Because of the disruption on the trains from Queen Street, I spent much less time than usual in Edinburgh over the first half of the year. But I've been there quite a bit during the festival, and I've found myself becoming increasingly transfixed (and not in a good way) by the large construction site between Calton Hill and the Royal Mile. My first reaction was that the powers-that-be are not complete idiots, and that they must have something very tasteful and carefully considered in mind for such a sensitive area. So I consulted the internet for some reassurance, and naturally discovered that every expert in the field has blasted the plans as barking mad, and that the city council had only narrowly given approval on the grounds that the buildings were not quite "hideous enough" to reject. That's the kind of logic that I'd expect to hear in relation to Cumbernauld town centre, not the UN-designated World Heritage site at the heart of our capital city. I really must stop kidding myself that the internet is ever going to provide me with reassurance about anything.
I at least drew some small comfort from learning that the height of the buildings had been reduced after the initial objections. But even over the course of the last few weeks, the shape of the large hotel has become suddenly apparent, and 'unobtrusive' is not the first word that springs to mind. It's already tarnishing the view from Calton Hill. The completed Costa and Premier Inn buildings aren't so noticeable, but that's mainly because they're obscured by the equally hideous council building which has presumably been there for decades. I wandered down to Market Street today, and when you're actually in between the council building and the Premier Inn, the whole concept of being within the Old Town ceases to have any meaning.
Not being a resident of Edinburgh, I can't get a clear image in my head of what that area used to look like, and maybe if I could I'd realise that less is being lost than it appears. I also appreciate that the whole of modern history has been punctuated by a war between conservation and opportunistic "development", and that you have to be philosophical and recognise that the forces of conservation aren't going to win every single battle. But you'd think local councillors might just be intelligent enough to recognise that it's counterproductive to attempt to economically exploit the heritage of a city in a way that fundamentally taints that heritage.
Last year, I spent about ten days in the Balkans, and went to the Old Towns of both Mostar and Dubrovnik, which are also World Heritage sites. In contrast to Edinburgh, the Old Town of Dubrovnik is pristine and almost perfectly preserved. The famous bridge in Mostar was destroyed during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, but was swiftly and lovingly reconstructed, even using the original stones where possible. You kind of feel that if Edinburgh city council had been in charge, they'd have said "ah well, it's gone now, we may as well stick a Starbucks and a car park there instead".
Apparently one of the biggest criticisms of "New Waverley" is the plan for a public square, which is alien to the architectural traditions of the Old Town. But quite honestly, I hope the square fills up as much of the space as possible - that's the only part of the whole thing that won't be an eyesore.
I'll reserve judgement on whether New Waverley will turn out to be an even worse idea than allowing Donald Bloody Trump of all people to "stabilise the doons". (Which the SNP have to accept a share of the blame for, although it has to be said that every political party apart from the Greens seemed to be wildly enthusiastic about it for some unfathomable reason.)
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I'm writing this on the train back to Glasgow, and I'm sitting opposite two Canadians who have been sneering about the Quebec sovereignty movement to anyone who will listen. "That'll never happen! They'd never survive!" Just those same words over and over again. Calm, Mr Kelly, calm calm calm...