How we dug in to save world famous York park

Gateway to a better future? West Bank Park. Photographs: Jane Cullen
11 Mar 2014 @ 9.29 am
| Environment, History
Gateway to a better future? West Bank Park. Photographs: Jane Cullen
Gateway to a better future? West Bank Park. Photographs: Jane Cullen

jane-cullen-headshot1When one of York’s historic parks came under threat, the local community stepped in, as Jane Cullen explains

In this busy world we all inhabit, parks and open spaces are so important to give us room to breathe. One gem of a park is West Bank Park in Holgate, York.

At first glance it seems like many other recreational spaces; children’s play area, open field, bowling green, special planted areas and a woodland. Whilst it is above average, one could be forgiven for passing through without a further thought.

But last year, when the council cuts really began to bite, the park became vulnerable.

This well-maintained and special place was going to be left unlocked overnight.

I live very near the park, and along with other residents, we were worried about the effects on our little sanctuary.

I threw myself into a campaign to get as many people as possible to sign a petition, final figure was 1,400… so it was clear that local feeling was strong.

I have never really been particularly vocal, but for this, I was prepared to shout very loud.

I organized a public meeting at the local Working Men’s Club to which 60 residents came and we garnered local support for the continued maintenance and upkeep.

But with the best will in the world, this was a losing battle. The council decision was made. We needed to find another way.

Bigger than Kew

In my own career, I have been a very successful documentary maker. I vaguely knew that this park had been a special plant nursery, but little more than that.

I felt that there might be a story in the park which would make a short feature or article. I decided to do some digging….

West Bank Park is based on the site of the world famous Backhouse plant nurseries.

James Backhouse bought the site after moving from their previous nursery site at Telford’s Nursery at Toft Green in York. They needed to find new premises when the railways came, and York Station was built.

The new location was a 100-acre site in Holgate, Backhouse and Son Nurseries became known as The Kew of the North – indeed it was even bigger than Kew.

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Click on the images for a closer look

People would come from miles around simply to walk through to look at the plants, trees, orchids, ferns and the spectacular rock garden.

As well as being a talented botanist, James Backhouse was a philanthropist and Quaker missionary.

In September 1831 along with George Washington Walker he sailed for Australia on a mission to visit the convicts and settlers.

For six years, they travelled throughout Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and throughout Australia, visiting every penal colony and also aboriginal settlements, reporting on the conditions they found there.

Returning to York ten years later, via Mauritius and South Africa, Backhouse sent plants and seeds back to both Kew and his nursery in York. His name was also given to a herb, backhousia citriodora, that we know today as lemon myrtle.

West Bank Park film

In finding all of this amazing background about our local park, I decided to put together a proposal, and calling in many favours, put together a film to promote the idea.

What if we as a community could celebrate this heritage at a visitor centre? What if we could attach a really lovely child-friendly café to it?

What if we could join with the burgeoning growing community and give community access to food production?

What if the Holgate Windmill would like to join us as a partner and share their stories as well as supply our café with freshly milled flour?

And what if we could inspire both young and old to join together to enjoy anew the simple pleasures of outside living through a series of community events and meetings?

It all seemed so exciting. The council all of a sudden seemed to be interested in this alternative plan for the park.

From the original position of adversity, this now seemed a very positive way forward for us all.

Within a few months I had rounded up a group of the most talented people I knew who would be able to help in various ways to get his project off the ground.

After numerous meetings, hundreds of emails and constant nudging of the press and council officers; an email dropped into my inbox about the re-thinking parks scheme launched by innovations charity Nesta.

This was what we had been waiting for. A focus that seemed to work for both our plan and for the council.

New partners

On February 28, 2014, just over a year after I had started the campaign, City of York Council put in a bid to the Nesta programme to help fund development work to further improve the park and its facilities, increase community management and create new income streams to, over time, replace the council’s annual maintenance costs of £70,000 a year.

Basically, it was a bid to re-imagine what could happen in this beautiful space and in the spirit of Backhouse, to re-invigorate the park and its offer new uses for the community.

As we await the outcome of this bid, we are also working on other ideas and schemes to allow us to access other grants.

Following a successful application to be involved in the York Cares Business Review, the project has also been paired with business mentors Network Rail, York University and Marriott Hotel.

This will enable us to tap into valuable, high quality business advice.

The NESTA award is a two stage process. If our stage one proposal is successful, we will be invited to refine the bid and submit a stage two application in late March.


  • Jane Cullen is founder and chair of the West Bank Park Heritage Project
  • Click here to contact the project by email