Newcastle’s Town Moor: Green It!

Town Moor path

The Town Moor is one of Newcastle’s most noted landmarks. It also demonstrates some of the difficulties in developing sustainable land usage to replace present day degradation and waste. The Moor is certainly a sizeable area. When the Nun’s Moor extension is taken into account, it is bigger than London’s Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park combined. Few British cities have such an open area so close to their centre.

Yet from an ecological point of view, the Town Moor is a badly degraded space. Large parts of it are the remnants of an open cast site. The ‘hill’ in the NW corner is largely the product of spoil dumped from the construction of the dual carriageway which not only devoured a large area of land but also divided the remainder of the original Moor into two quite separate sections.

The land itself now provides rough grazing for cattle. It might be compared to the British uplands, large parts of which were described by the great ecologist and land reformer Sir Frank Fraser Darling as “man-made wet deserts”. The pioneer conservationist John Muir was even moved to call sheep four-legged locusts. The uplands are kept in their impoverished condition largely by a combination of overgrazing and excessive muirburn.[i]

From the perspective of biodiversity, the Moor is something of a wasteland. But its potential for human fulfilment is rather restricted too. It comes out poorly in comparison to similar sites in other countries. Think of Paris and the Bois de Boulogne or Vancouver and Stanley Park. New York’s Central Park is both more beautiful and more useful than the Town Moor. Even what are tiny sites by comparison have been developed to provide a richer and more varied experience (e.g. the exquisite Chinese park in Vancouver). Developments such as the Eden Project in Cornwall display more vision too.[ii]

Objectively the Town Moor might, then, leave much to be desired. Subjectively, however, it is immensely popular with many thousands of people. It also hosts the Hoppings fair. It might not be the destination of choice for many Greens, but it certainly entertains an awful lot of local folk. There may well be many individuals who might object to dense planting of new trees and other vegetation on the grounds that it would provide cover for muggers and rapists.

Such conflicts of perception and valuation are replicated elsewhere in the NE of England. Many visitors flock to sites like Rothbury’s Cragside House and gardens, for instance. The acres of rhododendron there are particularly popular. Yet the plant is a virulently invasive alien, which is now requiring expensive eradication programmes in areas such as NW Scotland. More generally, organisations like the Ramblers Association fight to preserve what they see as the open vistas of areas like the North Pennines and Cheviots, yet such uplands would be largely covered in woodland were it not for human deforestation, followed by the herding of excessive stocks of sheep and deer (often subsidised at public expense) plus further blows from pollution.

Alternative Land Use for the Moor

So there may be a strong case for new land use initiatives on the Town Moor. Its very size and location provides much scope for positive change, to act as a model of a more sustainable land use, and to enhance its status in terms of landscape, recreation and nature conservation. Every bit of land is need in the fight to reverse biodiversity losses and habitat decline[iii] as well as respond to concerns like climate change, food security and the poor state of the nation’s health (e.g. expansion of allotments, more woodland and ponds, trim tracks).

Already there are some good schemes in the locality to build upon such as Scotswood Natural Community Garden and the Exhibition Park lake wildlife and biodiversity project as well as various wildlife gardens and community farms across the region.[iv] The city of Leicester has two good examples of what might developed on the Town Moor: the ‘Ecohouse’ in Western Park and the Brock Hill Environment Centre. Then there is the wonderful little wildlife park just before trains enter the hyper-urban world of London’s King’s Cross railway station.[v]

Yet such a vision for the Town Moor risks popular wrath. Many, many people see the Moor – as it is – as part of their heritage and might react badly against those they perceive to be threatening it. So careful consideration is necessary when it comes to such matters but there are pointers to how best to proceed.

For a start, it has to be stressed that there is nothing sacred about ‘tradition’ or ‘heritage’. After all, many cruel, oppressive and destructive practices have long roots in history. Of course there are also a good many things worth conserving from the past as well as old skills to be re-learnt. Certainly we should have no truck with the values and priorities that led to large parts of Britain’s townscapes being wantonly destroyed in the name of ‘progress’. Newcastle itself lost many fine buildings to the developers’ bulldozers and wrecking balls.[vi]

A sustainable society will be partly fashioned out of the best of the old. But it would also depend upon radical innovation, guided by the principles of what might be ‘ecodevelopment’. Locations such as redundant factory sites, derelict old warehouses, contaminated former mineral workings, multi-storey car parks and supermarket parking lots would be obvious priority candidates. But given the scale of change needed, sites like the Town Moor might well have be ‘redeveloped’ as well.

Moor Change

Actually the Town Moor is not what it was. Nor is it what was it was once planned. Certainly there is a very long history of pastureland there, perhaps dating back some 800 years, since the previous woodland was cleared. [Of course, in certain past geological era, the land was under the sea or covered by desert and might be again in the extremely distant future… but we can only take responsibility for our own times!]

But subsequent history is quite varied, though it is most certainly a plus that it has not been covered under the normal urban sprawl. Richard Grainger, the famous 19thc. architect, developed a plan for a big park on the Moor but only bits of his scheme were to be realised. In 1966 there was a landscape plan for a big central lake and lots of woodland planting.

town-moor-lake-plan

Over the 20th century, big bites, amounting to roughly 20% of the original area, have been taken out of the Moor: new sections of the RVI, Fenham Barracks, Leazes Halls of Residence, and the dual carriageway. There have been large-scale open-cast workings on the remaining area while old cattle watering ponds have been largely replaced by pipes and some wetland infilled. Activities such as dog-racing have come and gone. Generally biodiversity is much lower than, say, Victorian times.

So much of the Town Moor’s environment has been significantly altered, even if surface appearance might not appear too different to what it was. The real issue is how it might change in the future since nothing ever stands still. Land ownership and use on the Moor is regulated by Acts of Parliament (the last in 1988). In practice, an unrepresentative clique, the Freeman of the City controls usage, though ultimate ownership still rests with the Council. Allotment users on the Moor’s fringes have frequently complained about the Freemen’s attempts to push them out.[vii]

One way forward might be to propose land use changes, as suggested above, on just part of the Moor, leaving the Hoppings undisturbed. In any case, likely increases in oil prices in the not too distant future may put pay to travelling fairs. Groups such as the Freemen presumably would object to the necessary legislation on the grounds that it is some sort of ‘land grab’. Yet the land on which sat working class communities have long been subject to compulsory purchase orders and other such measures to make way for ‘development’. In Newcastle, this has ranged from railways (the Tyne crossing, for example) to the two central university campuses as well as more general schemes to raise property values (and therefore council income, as in the Going for Growth clearances).

Land tenure reform and changed land use on the Town Mooris certainly a more sustainable option than ‘business-as-usual.

[i] For alternatives, see, for example,

http://www.reforestingscotland.org/ and http://www.bordersforesttrust.org/

[ii] http://www.vancouverchinesegarden.com/index.htm) and http://www.edenproject.com/

[iii] http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/06/piece-by-piece-conservation

[iv] http://www.farmgarden.org.uk/

[v] http://www.wildlondon.org.uk/naturereserves/camleystreetnaturalpark/tabid/124/default.aspx

[vi] For a sad general history, see Gavin Stamp’s Britain’s Lost Cities (Aurum Press, 2010)

[vii] The world of the Freeman can be sampled here: http://www.freemenofnewcastle.com/news.html

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