Today, I wanted to share a special opportunity which occurs every January in Edinburgh. Less talked about than the summer Festival and Fringe, the citizens and visitors to Edinburgh have the chance to enjoy an extraordinary exhibition of JMW Turner’s watercolours.
A private collection acquired by Henry Vaughan was bequeathed to the Scottish National Gallery on condition that it was only exhibited for one month each year so as to protect the fragile colours of the paintings and that it was a free exhibition.
Anywhere else you might expect to pay £10 or more to see such a collection of pictures and have strictly timed entrance times. In Edinburgh we simply strolled in on a midweek afternoon and spent more than an hour journeying through Scottish, English and European scenes painted in glorious colour with the most striking and luminous skies and light. To preview some of the paintings, check out the National Galleries of Scotland website.
The National Gallery sits behind the more obvious Art Academy on Princes Street. Aside from the special January exhibition there are several other galleries of paintings by Scottish and international artists and I plan to go back to explore these works in more detail in the coming months and years.
We set off ostensibly to explore the West End on a walk which had the Dean Bridge at its NW extremity. Reaching it, we paused to look over the ravine which it spans and noticed a group of historic buildings below. They looked intriguing so we took the steep Bells Brae down towards them.
On the side of the Waters of Leith are the former mill buildings which were once the thriving heart of Edinburgh producing flour and wool powered by the Waters of Leith. This river which rises in the Pentlands and flows down to the Firth of Forth at Leith was diverted into mill races which drove the mill machinery. Today no working mills remain but the buildings are being put to new uses.
On the side of the yellow building this stone indicates its previous use as a bakery with the flat paddles used to load and remove loaves into and out of the bread oven.
Marking the history of the area, there is a small park featuring 3 mill wheels which were imported to deal with the coarser grains of the area.
In the background of this park is the impressive Dean Bridge. A four arched bridge, it carries the traffic over 100ft above the river. Designed by Thomas Telford it opened in 1833.
Our walk took us on down the waters to Leith so we shall return to the charming Dean Village for further explorations in the future.
When you stand on Waverley Bridge in the heart of the Princes Street area, your eye is drawn in many directions – the Castle, Arthurs Seat, distant spires or Calton Hill.
The Hill itself is an interesting, somewhat eclectic mix of monuments to mark dates and people from history (more on this another day) but on the walk up the hill from the centre, you pass a cemetery which is well worth the detour. Called the Calton Hill burial ground, it has fabulous views across the skyline. The mix of grand monuments, family mausoleums and more modest graves are laid out higgledy-piggledy fashion across the steep terrain.
Dominating your view as you climb up the steps is the Political Martyrs monument. Dedicated in 1844 and standing 27m tall (so pretty difficult to photograph) it commemorates an early fight for common suffrage. Scared this smacked of the French Revolution, the men involved were tried, found guilty of sedition and transported to Australia in 1793.
On your right is a striking statue of Abraham Lincoln. The only statue so far of any President of the US in Scotland. It commemorates the 6 Edinburgh soldiers who fought on the side of the Unionists in the American Civil War. Paid for mainly by Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller it was cast in the US and shipped back and installed here in 1893.
Without doubt, the markers, statues and mausoleums to the merchants, architects, philosophers, publishers and medical men of Edinburgh enjoy one of the finest views of the city.
As I walk from my flat to Princes Street I have several choices of route. Walking through the modern blocks of Exchange Square offers me the chance to amble the last few hundred metres past street art, through a beautiful Georgian Square lit by striking street lamps and finally past an enormous cast-iron gateway.
I love the way that Edinburgh celebrates its writers and those who write about it with quotes and poems. Alexander McCall Smith who frequently uses Edinburgh as his backdrop for his books is quoted on the wall as you pass through the modern glass, stone and steel structures of the Exchange area with its offices, hotels and our gym. Then as you exit from the area into older Edinburgh and the edge of the New Town you come across a striking bronze of a man riding a horse
Rutland Square is such a contrast with its fine Georgian Buildings set around a peaceful gated garden. A place of consulates, financial institutions and architects, it has a gracious feel enhanced by the street lamps around it with their elegant design.
Standing alongside the Caledonian Hotel on the corner of Lothian Road there are some striking but curiously large gates into a very ordinary modern parking area – but clearly once they were of much greater importance. A little digging unearths a hidden story of one of Edinburgh’s historic stations. At one time the extremely grand Princes Street station was sited in this area rivalling Waverley. As Waverley had its North British Hotel (today the Balmoral) so Princes Street had it’s Caledonian Hotel named for the railway company.
In 1948 the station was deemed surplus to requirements and was closed and the line and all the buildings were gradually dismantled. Today the cast-iron gates are virtually all that remain (I have yet to see the station clock inside the hotel) and the path of the old line is the road which runs alongside our flats and is today the Western Approach Rd.
An essential for me is a library, not just for books but as a community hub for information and connecting with others. My local library in Fountainbridge may be modest on the inside but the exterior is a real gem.
There has been a library on the site since the 1890s but the current building was constructed in the late 1930s, opening in 1940 to meet the considerable demand for access to books by the local community.
The exterior has both art nouveau and art deco features which have recently been restored and now shine out making this quite a local landmark.
A frosty New Year’s morning and what better than a good leg-stretch on a nearby pathway.
Part of the John Muir Way, the Edinburgh Union Canal links up with the Forth & Clyde Canal near Falkirk and eventually reaches the River Clyde in Glasgow. It starts in Edinburgh at the Lochrin Basin and for the first 8 miles or so passes almost unseen between houses and industrial areas to Ratho. It also forms part of the National Cycle Network as route 75.
With a good level footpath, it is an ideal route into the city for commuters on foot or bicycle as well as being a very pleasant area for strolling or jogging.
On an early winter’s morning with low sun, the reflections in the near still water are beautiful and there are plenty of birds to see both on the water and in the hedgerows alongside the path.
After about 4km, the spectacular Slateford aqueduct is reached. Built in 1821, it carries the canal 18m above the Waters of Leith for 180m.
Although there is a certain amount of rubbish in the water as it passes through some of the housing developments, there are also some pleasant parks alongside and some striking buildings and gardens (look out for a gorilla). Although only slightly elevated, there are some excellent views back to Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s seat to be enjoyed.
Later this year, I hope my sensible shoes will take me the full length of the canal to Glasgow.