One of the most picturesque streets in Edinburgh's Old Town is Victoria Street which often features in my private Edinburgh tours. It gives a good example of not only the creative ways in which Edinburgh developed and was built on a rather challenging landscape of hills and valleys, but also shows how the city adapted in the nineteenth century to be more accessible and modern.
Victoria Street actually starts at the eastern end of the Grassmarket as West Bow, which was the original name of this historic thoroughfare. This route was originally the main road into Edinburgh for visitors coming from the north, west or south-west of the city. Snaking up the hillside in a zigzag made the road more accessible for horse-drawn vehicles, which wouldn't be able to navigate the much narrower lanes or 'closes' along the Royal Mile.
The top third of the route emerged onto the Royal Mile at the junction of Castlehill and Lawnmarket today, where the city's Butter Tron stood, a market place trading cheese, butter and other dairy products.
The buildings along the road give an indication of how the structures in the city stretched upwards as the city colonised the full stretch of the hillside. One of these buildings (with a cake shop at street level) is an original sixteenth-century building, in the traditional 'rubble built' style, of individual pieces of stones pieced together like a jigsaw.
The majority of the buildings along the road have been rebuilt or developed more recently, but look out for the dates 1616 and 1720 above some of the old doorways near the bottom end of the street.
In the 1830s, the West Bow was developed in order to make the route easier for people to navigate. George IV Bridge had been built across the Cowgate valley, and the middle section of West Bow was extended through the line of buildings which were demolished to create the new roadway, to join up with the northern end of this new bridge.
The top section of the road, Upper Bow, was closed off to traffic, and today a steep staircase connects the original top and middle third of the original route.
This new street was named for Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837. Intriguingly, the bottom end of the street is still West Bow, and the road changes name halfway up the hill at the site of the Bow Bar.
The best way to view this picturesque road is from Victoria Terrace, which is a pedestrian route which runs along the top of the road with views down the street - it may be familiar to users of Windows 10, where it features in a pre-installed desktop wallpaper...!
At the top of Victoria Street are the India Buildings, also named for Victoria (Grand Empress of India during her reign), and at the bottom of the West Bow section is one of the original city wells, dating from 1764 when a fresh water supply was established for the first time.
Victoria Street and the West Bow has recently achieved a degree of notoriety as one of the (slightly spurious) inspirations for the Harry Potter books, being a template for Diagon Alley, the wizards' market.
Join me on an Edinburgh tour to find out more about the real life 'Wizard of West Bow', which is a story not nearly as suitable for children!
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