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Former pit land is now a park battling for an award.

Byline: Tony Henderson ENVIRONMENT

TODAY, a 150-acre country park is enjoyed by - at the latest count - 670,000 people a year. But 40 years ago the land which is now the Tyne Riverside Country Park at Newburn in Newcastle had a very different function.

"I can remember going there when I was 15 on my horse. It was a place where people came to dump their old settees," says park ranger Gillian Brown. "There were also piggeries, a scrapyard and lots of dumped cars."

The area also bore the scars of its industrial past. Much of the land that is now the park was part of the former Isabella Colliery, owned by the Throckley Coal Company.

The concrete cap covering the main pit shaft can be seen in a field at the park.

Land reclamation work was started by the then Tyne & Wear County Council and now the park is run by Newcastle City Council.

Now it has been shortlisted by the Open Spaces Society for a prestigious national award.

The park will compete with two rivals from Buckinghamshire and Surrey for the Open Spaces Award, with the winner revealed next month.

It is the park's battlefield project, in which the Friends of the Park and other volunteers have invested much effort, which has propelled it on to the shortlist.

Gillian, who has worked with the Friends on the project since it was conceived 10 years ago, says: "We couldn't be more delighted to be selected as finalists in this national competition.

"Over the years many Friends, volunteers and staff have worked hard to make the battlefield project happen, and we are proud of the results, as well as the friendships we've made and the skills we've learnt."

Gillian started work at the park in 1989, transferred to Jesmond Dene, and returned in 1992.

"It is a park which has been managed for people and wildlife.

The aim has been to give visitors a countryside-style experience and contact with wildlife," says Gillian.

This includes spotting seals in the Tyne, which is tidal at Newburn, as they chase fish upriver.

Another feature of the park is the Reigh pond, which once served the old colliery.

The battlefield project is named after a clash at the spot in 1640 during the Civil War between a Scots army backing Parliament and a force from Newcastle, which had declared for the King.

At the centre of the project was a 15-acre potato field which had been acquired by the park.

The Friends and park users were asked what features they wanted to see on the land.

"We had a blank canvas. What came out strongly at meetings was that the main riverside path was busy with cyclists and horse riders," says Gillian. On the wish list was a path for walkers which now runs parallel to the riverside route.

"People also wanted more trees, flowers and provision for wildlife."

A sensory garden was planted next to the battlefield car park, with plants to attract birds, bees and butterflies.

In 2007 a scheme was launched in which people could sponsor trees in memory of a loved one or some special occasion or event.

It was a big success and 90 trees were planted. The first was in memory of volunteer Alan Beech.

The trees include London plane, honey locust, Korean fir, Atlantic fir, silver lime, laburnum, sweet chestnut, horse chestnut, copper beech, medlar, Himalayan birch, various berry-bearing sorbus and weeping willow.

The scheme will be reopened this winter.

"Today there are a lot of cremations and the trees are where people can come to remember a loved one. It also gives people a stake in the park," says Gillian.

There has also been more general planting of broadleaf trees and a wildflower meadow, and the creation of a grass amphitheatre.

"It has become a hugely popular part of the park," says Gillian.

A visitor count in 2004 gave a figure of 200,000 a year but the latest survey has seen that more than triple.

Tim Crowther, chairman of the Open Spaces Society and a member of the judging panel, says: "This is an excellent example of local people working together to achieve something of real and lasting benefit to the community."

VOLUNTEERS WILL KEEP CENTRE OPEN THE city council has replied to local concerns that the park's visitor centre may be sold and that staff cuts and moves would affect how the attraction is run.

A council spokesman said: " We are not looking to close the visitor centre. The council will not staff the site at existing levels, but the ranger service will continue to attend the area.

"We have firm plans to deliver existing activities through the Friends of Riverside Park and volunteers associated with Tyne Riverside, as we have in the past.

"We are looking to enhance the services by transferring the facility to community groups. We are in the process of talking to groups who are interested in working with us to provide additional services from the centre, making best use of the site and improving the current offer.

"Closing date for expressions of interest in the site is June 17. We have already received some very encouraging proposals and early indications suggest that the visitor centre will be better staffed than it ever has been."

"We have not lost any rangers in the budget process. Rangers are focusing on the six key parks In Newcastle which include Tyne Riverside and will continue environmental education and continue supporting volunteers across the city as they have done in the past.

"As part of the budget process, we deleted the post of park keeper (10 posts) and horticultural trainer (two posts) and those staff were made redundant. We also lost two management posts through voluntary redundancy.

"We are committed to maintaining Newcastle's parks and green spaces to a decent standard and refigured our service to focus on the bigger parks that are used the most. This includes Riverside Park. We will still maintain other parks but these will have less support. We continue to work closely with volunteer groups. Friends of Riverside Park are particularly passionate about the area and together with the city council are determined to keep the park in a good state for local people and visitors."


BATTLEFIELD SUCCESS Gillian Brown at the Newburn Park
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 8, 2013
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