A Parable For a Nation
Readers should begin by dismissing the title as a thesis on neo-colonialism, for this is concerned with community cohesion. I am about to relate the tale of how, by accident, I changed a forgotten backwater lane in the centre of this nation’s capital to a thriving, beautiful place to live, and how it proved to be not only a microcosm of society, but a fable not unrelated to the fate of Scotland’s hopes to reinstate its self-governance. It is the story of empowerment, people power, and how easily it is lost.
It began when I was homeless and gardenless. (There’s a magazine for that.) You can read about those uncertain days by clicking on the link at the end of the essay. I was living in a single room offered by a kind friend. A bedroom is not an address that impresses prospective employers. In my forties and married, I had to find a proper place to live, to function as a well-adjusted adult. With only a few pounds in my pocket my choice was limited to a skip (US – dumpster, a rubbish or garbage bin), or a cardboard box. A small-time estate agent suggested I look at Circus Lane; some properties for sale there, tiny rooms but cheap.
I arrived confronted by a shabby crescent-shaped lane at the rear of the illustrious Royal Circus, a chalk and Bollinger comparison one with the other, Royal Circus soon to provide the first £1 million pound property in Edinburgh, whereas the delapidated mews lane offered a scruffy one-room office space with toilet for as little as £45,000.
The 9-feet wide cobbled lane had no footpath, two-way traffic using it as a shortcut at an averge of 25mph, a plethora of run-down buildings fixed with plastic windows and corrugated roofing. You could just about discern it was the remnants of a Georgian set of modest dwellings. The street was a forgotten rat run, council ignored since the Thirties.
As I walked along its length, dejected, ‘For Sale’ signs nowhere to be seen, one window was open, inside a joiner was hard at work sawing a length of timber on his trestle, one knee on the wooden plank. I bent down to look inside.
“Excuse me, do you know if there are properties for sale in the street?”
He straightened his back, pushed his cap off his forehead and stared at me.
“Ye kin have this one, if ye want.”
“Sorry? This is yours, you’re renovating it”, I answered, puzzled.
He moved to the window.
“Ah’ll be straight with ye. I wis buildin’ this fir ma mistress, but she’s dumped me.”
You could have knocked me down with a workie’s KitKat.
Within minutes the owner offered a price within my poverty limits sufficient to afford a deposit. Fate sealed, I spent the next twenty-odd years there, encountering good people and malicious, envious and reticent, taking life and adventures as they came, while improving everything around me. I stayed about five years too long, the core of this tale.
Stop those vehicles!
The dangerous proximity of speeding vehicles to homes along a narrow mews lane, with two blind corners, was alarming. What to do? One big truck parked right across my door and windows for an hour, blocking egress and light. I had an idea, one that would start a revolution of reformation. I removed a few cobbles (sett stones) and dug a small trench on both sides of my front door to plant large yew shrubs. Their bulk gave me an extra 18-inches of a safety zone. The shrubs warned speeding drivers someone lived in the lane.
A troubled neighbour asked what I was doing removing the cobble stones, council property. I pointed out we owned the soil three feet from the wall. We have to reach foundations, gas main, electricity, sewage pipes for repair. True, the council owned the cobbles, but I had replaced them around the yew bushes. There was a long pause while my explanation sunk in. “Can you do that for my place?” she asked, and that was the start of landscaping the entire lane from one end to another.
Homeowner and tenant, one after another, asked for my help to make their place safer to enter and leave. Over the years, in consultation with each resident, I planted something different at front doors and under windows for the sake of variety and individuality, from plain box hedging to magnolia trees, via rose bushes, taking care to ensure the shrub could withstand winter weather and freezing rain and slush chucked at it by passing cars. I chose evergreens whenever possible. Where there was a manhole cover, I added a large container of flowers on top.
I am relieved to say, a mews lane ignored by the council was, in this instance, a good thing. The mews never saw road salt guaranteed to kill all living flora, the reason so few trees line city centre streets.
Out with the old, in with the new
The next task I decided to tackle was a monstrous telegraph pole one-foot from a wall in the middle of the lane. People kept to the walls to avoid on-coming taffic only to find a whopping big, tar-injected British Telcomm (BT), pole smack in their path. From it hung thirty-nine phone lines running in all directions, and, as if the way of lazy convention, tacked across the front of buildings, disappearing bored through window casements to get access to rooms inside.
I made the phone call to BT.
“Hi. I’m calling from Circus Lane. Can you remove a telegraph pole?”
“Depends where it is,” came the expected reply from the BT official.
“Right in the path of pedestrians.”
“Impossible. I’m looking at our grid, and there’s no poles in that street.”
“You’re kidding. I’m staring at one.”
“Our records show no standard poles since 1932.”
“I’ll buy you a bottle of pure malt whisky if you find none when you come here”, I answered.
When he arrived he was non-plussed. He eyed the monster of a telephone pole. “Hell!”
“This lane is full of poor folks”, I intoned, pleading. “How much to remove it?”
“We will do it for free”, he said, without a pause.
“In that case” I interjected swiftly, “Can you remove the one behind that wall too?” I pointed to an old stone wall, another telephone pole behind it.
“If the line can stretch to the nearest fixed point, yes”
“The cables and wires crawling all over the house facades, how many are live?”
From his van he took his box of electronic tricks, checked the cable running up the pole and said ….. “Bloody hell, only one.”
Thirty-eight redundant cables. I asked him to relay the one used telephone wire along and under gutters and remove all the others. To his credit, BT did that and removed all the redundant telegraph poles for free. With the Thatcher creed infusing everything with a financial value, free is not a choice today. Everything has a price. Aye, we used to laugh at cans of Edinburgh air sold to gullible tourists, but look at us now, we can even buy and sell our place in a queue.
I digress. My first great achievement was a doddle – visual clutter removed from the lane in an instant. I felt triumphant. I had beaten the system. There was nothing beyond my capacity to make things better!
Over the next two decades, aided by enthusiastic residents, I began a campaign of alterations and restoration. The list I recount is not comprehensive.
One of the best moves got rid of the Fifties orange illuminated concrete lampposts and substituted them with Georgian lanterns affixed to the buildings. Half the money came from the folk in the lane, matched by half from the council. The poorest folk, usually retired, paid a few pounds, the well-heeled, £500. Soon as the lamps were installed, people came out their house smiling with pride. They had improved their surroundings, added quality, thrown off what was crap for what was quality – the first glimmer of people power. Very soon after, residents began improving the interior of their homes, modernising kitchens, bathrooms and electrics.
Next, I had plastic windows removed, Georgian 12-paned windows installed. The thick yellow No Parking line was relaid as a thin yellow conservation line. (Yes, there is such a thing, if you ask the council nicely.) I divided property block units visually (three properties), with an architectural line, roof to street level, delineating individual houses, so that owners could paint their exterior walls and doors a conservation colour to kill dead the monotonous grey facades.
I put doors under strict Georgian conservation colours – exterior eggshell, not gloss! My wife is a painter, knew which front door needed a sharp hue or a muted 18th century tone, advice from a world expert on colour.
I replaced ugly areas of brick inserts with sandstone as original, painted ingoes, lintels and sills a contrasting colour from the wall in the old Scottish style. I got chimneys rebuilt, concrete additions removed, proper Scottish slate put back on roofs, asked owners to remove satellite dishes, and often landscaped their small back gardens to achieve places of peace in the southern sun. Finally, I had the council make the lane one-way, west to east, the direction least used by rat-run drivers. This added a huge measure of safety and tranquility to life in the mews of mews. Drivers began to slow down, inhibited about using a residential mews as a race track.
When the council widened the footpath around the chapel at the end of the mews, opposite the St Vincent Bar, I got permission to plant a mature tree there to soften the area, an indigenous variety, a multi-stemmed silver birch. I surrounded it with Georgian railings to give it pride of place and keep it safe from vandals No sooner were the railing installed than cyclists used them to chain their bicycles – I then added three cycle racks nearby.
To the branches of the tall silver birch I added a hardy white Scottish climbing rose. One day, when both were in full leaf, the rose blooming, I heard a young girl say to her boyfriend admiring the roses in the branches, “Ah never kent them birch trees grew flooers”.
I left the lassie blissful in her ignorance.
A smart place to live on a budget
In short time the lane was awarded full conservation status, a great thing for preserving its best elements, dissuading Barbarian incomers from sticking Magnet and Southern doors on their house to make it look ‘different’. All that and a ton more alterations achieved by rustling up resident support to see their environment a superior place than before. And it was all pushed ahead by a change in council attitude to community participation: let people propose ideas, not council impose them. Gradually, a visual harmony took shape followed by a shared pride.
Wherever there is human activity, there is money to be made. Developers moved in, in double quick time. Created an A Listed conservation mews lane curbed architectural vandals’ worst excesses. If residents did not like a planning proposal because it was out of character with the surroundings, they let the council know. Plans modified, gap sites were filled-in with sensitive contemporary renditions of mews properties. House prices rose. Everyone was happy.
Police women on horseback used the lane as if of old. The sun shone on Circus Lane.
The people are paramount
By then I had organised residents into an association, people power, which I did without much effort. There was unity of purpose. To my responsibilities, largely assumed because no one set down what a ‘secretary of the Association’ should do, I added a monthly newsletter. I sent it to every resident that lived in or used the mews, and to council officials. By that protocol I left people with the honest impression of a cohesive community.
We met once a month to discuss moans, groans, neighbour disputes, and what we had in the bank. Solutions to stop vehicles using the lane and parking was the most regular topic, followed by dog walkers who thought the planting was there for their dogs to cock a leg. In one incident, a drunk lawyer used a plant container as a toilet, showing no shame when I bollocked him as he peed.
“A man has to relieve himself”, he said, swaying unsteadily, giving judicial pronouncement.
“Is that so? Tell me where you live so I can crap at your door!”
Membership of the Association was a modest £25 a year. Often, I paid the sum myself for the few on welfare benefits. Most paid eagerly, one or two were always ‘out’ when I called.
Lest folk think I exaggerate the tasks undertaken, I emphasise the lane renovations, the improvements, the renaissance of the mews, and the verdant landscaping admired today, were accomplished over many years, augmented when I had surplus money from film commissions, and time to put my back into the work, local friendly guerrilla gardener and landscape artist.
Residents paid what they could towards items for improvements, but not the work involved. I did that voluntarily, for free. When I left, they continued the effort of planting, now veering to the twee for my taste, but pride of place they have aplenty.
Flies in ointments
Not all went swimmingly to plan. Some owners had to be encouraged to make things better, cajoled, schmoozed, short-term incomers understand they had no entitlement to destroy improvements, substitute plastic for wooden windows, or cut down shrubs.
By 2010 the lane had become internationally famous, an Internet site to itself, voted ‘The Most Beautiful Street in Edinburgh‘, the destination of film and stills shoots the world over, from Japan to Australia, from the USA to Italy.
Fashion designers love it as a backdrop. A Mercedes Smart Car advert said, “Small is beautiful”. Movie stars marvelled, Julia Roberts took her coffee break on the stone bench I had built outside my windows. Jack Vettriano kept his muse there in a property he bought – his muse nested in a mews. Mike Hart, founder of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival, lived there most of his life.
I received no reward for my work, no accolade, no remuneration. I did it because it was a great thing to do, a gift to the community, thanks were enough from residents. The only negative was the odd annoyance of a new council official keen to control lives. “Why is this tree planted here?” “Because I got council approval, that’s why!”
Circus Lane was one way to make my mark on my country even if there is no plaque on a wall to say I was the architect.
The history of Circus Lane
At this point I should mention something of the lane’s history. Most visitors think the lane the result of indiscriminate placing of stables. To a quick study, buildings are usually seen as stables to house horses of the wealthy of Royal Circus, now homes for the hoi polloi. There is only one stable, at the west end entrance, and what we see in the lane is the rear facade. The front, the best side, a clever miniature of Georgian composition, faces Royal Circus and the owner who built it. Because of the angle it is built, on a curve, it is nicknamed ‘The Squinty House’.
Properties were built on once fertile cattle fields from the early 1800s, but in an haphazard fashion, one, here, another there, numbered consecutively as they were built. Postmen and delivery drivers are forever flummoxed, Number 6 is at one end, number 7 at the other, number 25 in the middle, number 24 is down a short alley.
Mistaken as stables is forgiven. A lot of the buildings were built by Hansom cab owners, the middle-class of their day. Horse and cart stayed below, hay bales on the first floor, the cabby and his family in two rooms next to the food store.
One of my last ambitions was to add aGHeorgian stone archway at the lane’s entrance, one side marked ‘Circus Lane’, the other ‘Stockbridge’, the stonework adorned with eteched silhouettes of Hansom cabs, wagon wheels, and horses. That was a costly project, and I was on the point of moving out. I still think the lane needs a monumental architectural marker at the entrance, an arch the perfect boundary.
A census record from 1891 tells a story of cab proprietors, and cab drivers who were not owners, a widow, a teacher, a general merchant, a confectioner, and one hapless ‘unemployed’. To the mews lane’s modern history should be appended a plaque on Number 11, ‘Here lived the eminent Royal Academician Painter Dr Barbara Rae CBE RA RSA RE, and her Writer and Producer Husband,’ Gareth, who wrote volumes of stuff’.
To return to the beginning where it all started: how does all this history of human activity relate to the self-inflicted travails of the Scottish National Party. If the reader can be patient a little longer, I’ll tell you.
Shortly before I moved home, an annoying thing happened. Two years earlier I had responded to resident complaints about parked cars blocking the narrow lane, a common occurence. I asked the council to consider double yellow lines only at certain narrow points. Many months later the council’s roads department popped up with a proposal to place double lanes the entire length of the mews. I got wind of the proposal two days before it was to be passed by the Council. What to do?
I decided here was the test for the residents. Rather than me, Association Secretary, take the hit, rushing off to the council and arguing the original case for short lengths of lines, I thought it a good experiment to see how the residents handled it themselves, standing on their own two feet.
The gossip went round like lightning: whose idea what this? Only one resident picked up the baton, the selfish one who left her car in the street, her garage used for her son as a gymnasium. She got the no parking lines proposal stopped, but did not consult a soul about it. The community democracy I had taken pains to engineer was broken in one fell swoop. One council official gloated, “I see Circus Lane is not all unity, sweetness and light as it’s made out to be.” My cover was blown.
More tales to tell
The lane really was, and probably still is, a microcosm of society. I could have shot a daily television soap there with ease, the place was full of characters, a village within New Town, within a great city.
One day I woke up to find the lane had its own Internet site and had become internationally famous. It was a place to visit when in the capital, after you had seen the Edinburgh Castle. Tourists flocked to take photographs. Some of my happiest memories are talking to excited Japanese tourists, and visiting performers there for the great arts festival.
And what of the residents in their new-created paradise? There was good and there was annoying, like any other community. Some folk dodged their annual £25 membership fee yet expected to get all the benefits of representation. There were those who joined in shared work generously, those who couldn’t by dint of commitments, yet offered support. One new resident, an ‘inspirational speaker’, stuffed £100 in my hand on the day we met. “Use that for the lane. Excellent place to lay one’s head!”
We had the usual naysayers to new ideas and the inevitable sociopath. I named him El Jerko. He prided himself on being a ‘property developer’. In reality he was another two-bit renter, his ‘units’ the property of the banks. A small guy, he walked with a swagger, hips pushed out, as if his flies were wide open, his manhood worthy of a selfie. One day the banks called in his loans and he was forced to sell his prime property. Revenge is sweet if you wait long enough.
There were happy times too, getting together with neighbours to share a chinwag and a beer on a warm day. Meeting people taking the lane as a shortcut and getting to know them with a cheery ‘How’re you today?’ Back would come the reply, ‘All the better for a walk through the lane!’ Accusing a delivery boy on his ‘motorbike’ of speeding and he answering, “Don’t get my hopes up!” He was on a moped that could barely manage 10mph.
“The history book on the shelf keeps repeating itself” ABBA
After I left the lane it began filling up with English incomers: “I knew this was the place I wanted to live” – sadly, some disrepectful of what had been created that had attracted them. (One rented out her garage as a commercial workshop, no rates paid!)
Meanwhile, I remained the go-to man for film and stills photographers to contact, a fee negotiated, donated to the Residents Association fund for the upkeep of the mews. But I noticed the Residents Association was nowhere to be seen, the fees I collected in the wrong hands, and no record of their spending. I protested, gently, and was told to take a hike. The community now had a quiet dictator intent on doing things without responsibility, backed by an unreliable ‘treasurer’. I cut off all connections.
Did my experiment fail? I had planned a Georgian archway at the lane’s west entrance but left the idea too late to achieve fruition. I have the drawings to this day. More importantly, I learned it is harder to alter human behaviour than to alter buildings, but altering buildings for the better can have a positive effect on human behaviour.
However, nothing of what I relate here about my time there should stop the reader from giving Circus Lane a visit one day on your way to the cafe life of Stockbridge. From May to September you will find it ablaze in colour, at night music and laughter from an open window, the hoot of a barn owl, the scud of rust red hair belonging to a shy urban fox.
Life for me has moved on. Today, built upon archaeological ground in my new and most definitely final home, I am almost finished creating a Roman garden on strict Venetian lines. As my biography says, ‘creator of spaces and places‘. Circus Lane was a milestone.
NOTE: The motivation to live in Circus Lane is here: https://wp.me/p4fd9j-1ln