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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 November 2012 by John Richards

Threatened Closure of Moorbank Botanic Garden. Entry 228.

University of Newcastle abandons Moorbank Botanic

It is now nearly a month since we were faced with the bombshell announcement that the University of Newcastle plans to close its Botanic garden, Moorbank. This is a 4 acre garden with very extensive glasshouses which lies behind high stone walls less than a mile north of the City Centre on Claremont Road. It forms a small part of the Town Moor, which for those of you who do not know our city is three square miles of grassland at the heart of the conurbation and fringed by the suburbs of Fenham, Gosforth and Jesmond (and St James' Park!). As we are part of the Town Moor, our Landlords are the Freemen of the City, who manage the Moor and maintain it as a green lung for the enjoyment and recreation of the citizens.

The garden was founded in 1923, and for many years served  chiefly to provide teaching and research material for University students and staff, and to educate the students. 

 

The garden undertook a major change of direction in 1981 when I made the decision not to continue maintaining Kilbryde Garden above Corbridge, which had been left to the University by Randle Cooke in 1973, but to sell the house and garden and to use part of the proceeds to move many of the plants to Moorbank in a greatly extended garden. Hundreds of plants, including many mature rhododendrons, often original collectors numbers, were moved, and the garden was increased with the agreement of the Freemen to three acres in extent.

Shortly afterwards, the old glasshouse range was replaced with a single much larger span which encompasses extensive tropical and dryland habitats. Indeed, we believe that this is by far the largest area of heated glass maintained for non-commercial purposes between Birmingham and Edinburgh! Here is a photo of  just a small part of the recently reworked dryland area for succulents.

One of the major problems the gardens has it that it shares its only access with the Town Moor Superintendent's house and vehicle store, behind security gates which can only be opened with a 'zapper'. Thus, at present it can only be visited by prior arrangement. Nevertheless, last year it welcomed more than 2000 adult visitors, either visiting as pre-arranged tours, or on one of our four annual NGS Open Days. Also, about 1000 schoolchildren visit each year through OPAL (open air laboratories). However, it has not been possible to open the garden on a daily basis, and this has doubtless contributed to the gardens demise. There is very little parking within the garden, and limited parking on the road outside is expensive and often taken (free on Sundays however).

For nearly 10 years now, most of the gardening has been undertaken by Volunteers, and the outside volunteers have been led by Sheila and myself. This has been necessary as there is only one permanent salaried member of staff. Nevertheless, we have been delighted with the way the garden has progressed during this time. We have both the means and the will to open the garden on a regular basis, and once a new gate and car-park have been engineered on the other side of the garden, this should be possible. However, we need the Freemen's agreement, and a very considerable grant in order to undertake the work.

As Botanical Science ceases to figure so greatly in University research and teaching activity (and why should that be??), there is no doubt that the garden has contributed relatively little to the University in recent years. Although the total recurrent costs are presently less than two salaries, there is some logic in the University's decision to stop funding the garden. However, the garden is already much valued by the local community, and there is no doubt that once the problems of access are overcome, it would become a most important venue for Newcastle and district . The University declares itself committed to 'outreach' and 'widening participation', which Moorbank clearly provides. On this evidence, the University will not put its money where its mouth is!

What was astonishing was that the decision to close the garden was taken without any consultation, either within the University or in the local community. This has caused the University to suffer a good deal of adverse publicity, but it seems very unlikely that the University will change its mind, as this is probably the first of  a series of closures of outstations it is about to undertake, and it would  not want to appear weak at this crucial stage.

 

Facilities

These days, Moorbank has magnificent facilities. These include a lecture room with modern equipment which will seat 60, a lab with microscopy which seats 30, propagation facilities including a large mist unit, offices, a kitchen, meeting room etc. As well as massive areas of heated glass, the four-acre garden is extremely well stocked with a huge variety of trees, shrubs, plants and alpines, most of which are informatively labelled. It is also a very beautiful, mature garden which has been elegantly designed. Here is the herb bed area in autumn.

Facilities

The prairie bed.

A small part of the rhododendron collection.

Pond area.

Perennial bed

I hope that this description and these few photos serve to show that if the garden was abandoned, or still worse, obliterated (which is a strong possibility) that this would be a terrible waste fo a superb facility that has the potential to serve the citizens of Newcastle for many decades to come. It would in fact be an act of terrible vandalism.

Growing Moorbank

As a consequence, the Volunteers have decided to attempt to run the garden by themselves, as a Trust, which we intend to call 'Growing Moorbank'. This can only be done with the agreement of our Landlords, the Freemen, and the first step will be to persuade the Freemen to show that they would be willing to offer  'Growing Moorbank' a new Lease once they are satisfied that we are on a sound financial footing. To do so, we need a substantial grant for the new entrance and car-park, and one or more sponsors who are willing to cover our overheads and a salary until we become self-sufficient, hopefully within five years.

 

November 25th meeting

Although we have a reasonable number of gardening volunteers, we are short of volunteers who have the requisite administrative, financial, practical and funding skill to guide us through what will undoubtedly be a tricky period.

To this end we have decided to call a meeting at the garden on Sunday November 25th, 1 pm for 2.30. There will be a guided walk, refreshments, and a meeting that aims to attract more volunteers, state our aims and plans, and ask for ideas and discussion. If you live in the North-east of England, or even further afield, and would like to help save the garden, please come along!

To reach us, take the northern University Exit on the Newcastle Urban motorway, and turn right (north-west) up Claremont Road for about 900 m. We are behind the black security gate, just before you reach the dog shelter. Enter through the blue gate to the Superintendent's house just the Newcastle side of the entrance. We look forward to meeting you! I finish with a picture of your diarist, leading a tour round the garden.

November 25th meeting
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