The level of 'noise' we have to endure in our modern lives is substantial, with messages and notifications pulsing through our phones at all times. In any city centre, we are exposed to incessant noise. This was clear to me as I crossed the Royal Mile, catching slices of at least four tour guides as they babbled on about 'gardyloo' and various other predictable aspects of Edinburgh's history. I felt in dire need of reducing the amount of aural stimulants I was being exposed to. Over the last few weeks, I've actively sought out quieter places and experiences in order to achieve a greater balance.
The softer and quieter tones of Radio 3 can be a real balm at times like this. It's been the station I've reached for recently to regain some calmness. At the same time, I've been writing about the station and the way it is often considered something of a cultural barometer; that its health is reflective of a wider health of 'high culture' in the UK. The last few weeks of listening to the station has brought me closer to its supporters.
My first visit to the National Library of Scotland for over two years also brought a sense of peace. The main Reading Room is traditionally a serious and hushed sanctuary. A member of staff informed me that the library remains significantly quieter than before Covid struck, with many still reluctant to spend their day in an enclosed space. He somberly informed me that many regular users will never return to the Reading Room, having passed away over those two years. A moment to reflect.
In some cases, however, escaping from sound entirely is the only way to achieve balance. On such occasions, places such as the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh are a godsend. In search of quiet places, I recently came across the tranquil Garden of Tranquillity, located behind the East Gate Lodge. The lodge was designed by William Playfair and was previously home to the Regius Keeper. It's been restored and 'repurposed' in recent years.
The Garden of Tranquillity was designed for those suffering from dementia, with 'natural boundaries to reduce anxiety, non-slip and non-reflective surfaces to prevent falls, and calming artwork to inspire'. It's also a beautiful little spot with flowing water and 'vibrant colours, beautiful fragrances and interesting textures will be used to gently stimulate the senses'. This can be appreciated by anyone. The need for secluded spots exists even in a generally quiet environment like a botanic garden.
The garden lived up to its name, providing respite on a warm, but breezy, late May afternoon. Respite from the wind and the excessive noise. A place to pause and reflect with a really timeless feel, aided by some of the 'nostalgic' plants which are there to help 'unlock memories'.
By the time I left the garden, I was calmer than when I entered it, more reflective, and in a better position to appreciate its beauty. A wander around the periphery of the botanics, close to Inverleith Terrace, reveals concealed paths and abandoned steps. It's easy to feel as if you've stepped through some portal as you wander into the Woodland Garden and on to the other delights. These included the excellent exhibition on the history of rhododendrons in Inverleith House. This echoed similarly superb exhibitions on themes relating to biodiversity at this venue, including Levon Biss' stunning photographs of seeds and fruits from the RBGE collection. The genuinely welcoming and enthusiastic attitude of the staff added to the experience.
Inverleith House is ideally suited to such exhibitions, having been home to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art from 1960 until 1984. Its light and airy rooms are well used in the current exhibition which combines photographs, sketches and other archival material from the RBGE.
My enjoyment was much enhanced by the serenity I felt, engendered by those quiet moments in the Garden of Tranquillity. I felt a slowing of the pace and a heightening of my senses. However, on my next visit to the botanics, I found that others were sitting in the garden. The Garden of Tranquillity had become too busy. My search for real quietness continues.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh