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Phil's Travels - Edinburgh, Scotland (11.21)

24/11/2021

Phil’s Travels – Edinburgh, Scotland (11.21)

Edinburgh is one of my all-time favourite cities. I love the history, topography, built heritage and that malty smell when delicious Scottish alcohol is in manufacture. It attacks all the senses in just the right way. My visit coincided with COP26, at Edinburgh’s little sister just down the road, Glasgow. That is COP as in ‘Conference of Parties’ and not as in Kop where Klop’s crop haven’t been much cop of late. Being COP time, finding a hotel at a reasonable price was a challenge, but unfathomably the trains were empty. Maybe all the eco-COPs travelled north by horse and carriage. Surely, they did not fly!

Kings Cross on Monday morning was empty. Even Platform 9¾ had no one at it trying to push that half-trolley through the wall. My carriage had two other folk in it and the luxury of spacious rail travel made total sense.  Maybe the appalling weather of the weekend (whose floods delayed journeys on the Sunday) dissuaded the eco-COPs from going north at all. Suffice to say a sunny London became a darkening north the closer we got to Bonny Scotland.

The journey gave me some moments to reflect on just how far British Airways had fallen from grace (nothing to do with trains, of course, but travel related nonetheless). The Friday before, my wonderful wife and I dropped our darling daughter off at Heathrow T5 for a BA flight to Copenhagen and the check-in was a joke. Despite no requests at the time of booking, nor when filling the online pre-check-in info, and in the absence of any specific requests from BA (a nice little email or text message would be something to consider in future, please), and having even spoken to a Danish official in Denmark (yes, you could actually talk to a person, in person, on the phone, who knew everything and could answer your questions, and even called me back to make sure I had understood everything properly) – and yet despite all those things saying a pre-flight C19 test was NOT required, guess what? At the 11th hour, 59th minute and 59th second, the check-in clerk at T5 asked for a pre-flight C19 negative test certificate. We could not believe it. But what can you say? You can rant and rave all you like, but fact remained, no certificate, no flight. Fortunately, there was a testing centre just behind the check-in desks. Unfortunately, you needed to pre-register online for a test. Their website was rubbish. It took my wonderful wife and the centre manager four attempts to make the booking. We managed to complete all the admin and check-in stuff eventually and our darling daughter had an amazing Halloween in Copenhagen. If BA require a pre-flight PCR test, even when the destination does not require one, why don’t they tell passengers beforehand, clearly and explicitly? I will tell you why. Because such a test costs £35 and would make BA look more expensive compared to other carriers (who don’t need such a test). The world’s formally favourite airline has become the world’s infamously infuriating airline.

Training is a joyful way to travel at the moment (lots of space, clean and on time), but for some reason LNER fails to match GWR in terms of tech. Although my train was on time, as was the RMS St Helena all those years ago (from Cape Town to Jamestown in around five days), my train was much like the RMS in another way. The wifi was rubbish. The nearly five-hour journey was undertaken with lack of emails and internet connectivity to allow me to use those five hours productively. [Note to LNER, go have a chat with your mates at Paddington and get some decent wifi].

From Waverley Station I walked to a little hole-in-the-wall hotel in the West End along a very depressing Princes Street. What has happened to this once most elegant of high streets? Many of the shops that lined the north side are now closed and vacant (including Top Shop, Jenners and Debenhams, last man standing was an M&S), with notices outside advising shoppers to go to St James Quarter instead. The road itself had become a dreary homage to public transport. Private cars are banned, which means there was nothing interesting to look at, such as an old Lada or the latest Cinquecento. The view was of infinite lines of trams, buses (a greater convergence of bus routes than Oxford Street itself) and taxis. Still, at least they have not ruined the stunning view to the south to the Old Town and the clifftop castle. How to regenerate Princes Street? Maybe each of Scotland’s alcohol makers should open an emporium. Another casualty of Princes Street was the House of Fraser at West End. Now a Jonnie Walker experience. Imagine all 1.2km of Princes Street as one long whiskey world. Imagine the pub crawls that could be had and the ‘cow-in-a-building’ hallucinations that could ensue. Either that or just cover it up and hide the horror.

Edinburgh had changed in other ways too since my last visit some 20 years ago. Handsome George Street, formerly the beating banking heart of the city, had become a street of retail and entertainment, with many grand bank buildings now pubs and clubs. My walking tour of the city took in all its key districts: New Town (entertainment), Old Town (history), Holyrood (government), West End (banks, et al), and beyond. Lots of areas have been regenerated and there are many good things (modern office buildings, trendy resi quarters, rebuilt railway lands), but some not so good stuff has been left in their wake.

The weather was ideal for exploring, 7C, sunny, little wind and dry. Despite COP, the streets were not that busy (most eco-COPs were out of town of course and many office buildings remained devoid of workers). That said, I did hear a good variety of languages (especially in the Old Town). International tourists were returning.

My hole-in-the-wall hotel room was small, simple and clean, but the wifi had clearly taken a leaf from the RMS playbook. It too was rubbish. My view was to the rear, which meant I did not get the full brunt of the tram rumbles on the main street to the front (only faint rumblettes in the dead of night). How the nearby Caledonian copes with such noise pollution I do not know.

In the evenings, there was some sign of COP activity, with police motorcades delivering VIPs to the city’s posher hotels. I wonder if they watched the Tuesday night movie on Channel 4, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’! Plenty of inspiration in that movie to get the Copic juices going.

During my time, I just had to consume a little of the Highlands’ most famous fare: I had eggs benedict with rashers of haggis and I tried haggis merguez. Both amazing and delicious and long may the Highlanders cultivate such delectable beauties. I took a bus to Leith to see the Royal Yacht Britannia. What a sad experience. The boat was largely invisible behind a massive shopping mall, called The Ocean Terminal. Within, the mall was much like Princes Street. Vacant retail units and devoid of all character (a good interior designer is strongly required). I managed to glimpse the front of The Royal Yacht from some decking next to a coffee shop, but just a glimpse as most of it was hidden behind a massive gantry. Looking back into the harbour from the bus back to Edinburgh, the poor boat looks very sad all on its own surrounded by little to inspire. Maybe the further regeneration of Leith and new tram lines will enliven it in future.

Like all the eco-COP bigwigs, I departed Bonny Scotland on the third day. I was very impressed with the Kimpton (very smart, fun and wonderful décor) and sad to not see Greta (maybe I did pass her on the Royal Mile, but being quite petite it was perfectly possible that we missed each other; same could be said for Wee Nicola when I dropped by Bute House and she did not pop out to say hello). Good luck to the eco-COPs and may they not be COPouts, and tapadh leat to wonderful Edinburgh.

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