A story for our time.
5 January 2023
The Black Bull Close journey has been a long and interesting one, and it’s not over yet! Back in 2016, we agreed to extend our lease (with East Lothian Council) for the Backlands garden, to include the ivy-covered roofless ruins which lie between the garden and the High Street. The Ridge Foundations CIC social enterprise construction company had not yet been formally established, but we were already excited about the impact on the lives of individuals of learning stonemasonry skills on the tumbled-down garden walls, and about the potential these ruins offered to extend that positivity.
Early grant support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Architectural Heritage Fund, Dunbar and East Linton Area Partnership, Foundation Scotland, Dalrymple Donaldson Fund and others allowed us to clear the ruins of decades of debris, uncovering histories long buried and forgotten, remnants of lives lived in this narrow close: businesses, homes, family life and the inter-connectedness to the land behind and the High Street out at the front.
A feasibility study was developed with Simpson & Brown Architects to restore the ruinous buildings and bring them back into use, including through newbuild extension. The envisaged end uses reflected the needs for spaces thrown up through The Ridge’s work in the community. In particular, a support centre with confidential consultation spaces, and a training kitchen were clear needs. The Ridge itself had no accommodation for meetings, or for any of its many staff/volunteers, beyond a very over-stretched garden hut and a single composting toilet. So plans included office, welfare and flexible meeting spaces. The idea was (and continues to be) to meet needs beyond The Ridge’s direct work, and we carried out extensive community consultation to hear what people felt would meet those needs. Feedback from that consultation informed changes we made to plans for Black Bull Close, and has also informed plans for other sites which The Ridge is working on.
The costed plans which emerged have formed the basis of all our work since to fund and take forward this exciting and ambitious project, and were a core part of the Community Asset Transfer of the whole site – gardens and buildings in 2021. Although we would have liked to tackle it all at one pass, and in some ways that would have been easier, life (not least the Covid pandemic) intervened, and we have ended up with a phased approach, which saw ‘Building 4’ (now ‘Roger’s Land) on the south side undertaken as a standalone technical demonstration project supported by Roger Curtis of HES. This provided a fantastic learning experience for us all, not least the apprentices who rebuilt their own lives in the process of honing fantastic stonemasonry and joinery skills on the restoration work. It has been recognised by the award of the prestigious SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) Sustainable Conservation prize this year – a source of real pride for all involved. The resulting building houses a joinery workshop where youngsters (often those not thriving in a school setting) from all over East Lothian come to undertake the National Progression Award in Construction Skills. The beautiful room upstairs is used by The Ridge and many other community groups to hold meetings, therapeutic sessions and activities.
During the pandemic, we were able to carry on with some (physically-distanced) works which kept everyone busy, engaged, and connected. With help from HES, NLHF, Scottish Builders Federation Edinburgh and District Charitable Trust, Foundation Scotland, Dunbar Community Council, Architectural Heritage Fund and others, we put in mains services from the High Street to the Close, taking advantage of the down time on the High Street to dig up the pavement and Close, and ready ourselves for upcoming phases of development.
In the meantime, phase 2, which is the whole of the north side of the Close has been under development. Based on original costings, but with very generous allowances for inflation, we successfully fundraised c£740,000 for this work, with support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, Clothworkers’ Trust, Garfield Weston, Robertson Trust, Spifox, and CARES. The Ridge Foundations CIC (TRF) was to undertake the restoration works and the newbuild would be carried out by a third party contractor. However, the tendering process produced prices which almost doubled our project costs, largely due to the insanely spiralling costs of materials as a result of the war in Ukraine, but also on account of the inaccessibility (and perceived risks) of the site. We have gone through a very testing period of having to revisit our plans, but have had great support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Garfield Weston who have extended their support substantially. East Lothian Council have also stepped into the breach, to ensure that this urgently needed project can be delivered. We have looked again at the newbuild, and concluded that it is not beyond the skills and experience of an expanded TRF team – we are able to deliver for a fraction of the tender price, and have familiarity/comfort with this tricky site.
It is a huge challenge for us, but very exciting also, and means that far from all being lost, we are underway at last with the ground having been broken for the Support Centre and Training Kitchen elements to be built. Access issues meant we had to crane in a minidigger and dumper truck, the Air Source Heat Pump and huge quantities of materials. Our amazing neighbours at the Coop have been so supportive in allowing us to do this from their carpark, and we are so appreciative of the patience of all our neighbours as we get past this disruptive phase.
Sadly, works mean that this section of the Backlands is effectively a construction site, and out of bounds not only to the public but to Ridge staff and volunteers too. We just can’t wait to get to the stage of being able to re-open those gates and welcome everyone back in to see what’s been going on behind them.
In the meantime, watch this space for more updates….