There’s little doubt that the United Kingdom and it’s geographical area is an historic part of the world where many influential events have occurred and people lived.
It’s just not that visible to me, however.
Perhaps it’s all about relativity and timing. Had I have come direct from Australia onto the British shores, maybe the history of Bristol and the industrial center of Manchester would have astounded me.
Consequently, the sights of Bristol didn’t astound me nor was Manchester able to live up to my now lofty expectations – history seeking wise. They impressed, but they fell short of astounding. In fact, with the exception of London (which I’ve clearly documented I thought lacked in this department somewhat also), there hasn’t been a single place in the United Kingdom I’ve visited so far that can rival even a moderate sized town in those latin influenced countries, such as Avignon or Granada.
It may be slightly unfair to compare against these countries, which seem to have benefited from a much greater influence of the Roman Empire and, in the case of Spain, combined this with their Islamic influences also.
But facts are facts and opinions are opinions and this is how I’m assessing the situation.
The British Isles may not have experienced as much romantic history as it’s mainland European counterparts, but it’s still had its fair share of history and the bizarre thing while traveling through its lands is that this doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as visible.
The Great Fire of London surely ravaged many of the capitals historic buildings and extensive bombing throughout World War II destroyed many others throughout the entire of Great Britain. Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s something lacking here in terms of historic landmarks and sights.
Is it that the Brits have a penchant for moving on with life and are therefore content with knocking down old, out-dated buildings if they don’t have an extremely significant history behind them?
Glasgow, my current destination, didn’t really do anything to disprove any of what I had seen so far on my UK adventure. Despite being Scottish and perhaps doing things differently, it pretty much kept to the norm of having a fair scattering of historic sights but mostly preferring modern structures in its city limits. Even the historic sites mentioned would be categorised as a mid-level kind of significance and age and just didn’t really blow you away.
As mentioned in the last post, I had started to look forward to returning to France and the rest of mainland Europe to reacquaint myself with these delightful and cultural towns and cities that I had become to expect from Europe. As a result, I had given myself only a few days in Scotland before returning southward.
Luckily, Glasgow and the second largest Scottish city of Edinburgh are conveniently located close to each other and so I took the slightly over an hour long train ride between the two one day to discover what Edinburgh was all about.
It was much like any other adventure I’d undertaken. No research about Edinburgh meant that I didn’t really know what to expect. All I really knew about it was its world famous largest Fringe festival which, coincidentally, had ended only a few days prior to my arrival.
Lackadaisical traveling has its downsides too, you know.
Despite being entirely in English, and despite me being half decent in English, I couldn’t figure out the automated ticketing machines at the Glasgow Central Station, which offered about six or seven different rates for what seemed like the same journey. Bemused, I threw in the towel and went for the old human interaction by asking a ticket seller at the desk to organise one for me.
This was also the first rural train I had taken during my time in Britain, previously preferring the generally much cheaper alternative of busses to get around. It was a comfortable trip, steady enough for me to read the morning newspaper and enjoy a coffee along the way.
One of the good things (spoiler alert – there are quite a few) of Edinburgh is that the central train station is just that – smack bang in the middle. The train line basically bisects the city in two, with action happening on both sides of the tracks.
What this also means is that as the train draws into Edinburgh, the traveler gets a quick glimpse of the best parts of Edinburgh that only enhances their desire to go and discover them.
From this preview aboard the train I had a feeling that this was what I had been longing for the last few weeks. History could be observed through the windows of my carriage as it drew close to its destination.
So rarely have I been as excited to get out of the train and start exploring as I was when arriving in Edinburgh.
The two halves of Edinburgh that the train line bisects are the Old Town and the New Town and there’s no prizes for guessing where the name derives from. Mind you, however, that the usage of the word ‘new’ in the New Town is relative to the Old Town, and the New Town retains a lot of history in its own right.
The New Town is certainly impressive to observe but it doesn’t do enough to distract the first time visitor from immediately turning their heads towards the Old Town on the other side of the tracks.
This densely constructed area just oozes history and tradition upon looking at it and it’s impossible not to feel the history of Scotland as one walks through its streets. The most famous of its pathways is the colloquially coined Royal Mile. This stretch of the world is inspiring to say the least.
Almost every building along this path contains a story behind it that almost any building in London, Birmingham or Liverpool would dream to compete with.
Just take its two bookends as examples.
At the far western end lies the Edinburgh Castle – one of the most notable buildings observed on the train ride in. This is just about the pinnacle of Edinburgh – which is saying something – and as such is also the hottest ticket in town tourism wide.
Expect long waiting times for ticket purchases and likely crowded viewing once inside. This particular author can’t verify the latter because upon seeing the cost for entry, decided that it just wasn’t worth it. I have no doubt it’s an impressive structure to explore the internals of, but it’s also a remarkable building to view from the outside and, well perched on the edge of the adequately named Castle Rock, it can be seen from various locations around town.
The only thing that could perhaps beat this construction for history so far during my time in the UK would be the Cardiff Castle. And while the Cardiff Castle was impressive to see, the Edinburgh Castle has more of an allure to it, a more dominating presence sitting high and mighty looking over it’s kingdom below.
At the far eastern end of the Royal Mile sits the Holyrood Palace, which remains to this day the official residence of the Queen in Scotland. This palace is nowhere near as prominent as the castle is, nor does it appeal to the eye as much, but it does hold a special significance that is to be admired.
Again, expect to find loads of tourists here and hefty prices around the area.
What’s even better than this are two parks north and south of Holyrood Palace.
The first is Calton Hill, a mid-sized park not far north of the palace. The word ‘park’ tends to conjure visions of Central Park in New York City or Parc de la Tête d’Or in Lyon. Calton Hill isn’t so much a park as an open field perhaps. A public space that is left to its own devices. In that fashion the area itself isn’t so beautiful, bar from a few monuments that have been erected there.
No, its prime advantage is the view it provides over Edinburgh – a view that bests even that which is seen from the Edinburgh Castle. This is where one goes to get a postcard shot. An ideal vista including the New Town of Edinburgh on the right and the Old Town of Edinburgh to the left. With a good panoramic, one can even include the cliffs of Holyrood Park, the second park I want to document here.
As with Calton Hill, Holyrood Park is more of an open, wild and protected space rather than a well maintained and facilitated green area. With its highest point being the famed Arthurs Seat at two-hundred-and-fifty metres and a gentle enough incline, it makes for a perfect spot to have a relaxing hike that is not too difficult even for more elderly people.
The thing I enjoyed most about this park is that, although there were clear walking tracks that made it easy for one to figure out how to get to the places they wanted to get to, there was no other human intervention along the way. There were no signs, and no fences to prevent people going to certain areas. One could hang their legs off the edge of the cliffs if they wanted, and many often did. It provided a real sense of freedom and exploration and it’s understandably a popular spot for tourists and locals alike to enjoy a picnic on a fine day and look out over the town below.
The views of Edinburgh here were good too – not as ideal as those found on Calton Hill, but well worth checking out also.
Later in the evening I caught up with a girl by the name of Danielle – an Irishwoman who had been living in Edinburgh for a few years who had responded to a Couchsurfing request a day too late but had agreed to catching up for a drink.
This was ideal because after walking around town all day I was really in need of a beer but had put off going to a bar all day. My path had led me down the most touristic places and if there’s one criticism that Edinburgh has, it’s of profiteering a little too much from its beauty and subsequent tourism. The prices here were ridiculous in all of the bars and restaurants that surrounded the tourist hotspots, not least I suppose due to a byproduct of the Fringe festival.
One can understand the eagerness of the local businesses to cash in on its location yet I feel that there is a limit when it flips from additional charges for the higher quality service and location and then to blatant daylight robbery fuelled by greed. I couldn’t help but feel that this wasn’t really the Scottish way.
Still, Danielle – being local enough – was able to steer us away from the over-excessive prices. We didn’t pay particularly cheap, but nor did we pay an extreme amount for our food and drink.
As it turns out, Danielle was soon to be heading to Australia for an extended stay, so I was happy to be able to provide some advice on the life there which, for the first time in a long time, felt a long way from where I currently was.
The United Kingdom thus far had just seemed all too familiar to me – the culture and mentality of the people very similar to what I was used to in Australia. I had thought, prior to arrival, that this would be offset by the amazing amount of history I would experience. Yet this hadn’t really eventuated and my time in the UK was becoming stale and was dragging on. I had dreams of other lands.
Edinburgh changed most of this. I still had dreams of other lands with other cultures to discover and people to meet and the culture here in Edinburgh wasn’t all too different from the rest of the UK.
But it was back in Holyrood Park, sitting atop a cliff-face looking out over Edinburgh and its well aged, well presented medieval buildings that I had finally found that piece of British history that I had been so long left wanting for.
Those dreams and thoughts I would have in France and Spain of “imagine all the people that have stood on this ground before me. The battles that may have been fought here” had come back. One can feel the history here in Edinburgh, and it was a great sense of satisfaction to have finally found the missing piece.
An extremely pleasant surprise.
Lackadaisical traveling has its upsides too, you know.