Idylls in the city

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ON any sunny day, you'll find a few people eating their lunchtime sandwiches in Chessel's Court – a small, secluded courtyard, just off Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Although this public garden is slap-bang in the city centre, there are only ever a small number of visitors relaxing by its manicured lawn.

As with many other secluded, leafy spaces in the capital, even some local people are unaware of its existence. Walk along the cobbles of the Canongate and you may catch a flash of green out of the corner of your eye, or you may remain completely oblivious.

One person who knows all these spaces very well, however, is Jean Bareham. Last month she launched Greenyonder Tours, to share her urban discoveries with the rest of us.

"I used to work at the Thistle Wildlife Garden in Craigmillar," she says. "As a gardener, and someone who has worked a lot with people in local communities, I was keen to introduce guests to the fantastic range of community, traditional and quirky gardens that Edinburgh has, and show how they link in with all the people who are involved in looking after them."

Before setting up the company, Bareham began doing some research with her friend and fellow Greenyonder tour leader, Jane Corrie, who works as a garden guide at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Their preparation involved a lot of wandering around the city, green-area spotting.

"Although I've lived in Edinburgh all of my life, I discovered loads of spaces I didn't know about before," says Bareham. "Jane and I just went walking and poking our noses into closes. We discovered loads of hidden gardens."

To show off the beautiful plots she'd stumbled upon in and around the city, Bareham conceived three tours of different lengths – Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile, Herbs and Healing, and Inspiring Gardens. The shortest, a 90-minute walking tour of the Royal Mile, starts at the Scottish Storytelling Centre and unveils some of the surprising hidden gardens and verdant nooks and crannies behind the historic buildings. One of these is a 400-year-old garden, which can be found if you negotiate your way down a narrow close.

"People are always surprised by the hidden gems in that area. They've all got an interesting story," says Bareham. "For example, they include the three-quarter acre Dunbar's Close Garden, which is laid out in a 17th-century design. It's very smart, with yew hedges, clipped hollies and cherry, apple and fig trees," she says. "Back in that century, all the rich people lived on the Canongate. So, they had land and wanted to create formal gardens."

The name Dunbar comes from the Edinburgh writer, David Dunbar, who owned tenements on either side of the close in the 18th century. Nowadays, Dunbar's Close Garden is looked after by Edinburgh Council's Park Service. However, there was a time in the 1970s when it was derelict and came close to being sold off, until a bequest was made.

"Money to rescue it came from a charity called the Mushroom Trust," says Bareham. "They saved the area from property developers, and eventually gave the garden to the city."

The tour allows time for visitors to explore this space, as well as some community plots and a couple of town planner Patrick Geddes's gardens. In the late 19th century, this innovative thinker devised a scheme to have a network of gardens.

"Geddes was a genius," says Bareham. "He lived in the Royal Mile and was very passionate about regenerating it, as it was a slum in those days.

"He believed in the social union and he dreamt of creating 70 children's gardens across the city. What I've not yet discovered is how many of those were realised. The main one is Johnston Terrace Gardens, which is now managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Geddes had this idea that, as well as the three Rs, children should be taught about the three Hs – head, hand and heart."

If you are feeling inspired by this shorter tour, you may want to sign up for something longer, which takes participants further afield. The Herbs and Healing tour is a full day's adventure, requiring stout shoes. To keep the tours eco-friendly, Bareham has organised this one around the timetable of the number 44 bus. "I wanted to keep the trips green and this was a good way of doing that," she says.

The bus stops outside the Royal College of Physicians, where guests can wander around the Sibbald Physic Garden. They then jump back on and head to the very special, 250-acre Redhall Walled Garden, by the Water of Leith in Colinton.

"It's run by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, and some of the garden trainees will show people round," says Bareham. "Redhall is a walled garden, separated into ten different areas, and everything is grown organically. We've deliberately planned a half-hour stop so people can relax and enjoy the peace and quiet here, with the birds singing – it's a very nice place to be."

This part of the trip is very much the healing aspect. To enhance everyone's rest and respite in this tranquil spot, Bareham is planning to bring along home-baking for participants to share.

"Well, it's Sainsbury's best at the moment, as the tours have only just launched," she says. "However, when they kick off properly my plan is that people will be served some of my special home baking."

The herbal tour takes visitors back onto public transport to see a National Trust site – Malleny Garden in Balerno. It's well known for its 17th-century clipped yews and flamboyant rose beds. However, it's the Victorian herb garden which is of special interest on this tour.

"We're met there by a herbalist, Julia Cook," says Bareham. "She'll demonstrate which garden plants have herbal uses. We'll be looking at common plants such as lavender, artemisia, lady's mantle and hydrangea, and she'll explain their medical properties. There will be some information about the folklore surrounding these plants too."

If you've tired of visiting the local park, this sounds like the perfect tonic. Knowing more about the green spaces in and around the capital may inspire you when you're thinking about planting in your own garden. Or, at the very least, it'll help you discover another space to eat your sandwiches on future balmy afternoons.

The Hidden Gardens Tour costs 7, Inspiring Gardens, 30, and Herbs and Healing, 18. For details, visit www.green yondertours.com