Going round in circles
A circle reflects eternity. A circle suggests purposeless repetition and a lack of progress. However, for a walk it suggests satisfying completion, avoiding a frustrating retracing of steps that linear walks can involve.
A busy week and clouded mind left me in need of physical release. With summer trying to break through after a chilly spring, the streets of Leith are getting busier with every passing day. Queues are forming; it’s time to break away. The gentle 3.7 kilometres of Restalrig Railway Path via Leith Links east is my getaway.
Starting where John's Place bumps into Links Place, I make my way past the old bowling greens, now abandoned. Anything rolled over them now would bump and hop, not curve and glide. It brought to mind the many hours of labour put into these greens over the years.
Cutting, watering, rolling, trimming, scarifying, cutting. Their precious turf is now bare and unkempt. How can this area be repurposed? On the Meadows (and at Balgreen), some old bowling greens are now being used for croquet. Is Leith ready for croquet - or vice versa?
Continuing the sporting theme I spin round to my left, passing the Rattray statue. The stooping old golfer seeming poised and ready to launch the small sphere over the heads of the kids in the play-park and onto an imaginary green on Giant’s Brae.
I head onward towards the eastern part of the links where, in the distance, I see a bunch of guys dressed in off-white encircling a tightly mown patch of grass. Like golf, cricket has a long tradition here., though perhaps a dwindling one. At one time, eleven clubs used this portion of the park; now just three.
I walk on to the Leith Franklin Academicals’ clubhouse, the water in the urn is starting to bubble; tea e approaches. Outside, a mother tries explaining the sport to her young son: "The guy with the ball is trying to hit the er…sticks behind the other guy – who is holding the big bat".
A few seconds later, a moment of controversy. The batsman seems to edge the ball through to the wicket keeper, but he refuses to ‘walk’. The umpire is similarly unmoved. In his deep frustration, the bowler performs a sprightly somersault on the pitch, while the wicket keeper flings the ball angrily into the turf. It took a couple of minutes for things to calm down.
Looping round the cricketers, I pass the allotments and the new flats entangled around Ropemaker Street, and reach the tranquil, narrow eastern corner. Here the paths have been widened and resurfaced in recent years. Of the two paths offered, I take the one that slopes up.
I feel as if I’ve been elevated above the park, above the rooftops, above the city. Crossing a bridge over Seafield Place, I get the first real whiff from the Seafield Stink. But the bucolic scene soon takes my mind off that.
After a damp and warm week, the pathway lies bordered in deep green; nettles and ground-elder covering every spare inch. This invasive plant tends to spread quickly, outcompeting other plants for resources. It's been around for ages and shows no sign of leaving soon. Its pungent carroty/parsley aroma dominates my nostrils as I walk on.
The path skirts the edge of the cemetery and crematorium. A gentle reminder that circles are eternal but we are not.
Here path users have the opportunity to turn left and head onwards towards Portobello. I keep right. A mysterious abandoned building lies in the trees here, like some secret research centre long since disowned whose true purpose is, I like to imagine, only known in ‘certain spheres’.
As I circle gently back westwards through Restalrig there comes a deep, peaceful calm. The cuttings here are deep, and there are few signs of the city beyond. Now, approaching my starting point, I eschew a detour into Lochend Park, instead trundling on past the bare and empty playing fields of Leith Academy.
Finally, the path emerges almost apologetically, onto Easter Road. The loop is complete; the circle unbroken. My mind is recharged and reinvigorated as I reach Leith Walk. After finding a window seat in a busy café, I swirl my cooling drink around the glass before eagerly quaffing it.
Refreshed, I started to scribble, keen to record this route and file it under 'calming short circular walks'. I hear the barista intone the deathly words, 'we are closing in 18 minutes' and scramble to finish recording how the walk made me feel.
One thing is certain, I’m rapidly coming round to the idea of Edinburgh’s ex-railway paths as one of Edinburgh’s greatest assets. Allowing us to wander and wheel undisturbed around much of the city; going around in circles, but getting back on track. ■
Info: Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education, politics, sport, and coffee. He thanks Kate Smith of the SICK writing group for her comments on an earlier version of this piece.
Harry Douglas-Hamilton’s study of the John Rattray statue in Leith Links, ‘at sunset with mist on the ground’.