Edinburgh: A bit of home away from home

During March we took a break somewhere closer to home; Edinburgh. I use the phrase ‘closer to home’ quite loosely here because in reality, it takes longer to fly to Edinburgh than some other European destinations. This was merely a more casual affair because it was basically a domestic trip without the need to purchase foreign currency – yay!

 

Edinburgh is a city where both Richard and I felt almost immediately at home. The air is crisp, the people friendly and the city is truly beautiful.

A tram service runs from the airport directly to Haymarket station where we met up with my Aunty who we were able to stay with over the weekend. Unusually, the weather was great with blue skies and warm sunshine. We walked along Princes Street, catching glimpses of the castle we would later visit, delightful parks and gardens, and the largest monument to a writer (Sir Walter Scott).

Scotland is well known for its excellent fish and we were able to eat quite a bit of fish throughout our weekend. Our first meal was lunch at a local seafood restaurant which served a great fish soup. After lunch, Richard and I struck out on our own towards Arthur’s Seat. Being embarrassingly unfit, I had to take a few rest stops on the way up, using a desire to admire the view as an excuse to catch my breath. Looking around at the hills, rock faces and craggy landscape set against an almost cloudless blue sky made the area bear an uncanny resemblance to parts of New Zealand. The strange thing was that the grass underfoot was soft but not muddy. It had a weird spring to it similar to rubber tiles used in playgrounds. Odd but actually quite fun to walk around on.

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The very top of Arthur’s Seat is rocky and requires some care to climb. It’s not difficult however, and you get a fantastic view. There were a lot of people up there, probably because it was such a beautiful day.

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We descended on the opposite side of Arthur’s Seat, towards Holyrood Palace. Unfortunately the palace was closed for the day by the time we got down there. I got a bear from the gift shop though so it’s kind of like we went there.

Just outside the palace was a curiously modern building which turned out to be parliament!

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The iconic Royal Mile is a collection of streets running between Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. There was a time when units of measurement were ludicrously inconsistent with the ‘Scots Mile’ being different from the ‘English Mile’, ‘Welsh Mile’ and ‘Irish Mile’ (and yet Jeremy Clarkson could crack a joke about 90 mile beach in NZ not actually being 90 miles!). The Royal Mile in Edinburgh is approximately one Scots Mile long which is 1.81km. Along the way there are various shops, restaurants and a multitude of interesting names for the tiny alleys.

 

Our adventuring had worn us out so we sat down in Princes Street gardens to rest and find a suitable place for dinner. Dishearteningly, I phoned several restaurants only to be told they were fully booked. With around only half a million residents, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a table! In the end we returned to the Royal Mile and found a restaurant called Monteiths. Two things drew us to this restaurant; the tunnel of branches with fairy lights leading down towards the entrance, and the fact that it was called Monteiths which reminded us of Monteith’s cider in NZ! We were granted a table and proceeded to enjoy a great dinner and friendly conversation with our Australian waiter. The vibe of the restaurant gave us an oddly southern hemisphere experience in the heart of Edinburgh!

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An interesting light installation called Keyframes had taken over St Albert square while we were in town. After dinner we walked over to have a look only to discover it wasn’t on. Unable to find any information about why it wouldn’t be on that particular night, we went home to rest our tired legs. The following evening, we were able to see the installation in action and catch a few photos before heading to the airport.

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On Sunday morning we headed up to Edinburgh castle, foregoing public transport and deciding the walk there. Edinburgh castle is situated atop a hill which meant more climbing but thankfully not anything too bad. It is a really huge castle that feels like it’s own small town inside. The entry fee is £16.50 per person and I would say it is worth it. There is plenty to explore and with the use of either the audio guide or guide book, you can learn quite a bit of Scottish history. We spent a couple of hours exploring and here are some of the highlights.

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Edinburgh castle has the history of many hundreds of years within its walls. The strongest theme I felt from exploring the area was Scotland’s attachment to its military. Inside the castle is the National War Museum which was included in our entry fare. The museum covered the creation of the first standing army in the 1600’s up to the present day. This alongside the Scottish National War Memorial are fitting tributes to the Scottish men and women who sacrificed their lives during the numerous battles over the past 300 years. War memorials are always a sobering sight for me. The first world war is still in living memory and during that war, one in five enlisted Scottish soldiers did not come home. This was the greatest proportion of all the Home Nations. Both the museum and memorial were a great way to commemorate the past and act as a reminder of the disaster we are capable of bringing upon ourselves.

 

Near the centre of the castle grounds is St Margaret’s Chapel. This the oldest remaining structure in the castle and possibly, in the city. It was built around 1130 by King David I who dedicated it to his mother Queen Margaret (later, canonised as St Margaret). The doorway is small and the structure simple inside. Despite that, it is still remarkable to be standing inside something so old and which has seen so much change around it.

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Outside St Margaret’s Chapel is a truly enormous cannon called Mons Meg. The cannon was originally forged in Belgium in 1449 and at the time was at the height of military technology. It weighs a crazy six tonnes and has a bore of 48cm! Even though this is from the 15th century, I still found it amazing that it could propel the huge cannonballs almost 3.2 kilometers.

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Just below where Mons Meg sits is the dog cemetery. This is where regimental mascots and pets of soldiers were buried. This really confirmed for me how much people love their dogs in this part of the world!

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Housed in the castle grounds are The Honours of Scotland. These are composed of the Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State, and are the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles. From what experts have gathered, the sceptre is the oldest of these items. It is believed to have been presented to King James IV in 1494. Later in 1507, the Sword of State was presented to him with its scabbard and belt. Finally the crown was made in 1540 for King James V. The first time they were all used together was in 1543 for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots. As with the English crown jewels, no photos were allowed. I highly recommend checking it out. The Honours were buried in 1651 for their own protection and after some tumultuous history above ground, they were eventually forgotten and left locked in the Crown Room. Then 111 years after they were hidden, they were uncovered and revealed to be lying just as they had been when they were buried.

 

In many of the castles and palaces we have visited, my favourite part is the main hall where royal ceremonies take place. The Great Hall at Edinburgh castle was again a fascinating part of our visit for me. Completed in 1512, it was built for King James IV who was actually killed about a year later. The hammerbeam roof is typical of period dramas so it looks very familiar, probably quite uninteresting. It does however, have some historical significance for the history nerds out there. The stone corbels supporting the main trusses have the oldest surviving Renaissance symbols in Britain, highlighting James’s amity with England and France. Around the room were various shiny suits of armour and different types of weapons on display. On the far side was a massive fireplace that looked suitably grand.

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After we left the castle we decided to explore the other half of the Royal Mile that we didn’t get to the previous day. We purchased Scottish shortbread and fudge (which looked so inviting but really makes no sense because neither of us really likes fudge!). We also enjoyed lunch at a great restaurant with more lovely seafood.

 

After lunch outside the restaurant, we found a protest. There were A LOT of police around including a couple on horseback. The number of police almost seemed to outnumber the protesters but it was about immigrants which is a particularly tender subject in this part of the world. Those who were against and those who were supporting immigration were assigned opposite ends of the square and I imagine the police were prepared for possible violence. Thankfully there wasn’t any drama!

 

We went to check out Calton Hill which is a great park space. There are quite a few monuments to check out there including the National Monument, the Nelson Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, and the City Observatory. They’re pictured in order below!

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It was a pleasure to sit down and relax at Calton Hill and enjoy the fresh air. The weather during our second day in Edinburgh was also fantastic. We were really lucky with the weather in what is generally a wet and windy city!

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As with many of our trips, the journey home was trying. This trip back to London was especially bad though. Due to air traffic control strikes in France, flights across the continent had been impacted with severe delays. In some ways we were the lucky ones because our flight didn’t get cancelled! The 1 hour flight back to London was delayed by 3 hours which also had a follow on effects on our train from the airport into central London. We finally arrived home at 3am and caught a few hours sleep before waking up for a tough Monday at the office. Apart from that, the weekend was near perfect. Edinburgh is a beautiful city will well preserved historical buildings and an array of interesting historical sites to visit. The friendly nature of Scottish people gave the city a sense of warm familiarity even though this was our first time there. Being able to spend time with my Aunty during the trip was icing on an already delightful cake!

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