A Child’s Garden of Verses, Art, Chris Rutterford, Colinton, Colinton Dell, Colinton Tunnel, Colinton Tunnel Mural, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Tourism, Health and Safety, Redhall Mill weir, Robert Louis Stevenson, Water of Leith, Water of Leith Walkway
The good and the bad at Colinton Dell. Let us start with the bad, otherwise my readers are bound to give up and to click on something else once the going is no longer so good.
The bad is the bridge. Colinton Dell is a beauty spot in the south of Edinburgh where you can join arms companionably with the Water of Leith and walk through a smattering of pretty woodland. Although there are a variety of different walks available, you will not receive your full shilling’s worth of the picturesque without taking in Kate’s Mill and the Redhall Mill weir. On from the Redhall Walled Garden, both of the paths to the east of the river require it to be crossed again before Colinton, to reconnect errant walkers with a route for the longer term. Until lately, this had been made possible, in the clearing where the river has been dammed, by a chunky wooden footbridge.
Here, when the sun is shining, the landscape opens like a munificent hand. The weir rumbles busily and, after this, the water emerges battered and exhausted, to slink over a low table of rock before gathering itself up again past the bridge. Ancient trees look gigantically down upon this space from the banks all around. A heron, a scholar of the river, studies the water in front of the weir, somehow pinpointing a library stillness within its crashing. In the spring, wild garlic flowers tumble down in a mush past the rickety staircase that leads up from the bridge and these flowers seem to delicately mirror the cascading water opposite.
This is scene of beauty and truth, but there is a sharp historical irony to it as well. Colinton Dell is not unspoiled or a small bundle of nature that has somehow escaped the customary wrecking of the landscape by modernity and industrialisation. Rather, it was sent back unwanted by industrialisation, in being infrastructure that was rendered obsolete by the economic cycles. In its day, the Redhall Mill had made the paper for Scottish banknotes and so this weir had literally pumped money into the economy. Its churn is quantitative easing incarnate. Although the footbridge seems to have been installed in the 1970s, some ancestor of it would have carried mill operatives from the railway overhead across to their workplace.
The mill is long gone and its bridge has nobody now to love and to care for it. A few months ago, the bridge was closed, due to a tumour that Edinburgh City Council claimed to have detected in its “main beam.” Not only was the bridge closed but it was closed ineptly. Flimsy metal barriers were chained to each end and, as thousands of exasperated walkers inevitably climbed over them, the wooden sides of the bridge buckled and cracked.
The greatest danger to walkers was clearly that of being injured whilst they clambered over the barriers. Unless some kind of enormous marathon for all of the most obese people in Scotland was scheduled to visit this bridge, there appeared to be no immediate danger to it or from it. Why could not a helpful sign have been erected on the wayside that read “Watch Out!” or something along these lines?
This is to misunderstand the health-and-safety way of thinking. A hole could have opened up in the bridge and a blind man who was bizarrely out walking without a dog or a stick could have disappeared down through it. Somebody who was morbidly heavy – somebody who was unsteady on their feet – somebody who was so gaga that they were excused of having any personal responsibility – all of these speculative people who, if they ever existed, would be the least likely to use the bridge in the first place were, in a prize Catch-22, most entitled to dictate its closure.
When recently briefing the Labour councillor, Dr Scott Arthur, the council explained that arranging stepping stones in the river for people to cross its shallow water “would not be safely achievable.” With enough transcendental meditation, you too might be able to attain the mystical stage of Enlightenment wherein placing a line of rocks in a river is not wholly straightforward and unproblematic.
Encouragingly, the council admit that leaving this bridge closed forevermore would be “far from ideal.” But it doesn’t appear to have occurred to them that they don’t actually own the bridge and that closing it is not merely insolent but interpretable as unlawful. A “right of way” belongs to the people – not to the bureaucrats who are there to unobtrusively serve them – and, as far as I can see, the bridge meets all the legal criteria for being protected on these grounds. Perhaps the Water of Leith Conservation Trust, the river’s custodians and supposedly a trade union for walkers on the riverbank, should sue the council for obstructing access. This solution is unlikely, however, considering that the council remains a significance source of the trust’s funding.
Anyhow, I was at the bridge last night and it had been even more heavily fortified with flimsy materials. I still spotted a large muddy bootmark prominently displayed, at a rather perilous angle, on one of the wooden boards that have been nailed to the bridge’s sides. For those of us who don’t possess this agility, at least in our hearts, the best way to cross the river is now at the foot of the weir. The water is so shallow here that you can easily achieve this if you are wearing stout boots. Alas, the riverbanks are dense and steep and there is no handy path down to the water. You are also mercilessly exposed on the landscape should you slip over half way across and take a ducking.
With the closure of the bridge, a depression has fallen over Colinton Dell. Taking such a cornucopia of beauty off the table is a crisis for the village of Colinton during its lockdown. It is equally an unfair surprise to spring on any unsuspecting city walker who has not Googled ahead to ensure that every bridge and footpath is in use before they commit to walking along the Water of Leith Walkway (and an increasing number of them aren’t). To make the injustice smart even more, the closed bridge cuts off access from the east of the river to what is no doubt Edinburgh’s only indoor art gallery to remain open during the health emergency.
If the bad is the bridge, the good is the tunnel. The former railway line that runs high above the weir soon arrives at Colinton Tunnel, an 150-yard structure that was opened in 1874, closed in 1967, and back to work again as a home for the Water of Leith Walkway after 1980. I suspect that I would enjoy Colinton Tunnel whatever purpose it was put to – I had thought very highly of it when it was atmospherically dank and dilapidated – but in the hands of a new mural project it has, after its long years of nothingness, erupted exhilaratingly into flower.
The Victorians had plonked musty tunnels up and down the country, but never has one ricocheted back to life with such virility. There have been graffiti tunnels before, but never on this scale and planned out with this ambition. Chris Rutterford, an already distinguished muralist (e.g. the Oz Bar, the Three Sisters), is the artist responsible; in keeping with the Victorian theme, hundreds of children have been conscripted as labourers; and Robert Louis Stevenson, a writer who had spent his own childhood holidays at Colinton, has provided the verse that is the animating spell.
The children, incidentally, are pupils from Colinton and Bonaly primary school who have helped to paint segments that are attachable to the mural. Stevenson is always kept aflame like a thousand candles around Colinton Manse, with a beautiful bronze statue of himself as a child and with poems from his A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) adorning a small commemorative walk. I am a grand reader of Stevenson, but I have only ever read A Child’s Garden of Verses at Colinton, where you can literally stroll through the book. Colinton Tunnel today slips in amongst these verses, namely as “From a Railway Carriage.”
This poem lists scenes that a child views from their carriage window – “Each a glimpse and gone for ever!” The walls of the tunnel recreate the child’s journey, as if it was no longer a tunnel anymore, or a private experience, but the open countryside and everybody’s adventure. It is very nice how Stevenson’s individual genius has been neatly answered, matter-of-factly, with a mural, one of the most cooperative and socialist of art forms.
Yet where the mural arrives with a train at two separate stations – one at the far entrance to the tunnel and the other midway through – the crowds are richly chaotic with individuals and animals. At the midway station, I counted a dragon, a tiger, foxes nesting in the overlooking trees, and a macaw. As for the people, I felt guilty that I did not recognise everybody at once. They are surely all tremendous local personalities (Lorraine Kelly apparently numbers amongst them somewhere).
Daylight has come to this tunnel, as though the sun has been briefly diverted off its own tracks and on to those of the old train. The tunnel is indeed packed with colour, with the palette of Vincent van Gogh at his most rhapsodic and spectacular, and the interior is also brilliantly lit by overhead lamps to further keep the night at bay. Within the mural’s scheme, Stevenson is himself the sun and a source of light. His poem is being written out backwards (the mural is not yet finished) and one walking through the tunnel from Colinton approaches a portrait of him that coincides with the light that is more normally found at the end of any tunnel. A dreamy, wondrous light issues from Stevenson and on to the scenes in his poem, just as the poem had itself radiated from his own brain and genius.
This mural’s beauty naturally seems breathtakingly fragile – I had already noticed some scraps of informal graffiti stealing, like handwritten annotations to a typed text, onto the scene. There is a certain impracticality to the beds of pebbles that run below each wall. When I was visiting, some tiny children who had been left momentarily unattended while their parents were taking a selfie had been using the pebbles as missiles and poor Mr Stevenson and his friends as targets. Maybe the pebbles are a liberty that should be withdrawn. Donations are still needed to complete this project – you can donate here – and you can also admire some pictures of the tunnel here.