When you live right next to the sea in a place like Edinburgh, Scotland- it isn't too difficult to understand how and why one's relationship with water is so important. There certainly is a key historic relationship with water on many different levels. In fact, I am sure that, as I expand this blog, we will examine the various ways that water has played an important part of locals' lives.
Water is a theme I've explored in my past two blog posts. So, I decided to continue a similar line of thinking for this week's article. However, this week we're going to explore a more health-related look at the topic with a dash of Greek mythology thrown in. Whether drinking it, bathing in it, or even smelling it- water has been used as a medicinal and healing property. And, the feature for this week's article is St. Bernard's Well; it is an historic place built so that locals could go improve their health by 'taking the waters'.
Walking along the banks of the Water of Leith, this magnificent monument is as a lovely surprise nestled among its woodland surrounding. Sadly, most of the year, access to the monument is closed. However, we were recently able to go inside as it played 'host' to an installation that was part of the Edinburgh Art Festival and was open to the public. A brief history is in order before we get into our virtual exploration of the building.
St. Bernard's Well was commissioned by Lord Gardenstone and built in 1789. As a former student (and lifelong admirer) of art history, I find the entire structure spellbinding. However, of particular note is that it was built based on a design by the famous Scottish landscape artist, Alexander Nasmyth (National Galleries Scotland are in possession of quite a few Nasmyth paintings. You can check their website for more information). According to an informational board located at the site, Nasmyth "took his inspiration from the ancient Roman temple of Vesta, at Tivoli in Italy".
Since it was built, the Well has experienced a great deal of change that has seen it go from states of resplendent beauty to neglect and even a change of ownership. Almost 100 years after it was first commissioned by Lord Gardenstone, the Well was bought in 1885 by William Nelson, a wealthy publisher. Nelson set about having a 'lavish refurbishment' done. Most importantly for locals and visitors, he gifted St. Bernard's Well to the people of Edinburgh in 1888. There is a plaque to commemorate Nelson's restoration and gift to the city.
Unfortunately, the Well was closed after WWII and fell into disrepair. It wasn't until 2012, as part of a joint project by Edinburgh World Heritage and the city of Edinburgh Council, that restoration of the Well was undertaken as part of the Twelve Monuments project. One aspect of the work that was especially intriguing involved the repairs of the monument's domed roof. According to Edinburgh World Heritage, while working on the decorative pine cone at the top, they found traces of a "primer used to provide a stable base for applying gold leaf. Two special donations enabled the pine cone to be re-gilded". It truly is quite wonderful that organisations like Edinburgh World Heritage exist as they make sure to help preserve significant monuments such as St. Bernard's Well for future generations.
Now that we've established some important historical background, let's get to the part that I'm sure you've been waiting for- a proper exploration of the monument. We'll start on the outside and work our way in. The outside of the building is gently enveloped by classic Doric columns with a domed roof and capped with the gilded pine cone discussed earlier (if you look closely at the picture below you can see the pine cone). Inside the columns stands Hygeia- the ancient Greek goddess of health. As she is often classically depicted, she is holding a cup and a snake is seen nearby (see the first photo at the top); these are symbols connected to health and medicine. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for the goddess Hygeia to be the one charged with overlooking the Well and its visitors.
The base of the monument is normally closed, but as I mentioned previously, it was open on the day we visited. Walking through the small entryway, I felt my breath catch a bit at the beauty lying in wait for us. While it is a small space inside, the details are stunning. The Greek design continues throughout the
small room. For example, it is displayed in the tile mosaics that line the walls as well as the beautiful vase at the top of the actual well. However, the crowning achievement of the room is when you look up and gaze at the ceiling. The tile mosaics are designed to look like the night sky with gold stars and moon.
If I close my eyes, I can just envision Edinburgh residents in the 18th and 19th centuries coming to the Well for the mineral waters. There are plenty of lovely details throughout the room that ignite one's imagination. The handle once used to pump the water is quite ornate, and the housing surrounding the water works appears to be made of marble. Finally, there is another water spigot along the wall that is also detailed quite nicely.
I am excited to share with you that St. Bernard's Well will be open again on 29th of September 2019 from 12:00- 16:00 as part of the Doors Open Days events held across Scotland. If you are in Edinburgh during this time, make sure to take advantage of such a great opportunity to see the Well.
If you visit Edinburgh, please make sure to head over to the Stockbridge area of the city so that you, too, can explore St. Bernard's Well on the Water of Leith. After that, make sure you keep your walking shoes handy, because we would love to show you around more of the sites of Edinburgh. Just check out our homepage for more information on our walking tours of Edinburgh and to book directly.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!