Defender of the Nation

With a groan and a twitch of my (somewhat bleary) eyes I reached over to turn my alarm off. Why is that infernal contraption going off? Surely it must be Saturday. Yesterday was Friday, so this must be the weekend?

Yes, my internal musings were correct, it was indeed the weekend. But this was no ordinary weekend, this is Historic Scotland’s Free Weekend Pass ‘event’*. A weekend in which you can get free access to all of Historic Scotland’s numerous buildings and attractions, all for the measly price of giving them your email address.

Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh CastleNow this seemed far too good an opportunity to miss. Since both Mel and I moved back to Edinburgh in July we’ve been talking about going to Edinburgh Castle, however, something has always got in the way. In the summer it’s packed with tourists and at £14 to get in it’s quite expensive (especially during a period of unemployment). Our appetites for our visit were moistened back in September when we got a sneak-peak ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the preparations for the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert at the end of the Festival, but then I (rather inconsiderately) got a job and the 12th Century fortress once again got put on hold.

No matter where you are in Edinburgh you are never too far from a view of our most famous and recognisable monument. Perched upon an outlet of and extinct volcano – named, hugely imaginatively, Castle Rock – the castle sits aloft of the city, looking down on its inhabitants and to the hills or water (depending on which direction you look) beyond. It is (in a slightly stylised form) the symbol of Edinburgh, appearing on the city’s coat of arms amongst a whole raft of other emblems (including our rugby team’s logo and my old school’s coat of arms) and, of course, one of the UK’s most visited attractions.Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh Castle

Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh CastleWe decided to go just after opening time as we decided that this would, in all likelihood, save us from the majority of the visitors and allow us to spend a quiet hour or so there before doing a bit of Christmas shopping. Whilst we arrived roughly on time we got a bit carried away with our visit and didn’t end up leaving until just after one. A full set of the photos can be found here on Flickr.

As with most people walking through that famous gatehouse we headed up the cobbled street that leads up to the Lower Ward. Being the history buffs that we clearly are (not) we headed straight for the Argyle Battlements, so that we could look out over the New Town and the northern side of the city. Having thoroughly studied the view (and been asked three times to have our photo taken by the Castle’s photographers – I’d like to think it’s because we’re so good looking and not because they can sell you them at the end) we proceeded down to some of the lower battlements – although not the lower one on the Western side as they were closed off – to look out at the New Town at a slightly different angle.

Having admired how picturesque our city is and how big Inverleith Park is (see its post for more details) we went to have a look at the One O’Clock Gun exhibition, which details how in times of old the city observatory on Carlton Hill signalled the hour at which the gun went off. From here we headed west to the battlements over the national war museum and look out to Costorphine Hill. We almost got blown off for our troubles. The wind had been getting strong since I got up and by this point – exposed on the highest point in the town centre – it was pretty strong; in fact the Castle actually closed early, I later found out, due to the high winds. Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh Castle National War MuseumOnce inside the museum, however, the only wind was the hot air coming from the video feature on our nation’s military background, which was clearly written by a propaganda ministry/for a nationalist party political broadcast. This aside, the museum was very well put together, charting all aspects of the armed forces from pre-Acts of the Union (those from Scotland and England officially creating the UK) right up to a phone card (and other artefacts) from Kosovo in the mid nineties.

From one museum to another we next went to the regimental museum of the Royal Scots. This infantry regiment served in almost every campaign of the British army for just under 400 years. Their museum also contains their 148 battle honours, from Tangier in 1680 up to the first gulf war in 1991. I think this is one of the most interesting parts of the Castle, with its collection of stories and objects covering hundreds of years and thousands of souls; but also one of the saddest as it was all brought to an end with merging of all the Scottish regiments in 2006. I think the two walls of medals, only a tiny fraction of those that have been awarded, say it all.

Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh CastleStanding at the heart of the Upper Ward in Royal Square is the National War Monument. Built in 1927 on the former sight of St Mary’s Church it now commemorates those who have died in the two world wars and later conflicts. The walls are lined with friezes to each Scottish regiment, marking in stone the conflicts they have fought in and with the names of those who perished in the first and the second world wars at the base. At either end of the monument are the two huge stained glass windows that make up the friezes for the navy and air force. At the heart of the building is the shrine that holds the casket containing Roll of Honour. I think that the building’s statues perfectly encapsulate its significance – Courage and Peace, Justice and Mercy, and most importantly a figure rising from a phoenix, representing the survival of the spirit. A thoroughly fitting and moving tribute.

Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh CastleThe other sides of Royal Square hold the Great Hall and the Royal Palace. The Palace is not the grand affair represented by its rival at the other end of the Royal Mile at Holyrood, but cramped and enclosed. There is, however, one room which is rather stunning, with a beautiful fireplace. The Palace also hold the Scottish Crown Jewels, however, having joined a slow procession around their (fairly poor and uninteresting) exhibition before it I’m afraid to say I was rather bored by the time we got to the jewels and perfectly happy to have a quick look before heading out into the buffeting winds again.Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh Castle

Our final stop before leaving was the One O’Clock Gun. Originally used (in conjunction with the time ball on Carlton Hill) as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth and port of Leith the gun has been firing at 1pm six days a week (excluding Good Friday and Christmas Day) since June 1861, interrupted only during the world wars. As with (what seemed like) every other visitor to the Castle we decided to watch this spectacle before taking our leave. Stupid as it sounds – considering that the sound makes people jump down in the New Town and beyond – it was louder than I was expecting, and you can really feel the shock wave pass through you.Defender of the Nation, Edinburgh Castle, One O'Clock Gun

With the exception of our fireworks tour I genuinely cannot remember the last time I went to Edinburgh Castle. I went with my parents many times when I was younger, but never at an age were it meant anything more than fighting, explosions and canons. I am glad that I’ve now been and can appreciate it, both for the huge depth of detail in the fantastically well-constructed displays and exhibitions, and for what and who it stands for. Like many countries Britain’s history is a fairly bloody one, but those who have fought for her beliefs, historically to the present day, are forever remembered here. As its tagline suggests Edinburgh Castle is the Defender of the Nation.


*The M&S TV advert voice is optional, but recommended, for this sentence.

Skyline Spotting, Squirrel Hunting and Pie Making

Who knew this time of year could be so busy? It certainly feels as though I have a ‘to do’ list longer than my arm, and it’s not even ‘the festive season’ yet – despite what the shops and bars appear to think. Somehow, sadly, all this business (combined with work) has kept me from doing anything remotely interesting off late, thus a lack of noteworthy thing to write about. Brother and Dog sitting last weekend didn’t really help much either.Skyline Spotting and Squirrel Hunting

The exception to this inactivity was when my good friend (who will have to remain anonymous as I completely forgot to ask if they minded being named) came over to have a catch up and walk the dog on Sunday. Despite that making it sound like we’re middle aged we’re really not, I promise (although that appears to be the running theme over the next few paragraphs).

In stark contrast to this time last year (it was *insert-expletive-here* cold, and long since started snowing) we appear to be having an uncharacteristically warm month. No, warm is the wrong word, mild would be a little more accurate. Sunday was no exception to this as it was beautifully sunny, dry and (for the time of year) fairly warm. This was just as well as a long walk up the woods was order of the day.Skyline Spotting and Squirrel Hunting

Having started the morning off in a rather leisurely and domestic fashion by making the filling for a beef and Guinness pie (sort of using this recipe, but ignoring lots of it, especially the cheese part – cheese, beef and Guinness don’t strike me as particularly good bedfellows) and reading the paper I braved the outdoors and went to meet said afore mentioned anonymous friend from the bus stop – or several bus stops further up the road, as it turned out to be. Once we eventually found each other – says a lot for my directions – it was time to walk the dog.

Skyline Spotting and Squirrel HuntingCostorphine Hill was today’s walking destination of choice. They say that Edinburgh is built over seven hills, and of these Costorphine is the most westerly; its large L shape rising up between the suburbs of Blackhall, Murrayfield, Costorphine (oddly enough) and Clermiston. Whilst the Tower (a monument to Sir Walter Scott – because we clearly don’t have one of those in this city already) has dominated the skyline for over 130 years – ignoring the two radio masts, that is – there is a lot more on this little hill than initially meets the eye.

Skyline Spotting and Squirrel HuntingThis tree laden barrier, which is a designated as a ‘Local Nature reserve’, is a favourite of local dog walkers, runners and the like who use its criss-crossing mesh of paths and fields throughout the seasons. It is also known for its old (abandoned) RAF bunker, quarries and rock features (apparently the last of those are fascinating, but I’m really not the person to talk about them). The western sloping fields also have some of the best sledging this side of town (if there’s snow, that is) and have some fantastic views out towards Cammo, the airport, the Forth road and rail bridges and onwards to Fife or West Lothian. A wander round will take you to the steep Southern slopes which play host to Edinburgh Zoo and look out towards the Petland Hills. The interior sides of the L Skyline Spotting and Squirrel Huntingshape – my side of the hill – look down upon the city, affording some absolutely stunning vistas out to the Firth of Forth, Fife, and (most importantly) across Edinburgh’s stunning skyline.

On this occasion we were wandered all over the place, having a catch up whilst skyline spotting, and most importantly – in a certain four-legged-friend’s opinion – hunting for (non-existent) squirrels. We eventually meandered our way back home for lunch, feeling rather warm (even having long removed our coats), conveniently making our return about a minute before the innards of the pie needed stirring.Skyline Spotting and Squirrel Hunting


PS. Thanks to my anonymous friend for taking most of these photos whilst I held on to Miss Spotty.

No Ordinary New Town Coffee

“Where shall we meet on Saturday?”
“Uhmmmmm, Don’t know.”
“Waaaaay too early for Red Cups and Gingerbread lattes”
“Yeah, certainly is – even if they do taste so good!”
… [pause for contemplation of christmas coffees from Starbucks] …
“OH! There’s this new place on Frederick Street that I want to try”
“OK, what’s it called?”
“Fredricks Coffee House”

That’s pretty much how the conversation went on Friday when Mel and I were deciding where to meet on Saturday morning. I’d never heard of the place, let alone having actually visited and so it was settled – time to try somewhere new and independent.Fredricks Coffee House

With the sun shining (as previously mentioned in Weekend Walkies) the city centre seemed full of people and whilst some people were under the gross misapprehension that when it’s sunny in this city it’s also warm others, like us, had planned ahead. After a little bit of shopping (read: laughing at some of the ridiculous gift sets you can buy people for Christmas – leopard print cards, really?) it was time for the all important caffeine boost.

When you walk up the (slightly dingy) stairs – Fredricks Coffee House is on the first floor -you are greeted by a couple of trees in pots and glass Fredricks Coffee Housedoor that looks like an oversized PVC window. Perhaps not the best start, but everything is different when you come into the brilliant light of the main room. The enormous picture windows cover pretty much the entirety of the wall looking out to the street and fills the room with so much light that you stand blinking for a second. Once that’s over you realise that this is like going for a coffee in someone’s front room. Well, their front room and the one they’ve knocked into next door.

Borrowed from Edinburgh Coffee Lovers:

The walls are a fresh, bright blue with an assortment of chairs and tables of various sizes, a few sofas and a cow hide rug thrown in front of the fire for good measure. We opted for a table in the window, with a view up to George St (or down to the tram works, depending on what direction you were facing) and out on to Fredrick St itself – a perfect table for people watching, as it so happened. We went fairly basic with our orders, ordering a double shot cappuccino and a double shot americano. They duly arrived (my
americano with the tiniest thimble of warm milk, so small ‘cute’ is the obvious word to describe it, probably for the best that I drink it black), mine in a slightly oversized cup but tasted great. Despite a rather appetising snack/light bite menu we were only there for coffee and so decided to share a muffin, which also transpired to be a good idea as our orange and cranberry treat was at least the size of the saucer and definitely as tall as the coffee cups, in saying that though it was rather delicious (and didn’t last very long).Fredricks Coffee House

We actually stayed at our spot by the window for quite a while, happily soaking up the sun and watching the passers by below. During this time we struggled to come up with a way of describing the place without sounding a bit twee. It’s quite quaint (but that’s vastly over used in this city, usually along the lines of “GEEEEE! Ain’t this place so quaint?”) and it’s just nice (which tends to have the implication of: A, actually being a little dull and B, used in the phrase “It’s nice, but…”) but neither of these really convey what we mean by them. The best we can come up with – apart from going for coffee in someone’s living room – is it feels like it should be in St Andrews, or some other medium sized town, or perhaps somewhere out in suburbia, but not really in the New Town. But that, I think, will be its major success. The New Town by its nature is full of utilitarian coffee chains to which you go just to get your coffee, or perhaps to sit down for five minutes; where as with somewhere like Fredricks Coffee House it is more about sitting in and enjoying your coffee and conversation in a relaxed, calming environment. So Fredricks might be a little out of the ordinary for its location, but I’d say it may well be that little oasis of calm that serves great coffee we all want – even if it really should have an apostrophe in its name.


Weekend Walkies

Weekend Walkies, River AlmondI don’t know what you’ve been doing this weekend, but I’ve spent a good deal of it out and about. Given that the last few weekends have been somewhat miserable, the last few days of brilliant sun shine have been pounced upon by the people of this fair city.

Weekend Walkies, River AlmondWith winter fast approaching everyone appeared to be taking advantage, and we were no different. After spending Saturday morning doing a range of things (look out for a post about the Fredrick St Coffee House later this week) we decided to take the dog out for a long walk and make the most of the sun, as I mentioned in a quick post on Saturday.

Our adventure took us out to the north west of Edinburgh, to walk up the bank of one of the City’s two rivers, the Almond. We started at the Cramond Brig, where the trees line the wide expanse of water, and walked the two or so miles up towards the airport, past the army base and the farms. The path here starts off rather wide and solid (bulked up by a substantial number of fallen leaves), but as you get further up into the farmland the path narrows into a single file, slightly mucky track. Here too the river narrows, and the banks get steeper as it becomes hemmed in between the fields. The tranquility is also somewhat disrupted here as it is nearing the East Coast main rail lines and the end of the runway of Edinburgh Airport. However, none of that really takes away from the feeling of remoteness (until a train and a plane pass by virtually simultaneously) or the peace brought to the river and fields by the golden sunlight.

Weekend Walkies, Dalmeny EstateAside from its geographical location the Dalmeny Estate shares very few features with the Almond (the exception being the planes going overhead to land at the airport) and so gave us a totally different walk for Sunday. The sun was still shining, but this time over the fields, hedgerows, copses and estate roads that sprawl over the undulating countryside that makes up the estate. In fact it’s quite hard to remember that you are still technically within city limits.

We decided to take the road that almost borders the lower extremities of the River Almond, passing the main farmhouse and eventually winding our way down to the beach. From here you look across the mouth of the Almond to Cramond, out to Cramond Island and across the Forth to Fife (ignoring the slightly less picturesque Hound Point in the middle).

Back in the fields our dog rekindled her obsession with the pheasants (she tried to chase a squirrel here a month or so ago but it magically changed into a pheasant whilst running under a bush, much to the her bafflement) at one point even leaping up onto a hay bail at the side the road to get a better view of them. Pheasant and squirrel spotting then proceeded to make up a large part of the remainder of the walk.

Weekends like this remind me of one of the many reasons I like Edinburgh (aside from its entertaining notion of climate). It never fails to amaze me that despite having spent a fairly large part of the weekend feeling as though we were in fairly isolated countryside at no time in our weekend walkies have I left city limits. Long live the weekend and long may this sun continue.Weekend Walkies, Dalmeny Estate

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