There’s something wonderfully indulgent about a day off talking and traveling by train to a specific location to hike for an entire day. This is exactly what I did recently, taking the train to Edinburgh with map in hand and plan to walk ‘The Water of Leith Walkway’, a 21 mile walk that starts in Balerno and follows the path of old Balerno Branch railway to Slateford, then parallels the river all the way to Leith.
It was a quiet Monday and after negotiating the train and bus to Balerno (a 50 minute bus ride from outside Waverley Station) I arrived at the start of the walk.
The walkway is described as ‘a silver thread in a green ribbon’ that flows through Edinburgh and whilst I absolutely love the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh and all it has to offer I was looking forward to seeing a totally different and unique experience in this fantastic city.
The first part of the walk was from Balerno to Slateford along the old riverside railway from the village of Balerno, passing the edges of Currie, Juniper Green and Colinton before heading down to the water via Colinton Dell to Slateford and my first refreshment stop at the Water of Leith visitor centre.
It was a nice gentle easy start along a leafy green walkway with the Water of Leith joining me downstream to the right, dappled by sunlight and the trees swaying by a gentle breeze.
Currie was the first marker on the walkway map and Currie Kirk, a site of a church for over 1000 years, the current church was built in 1785, a fine church in grounds adjacent to the walkway and well worth a stop fuses .
The route is really well signposted with regular signs indicating the next possible stop and mileage, which is always reassuring when walking alone.
It is also worth noting, for individual walkers, that the trail was not too quiet and isolated, but other walkers, joggers and cyclists passed by.
A few small sections of the Walkway were closed for maintenance but there were easy short detours that took less than 5 minutes to get back on the trail, for someone who gets lost very easily this was reassuring!
Colinton Village, the next stop is home to Spylaw House in Spylaw Park, built in 1650 was originally the mill and home of famous snuff maker James Gillespie. After his death in 1797 his fortune was used to endow Gillespie’s Hospital and James Gillespie’s School for Girls.
Walking back on the railway path I reached the Colinton Tunnel. This imposing 140-metre Victorian railway tunnel has been transformed into a beautiful, magical walkthrough, filled with an enchanting mural that tells the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem ‘From a Railway Carriage’.
It is said to be Scotland’s largest historic mural and was created by artist Chris Rutterford and a team of professional and volunteer artists and over 600 local people of all ages.
The fantastic images celebrate the industrial, social, artistic and literary history of the community. It really is beautiful to walk through and I found myself walking up and down the tunnel several times to really take in the images and words.
I wrenched myself free of the tunnel and emerged back into the greenery of the walkway and along the path to a coffee stop at the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, a great community pub with lots of information about the river and the walkway, as well as interactive art exhibitions.
The center is also the headquarters of the Water of Leith Conservation Trust, a small charity that works with volunteers to preserve and improve the river as a wildlife sanctuary and educational and recreational information centre.
My next detour was through Saughton Park and its beautiful gardens which were in full bloom with an abundance of colorful wildflower areas alongside more formal gardens. It was lovely to step off the walkway and through this peaceful park to take some time to sit and just be.
Back on the footbridge, I passed Murrayfield Stadium and Roseburn Park before descending some steps to continue along the river.
Across the river I suddenly saw a figure in the water, one of Antony Gormley’s ‘6 Times’ standing figures placed in the river, a lone figure surrounded by the water and a contrast to the greenery around it.
The series of six life-sized figures line the walk between the grounds of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the sea at Leith Docks.
The cast iron sculptures of the artist’s body are quietly understated and contemplative, set in the perfect setting of the natural and man-made environment of the Water of Leith and wonderful to encounter along the way.
Inspired by the beauty of the lone sculpture I had to take the opportunity to step off the waterway to visit the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two and its current free exhibition ‘Decades – The Art of Change 1900-1980’.
It was a nice contrast to the natural, wild beauty of the leafy river path and an absolute feast for the senses in a totally different way, with some amazing works from iconic artists.
Back on the waterway, my next stop was the beautiful postcard Dean Village. A charming storybook place with its cobbled streets and colorful stable houses, it was so wonderful to just stroll from the footbridge into this picturesque place.
The quiet cozy atmosphere of the village, with the river running through it, felt like a step back in time and it was hard to believe it was only 5 minutes away from Princes Street. million miles away from the hustle and bustle on my arrival in Edinburgh at Waverley Station.
After a nice half hour hanging out in Dean Village, I continued my way up the footbridge to Stockbridge.
Walking through this elegant residential area it had an attractive bustling village feel as I walked through the Georgian streets lined with restaurants and independent shops.
It felt like it would be a lovely place to live in Edinburgh with it’s village atmosphere and perfect location. I think it is regularly mentioned as one of the ‘coolest’, ‘best’ places to live in Edinburgh. Unfortunately I was passing through today but it is a place I will return and spend more time.
Leith, my final destination was only 2 miles away and I returned to the Walkway which passed through Bonnington and Coalie Park on the last leg of this walk.
I arrived in the iconic area of Leith with its historic harbor on the north coast of Edinburgh as the clouds parted and the early evening sun came out and there really was ‘Sunshine on Leith’.
It was a nice end to this fantastic walk. The historic harbor has served as a gateway to the city for centuries and the area’s original harbor dates back to the 14e century. In the 18e century it was Scotland’s main trading port and has been visited by many traveling monarchs including Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria.
Leith is also home to the Royal Yacht Britannia, once a floating residence for the British royal family and host to some of the world’s most famous people from Nelson Mandela to Winston Churchill and now a tourist attraction.
On a beautiful Monday evening, sitting with a festive glass of fizz on a sunny outdoor table in one of the many bars and restaurants along The Shore, Leith was beautiful. The blue sky, buildings and boats reflected in the water and the atmosphere was carefree and vibrant a perfect end to the walk.
I felt like I saw and did so much on this fantastic hike, but there was so much more I could have done and seen. It is a walk full of natural beauty, man-made beauty, art, history and architecture.
It is a peaceful, quiet walk, winding and undemanding, giving the walker space and time to watch, reflect and listen as the walk slowly unfolds with its many wonderful surprises. It is a walk that I will definitely do again.
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