A celebration of everyday life in all its imperfection
Saturday, 27 March 2010
Another Edinburgh walk
For those of you who don't know Edinburgh, the 'historic' areas of the city are split into 2 distinct parts. The 'Old Town' is the earliest settlement, built on a narrow ridge, effectively along one long street - The Royal Mile - which stretches between the Castle, perched on the volcanic plug that is Castle Rock, and Holyrood Palace. The tenements, originally medieval, are tall, narrow and crowded together along the main street and down steep 'wynds' and 'closes', and around small squares. In the 18th century, during Edinburgh's intellectual heyday as the cradle of the Enlightement (well, some French people might disagree about that statement!), the city fathers decided that the well-to-do burghers of the city needed somewhere more salubrious to live than the crowded Old Town (although I suppose it was just the 'Town' then!), where the gentry and hoi polloi mixed cheek by jowl in what was vividly called 'Auld Reekie' (i.e old stinky!).
So a town planning competition was held in 1766 to come up with a plan for a new development on the northern slopes of the city. This was won by 26 year old stonemason (not architect!) James Craig and the New Town was built over the next 70 or so years, sticking very much to the regular grid pattern central to Craig's initial conception, as this aerial photo shows. So the New Town is not new at all.
Both the Old Town and the New Town are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites - which I think makes Edinburgh unique (if I might blow the city's trumpet for a moment!). Edinburgh's New Town is the most extensive and sustained example of Georgian architecture in Britain - and according to UNESCO, in Europe! Bath, your warm golden stone might be a bit prettier than the austere grey of the Edinburgh sandstone, but frankly, eat your heart out!
When I first lived in Edinburgh as a student, over 20 years ago, I always lived in the South of the city, in the Old Town and in the student hotspots of Newington and Marchmont (where I live now). I thought the New Town was cold and cheerless, with the long, straight streets, restrained Georgian townhouses and little greenery to relieve the grey stone. Frankly, it was a bit posh for my tastes then as well. It wasn't until I was forced to live in the North of the city, when I first moved back to Edinburgh, that I learnt to love the New Town. We didn't live in the New Town proper - not in that class! But with the New Town lying between our flat and the city centre, we spent many hours walking through the it, admiring the buildings, the gardens, and imagining a life in which we were wealthy enough to enjoy a New Town address.
Since being over in Marchmont in our new flat, I have rarely ventured North, but a few weeks ago I had an errand in the New Town - buying knitting beads, since you ask. I took the opportunity of a crisp, sunny Saturday to have a mooch about. There's something about the chill, north-eastern, winter sky that sets off the grey stone perfectly. Warm it wasn't - in any sense - but very elegant. My photography skills cannot really do justice to the grandeur of Edinburgh's New Town, but here's a taste.
Because Edinburgh is built on so many hills, the street level is often much higher than the ground level. You end up with buildings that are 3 storeys high on the street side and 5 or 6 storeys high at the back. You also get lots of unexpected basements, a lot of which are used as shops, and in the New Town these shops are often rarified antique or art dealers, or specialist craftspeople such as clockmakers or silversmiths. Lonsdale & Dutch (above) are, rather wonderfully, "tinsmiths and lantern restorers", who repair the traditional glass lightfittings and chandeliers you get in the New Town houses.
In another basement on Howe St, I discovered Leo's Beanery. A very cosy and classy cafe, which had only been open a week when I visited. Everything was perfect - to the extent that I felt, perhaps cynically, that they just won't be able to keep up to this standard once they get busy. In addition to the usual newspapers to read, there was a shelf full of cookery books available for browsing. Bliss! And the food was exceptional. Reasonably priced, tasty and beautifully presented.
This was my 'simple' lunch of pate!
I ordered pate and biscuits and this is what I got: 3 types of pate, 3 types of biscuit, olives, rocket and sunblushed tomato salad, served on a roughly hewn slate platter!
This is life in the New Town. Not for the likes of us, except for a Saturday treat!