Friday, February 24, 2012

Thoughts from Places: Edinburgh

Last Friday morning I woke up at an absurd hour (I sense there will be a lot of that when it comes to traveling this semester) and stumbled around in the dark for a bit before grabbing my overstuffed backpack and my flatmates and heading off to King's Cross Station. I did not see Platform Nine and Three Quarters, because it was busy and because it was early, but I did head over to platform 8 to board a train for Scotland.

I've only ever been on a train once before, and it was a short ride into Manhattan to see a show. The four hour train ride from London to Edinburgh was just lovely. Once we had gotten past the inexplicably ear-popping train tunnels out of London, there was nothing but rolling hills and fields and the occasional train station. We rode past innumerable sheep and little copses of trees and old farmhouses and the occasional Gothic spire in the distance. The English countryside feels so very spacious - miles of green hills topped by endless blue sky, stretching out around the train windows for forever. And then we crossed the Tweed River into Scotland, and all of a sudden the fields fell away into steep cliffs that dropped down towards the sea, an unimaginably breathtaking sight that left me leaning closer to the window to try and catch a better glimpse of it all.

We arrived in Edinburgh then, for three days of whirlwind excitement. We visited Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyrood, two more beautiful instances of history come to life for me, of feeling the weight of walking in a place where Bonnie Prince Charlie walked and Mary Queen of Scots lived, of feeling that history wasn't just a story after all and it was all there, in front of me, waiting for me to explore it. We spent a lot of time walking around the city; it's a beautiful city, a mixture of old and older architecture, and it makes me wish that we had proper alleyways in America. Edinburgh is very hilly, but it makes for some truly beautiful little streets, with all the Georgian buildings curving down the hill in little rows, letting in a glimpse of sea or sky over the rooftops.

On Saturday, we climbed Arthur's Seat, which I will refer to as a mountain simply because it is much too big to be called a hill. It was a "weather permitted" activity in our itinerary, but on flat ground it was a beautiful day, sunny and a bit cold, and a little windy. We began walking up, with the sun sneaking up on us over the top of the mountain to show off the heather and the steep valleys that kept appearing around us. As we went up, it got windier and windier, to the point where I, a rather scrawny person, was on occasion legitimately afraid of being blown off the top of the mountain. The view from the top, however, was more than worth a bit of buffeting.

It was beautiful - much like Glastonbury Tor, we could see for miles from the top; we had a view of the castle and the palace, of the whole of the city and the hills beyond it on one side, and the bay and the sea on the other side. We could see the clouds rushing over us in the wind - and yes, I did have to bend down or hold on to the rock from time to time, but it felt, as scary as it was, a little bit like flying might.

We then spotted a rather ominous looking cloud heading towards us and, not wanting to get caught in the rain, headed down the mountain. The cloud caught up with us, however, but it didn't rain - it started to snow. At first, it was beautiful - where one moment it had been sunny, suddenly everything was grey and green and white, covered in mist and little tiny snowflakes swirling around us in the wind like magic. But then, about halfway down the mountain, the wind kicked up and the snow turned to hail, and we were blown halfway down on the wrong side. It was terrifying and exhilarating; I was actually afraid that I might fall or someone else might fall and get hurt, but at the same time, it was fun. Either way, we made it down safely, even though we had to walk all the way around the base of the mountain to get back to the front again.

That evening, we went to a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a traditional Scottish dance. I can hardly even explain how much fun I had. The little band - consisting of a drummer and an accordion player - walked us all through the dances first before we did them. I felt like I had stumbled across the ballroom at Netherfield (we did, in fact, do a few of the dances shown in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice), only with even livelier music and much more laughing. A little old Scottish man in a kilt asked me to dance, one of the dances that hadn't been taught yet, but he was the perfect leader; he could show me what to do without telling me anything, simply by guiding me around the floor, and by the end I knew exactly what I was doing. Everyone was so very nice and were so glad to talk to us and ask us how we liked it there. After the ceilidh, we went to a pub down the road and listened to another little band play American rock music and talked to two lovely old ladies who made room for us at their table. They seemed so happy to have us there with them, and I talked to them about my writing and their grandchildren and Scottish home rule. It was an absolutely amazing night. There's a ceilidh in Camden tomorrow night, and we're going to try and go.

The next morning, we wandered around various tourist shops and then Lisa, Matt and I split off from the group for a delicious lunch at The Elephant House, the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote some of the earlier Harry Potters. There's a view of an old graveyard and the castle out the back window of the cafe - no doubt inspiring for a fantasy writer! Perhaps I can hope that a little of that inspiration will rub off on me?

Then it was time to board the train for the four hour ride home. We did so many things and saw so many things, and I feel I got to know the people I spent my time with in Edinburgh much better than I had previously. And so, after a perfectly amazing weekend, we headed home to London. I inexplicably managed to trounce my friends at iPad Monopoly on the train ride home, another fun and silly thing to add to the weekend's accomplishments. After the sea and the cliffs, the hills and the sheep and the sunset, had all passed us by, we arrived back in London and traipsed back to the little flat I've come to call home, absolutely ready to take the weight off my very sore feet and somewhat less ready to bring the weekend to a close.


  1. I love experiencing this new place with you. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love Edinburgh--the curious mix of New Town/Old Town architecture, the hills! Now I really want to take another trip there. :)