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Un­earthing the tiny se­cret gar­dens that tell the tur­bu­lent story of the Royal Mile

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BE­TWEEN the high houses and nar­row al­ley­ways that lead off the Royal Mile in Ed­in­burgh, green shoots are stir­ring. From the Cas­tle Es­planade to Holy­rood­house, the street throngs with life. Tourists cram the pave­ments and fill the shops, street per­form­ers draw the crowds, ad­vo­cates head for the High Court, politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and pe­ti­tion­ers bus­tle around the Par­lia­ment and art lovers queue for ex­hi­bi­tions at the Queen’s Gallery at Holy­rood­house.

It may not be as crowded now as dur­ing the 17th cen­tury, when 50,000 peo­ple lived in cramped con­di­tions in its tall houses, but it is still a teem­ing thor­ough­fare. Yet just a few steps away from the frenzy of the High Street and the Canon­gate are some small yet fas­ci­nat­ing green spa­ces. Th­ese are the Hid­den Gar­dens of the Royal Mile and they have been sought-out by Jean Bare­ham of Greenyon­der Tours, whose walk­ing tour is a Fes­ti­val Fringe five-star event.

Bare­ham be­gan the tour when she stum­bled on one of th­ese gems her­self. In the fol­low­ing months she ex­plored the many closes and back courts of the area un­til she had iden­ti­fied ev­ery gar­den, green patch and win­dow box and she then spent long hours in the Na­tional Li­brary of Scot­land re­search­ing their roots.

Th­ese gar­dens, says Bare­ham, tell the his­tory of the Royal Mile, from the vol­canic erup­tion 350 mil­lion years ago that formed Cas­tle Rock, through the years of English in­va­sion and the over­crowd­ing that led to the cre­ation of the New Town Plan, then the de­scent of the Royal Mile into a slum be­fore restora­tion and Unesco World Her­itage sta­tus. Through all this gar­dens have been made and swept away, a few sur­vived, more were re­vived and to­day in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­nity groups are once more green­ing even the tini­est of spa­ces.

“If you look at the Roth­iemay map of the Ed­in­burgh of 1647, where the city is laid out like a fil­leted had­dock, you can see how densely pop­u­lated the High Street was, yet be­hind the Canon­gate, which was a sep­a­rate bor­ough at the time, large gar­dens and or­chards stretched out be­hind fine homes,” says Bare­ham.

To­day if you walk through many of the closes off the Royal Mile you can find lawns, wild flow­ers, for­mal gar­dens and ponds. Size has proved no hin­drance to the cre­ativ­ity that has gone to cre­ate them.

You don’t have to delve deep into the his­tory of gar­dens along the Royal Mile be­fore the name of Pa­trick Ged­des sur­faces. Ged­des (1856-1932) was an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and town plan­ner whose ideas on the im­por­tance of green spa­ces to city dwellers res­onate to­day. He com­mis­sioned ar­chi­tects to open up More in­spir­ing gar­den­ing ideas in the 48-page Scot­tish Gar­dener mag­a­zine free with next Satur­day’s Her­ald court­yards and add bal­conies. The Witches’ Foun­tain be­side Ram­say Gar­dens, which Ged­des com­mis­sioned and where he lived, fea­tures in an­other of Bare­ham’s tours, The Pa­trick Ged­des Gar­den Tour.

From here, close to the cas­tle, Bare­ham has iden­ti­fied 15 gar­dens down the length of the Royal Mile, in­clud­ing Tron Square where res­i­dents fill the space with sum­mer colour; Coinyie House with its com­mu­nal bor­ders and in­di­vid­ual plots; Mo­ray House, where rem­nants of its 17th-cen­tury gar­den can still be found; White Horse Close, al­most ev­ery avail­able space in which has been filled with pots brim­ming with flow­ers and ed­i­bles, and the wild­flower mead­ows of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment.

“There are lots of wee nooks and cran­nies where peo­ple have found ways to grow things,” says Bare­ham.

When she be­gan to lead tours into th­ese spa­ces she thought there would be a limit to the number of en­thu­si­asts who would want to fol­low her, but in­stead the tours, which run in Au­gust dur­ing the Fes­ti­val Fringe and are also by ar­range­ment through­out the year, have sold out for seven years in a row.

“It is as­ton­ish­ing how many Ed­in­burgh res­i­dents have no idea that there are gar­dens along the length of the Royal Mile, but once they dis­cover that there are, they want to ex­plore them,” says Bare­ham.

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