Everyone knows the appeal of central Edinburgh but what about the suburbs? Running through them to the southwest and out into the countryside is a cycle route along a canal, river and railway track-bed which provides an ideal introduction to another side of the city.
A few turns after setting off from Waverley station and with some careful sign-following I reached the start of the Union Canal. Here the arch of Leamington lift bridge – officially re-opened after restoration last year – provides a sort of starting gate for the long, traffic-free majority of the route. A short way further along is another fine piece of civil engineering: the aqueduct over the Water of Leith. Signs instructed me to dismount but I didn’t need much persuading once I’d seen the narrow, one-metre width of the walkway beside the water. I didn’t know how deep the canal was at this point and didn’t want to find out. Moorhens and magpies were my only company excluding the pair of miners carved from a tree trunk and half-hidden in the bushes beside the path. Their alert expressions and uprightness made the figures all the more startling.
I swapped one former highway for another to continue my journey along a disused railway line. It’s a real Thomas the Tank Engine affair complete with a curving, horse-shoe shaped tunnel through a hillside which is long enough to need to be lit by a line of roof lights. A return to the waterside wasn’t far away – in the form of the Water of Leith. The river is a real show-off compared to its languid, unnatural neighbour, the water racing playfully over the rocks, round bends and under bridges. The railway path terminates at Balerno where today the High School occupies the site of the village’s station. Built in 1874 to service mills in the village and along the Water of Leith, the railway line closed in 1967. I bought my sandwiches from the supermarket and ate them among the roses and yew trees of the walled Malleny Garden.
Refreshed and rested, I headed upwards and away from Balerno on the only climb of the day. The watery theme of the ride continued in the form of four reservoirs at the foot of the Pentland Hills. Threipmuir is open and windswept while Harlaw is lined with Scots pines and has a wildlife garden which is a handy resting point especially if you’re with children. After Clubbiedean Reservoir – and tucked into what the Scots call a cleugh (ravine) – Torduff is relatively dramatic with its rocky sides plunging directly into the water. Bonaly Tower, sticking up above the trees, gives another hint of the Highlands. There are great views as well – to Arthur’s Seat and the new air traffic control tower at Edinburgh airport.
Crossing over the bypass brought me back to reality – and back to the city. I completed my return by repeating part of the disused railway line and along a fresh stretch of the Water of Leith. The rugby players training in the park didn’t need to look far for inspiration: Murrayfield loomed above them. Soon I was cycling around the back of the stadium.
As the river becomes more central so it becomes more sinuous. Just when I thought there were no more signs for the Water of Leith Walkway I spotted another one and kept going as far as Dean Village. If I’m ever rich and in Edinburgh I’ll live here. Lovely little mews houses line the now wooded river which rushes along the bottom of a steep valley.
As I reluctantly left the Walkway, only the bricks forming the road surface reminded me where I was. A couple of turns later I spotted the Scott Monument at the end of a street, heralding journey’s end. It seemed strange to have emerged so suddenly back in the city centre throng. I felt like I’d popped up from a secret tunnel. It was stranger still to think that only a couple of hours previously I’d been surveying snow-topped hills with not a soul to be seen. I pushed my bike carefully between the shoppers on Princes Street feeling conspicuous with my muddy trousers and flushed cheeks. They can stick to their shopping bags and I’ll stick to my panniers.
Start: Edinburgh Waverley Station.
Distance: 24 miles.
Cycle hire: Biketrax, 0131-228 6333.
Refreshments: Two pubs and two restaurants in Balerno.