11 December 2010

A Sassenach in the snow

SONY DSC [Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street]

Two weeks ago at the end of November I spent a long weekend revisiting Edinburgh.  It had been far too long since my last visit to Scotland – more than three years in fact, and that was a trip for work so I didn’t have much time to explore on foot.  Seeing as ex-Wellington netball teammate Fiona lives there now and kindly offered the use of her spare room, I thought it was high time to return and renew my connection with Edinburgh’s sights and attractions. 

On the Friday evening a minivan trundled me slowly from West Brompton and around the M25 to Gatwick, with the crisp night air outside displaying all the hallmarks of the cold snap that was sweeping over Britain.  Indeed, as the Easyjet plane climbed out northwards from London the pilot revealed that the temperature at Gatwick was actually colder than that in Edinburgh.  Snow was forecast, so I was looking forward to a white weekend.  But I didn’t quite expect the volume of snow that was dumped all over Scotland, which had a major impact on the weekend’s activities.

I didn’t arrive until relatively late on Friday night, so the only mission of the evening was to head for Fiona’s digs in Portobello, which is a sea-side suburb east of the city centre.  I took the convenient airport link bus into Princes Street in the middle of Edinburgh, and from the bus stop outside Jenners department store and across from the Walter Scott Memorial I boarded another bus for the journey out to Portobello.  There I caught up with Fiona and heard about her life in Edinburgh and work at the University, and we reminiscing about Wellington and the travails of Top Shelf indoor netball games.


SONY DSC Saturday morning arrived with a healthy layer of snow outside and a temperature hovering just below freezing.  Our initial plan was to take a daytrip out to Stirling to see the castle there, but upon arrival at Edinburgh Waverley station we discovered that there were no direct services and the next indirect service had been cancelled.  Stirling was put in the too hard basket, and instead we walked up to the Royal Mile to admire the heart of old Edinburgh.  After venturing inside the graceful St Giles Cathedral, we trooped along with the crowds to the top of the Mile to visit Edinburgh Castle (pictured above). 

There were large crowds milling about, and it turned out this was due to free entrance for St Andrew’s Day weekend.  We enjoyed the spectacular views over the whole of modern Edinburgh, and a side-trip to the National War Museum of Scotland, which contained some interesting exhibits on Scottish martial exploits, including some pleasingly old-school recruiting posters and a Scottish royal standard once flown by Otago troops in the New Zealand defence of Crete in 1941. 

The grand hall in the old inner sanctum of the castle was the meeting-place of the Scottish Parliament until 1639, and its refurbished interior impressed with its bright stained-glass windows and the original hammer-beamed roof, painted in a bright and cheery shade of red to liven up the long winter days. 


[Arthur’s Seat from Edinburgh Castle]



[Clockwise from top left: Seaforth Highlanders regimental recruiting poster; stained glass windows in the Great Hall; New Zealand Otago infantry Scots royal emblem from the Battle of Crete, 1941; hammer-beam ceiling of the Great Hall] 


We also took a detour to view the Scottish crown jewels – a crown, sceptre and sword, which were lost for over a century after Union of 1707 and not rediscovered until 1818.  This proved to be an mixed blessing, because while the regalia was interesting to behold, the relentlessly slow and winding queue for the small viewing room took an age to snake its way through stuffy, poorly-ventilated chambers.  A set of replicas in a larger, more comfortable gallery would have sufficed.

After the castle we returned to the new town across the gardens, where we met Fiona’s friend Rebecca.  After pausing at an Italian cafe for some coffee and cake we ventured back out into the chill and into one of the outdoor German Christmas markets that have taken the UK by storm in the past decade.  Fighting our way through the crowds, we supped delicious glühwein and admired the lights of the winter funfair in the park beside the Walter Scott Memorial.  Don’t think I’d be keen to ride on a Ferris wheel when it’s minus five degrees, no matter how warmly I’m wrapped up!



SONY DSC The next morning the snow was even thicker, and there was plenty more forecast to fall through the day.  I was determined to visit Stirling, so we decided to try our luck at the train station.  The trains turned out to be running despite the weather, so we set off from Edinburgh Waverley for the hour-long journey inland to Stirling, home of a famous castle that rivals Edinburgh’s own for its spectacular site.  The countryside was blanketed in a thick layer of snowdrifts, and during our visit the sky was seldom without a fresh batch of flakes fluttering down. 

SONY DSCStirling Castle sits atop a crag overlooking the town, which affords it commanding views over the surrounding plains and contributed to its position as the strategic heart of medieval Scotland.  Hold the bridge at Stirling, it was said, and you control the kingdom.  We made our way up the slippery hill, pausing to brave the blustery hilltop wind to admire the beauty of the thick drifts covering the churchyard of the medieval Church of the Holy Rude (pictured right and below). 



The castle, which has been besieged at least eight times during its long history, was just a short step away.  Upon clambering the remaining short distance to the gatehouse we were impressed with the splendid views over the surrounding terrain, but less than impressed by the firmness with which the castle gates were shut.  There was no sign of life within its walls, no note pinned to the gate, and no cars cluttering the carpark.  Disappointed, we paused to admire the view of the famous sites beneath the castle.  The site of the old Stirling Bridge over the Forth River was the site of a stirring victory by William Wallace over the English in 1297, and overlooking it is the Wallace Monument, a spindly Victorian Gothic tower erected in 1869 to honour the Scottish national hero.  A short way to the south, the village of Bannockburn was the site of a notorious Scottish defeat at the hands of Edward II in 1314.

Stitched Panorama

We traipsed back down the slippery road to town, and thought to pay a quick visit to the nearest pub to ask if they knew why the castle was shut.  Here we discovered the castle staff, who had settled in for a Sunday drink seeing as their workplace was closed.  We were told that the castle was shut ‘for health and safety reasons’, and that it was the first time the castle had failed to open in seven years.  Just my luck to visit on that day!  Although I wasn’t particularly impressed with the castle attendants’ fortitude.  If we Sassenachs (well, I’m one, anyway) could get up there safely on foot I don’t see why they couldn’t open the place up.  

SONY DSC In lieu of a castle visit we enjoyed a walk along the woodland paths around the castle crag, and admired the fine wooden statue adorning the nearby John Cowane’s Hospital, which was opened in 1639 ‘for the entertainement of decayed gild brethren’ (pictured right).

Returning to town with a little more time on our hands, we visited the pleasant Smith Art Gallery & Museum, which allowed me my closest glimpse so far of a red squirrel (yes, it was stuffed, in a glass case), and contained an exhibit of the world’s oldest football, which was accidentally kicked up into the rafters of Stirling Castle at some point in the 1540s or earlier and then walled up until the 1970s.


Finally we made our way back to Portobello, where we watched Antiques Roadshow, Garrow’s Law and even a bit of Strictly, so now I can say I’ve actually seen Ann Widdecombe’s admittedly hilarious dancefloor atrocities with my own disbelieving eyes.


Monday morning dawned with yet more snow falling.  Do you sense a theme developing?  Fiona headed off to work, and I made my way to town on the bus a short while later.  Edinburgh buses, or at least the ones I travelled on, take ages to get anywhere because there are a simply astonishing number of bus stops peppered along the route.  Edinburghers must hate walking!  On one straight stretch of the 26 bus route, the one running from Portobello to the city along Portobello Rd, Piersfield Tce and London Rd, there are (I think) 21 bus stops over a distance of 3880 metres – that’s an average of only 184 metres between stops.  Every time the bus pulled over I had to resist the temptation to look out the back window to see if the rear wheels were still alongside the previous stop. 

When I finally reached Princes Street I made my way up to the old town, where I visited the National Museum of Scotland, which opened in 1998 and is very much in the ‘new museum’ style of Te Papa in Wellington.  As I explored the exhibits there were few other visitors, due to the challenging conditions outside, so I had plenty of room to wander.  The historic collections were appealing, particularly in the medieval section.  This boasted the tiny Monymusk Reliquary, the 8th century casket that was reputed to hold relics of St Columba, and was regarded as the sacred battle emblem of Scottish armies.  A selection of the famous 12th century Lewis Chessmen were also displayed.  These were intriguing but also noteworthy due to the relatively poor condition of the specimens in comparison with those held by the British Museum in London.  Whatever their state, the shield-biter pawns still raise a smile after eight centuries.


The rest of the museum dealt with Scotland’s rich modern history, and I among the many exhibits I particularly enjoyed seeing the lyrics of ‘Letter From America’, signed by Craig and Charlie Reid of the Proclaimers.  But I also found some of the display methodology a little irritating.  In the museum’s quest to be inclusive and non-intimidating to younger visitors, it has shifted from displaying facts about interesting objects towards displaying what young people feel about the objects, with observations from members of the museum’s youth board alongside (and therefore reducing the space available for) the historical blurbs.  And the fondness for nebulous spiritualism in the form of po-faced poetry excerpts attempting to illustrate thematic points could probably be done without too.  But don’t let me put you off visiting the museum – it’s free after all.

SONY DSCAfterwards I ventured across the street to the famous Greyfriars Kirkyard, where the iconic canine Greyfriars Bobby pined at his master’s graveside for over a decade until his own death in 1872.  The real attraction on the day I visited was the beautiful rolling snowdrifts, which were almost pristine.  Well, until I traipsed through them to get my pictures, that is.  The sun shone from the crispest of blue skies, lending the scene an almost filmic quality. 

SONY DSC DSC08426_7_8 Stitched Panorama 


Not long after sunset (which is around four o’clock in winter-time) I collected my bags from Fiona’s place and made my way back out to the airport.  There had been plenty of flight cancellations but the Easyjet website had no up-to-date information on whether or not my particular flight had been cancelled.  I decided I had to try to reach the flight, even if the chances of travelling were dwindling.  Indeed, on arrival at Edinburgh airport it took less than five minutes to determine that the flight, and all other flights scheduled for that evening, was indeed cancelled.  I collected a refund claim form and made my way back to Portobello for an unscheduled fourth night in Scotland!


SONY DSC The next morning I renewed my goodbyes and made my way to Waverley station, having booked a one-way train ticket back to London because there was little chance of the airport re-opening.  My 9.30am train was cancelled but as luck would have it the 9am train had yet to leave, so I bounded aboard and secured a window seat for the journey back to King’s Cross.  This was scheduled to take under four and a half hours, but in the end took over six hours due to snow delays on the line and a missing driver in Newcastle (!).  The countryside views were superb, but I cursed the lack of space in my cabin luggage, which meant I hadn’t brought my noise-cancelling headphones.  So for six long hours I had to put up with Loud Scottish Businesswoman honking into her Blackberry every ten minutes, a noisy pair of Norwegian guys who talked as if they were seated ten metres apart instead of next to each other, and the young Spanish kid in the seat behind me whose mother seemed content for him to make farty noises with his palm for at least 45 minutes.  Yes, if I learned one thing on this trip, it’s that I should never travel without noise cancelling technology again!

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