It was on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile when I discovered my very first secret garden.
I’ve always dreamt of my own secret garden. Of a hidden place among the roses and lavender, where I could lay in the sun like an overgrown cat.
Perhaps it’s the innocuous nature of a garden. Secret passageways, secret codes, secret love affairs, all allude to the illicit. The very innocence of a garden renders its secrecy all the more fascinating.
Edinburgh, to me, is a city of secrecy, of mystery. Despite having lived there for months, I never explored every last “close,” or narrow passageway, snaking away from The Royal Mile.
Even so, I somehow found Secret Gardens.
I had just bought a scone from a nearby bakery, and wandered along the ancient Royal Mile without any clear direction or purpose. After passing The Writer’s Museum, I had every intention of turning back towards my apartment. I can’t quite say why I didn’t, only that I continued forwards until noticing a sign for Dunbar’s Close. I followed the narrow passageway, acutely aware of nearby dripping water, and the fading city undertones as I entered the private enclosure. There, I discovered a garden – empty, and almost morose in its solitude. But still, flowers bloomed in early March, and the extensive brush caught the scraping cacophony of the city in its branches, leaving me in peaceful silence.
And I stretched out in the sun like an overgrown cat. I had found a secret garden.
Little did I know I passed a second garden nearly every day, entirely oblivious to its presence.
I happened up on it weeks later, just after receiving some rather unfortunate news.
While sitting in a coffee shop, I realize that I needed to move. You know that feeling? Where you can’t sit still but you can’t focus your thoughts enough to actually go anywhere? My jangled nerves needed something my mind couldn’t process.
“We can go anywhere,” I told Chris, who had joined me for coffee that afternoon. “Just somewhere.”
The mere idea of sitting still choked me.
“Right, let’s go,” he nodded.
I followed blindly along Princes Street, only vaguely aware of a light rainfall because my shoes were wet, and my toes cold. The city distracted me from my thoughts, and I knew that no matter where we walked, I could lift my head and see a castle atop molten rock, or the North Sea – a distant blue paint stroke across the city. My panic began to lighten.
We turned left, toward George Street. Then a right onto Rose Street. The rain had stopped, and while examining my drenched boots, I noticed droplets of water on the paved roses. They reminded me of Tudor Roses, and my mind got lost in history.
At some point, Chris bought sandwiches from the most traditional Scottish man I have ever met. He wore a kilt and mocked us both – but with a wide smile and the expectation that we would tease him as well. He also advocated for heaping portions of crackling on our sandwiches. Crackling: a fatty substance people somehow think is suitable for consumption. Chris asked for extra crackling. I ate one bite and promptly decided it would make me sick. Chris smiled, happy I tried it, and happier I wouldn’t be stealing any more of his crackling.
We continued walking nowhere. Left, right, odd squiggly street that turned both left and right, a weird circle –
“Here,” Chris finally stopped. “This is where I wanted to take you.”
Cars zoomed by along Queen Street. Important people in their important business suits passed us on their lunch break, and others wandered towards nearby pubs for an afternoon drink. Everything appeared entirely ordinary. To the right, rows and rows of trees and bushes lined an iron gate, rendering any glimpse of what lay beyond impossible.
“This is the Secret Garden,” Chris explained.
“THE Secret Garden? Like the kid’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett?” Childhood imaginings of flowerbeds and magic flowing through the trees, hidden in a garden just for my friends and me, all returned.
“You really know the writer’s full name, don’t you? You’re so weird. Anyways, I don’t know,” Chris admitted. “Someone told me once that this garden helped inspire the book. It may be rubbish.”
Right, so I’ve looked it up, and it may be rubbish. Frances Hodgson Burnett lived in Kent. However, some reports do suggest she may have traveled this far north, and a couple other locals I asked liked to claim ownership of the book. So who knows? Whether or not Edinburgh’s garden inspired Burnett, the concealed gateways and overgrown bushes captured the atmosphere of the book. The secrecy of the garden.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the garden. Such a tease.
Chris knelt down. “You ready?”
I hesitated, then, ever so gracefully, clambered onto his shoulders. He lifted me up, so I could see into my very own secret garden. My hands were shaking with laughter; I could barely take a picture.
People gave us funny looks. There he was, a 6″2 man with a 5″11 person on his shoulders. Together, we were the city’s very own wobbly giant.
This was my attempt at a selfie, but I kind of have crazy eyes in it. I blame the shaky camera.
Chris then may have flipped me over onto the other side. He may not have. But I won’t say either way, because I’m pretty sure it’s illegal. If he did. Which he most likely didn’t.
As with any other city garden, the green enclosure offers respite from city life. While nothing quite compares to the Parisian perfumed air of smoke and smog, a city is a city, no matter how small, and this protected meadow was a sanctuary amidst the noise.
And now, all I can recall is this foreign, blissful feeling.
I spent half of my life dreaming of Edinburgh. The idea of living in my favorite city hovered through my mind for ten years, even if only in a passing thought . When I finally had the means to do so, I feared disappointment.
In a way, I believe I have grown accustomed to disillusionment on my travels. I will continue to explore new places and cultures until I die, but in no way do I expect perfection, or even reasonable standards anymore. It began in Bordeaux, when my foreign exchange experience morphed into a waking nightmare.
It continued in Paris. My own secret.
Of course, I’ve had some of the most beautiful memories of my life on these adventures, but I’ve come to expect the unexpected. I’m naturally too optimistic to ever become a complete cynic, but in many ways, I became masochistically accustomed to fearing my own judgment, and packed my bags for Scotland with nervous, distracted thoughts.
I feared feeling detached from a city I believed I loved, or disillusioned by the pollution and grime my twelve-year-old self failed to notice.
But I wasn’t.
The prickly veil of disillusionment never slipped over my face.
And I found myself simply, entirely, happy.
I found Secret Gardens.