Autumn Fitness: Staring into the Abyss

Posted by in October's Magazine

Tram shambles. Okay, it’s not fitness, but it has affected the mental health of many folk around these parts so bear with me. Generally it makes people angry… it certainly makes my blood boil. I’ve been living in Leith for seven years, and moved from Albert Street to the end of Balfour Street five years ago, just in time to catch the beginning of the saga of the road works.

On the 10th December 2007, we received a letter through our door from the then main contractors Alfred McAlpine stating that essential utilities work would be taking place from 7th January 2008 until June 2008. The fact that they put an exact start date, but not an exact finish date in June should have aroused my suspicions, but instead I naively believed that it would run to schedule. I still have that letter.


Being at the Leith Walk end of Balfour Street, we had the dubious privilege of being in direct contact with the road workers when Balfour Street was completely closed to traffic. It was an ‘interesting’ time, a time of many potholes and mysterious digging. It wasn’t as industrious as road works we had witnessed in Hong Kong, but it seemed that something was happening that would make Leith truly grand.

How wrong was I! In fact, I remember quizzing two men in high visibility jackets outside my front door, who were cutting through tree roots as they were digging. I asked them what they were digging for, and they replied that there were looking for pipes. They didn’t know where they were, they had just been instructed to dig for them. Hence digging up half a footpath and an innocent tree – you can see it for yourself at the end of Balfour Street. It’s the half dead tree. One half is living fine, and the half where its roots were cut is completely dead. I still don’t know if they found the pipes…

And then of course there was the ‘Happy Birthday Hole’ party. Local Leith Walk traders had developed an affinity for this year-old hole outside Leith Cycle Co, and so held a wee birthday party for it. They even baked a cake, which, curiously, lead to a scuffle with the road workers who came and popped all the balloons and bundled the lady from the Snail Mail shop into the aforementioned hole. It made the front page of the Evening News.

A sign was proudly erected outside what was then Remax real estate store, proclaiming ‘taking you to the shops in 2011’. I had two issues with this; firstly, Leith Walk is an entire street of shops, I didn’t need to go anywhere else to do my shopping. Secondly, I had the overwhelming urge to replace ‘shops’ with ‘cleaners’, so the sign would read ‘taking you to the cleaners in 2011’. As a local business I felt it would have been a bit irresponsible to deface council property, but in hindsight I wish I’d had the guts to do it.

Even in 2010, I was cautiously optimistic about the trams. It didn’t seem that many of the workers on site knew what was going on, but I had hoped someone in charge might have had some direction. I even opened a shop for my fitness business right next to what was meant to be a tram stop (“a canny business move” I said to myself at the time), just downstairs from where I live. But the endless road works made me realise that this was an administrative situation out of control.

As I type this, Princes Street currently looks like a Formula1 racing track without fast cars and Leith Walk still looks like a road in a third world country. I’ve developed an unwavering sense of cynicism about what’s going to happen to the project come next year’s council elections. £500 million, £1 billion, what difference does it make when schools, publics loos and leisure facilities are being shut down primarily due to lack of money?

The sad thing is, for an area to develop vibrancy and a sense of community it needs to be valued. With Leith firstly being heralded as a valuable resource, the ‘new Edinburgh’, then downgraded to a potential biomass site, what are Leithers to believe nowadays? So rather than being bothered with the tram line, all we really want to know is what on earth is going to happen to our neighbourhood, now it’s been dug up and left? If we can’t have a tram, can we please have some new trees? And Leith Walk resurfaced? Or will we be left, as a recent Scotsman newspaper headline put it so succinctly ‘staring into the abyss’?

The good citizens of Leith carry on regardless, what we miss in funding we make up for in brilliant local events and true community spirit. And yes, we do want the Elm Row pigeon statues back, and the clock at the roundabout, and the pleasure of cycling safely down Leith Walk. Viva the underdogs!

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One response to “Autumn Fitness: Staring into the Abyss”

  1. merlebeck says:

    Very well written article with valid points! I like your writing style so much. Thanks for sharing!

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