Image of wildflower meadow.  Photo courtesy of Karen Smith.

A very merry meadow

Even on a wet and windy day Fernbrae Meadows is a delight. Don’t just take my word for it.  The transformation of a former golf course into an urban park was completed in 2019 and has quickly won a place in the hearts of the residents of Cathkin and Fernhill. With over 200 daily users this park is a roaring success.

Mel Millar, Project Development Officer with South Lanarkshire Council, is irresistibly enthusiastic about the project.  He was instrumental in shaping the park, and when he offered me a guided tour his sense of pride and achievement shone through.

“You only have to leave the car park and head along the path hugging substantial and beautiful mature trees to sense what we’ve changed here,” enthused Mel. “Where you now see a discreet five bar fence there used to stand a 20 foot high chain fence, topped with barbed-wire.

“The golf club understandably didn’t want non-golfers on the course, but had unintentionally created a visual and physical barrier between the local community and the woodland areas around Cathkin Braes. We’ve used this opportunity to develop the site in a way that’s now providing a link to Cathkin and the wider green network of Glasgow. When the golf club ceased trading South Lanarkshire Council managed to create a package, including the Green Infrastructure Fund, to come up with enough money to effectively transform this site and create a local gem.

“We started on the road in 2015 and completed in December 2019. A lot of that time was taken getting money in place, navigating the planning process, and reaching out to the local community.  The actual construction phase was only about six and half months in total.

“The local community got right behind the project from the start.

“We’ve tried hard to work with nature on this site. All the paths that are in here are based on desire lines. People were already walking these after the golf course closed, so we didn’t want to invent something that was artificial, and we kept the contours as they are, designing the paths to run discreetly. Whilst you can see that there are paths all through the park, we haven’t built them up, we haven’t put streetlights on them, and we haven’t changed anything dramatically. We told the local community that we were aiming to create ‘a walk in the country’ right next door to their house, and I think we’ve achieved that.

“It's a busier site than we thought it was going to be, but when you look around it there’s very little litter, there’s very little vandalism, people seem to have taken Fernbrae Meadows to their hearts, and they want to look after it. “

Much of the praise for engaging the local community so effectively with the new park must lie with Karen Smith. Working with enthusiastic residents like Nicole Drubiger she has helped encourage a vibrant ‘Friends of Fernbrae’ group. Karen has worked tirelessly to make the local community the custodians of the park through projects as varied as planting a wildflower meadow through to enticing local schools to visit regularly and encouraging citizen scientists to make the most of what this large site offers.

Ask Mel what the biggest challenge was at Fernbrae and he doesn’t hesitate. “There were many different challenges,” he responds “however one of the biggest was water. Basically, golf courses are designed to get water off them as fast as possible and will only bring water back on where they need it. We had to change this and unfortunately as the golf course drainage was already under the ground it was a major challenge.

“When I say change it I should emphasise that we needed to ‘hold’ water on this site rather than lose it quickly”, explains Mel. “We did this by various means. At the Cathkin end of the park we have two SUDS ponds and have incorporated a wetlands design to try and slow the water down.  There is a main drain near Burnside Road which, before we built the park, was running at capacity because of the many new houses that have been built in this area. So we had to avoid adding to any issues.”

“In addition to the SUDS ponds we reinstated two meander burns which cut through the park. When we came here this was a canalised burn and it very efficiently took the water off site. Now we’ve created a new waterway which meanders its way down. It does two things. It slows the water down and allows the drainage system to better cope with the level of water coming from the site, while at the same time we have created an attractive feature for the park. In essence we were trying to change what water had been doing here for years.”

Fernbrae is a great modern-day stress-buster. There are lots of little features that make it so. The combination of around 8,000 metres of path, exercise areas, viewpoints, an army of new trees, and a wildflower meadow works exceptionally well. No wonder local dog walkers love the site. For those who simply want to linger and relax the view is amazing. The Campsies, Ben Lomond and The Cobbler, as well as host of city landmarks are all visible on a good day.

If the viewpoints give a glimpse into history, the park embraces the modern drive to recycle. The sleepers Mel took from the canalisation went to making some of the steps, the old gate posts dating back to the original estate were brought back into use and inspired new posts. Even the apples in the young orchard are Rutherglen Russets - an historical local variety. An ancient, and rather vigorous, hornbeam hedge is feature on some of the slopes beneath Cathkin Braes. This mix of blending the old with the new works extremely well.

The allotments which sit next to the orchard are a notable feature of the site. There are 50 individual allotments (all taken), along with four small and two large raised beds for community use. The site boasts two substantially crafted shelters, each generating its own water supply from rain-fall capture. Nearby Fernhill and Cathkin schools have an interest in the growing zone and also make the most of the many outdoor learning opportunities the site offers.

A heavily managed golf course typically has acres of mown grass; it can be a rather bland vision. So it was vital to add wildflower and wetland areas if new habitats were to be created. With that done Mel and Karen have aspirations to involve the community in supporting the park through helping with maintenance, wildflower planting and activities. Community Group volunteers have been on training courses in the expectation that they will be able to use new skills to help monitor the changes at Fernbrae over time.

Clearly Mel has mixed feelings leaving Fernbrae behind. Satisfaction at a job well done, but sadness at leaving a site he has clearly grown very fond of. “My job is finished here,” he cheerily reflects, “it is the Ranger Service and the community who will look after it now, with support from our Community Services colleagues to maintain the site”. One key thing that you notice straight away at Fernbrae is the lack of litter or damage which proves the fact that people are obviously taking care of it. Local people have noticeably taken pride in this park and long may that continue.”

Fernbrae Meadows is innovative. It’s the first project of this kind in Scotland, and converting a golf course in this way had never been done before.