Finding city's secret gardens

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AFRENCH tourist is hovering by Jean Bareham's shoulder, curious. He's listening in with interest as she describes the scene around her.

"Excuse me," he asks politely. "You seem to know a lot about this garden, can you tell me what this flower is?"

The flower in question nods a delicate orange head in the breeze, its amber petals hanging like fine tissue paper from its tall leafy stem. It is, explains Jean, a Fritillaria imperialis, "Crown Imperial". She adds: "It's pretty, isn't it?"

Satisfied, the visitor wanders off to inspect another section of one of Edinburgh's "secret" gardens – perhaps little-known among locals but a must-see on many tourists' visits to the historic Royal Mile.

Neighbouring Canongate Kirkyard to its north, a short hop to Adam Smith's house on its south, Dunbar's Close Garden is, explains Jean, largely ignored by the bulk of people who pass along the Royal Mile, heads down and rushing, on their way to business at the Scottish Parliament, nearby offices, shops or homes.

Certainly, it's true that blink and you could miss its gated entrance. Which is why she has decided to make it her business to ensure that doesn't happen.

She launched her garden tour guide business last year, inspired by a walk she took down the historic route from the Castle to the Palace, when she – a native of Edinburgh – discovered green patches she never knew existed. Having had a break for winter, the tours begin again this weekend and it's the Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile tour which typically receives the biggest response.

"Local people are genuinely surprised when they find out about it," says Jean. "They enjoy the tours the most, they are fascinated to find out that beyond the tenements and the shops is this little world of gardens they never knew were there. But the closes off the Royal Mile can lead to some really remarkable places.

"That and the fact that they are already in an area steeped in history seems to really make an impact on people – locals and tourists."

She found that out herself when, instead of joining the crowds and striding on past the gaping entrances to dozens of Royal Mile closes, she became adventurous and sauntered in. Some of the cobbled lanes revealed nothing extraordinary, others led the former librarian to a fertile oasis amid the tenements and stone walls.

"It was on a winter's day last year and I actually think I was being very brave," she laughs. "For all I knew I could be walking into someone's back garden, but I went off, not knowing what I'd find. In fact I was really surprised myself at how much there is.

Dunbar's Close Garden is among the most fascinating on her tour, a green haven sheltered from the bustle of the Royal Mile traffic bordered on one side by a towering tenement, on the other by the historic Canongate Kirkyard.

It may be a modern garden but its historic roots are deep in the 17th century.

"It's a wee gem," smiles Jean, looking around the garden and pointing out a gnarled tulip tree in the centre spot of one square patch surrounded by whitebeams. "The tulip tree was brought back as a seed from North America in the 1600s and it was found to do very well in Scottish soil. This is exactly the kind of tree that 17th century people in the Canongate might have planted."

Canongate's citizens at the time were among the wealthiest of Edinburgh's population.

"There would have been a real community of gardeners living here," adds Jean, "they looked after their gardens. There was a nursery in the grounds of Holyroodhouse and a seed merchant at Blackfriars. They might have grown herbs and some vegetables but their gardens were also there to be enjoyed."

Which is why there are exquisite Florentine Irises – hugely expensive plants in their day, favoured in Florence for their roots which provided a fixative for perfumes – stunning conical bay trees and fig trees, their fruits just beginning to emerge, clinging to the side of the Canongate Kirk wall.

The garden, with its carefully planned sections, reveals a tiny patch of strawberries, a row of chives and basil, perfumed lavender and, at its bottom, a perfect grassy square.

It's among the most impressive on Jean's garden tour, but the others are striking too, she insists. Like the Sandeman House Garden at Trunks Close, designed by landscape architects Mark Turnbull Jeffrey, an unusual circular anomaly in an area dominated by rectangular buildings. The green patch had remained locked, unaccessible and undefined until 200,000 was found to refresh the closes around it, for sandstone paths to be laid and greenery planted, including a striking paper handkerchief tree which as it matures will eventually burst into bloom around a June full moon.

There's a striking herb garden to be found nestling beyond Chessels Court and a series of neat gardens, some tended by community groups and council gardeners, others, like the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Johnston Terrace, a vision of wilderness in the heart of the city's busiest tourist area.

Jean's love for flora and fauna is born from her childhood in Balgreen where her mother raised five children, providing for them from a large back garden stocked with vegetables, supplemented with produce from her four allotments.

"The allotments have gone, there's a housing estate there now," she says. "But there's an apple tree still there in the middle of it all, which I planted when I was a little girl in the '50s. It's knotted and gnarled now, but it's still going strong and I'd love to include it in one of the tours."

It's the New Town, smiles Jean, that boast some of Edinburgh's most impressive garden gems.

"But the New Town is just such a tricky place," she laughs. "There are some beautiful gardens but, well, it's the New Town – and New Town people like their privacy."

Greenyonder Tours' 2009 programme begins this weekend. Go to www.greenyondertours.com or call 0131-444 1725

HIDDEN HISTORY

BEHIND the Royal Mile's 83 closes – there are 100 closes around the Old Town – lurks a series of lush gardens, grassy areas and fascinating historical oddities.

At Advocate's Close, opposite Parliament Square there is a secret lawn.

The image sculpted at the entrance to Paisley Close is of young Joseph McIver, who survived the collapse of a 250-year old tenement in Bailie Fyfe's Close which killed 35 people. He was pulled from the rubble after rescuers responded to his cry: "Heave away chaps, ah'm no deid yet".

Beyond Riddell's Court lies a double courtyard where James VI held a grand banquet for Danish visitors.

White Horse Close leads to the site of the 16th century Royal Mews and was named after Queen Mary's white palfrey.

Sugarhouse Close refers to the business of sugar refining at the site. The first Edinburgh Sugar House was destroyed by fire in 1800.