‘It’s just vital’: Edinburgh activists rally to protect Astley Ainslie’s green space

Fiona Brownlee and her grandchildren were among the first to sign up to help protect the rare and endangered trees that populate the grounds of Astley Ainslie, a century-old convalescence hospital in south Edinburgh being eyed up by housing developers.

Harry Brownlee, four, befriended a Lawson cypress; Carys, seven, a Holm oak; Ella, five, a white willow and Ava Strachan, eight, a horse chestnut. Fiona, a retired paediatric occupational therapist who started her training at Astley Ainslie in 1966, grabbed a Spanish chestnut. Her grandchildren, who live locally, play in the landscaped grounds of the hospital.

They are among about 30 people, including the novelist Ian Rankin, who have adopted trees as part of a campaign by the Astley Ainslie Community Trust (AACT) to protect the heavily wooded 17-hectare (42-acre) campus, which has been earmarked for sale later in the 2020s.

In common with NHS boards and trusts across the UK, NHS Lothian is consolidating services as it wrestles with funding shortfalls and rising costs. It said any sell-off depended on securing funding to build new facilities at another nearby hospital, the Royal Edinburgh. Some Astley Ainslie buildings are already vacant, and used as canvases for graffiti artists.

Fiona Brownlee believes the value of the carefully laid out grounds, centred around four Victorian-era villas donated to Edinburgh 100 years ago for the city’s first convalescent hospital, grew during the Covid crisis.

“It’s really important to keep a community green space in the south of Edinburgh, with everything that has been going on,” she said. “It’s vital it is kept green and free, with the whole ethos of rehabilitation and mindfulness; it’s just vital for mental health.”

Astley Ainslie borders on the Grange, one of Scotland’s most expensive residential neighbourhoods, where tall sandstone walls shield large villas and their landscaped gardens. Selling the site would earn NHS Lothian millions of pounds. The AACT hopes to lodge a community buyout bid once it goes on the market.

Maggie Carson, a nurse and lecturer who has worked at Astley Ainslie and initiated the befriending project (she has taken an endangered atlas cedar), said its parkland design was deliberate, intended to foster patients’ recuperation and wellbeing. She fears that once the diggers move in, the tree preservation orders protecting the site will be waived.

“They recognised the importance of having green space, of looking out on to trees,” she said. “When we need to marshal a grassroots campaign we will have people ready to stand by their tree, and say: ‘No, you’re not taking this tree down.’”

Astley Ainslie, which was bought in 1921 with an £800,000 bequest from the Ainslie family, pioneered occupational therapy techniques in Scotland. The site is believed to have links to medicine dating back to the 1500s. It remains a specialist hospital for rehabilitation and physiotherapy – work which Rankin has come to appreciate.

His youngest son has severe special needs. He gets physiotherapy at Astley Ainslie, using its therapeutic pool and living in a specialist care home very close by. Rankin has befriended a cherry tree.

“If you’re in a wheelchair in that part of Edinburgh, there’s not a lot of green land around you can go around and visit easily,” he said. “It’s a place for quiet contemplation; it’s a place where you can unwind. It’s a little oasis, really.”

There are about 2,000 trees across the site. The collection includes wellingtonia, a giant sequoia from the west coast of North America; a cedar of Lebanon – threatened in the Middle East by global heating; a deodar cedar and a Bhutan pine, both common in the Himalayas; a Monterey cypress; and a Turkey oak – chosen by horticulturalists from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) before the war.

David Knott, RBGE’s current curator of living collections, has befriended a sequoia. He believes that since a tree’s lifespan is often two to three times that of a human, they help shift people’s planning horizons from the immediate to the longer term.

Given the climate and Covid crises, it would be ironic if trees planted in a convalescence hospital were sacrificed for developers, he added. “I might be biased, but I think all trees are special. With the pandemic we’ve all become more appreciative of what’s on our doorstep.”

George Curley, NHS Lothian’s director of facilities, said the board agreed. A recent biodiversity audit had underscored how significant the site’s parkland and trees were to its patients and staff, and to the local community.

“The site of the Astley Ainslie hospital is one of the most significant in NHS Lothian’s estate portfolio in terms of green space and biodiversity, and orders to preserve the trees and their natural beauty are in place,” he said. “We are looking closely at whether we could make more use of the green space on site for care and treatment for patients and for staff.”

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