Princes Street Gardens and the New Town

Princes Street Gardens

The New Town was laid out at the end of the eighteenth century, separated from the Old Town by the Nor’ Loch. This swamp was drained to accommodate the railway just west of Waverley Station, and the area north of the railway became princes Street Gardens. Behind Princes Street (just the usual shops) is the stately George Street, and between the two, the narrower and more eclectic Rose Street. The infamous Edinburgh trams ply their way along Princes Street.

Waverley station and surroundings

Waverley station is Edinburgh’s main terminus, opened in 1847 at the end of the line from Berwick-upon-Tweed and soon joined by the line from Glasgow. The central ticket office and waiting hall is a splendid example of Victorian railway architecture. A ramp leads up to Waverley Bridge, at the east end of Princes Street Gardens. There is usually a piper busking on the corner of Waverley Bridge and Princes Street — on one occasion, I reached the bridge to that morning’s piper blasting out the Star Wars theme.

The Waverley Steps (now accompanied by the more modern Waverley Escalators) form the easiest route to Princes Street, with the North British Railway hotel (now the Balmoral) on your right. Beyond the hotel, Register House (that’s the record of Scottish births, marriages and deaths) is over to your left, opposite South Bridge (the easiest route to the Old Town). In front of Register House, the statue of the Duke of Wellington appears to be directing the traffic off the bridge and down Leith Walk.

Princes Street Gardens

From Waverley Bridge, the north bank of the valley is taken by Princes Street Gardens, which stretch for 1km. The gardens are fine, with plenty of seats for rest or al fresco eating.

The first notable sight is the Scott Monument, a greyer version of the Albert Memorial in Kensington, with a statue of Sir Walter Scott beneath the spire. If you like the idea of 574 steps (287 up, 287 down, you may take a lofty view of Edinburgh. The Castle Esplanade is easier and gives, in my opinion, a more complete view.

The gardens are broken by the Scottish National Gallery. The Mound is a street leading up to the Old Town here. the gallery has a good modern café looking out onto the eastern gardens.

There is a bandstand in the gardens (with toilets attached), and then you will come to the ornate Ross Fountain. But between these two points, you should divert via the south side of Princes Street to see the statue of Wojtek the Bear, who worked with Polish soldiers during the Second World War.

At the end of the gardens, turn right to pass two churches on your left and ascend to Princes Street. Just to your right, there is a statue of Sir James Young Simpson, pioneer of chloroform as an anaesthetic (he tested its efficacy on himself). He lived back-to-back across the gardens from Robert Louis Stevenson’s childhood home, and Louis used to communicate with his friend Walter, Simpson’s son, from one bedroom to the other.

Turn left onto Princes Street to reach the junction with Lothian Road. The large red sandstone building ahead to your left (now a hotel) was built as the Caledonian Railway’s Edinburgh terminus.

Princes Street

From the west end of Princes Street, you have two options. You may walk past the shops from the Johnnie Walker whisky emporium (you will do better at the Scotch Whisky Experience at the top of the Royal Mile to the Apple store (do they just store goods, or is it a shop where goods are bought?), or follow the railings of Princes Street Gardens, looking at the statues and over to the Castle. The retail architecture is hardly distinguished: much of it was rebuilt in 1960s style. The usual brands are here, along with shops selling tartan (there is a range of these from the serious to the tacky).

George Street

Back at the east end of Princes Street, take the lane to the left of Register House, and follow it up to St Andrew Square. The east side of the square was once the preserve of banking headquarters, though the financiers have moved out to suburban offices. The other sides were full of life assurance offices, but they are drifting off too. Dishoom has colonised the south side of the square. George Street starts at the west end of St Andrew Square.

Follow the south (left-hand) side of George Street. Facing each other, you will find The Dome (formerly a bank HQ and now a restaurant) on the left, and a church on the right (the latter, no doubt, bearing an architectural frown at the frivolity across the street). At the junction with Hanover Street, there is a statue of George IV in the middle of the road. His visit in 1822, the first by a reigning monarch to Scotland since the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, was orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott, and the return of tartan (which had been banned following the rebellion) is down to Sir Walter’s successful handling of the royal visit.

Beyond Hanover Street, the Assembly Rooms dominate the left-hand side, in amongst shops which aim for a more elegant experience than the brasher Princes Street down to the left.

Cross Frederick Street (with a statue of William Pitt the Younger in the middle of the road) and continue along George Street. The building on the left (at number 84 — note the lighthouse above the door) which breaks the run of shops is the headquarters of the Northern Lighthouse Board, which manages all lighthouses around Scotland and the Isle of Man. Robert Louis Stevenson’s father and grandfather were pre-eminent in the lighthouse business, and he would have known this building well. Next door, I have poured thousands of pounds into the clothier which has a branch there.

Cross Castle Street — Dr Chalmers, who occupies the middle of the road, formed the more sober-sided (at least in public) Free Church of Scotland (the preferred theology of Kate Forbes MSP) when his Disruption caused a schism in the Church of Scotland — and continue ahead. The imposing building on the right is known throughout Scotland simply as “121”: it is the administrative headquarters of the Church of Scotland.

Continue to the end of George Street at Charlotte Square. There is a memorial to Prince Albert in the gardens, and the north side is dominated by Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister. Until recently, it was known jocularly as Sturgeon’s Hall (the headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Surgeons Hall, is a well-known building on the route south from the Bridges).

Turn left onto the east side of Charlotte Square to reach, and turn left onto, Rose Street.

Rose Street

Guildford Arms

Sandwiched between modern Princes Street and genteel George Street, pedestrianised Rose Street is the disruptive child. Restaurants, bars and alternative-lifestyle shops rub shoulders with jewellers and other off-standard shops: the street is always lively. Rose Street ends at St Andrew Square: retrace your steps along the south side of the square, turn right onto South St Andrew Street, and left onto West Register Street. At the end of the street, before you turn right to reach Register House, take a look, and possibly a drink or some food, inside my favourite Edinburgh pub, the high-Victorian Guildford Arms. Good beer, good food, and amazing decor.

%d bloggers like this: