It is somewhere people used to come for healing. I pass by while on my own restorative, health-giving pursuit.
A slight haze hangs in the air, giving the place a mysterious quality. I think it beautiful and appropriate. Later I learn there had been a warning of polluted air in the city. So perhaps the atmospheric mist was not as beautiful as it had seemed.
It is a day of records broken. A warm day in winter.
I am outside, seeking light and outdoors, attentive to my surroundings. I feel my mood lift as I walk. I am looking for beauty, wonder, and the mundane, trying to pay attention to the nature and wildlife around, looking for the depths of history in my city.
I walk past that former place of healing. A surprising structure perched above the river, it is a mineral well named for a medieval French saint, St Bernard. The well is encased in a replica Roman temple with a statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, placed atop. This circular classical structure and its statue reference an ancient past. A past that only the educated were expected to understand and healing that only the wealthy could partake. In an age of enlightenment, an unenlightened approach some might say.
But is it so different today?
My walk takes me along the green ribbon that is the Water of Leith to the lovely Dean Village, a former mill town. The sun is shining, the air is mild. A mist hangs over the river. This former place of industry, of toil and hard work is pretty, peaceful and exclusive. Transformed from its industrial past, the Water of Leith flows past mills turned housing, workers quarters now desirable homes. Passing under the impressive Dean Bridge, the river thunders over the weirs and down, down on its journey to the sea. No longer made to work its passage, it is free, noisy, alive.
Downstream from the village I spot a heron on the edge of the river. Unmoving, watching, waiting. Like a ghost, it is grey and patient. Like a ghost it is noticed only by some. The river flows around it, but still it waits.
The river has healed from the ravages of its industrial past. Once polluted by the many mills along its banks and sewage from the growing city, there are now tales of otters and kingfisher. I see none on my walk though I do spot an array of birds, among them great spotted woodpecker and grey wagtail. Alongside the remnants of mills and weirs, life continues in the footprints of the past. Still shaped and moulded by that past, a healing has taken place, a healing that has made this place anew.
I pass the well and its classical structure on my return, that monument to exclusivity. Hygeia stands as before. Inert, on her plinth. Watching over the waters only some could afford to sup. Waters now no longer in demand. So different from the waters that passed through Dean Village. Those industrial, hardworking, used and tamed waters. Once a necessary flow of toil, exclusive in a different way. Partaken only by those with no choice. Health-taking waters and a past now sanitised and half forgotten.
Waters of contrast.
Waters now transformed. Where remnants of industry have been made new, where past toils and hardships are half-forgotten and temples to exclusivity have become curiosities. These are waters where ghosts of the past walk alongside city residents and tourists alike. Where once banished wildlife now survives and flourishes and city dwellers come for sanctuary. Healed waters. Perhaps.
But as the hanging pall of air pollution declared that day, it is a place that continues to need healing from the ravages of the present.
I turn my back on that former healing place and follow the waters home.
The Water of Leith is a river that winds its way through Edinburgh. It was once the industrial heart of Edinburgh with over 70 mills along its banks. This industry shaped and formed it as a place. With the mills gone, it is now a haven of wildlife with a well-used walkway following its length through the city.
Information about St Bernard’s Well can be found here: https://canmore.org.uk/site/52586/edinburgh-water-of-leith-st-bernards-well; https://www.edinburghguide.com/venue/stbernardswell; https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/a-brief-history-of-st-bernard-s-well-1-4690418
This website has a bit of information about Dean Village: https://www.introducingedinburgh.com/dean-village