The Environment Centre has a long history in Byng Road. Prior to 1975 the site was, in succession, a field, post-war allotments, and then a playing field with an annex to the Elizabeth Allen School. In 1975 Mr Denis Bland, a science teacher, was asked to set up the Barnet Environmental Education Centre on the 7.5 acre playing field, designing the land as a nature reserve and using one of the school annex/Curriculum Centre buildings. Over the years the site was developed with ponds, a donkey paddock, a meadow, a poultry unit, arboretums and tree trails. In the building, one classroom was set up as an animal room with cages for birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and insect species, while the second room was furnished as a classroom. At the peak of activity there was a Centre Head, with 2 full time teachers, one environmental technician and one administrator. Schoolchildren visited the Centre every day of the week in term time.
In 1992 the Friends of the Denis Bland Environmental Centre was formed to support the environmental education service and was registered as a charity in 1994. The Centre suffered severe financial cuts and redundancies and in 1995 came under new management by the Youth Service, when more cuts were implemented including further reductions in staff. The Denis Bland Environmental Education Centre changed to the Barnet Countryside Centre at the Denis Bland Nature Reserve and the Charity also changed its name. The Friends of Barnet Countryside Centre (FoBCC or “the Friends”) pledged a fixed sum for several years towards running costs to prevent the Council closing the Centre, raising the funds through open days, holiday activity schemes and birthday parties.
In 2001 The Centre was merged with the Welsh Harp Environmental Centre run by the London Borough of Brent with school visits taking place at Welsh Harp (although these ceased by 2005). By 2002 no warden and no LBB staff were at the Centre but Barnet Council allowed the Friends to remain in order to maintain the Nature Reserve and buildings and to organise educational events. The first major event, in 2005, was an Environment Day attended by our new MP, Theresa Villiers. In 2006 the Friends restarted the school visits programme and by 2007 there were fifteen school visits through the summer term equating to approximately 500 children – most visits were led by the visiting teachers from ready-prepared work sheets contained in our Teachers’ Guides. The Friends continued to maintain the Denis Bland Nature Reserve and arranged for a Habitat Survey and Protected Species Assessment to take place. Community events were organised and The Barnet Beekeepers obtained a licence from the Council to keep bees on site.
In 2007 Barnet Council offered the site on the open market for disposal by a long lease. In 2010 Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice became the leaseholders and planning permission for a hospice was granted in 2012. The Council’s approval emphasised respect for the environment and a condition of the sale was the re-siting of the Environment Centre where environmental education could continue. This was constructed further down Byng Road, partly using a grant of £750,000 given for FoBEC by The Hadley Trust, who have supported us for many years; the new building was opened in May 2016.
The Friends changed their name to Friends of Barnet Environment Centre (FoBEC) and became a charitable incorporated organisation or CIO in 2016. In February 2016 a “Licence to use” was signed between the London Borough of Barnet, Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice and The Friends of Barnet Environment Centre, allowing the Friends the use of the Environment Centre and the surrounding land for educational purposes for an initial period of 20 years. In the last educational year, 2018-2019, 1980 children from 54 schools and 12 youth groups have visited along with 385 adult helpers. All school visits were from primary schools except for 2 secondary visits.
Noah’s Ark has been supportive of the continuing work carried out by the Friends, with both charities already working cooperatively. We look forward to a future where Noah’s Ark families and the local community will continue to benefit from the tranquillity of the Nature Reserve. The hospice building, called The Ark, was opened on the 26th September 2019 by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.