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The Independent Culture
Edinburgh: St Bernard's Well

My introduction to Edinburgh was the 1976 Film Festival, run by a bunch whose sense of humour had been surgically removed. "Theory" was the thing. Anyone not knowing their semiology from their semiotics was censured and pitied. Matters were not helped by atrocious weather, a tent that leaked like a sieve and a companion who revealed an array of unpleasant personal habits.

Only on subsequent visits did I appreciate how Edinburgh, even more than most urban centres, is a collection of many cities that exist side by side and only rarely come into contact with each other. Everyone has their own Edinburgh.

There is the Edinburgh of pomp and circumstance, of the Royal Mile and the Palace of Holyroodhouse - and the Edinburgh of widespread drug abuse. Medieval Old Town is oblivious to Georgian New Town. Legal Edinburgh is not terribly bothered by the Gaelic-speaking city while the commercial Edinburgh of Princes Street and George Street cares little for the religious controversies that once swept the place.

But my favourite Edinburgh is the rural idyll of valley, trees and trout that is to be found bordering the water of Leith. Stand on Dean Bridge and, if you dare, look down 100 feet to the water below. To the west is Dean Village which was once a vigorous industrial centre that serviced the mills grinding the flour for the city's bread. Appropriately enough the village is reached along Miller Row, and Damside.

To the east of Dean Bridge is a path that meanders alongside the water and gives you the feeling that the city of Edinburgh has suddenly vanished. Halfway along is St Bernard's Well, just one of several thousand holy wells still to be found in Britain. In pagan times, any spring whose water came out of the ground was likely to be worshipped and the Christian church simply colonised these wells.

St Bernard's Well was refurbished in the early 19th century by the Edinburgh publisher William Nelson, who made a three-mile trip here each day to take the waters. A statue of Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health, casts an elegant eye on proceedings.

But the association of ideas is powerful. Any mention of "Edinburgh" and "water" immediately summons up memories of sitting huddled in the middle of a tent, trying yet again to fathom the mysteries of Althusser and Foucault and find a way of tactfully suggesting that my partner changes their underwear.

There's my Edinburgh for you.

St Bernard's Well is by the Water of Leith, not far from India Place.

Andrew John Davies

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