On Friday I was early for my interview for Radio 5 Live, and as the weather was fine, I decided to spend the time I had to wait, wandering around the rather beautiful environs of what is known as Media City.
Before Friday, the only thing I knew about Salford was that it was home to one of my heroes, the ever cheerful Morrissey and his band, The Smiths. From various album covers I had pieced together the idea of sooty, back to backs, rows of terraced houses, and of course, the iconic, Salford Lads’ Club.
Media City could not be further from this if it tried. It is gleaming cubes of glass, experimental architecture by another hero of mind, Daniel Liebeskind, and great swathes of polished up post industrial chic. It is the sort of place you imagine Morrissey shrivelling up in, like a salted slug.
Nevertheless, I thought it was fantastic. I love urban regeneration, particularly urban regeneration that manages to blend the old and new seamlessly, and Media City does that in spades.
Wandering around like Fotherington Tomas of today, squeaking ‘Hello glass. Hello chrome.’ I found myself in a garden space. Walking idly through it, I saw, poking out of some rather leafy shrubbery, the bronze nose of a dog I instantly recognised. As I did so, I experienced a visceral thrill of excitement, for it was the bronze nose of no other than Petra, one of the iconic, Nineteen Seventies, Blue Peter dogs.
On seeing this, I pushed my way through the foliage in a growing frenzy of excitement to have my initial suspicions confirmed within moments, for I was, indeed, standing in The Blue Peter Italian Sunken Garden.
I had no idea that when they closed down BBC TV Centre in London, they had moved the entire Blue Peter garden to Salford. It was nothing short of miraculous to discover it there.
Never have I been so excited to stand in a garden. Not even when I dragged my entire family to Sissinghurst to see Vita Sackville West’s white garden after developing a massive crush on her, did I come close to the joy I felt on discovering this frankly, ordinary looking bit of sunken crazy paving with a fish pond in the middle of it.
THE BLUE PETER ITALIAN SUNKEN GARDEN, though, eh? Eh?
It’s such stuff as dreams are made of.
Well, mine are, anyway.
As a child growing up in Seventies Britain, there was a real dearth of watchable children’s telly, and Blue Peter, which was on twice a week, was one of the staples of mine and nearly every other child I knew’s viewing schedules. I used to religiously try to make all the makes, and failed, due to lack of sticky back plastic. I used to pester my mother incessantly for stuff for bring and buy sales to raise money for life boats and guide dogs. Everything I thought I knew about tortoise care I learned from Blue Peter. I had my first girl crush on Lesley Judd, for God’s sake.
It wove its way into the stuff of my life like no other programme I ever watched. Except perhaps for those nightmares I had about the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Anyway, I vividly recall the presenters at the time helping to build the Italian Sunken Garden. I watched as they stocked the pond with fish, and Percy Thrower showed them which plants to put in the borders. I remember them sticking the bronze head of Petra on a plinth in one corner. I wondered why they called it the Italian Sunken Garden. Well the Italian bit anyway, I got the sunken bit. It didn’t look very Italian to me though. It still doesn’t. However, that is what it was called, and that is what it remains to me, and many other people like me.
Mostly I remember the scandal that hit the news when vandals broke into BBC Television Centre and trashed the Italian Sunken Garden. It was roughly on a par with the trauma of hearing that the Bake Off had been sold to Channel Four. There was a national outcry. I believe Percy Thrower might even have actually shed a tear on live television.
For some reason, this garden is one of the most potent memories I have of the Seventies. I remember petitioning my parents to take me to London, just to see it. I equally vividly remember my disappointment when they refused on the grounds that it would be hugely disappointing.
Having seen it on Friday morning, I think that had I actually been allowed to drag my parents all the way there at the time, it would indeed have been a huge disappointment. As it is basically, a sunken patio constructed of crazy paving, with a small pond and some raised beds round it.
In my mind it was like the Taj Mahal, but better. In reality it is grey, and drab, and the only things that remotely enliven it are the bronze dog’s head and Shep’s paw prints in the concrete.
Having said that, my seven or eight year old inner child was over the moon to be standing on that crazy paving, first thing on Friday morning. I nearly cried, it was so brilliant. I was so genuinely delighted I rang Jason on his way to work, and when I told him where I was, he was equally as amazed as I had been a few, short moments earlier. It was truly a bucket list moment for me.
I was so excited about it, I spent the entire day telling everyone I met what an absolute thrill it was. Every person of roughly my age that I met, knew exactly what I meant when I talked about it. Every single one of them said: ‘Do you remember when it was vandalised?’ We all got a bit misty eyed about Percy Thrower, and bemused as to why they had to make a dog such a massively impressive statue. I bonded, properly bonded with everyone over that patch of wet concrete. It was one of those moments like remembering where you were when a famous person got shot. It was that good an ice breaker. I am thinking of making it my number one dinner party story, even though I never get invited to dinner parties. That’s how good it was.
As I write this, I am still smiling about it. Every time I tell the story, and I have bored everyone I know rigid with it over the weekend, I smile.
Would swimming with dolphins ever be that satisfying? I truly doubt it, unless they were Italian Sunken Dolphins, obviously.