A GUIDE TO THE POTHOLES OF EDINBURGH
Since Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1995, the city council has worked hard to protect and in many cases restore a historic atmosphere to the city. To the delight of tourists and urban historians, it’s had some wonderful succeses. The Statutory Notice System of building repairs has produced an authentically eighteenth-century feeling of corruption and decline: parts of the city now feel as decadent as the Naples of the eighteenth century Grand Tour. But perhaps the greatest, if least trumpeted, success has been the roads. In line with the council’s policy of restoring an authentic sense of history to the city, it has for some years abandoned all but the most essential road repairs. Aided by the severe winters of the late 2000s, potholes have flourished, leading to the wholesale degradation of entire streets. Now the visitor can experience the true pre-modern city everywhere. Not just potholes, but in the drizzle, great lakes have appeared, ruts, and fields of mud replacing tarmac, all making the most picturesque urban spectacle. It’s happened everywhere – you don’t just have to visit the historic core to see the roads return to their natural condition. And aided by recent rain, the council hopes to advance its programme of historicisation further. By 2020, it aims to have returned all central city roads to their eighteenth-century condition, and to add to the effect, to have banned all road transport apart from that seen in the city circa 1800. (The council has plans for a similar degeneration of the sewerage system – we’re awaiting more detail at the time of writing).
Anyway, to the potholes. The visitor can experience them in any part of the city at any time – you are rarely more than 3 metres away from a hole. Pothole tours are becoming increasingly popular, and a comprehensive guide is currently in process to be published next year (2013) jointly by Canongate and Edinburgh City Council. In the meantime, here is a taster: some general advice, and a guide to a detailed route on the south side of the city. Enjoy!
WHERE AND WHEN TO SEE POTHOLES: potholes are simply every where, but there are spectacular concentrations in the Old Town as you would expect, around Waverley Station, and on the principal streets of the New Town. Just keep your eyes focused downwards and you can’t miss them. As to when is good to visit, most visitors prefer dry conditions, which here means generally February and March, when crisp, bright sunshine can make then especially photogenic. But the near-monsoon conditions of the summer have their devotees: in a downpour, a pothole can quickly turn into a pond or a moat, and in some cases allow swimming. Even the smaller holes can make for a refreshing dip during the frenzy of the Festival. The winter also has its enthusiasts. Repeated freezing and thawing is of course the main natural process behind the pothole, and some folks try to see this in action; during a hard winter, you might even be lucky enough to see a ‘calving’, that is a rapid thaw leading to the creation of a new hole from an existing one. Like the calving of icebergs from a Greenland glacier, it’s one of the true spectacles of the natural world.
SAFETY FIRST. Potholes are DANGEROUS. They are best explored in foot. On no account should a car be used in a de-modernised Edinburgh street, or the driver will likely be faced with a repair bill running onto four figures. Likewise tours by bicycle – Edinburgh’s streets are littered with bikes that have been damaged beyond repair through inadvertent encounters with potholes. The best way to explore is on foot. Most of the holes can be seen safely this way, with a steady nerve and good sense of balance. The larger holes may require expert guidance and some visitors may prefer to be roped up to explore in full confidence. For further advice, and equipment, visit www.tiso.com. Small children should at all times be restrained. My own children are happy to be lashed to a nearby railing while their parents go exploring – I suggest you do the same.
MY FAVOURITE ROUTE: ‘VALLES MARINERIS’. There are any number of routes and an increasing number of guides offering tours. My own favourites route is Valles Marineris, a traverse of Nile Grove on Edinburgh’s South Side, a route of sustained interest that is appropriate for anyone with reasonable scrambling skills. Many ‘potholers’ go straight for the popular sites on Princes Street, but this one avoids the crowds, and is I think, more satisfying. Named after the giant geological fault on Mars, its consists of a long, sustained trench, bifurcating the road into distinct sections. It can be attempted at any time, but is a serious winter expedition that should only be attempted by the most confident.
ROUTE SUMMARY: Based on OS Explorer 350 (Edinburgh, Musselburgh and Queensferry), NT248710 (start) to NT 246710 (finish). Approx 250m in total. Allow 3.5 hours, plus breaks as required. Overall level 6/10. Moderate scrambling required in places. No routefinding difficulties. Traffic may be a problem at peak periods – use your discretion. START at the junction of Nile Grove and Woodburn Terrace (NT248710) and briefly admire the handsome Victorian villas before setting off. The first obstacle is ‘Wee Billy’, an innocuous-looking area of cracked tamac, but highly unstable and risky in winter. Carefully explore the edge and make your way around the southern rim in a southerly direction to ‘Bryce Canyon’, a huge, badly eroded sub-valley. Admire the sublime erosion of the whole street at this point, but remember to keep your balance. Continue carefully west to ‘Buzz Aldrin’, a small, but picturesque crater with a distinctly lunar aspect. The terrain is rough here, but it is perfectly safe to this with a steady head – good photoraphs may be obtained from the crater looking upwards. From Aldrin, the route veers southwest briefly to take in the most spectacular feature of the walk, ‘Salmond’s Tables’ (some refer to it less charitably as ‘Salmond’s Arse’), a stunningly eroded bifurcated canyon, which seems to lead right down into the bowels of the earth.
From here, walk a few yards further southwest to the huge cliff at ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ In the past this was suitable for climbing, but is now too unstable – enjoy the view, but otherwise avoid. Finally, veer northwest to the ‘Pools of Laing’, some gently undulating depressions, boggy and alcoholic in winter. Then make you way briskly to the mysterious ‘Yellow Lines’. These colourful features, now sadly decayed, were clearly created by humans, but their function has long remained opaque. Some suggest they marked landing strips for extraterrestrial visitors. Finish up with a drink in a Morningside pub – Bennetts, a few yards across Morningside Road from the end of the walk (NT244710) is highly recommended.