Being more courageous when it comes to grasping opportunities is one of my big aims for this year, so when the chance came up at the end of January to be away from home for a few days (to escape the disruption of builders and refurbishment work) I jumped on it. I could have quite easily stayed close to home in a small hotel in a local town, but I figured I might as well go somewhere new and be able to explore, so I booked a few days in Edinburgh.
I headed north by train, the journey taking just over six hours all told, but in quite a relaxed way, enjoying the views of towns, cities and countryside flashing by, a comfortable seat, no waiting around in airports, no getting stuck in traffic jams. The countryside north of York was a real treat as I’ve not been that way before, so crossing the Tyne in Newcastle was a bit of a landmark, and then glimpses of the sea appearing as we thundered through Northumberland coming closer and closer until we were right alongside the coast, the pretty town of Alnmouth, and a sun-capped Lindisfarne Castle and Holy Island. Reaching and passing Berwick-upon-Tweed marked the border into Scotland, and the final approach into Edinburgh revealing views of sea, mountain and city.
I had booked to stay in a Premier Inn on Princes Street, just a short walk from the station, and as me and my little suitcase trundled along I began to familiarise myself with the landmarks of the Balmoral Hotel, Jenner’s department store building, the Scott Monument, and Edinburgh Castle atop its volcanic crag. Checking in revealed a view of the castle from the hotel restaurant, the window seats clearly the most sought after, although my room disappointingly looked out at the next-door building – but I didn’t intend to spend a lot of time there anyway.
Heading back out into the afternoon my feet carried me towards Calton Hill and one of the famous views of the city skyline. Walking around the top of the hill exposes a panorama of the whole city and wider area, just spotting the Forth road and rail bridges to the west, the port of Leith to the north east, Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags to the south, and the city centre and castle to the west. A number of buildings, memorials and monuments dot the summit, providing photo opportunities for keen tourists, but a cloudy sky gifted us a quiet sunset this time.
Tuesday dawned cloudy and damp, but I was keen to explore, so after a breakfast in a nearby cafe of the hugest plate of scrambled eggs and toast I’d ever seen I set out. Through the Princes Street Gardens, up The Mound, to a crossroads with the Royal Mile where I turned left and down the hill, passing tourist-y shops, bars and cafes, small museums, churches (or kirks in Scotland), and numerous ‘closes’ – the little alleyways and steps between buildings as shortcuts to the street below. Passing the Scottish Parliament building (interesting architecture…) and the Palace of Holyroodhouse I was aiming for the walk up to Arthur’s Seat.
This proved somewhat ambitious. Underprepared as I was with only trainers on my feet, and with the weather not at its best, I was defeated half way up as the footpaths turned muddy underfoot and the wind whipped through the crags and valleys. I’m not the most sure-footed at the best of times so I decided it was safer and more sensible to head back down and avoid any potential injury. Still, from the height I had reached there were still good views across the city with the stormy skies providing a suitably atmospheric backdrop to the wildness of the terrain, the colours and textures of rock and vegetation capturing my eye, and the exercise bringing warmth to my cheeks.
Back on slightly flatter ground I returned to Holyrood Palace and paid the entrance fee to tour round the state rooms accompanied by a surprisingly interesting and informative audio guide, the history of the palace and its royal inhabitants sensitively explained, and the decorative details of the rooms beautifully preserved. No photos are allowed inside the building so I tried to take in as much as I could, also purchasing the guide book as a souvenir. At the end of the tour you are brought outside to the ruins of ancient Holyrood Abbey, the roof long since collapsed and the glass gone from the windows, leaving the walls and interior exposed to the harsh Scottish elements but in a charming state of dilapidation, stone carvings still crisp, and sections of the vaulted cloister still drawing the eye upward to their splendour and impressive engineering. A peaceful place of contemplation still, and a shelter from the chill of the wind.
The morning having passed I went in search of lunch, heading towards the university and surrounding area, and a café recommended by an Instagram friend (who lives in Montana, USA!). Elephants & Bagels is clearly a student and local favourite, and on a weekday lunchtime every table was full, with people also queuing for takeaway. I squeezed myself into a spare seat with a toasted wholemeal bagel with ham and cream cheese and let the warmth of the food and the atmosphere spread through me, enjoying the chance to relax and soak it up.
Suitably rested and recharged, off I went a-wandering again, this time heading towards Greyfriar’s Kirk, stopping to say hello to Greyfriar’s Bobby on his little plinth, and then meandering among the tombstones, mausoleums and memorials of the graveyard. I’m one of those people who likes walking round churchyards, I find reading the epitaphs strangely fascinating, the briefest glimpse of lives lived long ago, merest hints at the people who lived them.
My afternoon concluded at the National Museum of Scotland, awe-struck as I entered the central hall, gaze drawn by the incredible metal and glass domed ceiling allowing light to flood into the building, and feet carrying me around varied exhibitions of natural history, engineering, world cultures, fashion, art, Scottish history, photography…
I’ll be honest, by this point in the day I was pretty tired, my feet and legs were aching (why did nobody tell me this city was quite so hilly!), and I was fairly overwhelmed from all the exploring I’d already done. Another day perhaps I would have read all the information labels on the displays, but this time I felt only capable of ambling slowly round and absorbing the general sense of collected anthropology. It didn’t dull my enjoyment though, I’m happy I went, and my overall impression was of a richness of research and pride in preserving the past, as well as hints at the future. A sit down and a chocolate chip muffin in the balcony café was a very welcome end to my visit, the quiet and calm of the late afternoon enhanced by the dimming light as darkness fell outside. Kindly advised by a steward that the museum was soon closing, I smiled gratefully and slowly made my way back the hotel for dinner and an early night.