Army veterans help church’s canal-side makeover

Reverend Jack Holt with the view from the church's balcony towards the Union Canal. Picture: Gina Davidson
Reverend Jack Holt with the view from the church's balcony towards the Union Canal. Picture: Gina Davidson
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THE boards of decking beneath Jack Holt’s feet are gently warmed by Indian summer sun, as he leans over the wooden railing to watch a solitary rower in a small wooden boat slide past on the glassy surface of the Union Canal.

Joggers, mothers with prams, people off to work, are walking past on the other side of the narrow stretch of water and for the first time perhaps taking notice of what’s on the other side – Polwarth church.

For years the land behind the church had been weed-strewn and covered with head-height nettles, hiding the old wall which ran behind the impressive red sandstone building and making the place look, from the towpath at least, a little neglected.

But after months of back-breaking work by army volunteers and veterans, a fundraising campaign by parishioners and a little heavenly intervention, Polwarth Church has now become the Kirk on the Canal.

The wall was knocked through, the land cleared, a patio and decked area built and a garden landscaped and planted – all that’s left, says Church of Scotland minister Reverend Holt, is for Scottish Canals to build steps to the water, put in a mooring point and for a barge to be bought.

“From the outset our intention was to create an access on to the canal and so provide a point of contact with the growing number of diverse communities that use the water, the towpath and the amenities of Harrison Park,” said Rev Holt.

“Seeing the garden now, after all the work and effort that’s gone into it, is wonderful. But it’s not the end of our transformation.”

The beginning was before Rev Holt arrived at the parish four-and-a-half years ago.

Two parishioners had attended a presentation by British Waterways Scotland and the council about plans to transform the Union Canal and spotted the opportunity for the church to get involved. The discovery of an old photo which showed a boathouse had once stood on the ground next to the canal behind the church meant dealing with a potentially-tortuous planning process to get permission to knock through the wall and build the garden wasn’t required.

Then there was a call from army veterans’ charity Back Out There, which was looking for a garden project to work on as a therapy for former soldiers. Funding wasn’t yet in place for the canal garden but the charity agreed to come and work in another part of the church grounds, creating a remembrance garden.

Their involvement meant that when the church applied to a new funding stream, the army’s Community Covenant which aims to integrate the armed forces into their local community, the £36,000 needed for the canal garden was granted.

By July this year the work had begun and now the garden is open to the public.
Rev Holt adds: “A small, hard-working team from the congregation are to be congratulated on bringing this project to completion.

“We have also been very lucky to have had a landscape architect plan the garden as part of her PhD, then Hardies Surveyors waived their fee and the Wilfred Owen Association, which was involved with the Second World War garden, helped us apply for the Community Covenant.

“So it’s wonderful to open our grounds and gardens to veterans and their families, the local schools, residents of care homes, special needs groups and visitors to and users of the canal as a place of peace.

“But the work hasn’t stopped. We’ve launched another fundraising drive called Float Our Boat so the church can have its own canal boat on the water, which can be used perhaps as a wedding venue or for trips by pupils at two local schools – Craiglockhart and Tollcross – or even for the Sunday School.”

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