For over four years in the early 1990s, when I lived near Stirling and travelled to work by train, I walked a short distance through the convulsions of Edinburgh’s Old Town from Waverley Station to a small close off the Canongate. I don’t need to labour the magic of Edinburgh as a city to explore on foot, including as it does a volcano to climb, wheeling gulls and views to the Forth, and a National library housing eight acres of books in storeys climbing between two streets stacked one above the other.
In some cities ‘enchantment engineers’ design temporary illusions for pedestrians to experience as part of a journey – gardens, benches, special pathways or artworks. But such interventions are hardly needed in Edinburgh where there is abundant evidence of past lives and enormous scope for improvisation. Pedestrians can navigate the Old Town by statues, pubs and remarkable buildings; there are pavements for a pacing rhythm, but also car-free ways, gaits, closes, stairs that invite us to saunter, shamble, strut or turn back on ourselves.
But this was about getting to work. My train arrived at 8.48 and I hurried to be seated at my desk for 9.00, so I chose the ‘stride’ and the most direct route. On drowsed arrival at Waverley, I stepped from the train into Hades-shade relieved by a greenish light splashed through thirteen acres of mossy cantilevered glass. I danced a criss-cross quickstep on the esplanade, fan-tailing from the ticket barrier with my fellow passengers, dodging on-comers, making a bee-line for paths up and out. We were chased by jarring sound: warped voices announcing trains, the mish-mash of whistles, coffee machines, taxi rattle, clickety-clack heels, the rumble of wheeled cases. I doubt we even noticed the ghostly lapping at our ankles of the loch and sewer which were drained to make way for train lines in this gorge separating the Old Town from the New.
I climbed up from Waverley’s depths on the internal bridge to the steps onto Market Street, ready to head into the stacks of the old town cliff, an un-mappable wilderness to the south. Here, according to Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1870s, ‘houses sprang up storey after storey, neighbour mounting upon neighbour’s shoulder, as in some Black Hole of Calcutta, until the population slept fourteen or fifteen deep in a vertical direction.’
The crowd I was part of divided three ways here. The most committed crossed Market Street and sprang straight ahead up steeply-stepped Fleshmarket Close. Those less brave turned along Market Street, some turning right. But I was carried along with the group striding left, the mountains and valleys of Waverley’s glass roof now stretching away below us. Our heads snatched back over our shoulders, seeking a gap in the traffic to cross and take the curve of Jeffrey Street towards the Royal Mile. We didn’t stop and wait. Somewhere under North Bridge, one person led the step off the pavement, and as if by agreement the rest of us followed in a scattered arc. We were brave jaywalkers between buses, taxis, the silent swipe past of cycles. I’ve discovered since that there’s an anthropological term for this. ‘Togethering’ is when traffic-dominated pedestrians are encouraged by each other to move as one body. And yet we didn’t speak, avoided each others’ eyes, didn’t admit at all that we were ‘together’.
Here under North Bridge, three parallel universes hover on the same coordinate offering different experiences, different destinations. The grand hotels – the Carlton, the Scotsman – turn their backs onto Market Street, reserving smart doorways for their guests in low clean elevations on the street above. Our commuter-crowd traversed the hotel underworld, which was in turn Waverley’s over-world.
The hotels expelled broken glass into hulking wheelie bins here, leaving splinters crunching underfoot. We slalomed between empty tomato boxes piled for collection and metal beer casks being clanged from trucks. This pavement-cum-backyard is also where white vans lined up. Flasks lay on dashboards. Newspapers slashed red letters against the glass: The Daily Record. Men slept in the seats with folded arms. Perhaps they even dreamt. Did I ever ask myself of what?
The way I took, Jeffrey Street, was a gentle traffic-filled slope between Market Street and the High Street – the safe, direct way. It seems to me now that the steeper, the narrower, the more convoluted the way one takes through the precipice of the Old Town, the more one exposes oneself to goblin and ghost. In the dark closes, the back doors of businesses chucked out boxes of rotten fruit, wilting bouquets, cables. Off-duty workers lurked with cigarettes. There were ‘NO FLY POSTING’ notices on newly painted walls. There was graffiti. Pigeons’ wings clapped between high cliffs. I might have climbed, breathless, past smashed windows, reading mottos in Scots and Latin above doorways – ‘He who tholes overcomes’, ‘Spes Altera Vitae 1590’ (Hope of another life) – then climbed ever narrowing steps until I burst through a tunnel onto the bright High Street into an ambush of bagpipe music, tour guides, and portrait artists; tourists drifting with maps and guides. I might have made myself more like a tourist.
Another sudden way was offered by the Scotsman Steps, whose portal we passed under North Bridge, by those hotel backyards. Once under a sylvan archway of curlicued oak leaves, I could have spiralled up through a stone column. In those days before its marble-makeover by artist Martin Creed, I would have passed hiding smokers, skirting dark corners and last night’s vomit piles. At each turn of the spiral an arched window revealed Market Street, the old Grammar School on the hill, Waverley Station, all tipping wildly in perspective with the rapid gain in height. The steps dizzy with a hint of the unknown, then push walkers out high onto North Bridge and a long view to the sea. This climb through darkness is a passage into a different world; a mythical passage.
And there were not only different routes, but different ways of walking I could have tried. What if I had walked my usual route at the pace of a toddler, or occasionally stopped and closed my eyes to listen, or chosen my route by the toss of a dice at each corner – might I have had a richer experience of commuting?
But instead I carried on along Jeffrey Street on my blinkered mission without a second thought as to who Jeffrey was, past the posh boutiques and tapas bars, to a busy cobble-purred crossroads. Each corner spilled with pedestrians impatient for their turn, stepping out and back, waiting or not waiting for the green man before plunging on. Perhaps sometimes I glanced across at The World’s End pub, the boundary of two burghs, the famous landmark, infamous for the destiny of two girls. I went left down the Canongate towards work.
Under the high escarpment of one of Edinburgh’s Old Town ‘lands’ (multi-storey dwellings), I turned into a tunnel called ‘Old Playhouse Close’. If I’d looked up, a sign above the gated entrance tells that the close, ‘Led to theatre and hall where from 1747 to 1769 famous actors, actresses and singers performed. Home’s ‘Douglas’ was first staged here 1756’. But I was intent on arriving on time for my non-play in the Playhouse.
In retrospect I seem to have guarded myself from all the enchantment that this square kilometre of Edinburgh might have offered. I’ve counted over twenty closes that were on my route, like tiny creeks or tributaries off the main course. Each might have offered me diversion, in both senses of the word – a turning away, and an entertainment.
In August people scurry between Festival venues or take time to stroll, to drift, to explore Edinburgh. Those trying to go about their ordinary business have to become expert at the negotiated dance of city movement, slipping through a wall of walkers with a kink of the hips and a twist of the shoulders. A ‘Do-Si-Do’ dance; birds in flight continuously adjusting to the currents of the streets. Even so, pavement rage is not unknown amongst those who are heads-down and purposeful, perhaps longing for the un-peopled hills.
I’d wondered if being the daughter of a great Victorian alpinist had helped make Virginia Woolf into a writer. Presumably walking was part of family life, and the mountains might have given her space to dream.
But it wasn’t wild places that excited her, ‘How could I think mountains and climbing romantic?’ she apparently said. ‘Wasn’t I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery, and a raised map of the Alps showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course London and the marshes are the places I like best.’ Like Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens who walked themselves into a thorough knowledge of London and its people, and thus into imaginative realms of fiction, she took to the streets.
In her 1927 essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’, Woolf writes of going out to buy a pencil and digressing well beyond her errand, which became an excuse only, for her to ‘put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others’. She observes, overhears, but maintains her distance: ‘One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?’
And so walking with imagination might become an act of empathy. It can also lead to a sense of belonging to a place. In Michelle de Krestner’s novel ‘Questions of Travel’, a refugee arriving in an Australian city gives his days up to walking and finds that the process is ‘porous’. He comes to know and understand the place.
Although I rely on walking in less-peopled landscapes for thought and reflection, city strolling fires up my own fiction writing. Every passing face is a mystery. What’s the story behind that overhead snatch of conversation and its promise: ‘I said I’d do it. Did it twice actually.’? Why is a single child’s shoe lying on an empty table on the High Street? What does the sight of someone wearing a blindfold, standing still against the Mercat Cross evoke? And why does the scaffolder in a white suit perform a small dance for his laughing workmates as they lean against their van on a coffee break? Each one begs an invention, the simple question, ‘what if?’ for a story to take flight.
City walking allows a distance from others which excites imagination. Janet Cardiff, a Canadian artist who has exhibited at the Fruitmaket Gallery, is famous for her site specific audio walks in which the headset guides the walker’s observations whilst delivering a narrative about a character on the same route. One has two experiences of a place at once. Janet Cardiff herself says: ‘A lone walker is both present and detached from the world around, more than an audience, but less than a participant.’ This state is fertile ground for the imagination.
Richard Long, an artist whose work is closely connected with walking says: ‘our bodies are elemental: we are animals, we make marks, we leave traces, we leave footprints.’ On the earth paths I follow around my home in Perthshire, I love the sense that in some cases I personally know the people whose repeated walk with their dog or to reach a pony has initiated a path through summer undergrowth. Year after year they repeat it and others like me come along and add to the wear so that a path becomes established.
In walking Edinburgh’s streets now, I stop sometimes to examine the stone steps halfway up Fleshmarket Close. Every step is hollowed with wear, but one drops deeper on its left hand side. I ponder the story behind it. What obstacle on its right side forced the detour of the millions of footfalls over centuries into the preference recorded here?
As for memory-traces from my own repeated commuter route, I find them vanished, evaporated, rubbed quite away. The streets don’t remember or recall me. I might as well have diverted. I realise now that a walk to work doesn’t have to be head-down, fast-paced oblivion. It can be a time for noticing; it can be playful. It could be altered by leaving extra-early and walking the bus route normally dozed through, this time noticing and discovering the places passed.
If I had my job again in Old Playhouse Close, I would do what it demands and play with my twelve minute walk from Waverley. And if I am a little late? So what.
See also our guide to walks in Edinburgh.