greenyonder tours

The Obsever: 'Secret Britain':

'Out of the Shade: Behind Edinburgh's Royal Mile lie hidden gardens'

by Leslie Hills    April 5th, 2009

The Royal Mile runs straight as a die down an ancient ridge from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace, the Queen's Scottish residence. At the top, watching out for the ankle-mangling cobbles, you may, if you wish, purchase a Jimmy wig (if you don't know, you don't want to), some cut-price cashmere or a plastic kilt with painted-on sporran. Further down there are teashops, rugged knitwear and slightly condescending craft vendors.

But you'd never guess the treasures that lie behind. Take one of the narrow closes or passageways that pierce the 17th-century buildings lining the Mile and you emerge on the slopes where once European and Scottish aristocrats cultivated long, narrow strips behind their tall houses. Most have been built over, but in some corners and crannies hidden gardens remain.

Jean Bareham's Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile tour, one of a handful of themed group walks in the city offered by Greenyonder Tours, starts on the north side with Sandeman House, tucked serenely behind the erstwhile home of ranting preacher John Knox.

In this city of grey rectangles, it is striking - built of circles of toffee-coloured stone and surrounded by plants from France which do well in the semi-shade, pollarded sycamores and a paper handkerchief tree which blooms, says Jean, on a June full moon. Across the road a series of gardens, all different, all sequestered and all, clearly, loved, are tended by community groups, council gardeners, trusts and, sometimes surreptitiously, individual free spirits. A Jardins Publics initiative of the International Festival left behind a thriving community herb garden at Chessels Court (pictured below), where fennel and sage jostle with less recognisable edible things.

Back on the north side we entered Dunbar's Close, a 17th-century garden where the slope falls steeply in three parterres. There's a graceful tulip tree, brought as seed from the Americas in 1638, and a wide variety of herbs and orchard trees, figs and apples, as well as a medlar introduced well before 1600. Threading through Campbell's Close and Whitehorse Close, we emerged on the open sweep that fronts the new Scottish Parliament, landscaped so the eye runs straight to the slopes of Arthur's Seat.


last updated:31 May 2010