The Water of Leith is one of Edinburgh's best-kept secrets. Aparna Karthikeyan takes a spring walk along its prettiest bits.
I wept the day the river turned pink. I watched, through wet eye-lashes, the cherry-white petals dance in the cold, peaty water, smudge the foam-crusted boulders a delicate rose, and an instant later — whipped by the gurgling river — settle as a crumpled, pink ribbon on its bank. Less than 10 ft across where I stood, the Water of Leith was no mighty river; it was so shallow I could stand in the deepest bits and still keep my knees dry. But what it lacked in size, it made up in good looks. The cherry-blossoms it carried, on its pale-brown bosom, certainly added to it, though I pitied the trees, shorn off their lovely, pink canopies by a mischievous wind.
Twisting its way down from the Pentland hills, The Water of Leith ducks and dips its way through some of the prettiest bits of Edinburgh, before it rushes — a mere 24 miles later — into a choppy Firth of Forth. I saw it from a hill, days after moving into the city and asked a neighbour how to get to the river. “Why, you take the steps of course,” she answered; I heard the “duh!” she was too polite to add. The day I first stood on its mossy, gravely bank was memorable; the silence was overwhelming, the river's journey over the shiny, brown rocks and pebbles punctuated by delightful, low murmurs, the nerve-grating city sounds — all-pervading, just moments ago — blocked out in the hidden valley.
The cherry blossoms frothed to a peak in the middle-distance, at the feet of the naked man. He was famous, the sculptor Antony Gormley's body-double, made of heavy, dull-brown metal. His pensive head was bent over the pink river, and by his submerged calves, the grey heron stood on one-leg, keenly scanning the sparkling, crimson waters for fish. Rhythmic panting and a quick rustling broke my reverie and told me the dogs had come. I pulled out the crumpled tissue from my jacket, and quickly draped it over my nose, hoping the friendly dog-walker would think I had the sniffles. But she only smiled at me when she went past, nodding at the pink-river, sighing understandingly. She moved on, I stood rooted to the spot; beauty makes statues out of mortals.
A few feet from the naked man — an art installation that caused much amusement initially, including phone calls to police on indecent behaviour, by drunks/ shortsighted folks — steep, narrow steps wound its way up the verdant banks. They led to one of the city's loveliest museums — the Gallery of Modern Art. But art could wait; it was barely 9 a.m. and the world was just about coming to life; the sun was muscling its way through a tattered quilt of dirty-grey clouds, throwing shafts of buttery-yellow sunshine, waking up the song-birds, and lighting the tops of spare, wintry trees. A bouquet of smells rose from the ground; the spring earth smelt wonderful — not cloying like a tropical rain-soaked one — but sweeter, sharper, rich with promises. I resumed walking, keeping uneven rhythm, the noisy flutes and trills, now practically a treetop orchestra, spurring me on.
I saw Jim by the big weir, where the river roared, bravely spilling over the 15-feet high lip; once upon a time, mills stood by the banks here, the water harnessed to do the work of a dozen men. Jim greeted me with the usual “Hullo, Apparnna”, stressing syllables in an unfamiliar tongue. We walked together in companionable silence, but Jim soon started chatting, as always, telling me about his day, his ex-wife (“she's going to Thailand with her boy-friend, aye, she is”), and bar gossip from downtown. “Yesterday, the man who stands upside down in Princes street, with his head in a bucket — you know him? — he bought us all a round of drinks. He paid for it with a 50! I should learn to balance on my head!”
Red and mustard
We had reached the Dean Village; until the 1960's, a rundown neighbourhood, now one of the city's most sought-after affluent ones, it was a symphony in brick-red and mustard-yellow, all of it beautifully reflected in the river. The pink blossoms were nowhere in sight — the weir must've crushed the last of them — but the ducks were there, paddling-away with their splayed, webbed feet, honking to each other noisily. We climbed the hill again, and before us loomed the 106 ft high Dean Bridge, a marvel in masonry, its graceful, tall arches silhouetted against the gunmetal-grey of the sky, the bright red double-decker buses looking like a child's toy from that great height. Jim and I parted ways there — he would walk on to Stockbridge, to work, and I would go home, and wait for the next morning, to go back to the river. Some day, I promised myself, I would climb up Dean's bridge and watch the river from atop its soaring arches. Only, that meant tearing myself away from the river, something I never quite managed to, in the 18 long months it was my friend.