Edinburgh

Posted on January 23, 2011 by

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Oh ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road an’ I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.

I do not doubt it. Britain is tiny. Right? So how come it takes as long to drive to Edinburgh as it does to France? Have you been on the M1 lately? Average speed 50 mph. 50mph on the M1! Pathetic. When it opened fifty years ago there was no speed limit. Averaging 38mph – not a misprint – Hertfordshire to Edinburgh takes six hours. Six hours. In 2010. Today it takes three hours to drive 80 miles Hertford to Newbury in Berkshire. Three hours. Motorway all the way. For god’s sake. It beggars belief. And there is no public transport. Visitors to the Olympics are in for a shock.

Not that it matters how long it takes to get to Edinburgh. Who, outside Scotland except perhaps for the Japanese, could give a flying wotsit for Scotland?  As Anne Robinson once said about Wales. What’s the point of it?

To make the point, Scotland bangs on and on about INDEPENDENCE but Scotland still defers to England the way it always has. Mary, Queen of Scots, frothed to be our Queen. Her son James I known by his courtiers as Queen James couldn’t wait to leave what he called ‘lowsy Edinburgh’. Edinburgh’s world famous Princes Street is named after the sub-human Prince Regent,  George Street after George III and Charlotte Square after his Queen Consort and they never went there. They barely went behind the confines of Kew Gardens. It even has Hanover Street. Walter Scott, who replaced Andrew as Scotland’s patron saint, was obsessed with England – read Ivanhoe. Set in 12th-century England it’s all about Richard I, Robin Hood and his merry men for goodness sake. Not that Edinburgh cares. It built a huge edifice to honour him. A novelist!  The wonderful thing about England is it’s not Scotland. The English revere no-one, certainly not novelists, not even Dickens. Where is his two hundred foot high monument?

As for Independence. What a joke. The so called Barnett Formula gives Scotland a bigger share of UK public spending than it does England. We subsidise a wealthy Scotland laughing all the way to the bank by pouring vast sums into its public sector whose employees enjoy very high wages indeed, more than in the private sector.

Over thirty years ago Joel Barnett MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, suggested a then better off, financially speaking, England give Scotland its poor relation £1,567 more per person than it allows us. In other words, preferential funding. Although Scotland now has higher wages, less poverty and unemployment than England it still receives 20% higher public spending than we do. We each get £7,121 spent on us, Scots get £8,623. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Scotland is the most affluent country in the UK.

Joel Barnett, now Lord Barnett, says he meant for his Formula to be short term and should be abolished because it’s increasingly unfair to England. University students in Scotland don’t pay tuition fees, Old Folks Homes are better run than ours and old folks don’t have to sell their own old folks home to pay for places in them but still Sassenachs are, not to put too fine a point on it, despised by many Scots. What’s that old saw? No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.  Mind you, Scotland considers its share of public spending measly and not nearly enough. They insist revenues from Scottish North Sea oil fill our English Treasury coffers. There may be something in that because the government has no plans to scrap the Barnett Formula. Unless we make them. Can you imagine that? As if. Apathy Rules OK.

However, politics aside, for all that Scots benefit from my misguided, anachronistic, benevolence, Edinburgh virgins, especially this one, despite an inbuilt disdain for nationalism, find themselves utterly beguiled. The city is, quite simply, wonderful. It’s classy, elegant, sophisticated. The architecture is stunning. You feel as if you are abroad. Is it the same sense of continental civic pride? Is it because, like Paris, Edinburgh has giant edifices honouring blokes no-one has ever heard of? Both honour anyone with a French or Scottish pulse. Is it because Edinburgh strives for standards of excellence whereas the rest of Britain has given up? Is it because of the absence of litter? Visitors would be hard pressed to find a discarded sweet wrapper. Locals, invited to report sightings, phone rapid response dustcarts and not only use bins, when they spot litter they pick it up and pop it in. How cool is that? Is it that buses painted in bright reds, blues, pinks and yellows arrive bang on time with polite drivers in pristine uniforms? Is it, dare one say, because, visually at least, Edinburgh is not multi-cultural so there is  a sense of common purpose, shared experiences, ideals, standards, values and attitudes.

Edinburgh, to put it simply, is a joy. It’s walkable. It has nooks and crannies. Tiny side streets reveal brief glimpses of hidden delights but must just pop round this next corner takes its toll. You won’t see orange day-glo gals tottering these cobbled streets in Jimmy Choos. It’s a literary city, a pavement cafe, student culture city, big enough to feed the imagination, small enough – population 500,000 – to get to know intimately.

Instead of staying in Edinburgh itself, why not go to Late Rooms.com for one of the self-catering luxury apartments two miles away in Leith Docks which overlook The Royal Yacht Britannia. Dock lights at night are very romantic. Price? £90 a night. Sleep four. Do the maths.

Leave the car in the underground secure parking, board the Number 10 – ‘Your Locally Owned Bus – and buy a £3 Rover Bus Ticket. It will take you to all the places you want to go even to the famous Rosslyn Chapel. It will take you to: The Royal Mile with its ubiquitous Castle which can be seen, like the Duomo in Florence, from wherever you are in the city; The Georgian House in Charlotte Square a UNESCO World Heritage Site where I bumped into Ming Campbell. Is it you said I? It is said he (next door is the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland); The National Gallery with its Old Masters and original painting of that famous ice skating curate; The Museum of Childhood (far better than the one in Bethnal Green); The Writers Museum (room for improvement) well worth visiting for the building which houses it and of course Mary King’s Close an astonishing underground time warped street built in the 1600s.

Give the oh-so- pretentious-up-itself Grass Market a miss. Unless you are one of the beautiful people dripping with designer labels you will be made to feel uncomfortable. You will wait an eternity to get served or not get served at all. Walk up the hill and patronise Rose Street instead where you can slurp a glass of Caledonian 80 strong enough to blow your socks off.

Oh. Nearly forgot. The Number 10 will also take you to Elm Row and Vito’s family run Trattoria The Jolly Ristorante. It must be the best – in all senses of the word – Italian restaurant in town. You can’t miss it. It has a surreal red fire engine etched on the window. Turns out that years ago a real fire engine was etched into the window. A fireman putting out a nearby blaze parked his engine, oops, forgot to put on the handbrake and it ended up among Vito’s customers. Being Italian they carried on with their supper. Talking of which I can recommend the Spaghetti Marinara. Unlike anywhere else where it’s hunt the prawn hiding in the pasta Vito does it the other way round. Bliss.

The dreaded six hours on the road are not all bad if you break your journey at the Westmoreland Service Station, the only family owned run motorway services in the UK (one mile north of Junction 38 on the M6). Prices at its magnificent hotel are beyond the pockets of many but those in the delightful farm shop with its jaw dropping array of local products, are not. From that point on as you wend your weary way to Edinburgh you forget your numbed bum as you gawp at the scenery. Mountains and dry stone walls tell you this is Cumbria. On the way home stop off at Kendal, a truly delightful town.

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Photography copyright Mark Playle

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