Wednesday 26 August 2020

A Very Special Weekend!

 By train to a fantastic weekend in Edinburgh

Sharing a bathroom with film stars!
This year makes a special milestone in my marriage, and a year ago my wife and I planned a very special holiday to mark it. We booked short tour of the Scottish Highlands on the Belmond Royal Scotsman, a luxury "cruise" train, to visit the one line out of Inverness which was still on our "to do" list. The tour started in Edinburgh on the day after our anniversary, so we also booked two nights at The Balmoral hotel to ensure that the day itself would be special and that we would be sure to be there for the start of the tour with no last-minute rush. There was so much to look forward to in the Royal Scotsman tour that I had given very little thought to the weekend in Edinburgh that was to precede it, but all that was to change when I came to pay the balance of the fare to Belmond - and I shall come to that shortly. First I really must tell you about the booking of the hotel for the weekend!

The Balmoral is not just any old hotel. It was originally the railway hotel for the North British Railway, later part of the LNER and then British Rail, of course (see Update in footnote). The railway hotels were sold off in the 1980s and this one was bought and refurbished to an exceptionally high standard by Rocco Forte Hotels and is now a very high-end hotel and bookings are made though Grand Luxury Hotels who appoint a Guest Experience Manager to look after guests prior to arrival. Our weekend was to be special so we wanted a room overlooking the castle, and we wanted a good room, and ... the weekend was during the Edinburgh Festival, so, taking all this together, it was not cheap! They asked if a room was sufficient or if we'd prefer a suite: I opted for a room since we did not intend to live in it, just sleep. After my Guest Experience Manager had been appointed I received an email message asking what time my flight was due to arrive and which class of Mercedes I would prefer for my transfer from the airport ... and all this at a railway hotel! I might have known that odd things would happen when the person taking the booking pronounced the city's name "Eedinburrow": it was plain that she had never been there and had no idea how things worked in the UK. I wrote back explaining that the hotel was above one of Britain's most important rail stations and that it would probably take me longer to fly there from Stamford than to go by train. (And even if I had flown, I think the tram from the airport would have been fine by me!)

Everything was booked, then, about a year in advance, but then like everything else in 2020 it all started to unravel with the advent of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Most of this year's outings in the spring and summer were cancelled and refunded early, but the August ones we hoped might happen. Unfortunately although the Royal Scotsman could run with only 20 passengers, just over half of its normal load, the other 18 still booked on it were American and could not get to Scotland, so that part of the holiday was cancelled. The Balmoral hotel, however, had just reopened and our booking still stood, so as soon as I could get train tickets the holiday, at one-third of its planned length, was still on, and it did cover the date of the wedding anniversary, which was great. Now the "supporting act" became the main attraction and we started to replan the trip around The Balmoral.

Booking the train tickets turned out to be a little more interesting than usual because the outbound ones, on a Saturday, were not released until a couple of weeks before departure, so I had to invest in the return part in the hope we could get there! Otherwise it would have had to be a long drive in the car and an application for  refund for the return train trip. But it all came out all right in the end, although the reduced frequency of trains between Stamford and Peterborough meant that we started this luxury holiday on a bus to Peterborough. But Delaine's buses are very good and all worked well.

Just as with the Cross Country trains the previous weekend, the catering was minimal, so we took a packed lunch for the journey. we were supplied with coffee, biscuits, crisps and water with our First Class booking, but not the usual hot lunch that we had hoped to enjoy before the pandemic changed everyone's plans. This was by far our longest trip so far on LNER's "Azuma" Intercity Express Train and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride in spite of having to wear face-coverings and forego the usual standard of luncheon. We were required to sit in the seats reserved for us, chosen by LNER to ensure social distancing, although this had to be changed by our train manager because someone else had "stolen" our seats: she could check which ones were available and ensured we would not be disturbed again. This ride up the East Coast Main Line is one of my favourites, with a fast, comfortable train and some incomparable views, especially of the Northumberland coast but also including Durham, the Tyne at Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed and some magnificent stations, too, at York and Newcastle.

We arrived at Edinburgh within a minute or two of the advertised time and made our way up to Princes Street to the hotel, at number 1 Princes Street. As we approached the front door with our cases, a concierge approached and asked if we were checking in - we must have looked like Balmoral guests ... we checked in and went to our room, the cases having been taken away to be brought up to us. We had booked one of the better rooms in the hotel but were given a free upgrade to a better one still. As I mentioned, this had been going to be Edinburgh Festival week but, of course, that was cancelled and so presumably the hotel had many spare rooms available. They knew we were there for a special anniversary because when I had called to book a table for dinner on the Sunday they had asked if it was for a special occasion, so it was very good of them to let us have an even better room. When we opened the door we were amazed by the room which was not only spacious and well-equipped but was right at the top of the building in one of the corner turrets with the most fantastic view long Princes Street as well as up the the castle. I could not have asked for a better room.

We unpacked and made our way down to the Palm Court where we had booked (everything has to be booked now) afternoon tea; just as we were leaving our room a basket of fruit was delivered by the house staff - all part of the service here! We had booked the tea as a substitute for dinner and went for a fairly late tie for tea, at 5pm. We were welcomed into the Palm Court and shown to a suitable table in the typically pleasant atmosphere of traditional palm court within the atrium of this hotel built on a square plan. Elsewhere in the hotel is a poster from inter-war days showing the Palm Court as it was then, and it is quite recognisable today. There was a choice of tea and an option to begin with a glass of Champagne,
which, naturally, we did.  We each had our own choice of tea, poured from a great height into personal teapots so that it was cool enough to drink immediately, and a plate of savouries which included a haggis tart, the first of several haggis-based dishes we would have over these two days. Two hours was allowed for afternoon tea and we used most of that, consuming two pots of tea each in spite of also having Champagne and water. Although each item in the meal seemed to be small, there was plenty to eat and we were well-filled. We did not even need to start on the basket of fruit in our room before bed-time! At the end of the meal we were given a small tin of tea and a couple of chocolates each to take away. The chocolates survived until the train home on Monday, and we started the tea at our first tea-time at home on Tuesday - having run out of our St Pancras Blend tea it was good to have something special again.

We went for a long walk after tea, to the other end of Princes Street, back around the castle and along The Royal Mile to Holyrood and then back to the hotel.

On the Sunday we had originally had nothing planned, but before we left home had managed to book a visit to the Scottish National Gallery for the late morning, all attempts to get tickets for the National Museum of Scotland having failed. These venues were both free-of-charge but needed booking for space reasons during the pandemic. We started the day with a great breakfast at the hotel - again booked in advance by completing a form left in our room at turn-down - and then made our way via a shop or two to the art gallery just along Princes Street. It is a small gallery but with a wide selection of styles and artists, including the universally-known Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer which was amazing to see for oneself rather than printed on a biscuit tin!

The breakfast was intended to last all day until the special dinner booked for the evening, so after our time at the art gallery we went straight on to our next activity, booked the day before, a visit to the Royal Botanic Garden. It was drizzling all the way there, about a half-hour walk, but dried up as we arrived. There was an occasional shower during our visit but nothing to spoil it. We were there to enjoy the gardens rather than study botany, and of all the botanic gardens we have visited, this is the best for that, for the layout and landscaping is superb. Do visit here is you're in Edinburgh, but try to choose better weather than we had! It is hard to do it justice in a photograph: you have to be there.

The third course, Orkney Scallop
We returned to the hotel via Harvey Nichols, for there was something we needed that we had been unable to source anywhere else, and it is not every day that we are in a city with a branch of that particular emporium. Showering after the day's weather and dressing for dinner we made our way down to another of the hotel's restaurants, named "Number One" after the hotel's street address, for the seven-course table d'hôte tasting menu that we had booked before leaving home. This would be our special meal for our anniversary.

We had done these tasting menus before: lots of small courses which can be accompanied by matching wines, but we opted on this occasion simply to start with a single glass of Champagne and then have a bottle of a light red wine which would go reasonably well with the whole meal. A glass for each course has always left us feeling that we've had too much alcohol before we have finished the meal.
Before the seven courses started we were brought "something to nibble," an amuse-bouche, and some bread and butter (both bread and butter the chef's own recipe and made to order - nothing from a factory here) as well as a glass of water, and the bread and water were topped up as the meal went on.

Three fish courses and a single large ravioli brought us eventually to the beef which was served with three vegetables and potato, but these were unrecognisable as they were presented, each of them delicious and, amazingly, filling. The beef, Highland, of course, was superb.

We opted not to have the optional cheese course and went straight to the two desserts, again, small, delicious and plenty. Espresso coffee rounded off the meal nicely and we retired to our room well-satisfied.

On the final day we were not due to leave until the 16:00 train, so we arranged to check out at 15:00 and had a final attempt, unsuccessful, to obtain admission to the National Museum and decided to go on a bus tour of the city instead, having been plied with a leaflet by Bright Bus on our first evening. It has a stop opposite the museum and runs every fifteen minutes so we went to the stop and waited for just a few moments. With our senior discount the fare was just £9 each for hop-on, hop-off travel on the tour bus all day. The rain held off and the open-top bus took us round a lot of the city with an informative commentary, and it interesting to see from a higher vantage point some of the places we had walked on the first evening. We left the bus near the castle and walked down through Princes Street Gardens, which had been closed for the previous two days, always a great place to be, and then made our way back, checked out and walked round the corner to the station for our train home.

Again we had a great ride along the Northumberland Coast and were plied with coffee, tea, biscuits and crisps from the First Class host at the end of the train (no trolley services anywhere during the pandemic) and took our own salad dinner bought from Mark & Spencer earlier in the day. Things went slightly awry at Newcastle Central when some passengers had to be refused boarding because they refused to wear face coverings, currently a legal requirement, and we left there five minutes late. This was slightly troublesome because we had a very tight connection to our train home at Peterborough. Some of the time was clawed back, however, and although we were a touch late getting into Peterborough it was easy enough to get over to platform 7 and board our train home. Unbelievably some people near us on the train south of York all claimed to be exempt from the face covering rule and although the train manager had to give them the benefit of such doubt as there was, he did check their tickets and ordered them to leave as they were not in their booked seats - indeed they were travelling First Class on standard tickets.

All in all we had had a wonderful time. Not as wonderful as we had expected when we first booked it a year ago but wonderful anyway. It was just a weekend but it was a great weekend. It had been expensive but we had what we paid for and felt we'd had excellent value. The hotel and the art gallery had only been open a matter of days after closure because of the coronavirus pandemic and yet we were served brilliantly by capable and dedicated staff, and at the hotel in particular felt like valued customers - which we probably were, given the number who must have cancelled. No foreign guests, no Festival. We were fortunate that The Balmoral was still trading. 

We shall try to take our Royal Scotsman trip next year, and we hope we can stay at The Balmoral again before we take that train.


I have now posted a brief description of our previous stay at the then North British Hotel in 1984: you can see it at Back in Time for a Break in Edinburgh! It was all very different then.

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