THE £3.3 million restoration and redevelopment of Hermitage Park is now officially under way.
Contractors arrived at the site on Monday to begin 18 months of work breathing new life into the only urban park in Argyll and Bute.
But before that, a short ceremony in the park on Friday saw Helensburgh resident Chris Packard cut the first piece of turf to mark the start of the long-awaited regeneration project.
Mr Packard was until recently the chairman of the Friends of Hermitage Park, a supporter group formed more than six years ago to work alongside Argyll and Bute Council on the goal of creating a real jewel in Helensburgh's crown.
He told those present at Friday's ceremony: “Six years and five months ago, about a hundred metres behind you, a motley collection of 20 people set about bringing down some overgrown rhododendrons.
“The partnership started there: it was that action, right at the beginning, that set this whole thing going, and we've made some great friends and formed some great partnerships along the way.
“That partnership with Argyll and Bute Council was unique. It wasn't written down anywhere – we just collectively said 'let's get on and do this' .
“When the action group's work started, Helensburgh was a very dowdy and run-down place. But over the last five or six years we've really seen it come up in the world.”
Specialist landscape contractors Hawthorn Heights have been awarded the £1.6 million contract for the landscaping and conservation phase of the ambitious project.
The company bring an in-house playground expert and experienced water and fountain specialists to help deliver the regeneration of the park. They will be using local contractors to undertake much of the work.
A new pavilion, with a covered deck and play area, will be provided along with a fountain plaza and a dedicated activity area for 'lawn games'.
Other key elements of the scheme include the preservation of the War Memorial Garden, which has category A listed status, along with the Hermit's Well, bridges over Millig's Burn and the remains of Millig's Mill.
The old play park will become a demonstration garden for growing fruit and vegetables – the original use of the park's former kitchen garden, now home to the town's war memorial.
The car park at the adjacent Victoria Halls will be doubled in size to allow more people to come from further afield to enjoy what the park has to offer.
The Friends' new chair, Fiona Baker, added: “Over the next 18 months the park will be transformed into a beautiful place for everybody to enjoy.
“We owe a great deal to Chris Packard's unstinting hard work and dedication since 2011 in reaching this point and so it's only fitting that Chris performed the ceremonial cutting of the first turf.”
The £3.3m regeneration of the park has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund's Parks for People initiative (£2.3m), the Sustrans Community Links programme (£300,000), the council's own reserves (£280,000), the Armed Forces Covenant Fund (£253,000), the War Memorial Trust (£60,000) and the Friends of Hermitage Park Association (£20,000).
The funding package is completed by volunteer support in kind which is estimated to be worth £129,340.
Helensburgh councillor Ellen Morton, who is also Argyll and Bute Council's depute leader, added: “This is the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people.
“It's one of the best examples I've seen of partnership working between the council and the communities that the council is there to serve.
“The Friends of Hermitage Park didn't come to us and say 'there's a problem, we want you to fix it'. They said 'there's a problem, we want to help and we've got a solution'. But we never foresaw that the solution would be as fantastic as it has ended up.
“The Heritage Lottery Fund is a very generous friend to Argyll and Bute. They have poured millions of pounds into the area to support the regeneration of Rothesay Pavilion, conservation work in Inveraray and Campbeltown, and £2.3m into this project in Helensburgh.
“The support we have had from Sustrans and the Armed Forces Covenant Fund has been invaluable as well.
“Melissa Simpson, the Hermitage Park project development officer, has done a stunning job working with community groups such as Parklands School, Hermitage Primary and Helensburgh Men's Shed. The council has put in hundreds of hours of officer work and commitment.
“But most of all we owe our thanks to the Friends of Hermitage Park. They drove this project with their commitment and determination, while at the same time always being a really easy and pleasant group to work with.”
Melissa Simpson added: “This has been a challenge, but a positive and fun challenge, and we're looking forward to continuing to work with the Friends and all the other groups involved in the regeneration of Hermitage Park, and to creating a wonderful new park for Helensburgh and for us all.”
Initial works at the park will focus on the demolition of the toilet block, the Japanese shelter and conservation work to the war memorial.
Tree conservation work began on Wednesday.
The park will remain open throughout the works, with only the areas being redeveloped being closed for safety reasons.
An interpretation point will be set up to allow people to access and monitor progress, while activities will take place throughout the building period to encourage people to engage with and play a part in the redevelopment of the park.
Pippa Milne, the council's executive director of development and infrastructure services, said: “This is the culmination of a long preparation period, but this is when we can really start to see a difference.
“We're looking forward to continuing to work with the Friends of Hermitage Park as we deliver on the project and make the park the best it can be.
“This adds the icing to the cake of the range of great things that are making Helensburgh a much more attractive place for visitors and for the people who live here.”
Hermitage Park originally formed the grounds of a private property, Hermitage House, but was purchased, along with the building, by Helensburgh Town Council in 1911 to provide a park for the town.
Hermitage House was demolished in 1963, its place being taken by the Japanese-style 'pagoda' shelter which is one of the most distinctive contemporary features of the park.
In addition to the work inside the park's boundaries, Argyll and Bute Council has also agreed to provide a new pedestrian crossing, with traffic lights, on Sinclair Street at West Montrose Street to make it safer for people on foot to get to and from the park.
Lucy Casot, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said: “What better way for Helensburgh to start the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, than with this exciting milestone.
“As a key partner in this celebratory year, we are delighted to see work begin on the park’s transformation.
“Thanks to players of the National Lottery, Hermitage Park has a bright future, encouraging people back through its gates to take pride in the history of their green space and use the new up-to-date facilities. We look forward to seeing it develop.”