We’ve been away. Younger son picked us up at 8.30am last Wednesday morning and drove us to the local station where we caught the train to Birmingham. Although we’ve visited the Western Isles of Scotland a few times (and how beautiful they are), neither of us had been to Edinburgh but had heard wonderful things about it. First class tickets for a journey that will take the best part of five hours are expensive; fortunately ours were free! Train travel for us has not always been successful. You can read more about how we ended up with free tickets here: We didn’t visit Oxford today!(Part 1) and We didn’t visit Oxford (part 2) Given that history, as we stepped onto the Edinburgh train last Wednesday, we were not without trepidation, but all went smoothly. Having always driven to Scotland on previous visits, it was interesting to see the countryside from a different perspective and to travel for several miles alongside the coast. But five hours is a long time even in a comfortable seat whilst enjoying complimentary food and drink!
Look what greeted us as we emerged from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. Isn’t it glorious? And I’m not talking about the fact that it is a prosecco bar!
Several city centre hotels warned that the streets can be noisy at night so we opted to stay a couple of miles outside the centre, in Leith. Edinburgh’s principle port for 900 years, it’s a mix of historic and modern architecture and a long waterfront walk. Our room overlooked Newhaven lighthouse close to the harbour and had views over the Firth of Forth, the estuary which flows into the North Sea. As you can see, the sunset on that first evening was wonderful.
We’ve used the Hop on-hop off buses in a number of European cities and found them to be an excellent way to see the sights so we invested in a 2 day pass. Seemingly expensive at first, it proved excellent value as it covered two days of unlimited travel on all three city routes (which enabled lots of sightseeing) as well as priority admission to various places of interest. I could write at length about the attractions that the city has to offer (and there were a lot that remained unseen due to time restrictions) but I’ll share just a few of my favorite bits over the next couple of posts. Edinburgh’s city centre is surely one of the busiest places I’ve ever been. It would be bad enough in a car but the drivers who manoeuvre those huge buses around the narrow streets often lined with parked delivery vehicles have my greatest admiration. The Royal Mile leading to the castle surprised me. It is much narrower than I had imagined. I don’t like crowds but needs must so we walked up the gentle slope to the castle entrance.
High on Castle Rock ( which resulted from the eruption of a volcano 350 million years ago) the castle sits 430 feet above sea level and reputed be one of the most besieged places in Great Britain. It’s unlike most other castles and more of a fortified village with numerous buildings. From various vantage points, it offers views right across the city.
Although most of the buildings that can be seen today are post 16th century, there is evidence of there being a castle on this spot several centuries earlier, including the still standing 12th century St. Margaret’s Chapel which is said to be Edinburgh’s oldest building. A lover of stained glass (indeed all kinds of coloured glass) , I enjoyed seeing this representation of Queen Margaret (who lived at the castle in the late 1000s) in the tiny chapel.
The castle prison was evocative of a time when conditions were very harsh. It was very dark in there but you can just about make out the hammocks in which the prisoners slept. There were also individual cells, presumably for the worst offenders.
The castle entrance was a hive of activity as they are getting ready for the Military Tattoo in August. The seating takes six weeks to erect and then has to be taken down again as no permanent structure is allowed. I hear great things about the atmosphere but it’s not my kind of thing – too many people and according to the friendly (verbose) taxi driver, who took us to our hotel, we’d be paying up to £400 a night to stay there during the event!
Another few pictures – including soldiers at the castle and me by the gun battlement.
Moving on …
It was probably clear from my recent post on the Birmingham Back-to-back houses that my real interest in history lies in portrayals of domestic life for the working classes rather than in the sumptuousness of the grand houses and stately homes (though I know in which I’d rather have lived)! Whilst in Edinburgh there were certain attractions in particular that I really wanted to experience. One of these was The real Mary King’s Close. Beneath the streets of Edinburgh are… … …the streets of Edinburgh.
Let me explain: Below the famous Royal Mile lies a secret Edinburgh, a warren of real streets in which people lived and worked during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Back then these streets were as open to the elements as any would be today. So how on earth did it come about that the streets of old Edinburgh should be deserted and hidden like some kind of shameful secret? In this series of lanes and alleyways people ran their businesses and made their homes in tenement houses, some of which were eight storeys high. The streets were gated and at night, locked. Many were demolished when the building of The Royal Exchange was built but Mary King’s Close was instead partly buried. The top storeys of the houses were removed and the lower ones used as the foundations for the new building. Due to the sloping nature of the land, those houses further down the street remained intact and until 1902 businesses continued to trade in the odd half-buried street when the Royal Exchange (now the City Chambers) was extended. In 2003 the site was opened up as a visitor attraction. No wonder, in such unsanitary and cramped living conditions overrun by rats, that both bubonic and pneumonic plague spread so rapidly.