Newcastle University botanic garden set to close

A CITY’S only botanic garden is to close in what is its 90th year, and only months after it secured a cash boost from lottery funds.

Anne Borland, Director of Moorbank Garden, Newcastle University's Botanic Garden

A CITY’S only botanic garden is to close in what is its 90th year, and only months after it secured a cash boost from lottery funds.

Newcastle University, which leases the four-acre Moorbank botanic garden off Claremont Road from the city’s Freemen, will not renew the agreement.

Moorbank’s grounds and its desert house and tropical glasshouses house important plant collections.

Around 2,000 adults visit each year on open days and almost 1,000 youngsters on educational visits.

In February, the garden was awarded a £12,200 development grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to prepare a bid which would have seen Moorbank open to the public on a regular basis.

Moorbank was described by Ivor Crowther, head of the HLF in the North East, as a “wonderful hidden garden”.

Over the last five years it has reached thousands of people through environmental projects via the Big Lottery-backed Open Air Laboratory (Opal) scheme.

John Richards, retired professor of botany at Newcastle University, set up the Friends of Moorbank which has provided volunteers to work in the garden. He said that the closure plans left him “shocked, alarmed and disappointed”.

“This will reflect badly on the university. A number of leading figures in the university are disappointed,” he said.

The garden contains many specimens from the collection of Northumberland plantsman Randle Cooke, who lived near Corbridge and donated them, along with his house, to the university.

The late Lord Ridley of Blagdon also donated plants and the Friends have given 1,000 specimens.

A Friends spokesperson said: “The garden is open to the public regularly for charitable purposes, and plans were afoot for it to open on a weekly basis.

“The garden fulfills many of the university’s key aims for widening participation and public engagement.

“In 2013, it was planning to play a part in the university’s contribution to the British Science Festival.

“Parties visit Moorbank to enjoy guided walks and these visits have contributed £7,000 to the National Gardens Scheme which supports cancer charities.

“None of this seems to carry weight with the university top brass. According to the pro-vice-chancellor of the faculty of science, agriculture and engineering at the university, Professor Steve Homans, the garden is to close because of rising costs. Ironically, experimental glasshouse facilities will have to be moved from their current position at Moorbank to the university’s Cockle Park facility, 25 miles north of the city, near Morpeth.

“Here the development of new glasshouses to replace those about to be destroyed at Moorbank will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, on top of the expenses which may be incurred in mothballing or dismantling the extensive glasshouses and buildings at Moorbank.

“At present the costs of the garden devolve upon the Faculty. However, as the main role the garden plays centres nowadays on widening participation, it seems proper that the economic burden, which amounts to little more than the equivalent of two salaries, should receive its own budget from the university.“

Prof Homans said: “Newcastle University has made the difficult decision not to renew its lease of Moorbank and is working with the Freemen to manage this process in a sensitive way.

“We recognise that Moorbank has been a much-loved feature of the city for many years and this decision has not been taken lightly.

“However, the primary purpose of Moorbank has been for the university to conduct plant research, and in recent years we have seen the level of this research reduce considerably.

“The running costs and investment needed to maintain and develop the gardens is substantial and likely to increase over the next few years.

“The small amount of research activity and low levels of visitor numbers at Moorbank regrettably makes this investment unaffordable.”

 

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