Scots Guard

25th May 2012

Thinking about holidaying at home this Jubilee year? Edinburgh has plenty of royal connections, and makes an ideal destination for a weekend trip.

Chris Ambrose lets the train take the strain…

There are times when i feel that the whole process of flying creates a certain disconnectedness. Despite the buzz of the airport, its departure boards filled with exotic overseas destinations, and the element of separation from the ordinary that many holidaymakers relish, I sometimes like to experience more from the journey itself. Perhaps this is where the definition of holidaymaker and traveller become distinguished; for me there’s a lot to be said for more closely witnessing the changes between departure point and destination.

Train travel does not always conjure particularly positive thoughts for many… too closely associated with commuting, and all its negative connotations. Long delays on cold platforms after a long day at work; stuffy, over-crowded carriages; monotonous journeys spent wedged unceremoniously into fellow commuters’ armpits… It’s no surprise that the train doesn’t always appear a glamorous or favourable choice of transport for a weekend getaway. But, with the right setting and time – preferably away from the weekday rush hours – it can provide a far more engaging and relaxing way of travelling than the air.

Airports inevitably involve arriving a good few hours before your scheduled departure, and then a frustrating period of queuing and waiting. As I strolled on to the concourse at London’s King’s Cross, though, I had only a few moments to wait until the large departure board flashed up the platform number for the Edinburgh train. Then, having found the right carriage and my reserved seat, I could sit back and watch the miles slip past the window.

As we rolled out of the station, a voice came over the PA; “Welcome aboard this 8 o’clock service to Edinburgh. Please do remember to keep the noise down in carriages ‘B’ for ‘be quiet’, and ‘K’ for ‘keep quiet’! Our next stop will be York, 188 miles away.”

It certainly made a change from the far-too-familiar ‘We apologise for the delay to your journey’. As we shot through the north London urban sprawl, a cheerful ticket inspector wandered through the carriage, quickly marking our tickets with a friendly smile, shortly followed by the refreshments trolley; similar processes, but they felt so much more efficient and less intrusive than their sky-based counterparts.

Soon we broke free from the clutches of the city, and, with fate intervening in dramatic style, the clouds broke away to allow the sun’s rays to periodically glaze the rapidly expanding countryside in bright morning light. A couple of hours (and presumably 188 miles) later, with the sun now firmly illuminating the surrounding landscape, we reached York. A few passengers were exchanged and then we carried on up the line, briefly stopping in Newcastle before joining the coast where the North Sea swept up alongside the train, glistening in the now uninterrupted sun. Very romantic.

Just after twelve thirty, we pulled up into Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The journey had been almost seamless, and watching the changing scenery out of the window had kept me entertained, and had largely distracted from reading my guidebook. Another benefit of arriving by train is that you’re often delivered right to the centre of a city, so here I was on a bright Saturday afternoon, thrust into the lively heart of one of the UK’s most popular destinations, buzzing with a mixture of weekend shoppers, students and tourists.

The Royal Mile

I took a walk along Prince’s Street and up the hill, and after slipping through a narrow alleyway emerged onto the Royal Mile. This long, straight road with its regal connections (including the Queen’s Gallery, opened ten years ago to coincide with the Golden Jubillee, and currently hosting an exhibition of Treasures from the Queen’s Palaces) runs west to east through the centre of Edinburgh – from the iconic castle at the top of the hill, down through the busy stretch of shops, restaurants and bars, and on towards the mouth of the Forth. I decided not to pay the £14 entry fee for the castle (it seemed a shame to spend the afternoon away from the rare sunshine), so once I had taken in the panoramic views across the city from the open area by the entrance, I made my way down the Royal Mile where I stopped off for a drink. The World’s End is a small and cosy pub, that was packed full of revellers; no shortage of atmosphere and cheerful Scottish bonhomie.

The friendly nature of the World’s End and its inhabitants, combined with the allure of televised international sport (not to mention an interesting selection of beverages) made a tempting case for an extended visit, but the delights of the city and the weather won me over, and so I negotiated my way through the crowd and back out on to the sunlit hill.
Further down, the Royal Mile turns from the High Street to Canongate, and this transition sees the wider street, lined with cafés, pubs and souvenir emporia, peter out into a quieter, narrower road with smart, specialist shops and galleries. It is then that you come to the striking and controversial geometric shapes of the Scottish Parliament building.

Opened in 2004 after a series of delays, budget issues and public confusion, this amalgamation of concrete, steel and wood is certainly a contrast to its more historic surroundings. It makes a positive impact in the afternoon sun, as well as creating a progressive quality that seems appropriate for the current forward-thinking ideas revolving around Scottish governance. The neatly formed grass- and water-fronted complex also acts as a nice cut through from the Royal Mile to the base of Arthur’s Seat: a landmark that cannot be missed, with views that shouldn’t be either.

One of Edinburgh’s unique features is the volcanic ground on which it is built, and to have this giant, rocky peak so close to the centre is both a novel and a rewarding prospect for those that like outdoor pursuits. Rocky paths run up the side of the extinct volcano, meaning that within minutes of being in the city centre you can be two hundred metres up and gazing out across the city, with the Firth of Forth and North Sea beyond and the Highlands off in the far distance.

As the sun dropped below the peak and evening set in, I made my way back down towards the centre, and found myself drawn by the sound of a live band into a cellar bar just off the High Street. Whistle Binkie’s has live music through the week; on this particular day, there was a band playing Irish tunes mixed in with a selection of broader pop songs.

With the sun now gone, the night’s revelries were getting into full swing; as the masses began to fill the dance floor, I was already planning when I could next jump on a train to explore more of what this and other destinations on the tracks could offer for a relaxing, easy and accessible weekend escape.

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