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The path least travelled


Holyrood Park is widely viewed as ‘an iconic green space’ in the heart of the city and ‘Edinburgh’s premier park’. Through the ground- breaking work of James Hutton, the park also has great significance in the history of geology. It is, many would agree, ‘a city park like no other’. Historic Environment Scotland (HES), has been carrying out a public consultation on the future of the park.

The Outline Strategic Plan of a new future for the park focuses on ensuring that Holyrood Park remains accessible and well used by locals and tourists. To ensure this, HES argues that patterns of usage will need to evolve - otherwise the park will slowly degrade.

A main focus is to diversify the routes taken up and around Arthur’s Seat. There are about a dozen ways up, though only a handful are promoted or widely used. Such concentrations on particular routes are causing erosion. Increased rainfall often turns these routes into little streams, which again eats away at the topsoil. In a short period, a path can turn into a significant scar on the side of the hill.

While the focus of the public consultation is on routes up and around Arthur’s Seat, there are other paths in the park. One of these underappreciated paths offers a fantastic very quiet route, linking the area near the Commonwealth Pool with Abbeyhill.

It’s a path with no obvious name, though some refer to it as the St. Leonard’s Bank Path. In some ways a continuation of the Innocent Railway path, it starts near where the St Leonard’s Tunnel ends/ begins. This hidden little path is not sign-posted, though it is clearly well used; quiet but not deserted.

It starts impressively, with the gates and gatehouse of the park greeting you. After a nicely shaded area with a gritted path, it narrows significantly. After about 100 metres a spur to the right offers a fantastic spot for contemplation. Those sitting on the bench there up have a spectacular view of the ragged glories of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags from this point.

You feel truly encased in nature here, densely wooded and full of vibrant growth. In early June the path the vegetation was thick; nettles and abundant ground elder. Large patches of brambles were starting to come to life after their hibernation, particularly round the back of the stately St. Leonard’s Crag building, previously James Clark School. By August there were many punnets worth of fruit: in early November, most had been allowed to rot away.

Though it’s merely a thin sliver of trees next to a large public park (and a short distance from residential property), you feel as if you’re in the middle of a substantial wood. In many spots, the sunlight is largely obscured. This can be a little unnerving, even during the day. Unlike the (ex) railway paths, this is uneven and sloping. This is one to walk along, sometimes gingerly, not run or wheel. In parts, tree roots run like veins across it, lying in wait to sprain ankles.

Above you sit the jagged rocks of Salisbury Crags. On my most recent journey along the path I paused to look up and saw a couple of figures on the top, peering over the edge of the precipice. Inwardly I felt a sense of concern and a desire for them to move away from danger. The quiet, tragic tale of Helga Konrad (pushed from the top by her husband in an insurance fraud) sprang to mind.

Thankfully the pair soon retreated, and my (admittedly irrational) concerns were replaced by a sense of awe. The edifice of Salisbury Crags feels so close at this point and gives this spot an epic feel. It remains an extraordinary aspect of the city that such natural beauty exists in its heart.

At one point you come to the fringe of SKELF Bike Park where the exuberant energy within proves a total contrast to the rest of the route. The turnstile type gate here is a reminder of the old streets (such as Arthur Street) of St. Leonard’s and the Pleasance which were largely wiped from the map.

You can still feel the absence in the area of the community that was displaced during the slum clearances. Eventually the path takes you down to ‘sea level’, dropping into Holyrood Park near the playpark at Dumbiedykes Road.

Skirting round the playpark, you then pass the back of Dynamic Earth, glimpsing the old Holyrood Brewery buildings through the branches and thick vegetation. Crossing the roundabout at Holyrood Gait, you soon enter the surroundings of the Scottish Parliament.

As intended, the area feels like a slice of the Highlands transported into the city, with wild flowers liberally sown. It’s a natural progression from the sylvan track you have just left. From this point, you can continue around the Palace and into Abbeyhill either through Croft-An-Righ (Croft Angry!) or the ‘hidden’ passage into Milton Street.

The more adventurous will head up Arthur’s Seat, but via which route?

The one less travelled? ■

Charlie Ellis writes on culture, education, politics and sport. He thanks SICK Writing Group for comments on an early version of this piece

The former James Clark School, St Leonards Crag, Credit: fotoflingscotland

You can still feel the absence in the area of a community displaced during the slum clearances



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