Just to prove that garden history doesn’t always have to be about stately homes, statues of Queen Victoria or 18thc planting schemes, the real surprise at Southend was nestling in the undergrowth at the foot of the cliffs. Don’t read any further if you’re a purist or a snob!
I spotted the remains of what appeared to be a series of concrete castles and other bizarre structures that one might find on a mini-golf course. perhaps that’s all it was, although it would be a strange golf course where you had to try to putt on a steep slope. Then I thought putting my garden history hat on, perhaps it was a miniature village or ‘fairy’ garden. I was getting closer because once I’d had the chance to do some research I discovered it was indeed something like that – a Never Never Land, once the pride and joy of Southend Council but now closed, abandoned and largely dismantled.
What is it about Peter Pan, Tinkerbelle, Captain Hook and the rest of Barrie’s characters that attracted, and indeed still attracts us all? Barrie’s imaginary world of Never Never Land first appeared as a stage play in 1904, and he probably derived the name from a contemporary description of the wildest north Australian outback. But he didn’t stick to it and when the script became a book his fantasy world became simply Neverland.
The most famous thing based on the Peter Pan legend is probably the statue in Kensington Gardens which Barrie commissioned himself in 1902 following the success of the play, and which was erected in the park as early as 1912.
This led to a whole Peter Pan and other fairy-related ‘industry’ there, including the Elfin Oak designed by Ivor Innes in 1930 and which is now a Grade II listed structure.
and the Princess Diana Memorial Playground which opened in June 2000 which features a large wooden pirate ship, and a beach set against a lush backdrop of trees and plants.
Now where do you go to research the origins and history of something unusual like Never-Never land? Luckily there’s a very good local history website – Southend Timeline – which has some basic information, and a websearch also revealed some memories of people visiting or working there. But nothing about who came up with the idea or any account of how it operated and how it developed.
There is no doubt that Never Never Land caught the holiday making public’s imagination. After it opened in 1935 it soon became popular, and by the 1950s people queued along the seafront for hours to get in. Apart from the castles, waterfalls mountains and caves and it featured nighttime illuminations and a model railway as well as a host of imaginary creatures including fire-breathing dragons.
But, as tastes changed and more ‘exciting’ attractions became available so the crowds disappeared and in 1972 the gardens closed. Most of the exhibits were ripped out and the gardens returned to ordinary use with just a few almost indestructible miniature ruins left in the bushes.
A rival attraction picked up on the same theme. Just down the road Peter Pan’s Playground opened in 1976 complete with a boating lake and fairground attractions.
This opened on the site of another highly unusual garden – a seaside sunken one – which might explain the photo below taken during the 1953 floods.
There was an attempt to revive Never-Never Land with more hi-tech attractions in the late 1980s but despite all best efforts it closed in 2000. The on-line archives of the local paper, the Southend Echo only go back as far as to the late 1990s but it’s possible to trace the story of its demise through its columns.
A couple of episodes are quite humorous. There were problems caused by starling droppings which made the paths too slippery and even turned Snow White’s cottage into “a no-go area” despite cutting down large numbers of trees to stop the birds roosting.
Vandalism was a constant problem and there even was a fire in the fairy castle. Reporting it the Echo quotes fire officer Rudy Jackson: “We found a window had been smashed and a fire started in the first floor of the castle. We broke in through a trap door and put the blaze out. It was not a really big fire but the castle is built of fibre-glass so the smoke was quite acrid. Whoever started it broke an outside window and set light to the corner of the castle inside. There is quite a lot of internal damage but the castle is still standing.”
Despite investing in new models and systems the numbers of paying visitors continued to decline sharply and made the whole venture unviable. A sad end to a once thriving attraction particularly as no-one seems to know what to do with the remnants. There was even an attempt to organise a Facebook campaign to re-instate it.
Meanwhile the rival Peter Pan park morphed into Peter Pan’s Adventure Island, and then recognising the diminishing allure of pirates and fairies to the current generation of young people, simply Adventure Island. Claiming to be the country’s No.1 free admission amusement park it is full of rollercoasters as well as more sedate rides and attractions – and tropical looking plants – it’s a far cry from Barrie but it has captured the market so that even on a blustery February afternoon there was a long long queue of people waiting to get inside.
I’d love to know more about any and all of this. So if you know the history of Never-Never Land or know someone who does then get in touch and I’ll be delighted to share it with other readers of the blog.
For further information about Southend in general and Never Never Land in particular see: http://www.southendtimeline.com and http://www.echo-news.co.uk