Friday, 4 March 2011

An Edinburgh oasis

On Sunday, there was a whisper of spring in the air and so we finally made it to Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh - or The Botanics, as everyone in Edinburgh calls it,  to look at the new visitor centre. It's only been open for a mere 18 months. Sigh.

The Botanics is one of those places that makes you want to weep with gratitude for its existence. It is a beautiful space, full of well-thought out distinct gardens: Chinese Hillside; Peat Garden; ; Scottish Heathland; native woodland; arboretum and a giant 165m long herbacious border backed by a two storey high beech hedge. It's a big garden  - 70 acres - but it feels even bigger than that, because the landscaping and planting means you move in and out of different sections, immersed in the immediate environment, and unaware of other areas nearby.  It's backed up by serious scientific credentials and activity. But as far as I'm concerned, it's just a lovely place to hang out. It's also always immaculate.

Inverleith House Gallery and spring crocus in the Botanics
The Botanics frequently hosts - and presumably initiates - imaginative collaborations with artists - exhibitions and installations, either in the Botanics gallery, Inverleith House, or integrated into the planting or glasshouses. There is a whole series of large glass houses - starting with the elegance of the victorian palm house with its palm and orchid display, and moving through different glasshouses, each representing a different regional microclimate - very welcome on a chilly day. The gardens also boast the largest collection of rhododendrons in the world.

We used to visit the gardens regularly. The Botanics were literally on our doorstep when we lived in North Edinburgh. Our flat backed onto them. The Botanics were effectively our back garden. We looked out onto a seemingly endless vista of noble trees.  We would pop in most weeks for a stroll about, and had great pleasure in watching the seasons progress in the succession of budding, flowering and defoliation which marked the passing year. We also fed the very tame, very fat squirrels a lot - spent a fortune on peanuts.

Construction for the new visitor centre started when we were still living next to the Botanics. Infected with the cynicism of disappointed middle age, I confess we watched the progress of the building works with the pessimistic assumption that whatever finally emerged, it would be too large, ugly, a blot on the garden landscape and a basically just a big tacky shop and cafe.

Well, we couldn't have been more wrong. It's not just a visitor centre. The John Hope Gateway, as it is called, is apparently a ' biodiversity and information centre'. Whatever it is called, it is a triumph. It is a beautiful building, dressed with wood and grey stone which blends perfectly into its setting. Yes, there is a shop and yes there is a cafe (not sampled yet). There is also a pleasant exhibition space - currently host to a specially commissioned craft and biodiversity exhibition - and an informative collection of quirky, imaginative displays about botany and the scientific and environmental research of the Botanics. It is just stunning. A well-designed, gracious building, which showcases the fantastic work being done by the Botanics staff, in the gardens and across the world.

Arty Tights!
A specially commissioned exhibition of tights made by students at Edinburgh College of Art,
using plant based textiles and dyes.

Oh, and I forgot to mention: it is free to go into the Botanics. Yep. Let me type that again. It is free to go into the gardens. So you can pop in at any time. Or every 18 months in our case.

If you are in Edinburgh and want to make a 'jaunt' to the Botanics, please note that the bric a brac 'shop of dreams', Duncan & Reid, is a mere couple of minutes walk from the East Gate of the Gardens, and the Circle Cafe - gorgeous food, relaxed ambience and friendly staff - is another couple of minutes walk further along the road. 5 minutes on the number 23 or 27 bus from the city centre. Make a day of it!

1 comment:

  1. Wow, when you said you were getting back into blogging, you meant it!

    All very interesting.

    I love the Botanics. I used to say that the family should scatter my ashes there, but actually - having carried my dad's ashes around the place furtively waiting to scatter them up the Knock at Crieff - I don't want them to bother.

    Must get there before the crocuses are over.