A WARMISH morning, a day full of promise, and the floral clock in Princes Street Gardens is showing eight.
The saxifrage and sedums of its minute hand are pointing straight up the slope towards the tram works and Superdrug. The floral clock has been a fixture of the gardens since 1903, and the gardener responsible for planting its 35,000 flowers each year, David Dorward, has been a fixture since 1982. “This place means so much to me,” he says, “and I’ve been here that long that I think of it as my own garden.”
Remarkably, Edinburgh can boast 135 council-run public parks and gardens, including 381,000 square metres of woodland, 75,000 square metres of shrub-beds and 8,700 metres of hedgerow. The 1,250,000 square metres of grass is cut every fortnight. Last week the city was awarded 24 green flags for its parks, more than half the total number of these UK-wide awards given out across the whole of Scotland. Glasgow, the “dear green place”, received just six.
To spend a day in Edinburgh’s parks, and a rare sunny summer’s day no less, is to fall a little in love with the city and its people. We are, I think, often at our best in a park – sensuous, playful, intent on the pleasures of company or solitude. Warm weather, the smell of cut grass, perhaps the chilled sweetness of wine – life narrows down to these simple pleasures. Begone dull care and take the rain with you. Public parks are often described as the lungs of a city but this sells them short. They are, rather, the heart.
In the course of one day I walk around most of the 24 award-winning parks, excluding – in the interests of sanity and shoe-leather – those few which are outwith the city proper. Not all are busy. High-rises loom over the edges of near-deserted Hailes Park. London Road Park, once a shortcut used by the exiled French king Charles X on his way to mass, is completely empty save for the swarms of flies which, lit by the strong morning sun, sparkle like gold dust in the gloomy canopy shade.
Even Princes Street Gardens, at eight in the morning, is fairly quiet; few are around to appreciate the way the exhaust fumes from trains on their way into Waverley swirl in the sunbeams slanting down through the maples. One regular morning visitor is George Laidlaw, an 88-year-old retired lorry driver, who comes here from his home in Prestonfield on most dry days, and stands on the stone steps by the floral clock. He has admired the clock since he and it were young, and likes to hear it being praised by the delighted tourists as this confirms his belief that, “it is the most beautiful thing that I’ve seen in all my life”.
In Leith’s Hopetoun Crescent Garden, at around 10am, a prim-looking middle-aged woman wearing a straw hat and walking a Jack Russell, hurries past two middle-aged men, drunk and heavily bearded, who are sharing a bench and a bottle of wine. These are Gabriel and Kasper. Gabriel, the younger of the two, moved to Edinburgh from Poland four years ago; his friend has been here for seven years. They worked for a time in the building trade, but ill health and the economic downturn cost them their jobs. So they sit in the parks and beg and drink. This particular park was, from 1763 until 1822, Edinburgh’s botanic garden, an important site established by the famous Enlightenment scientist John Hope. During the 19th century it went into steep decline, becoming something of a midden, until the late 1990s when local people drove forward its regeneration. Now it is lovely, full of foxgloves and campion, and Gabriel and Kasper sit there among the wild flowers, red-eyed and woozy, hopeless in Hope’s garden.
Lunchtime is the golden hour for Edinburgh’s parks. It is the hour of picnics and affairs, illicit hugs on tartan rugs. It echoes with the pock of tennis balls, the click of bowls and the rustle of thousands of pages as office workers swap spreadsheets for paperbacks. Joggers pound pathways, midriffs flapping like pizza dough. A black lab keeps a watchful eye on his young master, six- year-old Alex Johnston, who is enjoying the nervous thrill of his first bike ride without stabilisers. “We’re just trying to get the bravery into him,” says the boy’s Uncle Paul.
There are kids everywhere: toddlers on slides, bairns in burns, teens in hammocks on Costorphine Hill; kids with ice-cream beards, kids in pants and wellies, kids hanging from the monkey bars, saris dangling. In Morningside, in Merchiston, in Blackhall and Bruntsfield, a day without showers has brought out mums suffering from cabin fever and too much exposure to CBeebies. “See, you don’t need much,” they tell each other. “Just a wee bit sunshine. Besides, it’s going to rain again tomorrow.”
In Harrison Park, sisters Carrie Buchan and Lorna Cox and Carrie’s four-year-old daughter Katie are enjoying a picnic – sherbert flying saucers, Jamie Oliver’s brownies, carrot sticks as a concession to health – served from a wicker hamper. They walked here from Craiglockhart, feeding the ducks on the Union Canal, which flows along the eastern boundary of the park, like a brown silk fringe on a green garment. “Everywhere we go, we plan it around parks,” says Carrie.
Carrie, Lorna and Katie are not alone in this. It is estimated that Britain’s parks are visited four billion times a year. A report published in December by Greenspace Scotland suggested that Scots last year had stopped using parks as much as before, considering them to have become less safe for themselves and their children. This change in attitude, it is believed, is a direct result of hard-pressed local authorities spending less on the upkeep of their parks. Yet Edinburgh’s parks, although cared for by around a fifth of the number of gardeners as there were in the 1950s, are bucking the trend – they are used and they are loved.
The earliest parks in Edinburgh, though not formalised until much later, were the common grounds at Bruntsfield and Leith Links, as old as the city itself. Princes Street Gardens and the Meadows were created by draining, respectively, the Nor Loch and Burgh Loch in 1759 and 1722. Edinburgh’s great park-building boom dates from the late 19th century; the first council gardeners were employed in 1877. The Victorian ideal was to promote health, recreation and clean living among the working class, a civilizing force of rosebeds, drinking fountains and bandstands. To walk through Edinburgh’s parks today is to feel close to all this history. One can walk in Robert Louis Stevenson’s footsteps through Braidburn Valley Park, and in Ravelston Woods it is possible to see where the stone was dug out to build Holyrood Palace.
In Inverleith Park, as the day wears on, smoke rises from barbecues and joints. It is beautiful here. The boating lake reflects beeches at the edge of the water, each tree and its reflection resembling a pair of lungs. Beyond is a view of the skyline, perhaps the best and most theatrical view in the city – a stage set of black spires, gilded domes and the great hump of Arthur’s Seat. To sit on the green slope above the lake and enjoy this sight is to become a member of the audience of a long-running show. One would be tempted to applaud except for fear of disturbing the stillness and peace.
Richard Gilchrist, an old man seated on one of the benches, explains that he used to come here with his late wife Eve to watch the fireworks finale of the military tattoo. They would be sure to arrive early, with flask, scarves and travel rug, in order to secure a good comfy spot. Richard isn’t sure, though, whether, without Eve, he will make the effort this year. “I loved to see her face as she watched the rockets,” he says. So the park will have to do without two of its devotees this year.
Back in Princes Street Gardens, the floral clock is showing eight as the sky grows dusky. Daisies and daylilies are closing up. People are lying on their backs reading The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick; those lying on their fronts display a preference for chick-lit. A young Japanese woman with an enormous Louis Vuitton handbag tilts back her iPad to photograph the Scott Monument. A young Russian man tilts back his head to drain his can of lager. Fish suppers and frisbees abound. Goofy squirrels chase each other around tree trunks. Young couples from Eurozone nations lock limbs and lips, each surrounded by the aura of invincibility and autonomy that comes with being 20 and in love.
Echoing through the gardens are the bells of neighbouring St Cuthbert’s. It is pleasant to think of the sound as a celebration of this place, of all Edinburgh’s parks, and of those who find pleasure and peace within them. The graveyard of St Cuthbert’s is full of men and women, long dead and gone, who would once have strolled and taken their ease in these gardens, and this, I believe, is the most moving and important thing about public parks – that sense of shared citizenship with those both present and departed. All flesh is grass, we are told. Yes, but a little grass is good for the soul, too. «
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east