Saturday 28 August 2021

The Royal Scotsman Classic Tour 1: getting there

Weekend in Edinburgh by train, take 2

Last year we celebrated our Ruby Wedding Anniversary. Among other things we planned a tour of the Scottish Highlands on the Belmond Royal Scotsman but unfortunately that fell victim to the pandemic (specifically to the impossibility of the foreign tourists, who had taken all the other places on the tour, being able to get here), so that holiday was truncated to (a very splendid) weekend in Edinburgh and a similar highland tour booked for this August instead, again with a weekend in Edinburgh to start it off.

The Royal Scotsman check-in is done at The Balmoral Hotel and last year I booked a couple of nights there in a special room in order to begin our special celebratory holiday in style, but this year we thought we'd try somewhere else so that we were not trying to emulate the wonderful time we'd had at The Balmoral last year, so I booked a couple of nights at the Hilton Edinburgh Carlton, just round the corner: it would still be a great room in a great hotel but would not just be a repeat of what we had already done. 

Like so many other trips this summer, booking the train tickets was a bit protracted as I waited for Advance tickets for the various sections of the journey to become available, but in the end all was booked and we just had to wait for the time to come. Fortunately we had our south coast holiday and our short break in London to enjoy so that we were not just pacing the room waiting for Scotland. Nevertheless, there were preparations to be made! Two of the dinners on the Royal Scotsman were to be formal and required traditional evening wear, so I had to check that my dinner suits were clean and pressed, ditto the dress shirts, and for the informal dinners on the other two evenings a jacket ("with or without a tie") was still needed, so I had to ensure that something suitable was also available for those. Then in Scotland in August it is anyone'e guess what the weather will be doing so a wide selection of daywear would be required to cope with anything from hot sun to pouring rain and cold: while we'd had cold, wet weather in England this August, it was not so in parts of Scotland. Thus our usual size of suitcase would be inadequate, especially for Alison's evening dresses. Before we went to London for the short break we had our larger cases out on the spare bed, the cases usually reserved for long European tours, and prepared most of the outfits we'd need, because we would be home for just one complete day before leaving for Edinburgh, so there would be little time to prepare and pack between the trips.

Two days before our trip began a freight train had collided with a tractor on an occupation crossing near March (which had disrupted our journey home from London), and the recovery and track repairs were still going on, but fortunately Cross Country Trains had managed to get the timetable back to normal between Stamford and Peterborough so our outward journey was not affected. Connections between our local trains and services to Edinburgh are a bit too tight for comfort and we were not in a hurry so I built in some slack with an extra hour in Peterborough: LNER had resumed their offer of free coffee and cake at the Great Northern Hotel for passengers with First Class tickets so it was easy to while away the time there with The Times Quick Cryptic crossword puzzle before going to platform 4 to await the LNER Azuma train to Edinburgh, the first time we had headed north since last year's shortened trip.

As ever, the ride with LNER in First Class was comfortable and the staff were attentive and helpful. We did not have the coffee, having had that at the Great Northern Hotel, but had fruit juice and biscuits in the morning and then sandwiches and wine for lunch when the time came, north of York. By the time we came to the best scenery, in Northumberland, the weather was not great but the mist and rain did clear for us to have a good view of Lindisfarne and of Berwick-upon-Tweed. One more cup of tea and the Scottish capital was almost upon us, a very light drizzle awaiting us (this was August 2021, after all) as we left the train.

Leaving Waverley station on the south side was simple enough (using the lift to the footbridge because of our larger-than-usual suitcases), but the closure of the stairs up to North Bridge meant a bit of a detour with even more steps up, but even so we were very soon at our hotel and were checked in. I had booked a "King Executive Room" which sounded more comfortable than most, and it was. It also included, and I did not take this in until check-in, access to the "Executive Lounge", of which more later. I had asked for a street view and we got one, but it was not the main street, North Bridge, but Market Street, where we had just walked with our luggage, with the glass roof of Waverley station beyond.

After checking in and unpacking enough for two nights (and our best clothes to reduce the creasing!) we strode off to The Balmoral: one thing I had booked the same as last year was our Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court at The Balmoral. This time we did not have the Champagne but we did drink quite a lot more tea. The meal is a fixed price and is for up to two hours - I booked 5pm, the latest time that allows the full two hours and late enough for it to count as our evening meal - and unlimited tea and/or coffee is included in the price. It is hard to imagine anyone requiring any more food than is provided, or needing another meal after it. It is simply wonderful, even without the Champagne, and highly recommended (advance booking recommended, too) if you find yourself in Edinburgh. The surroundings of the Palm Court and the attentive staff add to the experience - you may have seen them all on the TV series broadcast by Channel 5 earlier this year.

A little walk after tea and then it was time to write the start of this blog post and get ready for bed, catching up with such reading as had not been done on the train. 

After a good night's sleep in the king bed we went for the included breakfast in the hotel's dining room, a Marco Pierre White restaurant like one we'd visited for afternoon tea once in London (only more spacious) where the full buffet breakfast was on offer, the first we'd come across since the stat of the pandemic. It seemed really weird sharing serving spoons etc and we sanitised our hands before and after helping ourselves to our breakfast elements - we were very much aware of the necessity of keeping clear of infection, in spite of our vaccinations, because we had to have a negative Covid test to board the Royal Scotsman, and we had our test kit ready for use later in the day - it had to be within 24 hours of check-in for the train. It was a delicious breakfast and the staff were really helpful. Had to have haggis, of course, with the cooked course.

Last year we had been unable to visit the National Museum of Scotland but now advance booking was not only available but required and I had booked our admission long ago to ensure that the Sunday would be the museum day. We spent some time there and caught up on things we had not seen when we visited the city a few years earlier, plus the temporary gallery on the Galloway Hoard of Viking age treasure which was absolutely fascinating.

We returned briefly to our room and then set off again to the National Trust for Scotland's Georgian House which we'd seen before, many years ago, and had booked in advance to visit again this time. memories fade and exhibits are updated, so sometimes a revisit is worthwhile especially as National Trust members because we can visit as often as we wish at no cost. There was some commotion in the street outside because the official residence of the First Minister of the Scottish Government is next door and a couple of dozen people were holding some sort of anti-mask protest. I do not know whether she was at home but for her sake I hope she was able to get some peace on a Sunday afternoon in her own home. The Georgian House gives a wonderful glimpse into the world of Georgian society and the history of "new town" Edinburgh, "the Athens of the North", and was to us especially redolent of Georgian houses we have lived in at various times. Knowing that there was a gastronomic experience to come during the week, our "dinner" that evening consisted of the included refreshment offering at the Executive Lounge at the hotel. This was really rather good, the sort of thing that used to be on offer in First Class on East Coast trains a few years ago: a light hot meal with snacks and drinks (including wine), at no extra cost.

It was a relief to do the required Covid19 tests and get a negative result, but then there was still a difficulty sleeping because, two years after planning this trip and one year after we were supposed to have done it, we finally looked like we would be on our way in the morning! But we did sleep and after another good breakfast we made our way to the Royal Scotsman check-in at The Balmoral Hotel where our luggage was taken away and we met our tour manager Gerry and one or two other passengers including Les, an "ambassador" from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society who on the tour with two society members visiting distilleries while the rest of us were doing the classic Royal Scotsman tour and who would teach the rest of us all we wanted to know about whisky. In due course we were taken with the other passengers (about two dozen) to the platform at Waverley station where a piper was waiting to pipe us to the waiting train. At last, two years after first booking this trip it was about to begin!

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