Rough Gem, Castlehill Garden Open Late July and August

Submitted by edg on Thu, 21 Jul '11 3.49pm

One of the side-effects of this unusually dreich Edinburgh Summer, is that there have been fewer people meandering around Edinburgh's parks. Take Castlehill garden: I was walking in this rough, unkempt hillscape, smack in the middle of the city under Edinburgh Castle, a couple of evenings ago. The only sign of life, apart from the distant hum of buses on Princes Street, were a few rabbits munching in the undergrowth.

I've never really seen the Edinburgh Castle Garden get that busy. It may be the most central, public park but it is on a steep hill directly under the Castle battlements which probably acts as something of a deterrant to many people.

Bound in by the mainline railway track that intersects Princes Street Gardens and the Castlehill side of this greenspace, you have to know about the access points as well. The gates to the park - one half way up the Mound, the second at the footbridge across the train track behind the Ross Theatre, and a third just off King Stables Road on the South-west side - are intermittently locked.

Although the council web site does carry opening times for Princes Street Gardens (the steep park is part of Princes Street Gardens), the Castlehill gardens are often closed for events such as the Festival Fireworks Concert or Hogmanay Fireworks. The hilly park has also been closed in the past after apparent scares over the crumbling castle rockface.

Right now, the other popular access point to the park, at the Castle Esplanade, at the top of the hill is closed. As part of Edinburgh Castle, it's the responsibility of heritage agency Historic Scotland rather than Edinburgh City Council and currently the gate is locked as the new stands have been erected for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

While visitors might bemoan the fact that they can't hike to the top of the steep slopes directly to the castle, for anyone looking for a spot of peace and solitude this is a good time to visit. There are fewer people around, especially later in the day. And in July and August, the lower three gates are open later than during the rest of the year: the official closing time is 10pm although the wardens lock up a little before that. 

I often wonder if many people forage on Castlehill. In May/June, the hillside is covered in broccoli rabe (aka rapini), a green plant with yellow flower, that is tasty with garlic and olive oil. The broccoli rabe is going to seed now, and thick wild grass and patches of nettles are faring well.

With all the summer rain, the hill is looking particularly lush, and is worth a visit for an evening ramble or a scenic shortcut when travelling between the Old Town and the West End. The small copse of oak and other trees planted near the Mound entrance as part of a millennium forest project looks quite mature now. I like the fact that a weathered plaque marking the tree-planting is so faded that you can barely read it.  I wonder if that is deliberate?

At the footbridge over the railway line, behind the Ross Theatre, you can watch trains pass under the National Gallery en route from Haymarket to Waverley train stations.

The sides of the Ross bridge (unlike the railway footbridge near King Stables road) are see-through, so children can wave at passing train drivers who gamely toot their horns back as they pass underneath.

Watching trains in Princes Street Garden

You don't need to be a trainspotter to appreciate this feat of urban planning. Here you are standing on the site of what was formerly the stinky Nor' Loch, until it was drained in the mid-18th century, watching a train disappearing under a historic public gallery, before you continue along your walk through a semi-rural setting in the heart of the city. It's what's great about Edinburgh, the natural and urban sitting closely together.

Map: I've outlined the path just above the railway track that skirts round the North face of the castle rock, from the gate at King Stables Road to one at the Mound and also joins up with West Princes street gardens.

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