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History of the Garden

Black and white photo of the glass house

A guide book written for the Botanic Garden in the early 1970's tells us:

"The first Botanic Garden in Durham was founded in 1925 when the grounds of the science laboratories where laid out as an experimental garden. As the sciences expanded within the University and more buildings were constructed the garden decreased proportionately, and it was decided in 1969 to move the garden to a new site where it could develop undisturbed and develop an identity of its own"

The Botanic Garden has been on this site since 1970. It was created primarily for teaching and research. As the garden matured a Visitor Centre was built and opened in 1988 by Dame Margot Fonteyn, the Chancellor of the University at the time, to accommodate the 6,000 annual visitors. The garden now attracts over 80,000 visitors annually.

On the tabs below, you can read more about different aspects of the Garden’s history.

Cover the bird guide, alongside a blue tit

The 1985 Bird Guide

The following information has been copied from a pamphlet "Birds of the University of Durham Botanic Gardens and Woodland", which was written in 1985 by Kathleen O'Brien. The original pamphlet can be found in Durham University Library.

"It is with much pleasure that we are able to publish this list of birds, carefully prepared by Mrs Kathleen O'Brien, giving at a glance some indication of the wealth of wildlife (apart from the plants) to be found associated with the University Botanic Garden and surrounding woodlands. A more detailed study reveals many as seasonal visitors to the area, doubtlessly encouraged by a management policy now operating in the woodlands for some decades of encouraging our native broadleaved trees and planning operations to encourage the amenity or conservation interests of the area rather that short term financial gain.

"Kathleen is well-known to bird-lovers in the area and hopefully her list will encourage many more potential bird lovers, possibly initially attracted to the area because of the variety of plants cultivated in the Botanic Garden or the beauty of the woodland walks. And it is well known that plant lovers are of course nature lovers in the broader sense. More details about the R.S.P.B. and their valuable work can be had by dropping a note to her at South Lodge, South Road, Durham."

Common name


Scientific name

Grey Heron

Regular visitor

Ardea cinerea


Breeding resident

Anas Platyrhynchos


Resident in the area

Accipiter nisus


Resident in the area

Falco tinnunculus

Grey partridge

Breeding resident

Perdix perdix


Breeding resident

Phasianus colchicus


Breeding resident

Gallinula chloropus


Breeding resident

Vanellus vanellus


Breeding resident

Scolopax rusticola

Blackheaded gull

Occur in the area

Larus ridibundus

Herring gull

Occur in the area

Larus argentatus

Great black-backed gull

Occasional visitor

Larus marinus

Stock dove

Breeding resident

Columba oenas


Common Breeding resident

Columba palumbus

Collared dove

Resident. Loves sitting on telegraph wires

Streptopelia decaocto


Summer visitor. More often heard than seen

Cuculus canorus


Breeding resident

Strix aluco


Summer visitor

Apus apus

Great-spotted woodpecker

Regularly seen

Dendrocopos major


Breeding resident

Alauda arvensis


A regular summer visitor

Hirundo rustica

House martin

A regular summer visitor

Delichon urbica

Meadow pipit

Breeding resident

Anthus pratensis

Pied wagtail

Resident. Frequents the sewage treatment plant

Motacilla alba


Common Breeding resident

Troglodytes troglodytes


Common Breeding resident

Prunella modularis


Common Breeding resident

Erithacus rubecula


Occasional summer visitor

Phoenicurus phoenicurus


Common Breeding resident

Turdus meula


Winter visitor

Turdus pilaris

Song thrush

Breeding resident

Turdus philomelos


Winter visitor

Turdus iliacus

Mistle thrush

Breeding resident

Turdus viscivorus

Sedge warbler

Summer visitor

Acrocephalus schoenobaenus


Breeding summer visitor

Sylvia communis

Garden warbler

Breeding summer visitor

Sylvia borin


Breeding summer visitor. Sometimes over winters

Sylvia atricapilla


Breeding summer visito. Favours blaids wood area

Phylloscopus collybita

Willow warbler

Common breeding summer visitor

Phylloscopus trochilus


Breeding resident

Regulus regulus

Spotted flycatcher

Scarce summer visitor

Muscicapa striata

Long-tailed tit

Breeding resident

Aegithoalos caudatus

Marsh tit


Parus palustris

Willow tit


Parus montanus

Coal tit

Breeding resident

Parus ater

Blue tit

Common Breeding resident

Parus Caeruleus

Great tit

Common Breeding resident

Parus major


Breeding resident

Sitta europaea


Breeding resident

Certhia familiaris


Breeding resident

Garrulus glandarius


Common Breeding resident

Pica pica


Common Breeding resident

Corvus monedula


Regular visitor

Corvus frugilegus

Carrion crow

Common Breeding resident

Corvus corone


Common Breeding resident

Sturnus vulgaris

House sparrow

Common Breeding resident

Passer domesticus

Tree sparrow

Breeding resident

Passer montanus


Breeding resident. Joined in winter by visitors from Northern Europe.

Fringilla coelebs


Winter visitor. Often in flocks with other finches.

Fringilla montifringilla


Breeding resident

Carduelis chloris


Breeding resident

Carduelis carduelis


Irregular winter visitor. Prefers Alders.

Carduelis spinus


Breeding resident

Carduelis cannabina


Regular visitor

Carduelis flammea


Breeding resident

Pyrrhula pyrrhula


Breeding resident. Particularly like gorse and hawthorn bushes.

Emberiza citrinella

"Doubtlessly other species will be seen in the woodlands in the future. If you have news of new observations, please let us know by writing to the Botanic Garden, Hollingside Lane, Durham. We will revise this guide when sufficient new records and observations have been received. Meanwhile this ought not to be regarded as a definitive scientific document, but rather a checklist to inform the interested bird-watcher possibly visiting the garden for the first time"

-Kathleen O'Brien, 1985

This webpage was created by Michael Cooper on 29th December 2006 whilst on work experience from Durham Johnston School (revised 20th December 2013).

The FJR 1915 Headstone

This headstone can be found in a small dell behind the monkey puzzle tree. It was placed there by the Roberts family who once lived in Hollingside House, a short walk away. It is in memory of Major Frederick John Roberts, who is buried in France, at Chocques Military Cemetery.

Headstone with an inscription to FJR

The 1970’s Glasshouses

The Botanic Garden was initially set up by the Botany Department, its main focus being that of teaching and research. Visitors to the garden today can still see the original plantings in the Cactus and Tropical Houses, but the rest of the glasshouse is now very different. The pictures here show the present day Conservatory and Glassroom sections, as they were in the 1970s when research was the main use of these sections.

Over time, the research methods developed in the greenhouses were used less and less - instead the research was becoming much more 'hi-tech' and specialized 'growth rooms' were being used more. As space became available and visitor numbers were increasing rapidly, the research sections were developed into what you see today.

A special thank you to Paul Sidney for providing these photographs.

The Visitor Centre

The "official opening" of the Visitor Centre by Dame Margot Fonteyn took place on Friday 1st July 1988 - shown below with Professor Don Boulter after whom the main room in the Visitor Centre is named. Don was Head of Botany/Biological Sciences at the time.

The Prince Bishop Statues

These statues once stood in front of the coffee shop. They were originally created for the 1990 Gateshead Garden festival by local artist Colin Wilbourn. Colin also made a much loved sculpture by Prebends bridge in Durham, called the “upper room”. Both pieces survived for about 20 years before they naturally decayed. The statues in the Botanic Garden were officially opened in 1992 by the Chancellor of the University at that time, Sir Peter Ustinov. They were of three famous industrialists and three Prince Bishops, their metal "shadows" depicting what they had been famous for in their lives, the installation being called "In the shadows of the past".

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Download the 1970's Botanic Garden Guide