Royal Mile & Canongate
I am familiar with the Royal Mile, having grown up in the Edinburgh environs. However I have to admit I know little of the history of the area or anything about the existence of any gardens. I did know it has for almost a thousand years, been a very densely populated urban area. At one time the mediaeval buildings towered up to 12 stories high, impossible to imagine now, as do any associated green spaces. The Royal Mile runs from Edinburgh Castle at the top, to the Royal Palace of Holyrood at the bottom; the street follows an ancient basalt ridge, created as part of the volcanic foundation of the city. There are many tiny venal (alleys) and roads running at 45 degrees of the High Street, some due to the ridge consisting of numerous steps, which the old part of the city is famous for.
Sandeman House Garden
It was a dreich old day, but that’s fairly typical for Auld Reekie, so anorak on and off we go with the flow. We met at John Knox’s House and proceeded down the Royal Mile towards the Canongate. The tour includes 7 small gardens; the first Sandeman House Garden is a space behind the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which until the tour I had thought were the Royal Courts further up the road. The Garden was designed by landscape architects Mark Turnbull Jeffrey who once owned the neighbouring building; it encompasses a bisecting circular design with shady planting, a seating area and fake grass lawn. The space includes tall rowans and a Davidia involucrata Vilmoriniana or Handkerchief tree in the centre, as well as a somewhat incongruous but no less charming cockerel sculpture in one corner. There is also a bust of Sir Patrick Geddes a 19th Century leading light in biology, ecology and sociology, who invented town-planning as we know it, astounding the virtues of green spaces in cities. He coined the phrase ‘think global, act local’ how very of the moment – a new hero to add to the Pantheon!
Fountain & Tweeddale Courts
We then went on to Fountain Court, a charming little space looked after by the patrons of the residential housing adjacent. The key features a beautiful Swedish Whitebeam, Sorbus intermedia plus roses, salix and pyracantha all of which are perfect for the local fauna. Walking around the corner, we entered Tweeddale Court (image below left) which doesn’t have a garden but does have a fragment of the original city wall and the smallest listed building in Scotland (once a commode garage). This wall is key to the evolution of gardens in the city; as the downhill part of the Royal Mile from the wall, was outside the original city limits (hence why The World’s End Pub was named) and therefore the plots were larger featuring gardens.
From Tweeddale Court, we walked a little further down the Royal Mile to Chessel Court a surprisingly huge green space for the area. This space was originally the brain child of 18th century property developer Archibald Chessil. Who created the square by building tenements on all four sides in mid-1700’s and for that time central green spaces would have been unusual. The south and the west side tenement buildings remain from that time, thanks to Patrick Geddes who bought them in mid-19th century, to stopped them from being knocked down, as art of a slum clearance programme. It has been preserved by a number of forward thinking educationalists, town planners like Geddes and probably the fact that it is slightly elevated and therefore too tricky to turn into a car park. The residents of the square look after the planting and are clearly proud of their green space, creating a rather ad hoc but no less pleasing garden of cardoons, hollyhocks, echinops, teasels and lunaria self-seeding amongst established shrubs of brachyglottis, rosemary, roses, crocossmia (images below). Some of the residents have placed planting between pavers on the front and back blocks as well as pots and a rather lovely topiary ivy Heart of Midlothian.
To the east side of the square there is a 1960’s block with an adjacent community garden described as a herb garden it also includes; eurphorbia, santellina, bamboos, cornus, carex, phormium, ilex, roses, berberis and hostas even in the drizzle it was a lovely space. It worked well, as I think it had been more planned out from the beginning, than some of the other spaces on the Royal Mile (image above right).
Moray House Square
We then moved on to the most impressive garden of them all; Moray House Campus Square at 23 High Street. Edinburgh University has a rather wonderful policy of making all the unused spaces they own into gardens. This garden is part lawn, with beech edging whilst having a large section planted in a prairie style with grasses and shrubs all of which were looking great after such a lovely summer; calamagrostis, Stachys byzantina, fennel, sedum, yew and artemesia etc. (image below) In the 1630’s this square had a large house within a massive garden including dozens of fruit trees, now only a few buildings and a stone gateway remain.
On down the Royal Mile to Hichesson House in Bakehouse Close, which has an old walled private garden, 1679 no less! To which the tour organiser was able to gain us access. This again is a volunteer garden, as part of the house is used by the Heritage Trust as Edinburgh is a UNESCO heritage site. With that plus the castle, why it is not twinned with Granada, I do not know. The garden contains edibles including currents, raspberries, apples, beans, pear and herbs as well as some flowers; well I assume the poppies are grown for decorative value only.
Finally the last public garden on the Royal Mile; Dunbar’s Close which is now a public garden brought by The Mushroom Trust and donated to the council who maintain it. Bordered by the Canongate Kirkyard on one side, it has a large tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera, a beautiful specimen. There are also parterre garden, Medlar trees, Mespilus germanica and ancient fruit you can only eat when partially rotted, yew hedging, shady and sunny borders plus a couple of figs trees which most of the participates of the tour thought were a bit ambitious for the Scottish Climate.
As a local it was a real pleasure to be shown a side of my home town I knew nothing about, I will definitely spend time enjoying some of these green spaces in the future, especially in August when this area of Edinburgh is full to bursting with festival goers. I also plan to go on another Greenyonder Tour, they are well researched, adding the social history that one would never obtain from just getting a map and being nosy.