Holyrood Park

Holyrood Park, formerly the King's Park (now known unofficially as the Queen's Park), is an enormous area of natural beauty that now sits surrounded by the city of Edinburgh. A fire in the area of the park just south-west of St Anthony's Chapel yesterday prompted a return visit today, which gave me an opportunity to further explore this wonderful historic area.

The park covers a massive area - almost 650 acres - and is a rarity in a major city anywhere; particularly a capital city in Europe. The north-western section of the park, adjacent to the Palace of Holyrood, is a regular home to casual weekend football, kite flying, cycling, running and generally just enjoying the great outdoors. This area also achieved its 15 minutes of fame in the film Chariots of Fire, and one glance at the large expanse of flat grassy land will tell you why. More recently it has been attracting runners, walkers and hangers-on for mini marathons such as yesterday's Race for Life - a fundraiser for cancer research.

Just past the lower plateau is St Margaret's Loch, watched over by the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel standing proudly on one of the higher points this side of the park. The loch is currently home to a number of quite tame swans and ducks, casually accepting the pieces of bread which are regularly thrown at them by small children and their mothers out for a bit of fresh air.

I climbed up the slope to the chapel ruins (climbing is apt as there is generally a variety of methods of moving about the park, ranging from sedate driving to rock climbing), past the small hill known as Haggis Knowe (aka Fairies Knowe and The Cockleshell), and paused to take in the spectacular view of Leith. The chapel, built around the 15th century, was positioned so that the occupants could see ships arriving in the Firth of Forth and welcome them with a light in the tower. Unfortunately little now remains of the chapel, save for the north wall and signs of a nearby building which was most likely used as a storehouse.

Behind the ruins I caught a glimpse of smoke, and heading south toward the higher parts of the park I watched the area of yesterday's fire still quietly smouldering. Thankfully the fire had been put out relatively quickly and only a small area has been turned to charcoal. The smoke, however, was enough to persuade me to return to the bottom of the hill and follow the road around the park; rather than cut across its centre.

The road which circumnavigates the park is The Queen's Drive, and I joined it on the eastern side of St Margaret's Loch where it connects with The Duke's Walk amid an army of swans. The road ascends reasonably sharply and the adjacent path is a regular home to joggers looking for a bit of a challenge. The road is also home to a number of tourist coaches which transport people to the higher parts of the park for a brief, noisy and diesel-fumed view as they stand beside the coach trying to imagine life without it.

This section of the path affords a great view of Portobello, and the village of Piershill in the foreground. It also introduces a couple of seats which seem to be predominantly used by joggers who have only started to realise the steep gradient.

The road (and adjacent footpath) continues around the middle of Whinny Hill to Dunsapie Loch, one of the many strikingly beautiful parts of the park and used as an operational base for the activities of families out for a walk/cycle/run on sunny weekends. Despite the number of people this area has maintained its charm, and the temptation to just sit and admire the view is too much.

Eventually convincing myself to leave the idyllic location I head up the incline, perpendicular to the road and following the footprints of men, women, children and dogs toward the top of Whinny Hill. Near the top of the hill I realise that the constant sound of traffic and people has subsided, and the silence is now only broken by the gentle rustling of leaves and the cry of an occasional bird. For a moment I forgot that I was still in the middle of a capital city.

After enjoying the sun, tranquility and incredibly fresh air around the top of the hill, I retraced my steps to Dunsapie Loch and continued west along The Queen's Drive. The path was once again home to a number of joggers and cyclists, and the pure air was occasionally infiltrated by tourist coaches meandering by. The steep path down to Duddingston - one of many such paths known as Jacob's Ladder - managed to escape today's explorations and I contented myself with a view of the magnificent 12thC Duddingston Kirk, Loch and Golf Course from the hillside.

I followed The Queen's drive around the southern side of the hill topped by Arthur's Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh and visited by view-seeking tourists on a daily (and often nightly, particularly around the time of major pyrotechnic displays) basis. Incidentally, the name Arthur's Seat has nothing to do with King Arthur - as many visitors seem to assume - but probably has as its origins the gaelic phrase Arn-na-Said meaning 'Height of the Arrows'.

The weather changed abruptly (which is not altogether unanticipated in this part of the world) with the sky rapidly assuming a similar look to the smouldering gorse on the other side of the park. I decided to forego the climb up to Arthur's Seat, primarily as the thought of inadvertently sliding down the wet basalt slope on the other side had little appeal. I continued to follow the road around the outside of the hill, leaving it just as it begins the descent north toward Dumbiedykes. The path beside the road changes to a split pedestrian/cyclist path at this point, however most people seem to ignore it entirely in favour of the soft grass at the base of the hill.

Crossing the grass - one eye constantly on the darkening sky - I returned to civilisation in the form of Our Dynamic Earth, an odd looking combination of structures that sits between the new buildings of The Scotsman and the seemingly permanent chaos of the new Parliament construction site. The Dynamic Earth steps offer a good view of the construction progress (or lack of it) and I paused for a quick update before winding my way back down the Canongate to the shelter of the flat.

Less than 30 minutes later the sky had returned to a brilliant blue, the clouds to white; time to head back out in the sunshine.

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