Sunday 21 February 2016

Built on Three Hills

The view from the Castle rock to Calton Hill, two of the three
volcanic vents which shape Edinburgh (the other is Arthur's
Seat). Waverley station in foreground, Firth of Forth behind.
We were sort-of bounced into a holiday in Scotland, using up our last East Coast Rewards free First Class tickets. It has always been tempting to go as far north as possible to get the maximum value (mean? me?), but we did not fancy the Highlands in winter when booking three months ahead and it is a very long time since we visited Edinburgh, so we opted for Edinburgh which, as the capital of Scotland has a huge number of places to visit within a relatively small space. I only had enough Rewards points for three tickets, so bought my own ticket back using my Senior Railcard: the facility to choose our own seats on the train back meant that I could book seats together even though buying separately. So, three nights, four days, in the February school holiday week were duly booked at a hotel in Princes Street, one of the Mercure chain whose loyalty scheme I had joined in Paris a couple of years before but never used.

Crossing the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick on Tweed
We caught the 09:00 train to Peterborough and had half an hour to wait for our connection to Edinburgh - a wander round Waitrose always fills the time! It is always (well, usually - see the end of this story for the exception) a pleasure to board a Virgin Trains East Coast First Class coach and settle down for a ride. Before long the coffee is served and we are on our way. Our train was a few moments late, delayed behind a late-running local train from London, but this did not affect us in the slightest. What was disappointing was that the hot meal was unavailable for lunch, owing to an equipment failure in the train kitchen, but the sandwich option was very good and we were quite happy with that, especially as the catering crew leader kindly visited every passenger personally to explain and apologise. The Hop On Board ale went very well with the sandwiches and we were neither hungry nor thirsty when we arrived in Edinburgh. As always on this route, the scenery is great once we were north of York. The real spectacle starts with the view of Durham Cathedral and Castle and then just south Newcastle upon Tyne the Angel of the North, then the well-known Tyne bridges in the city itself, one of the few "iconic" (as they say these days) views in England outside London. Just after the stop at Newcastle, we passed the new castle which gave the city its name, and then the line draws closer to the east coast in Northumberland with spectacular sea views and brief glimpses of Bamburgh Castle and longer views of Holy Island. This ride is worth doing just for the scenery! There were hints of snow here and there, too, all the way.

Arrival into Edinburgh was just a few minutes late, and we were soon walking up the ramp directly off the platform onto Waverley Bridge. I had booked in advance a ticket for three royal tourist destinations in the city: the royal yacht Britannia, the Palace of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle, together with 48 hours unlimited use of the three tour bus routes in the city which, as well as being interesting in themselves, would take us to those three places. The booking office (well, hut) was on Waverly Bridge but the clerk on duty suggested we check into our hotel first and come back when we were ready for our first tour because the 48 hours begins the moment she issues the ticket. So, an hour later we were back and, armed with our bus ticket and tearable-off tickets for the three royal attractions we boarded our first tour bus.

This bus, the Edinburgh Tour, had a live commentary from a live guide called Gordon who had the usual line in feeble jokes so beloved of tour guides everywhere but also taught us a great deal about the city of Edinburgh on our long way round to Edinburgh Castle. From where we were starting, it would have been quicker to walk, but this tour got us started with some knowledge of the city, and did save us a lot of uphill walking! We had already seen most of the Royal Mile (the streets from the Palace to the Castle) within two hours of getting off the train.

The Castle was well worth a visit just for the view from it! We could see our hotel room window across Princes Street and its Gardens, and we could see most of Edinburgh ... including one tower of the Forth Bridge in the distance. The display of the Scottish crown jewels - the Honours - was fascinating in giving some insight into the history of relationships between England and Scotland and the nature of the Union. Such a pity that our shared monarch does not use the Scottish Honours as well as the Imperial crown, orb and sceptre. The Stone of Destiny (the Stone of Scone as it is often known) is now on display with the crown, orb and sceptre here and is actually far more significant to Scottish understanding of royalty than the crown is.

The Castle was closing for the night as we made our way out and down the hill to our hotel. For dinner we went out into the city and decided to eat at what had been the North British Hotel when we had stayed in it three decades previously with our infant sons but was now, oddly, the Balmoral Hotel and very upmarket. we had not booked and had to wait about half an hour for a table and took up the suggestion of having a drink in the bar. The bar was table-service (never had that before!) and very expensive - neat move, I thought. They assured us that the price of the drinks could be added to our restaurant bill and off we went. The meal was, I must say, fantastic, and worth the price, although they did manage to bring us "French fries" in place of the ordered French beans but soon corrected it: if they'd just called chips, "chips," it would not have been a mistake waiting to be made ...

And so back to a good night's sleep in our comfortable Mercure bed. This hotel had also been renamed but the old name (Mount Royal) persisted on some of the signage. Hard to know where you are these days ... We slept this night with the curtains open, falling asleep with the city's skyline in our minds and waking to an amazing orange and pink sky behind Arthur's Seat, the volcanic hill dominating the east end of the Old Town.

State Dining Room on board the Royal Yacht. Her Majesty
or her family could host large banquets wherever they went
with Britannia.
It is essential to have Cappuccino
at the tea room on Britannia in
order to get this stencilled
chocolate on top!
One ticket down, two to go, and after breakfast we caught the Majestic Tour bus off to the Ocean Terminal at Leith where we visited HMY Britannia, which I had planned as the centrepiece of these first two days. Finding the entrance was not a cinch, as the Ocean Terminal (in reality now a shopping centre) had rather few and unpredictable staircases and escalators but we got there in the end. The visit starts at the 2nd floor of the centre so that we worked our way down the ship, breaking our tour to have tea at the tea room on the royal deck, until we had seen the whole vessel. Almost everything is on display and the ship is actively being conserved: The tour, using personal audio guides, begins on the bridge and flag deck then the royal deck (complete with garage for Rolls Royce!) and then the crew's quarters and engine room.

I'd thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone who is in Edinburgh with two or three hours to spare. There are many local buses to Ocean Terminal without taking the time and expense of the tour bus if you are not interested in the tour, but this tour has a recorded multi-lingual commentary and we learnt a  to more about the history of Edinburgh on our way there - and the pre-booked, discount ticket not only saved us money but also avoided the queue at the ticket office.

We left the Royal Yacht and spent just a few moments around the shops at the Ocean Terminal before resuming the Majestic bus tour whose route took us through Leith to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. By now it was drizzling and very cold and windy but it was only a few seconds' walk to the entrance and our tickets let us straight in. Again there was an audio tour of the house and we were led through several state rooms but as this palace is still the Queen's official residence in Scotland there was also quite a lot we did not see. The tour finishes with the ruined Abbey of the Holy Rood which has a stark grandeur but by now the rain was heavier and the wind stronger and we did not stay long. We battled against the gales to the café for a snack to see us through to dinner and then began a walk back to our hotel along the Royal Mile, stopping at interesting places along the way, the first and most significant being the Museum of Edinburgh. This is a fairly small museum, free to enter and yet has some great presentations explaining the geological and human history of this great city. We did not see quite everything because it closed for the night before we had come to the very end, but we saw most things and enough - alongside our bus tours - to gain some understanding of how the city became what it is.

Back at our room we dressed for dinner. This was not putting on a dinner jacket but wrapping up as warmly as possible. Our dinner venue, which we had booked by telephone earlier in the day, was a restaurant just outside the castle gates which we had noticed on Monday afternoon when we'd had a drink the café at the same premises. It had a bargain-priced pre-theatre deal with an all-Scottish menu and so we had a starter of haggis balls and a main course of cullen skink, an amazing haddock broth, with a pint of heather ale. The view from the window was of the floodlit castle. Then back to our room for an early night after the exertions of the day - the main exertion being the walk to the restaurant: it was not far but it was at the top of the castle rock and then up two very long staircases, Probably the equivalent of climbing about fifteen floors altogether!

Our last full day I had not planned. Or, rather, I had planned but we ditched the plans: I had thought of a day trip to Glasgow because there are places there which had promised ourselves that we would visit one day, but we decided that this cold day was not the one. Another possibility had been a day trip to Aviemore to see the Cairngorms in the snow, but we decided to spend the morning doing the last of the three Edinburgh bus tours (our tickets being valid until 13:59, forty-eight hours after buying them) and then to visit another Royal Mile museum in the afternoon, the Museum of Childhood about which we had heard good things on the bus the day before. We lost track of the number of times we said, "I had one of those!" There were some things of which we said, "Our children had one of those," even. (By the way, I had the station platform and buildings in the photo ...)

We had enjoyed the meal at the Cannonball Restaurant the previous evening and so we decided to return this evening but a little later for the full menu and this time to dress properly and make an evening of it, starting with cocktails and finishing with single malt scotch whisky. It was a grand, but not cheap, evening out, and still involved the climb from our hotel on Princes Street. We were given liqueurs after the main course as a "welcome back" gift: this is a very friendly restaurant.

And so to bed.

A whisky still displayed at the
National Museum
On the last day we had no urgent plans for the morning and arrived for breakfast only just in time, then packed our things and checked out, leaving our cases in the luggage room and setting off across the valley again for the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street. This was until recently two museums and there is a connection between them only on one level. We spent all day in the part dedicated to the history of Scotland - with a short break for a snack lunch - and saw only about two-thirds of it. And we still have the other part to visit: another trip to Edinburgh is called for.

We returned to collect our cases from the hotel and made our way to Waverley station where we waited in the First Class lounge for our train, which was coming in from Aberdeen (the service we had used a couple of years ago when returning from Aberdeen ourselves).  When we boarded the First Class coaches were already almost full but our reserved seats were ready for us and we stowed our luggage and sat down. There were some very loud men, clearly the worse for drink, in the next seating bay behind me and they showed no sign of quietening down. This was very disappointing, for our travel in East Coast First Class had always been so relaxing but it was impossible to relax with travelling companions like these - what the Scots would call "numpties," I think. Because the train was so busy it was hard to find alternative seats, but we did find two together in the "Quiet Coach" and switched our telephones to silent mode, moved our luggage and sat down. This did rather disrupt the catering because the trolley had already passed our new seats, but the staff were absolutely marvellous and made sure that we did not lose out. The pie was as good as ever, as was the Hop On Board ale. Already dark there was nothing to be seen from the windows, but besides the eating and drinking I had my photographs to sort out and we were soon in Peterborough. We were a little late but just in time to make our connection to Stamford by the extra East Midlands evening train bound for Nottingham (had we missed it the regular Cross Country one was only twenty minutes later), and then we treated ourselves to a taxi home from the station.

So this leaves us with the need for at least two further trips to Scotland: one to visit the Highlands and one Edinburgh and Glasgow, or some other combination. Plans are already fermenting for one of these trips and perhaps we'll do it in 2017.

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