Dean Garden, lying in a valley close to the heart of Edinburgh, might never have happened had the chips fallen differently. It could have been buried beneath the vision of 19th-century development that saw splendid terraces of townhouses built on the streets above.
Instead, what exists today is around 15 acres of private garden on a steep hillside that lead down to the Water of Leith and beneath the Dean Bridge.
From the bridge, one of Edinburgh’s busiest and noisiest bottlenecks, which links the West End to Queensferry Road and the peripheral routes beyond, the garden can be glimpsed below, currently swathed in yellow daffodils. Just how far below can’t be fully appreciated until you have taken the steep track that winds from the gated entrance in Eton Terrace.
A hundred feet down, the sound of the traffic is long gone and replacing it is the rush of the Water of Leith.
Hugging the north side of the hill, the “glen in the city”, as members of the garden call it, can be enjoyed by anyone for an annual fee of 65.
Diana Marshall, a committee member for the garden’s management, has lived in Ann Street since 1938, moving in as a child, and it is to her that new members come for a key. She has pieced together the history of the garden – not an easy task, given that it’s the sort of place chroniclers have dipped in and out of.
Dean Garden has not had an easy time of it. Battling erosion, lack of public funds due to its private status, and the loss of dozens of trees to Dutch Elm disease are just the later chapters in its chequered past.
Until about the mid-19th century, when Colonel Alexander Learmonth, backed by the considerable power of his provost father, acquired 140 acres on the north side of the valley, the land had been very poor grazing ground. Col Learmonth then built Dean Bridge’s surrounding terraces – Lennox, Eton, Oxford and Belgrave. Local residents (feuars), who became concerned at the march of Learmonth’s progress, bullied him into giving them a 12-year lease – with the threat of continued development at the end of that period. A fundraising campaign for a garden began, with 5 levied per household, and it opened in 1867. The list of original plants cost 400 and nursery gardeners took a yearly sum for upkeep.
Learmonth was still threatening to build, despite the steepness of the bank, so the feuars purchased the land for 2,500, with a levy and sale of works held each year. By 1891 the debt was paid off and the garden began its slow maturing towards today’s fine collection of trees, ivies, shrubs and herbaceous plants, as well as spring bulbs.
Today, the garden is on the cusp of change. As the path drops to its lowest level, a few feet higher than the Water of Leith, it is bordered by the stumps of 12 of the elms, which were gifted by townhouses on the Dean estate and represented the 12 apostles. Thirty-eight trees had to be felled after contracting the disease. Now parts of the garden are undergoing reconstruction as funds allow – the membership payments cover maintenance by a sole gardener, but do not allow for any extras.
Whether by chance or with foresight, the elms were interplanted with beech trees some ten years ago. “So we are already ten years ahead on replanting,” adds Marshall.
The walk holds many other surprises: St Bernard’s Well, built by Nasmyth and St George’s Well loom out of the water, and within the garden, a woody children’s play area has been built in a patch that had a former life as a tennis court.
Heading westwards and underneath the bridge’s arches, the path moves closer to the water and leads to a vista of Dean Village Weir, where the water crashes down in a wide fall that used to power mills – the old buildings lie across the river mixed in with unusual views of grand New Town terraces and newer developments.
But for all that, Dean is unspoilt and the feeling of this garden is that it prefers being closer to nature – after all, herons don’t make their home just anywhere. And though Marshall says her personal wishlist for Dean would be to deal with the erosion it suffers, you can’t help feeling that the spirit of Dean has sought to escape being harnessed by its ordered surroundings, which began when it slipped through Col Learmonth’s grasp. The precision of the New Town was part of a great plan, but Dean Garden had a plan of its own.
Dean Garden is open to the public tomorrow, 2-6pm, along with two front gardens in nearby Ann Street in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, 2, as part of Scotland’s Gardens’ Scheme. Entrance from Ann Street or Eton Terrace.