Making sense of the city

Originally written for the Scottish Book Trust’s Journeys project.


Three or four times a week, I run in a circle around the south of Edinburgh. Mapped out, my route is logical and pleasing. I’m an urban historian, studying cities and navigation – spatial knowledge – and I see this regular little journey of mine as exemplary in many ways. I take in nodes: those landmarks that let us know where we are. I glance down at the old railway line as I pass it in Morningside, and again off Mayfield Road, always planning to find out more about it later on. Alongside Blackford Hill, the air feels clearer. My attention switches to my breath. It’s dark by the time I go up Causewayside, and I dodge familiar bins and commuters, reliably mistiming my strides.

My other journey around the city, my Edinburgh, makes much less sense. If we walked it together, I’d be embarrassed by its inefficiency. We’d keep retracing our steps, zigzagging around Newington and finally making it across the Meadows. I’ve had nine addresses in my seven years here. Today, I’m condensing those years into one walk. I start at Sciennes and go round the corner, past Summerhall, which was still the veterinary school then, though there were whispers of its move. Up Hope Park Terrace, I go blithely past two addresses I’ll come back to — but I don’t know yet. I’m too excited about moving out of halls and into my first proper flat. So I stand on Rankeillor Street and look across the road, where my flatmates window-flirt with identikit sporty male students. Our best friends live around the corner, and they would like to window-flirt with the girl opposite. She always closes the curtains, and their crushes remain unrequited, but one day I’ll live in her bedroom and suddenly realise where I am and remember her.

From Rankeillor Street I cross Clerk Street and cut down the alley near the Queens Hall, looking into the back of a takeaway that always, unadvisedly, have their kitchen door open. I resolve never to go. I settle in a nineteenth century tenement on Hope Park Crescent which, inside, looks strangely like a 1980s holiday cottage. Any improvements we attempt seem only to add to this aesthetic. There, I have huge, unsealed bay windows in my bedroom and I spend two long winters complaining about being cold, and two happy summers growing tomato plants so tall I can barely see out.

I turn left, and walk down Causewayside, past Summerhall again – veterinary students now gone, and a future job awaiting me – past those bins I’ll later dart around, the ones that mark the nearly-halfway point on my run. For the next six months I’ll cycle down this hill every night, weighty books in my panniers sending me home faster. I never unpack properly and soon I move further down the hill. This move takes on Herculean tones in my memory. I push a stolen shopping trolley full of boxes up and down the hill. When its wheels break, I fill and empty a rucksack over and over again, cycling back and forth. A week later, I know this route very well, and every time I run this stretch of road now I remind myself, breathless, how much harder things could be. I go on holiday to Budapest, catch glandular fever in the thermal baths, and come back to Edinburgh just in time to move back to Newington with a hired van and a high temperature.

So I’ve returned to the Southside, although I never think of it by that name. Acquaintances refer to it – not, I fear, as ironically as they’d claim – as the ghetto. I, fondly and contrarily, call it the womb. I’m on the corner of Hope Park Terrace and South Clerk Street. I live in the pretty girl’s room now. I work in a bookshop-café and walk across the Meadows on dark winter Monday mornings, when I do the opening shift. I can see Arthur’s Seat from my window, and mice from my bed.

Now I cross the Meadows at last, the first bit of the route familiar from the bookshop walks, the second half vague. When I see Leamington Terrace on the letting website I have to look it up on a map. I watch dogs on Bruntsfield Links, and use their example to teach an undergraduate class about theories of urban wayfinding. I know I’m late, I tell them, if the dog walkers aren’t there when I leave my flat. This is a top floor flat, the attic flat I’ve been dreaming of since I decided to move to Edinburgh, and whenever somebody comes to visit for the first time they photograph my view. At night I watch ships’ lights in the Firth of Forth. I sleep with the blinds open and wake up to the castle and the Crags.

A year later my things are in storage and I’m in Marchmont, going back on myself, walking towards Newington but stopping halfway. I can get from flat to office in ten minutes. It’s here that I first run, exploring the Grange and finding green spaces I’d never known about, cricket grounds and tennis clubs. This is a temporary arrangement. I go back to Yorkshire a lot and unexpected things make me cry: the rhythm change in a Talking Heads song one morning, a conversation I imagine in bathtime contemplation.

The last leg of this route is the same as the end of my running route. It takes me from Spottiswoode Street, past the Victorian swimming baths and through roads of spacious townhouses. I pause around Kilgraston Road, still never sure what the quickest way back is. Most days I choose to walk down Morningside Road instead, staring out at the Pentlands in the distance and enjoying the quiet voluntary solitude that comes with living further away. I sprint the final stretch from the street corner to my flat. It hasn’t been neat, and it hasn’t been efficient, but I’m home.


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