CALLS have been made for the grounds surrounding a former regimental museum to be consecrated and a memorial garden created in memory of veterans and family members whose ashes are scattered there.

The appeal came at a special Durham County Council meeting, held to discuss the future of the treasured Durham Light Infantry collection and the Akley Heads site, which was controversially closed in 2015.

Faithful Durham campaigners are calling for the collection to be returned to the building, but regimental trustees say they are happy with plans to move the collection, currently in storage at a specialist facility in Spennymoor, to a new Durham History Centre under construction at Mount Oswald.

Among the suggestions raised at the meeting were that the Aykley Heads building be brought back into use as an arts venue, to support the council’s Capital of Culture bid.

Faithful Durham secretary Diane Inglis said: “The county council should be ashamed at what’s going on and how the closure was conducted.

“After all almost all of us in County Durham, including some of us in this room, had family members who served in the DLI - some even have loved ones ashes laid to rest in the grounds.”

Mrs Inglis said the group had initially supported a new history centre as a new home of the collection, but objected after learning the DLI display would comprise a few cabinets on a rotary basis or digital displays.

She said: “Our group’s aims has always been to have DLI collection housed and displayed as a whole, of course understanding that most museums do not put everything on display.”

In a joint statement, the Army Museums Ogilby Trust – which has supported the DLI collection for 70 years – and the National Army Museum said any suggestion that Aykley Heads site should return as a museum should be “roundly rejected”.

It said: “We were delighted when in early 2019 members of Durham County Council gave the agreement to the Durham History Centre project.

“The project has grown and become a well thought through and integrated plan. The project will undoubtedly lead to greater and wider public access built on the inspiring links with the local community that have existed for so long.”

The Regimental and Chattels Charity of the Former DLI, which owns the collection, said the trustees supported the Durham History Centre and wanted to “ensure the unique collection and archive will continue to be professionally preserved by dedicated professionals for future generations and through permanent, temporary outreach and digital programs be accessible to a wider audience”.

Councillor Jonathan Elmer said: “The Army Museum Ogilby Trust’s statement says that a museum is not a memorial, but it’s not really the case in this situation, because it has become a memorial simply through the fact that so many people have used the grounds to sprinkle ashes and remember people.

“I do think that it is very important that going forward we do what we can to ensure that location retains its status as a memorial and I would also support the idea of having a memorial garden and some sort of monument erected there.”

Councillor David Freeman said: “There is a logic to centralise the whole history of the county at the history centre. My concern is whether what we are going to be offered at the history centre is really what I imagined to be a replacement for the DLI museum – which is certainly a large permanent exhibition.

“What I wouldn’t want to see is just a series of temporary exhibitions, which are very important but only focussing on aspects of the DLIs history.”

He added the Aykley Heads building should reopen and focus on art., with an element of the DLI’s history.

He said: “We have just submitted a bid for Capital of Culture, yet actually County Durham is so lacking in visual arts venues.

“It seems obvious that we should look to reopening the building to a large extent as an art venue and that will help us with the Capital of Culture bid.

“In many ways, if we don’t do that it could very well backfire on the bid that we’ve just submitted, because we are so lacking arts infrastructure.”

Councillor Karl Marshall said the decision to house the DLI collection at the Durham History Centre was the right one, adding it would reunite the archives with the collection in a more “modern and engaging way and position it in a place where it tells the story of the broader history across the county.”

Councillor Pete Molloy said: “Where ashes have been spread or buried, could this be classed as sacred grounds and kept as a memorial? If so, can some form of covenant be placed on it to preserve it for generations to come and remember?”

Amy Harhoff, the council’s corporate director regeneration economy and growth, who will prepare a review to bring back to the council cabinet meeting in September, said the question of a memorial would form a headline in the report.

She added: “The September review will need to include first the answer to the location of the DLI collection itself and the other question we will need to ask and answer is what are the alternative uses of the building

“As part of that we will do a high level assessment of aspects of the building, looking at things like a condition survey, so we have a sense of the scale of investment that is needed.”

The report will recommend a preferred use or options, pending a more detailed study.