Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language – Henry James
I couldn’t agree more, Mr. James. After enduring two winters in a row (a soggy Southern Hemisphere squall, followed by a baltic Northern Hemisphere blast), I was just about ready to crack under the auspices of sun deprivation. However, hot the eye of heaven shone in Edinburgh last Friday, so what better way to celebrate than with a cycle jaunt along the Innocent Railway and on to Craigmillar Castle.
I’m a self-confessed Edinburgh cycling novice, but I’m slowly learning the ways of bikeable style. After living in Auckland the last two years (an emerging bikeable city), I’ve been without a trusty steed for a while now. A few months back I was very nicely loaned a bike by a friend. The brakes are quite squeaky, but once again I’m free to roam the streets on two wheels.
Invented around 1839 by none other than a Scotsman, the first bicycle was developed by Kirkpatrick Macmillan while in the midst of constructing his own version of the hobby-horse. A blacksmith by trade, Macmillian realised a radical improvement could be made to the horse if he could propel himself forward without having to put his feet on the ground. And so the first bicycle was born, which included iron-rimmed wooden wheels and a larger wheel in the rear connected to the pedals via rods. It must have been rather cumbersome, taking considerable effort to ride. Nevertheless Macmillan quickly mastered the art of pedaling and was soon able to make the 14-mile trip from his home to Dumfries in under an hour. In June 1842 he completed the 68-mile, two-day cycle to Glasgow. However this first cross-country ride was not without controversy with reports stating that Macmillan “bestride a velocipede of ingenious design” was fined five shillings after knocking over a pedestrian in Glasgow.
My journey began at the eastern end of the Innocent Railway tunnel. Burrowed beneath Holyrood Park, the tunnel was built in 1831 and was the first public railway tunnel in Scotland. The railway connected Edinburgh to Dalkeith and was given its name in a time when horse-drawn train carriages were thought to be safer than steam engines. Robert Chalmers, who coined the nickname, wrote this wee ditty about the line:
By the Innocent Railway you never feel in the least jeopardy; your journey is one of incident and adventure; you can examine the crops as you go along; you have time to hear the news from your companions; and the by-play of the officials is a source of never-failing amusement.
Today the railway acts as one of Edinburgh’s many cycleways, connecting Craigmillar and Duddingston with the edge of the city. It’s a little difficult to find the city end of the tunnel, inconspicuously located in the carpark of an apartment block just off East Parkside in St. Leonards. However this subterranean passage is rather far from innocent – it’s fantastically damp, dark and dingy with a suspect substance leaking from the roof to boot. The acoustics inside are also outstanding – I was able to hear a reverb-heavy conversation a couple of joggers were having 500 metres away at the other end of the tunnel.
Outside of the tunnel the cycle path continues along the edge of Salisbury Crags towards Craigmillar. The path is currently a beautiful stretch of overgrown summer goodness, with a few relics of the past thrown in for good measure. A graffiti covered railway stop sits blissfully unused, and further down the line a 19th century timber viaduct on masonry piers marked the end of my journey along the railway.
I hopped off the cycle path at Duddingston Road West and continued along up the road towards Craigmillar Castle, even getting to take my wheels off-road through a field upon approach. Adequate cycle-parking space is available just outside the castle’s gift shop. Craigmillar is a beautifully preserved 14th-century castle, which served as the comfortable fortified residence of the Preston family for over 250 years. The castle is four storeys high, with many passageways and spiraling staircases that left me feeling delightfully disorientated after wandering about for an hour. It’s perhaps most well-known as a place of refuge for Mary Queen of Scots, who frequently visited Craigmillar during her tumultuous existence. In 1566 Mary famously fled to the safety of the castle following the murder of her close private secretary David Rizzio. Evidence of Mary’s time at Craigmillar still exists to this day with the University of Edinburgh’s Little France Campus located on the other side of the castle’s hill. Mary visited Craigmillar so often that the locals began to call the surrounding area ‘Little France’ after her multitude of French courtiers.
Here’s to more cycling jaunts around Edinburgh, and long live this bikeable weather! I have big plans for my wheels, including a trip out to Crammond along the Haymarket-Crammond cycleway. But first, a visit to the Bike Station is in order to figure out how to fix my squeaky brakes.
Nadine has recently arrived in Scotland from New Zealand and currently writes for ScotClans.com. You can read more of her work on Scottish history and clans here. If you are interested in guest posting for Bikeable Jo, just give her a wee shout.