Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Mills, millionaires and monstrosities: a walk by the Water of Leith from Roseburn to Stockbridge

Most of the great European cities have great rivers. Think of the Danube, the Tiber, the Arno, the Vltava, the Rhône, the Liffey and the Neva. Think of the Thames. Think of the Clyde. Majestic imperial buildings dominate the banks of the Danube at Budapest. L'Ile de la Cité parts the flow of the Seine, bearing Notre Dame as priceless cargo on its decks.

The City of Edinburgh has no great river like these. It has a port, however, great in its day: the Port of Leith, facing the Kingdom of Fife across the Firth of Forth. And into that port, flows a river, the Water of Leith. Rising in the Pentland Hills on the outskirts of the city, the river is only 22 miles long. Not one of the great rivers of Europe, then. The Water of Leith is a country river, meandering behind the backs of the Georgian mansions lived in by Edinburgh's richest. And although it looks like a peaceful backwater today, for centuries the river supported industries of various kinds, principally milling. The industries have now gone, but if you take a gentle walk along its tranquil banks you can detect here and there the last remaining signs of a more energetic industrial past. It's a favourite walk of ours.

You can follow the Water of Leith Walkway from Balerno, at the foot of the Pentland Hills, all the way to Leith where the water joins the sea: a distance of just over twelve miles. It is an easy walk, almost all on the flat and falls into convenient sections. You just have to decide where you are going to join the path. This time we joined at Roseburn, about a third of the way along and about seven or eight miles from the sea. That stretch exemplifies some of the changes which Edinburgh has experienced over the centuries, and some of the contrasts in people's financial circumstances and daily lives, demonstrated in the buildings you come across along the way.

Roseburn itself is nothing special: a busy street of tenements and shops near Haymarket Station. However, once you descend the steps from Wester Coates Terrace, you enter an entirely different world. The wooded sides of the river close in and there, just to your left is the Water of Leith. As you walk you pass under Coltbridge Viaduct which once carried the local railway line and now forms part of Edinburgh's network of cycleways. Don't be worried about the photo below. The perspective gives the impression that the viaduct is built on a one in four slope!

In among the wild garlic are patches of snowdrops and even some daffodils: not, I think, growing wild but planted by some public-spirited walker.

In the past, I have often come across herons standing patiently in the middle of the river, waiting for fish. Not this day, however. The only aquatic wildlife we saw were a couple of ducks.

In summer time the tree cover would be rather thicker, but in winter and spring you can see right down the waterway. Although these pictures may make it look deserted, there are always a number of walkers out, using the route as part of their normal activity, for the river, though largely hidden from the view of the ordinary pedestrian or motorist, runs right beside, though below, prime shopping and residential areas. In this part of Edinburgh, the countryside is brought right into the city in a way that is quite unusual for a major conurbation.

High above the the river, on the left bank is a beautiful building designed in 1825 by William Burn for John Watson's School, which served the destitute children of Edinburgh. The school closed in the mid-seventies and is now used as The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. You should just be able to make it out hiding behind the trees on the photo below.

You normally reach the gallery by crossing the river by a footbridge and then climbing the sides of the gorge. At the time of writing, this footpath had been closed off because of a landslip and access was from the Dean Village side.

This spot, by the stretch of river called The Cauldron, has some moving memorials carved into the stonework.

As you travel north-east along the banks, you soon enter some of the most desirable areas of Edinburgh. 

However, as we have learned since we moved to the city, that does not mean that developments have always been sensitive to the history and architecture of the place. Edinburgh City Council has given permission for the most ugly concrete monstrosities to be built right among elegant Georgian New Town houses. The smooth façades of a line of early nineteenth century houses can be broken by fifteen feet of plate glass window extending onto the pavement. See some of the commercial property on George Street and Queen Street! And Princes Street  Don't get me started! A council which could even knock down a Georgian square to build an unsightly shopping centre - St James' - is capable of anything. Just look at the photo below.

As you walk along the banks you see an ugly rectangular box-like building emerge from the among the trees. Here it is in all its distracting white glory.

It is the Edinburgh Sports Club, no doubt frequented by some of the wealthy residents who occupy the nearby houses. Their taste clearly does not transfer from their homes to their leisure activities.

How this building received planning permission, I have no idea. What an eyesore! So, we usually walk past quickly, averting our eyes, and try to pretend the sports club isn't there.

Soon you are in the vicinity of Dean Village. Dean Village was once a separate settlement from Edinburgh. Although a working mill town founded in the twelfth century, it now has some of the city's most expensive property - not much, if any, change from £1 million. Its 11 water mills used to provide the meal for Edinburgh and its surrounding villages but have now, alas, all just about disappeared. The Travelodge standing by the river occupies what used to be the site of Bell's Mill and uses some of the old buildings, for instance the miller's house and the granary.

When you approach Dean Village, first you pass some modern flats, with balconies overlooking the river. The 'real' village is beyond these.

The path crosses the river by the weir. Here you can still see the original mill lade and, on the left, some of the old buildings, now in ruins.

Soon you are at Belford Bridge (1887).

When you cross back to the right bank, you walk through the village's steep little streets, meeting the nineteenth century before you eventually arrive at the seventeenth century.

The older properties cluster near the river. Further up the bank stand the traditional Edinburgh tenements.

Many of the highly-desirable properties in Dean Village were originally built as improved housing for workers. The distinctive red building of Well Court, dated 1884, was commissioned by the proprietor of The Scotsman as an act of good works.

The old school for the workers' children still stands, now converted into flats.

However, there are far older buildings around. The yellow building below, Baxter's Tolbooth, was built as a granary and was also used as a building for the Incorporation of Baxters (bakers) - the guild.

You can still make out the inscription 'GOD BLESS THE BAXTERS OF EDINBURGH WHO BUILT THIS HOUSE 1675' on the lintel of the main door, although it is rather worn. With little respect for history, one of the local residents has dumped a rubbish bag by the bricked up door.

Above the door is the guild 'coat of arms': crossed 'peels', the wooden shovels used to take loaves of bread out of the oven - and put them in, of course (a similar principle to the traditional pizza oven). It looks as if the carving includes weighing scales as well.

You can see a similar design on the old Dean Bridge, the three loaves of bread on each shovel quite clear.

Further relics of the old milling days can be found lower down on Miller's Row where a group of three millstones mark the site of Lindsay's Mill. The hard stone for the millstones was imported from France

From the bridge, you can look upstream to where you've come from.

How small the river looks: not quite a Danube! The effect of diverting some of the water into mill lades to drive the machinery is still quite visible.

Looking downstream, you catch your first sight of Dean Church, high above you, at one end of the 'new' Dean Bridge designed by Thomas Telford in 1832.

The old bridge, on which you are standing, leads on to the steep Bell's Brae which winds up to Queensferry Road.

The new bridge avoids these steep streets altogether and leaps right over them.

The turreted building of 1912 stands on the site of Mars Mill. Under the bridge, the water rushes over the weir where a lade used to take it two or three miles downstream before it rejoined the river. The footpath now follows the lade.

The view changes quite dramatically as the valley opens up and the wild river banks become parkland.

At the top of the slope you can see the backs of some of the great Georgian terraces, with their private gardens sweeping down towards the river. We are now entering the desirable neighbourhood of Stockbridge, with some of the most beautiful - and expensive - buildings in Edinburgh's New Town.

First we pass two old mineral wells. The first, St George's, built in 1810, is quite modest. You would hardly know it was there.

The second, St Bernard's is far more impressive. It is currently closed for renovation, so these are not my photos but have been pulled off the web.

The water source was apparently discovered in 1760 by three boys from George Heriot's School when they were fishing. The 'temple', built in 1789, was designed by Alexander Nasmith.  People used to drink its water as a cure for their ailments and some even claimed that 'miracles' had happened as a result. Judging by the photos, the interior is exquisite.

The path now broadens into a well-kept promenade, as before occupying the mill lade. On the left of the river, standing high above it, is Dean Terrace, a magnificent Georgian row of houses. Below it is St Bernard's Bridge, through the right arch of which used to flow the mill lade.

Rather less impressive modern flats can be seen on the right of the arch.

And then we are in wealthy Stockbridge proper, at the end of our journey. A stone bridge now replaces the old wooden (stock) construction which carried carts of merchandise to feed the capitals' citizens. Stockbridge used to be a separate village in a semi-rural area but has now been absorbed into the city.

So that is (almost) the end of one of the most attractive walks in Edinburgh. It mingles past and present, rich and poor, industrial and rural. We've still not reached the port, but we can leave that for another day.

Much of the information on which this post draws comes from a guide published by The Water of Leith Conservation Trust.

You may also be interested in these other posts about the Water of Leith:

The last stretch: a walk by the Water of Leith from Stockbridge to the sea

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