Over half of Edinburgh’s residents live in tenement flats. Tenements are blocks of flats, maybe up to twelve, served by one stairwell. Each block is adjacent to the next, terrace style, and they are usually constructed in squares. Tucked in behind every tenement square, and invisible from the front street, is what is known as the ‘backgreen’. These are grassy spaces, mostly communal, and for years many of the backgreens of Edinburgh were derelict, unloved wildernesses; jungles of brambles, buddleia, elder, tall grasses. In some, there might occasionally have been a washing line, where some brave souls pushed through the overgrowth to peg out their washing. In recent years, energetic groups of residents have been regenerating the backgreens of the city into bountiful shared gardens. My kitchen – three floors up – looks out onto one of these peaceful spaces.
My view takes in raised beds, still full with late harvests of marrows, broad beans, potatoes, chard, kale, onions, garlic. There are apple trees heavy with fruit, gooseberry and currant bushes, long since over, and Rowan and Birch, now shedding their leaves. There are washing lines, a picnic table, a shared shed with gardening tools, a compost heap. A beautiful old stonewall divides the green up into sections. Cats jump onto the walls to sun themselves. And, still, there are some patches of wilderness, with weeds – nettles and docken leaves – to be attended to in the future.
Last week, I was doing a bit of digging, cutting, and raking of one of the more unkempt sections in the backgreen. I used a mattock for the first time in my life to take up nettles, pitching it in deep, following the roots. It was incredibly satisfying – and strenuous – to wield the mattock. I sounded like Monica Seles on the baseline (remember her?) each time I swung it from behind my head. I couldn’t move the next day, having reawaked long-dormant muscles. But hurling that lethal-looking tool into the ground and smashing up the soil, felt brilliant.
Stones, shards of glass, pieces of slate, bottle tops, all burped up out of the soil as I loosened it. I had some herbs to plant, hardy ones that I hoped would over-winter (we’ll soon see), and I was planning to mix in some earth from the compost heap. I had a rhythm going: swing the mattock, break the soil, bend to lift the stones; swing the mattock, break the soil, bend to lift the stones. Back-breaking stuff. I bent to lift a stone. Except it wasn’t. Nor was it another bottle top, like I first thought. I rubbed my thumb over the metal disc – it was a coin. I spat on it and rubbed some more. I could see ‘1938’ and the words, in capitals, ‘ONE PENNY’. A bare-headed King George VI, facing left, was on the other side. The reluctant King. “Hello, how long have you been here?” I asked it, before realising I was speaking to a coin. The madness is taking root. I slipped it into my hip pocked and swung the mattock again. Unbelievably, something else appeared, immediately. This one was metal too, but much smaller. It seemed to be a badge. It needed more that a spit and a rub, it needed a tap and some soap. I abandoned the backgreen and headed up the stairs.
Gently, I washed my new treasure and the following words appeared in blue enamel: ‘The Northern Echo Children’s Ring, Hullo! Nig-Nog.’ “Now what on earth are you?” I asked it (Shit, I was doing that talking-to-objects thing again!). I googled it. Mr Google told me it was from the Northern Echo Newspaper, Darlington. They founded this badge for children in 1929 and it ran until the 1960s. I am strangely delighted by it. Forget the finds of Sutton Hoo, my backgreen treasures are just as precious, and I’ll talk to them if I want to. Some day they might even tell me how they got there!