Heart, Mind and Soul
“The day the first Lockdown was announced in 2020 our footfall went through the roof, up fivefold in fact”, says Brian Robertson, one of the dynamos behind Silverburn Park. “Our mantra, our ethos, is ‘heart, mind and soul’, which really hit a chord with the local community and it continues today as we move forward with the community very much involved; visitors from elsewhere are always welcome too.”
Silverburn is an 27-acre park that was gifted to Leven Town Council in 1974, with the proviso of a Conservation Agreement with the National Trust for Scotland that stated that the park has to remain as a natural area for relaxation for the benefit of the public in general and the people in and around Leven in particular. Unfortunately, the park was then neglected by Fife Council, who didn’t have the necessary resources. Up stepped the Fife Employment Access Trust (FEAT), a mental health employability charity that took over the management of the park and its regeneration in 2012. By September 2019 enough work had been done to open a campsite in Silverburn Park, and it has scarcely looked back ever since. In 2022 a whopping 250,000+ people visited.
Nothing Without Community
Talking to Brian, Chair of the Silverburn Park Management Company, and Charity CEO Duncan Mitchell, one feature of Silverburn’s story is at the forefront, and that is the local community, as Brian explains: “We realised that we had nothing without the community. So even in the beginning, we consulted with them to see what they would like developed at Silverburn Park. This community consultation actually came up with 65 separate things that they were keen on.”
“It’s an ongoing process”, continues Brian. “We still work with the community-based Friends of Silverburn Park (FOSP). There is a direct link with the community through them as they report to the board, there is even some crossover in personnel so the links are strong. It helps in the bigger picture, but also in the detail of delivering smaller projects like restoring our pond, making a wildlife hide from (straw and mud) and in much-requested playpark facilities. After consultation, we have five potential designs that the community can choose from.”
Three Star Rating
When they began their work in earnest they split the business plan into two stages, the second being the rebirth of the old Flax Mill here, which we will come to later. First, there was their office in a cottage here that now has a kitchen with a serving window for their café. They fashioned too a trio of glamping pods, a dozen tent pitches and a further trio of campervan pitches. The campsite has been a huge success with over 90% occupancy in the summer and a three-star rating secured from Visit Scotland.
The Silverburn Park project had its strong roots embedded in the mental health charity, and that remains integral. The charity and its work helping people to change not only their narratives – but also their lives – using the park as a resource to be proud of that they want to maintain and improve is key. Brian explains: “We help young people understand their park is as much theirs as anyone else’s to enjoy and look after. We work with lots of school groups, with forest schools, indeed two local young people help out on the board.
“We have seen people grow to become not only a vital part of what we do, but become employees too”, says Brian. “When Scotty came to us through Community Jobs Scotland he wouldn’t say boo to a goose! He came along and worked as an estate assistant. His confidence grew over time and we were able to employ him and since also promoted him to a campsite supervisor. Chloe meanwhile came to us through our charity. She was recommended to volunteer and her time here has been such a success that she now works as campsite assistant in a paid role.”
Grow Your Mind
Duncan is keen to stress that Silverburn helps span the generations: “At the moment we have six paid staff plus three times that number in volunteers. We are talking all age groups being involved and from a diverse range of backgrounds. The park is a platform for our charity to deliver its services in an outdoor environment and create a workforce within the park. Our ‘grow your mind’ charity project started with veterans who were not sure what park could do for them, but then they finished it they still wanted to still be involved in the Growing Garden. Silverburn helps bring generations together and teachers at Levenmouth Academy are always keen to work with us.”
I witness this multi-generational approach first hand in the rear garden of the Silverburn cottage, where I meet Ian and Rory. Ian explains: “We have a garden that we’ve worked hard on to grow fruit and vegetables, with such success that the butterflies and bees are back. My wife Hilary has done sterling work with fruit trees, chickens, and the bees in this cottage garden. It’s great now to see the likes of strawberries and rhubarb being sold to the public and also making their way into the cafe food. It’s a sustainable garden that makes a small profit by being creative. A local donkey field was paying to get rid of its manure – we took it as fertiliser for free. We’re a real team across the ages.” I fleetingly meet Rory too, a local young person who is busy at work with animal protection measures that will help save the strawberries, as well as hard landscaping.
The second part of the business plan swirls around the rebirth of the derelict B-listed Flax Mill as a visitor centre and community hub. As we speak, it’s about to go to contract with a projected opening date of April 2026. This impressive space will have a café, restaurant, meetings space, and studios for local creatives, as well as a 10-room hostel with 26 beds. There will also be a shop selling clothing made using locally worked flax fibres.
This flagship hub will be financially self-sufficient and should create a return on the investment. Up until now, Silverburn has relied on funding, and Duncan stresses, “We would like to say a big thank you to all the funders; without them, we wouldn’t be here. Donations and grant funding are always welcome.” Independent analysis predicts the opening of the Flax Mill will lead to the employment of 24 full-time staff and funnel £637,000 directly into the local community on an annual basis. In addition, during its construction, Silverburn have specified that the builders must employ apprentices and train them with traditional skills.
Walk this Way
Not ones to rest on their laurels, Silverburn are already capitalising on the 50,000 walkers who tackle the Fife Coastal Path every year, but have now also managed to get it diverted slightly to go via the site. Events are becoming big too, with weddings welcome. The annual Silverburn music festival was born in 2015 as a one stage, one day wonder, but now it lasts a weekend with two stages welcoming local acts who might be appearing at their first festival, even their first gig. This year they will be organising two festivals and also playing host to Fife Fest in Autumn. The list goes on and on with Valentine’s events, vintage car shows and even a Gardeners Question Time and national Pokemon event that saw people coming from all over. Such was the demand for a tour of the Flax Mill’s interior that they had to put a 360 virtual tour on their website for people who couldn’t get in.
Access to All
Also in the offing are half a dozen nature trails with leaflets guiding people around the park, its nature and its wildlife. Also, new this year are beach wheelchairs in the car park to offer more accessible access to the sands. A new permanent stage is planned for events and as a base for small groups and an all-weather space for school groups. These industrious guys are also working on all-weather fully accessible paths, resurfacing the drive, widening the main entrance, resurfacing the car park and building an overflow car park. The campsite is being improved too with a new amenity building with toilets, laundry and log store, plus a drying room shared with hostel guests all in the plans.
Give Something Back
Tying in with the SCOTO focus on ‘temporary locals’ in the off-season there are plans to run volunteer weekends so people can really give something back, giving some of their time and being rewarded by seeing the money they spend going back directly. Duncan insists they, though, won’t lose sight of their focus - “We are still focussing on creating meaningful activities for people who would benefit from them, which underpins everything, it’s our core determination. The wider community benefit is what it’s all about, how it all came about. When the Flax Mill opens it will be an opportunity to train people in hospitality and give more people jobs, careers and opportunities.”
This interview took place just two days before Brian’s sudden passing. His loss has left a huge void with Team Silverburn as he volunteered countless hours of his time, getting involved in everything from litter picking to strategic planning. It’s a tragedy that he won’t be around to witness the completion of the project he so enthusiastically championed over many years but the remaining team are now more determined than ever to ensure his memory and effort is honoured by realising his legacy.