thierry Lye, chairperson of the New Glasgow Society, which exists to raise the city’s profile and protect its heritage. “This project will not only bring nostalgia to people who visited; it is a reminder to future generations and new Glaswegians that Glasgow is an ambitious city with pride.”

Claire Duffy, now 42 and still living in Glasgow, vividly recalls visiting the festival multiple times, on trips with school and the Brownies and alongside her family. “It was probably Glasgow’s greatest ever summer,” she laughs. “We’d never seen anything like it: rollercoasters, rides, weird sculptures everywhere you looked. The whole city was there and everyone was laughing and joking.”

Crowds around a tram at the Glasgow Garden Festival, greeting Princess Diana, in blue, on the top deck.
Crowds greet Princess Diana, in blue, on a tram at the festival. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Clearest in most visitors’ memories is probably the festival’s centrepiece, the Coca-Cola rollercoaster, which is still in operation at Pleasurewood Hills theme park in Suffolk. Other attractions have also been traced: a sculpture of a floating head by the artist Richard Groom was found abandoned in an Ayrshire boatyard last year, while the Clydesdale Bank Tower now sits on Rhyl seafront, in north Wales. But many remain missing or are the subject of “red herring” sightings –a floating tap spotted at a Cairngorms park, for example, has been ruled out by the project as the festival’s missing sculpture.

The archaeological team have their sights set on more modest discoveries, uncovering in their first days on-site construction materials, coins and the festival’s ground-cover membrane.

“This is not Stonehenge and these are not treasures in the traditional sense,” says Brophy. “But even the smallest of discoveries in archaeology can generate a direct connection to the actions of a person in the past and that connection can be magical.”

For Lex Lamb’s part, “I purchased and ate a bratwurst from a festival stall, which felt like a highly continental and sophisticated thing to do in the Glasgow of 1988,” he recalls. “I’d like to see one of those symbolic bratwurst trays emerge from the mud.”





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