Winter Sun in South Queensferry

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We had spent Saturday wandering around Edinburgh with my father who had not visited the city for 20 years. He enjoyed seeing what had changed and what had not. Sunday morning brought one of the still sunny winter days that the east coast of Britain often gets in winter while those of us on the western side of the country are experiencing grey wet weather. As my father is a retired engineer, I knew he would be interested to see the new Queensferry Bridge. He still has copies of ‘The Engineer’ magazine from the 19th century which were found in my grandfather’s garage when it was being cleared after his death. They contain a month-by-month account of the building of the Forth Rail Bridge which is fascinating. The visitors’ centre for the new bridge is not open on Sundays so we contented ourselves with a wander along the shore and into the historic old town of South Queensferry. The name of the town dates from the ferry service for Queen Margaret which was established in the 11th century and ran at first from some rocks to the west of the current harbour. The ferry ran until 1964 when the Road Bridge opened. The new bridge is scheduled to open in early May 2017 so we hope to be able to cross it when we go to Shetland in May. At the moment there is still a small section missing. I hope it joins up satisfactorily, I remember the Kessock Bridge near Inverness not quite matching up in the middle when the two halves were joined South Queensferry also has a bookshop so a return trip on a day other than a Sunday might have to be made at some point.
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A second open door in Edinburgh

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Today’s Open Door for Advent was Summerhall. The 100-year-old building was the University of Edinburgh’s Veterinary School until 2011 but is now an events and arts hub with workshops and workspaces, exhibitions, a café, several event spaces and Pickering’s Gin Distillery. I had been in town to do a few things and on the way to Summerhall walked up Clerk Street. Like most urban areas, shops and businesses have closed in Edinburgh and some new ones have opened. For the circus performers among you, there is now a juggling shop on Clerk Street and the other thing that attracted my attention as I walked along was a notice in a shop window advertising ‘Lesbian Donkey for Sale’.

I was a little early for the exhibition tour at Summerhall so wandered around some of the open rooms. The old anatomy lecture theatre is one of the few remaining with wooden seating:
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The dissection room has large windows on one side unlike the one at my medical school in Marischal College in Aberdeen which was in the basement and known as ‘The Drain’.
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However, the old lab was very reminiscent of school science labs.
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At two, the tour of the exhibitions began and the group was smaller than yesterday so we could chat with each other. Our guide, Sergio Madrigal, was extremely knowledgeable about the work of Ross Fraser McLean whose exhibition was entitled ‘Ceiba – Casa de Todos Los Muertes’. He had spent eight months exploring death in Mexico from both socio-political and spiritual stand points. The exhibition includes photography, music and installations in the old vet school specimen display cabinets.
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The cabinets contain Mexican craft artefacts, offerings of flowers, fruit and vegetables left to decay like offerings on an altar and other objects documenting Mexican life and death.
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It took almost an hour to even begin to absorb everything on display. We had a brief look at another gallery and then I had to leave. Ceiba continues until 23 December and we were told about another in the old church which is part of the complex. This exhibition chronicles the life of women in Yemen after the recent wars and is part a portrait exhibition but also comments on how their life has changed and the many ways in which gains in freedom have now been reversed. That and a tour of the gin distillery must wait for another day. On the way out I noticed there was a Thermos Museum, another time perhaps.
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Opening the door to history in Edinburgh

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Like Jim Perrin whose book I was reading on the train last night, I always enjoy finding new things or revisiting old favourites in familiar places. My first port of call this morning was the Assembly Rooms in George Street, the first Advent Door to be opened. I joined the 11am guided tour with a small crowd and heard about the various adaptations and renovations of the current building since it was opened in 1787, the most recent being completed in 2012. It replaced buildings in the old town which were described by Youngson in his book The Making of Classical Edinburgh as providing opportunities for ‘dancing. This – as a later age would have thought of it – unpresbyterian diversion was carried on in the form of public assemblies in the Old Assembly Room in the West Bow as early perhaps as 1710’. Here is an illustration of that building:
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That Assembly and its predecessor did not only provide entertainment for the upper classes but also raised funds for the support of the poor. After the last renovation, the building is now a venue for conferences, exhibitions and weddings. They are keen to advertise their green credentials but no mention of supporting the poor. It does have a fabulous ballroom:
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Here is one of the Coade Sybils in the Crush:
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and a chandelier in the later drawing room made from pressed rather than cut glass:
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The music room was lit in red for World Aids Day
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I ended the day at the Queen’s Hall enjoying the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s concert:

SIBELIUS 
Valse Triste
Scene with Cranes
MAXWELL DAVIES 
Strathclyde Concerto No 2
BARTOK 
Divertimento
MAXWELL DAVIES 
An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise – this last piece with the obligatory dram for the conductor, cheers from the orchestra and a finale with a piper.

On the rails in the dark

Most of my train journeys to Edinburgh are in the early morning with good views of the Cumbrian hills and the Southern Uplands. Not so on this occasion, I was on the last train in the evening. In the week or so leading up to my trip yesterday evening there had been innumerable reports of problems on the rail network so I was not hopeful. As it turned out, my train was only three minutes late and I was soon installed in my seat with a coffee in front of me. The staff member in the carriage explained that due to staff sickness there would be no at-seat service in first class after Preston and plied us with enough food and wine to take us all the way to our destination. The wine came in a plastic bottle which I will hang on to as they are useful means of carrying alcohol into festivals where glass is forbidden for obvious reasons. I settled into the rest of my journey with Jim Perrin’s ‘Travels with a Flea and other Eccentric Journeys’, a collection of his essays on trips to various parts of the world and around his home in Wales. We arrived in Edinburgh on time and although my usual short cut to the bus stop was blocked by the ice rink and Christmas market, I did get a quick shot with my phone of the castle lit up in blue for St Andrews Day just before the bus pulled in.
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I came up a little earlier than James and my father who will drive up on Friday afternoon as I wanted to fit in some last-minute Christmas shopping. I then discovered several things that will distract me from shopping. Firstly, Edinburgh is doing something a little different for the festive season this year. Each day from the 1st December to the 24th they are opening a building or part of a building which is not usually accessible to the public. The event, which is free, is entitled 24 Doors of Advent. Each day from 1-24th December, a different building or part of one not usually open to the public, will open its doors for a day.
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I plan to visit the venues for the 1st and 2nd and possibly the 3rd, depending upon the preferences of the others. I also discovered that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are performing Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Orkney Wedding’ on Thursday evening so that is my treat for this evening.

Planning a long walk

I have been thinking about walking to Edinburgh from my home in Cheshire for quite some time. Various routes have come to mind, the first being using the Pennine Way. I am about 2 days or so from the southern start in Edale and then would need to find a route from the northern end in Kirk Yetholm to Edinburgh. To cut down the mileage a little I then pondered walking up the Macclesfield Canal which is close to home here to the end in Marple and then making my way to Standedge and the Pennine Way. However, even the canal is not a particularly direct route as it weaves around quite a bit even before it gets to Macclesfield. I then read about a guy who walked from Boston to San Francisco (a really long walk). When he was asked how he navigated, he replied ‘Google Maps’ saying that it kept him off the interstate and took him through places where there were services. So, what did it come up with for me?
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The most direct route takes me on minor roads from my village to a short stretch of the A50. It then cuts across to pick up the A49 and eventually the A6 all the way to Carlisle. The A7 then goes as far as Langholm before switching to the B-road that climbs over Eskdalemuir to Yarrow and then on to Peebles. The most direct route stays with the A701 into Edinburgh and is 229 miles. I might switch to the A702 at West Linton and come in that way on my last day. That only adds a few miles and I would take around 15 days with a couple of slow days in the middle around Kendal (despite Google Maps listing 76 hours for the route!). The longest walks I have done so far have taken around 9-10 days in India. We have walked the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way and the Speyside Way in the last few years but this would be longer. Although it follows main roads for much of the way, there will be footpaths and minor roads to divert along at times. Mostly the towns and hostelries are separated by a day’s walking which is good as I really do not want to have to carry my tent and camping equipment and if there is not a convenient campsite you cannot wild camp in England. This route is of course, the old route to Scotland from my part of the country before the motorways were built. Here is my great grandfather with his car at Shap on the A6 in Cumbria on his way to Scotland.
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Before mechanised transport, if you could not afford a carriage journey, you walked. Thomas Carlyle walked from Ecclefechan to Edinburgh to start his university course and John Snow, who identified the cause of cholera, walked from York to London via Bath to start a new job. Others have more recently walked from John O’Groats to Lands End or around the whole coastline for charity. This is more a personal pilgrimage. It will probably not happen until late spring/early summer 2018 as we are away for much of the first half of 2017. I prefer to walk in Scotland at that time of year if possible as it is usually drier, the days longer and the midges fewer in number.

Southwards over the moors

Roadside sunflowers accompanied us much of the way on Route 66. On Sunday’s southbound journey it was the seed heads of Rosebay Willowherb (known as Fireweed in the USA) which waved in the wind alongside fields, moors and forests.
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We had spent the remainder of our time in Edinburgh catching up with a few things in town and cleaning the flat. One of the antique map sellers who used to be in the Canongate (the Carson Clark Gallery), then St Mary St, has moved to the New Town on the corner of Northumberland Street and Dundas Street. He is next to the Wally Dug, a pub that has been serving there since 1811. Chatting to the proprietor, we discovered that the reason behind his move was that his previous landlord had doubled the rent. He said that his business had been replaced with shops selling ‘tourist tat’. We browsed for a while but with diminishing free wall space, did not buy any more old maps.
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We did find several books and some more music in Stockbridge and fortified by coffee, then walked back up the hill to the flat. After a rest, we were at the Filmhouse to see ‘I, Daniel Blake’, a very powerful and emotional film that our government should see.

Rain was forecast for most of the East Lothian coast on Sunday morning so a beach walk was out. We drove south towards Peebles and could see snow on the top of the Moorfoot Hills. It arrived a couple of weeks ago in the Cairngorms and last weekend the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team were out. Driving through Traquair, we heard the travel news on the radio announce the first road closure of winter due to snow: the A939 between Cockbridge and Tomintoul. Later we heard of ferry cancellations between Oban, Barra and South Uist. I was interested to revisit this road (the B709) as it will be on my Smallwood to Edinburgh walk which I am planning to do in around 18 months time. The Gordon Arms Hotel by the Yarrow River and Mountbenger will be one overnight stop. Before we reached Eskdalemuir, there was a sign warning us of red squirrels crossing. We did not see any but did come across several buzzards who were feeding on a road kill while others were flying overhead. We also saw lots of pheasants by the roadside and James spotted a red grouse. One of my long walk stops will be at the Samye Ling Monastery,a centre of Tibetan Buddhism in the Scottish moors. Scaffolding was covering the Stupa today so here is a shot of the Buddha. The Fairy Hill opposite the monastery also has a shrine but exploration of that and the rest of the monastery will have to wait for another day.
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Continuing southwards towards Langholm we heard that two mattresses had fallen off a vehicle on the M56 near Manchester Airport so the road was closed. James commented that perhaps they had been to Ikea, reminding me of a trip many years ago to the Ikea store at Warrington. James was too mean to pay the delivery charge so I was hanging on to flat pack bookshelves that were sticking out of the sun roof on a very windy day as we drove across the Thelwall Viaduct. We did make it home without mishap on that occasion. Langholm has a racecourse but nothing was happening on a winter Sunday afternoon. We were soon back on the motorway and home to continue planning our travels in 2017.

Driving north at the beginning of winter

The endless summer has ended. The clocks went back last weekend, the temperature has dropped and we had our first frost a few days ago. Fortunately, I had put my pelargoniums into the greenhouse the day before. The autumn colours are still fabulous but high winds are forecast so most of the leaves will soon be on the ground. It is unusual to get to November before the heating is switched on, the warm coat comes out and I am hunting for gloves. In Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago I was cursing because I had not brought my sunglasses as they are not usually needed in October. This afternoon’s drive was punctuated by large black clouds and showers for most of the way. The sun was trying to emerge from behind the clouds in places and we saw four rainbows before we had got as far as Carlisle. On the M74, we passed Stevens Croft, a power station fuelled with biomass: off-cuts from the forestry industry. Many of the hills around here have wind farms and with the addition of hydro-electricity, Scotland is further ahead than the rest of the UK in renewable energy production.

We left the motorway near Moffat and there was yet another rainbow above the golden foliage around the town. It was fading a bit before I could find a place to stop and take a photograph.
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We continued on the A701 and as we ascended, were surrounded by cloud and rain. At Tweedsmuir, there is what looks like a stone monument on the hillside. It might be The Postman’s Stone. This marks the position where the body of stagecoach guard James McGeorge was found, after an unsuccessful attempt to get the mail bags through a blizzard in February 1831. It is inscribed “J McG 1831”. He is apparently buried in Moffat old graveyard. I am looking forward to us both being finally retired in a few months’ time, we will have more time to explore the area we are driving through. Today we needed to get to Edinburgh for a quick meal with a friend before he and James headed off to Murrayfield for a rugby match. I was looking forward to a quiet evening. Just before we descended into the city there was a lovely sunset.
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