The Water of Leith of Leith Walkway is undoubtedly one of Edinburgh's finest features. However, for more than five years now one of its most attractive sections has been officially closed to the public. This is a section in the Upper Dean Valley. Namely, the gorge between the waterfall at the western end of Dean Village and the small bridge at Sunbury Mews in the shadow of Belford Bridge. It's a particularly twisty and wooded area of the walkway – very little distance is covered 'as the crow flies' but that adds to its charm.
This part of the walkway was formally opened on 5 October 1977 through the work of the Water of Leith Trust (now the Water of Leith Conservation Trust) and has been a highlight since. The section was first blocked off in 2012 and then again in 2016 when repair work failed. A series of landslides were the genesis of the closure, causing sections of the path to become dangerous with sections of the concrete ruptured and some of the metal railings broken off. A legal dispute regarding this area has caused the excessive delay. It's been a frustration for many in the area and for those trying to walk between the Gallery of Modern Art from Dean Village. Especially as so many guides (even online ones) talk of the 'short walk from the village' to the Gallery of Modern Art.
Combined with the recent closure of the footbridge (so beloved of tourists and Instagrammers) beside Well Court at Dean Village, this area has become a tricky one to traverse. Especially as the diversions caused by the closures have often been ambiguously signposted. Visitors are often seen forlornly wandering up Dean Path, into Dean Cemetery or up and down Belford Mews. Those 'in the know' are aware of more efficient ways of bypassing these sections. The 'scenic route' is to go through the handsome Dean Cemetery and then through the back of both Modern 2 and Modern 1 and down onto the river basin there.
In July 2020, it was announced that the legal issues had been overcome and a solution for the 'reinstatement' of this section had been reached. At the start of April (2021) it was announced that repair work on this section is finally due to start this month. Though, as of the 13th, there has been no sign of work starting. The work is due to take 26 weeks in total. In truth, there may be some locals who hope that this area remains 'closed' for longer.
Hopes that the public 'respect the closure' have not been fully realised. Despite the closure and the erection of a substantial fence at the Sunbury Mews end, many locals have braved it round the fences and into Edinburgh's 'forbidden zone'. This has not always been easy, especially at the Sunbury Bridge end. You need to clamber up the fairly steep bank to get round the fence and the area near it often becomes a muddy quagmire during periods of wet weather. Several have fallen over into the gloop. Care is also required at the Dean Path end of the section, where the repair work is due. The damaged parts of the path are quite hazardous, with jagged, exposed steel from the mangled reinforced concrete a particular threat. One section of the path is almost completely missing, having fallen into the river. Joggers in particular beware!
The closure has, however, ensured that this section of the river has been even more peaceful than during normal times. Those who ventured into this zone have felt a bond with their fellow trespassers as they surreptitiously make their way through this deeply wooded area. The entire walkway is chock-full of beautiful areas but this one has a particularly strong 'rus in urbe' vibe – it really does feel that the city is some distance away. Being relatively under-used over recent years has only added to this sense of wildness and apartness. The modern blocks of flats on the other side of the river often appear empty which again adds to the mildly post-apocalyptic air. There are dim echoes of Pripyat, the Ukrainian ghost city abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster.
The flats are built on the site of the old Haig's distillery, a reminder of the industrial character that this area used to have. It's not always been a quiet area of the city but is now. A bench at a bend near the Dean Village end of the section was a much valued spot for calm contemplation during the deepest parts of lockdown. Sitting there as late winter sun breaks through the lime and sycamore trees, and the river slowly trickles towards the precipice of the waterfall, can feel magical. Though, judging by some of the pungent aromas that sometimes emanate from those sitting on this bench, there has been an intoxicating herbal aspect to this calmness for some.
Despite the unseasonal cold, this spring has brought a rich crop of wild garlic and few-flowered garlic to the area and several others along the walkway. A fabulous bit of 'food for free' if blitzed into a pesto (that's free if you overlook the toasted pine nuts, squeeze of lemon juice, parmesan cheese and generous glug of extra virgin olive oil that you need to make it). Do make sure you wash your garlic thoroughly given the numerous 'furry friends' enjoying their walks along the river. On occasions it feels like there are more dogs than humans, though squirrels outnumber both.
Though some may treasure the particular peacefulness of this area in recent years, the opening up of this section will again make a walk along the river a smooth experience, with the threats of a twisted ankle or muddied clothing much reduced. Quick and easy access to the Gallery of Modern Art and the picturesque section of the walkway towards Roseburn will again be possible for all – not just those brave enough to ignore the diversion signs.
It can be easy to forget how relatively recently this area of the walkway became fully accessible. Indeed, the idea of connecting all the sections as one single Water of Leith Walkway only received consent in the early 1970s. Flicking through a yellowed Water of Leith Trust leaflet from 1984 reveals how much work was required to make this section properly usable as a foot/ cycle path. The building of bridges at Bell's Mill and Sunbury Mews and the cantilevered footbridge under Belford Bridge made this an accessible area.
The redevelopment of former industrial sites such as the Cabinet Works – and what remained of Bell's Mill (the Granary) after the explosion in 1972 – has made this a much more attractive area.
As with the COVID-19 lockdown, some may look back on the 'forbidden zone' with some semblance of nostalgia and wish the fences could be re-erected. However, most will be relieved when they can finally walk through this section unimpeded and enjoy one the walkway's most charming sections.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh. He has previously written on British politics, culture, sport, coffee and language teaching. Charlie is currently working on a book for Edinburgh University Press on conservative ideology