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Astley Ainslie secret garden

Architectural Assistant
March 26 2021

Nowhere else in Edinburgh, other than the Royal Botanical Gardens, has such a range of trees.

Did you know there is a huge, secret garden right in the heart of our city to be explored? Think of the Edinburgh Royal Botanic gardens but with an air of mystery, secrets, and unknown except to those within the neighbourhood. The Astley Ainslie sits within Morningside to the North of Blackford Hill forming the start of the green belt out of Edinburgh. For its local residents, it is a place to escape the city and enjoy a diverse green space for recreation.

The site is currently owned and used by the NHS with various buildings old and new dotted throughout the site and used for occupational therapies. Historically it was David Ainslie who entrusted the land to be used for a convalescent hospital with a strong connection to nature and landscape to go hand in hand with the healing process. Now the NHS is looking to sell the land, and this is where HarrisonStevens come in.

We have been working with the Astley Ainslie Community Trust, our client and with the architects Oliver Chapman and Michael Collins to assess how the land could be taken on by the community and protect what is a unique and valuable asset within the city limits. The fact the whole of the grounds has been dedicated to health and wellbeing in nature since its inception as the Astley Ainslie is a sure driver that this must be maintained and enhanced in the vision for its future,  especially considering the times we find ourselves in.

Astley Ainslie Community Trust
Astley Ainslie Community Trust

Having visited the site a few times, no one visit is ever the same. There is always something to discover and a sense of a childlike curiosity takes over. The site is host to a fantastic range of mature specimen trees from various Cedars to Bhutan Pine to Turkey Oak. Children climb and play in these Narnian trees, people sit beneath them or choose them as a meeting point, they are iconic. Nowhere else in Edinburgh other than the Botanic gardens have such a range. Between the strips of woodland and old boundary walls, the site is carved up into different sections that each represent its past as either a grand Victorian villa and garden, the setting for the ancient chapel of St Roque, various woodlands, or better still a secret walled kitchen garden. On our last visit, we managed to sneak into this overgrown wild garden and feast on the last of the seasons giant raspberries and blackberries and, unfortunately for the fox disturb its favourite sunbathing spot.

As the Astley Ainslie moves forward into a new chapter we will work with the Trust to ensure this place is not lost to mass housing development and remains for the ‘common good’ as it was entrusted by David Ainslie. In these times it is more important than ever to ensure public access to green space for health and mental well-being, for children’s play and for a place to disconnect from hectic city life as championed by the NHS itself.

Further reading on the history and evolution of the Astley Ainslie can be found in the latest edition of the journal ‘By leaves we live’, kindly given to us by Sara from the Astley Ainslie Community Trust and features beautiful photography and thought-provoking articles. Copies can be bought at ‘Edinburgh Bookshop’ at Holy Corner in Bruntsfield. (https://www.edinburghbookshop.com/)

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