Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The lost dance floor of the Festival of Britain

Back in the 70s as an Art Student I did a design history project on the Festival of Britain. Part of the presentation was a set of colour slides showing those bits of the Festival site we could access that had survived the intervening 20 years. The only intended permanent building was the Festival Hall, by that time looking very neglected and unloved, everything else was to go once the Festival was over. Anyone old enough to recall the South Bank before its recent regeneration will know that though the Festival was- mostly- demolished, its memory remained imprinted on those bits of the neglected site not built over.  
 The Jubilee Gardens site, only lately cleared of  Festival remains and re-landscaped, had a big round lawn that effectively was the foundations of the Dome of Discovery; the brick retaining walls to the gardens and some of the flower beds were the bottoms of the walls of various pavilions. Back in the 70's there were still traces of paint under the railway bridge, the marble backing and rusting water pipes stuck out from the embankment where the fountain used to be, infills in the railway arches were from the Festival, foundations, particularly near the railway side of the site, were still very obvious and the rough crumbling green tarmac of the car park was the old dance floor- still with its diagonal lines and the little pits for light bulbs clearly visible. We had to leave our colour slides with the college as part of their design library and how I wish I had made two copies as over the past decade nearly all evidence of the Festival has gone bit by bit.
 I was at the National Theatre today, left the play at the interval as I was not enjoying one bit. Decided to wander down and see if anything at all was left of the Festival site 60 plus years on. All evidence of the pavilions and Dome was gone from the recently re-landscaped gardens near the London Eye. To my astonishment the dance floor car park was still there, untouched, even more dilapidated. I walked around; there was the green tarmac, there the diagonal stripes, there the pits for light bulbs that lit up at night when the area transformed from concourse to dance floor. The attendant came over to see what I was doing, I explained to him, he was born well after the Festival, hadn't even heard of it, but told me that the site is due to be re-tarmacadamed in a week or two.
 So, if you are a fan of the Festival of Britain, get down there and see what is almost the the last little 'real' bit before it goes, the  romantic, almost lost, wildly optimistic Open Air Dance Floor. One railway arch has what looks to be its original wood and glass infill, the raised second layer of the car park nearest the railway with its tatty low rough plastered wall used to be the floor of the Land of Britain Pavilion and some rusting metal pieces poking through the tarmac alongside were, I suspect, part of the decorative supports for its frontage- these will be all that is left of the 'tonic to the nation'.

 Oh how I wished I had my camera with me today to take some photos of the floor and the cheek ( and a big enough bag) to pick up a lump of the green tarmac to bring home as a souvenir...but here is how it looked when spanking new. Photo of the Festival taken from the Embankment end looking back over the fountains to the dance floor- the Dome of Discovery, now the gardens and the London Eye, to the right. Follow the HUGE queue back to the Festival entrance from Waterloo- this section was built on quite soon after the Festival, Shell House. In the foreground the dance floor, now a car park. Must have been a windy day as it looks like the fountain water has blown over a whole section of the floor!

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