Most visitors to Edinburgh have heard something about the 'underground city' in the Old Town. The two areas often described this way are Mary King's Close, an old lane off the Royal Mile, now a subterranean visitor attraction, and the vaults of the arches of South Bridge, where it crosses the Cowgate.
But there's rather more going on beneath the city's streets than just these two specific sites of interest. Over the years, the city has grow up in levels, with newer parts of the city laid upon pre-existing features. When the former Gilded Balloon site on Cowgate was being redeveloped ahead of the development of the new hotel building adjacent to South Bridge, old street layouts and the outlines of centuries-old houses were uncovered beneath what had been the foundations of the nineteenth century buildings.
Similarly, a few years ago, visitors to the Tron Kirk could walk around a raised platform to look down on the remains of Marlin's Wynd, another lost street. And of course the legends about hidden tunnels running the length of the city, connecting Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, persist even without any solid evidence that they were ever anything but urban legends and ghost stories...
Less dramatically, images like this one can be revealing about what's going on not far from the surface of Edinburgh's modern streets:
As the tarmac surfaces of the city's streets break away, it is possible to see underneath something of the original street surfaces, laid out as long sections of the Royal Mile still are today, with setts inlaid into the ground.
These stones are often mistakenly described as cobbles, the distinction being that cobbles are natural pieces of stone set into the roadway, whereas Edinburgh's setts are pieces of stone cut to a formal shape (often rectangular) before being laid. The purpose of streets laid with stone was to improve the experience of horses and carts - horses could achieve a more solid footing on solid stone, rather than bare dirt, and on some of the city's characteristic hills and slops, the difference between stonework and dirt could be the difference between a cart staying upright or tumbling over and spilling its cargo.
These setts are periodically relaid (as evidence by large sections of streets, either in the Old or New Towns, closed to traffic while the work is carried out) often utilising the original stones but relaying them on an improved foundation, to suit the volume of twenty-first century motor vehicle traffic. The preservation of these traditional stylings are a key part of Edinburgh's adherence to its World Heritage protection orders.
The potholes which frequently form in the city's streets often allow for a glimpse of these original street levels, just inches beneath our feet.
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