In Edinburgh along the street known as the Royal Mile are many “closes” or narrow passageways between buildings and sometimes underneath them. I have not seen them in the New Town or much anywhere else for that matter, but there are dozens along this street winding off down the hill or into private courtyards. My own apartment is entered by passing through a close but it is not a particularly scenic one. Here are pictures of some of the others.
And for good measure, here are some night-time photos.
I arrived in Edinburgh on March 7th after a relaxing train ride from one end of the UK to the other. Spending eight hours in a train is not even remotely comparable to spending the same amount of time in an airplane; one can be pleasant, the other is always a nightmare. I think the big difference is that the seats are far more spacious in a train, and there isn’t the brain-destroying noise of jet engines.
I checked into a hotel where I ended up staying a full 2 weeks before I managed to obtain an apartment. Apparently the housing market is rather competitive here though I have a feeling that has suddenly changed with university closures due to the coronavirus. But that was a time when the virus was still something taking place mostly in countries far away, and anyway the UK’s approach (at the time, since reversed) was to let it takes its course, and so for the time being Edinburgh was humming along as usual.
The hotel was very nice but my room didn’t have a window so I definitely started to go stir crazy. I went out walking a couple times a day and stayed out until I got too soaked or chilled by the rain. During this brief interlude I did manage to see a handful of local sites, and good thing too since of course everything is shut down now.
The most famous and also visually arresting landmark is Edinburgh Castle, situated high on a hill right in the center of town. It is reached from the east along a series of streets collectively known as the Royal Mile which slope upwards like a ramp from the Palace of Holyroodhouse to the castle on the far western tip of the hill, which ends in a sheer cliff.
The tall spired building with orange windows in the photo below appears to be a church, and once was, but is now a cafe/club/events venue. Its spire is the highest point in Edinburgh. There are many spires around town but fewer churches than one might think as this is not the only one to have been converted to other uses, and given new and cooler names like “The Hub” and “The Tron.”
The castle is not a single building but rather a fairly large complex of buildings inside the walls, all tumbling over each other on countless confusing levels from a tiny chapel at the very top to dungeons down below and everything including the crown jewels in between (we are not allowed to photograph the jewels, sorry).
In fact I didn’t take many pictures inside because the light inside old fortifications is really not that great, and even worse on a rainy day. But here are a couple more of the outdoor areas.
I was fortunate to be able to see the castle since they closed it indefinitely about two hours after I left due to the developing coronavirus situation. I also managed to get inside the Scottish National Gallery before it closed. It is a rather modest building that doesn’t take long to walk through.
Of course I also tried to get in to some churches. As mentioned before many church buildings have been converted to other uses, but I did go inside the Presbyterian St Giles Cathedral which is near the castle. Here again there was a fee to enter, with more commercialism inside too.
Much further away I found St Mary’s Cathedral which is an Episcopal church. For the first time since arriving in the UK I wasn’t charged anything to go inside and they even had a lady chapel set aside for prayer and contemplation.
By the time I was finally able to move in to my apartment the coronavirus panic was in full swing. Stores were already beginning to voluntarily shut down even before the government had mandated a compulsory lockdown. The apartment was furnished but only sparsely and I had need of many things to make it livable; for the first few days I hoofed it all over town in a mad scramble to find bed sheets, dish soap and a dinner plate before non-essential shops were closed for good. Of course just as everywhere else on earth certain staples were nearly unobtainable such as toilet paper and hand soap. At one store I was surprised to find some hand lotion in stock, but after a few days of using it I noticed my hands and face starting to turn orange. Looking more closely at the bottle I discovered it conveniently includes a “tanning agent.” I can say that tan is definitely not a common look in sunny Scotland, which must explain why no one was buying that brand. So that went in the bin.
In the end I was very fortunate to have had just enough time to get more or less settled in before the hammer came down and the government ordered everybody quarantined. I even managed to get a final haircut right before the closing bell, but now literally everything is closed, even McDonald’s, even the hotel where I was staying.
We are still allowed to go out for groceries but “infrequently,” and also to exercise but only alone. That is not a problem for me since I am alone anyway, but at this point you’d really have to be trying hard to run into another human being on the street; the city has become a virtual ghost town with only the occasional jogger in view, and on the roads only buses that don’t seem to have any riders. Even the beggars seem to have packed up and gone home, the only thing missing at this point is tumbleweed blowing across the streets…
Well we survived our five trains and made it successfully to Winchester, a small town south-west of London. I can categorically pronounce that taking luggage on the London underground is for the birds.
Looking out the windows of the train after we crossed the channel I didn’t immediately notice a huge aesthetic difference between the UK and France: both look very old, quaint and basically European. The weather was about the same dreary, or more. But they are quite different as I started to notice when I got off the train.
It was no surprise to me to learn that the term “nanny state” originated in Britain. This is a place obsessed with warning people about any possible hazard no matter how minor. Warning signs abound on every surface. Stepping off the train in London I was greeted by signs warning me that arranged marriages are a form of coercion and a number to call if I know of anybody in slavery. At one tiny train station there was a sign that said “Caution – Fragile Roof.” I wasn’t planning to climb the roof but good to know anyway. In my hotel room there was a caution placard mounted in the shower to warn me about the dangers of walking on wet surfaces. In the restroom of a museum I visited there was a sign asking us to be careful not to scald ourselves with hot water (if only the water in the hotel was hot enough to scald, it never got beyond tepid). And at the end of some BBC television shows is a number to call if you’ve “been affected by any of the issues raised in tonight’s program.”
At all the tourist sites I visited there were placards and signs affixed to every surface to let me know what brand of stout shoes would be recommended if I felt fit enough to take the exactly 19 steps on such and such a staircase. And not just warning signs, it seemed almost every tree, stone and puddle in town had some explanatory pedestal nearby to describe the historical significance of whatever I might have otherwise walked by uninformed about.
In France I saw countless statues, buildings and other major monuments with nary a sign to let me know what I was looking at or what world-changing events had transpired on the ground where I stood. I had to take two trips to Rouen before I found the sign that marked the spot where Joan of Arc was burned, hidden in some bushes. For whatever reason the French don’t seem very much into showing off.
Back in Britain, even though WWII wasn’t actually fought here the event is commemorated at every corner, with numerous war memorials and red poppies at every turn, and half the tents at the Saturday market selling framed prints of the Spitfire airplane.
Anyway these were my first impressions. I came to Winchester in order to meet the owner of a company for whom I have done some consulting work, but also because it has one of the UK’s major cathedrals, along with another in nearby Salisbury. I got a hotel right across the street from the cathedral with a great view from my window and it was the first place I visited.
I’d lost count of how many cathedrals and churches I waltzed into in France and I sort of had the idea it would be a similar experience here. But no, the first thing I was greeted with through the door was a large counter and cash register. Admission will be nine pounds fifty please! (That’s roughly $12 US) I was happy to pay but clearly at that rate this is not a place you are going to wander into randomly multiple times a day just to look around or sit in silence.
The interior of the church is brightly lit with modern lights, there is a museum-like exhibit to one side to highlight the 800 year old Winchester Bible and other artifacts from around the area, with an elevator to see the upper floor and the place is even heated! (to an extent.) The architecture is quite different from the French Gothic – on the outside the church is basically box-shaped with almost no buttressing. Missing inside are the countless small chapels around the aisles and behind the choir as there are in the French designs, but there are halls and stairways leading all over to various things including a library.
The walls are covered every few feet with signs and memorials to every cause and luminary conceivable. The uneven floor is treated with a similar hodge-podge of marble burial slabs listing every person who apparently ever died in Winchester for the last one thousand years.
The engravings often go on at great length about various details of the person’s life and if you tried to read them all you would be in that place for a very, very long time. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful church that more than makes up for the plain external appearance with intricate interior decorations.
I wondered if maybe Winchester was an unusual cathedral and others would allow free entry, but when I took the train to Salisbury and visited the cathedral there I found they also charge admission. In fact a sign at the door says it costs £14,000 per dayto maintain that cathedral – that’s over $18,000 dollars! Like Winchester, Salisbury was also heated and of course who only knows what it costs to heat a cathedral in winter. Inside there was not only a ticket office, but also a gift shop and large restaurant! They say they get no financial support from either the government or the Church of England, so expenses are covered presumably in large part by visitors, though I’m sure I didn’t see enough people on this day to raise fourteen thousand pounds.
As at Winchester, the “English Gothic” style here is very boxy with almost no buttressing, and consequently smaller windows in the walls. Of course the maximum height of the vaults is necessarily going to be lower as well. The interior at Salisbury is however particularly exquisite due to the contrasting stone they used for the pillars. One thing I will say that I prefer about the British cathedrals over the French (from the grand total of two that I have now seen), are the large green areas around the building in an area called the “cathedral close.” It is only appropriate to put apples of silver in settings of gold, and it also lets you stand back and get a good view of the building.
Salisbury has regularly scheduled tours which I signed up for and I definitely got my money’s worth. It is a full two hours long and not only do you get to visit the upper level of the nave on the inside (something I wished they had let us do at Amiens), you also get to go above the nave in the roof area, and after that, to the outdoor balcony near the top of the crossing spire. Of course the roof and spire were not heated and after two hours crawling around in gale force winds up there everyone in our group had turned into an icicle.
On another day during my week in Winchester I took the train to the small village of Wool and from there walked a few miles into the countryside to the Bovington Tank Museum. Thankfully this was the one day of the week it did not rain.
I’ve been interested in armored vehicles for years and passed many a happy evening building small model tanks in my old life in America. This museum has a great YouTube channel that I have followed for years. They have probably the best collection of historical tanks in the world, particularly from the first two world wars, many which they have restored to running condition, and some of which are the only known examples still in existence. It is a place I had wanted to visit for many years, but with all the experiences of the past few months it came to pass that I was not particularly in a tank state of mind. This was my one opportunity so I was happy to take it, but I don’t know if I appreciated the experience in the way I imagined a long time ago. Some things might be better enjoyed when life around you is stable, rather than in the middle of a long sojourn away from home.
Anyway, I had a good week in Winchester and might even have relaxed on one day or two. It is a small village, quiet and peaceful with very British-looking countryside all around. I never figured out exactly what people eat there, since the “grocery stores” were smaller than the average QuikTrip gas station in the US. So far I have been eating Pringles, pre-packaged Tesco sandwiches and Mr Kipling Bakewell Slices for dessert. This is quite the change from fresh baguettes with 246 varieties of cheese and I’m not sure it’s an improvement for my health.
Alas the wandering has not yet ended, Winchester was just a temporary stop. Next we are headed to Edinburgh where I hope I can settle down for a little longer while I wait for my EU visa to reset.