Background to proposed Portobello Community Buy out of Bellfield Old Parish Church

Justin Kenrick
Justin Kenrick

A discussion paper by Justin Kenrick

There has been a long standing and strong community interest in Portobello in saving this resource for the community. Dialogue started in 2013 between the Church (at a range of levels) and PEDAL. It continued with two Big Things On the Beach public meetings in Bellfield and the Skylark, and now involves the Community Council and many more.

The initial conversations focused on exploring the previous Bellfield Minister’s vision of Bellfield becoming a centre for community transition and resilience, what the former Minister (who sadly died in January 2016) saw as a centre of Green Pilgrimage, just off the John Muir way which runs from Dunbar to Helensburgh along the Prom.

Our restraint in publicly constituting a community response to the possible sale, has been out of respect for the difficult process the congregation was undergoing as the three congregations merged (St James’s, the Old Parish at Bellfield, and St Phillips which is now Portobello and Joppa Parish Church). It is only now that they have merged and decided to sell Bellfield that we feel able to act without stepping on the congregation’s toes.

What we are proposing is to formalise Bellfield Action Group as an independent community group seeking to secure Bellfield for the community. Given the urgency of an imminent sale, an informal grouping is exploring how to secure funding from the Land Fund to help the purchase, and Big Lottery funding to help consult the community. This expanding informal grouping of local people so far includes Justin Kenrick (PEDAL), Ian Cooke (Development Trust Scotland), Alastair Cameron (Churches Housing Action), and also Tim Warren (PJPC congregation), Thea McMillan (architect), Eva Schonveld (PEDAL), and Dani Trudeau (Tribe).

Possible key use: Sustaining Community, Celebrating Life Transitions

Whatever plans are put in place for the buildings will depend entirely on the outcomes of community consultations, but it may be helpful to ensure that we:

  • – Upgrade the halls and café and keep them available as at present, and
  • – Make the church available for people of all faiths and none to get married, hold memorials, welcome
  • new-borns and hold other life transition events.

In this way, as well as the halls fulfilling their current everyday community needs catering for children and older folk during the week, and providing space for special events (whether parties, exhibitions, book festivals, or whatever) at weekends, the church building could be used for life transitions, while also being used, rather than left empty, throughout the week.

Enabling the church to be an inclusive centre of ‘welcoming, weddings and farewells‘ (welcoming new-borns, weddings of all varieties, and farewells/ memorials/ wakes) would enable it to continue to fulfil needs that have not gone away. These are needs which, for many, now require a different kind of space that can accommodate them by enabling them to explore, and arrive at, their particular way of recognising what matters in life and death.

Using this beautiful space for people of all faiths and none to marry, celebrate and commemorate, would continue the role it has played at the heart of the community.

Possible further uses: Our Place in the world

In the process of brainstorming how to secure revenue streams, and how to ensure the buildings contributes creatively to Portobello, other ideas have included transforming the small hall into holiday or event accommodation, using the graveyard imaginatively (including for stonemasonry), and adding an inspiring indoor global community-focused exhibition along the sides of the church, and possibly using the complex for holding residential workshops, and for letting out as a Festival venue. Making the complex a revenue raising residential venue might be aided by turning the small hall into a 2-storied 9 en suite bedroom building, one which can be rented out alongside the events.

The Bellfield Minister’s vision of it as a centre of Green Pilgrimage (just off the John Muir way, which runs along the Prom), suggested the idea of including a focus on communities in the global north and south, inspired by the double edged legacy of John Muir, the visionary from Dunbar who kicked off the national park movement at Yellowstone in the States.

John Muir’s life work led to an admirable movement for the protection of nature, a movement that is still going strong, but has had questionable success, perhaps because it has also had an awful impact. This is because, despite its best intentions, its approach (whether at Yellowstone in John Muir’s day or in Kenya today) is often based on evicting the very indigenous peoples and local communities who know how to care for their lands.

So the central dynamic for a possible interactive exhibition along the insides of the Church building might be one that focuses on inspiring people with the stories of local communities sustaining their lands, and asking: How can we reconcile (and ally) the protection of the non-human environment with the needs, resilience and fulfilment of human communities?

The exhibition could draw on the experience of specific Aboriginal communities in Australia, First Nations in Canada, indigenous peoples in Africa, and places reclaiming community ownership in Scotland, hopefully including Portobello. This could focus on how they are recovering their resilience, but also on how they deal with life events (births, deaths, marriages, becoming adults, becoming elders). Exhibited around the edges of the church space (and possibly elaborated on in a changing 2D floor screen display that can also be switched off), they could inform and illuminate events, rather than get in the way of them.

And what of the outside? Perhaps a greenhouse with vines along the front of the main hall creating a walkway connecting the buildings, maybe as ‘cloisters’ where annually a pillar is carved with a natural or community event from that year? Perhaps small poems/ pictures could be carved in stone and placed on the inner wall of the grounds as markers when life transitions take place there? Perhaps a workshop out the back where the local stonemason could train youth in his extraordinary skills? Perhaps youth training in video making, sound recording, web design, and all the skills needed to constantly renew a living interactive exhibition space that brings music, news, stories, and community representatives from across the world, who can themselves contribute to vocational and educational courses?

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