Thursday, April 23, 2009

From the vaults to the ribbed arches

Parking fairy is alive and well - one and a half blocks from where we are going!
So much of the past of Edinburgh lies under your feet as you walk the pavements. This morning, our last in the city, we went in to join another walking tour through the 'nether' world that once bustled with life. We met William, our intrepid tour guide and Jim and Ellen from Newcastle as well as two other men, once from Minnesota at the Merkat Cross (market cross) to begin the
Historic Vaults Tour that the Edinburgh Visitor Centre officer had recommended to us earlier this week.

So much to Hel's disgust, here is a little more of the interesting history of this city. Edinburgh Castle is built atop the plug of an ancient volcano. The city then started as a town that was built along the ridge that had been formed when the lava flow resisted glacial forces that carved valleys to the north and south of this ridge. The town expanded and defensive walls were built on three sides and into this square area of about one square mile crammed 55,000 people! William then took us down down down the steep slope of Borthwick's Close - a narrow street that followed the path of the steep sides of the lava flow that had been built on. All kidding aside, you can't believe how steep the slope is - like we said yesterday it is about a 50% (45 degree) incline. (Have a look at all the Closes here)

Eventually, to accommodate the growing population a bridge was built across the northern valley which is the New Town of today. Built in the gracious Georgian style, the wealthy moved en masse into this area leaving the Old Town that now had some buildings up to 14 stories (very short stories mind you) high. So only the poor were left here. Again, there came a need to provide more space, so a second bridge was built - the South Bridge (imaginative, weren't they). But the Council of the time was determined to make this bridge pay and decided that they would enclose the arches of the bridge and let the space for workshops and shop storages. But they neglected to damp-proof the bridge arches and so it was not long before they were pretty well abandoned by legal users. And this is when it got really interesting. All sorts of unsavory users filled the spaces from drug sellers to body snatchers. After about 20 years they were forcibly removed by the law, some of the buildings demolished and the rubble used to infill the arches completely.

Then in 1981, the new Council decided to open them up to provide another tourist attraction (like they really needed one!) and so, the bridge is finally paying for itself. It was a fascinating journey into the dark and damp spaces. And it is hard to imagine just how unpleasant it would be with small cruzer (see, no word is new) lamps filled with fish oil, the overflowing clop and toilet bucket in the corner, smoke from the working and cooking fires as well as the smell from your fellow inhabitants - many of whom never showered - would have made these spaces. The roof height at the peak of the arches is about 7 foot!

So, show over we went up through the shop, bought a couple of books on the old stories of Edinburgh and then went to pay for them when we noticed that there were signed copies of 'Ghostly Tales & Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh' and collected one at which point Olive on the desk started to tell us about the authors. Turns out that one of them - Des Brogan - conducts tours of the Western Front in France. So that was opportune - we are going to contact him because he just might have the answer to Michael's prayers regarding a tour for when Hels comes over in September! See, it pays to get chatty sometimes!!!

We decide that as it is now after 2pm we will hit the road. Back to the car, where we find a lovely (NOT) surprise - a parking ticket. Michael had misread the hourly charges. To add insult to injury we had met the local parking officer when we were parking and he was booking another car. Had quite a chat with him as well and when he advised that we should allow ourselves a bit of extra time in case we got waylaid, we assured him that with 3 hours we had done that! So, a costly little mistake - aw shucks, we all make them!

We have consulted with Mick in Brisbane about the best routes to take back into England and he suggested that we head through the Lowlands and into the Yorkshire Dales. So we look at what is between us and this area using Earth Google. As people load their photos as well as the Wikipedia links, you can find some little gems.

How many people have read 'The DaVinci Code' ? Well, this afternoon we drove down to Roslin which is home to the Collegiate Church of St Matthew - better known now as the Rosslyn Chapel that features in the book and subsequent film. Just our luck, when we arrive there is a wedding in progress and we have a wait of an hour. Oh well, they have a tearoom and we could get cups of coffee (but nothing to eat). The day has turned rather bleak and there are little showers so we are feeling a little colder here. While waiting, Michael takes a walk down the side lane to have a look at the ruins of Roslin Castle which was the family home to the Earls of Rosslyn.

Finally, vows all promised, we can get into the Chapel along with about 20 other people who were waiting. If we had been in any of the Edinburgh churches this would not have been an issue, but as this was built as an estate chapel, it is much much smaller and so we spend the next hour tripping over each other. But it is all worth it. Unfortunately we can't take photos inside so you will need to take a look at the link (or re-watch the movie) to see how fantastic it is. There is not a single wall or ceiling space that is not covered in carved stone - most of it dating back to the 1400s. The chapel is currently undergoing the most extensive restoration project of it's life so the whole building is covered by an aluminium roof. Kind of ruins the first impression you have, but when you can see water seeping stains in the ceiling you can appreciate why it is necessary.

So, another quirky interest settled, we head a little futher south to Eddelston and the De Vere Venues Barony Castle Hotel. We got this room for all of £39. WOW. This is also the home to the SAS College - no, not some heavy military group, the Scotland Ambulance Service! On a walk around the gardens Michael discovers a legacy of the WWII Polish army regiment stationed in the house - the man-made high relief model of Scotland (in concrete). Filled with water at the time, it was made so they could use it to plan for the defence of Scotland should Hitlers army have attacked the UK through the north.

We had dinner in the restaurant after 8:30 pm as they have a coach group in as well and they were being fed and watered first - just like the livestock in the fields around us! The setting is lovely - plush yet modern, rich but still subtle. The menu was not overly large but had a nice selection. Our choices were:
Soup of the Day - Spicy Lentil (Michael)
Breast of Chicken stuffed with Haggis and served with Masked Potato (Michael)
Pan fried Brown Trout with Potatoes au Gratin (Maria)
both served with fresh garden vegetables
Profiteroles with chocolate and ice cream (Michael)
Assortment of Scottish cheeses and Oatcakes (Maria)

Apart from having to pick all the bones of the trout, the meal was wonderful. Especially good was one of the cheeses - so much so that I asked the waitress to get the chef to write down the name for me. It was Caboc - so smooth and creamy with an aged taste not dis-similar to White Castello. This one is from the Fife Creamery. Soooo good!

On the way back to the room we stop at the front desk and meet Steven Sweeny the Deputy General Manager who gives us a potted history of the estate and explains the link to the SAS (they have a long term contract for 40% of the conference facilities and have their Training College based here). So Helen, if Tarah were to be study to be a paramedic or ambulance officer in Scotland, she would be here - how lucky can they be! Congratulations Steven and staff - you have made a great impression on us and continued our wonderful Scotland experience! We have been advised to make sure that we go to the 8:30 am breakfast sitting and give the 7:30 am one a miss - guess that one might be overrun by the groupies! LOL

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