No sitting on the fence in garden debate

THERE'S nothing like a piece of precious green space - or perhaps the railings enclosing it from the hoi polloi - to stir the emotions of city folk.

When the News reported last week that the keyholders to Merchiston Garden, a private patch of greenery in the heart of one of the smartest areas of the city, had voted against allowing children from a local nursery to play on its lawns, there was a fast and often furious response on our website.

"I support the notion of compulsory repossession of all private 'parks' and turning them over to free public use," wrote one.

"It is a private garden which belongs to the keyholders who pay for its upkeep, so allowing children in is the equivalent of you letting people in to your back garden," hit back another.

Residents themselves had been reluctant to comment openly to the News - but with the website's cloak of anonymity many unleashed their true feelings, one saying they were sickened by the small-minded bigotry on display during the voting, while another who claimed to live nearby accused keyholders with large gardens in addition to their communal plot of suffering delusions of "Morningsideian grandeur".

Other residents hit back: "An awful lot of us have worked bloody hard to get here and . . . do not come from privileged backgrounds," said one.

All of which does not bode well for the next community barbecue down Merchiston Garden way, but does also raise wider issues.

There are 41 communal gardens in the New Town, where keyholders pay an annual fee for maintenance and the general public isn't allowed in. Unlike communal back greens in tenements or a private home's back garden, however, the keyholder gardens are often within public view, if out of their reach, in the middle of leafy New Town squares. Rules of access vary: while only those who live in close proximity to Merchiston Garden can apply for a key, anyone willing to pay an 80 annual fee can enjoy the benefits of the Dean Garden.

Decisions about their future are made by committees, and residents are occasionally asked to vote on special requests and large-scale changes.

Merchiston Garden, created in the early 1900s and boasting an open grass area with a woodland border and a resident fox, is controlled by the Merchiston Gardens Pleasure Garden Association. Around 80 families use it to relax, host parties and walk their dogs - although the association chairman Peter Cannell refuses to disclose how much they pay.

He defends the right of the association to exclude children from the nearby Corner House Nursery on the grounds that it was a democratic vote - 32 to 20 - and strongly rejects the idea that any move should be made to open access to more people.

"They are no more a public amenity than a shared back garden," he insists.

The property company director believes the garden and its heritage is something cherished by residents who are keen to preserve it for future generations.

"There's a certain element of being a custodian for history in that this is something that has come to us," says Peter. "By choosing to live in the area, you inherit this piece of history and it is up to us to preserve it so the next generation can use it.

"I think if a garden works, there should be no reason to change it. You could see there would be a different argument if it was a part of town where there was some kind of heritage."

Of course, some private gardens do have a heritage - Queen Street Gardens, designed by renowned landscape artist Andrew Wilson, was a favourite place for the young Robert Louis Stevenson.

There have been precedents for opening previously private gardens to the public - Princes Street Gardens was once a private garden but as residents moved away and the area became more commercial, the argument for opening it up became overwhelming.

It's similar to the reasoning behind the opening up of another private garden. St Andrew Square, the first private garden in the city, is set to go public, thanks to the city council, which, after pledging responsibility for its maintenance, was granted a 50-year lease. Work on the 2-million project is due to start shortly, with the gardens due to open to the public in January but already there have been complaints about piles of litter turning the place into a "rubbish dump".

And retired Napier University lecturer Connie Byrom, who has studied the New Town private gardens for more than 20 years, believes such gardens should remain private, precisely because litter and vandalism would destroy their unique magic.

Connie, who is not a garden keyholder herself and was only given access to the private pleasure gardens while researching her book, The Edinburgh New Town Gardens - Blessings As Well As Beauties, says: "For me, it was a very great privilege to be allowed into the gardens but I know people are cynical because they can't get into them.

"The trouble is, if everyone is allowed to go into them, then anything awful can happen.

"And while most people are well behaved, there are a few people who are not.

"We need to protect the gardens and they should be private. I feel very strongly about protecting them from damage."

The public is, however, going to be able to get a peek at a few of the city's "secret" gardens when they throw open their gates on May 5, during Edinburgh Parks and Gardens Open Day.

The day, along with the opening of St Andrew Square, is backed by Edinburgh World Heritage, and its director Zoe Clark believes limited access should be allowed at all the city's pleasure gardens.

She says the parks contribute to the city's special character, improve residents' quality of life and give a flavour of what life might have been like in a bygone era.

"We support the opening of private gardens wherever possible and practical," says Zoe.

But she admits it's not as simple as unlocking the gates and throwing the keys away. "Offering public access inevitably increases maintenance costs for the residents who own and are responsible for the care of the gardens, so it is important the gardens are managed appropriately," she says.

Ultimately, it's an impossible question of squaring a circle - allowing the city's residents to enjoy some of the Capital's treasures, while still making sure the gardens stay as treasures. It's a dilemma residents themselves are acutely aware of.

Dean Gardens key-holder Xa Milne says she would like to see more opportunities for the public to walk in the grounds but feels unlocked gates would ultimately be detrimental to the safe environment, where her three children, Mungo, six, Geordie, nine, and 12-year-old Lorne play.

"I would be worried that the gardens would turn into a drinking ghetto and, from a mum's point of view, I would definitely feel sad because something would have been lost," says the 43-year-old of Ann Street.

"I really appreciate it as a safe space for my kids to go and I can see that it's a fortunate position to be in because it's a rare thing to have access to what is a great local amenity."

It's a view echoed by artist Sarah Gilmour who has lived on Ann Street for 12 years and says she'd hate to see the tranquility of the garden threatened.

The 52-year-old says: "You've got the noise of the river and the birds singing and the trees and you just wouldn't know you were in the middle of a city. It's like going into different world."

PRIVATE PLAYGROUNDS

PRIVATE pleasure gardens have been a playground for Edinburgh's rich and well-to-do for more than 200 years.

The first gated garden was established at St Andrew Square in 1770 in response to the growing number of grand homes in the area.

But as the city's New Town developed, St Andrew Square and all its grandeur was abandoned by residents and businesses moved in.

Not to be outdone by their East End neighbours, the second gated garden was completed in the West End at Charlotte Square in 1804.

And as the New Town became increasingly fashionable, landscape painter Andrew Wilson was called in to design the Queen Street Gardens, which were established by an Act of Parliament in 1822.

Many garden associations allowed sports, including football, croquet and cricket. And as lawn tennis became the craze in the 1870s, courts were also introduced.

During the Second World War, the gardens were turned over to a very different purpose - shelters were built and they were turned into training grounds by the home guard and cadet corps.