I first met Chris Ellis when he was working as a reporter for BBC Radio Stoke in 1989. A proper, old-fashioned hack, Chris broke, among many exclusives, the ‘Pindown’ story which uncovered widespread abuse of children in care across Staffordshire.
Always keen to listen, always sniffing for his next big story, Chris was a pleasure to work with back then and later when he joined me as a sub-editor here at The Sentinel.
Little did I know it at the time but there was more to BBC Radio Stoke’s veteran newsman than met the eyes.
Born in Leek, Chris was a member of local rock bands Hunter and Demon.
He was also one of the key players in arguably the most important piece of regeneration work to take place in the Potteries to date.
Now retired and living in Cairns, North Queensland, Australia, he’s returned to his first love – playing rock, blues and jazz music.
Chris is currently on tour with singer/song-writer Leanne Tennant and says has no intention of returning to the UK because it’s ‘far too cold’.
However, he was happy to reminisce about his role in making the 1986 National Garden Festival here in Stoke-on-Trent a roaring success…
‘May 8, 1986. A date I’ll never forget, and the culmination of months of planning, dramas, nerves, and, for me at least, sailing an unknown ship into unchartered waters. It was the day the Queen opened the National Garden Festival at Etruria, billed as “The Greatest Event In Europe”.
If there was ever a team effort, this was it. An unlikely mix of people had come together to transform the old Shelton steelworks into 180 acres of gardens, shops, events and other attractions, to breathe new life into a site that had been left derelict and an eyesore after 2,000 workers were made redundant when the factory closed.
Various cities had competed for funding to hold garden festivals. Liverpool held the first, the International Garden Festival in 1984, and Stoke successfully bid for the second, in a campaign spearheaded by the former trade union leader Ted Smith, and Ron Southern, who was leader of the city council at the time.
On the day the steelworks had closed, I remember Ted vowing to see those lost jobs replaced before he died. He succeeded, and lived to see the results of his efforts after the festival closed, and new businesses moved on to what’s now known as Festival Park.
I was brought into the team as the events manager. I’m not sure what qualified me for the role, apart from my previous experience of organising various musical events, my reputation as a musician and broadcaster, and perhaps friends in the right places.
I joined a team of designers, architects, marketing and business experts faced with the daunting task of making Ted’s vision a reality.
Many were leaders in their field, others, like me, were going to have to play it by ear.
In late 1984 I reported for work at Etruria Hall. I certainly recall a great sense of pride as I sat in my new office in what had been Josiah Wedgwood’s home. Through one window I could see what had been the old rolling mill of the steelworks, where the marina was under construction, along with a number of “show homes” and the China Garden pub.
Through the other I could see piles of rubble from the old works being piled into a huge mound, eventually to be covered in topsoil and saplings. This would become the “Woodland Ridge”.
On my office wall was pinned the “Master Plan”; a designer’s vision of what the site would look like – which changed on an almost weekly basis, depending on which consultants thought what was appropriate, and what ever-changing budgets would allow).
To tell the full story of the festival would take a book, but for the purpose of this article I only have space for what I feel the festival achieved.
Despite the constant battle with the weather, especially the ever-present wind which swept across the site, construction somehow continued on schedule, sponsored gardens were constructed, and compromises were reached.
There were many compromises, among them the choice between spending money on horticultural and design aspirations, and the real aim of the festival, which was to rejuvenate the land for commercial and community use.
If I have a personal regret, it was losing the argument to build a bridge at Cobridge lights, to relieve the constant traffic congestion; a problem which remains to this day.
We had the money to build it; maybe those of us who were “locals” didn’t have the fortitude to hold out for it.
It’s the old story though, we had the money to build it then but didn’t; today the cost of such an endeavour would be unthinkable.
Now back to the things we did achieve: We created a place of beauty out of industrial waste. We brought thousands of people to Stoke-on-Trent who would never have come for any other reason.
We created hundreds of temporary jobs, on the old Community Programme scheme, even convincing the powers-that-be to allow us to employ musicians to provide entertainment.
This wasn’t easy, especially when the local Musicians’ Union got involved. The musicians we employed were from various backgrounds, but did a fantastic job entertaining the crowds, and many are still playing today, probably most noticeably members of “Boneshaker”, who were formed especially for the event.
Many visitors will remember the sight of “Rob the Bones”, always with his “bones” clicking away and a smile on his face, despite the days of wind and rain. While we didn’t create permanent jobs at the festival, what we did do is get people back into the workforce, albeit temporarily, and I think we gave some people self-respect that had been lost either when the steelworks closed, or during the decline of the many other manufacturing industries in the city.
We employed some pretty interesting people; former factory managers, supervisors and labourers, all with their own ideas about how the festival should be operated, how the festival should look, and how our anticipated visitors should enjoy the festival “experience”.
To cut a very long story very short, there’s no doubt that the festival succeeded on many fronts.
The majority of visitors enjoyed their time on the site, and we certainly gave many people a great day out.
Apart from the Queen’s visit, a highlight was the parade of the Royal Tournament, which had never been held outside London before.
The logistics of bringing hundreds of soldiers, their uniforms and even cannons to the festival were challenging to say the least, and the flypast by a Hercules plane at low level will live with me forever.
Every day there was a crisis of some sort, but we got through it.
As the Queen’s limousine was leaving the railway station for the festival site we were still making last-minute changes. Only 15 minutes before her arrival a road sweeper was cleaning the entrance. It demolished a lamppost.
Faced with the prospect of the Queen’s initial impression of the festival being a heap of rubble, our unflappable operations manager, Mark Michelmore, ordered that the offending lamp be hastily removed, and a team of volunteers covered over the stump and created an improvised floral display which was, quite literally, fit for a Queen.
Looking back now, 26 years later, from the other side of the world, I still have mixed emotions about the festival. I don’t think we got it right; I don’t think we got it wrong either.
I think we just did what we thought was best at the time, and did what was needed to restore some pride into a city which still had things to be proud of, but had suffered at the hands of people who didn’t understand the need for recognition of a city’s heritage or proud past.
We did what we could to restore that pride. Whether we succeeded is not for me to judge but I know many people of the city go there every day today, either to work, shop or be entertained.
I don’t think we did too badly in the end.’
Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel for 12 pages of nostalgia