Saturday, July 26 to August 2
If anyone were to trace our UK travels on the map, they would find weve been rather zig-zagging around, and this stretch of travel - from southeastern Ireland to Edinburgh - was the worst of it. Initially we had planned a much more orderly progression through the islands, but once we had scheduled a couple of things - the canal boat in Ireland and the week in Conwy, in North Wales - we couldnt easily shift them when something else came up. The complexities of coordinating car, ferry, and train travel, and trying to get the best deals (which sometimes evaporated once the final bit of fine print was read), all conspired to leave us with a less-than-efficient itinerary. Mostly it has not been a problem, and fortunately all our connections (except ending up in New Ross when we were heading for Wexford) have gone pretty smoothly. The trip to Edinburgh was no exception. We simplified things a bit by taking a taxi directly from Graiguenamanagh to Rosslare harbor, instead of the originally planned taxi-bus-train combination (we wasted the already-paid-for train trip from Wexford to Rosslare, but that wasnt much), and got to the ferry terminal in plenty of time to catch our 9:50 pm ferry back to Wales. After a last-minute excitement when I left my belt pouch (with all our passports in it) in the station restroom, and they didnt want to let me back off to get it (it got delivered to the ship and I finally got it back, intact, about 11:30), we settled down to try to rest. This was quite a challenge. Most of the seating was chairs with metal arms, so laying down on them was impossible; the most comfy bench-style seating was around the childrens play area and video arcade, a hub of activity even at this time of night (added to by the presence of a large and noisy horde of uniformed scouts of some sort, returning from a day trip); and the quiet recliner lounge cost an extra 10 GBP per person, which we werent willing to pay. We finally located two long, though not comfortable, benches on another deck, and eventually moved them side-by-side - right by a stairwell, with bright lights overhead, and at one point a staffer vacuuming. Needless to say not much sleep was managed. I finally laid down and had Colin stretch out on top of me, and with one hear listening to my heartbeat he finally got to sleep and slept until we docked. I dozed a bit, but was quite uncomfortable and cold (I had left my fleece with the luggage, now locked up). Rich may have dozed a bit too, and went off to read for awhile. Emily also read some, and laid beside me for a while, but didnt sleep much if at all.
We arrived in Fishguard at about 2 am, and got the train to Cardiff without incident. Colin slept again during this stretch, and we arrived in Cardiff at 4:30 am, with our next train due to leave at 6 am, to Edinburgh. (The timing was such that it wasnt worth it to get a hotel room in Cardiff again, as we had on the way out). Fortunately there was a quiet, closed waiting room, with some benches Rich could even stretch out on, though not comfortably. We caught the 6 am train, and at about 8:15 debarked in Birmingham with about 45 minutes before the connection to Eburgh, time enough to get breakfast. The final leg of the trip was very crowded at first, and we werent all able to sit together, not having reserved seats for it; it emptied out later. The scenery gradually changed from the rolling, pastoral, hedgerow-squared hills of the English Midlands, to the more precipitous, often tree-covered hills of southeastern Scotland, with views across the sea towards the continent (not visible, of course). We arrived in Edinburgh on schedule, just after 2pm, and found the train our host had recommended quite easily. Shortly thereafter we were met at the Brunstane station in a northeast suburb of Edinburgh by our host, Jim, and took the short walk to Baronscourt, and met his wife, Margaret. We promptly collapsed into our rooms, and Emily went to sleep almost immediately. (Colin had slept enough during our travels, and wasnt too tired).
Baronscourt is a large white, black-roofed house in Joppa, one of Eburghs suburbs. It is backed by a large park with a playground, and a 15-minute walk further down the hill through a pleasant residential neighborhood brings one to a lovely sandy beach on the Firth of Forth. A busy road goes by the front of the house, with a very convenient bus stop to catch the bus to downtown Eburgh, which runs every 10 minutes most of the day. Further along, through another nice neighborhood, across a pedestrian bridge, and through a pedestrian underpass, is a very large supermarket, an ASDA (apparently owned by or affiliated with Walmart). The location, in short, was ideal for us - out of the bustle of the downtown, with pleasant and useful things handy nearby.
Our accommodation consisted of a spacious two-room flat, with two single beds in the bedroom, a bath with tub and shower, and a pullout double bed, TV, and kitchen in the main room. It was very light and airy, with large windows overlooking the back park and views off across the Firth to the hills of Fife.
After we had all rested, showered, unpacked, snacked, etc. I took Colin over to the playground for awhile, which he much enjoyed - playgrounds have been in rather short supply. Then we went to a nearby hotel restaurant for dinner, and walked to the ASDA to stock up on the weeks groceries - a heavy load to carry back! We all turned in early.
Sunday we didnt plan to do much, but it was a sunny, mild morning, with rain predicted later, so we went down to the beach around 10. It is a lovely stretch of sand, with a promenade along it, much frequented by families pushing baby strollers; further down it becomes Portobello, a popular resort area with shops, a very nice playground, and too many video arcades (I suppose to keep the kids coming even in poor weather, which there is a lot of here). Colin had lots of fun digging with the pail and shovel we had managed to bring along from Conwy (I dont think it will go to South Africa, though), and we beach combed and found lots of pretty shells. Rich spent some time chatting with a man with a metal detector, who often finds coins in the sand, some old, and occasionally quite valuable.
When the clouds rolled in we walked down the promenade to get ice cream, and Colin played on the playground (much fancier than the one by Baronscourt, and with other kids to play with); then we strolled uphill to High street, the main through street, for our trek back; unfortunately most of the numerous shops were closed, this being Sunday, but we had a very good light lunch at the Blue Bean Cafe. When we got back to our rooms, the kids both laid down and had a nap - unusual for Colin, who, though he still does best with a nap, has gotten used to not having one most of the time, and resisted the naps we encouraged him to have while on the river Barrow. By the time they awoke, it was nearly 5, too late to do some of the errands I had hoped to do in Edinburgh, primarily going to the visitor information center, and the bus station to get a pass for the week. We went downtown anyway, only a 20-minute bus ride, and found that visitor info was open late, so I was able to get a good local map (weve found the Red Book series to be most useful for inexpensive city maps) and the usual load of tourist flyers (there were a lot already in the room, too). We wandered around a bit, gawking at the wonderful old buildings, and Arthurs Seat, the precipitous hill which towers above and dominates downtown Edinburgh. We were a little too late to catch the last open-top bus tour, so had to save that for another day.
The next few days we alternated bouts of Internet Cafe time in the train station (trying to find accommodations in the Highlands for our unscheduled four days, August 2-5, as well as the usual e-mail and business) with visiting various tourist sites and just wandering around. I took Emily to a jazz violin concert Monday afternoon, part of the Jazz and Blues Festival this week which is a precursor to the bigger Arts festival which begins next week and dominates Edinburgh for most of August. (The violinist was George Washing Machine, from Australia, with a guitarist, bass, and drums, and they were quite good). We took the open-air bus tour Tuesday, since the weather was dry in the morning. It had live narration and gave a good overview of the city center, especially the Old Town. We also visited Edinburgh Castle. It is quite different from ancient Conwy Castle, being still in use, and with parts of much more modern vintage. The main feature is the Scottish Crown Jewels, (crown, sword, and scepter), prefaced by a nicely-done history of the Scottish kings and how the Honors, as they are called, changed and, on occasion, disappeared entirely. Other parts of the castle feature canons; the Great Hall, fully furnished and decorated; St. Margarets Chapel, the oldest bit at 1,000 years old; the very impressive Scottish National War Memorial, and other bits we didnt get to.
Wednesday we visited a more modern attraction, Dynamic Earth, a multimedia presentation of the history of the Earth and its different current environments. There was also an additional special exhibit on Myths and Monsters, with animatronic models of many imaginary beasts. I didnt know that the legends of the Cyclops were probably based on the skulls of dwarf elephants found in the Mediterranean, which do indeed resemble the skull of a huge one-eyed giant - the trunk hole looks much like an eye hole. At the end, by the gift shop, was a nice ball-pit play area for the younger set (Colin), set up like a field of volcanos which, on occasion, bubbled up more red balls like a mild eruption (the kids would promptly stuff more down the throats of the volcanoes for the next time).
In the afternoon, since the weather was dry again (it had been raining a good bit off and on, and we got quite drenched the afternoon after the Castle), we went to the Royal Botanic Garden. I had intended to visit Thursday, to coincide with a string quartet concert there, but figured we should take advantage of the dry weather. It is a compact but varied space, with a large and spectacular rock garden, a long classic herbaceous border backed by a huge hedge, a small grove of redwood trees, ponds and streams, an extensive Chinese collection, Alpine troughs and an alpine house with the largest collection of Lewisias I have ever seen (most not in bloom, alas), and huge greenhouses, which were unfortunately closed by the time we got to them. All this is free, and as with all the other gardens we have visited, it was a relaxing and pleasant visit. The most amusing thing was watching old ladies kicking swans. Well, OK, it was really only one old lady and one swan, but it was amusing. There were two large and very tame swans hanging around the largest pond, ready to cadge what they could from passersby, and as we were leaving we witnessed one swan approach a group of women on benches and start pecking around looking for food. He apparently thought one womans bare ankle looked appetizing, because he kept going for it, until she finally gave him a good hard kick to make him go away. He fell on his rump, and his posture as he waddled away was such a picture of aggrieved dignity that we couldnt help laughing! We wished Rich had had the camera in video mode and filmed it.
On the way back from the Botanic Gardens we made a fun little stop. We had several times passed the Conan Doyle pub, and a statue of Sherlock Holmes - Doyle went to medical school here, and so is somewhat memorialized - and since we had to change buses nearby, we stopped to take pictures of the statue. We would have had dinner at the pub, but it was only age 14 and up, so we went to a nearby mall instead and ate at an Italian restaurant.
Thursday was laundry day, which took most of the morning at a launderette; I stayed in to write on this while Rich did the laundry and made an internet stop, and the kids watched TV and played. We decided to go to the Zoo in the afternoon, since the mornings showers had cleared off; we had been debating whether to do that or the aquarium, but the zoo sounded better, and closer besides. It was a nice zoo, zigzagging up a rather steep hill to a fine viewpoint at the top. Probably the most unique feature was its large collection of penguins - who, if they so choose, go on parade each day at 2:15. A fair number chose to come out this day, and trundled along surrounded by their keepers, checking out feet and brollies as they went. Other notable critters were a stunning pheasant (Indonesian, perhaps - I should have written it down) which looked like gold leaf in multicolors; and a lively herd of Scimitar Oryx - large tan antelopes with two very long scimitar-shaped horns - who spent quite awhile chasing each other around their enclosure, clearly having a very good time.
Friday was mostly sunny, with no rain predicted, so we finally decided to tackle Holyrood Park, site of Arthurs Seat, and with its fellow peaks, forming the remnants of a 350 million year old volcano. I had gotten a little book describing the various approaches and features, which, as Rich said, turned out to be just thorough enough to get us into trouble. First we got off one bus stop too far along, and by the time we had walked down a long bike path (formerly a very early railroad) and through a long tunnel, we were halfway round the park from the side I had intended us to go up by - the side with the easy approach. Here we were instead near the towering Salisbury Crags, right below Arthurs Seat itself, the highest point at 823 feet. We did manage to clamber up - the whole park is crisscrossed by paths, steps, and trails - but it was a very steep climb. We stopped short of Arthurs Seat, which was another stiff climb further up, and settled for the saddle in between it and another peak. The views were stunning, and the wind ferocious as it screamed up over the ridge; it blew in the sound of a bagpipe concert from the city below, which was certainly appropriate.
We took a gradual descent down to one of the man-made lochs, and had lunch, then the kids fed the resident swan, seagulls, and ducks with the scraps; then we climbed back up the lower hill at the other side of the park, enjoying the varieties of native heather, lichens, and other plant and bug life (not to mention abundant evidence of probably hundreds of rabbit residents, though we didnt see any. We did see a dead hedgehog, though). Over at the other side of this hill was another loch, and the ruined remains of a little abbey we wanted to see; unfortunately these turned out to be down another precipitous descent, and we didnt realize until it was too late to turn back that there was probably an easier route off in another direction (this is where the little book failed us). So we slipped, crept, and backed our way down one of the steepest slopes I have ever descended, fortunately well covered in tough grass which not only provided good hand holds but, dry as it was this day, provided pretty good traction too. Colin managed all this amazingly well - better than Rich, who had shoes with very poor traction. We never did get to the abbey - when we got the the bottom it was well above us, and we werent about to go back up!
We were pretty exhausted after all this, so we headed back to Baronscourt to rest for awhile. Then, rather belatedly, we took buses back into the Old Town to visit the Museum of Scotland. Belatedly because it closed at 5, and we got there at 4:30! However, all of Edinburghs museums are free (a precedent we wish more cities would follow), so we went in anyway, and Emily and I spent an interesting half-hour in the ancient Scottish history section, while Rich and Colin visited the machines and industry level. Well try to go back during our last two days in Edinburgh.
On our way to the bus we passed an excellent brass group busking on the street - I am not a big fan of brass, but these guys were terrific. The number of street musicians had been gradually increasing during our stay, and would shortly peak when the Festival officially started, and a whole section of the Royal Mile would be closed off to traffic so performers can demonstrate their wares.
We also passed the Art Museum, which we had gone into briefly another day to hear a fiddle and harp performance. It, too was free, and open until 6, so we squeezed in another half-hour of museum time, looking at the excellent Scottish Collection.
This was the end of our week in Edinburgh; we had two more days scheduled the following week, but now we headed north.