More than 100 people packed a meeting this week to talk about a unique heritage project at West Bank Park. JANE CULLEN, founder and chair of the West Bank Park Heritage Project, reports.
The cuts were coming. They would fall, amongst other things, on either swimming pools, libraries or parks.
In February of last year, a decision was made: all council-managed parks would be left unlocked overnight. Parks had taken the hit.
To lovers of West Bank Park in Holgate, it was a huge blow. To understand why, you need to appreciate that West Bank Park is not just an ordinary park. It has a history and a heritage that needs protecting. And it wasn't simply a question of leaving the gates unlocked for 24 hours.
It was about the withdrawal of a dedicated park team which knew the park and had a real pride in tending it - they would be replaced by a team which, whilst doing their very best would be stretched across many sites - and it was about the loss of our park ranger.
But the decision had been made. Nothing more could be done, it seemed. As a local resident with a career background in broadcast journalism and education, however, I thought there might just be something in the fact that West Bank Park had once been part of the world famous Backhouse Nurseries, which were known as the 'Kew of the North'…
I'm not a natural gardener myself. But knowing the true benefits from my family’s enduring love of gardening and open spaces, I knew that there was a story here that needed to be told, and it might just be the way that revenue could be raised to pay for the continued maintenance of the park.
James Backhouse was a Quaker missionary who had lived in West Bank House within the grounds of the park. He had travelled from here to Australia where he visited every penal colony. He was responsible for introducing Quakerism to Australia.
As an extraordinarily talented botanist he collected and studied plants and he sent specimens back to his nursery in York as well as well as Kew Gardens. With a world famous rock garden, underground fernery, prizewinning orchids and endless varieties of fruit trees, Backhouse Nurseries had been the garden designers of note.
Even today a Backhouse rockery has kudos in horticultural circles. Backhouse Nurseries were a showpiece and had an army of workers tending every need.
However, on a Sunday the public were allowed to walk around parts of the grounds, (under watchful eyes). It was an enchanting destination with exotic and interesting flowers, shrubs and trees.
Surely, I thought, there was a way that all of this history could be celebrated for the local community and future generations to enjoy. Having worked as a film-maker, I called in many favours and produced a short film which I presented to City of YORK Council with a plan to re-vamp a disused house which has stood empty in the park for six years. The idea started to blossom.
Originally built as the Park-Keeper’s Lodge, the house from the outside has alluring charm. Inside however, not so much. The plan was to emulate the success of the Rowntree Park Reading Café and have an exhibition space, and education and community areas.
There was the thought that the folks at the nearby Holgate Windmill could supply the flour for the café’s cakes and biscuits. As a Heritage Centre we could work collaboratively with many of the other local businesses, encouraging people to visit and enjoy the great things that the west of York has to offer.
In the spirit of Backhouse, this could once again become a space where people enjoyed gardens and gardening together. They could share produce as well as experiences. Sensory gardens and raised beds could enable gardening for all.
Children and parents could spend time in a traffic-free environment. There could be story times out in the open air and shelter for when it rains. Perhaps some people who had actually worked at the Nurseries could share memories and spend time together once again?
It was time to go public…..At a packed meeting at Holgate Working Men’s Club in July last year, 68 people crammed into the hall. There was a real sense of interest, and a thirst to find out more. After countless meetings and numerous tours of the park, a group of interested people were finally gathered. The West Bank Park Heritage Project was born.
They say that timing is everything and with possibilities of grants on the horizon, City of York Council helped and advised us in an application for a grant to charity Nesta, which has a mission to "help people and organisations bring great ideas to life". The title of our bid was “Reimagining Parks”, and it really galvanized our thoughts on what we were trying to offer.
Ironically, our Backhouse heritage was our downfall. Nesta were looking for ideas that they could transfer to other parks. Ours was almost too unique.
Undeterred, we applied for help to local company York Cares, which offers a business mentoring scheme. We were lucky enough to get three business mentors on board: Network Rail, the University of York and the Marriott Hotel. With their fresh perspectives and huge business acumen, their involvement marked a real turning point.
More than 100 people attended a second public meeting at Holgate Working Men's Club last Tuesday (June 10) - amongst them council leader James Alexander, Ward and Daphne Hamilton, the grandaughter of Lord and Lady Hamilton who took over the former nursery after the Backhouse family.
Our campaign for a West Bank Park Heritage Centre has also received high-profile backing from the likes of York's own Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Tim Smith, founder of the Eden Project.
Dame Judi has described the project as a 'wonderful idea'. "I have great pleasure in supporting it," she said. "I remember very fondly the Backhouse Nurseries. I do wish you all huge success in opening the Heritage Centre and preserving this landmark of York."
Sir Tim, meanwhile, said: "Backhouse was a nationally important figure and native son. Just as important symbolically he was a Quaker. This gives it a spiritual dimension and roots your project alongside other important Quaker projects such as Cadbury Bourneville, Port Sunlight etc…good luck!"
With such overwhelming local and national support, we are now ready to take the plans to the next level. We will be getting a feasibility study done to look into the structural soundness of the house, and will then aim to raise enough funds to get architects drawings and start to put all of the ideas into a formal business plan.
We hope to stage a small exhibition of photographs, at which we will also display our plans for the heritage centre. But above all, we need more local people to get involved: to come forward with their their ideas, to help with fundraising and organising, and also to contribute memories of the nurseries so that their stories can be shared and passed on.
You'll be able to find out more at the forthcoming West bank Park fete on Sunday June 29.
We hope to see you there!
The James Backhouse / West Bank Park Heritage Centre and Café would be situated at number 14 New Lane, Holgate, the old Park-Keeper's House in West Bank Park. It aims to offer four integrated services to the local community of Holgate:
• A place to celebrate the important horticultural heritage of the park
• A café, education and community space in a traffic free environment
• A place for the community to engage in growing produce and plants.
• A place to celebrate and discover all the great things that the West of the city has to offer.
The aim is to have a Heritage Centre to celebrate the history of West Bank Park, a beautiful space which really is a jewel in York's crown. The centre will also help to generate revenue to pay for the continued upkeep and protection of the park.
The West Bank Park Heritage Project Committee is steering these proposals. We have three business mentors (organised through York Cares), Network Rail, University of York and Marriott Hotel.
In due course the committee will be applying for grants and lottery funding - we'll be able to make a proper estimate of the likely cost of the project once we have architects' drawings and a formal business plan.
How the Backhouse Nursery became West Bank Park
During an economic crisis, as many of us know to our cost following the recent recession, businesses suffer. This happened to the Backhouse Nurseries. After the First World War, there was a much reduced market for Backhouse gardens and expensive estates.
When the company was sold, the Hamilton family took over the business. The Backhouse family home West Bank House was also used as The Elizabeth Fry Memorial Trust, a home for unmarried mothers.
In 1955 the Backhouse Nurseries were closed. The majority of the park as we know it today was established in 1938.