Open Palace Programme – A Walking Tour of Edinburgh.

Is there another city in the world which marches hand in hand with its past as does Edinburgh; which can look up from its modernity and see itself as it always was, upon a hill, intact, impregnable and still in arms?… I know of no other. (H Morton, In Search of Scotland, 1929).

Some time ago, a very dear friend gifted me a book called ‘In Search of Scotland’. It is a travel diary from 1929. The author. H. V. Morton was determined to keep a record of his travels through Scotland, that only described the country as he saw it, but how it made him feel. I have reserved this book for my train travels throughout Scotland and have stopped after his chapter on Edinburgh. I can say it is odd to think that someone was walking through town almost 80 years, with similar thoughts to my own. Though I’m not sure I would agree that Holyrood has the worst picture gallery in the world; I wonder how it may have been different at that time.

I have visited Edinburgh once before; almost three years ago, I was here for three wonderful days. My friend was living here at the time and I was headed to Italy for a study tour, so I decided to fly to Edinburgh first. I knew very little about Edinburgh or Scotland at that time. I knew I would like it, the way I know I like anywhere that is old. But I loved it almost instantly.

There is a charm to Edinburgh that I haven’t encountered elsewhere. Something quaint, but dark and mysterious. Wandering through Old Town, you can feel how difficult like would have been there once upon a time. And New Town presents a total contradiction; it sings of wealth and prosperity. The city literally built a new version of itself that the Old Town could not support.

It is a city that demands to be written about and described; though small, it is captivating and full of character. The first time I came was in November (Winter), and I was blessed three days of crystal clear sunshine. I was warned by the locals that this is rare, and that I would need to come back to the city and see it when it’s grey and miserable. Only then would I know if I truly loved Edinburgh.

I absolutely fell in love with it, and the three days I allowed for my stay were not close to enough. So, when the Open Palace Programme announced that there would be a Scottish itinerary for the first time, I did not hesitate to make this tour my preference.

I arrived in Edinburgh via train up from London Kings Cross. Flying is of course much faster, but I cannot recommend this train trip enough. It was about 4.5 hours long but I did not notice. The Virgins East Coast train was very comfortable, and I had chosen the quiet carriage so the ride was incredibly peaceful. I spent the time reading, writing and just staring out the window at the countryside.

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View of Berwick-upon-Tweed from the train to Edinburgh.

It was not a direct train, but this didn’t bother me, as I got to peek at the different stations we stopped at (does anyone else like looking at the architecture of train stations, or is that just me?).

Waverley Station is right in the centre of Edinburgh. I am very thankful that nineteenth-century folk were so proud of their trains and built it in pride of place, straight through the middle of town, as it makes arriving in Edinburgh so easy. I dropped my bags at the baggage storage, and spent a few hours reacquainting myself with the city before the accomodation was ready to access.

Central Edinburgh is split in half, between Old Town and New Town. The Old Town is built on top of a hill, and is characterised by narrow buildings, seemingly crowding each other out. Old Town peers down at New Town, watching over its younger counterpart with Edinburgh Castle at its helm. New Town is largely a Georgian creation, organised logically on wide streets and with beautiful townhouses. The two hearts of the city are separated by Waverley Station and Nor Loch in the middle.

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Nor Loch, looking up to Edinburgh Castle.

This is a city of those who like walking; you really need to pound the pavement to enjoy everything Edinburgh has to offer. It is a small place, so it is more than doable, but there is a lot to see. I saw the majority of the sites that last time I visited, so I was thankful that I did not feel the pressure to constantly ‘sightsee’ and that I was able to just enjoy being in the city.

We stayed in fantastic accomodation – No. 19 The Apartment/No. 19 The Loft, Queen Street. These two apartments were more than big enough for 20 people, and we all appreciated having a kitchen and the ability to self-cater. It was a luxurious apartment with beautiful bathrooms and bedrooms. There were 5 or 6 flights of harsh stone stairs to get to the apartment, but I wasn’t bothered by this  once I got my suitcase up on the first day (that initial climb though was not pretty).

We all got acquainted that evening, settled into our allocated room and had tea together to get to know one another.

Our first proper day consisted of a guided historical tour around Edinburgh with Julian Humphrys.* This was a wonderful way for people to get to know the layout of the city, as well as learn some of the history of Scotland, using Edinburgh as its representative. Julian is a brilliant storyteller and made the tour exciting and engaging, despite the bitter cold.

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Julian Humphrys leading OPP participants through Greyfriars Kirkyard, Old Town Edinburgh.

This was a gentle introduction to the programme, as I understand that our days are not to be so leisurely as we progress. We will be working with some of Scotland’s premier heritage organisations on specific tasks and providing our ideas for their institutions for feedback and consideration. Julian’s informative and engaging walking tour has provided a wonderful background to the history of Scotland for OPP participants. This is critical to understanding the country’s heritage landscape, and we will no doubt be very thankful for this crash course.

*Julian Humphrys recently worked on the audio tour for the Culloden Battlefield. I am going up to Inverness as part of personal travel after the Open Palace Programme has completed, so I am really looking forward to checking this out.

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