I would like this morning to deal with a troubling subject. Why does London Road have an almost imperceptible kink in it through Abbeyhill? And while we’re at it, why is Lower London Road even a thing?
Let’s start with a little bit of background on London Road, which we’ve also covered in the thread about the Regent Road and why it had to be built. The name is obvious in its root; it was the route into and out of Edinburgh to the east, and therefore also the south; London. It was planned at the turn of the 19th century, with the eminent Robert “Lighthouse” Stevenson as the engineer. It was a centrepiece of the Calton New Town, the final phase of expansion of Georgian Edinburgh, to provide a grand, processional entrance into the city befitting its status as the “Athens of the North,” through the south of this new neighbourhood.
John Ainslie’s town plan of 1804 and Robert Kirkwood’s of 1817 show both the new planned road and also the old, narrow, winding approach to the city; marked below in red. From Jock’s Lodge, at the right of the map where Piershill Barracks was located, the old road ran past Meadowbank Tower (now Regent Park Terrace), crossing the East Foul Burn on the Clockmill Bridge, then along Spring Gardens to old Abbeyhill and then past the Water Yett to the Canongate.
The new road bypassed all this. It was wide and straight from Jock’s Lodge, across Restalrig Irrigated Meadows and the East Foul Burn, passing through the lands of Fletcher Norton (Norton Park), turning slightly around the north side of the Calton Hill to join with Leith Walk just to the north of Greenside. From there the New Town could be approached along Queen Street or up Leith Street to Princes Street.
There was dissatisfaction with this proposed route however; the vistas it offered of the approach to the city were negligible due to the Calton Hill being in the way, and it terminated at Leith Street, again offering a very poor approach up to Princes Street. As a consequence, an alternative route, the Regent Road, branched off the London Road just north of Abbeyhill (present day Montrose Terrace) and climbed up the southern slopes of Calton Hill, crossing the Calton ravine on the Regent Bridge and connecting straight onto Princes Street at Waterloo Place. This allowed the route of the London Road to be bent slightly to the south, improving the vistas over it from Royal Terrace above.
In October 1818 it was announced in the Caledonian Mercury that the work to connect the new London Road with the Regent Road “near the pond on Baron Norton’s ground” was expected to begin within a few days. Through Meadowbank, where it crossed the Irrigated Meadows and the Foul Burn, it required substantial groundworks.
The 1849 Town Plan shows London Road between Easter Road and Jocks Lodge as wide and dead straight in the best traditions of Roman road building.
And this is the problem that has been bugging me. This is not the current alignment of London Road! Or is it? It is infact the the alignment of Lower London Road. Lower London Road, you see, is actually the original alignment of London Road as built by Robert Stevenson; really we should calling the modern bit of London Road here between Meadowbank and the foot of Montrose Terrace Upper London Road.
So how did that happen then? Why shift such a major road a few feet to the north? Did Robert Stevenson get the alignment wrong? The answer can be found if we look again at the map above, just to the left of the middle. Somebody (the North British Railway in fact) had decided to build a railway underneath it!
In the 1860s, tired of the impracticalities of running trains from Granton and Leith into the city centre up the Scotland Street tunnel, the NBR planned a diversion loop to avoid it. The Abbeyhill Diversion as it was known came off the existing North British mainline at Piershill Junction (for trains approaching from the east) and at Abbeyhill Junction (for trains coming from the west and what would become Waverley Station.) These two branches joined together before heading under Easter Road and Leith Walk and joining the existing alignments at Trinity. But to do this it had to squeeze under London Road (and those other two main streets of Easter Road and Leith Walk).
The Edinburgh Town Council mandated that the widths and alignments of Easter Road and Leith Walk had to be maintained, but this was found not to be practical for London Road, so the Railway was obliged to rebuild the entire 750m section between where Meadowbank Stadium now is and Montrose terrace on a new alignment a few metres to the north and with the gradients altered to cross over the new lines at Abbeyhill.
To pass under Easter Road, the Railway built a bridge over the trackbed, giving the street a distinctive hump and blind summit.
And under Leith Walk, the railway managed to squeeze in a steel-lined tunnel, literally inches below the surface. This was exposed during excavations recently for the tramway extension down that street.
So it’s obvious now why London Road was realigned, but why was Lower London Road maintained? The answer lies within Comely Green Place and –Crescent, a small Georgian development where Abbeyhill met London Road and the old road to Restalrig (Marionville Road). To protect the proprietors of these developments, it was again mandated by the Town Council that this direct access to existing properties be retained.
In the image below, the Georgian tenement of Comely Green Place is on the left. “Lower” London Road rises steeply here towards the green-clad building in the distance to join the level of the realigned London Road over the railway, which now runs up on the embankment to the right. The staircase was built by the railway to provide foot access between the new and old alignments of London Road from Comely Green.
A similar set of steps was built further east to give access from Kirkwood and Taylor Place where there’s an old, established right of way here under the North British / East Coast mailine railway.
At Abbeyhill, it is harder to notice the change of alignment and difference in height between the old and new roads due to the 1897 tenements of Cadzow Place, but if you go around the back into the sheltered housing development, you will notice that the ground at the rear is considerably lower and there is an extra storey to the rear.
The Abbeyhill Colonies, built between 1867 and 1876, were built to provide good quality workers housing for the district, appealing in particular to employees of the Railway at St. Margaret’s Depot and to the maltings and iron foundry nearby. Built on the original ground level, they had progressively more awkward and steep approaches to London Road as you headed east. These would later be replaced by steps (there’s quite a few public stairways in this neighbourhood!)
At the eastern end of Lower London Road, is splits off of London Road at a very fine angle, the two effectively run in parallel a few metres apart for most of the length, with London Road getting ever higher as it climbs up to cross the railway.
The final, compelling clue that Lower London Road is not quite what it seems is to be found on the retaining wall between it and London Road. It’s quite clearly two different walls! The original road boundary wall is in a rough, reddy sandstone. Above the pale line of the original coping stones is a completely different material and finish of wall; it was extended up to support the embankment when the road was re-aligned.
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
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