How the Georgians brought order to Edinburgh's parks and gardens

For 250 years the parks and gardens of the New Town have been a green haven. A new book shows how they can be maintained and planted for future generations

An aerial view of the New Town shows the network of gardens and the importance of tree planting
An aerial view of the New Town shows the network of gardens and the importance of tree planting

The Georgians, at court, in government, and in the orderly planning of daily life, observed degree, priority and place. The two fellows in the illustration from Crombie’s Modern Athenians exemplify the demeanour and outlook of those landowner classes in society 200 years ago who had a say in affairs of state.

The Georgians seemed to need to stamp a geometry of discipline, not only on their infantry in battle, but also on their housing, their markets, their farms, their dockyards, their forts, their barracks and the very many institutions of their ever-expanding world. As the 250th anniversary approaches of the founding of Edinburgh’s New Town, a moment’s contemplation in any of the grid-iron planned streets gives up a view into the world of our Georgian forebears.

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“Integral to the attractions of these fine buildings in Edinburgh and elsewhere,” says John Byrom, a sprightly, eighty-something Edinburgh citizen and landscape gardener and architect, “is the quality and nature of the fine gardens throughout the city that we still enjoy more than 200 years after their first planting. It truly is a memorable urban landscape.” Byrom is the author of a new book, The Care and Conservation of Shared Georgian Gardens. Commissioned by Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and published on their behalf, the publicity material says, “this is a unique, long-awaited, richly illustrated handbook providing detailed guidance on the longterm management and maintenance of Edinburgh’s New Town Gardens.”

Greenery by a house in India Street
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More an encyclopaedia than a handbook, it is a gardener’s dream. It chronicles in absorbing detail the origin, design, maintenance and conservation of these 47 circus, square, crescent and informal grid-edge gardens which form a major component of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town and the City’s Unesco World Heritage Site. Intended originally for the plethora of garden management committees and enthusiasts who run these gardens, the book has a wider purpose to inform an interested public and readership.

Intended as a companion to The Care and Conservation of Georgian Houses by Andy Davey, it offers guidance on the care and conservation of the shared gardens of Edinburgh’s Georgian Estate, and of their contemporaries elsewhere.

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“Within the Edinburgh World Heritage Site,” says Byrom warming to his subject, “there is an important future duty of care in their management. And also to maintain a generous balance of the round-crowned deciduous green woodland favoured by the Georgians as part of their aesthetic of The Beautiful, and to maintain in this woodland, a simple sweeping overall green continuity.”

The three great thrusts to civic improvement in Georgian Britain, Byrom writes, were the stimulus of trade, the example of monarchy, and the need to impose at least a decent semblance of order in towns and cities, long before effective local government and policing. London and its outlying centres of wealth and fashion enjoyed pulses of building speculation, primed in particular under the Hanoverians by exceptional economic growth and expansion.

A view of Royal Circus with its garden on the left

All of these shared town gardens, and their many contemporaries elsewhere in Georgian Britain, Byrom regards as a kind of inside-out version of an improved Georgian country parkland, similar to that of Edinburgh’s Duddingston House. Here, the rural landscape is intended to evoke the Georgian ideal of feminine beauty by the use of smooth curving lawns contained within an edge belt of billowing forest trees, and by graceful serpentining carriageways to allow changing but always partial tree-framed ‘peeps’, as the Georgians called them, either toward the centrally placed house, or outwards from its principal rooms; the whole referred to as ‘dressed ground’.

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Even for the everyday gardener the Georgian legacy is prodigious.

Lawns – Georgian use of the term ‘dressed ground’ implied a high degree of finish, both 
in the country policies of private estates and in shared town gardens. Lawns of close-mown turf were an essential part of this finish and of the Georgian aesthetic of The Beautiful.

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Common Georgian flower 
border plants – European spring crocus (Crocus vernus), Yellow-brown French marigold (Tagetes patula) quite distinct from real marigolds (Calendula sp.) although grown like them, crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), the pheasant’s eye daffodil (Narcissus poeticus), mignonette (Reseda odorata), common hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis), Christmas rose (Helleborus niger), bear’s breeches (Acanthus sp.), Michaelmas daisies (Aster sp.), dwarf iris (Iris pumila), love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), and amazingly the ever popular nasturtium.

Tree selection and planting, shrubbery, methods of laying lawns and borders, footpath laying and garden ironwork furniture and street plating and basement airies – all are listed and examined in widely illustrated detail.

“The green spaces between the great Georgian buildings of our major cities are vital to our wellbeing,” writes George Anderson, a past president of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society. “They are, to paraphrase Patrick Geddes, the leaves by which we live.”

Conserving these gems of Georgian vision in Edinburgh and other British cities (as well as other Georgetowns elsewhere) becomes a priority. The truth is some two centuries after the establishment of these gardens, much of their original planting, and many of the gardens’ original features are reaching the end of their useful lives, and needing replacement.

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“Conserving the basic aesthetic of shared Georgian gardens,” Byrom concludes, “and particularly those of central Edinburgh and its designation as a Unesco site of cultural and also natural significance, comes down to two matters: firstly to maintaining the consistency and broad sweep at a city scale of their tall billowing green deciduous woodland canopies; and secondly to safeguarding their railed enclosures in allowing ‘go to’ rather than ‘go through’ access at agreed yet unobtrusively managed densities and intensities of usage.”

To last another 200 years would be a legacy not just of the Georgians but of present generations who care for these landscapes.

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The Care and Conservation of Shared Georgian Gardens 
is published by the World Bank, £30. To purchase by post, send a cheque made 
out to ‘EOTDT’ to The Word Bank, 8 Jackson’s Entry, Edinburgh EH1 2HS (With 
UK postage, £32.99; with EU postage, £41.99; with World postage, £47.99)