Everyone knows about Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens in Inverleith. They are majestic, inspiring, and home to more than 10,000 plant specimens. It is an unfailingly uplifting place to spend time. I know this, having been a number of times. But the Botanics are not so near me, it takes planning for me to go. Unlike, that is, a couple of secret gardens, more close to hand, that I have recently discovered.
Dunbar’s Close Garden, at the Palace end of the Royal Mile, is a hidden down a narrow, cobbled vennel. Often I find the wrought iron gates pulled shut, so it looks like it is closed, but push the gate, and you’ll almost certainly find it open. I read that the garden is laid out in the style and character of a 17th century garden. It is long and narrow – three gardens actually, like adjoining rooms, each with benches, an invitation to sit. In one, a student sits, balancing a laptop as she sips from a Starbucks coffee that she has bought across the street. In the next, a couple lean in whispering – a good place for a clandestine meeting, I think. And in the farthest garden room are a couple of homeless men, taking time out from the street bustle. It’s quite a formal little garden, all geometric shapes and symmetrical planting: carefully clipped box hedges, shaped Sorbus trees, a Tulip tree in the centre, and all sheltered from the inner-city life around it by high stone walls, with last sweet pea clinging on. I meet K. for a coffee and tell her about it. She doesn’t know it, but tells me about Dr Neil’s Garden, in Duddingston. I’ve never heard of it. I’m going!
Dr Neil’s garden is huddled into the side of Arthur’s Seat, taking shelter from the worst of the weather. I’m getting to know the Seat from my daily walks there, its wild gorse and thistles and brambles and knotweed. I’m bewildered as to where the garden is. I descend to Duddingston Village to search for it. Now, Duddingston isn’t very big: a couple of streets, a pub, a church, and a graveyard. But today I’m paying attention. At the entrance to the garden I find a stone bench with the carved inscription: ‘Fire Made The Seat Beside The Water’. ‘The seat’ refers, of course, to Arthur’s Seat, ‘fire’ reminds us that is was volcanic, and ‘the water’ is what Dr Neil’s garden rolls down onto – Duddingston Loch. There are almost always swans there, and today I see a heron. Dr Neil took on this plot of land with his wife (also a doctor) in 1963 and transformed a steep, sloping, rocky area, previously used for grazing, into a tranquil garden. There are ponds, and little arched bridges, tall conifers, heathers, alpines, and rhododendrons and azaleas that will bring colour in spring. There is a physic garden – a herb garden with medicinal plants, an homage to the doctors who created it. It is charming and peaceful and there is next to no one there.
Wendell Berry is an old poet-farmer living in Kentucky. I came across him for the first time on a trip to America this summer. And I came across him for the second time in Dr Neil’s Garden. Chalked up on a very simple board, nailed to a piece of wood, and stuck into the ground under a Monkey Puzzle tree, are the words of one of his poems. Listen to Wendell and go and find some green space in which to sit awhile. It’ll do you good.
The Peace Of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear
of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.