FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Castled out

Posted in Edinburgh, Scotland by folkestonejack on June 11, 2013

Our four day trip to Scotland finished with a visit to a castle…

The last time I visited Edinburgh Castle, around ten years ago, it was a cold winter’s day and I virtually had the place to myself. Today was quite the opposite, with crowds filling all the spaces within the castle. It was hard to imagine what this place must be lucky on a busy summer’s day when the numbers increase by half as much again. I certainly don’t want to gain first hand experience of that!

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

I never tire of seeing the Scottish National War Memorial, which is a beautiful space originally opened in 1927 as a commemoration of the lives of Scottish soldiers and soldiers in Scottish regiments who died in the First World War. The sight of Archangel Michael hanging over the casket holding the roll of honour in the shrine always takes my breath away. It is a wonderful symbol of hope for mankind amidst the terrible record of the lives lost through war.

Since my last visit an exhibition (‘Prisons of War’) has opened which re-creates the conditions that American prisoners would have experienced in the stone vaults on 27th June 1781. It is wonderfully atmospheric and the snatches of conversation played around you give a good feel for the frustrations of life here. The associated exhibition space displays some remarkable doors which hold the scratched graffiti of the prisoners, including images of ships that they had served on.

Prisons of War

Prisons of War

Our visit to the castle more or less ended with the daily firing of the One o’clock gun. The gun is fired at the same time each day, although it has long since lost its purpose of providing ships in the Firth of Forth with a time signal to set their clocks by! A 105mm field gun is used to create the signal and you certainly can’t miss it wherever you are in Edinburgh. Unusually, today’s firing was being filmed as part of a Visit Scotland golf promotion – a soldier with a golf club took a swing followed seconds later by the firing of the gun. All very impressive.

Edinburgh Castle is an amazing place to visit and once again we found that it is easy to underestimate the time that you need to take to explore the site. We easily spent a good three and a half hours wandering around but will still need to come back to do justice to the National War Museum which deserves a good hour or two in itself to appreciate fully.

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Stirling

Posted in Scotland, Stirling by folkestonejack on June 10, 2013

In the castle stakes we moved up a few notches today, visiting Stirling Castle – an easy day trip from Edinburgh (just fifty minutes by train). It is a fascinating site to explore – you have all the incredible artristry that you might expect to find in a Royal residence but you also have the parallel story of a castle that was besieged and fought over throughout history. Quite a combination.

The Great Hall in Stirling Castle

The Great Hall in Stirling Castle

The castle is quite simply stunning – the Great Hall, Royal Chapel and Royal Lodgings are incredible spaces to explore – but the highlights for me were the Stirling Heads and the Unicorn Tapestries (depicting the hunt of the unicorn) that have been replicated as part of the recreated Royal lodgings of James V and Mary of Guise.

The Stirling Heads were a series of 16th century carved heads that decorated the ceiling of the King’s Inner Hall until it collapsed. The ceiling was dismantled around 1777 and the heads dispersed – some were later destroyed and others are missing. Thankfully, the wife of one of the deputy governors had the foresight to seek out and create a record of all the heads whilst they were still in existence.

Today, you can visit a fascinating gallery displaying some of the surviving heads along with an explanation of their history and significance. A re-creation of the ceiling in the King’s Inner Hall leaves you in no doubt that this must have been an awe-inspiring sight for any visitor and how lowly most would have been made to feel in the company of the great figures depicted (which included Hercules, Roman Emperors, Scottish Kings, Charles V, Mary of Guise and Henry VIII).

It was pretty clear that we underestimated how long you need in Stirling to do the place any justice. Our visit to the castle lasted a good three and a half hours, although that allowed for only a quick whizz around the Regimental Museum of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and we would really have liked a longer visit to appreciate the artefacts on display there. Nevertheless, we packed alot into our limited time – joining one of the tours of Argyll Lodging House and taking a good look around the nearby Old Town Cemetery.

The Old Town Cemetery was one of the unexpected highlights of our trip. The cemetery sits in the shadow of the castle and is home to some distinctive monuments, such as the Star Pyramid (also known as the Covenanters Memorial) and the Martyrs Monument.

Martyrs Monument

The Martyrs Monument

This striking memorial is impossible to miss when you enter the cemetery. It commemorates the martyrdom of the 18 year old covenanter Margaret Wilson who died for her religious beliefs on 11th May 1685 – horrifically tied to a stake on the Solway Firth and left to drown on the incoming tide. In the monument Margaret Wilson can be seen reading the Bible to her younger sister Agnes, whilst her guardian angel shows her despair.

Stirling is a fantastic place to visit, but probably needs at least two days to cover properly. There are plenty of sights that we didn’t even attempt to see, such as the National Wallace Monument and the Church of the Holy Rude. It would also have been great to get down to the formal gardens below the castle and get a better sense of how it dominates the landscape (something that you don’t really see when you approach from the town centre). I think we will have to go back someday…

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Craigmillar to Calton Hill

Posted in Edinburgh, Scotland by folkestonejack on June 9, 2013

Another day, another castle! Today’s castle was at Craigmillar, in the south-eastern suburbs of Edinburgh. At one time the castle was a rural retreat, close enough to the city to be accessible but sufficiently set apart to offer Mary Queen of Scots some respite from bloody 16th century politics.

As the bus timetables suggested we had a bit of a wait, we decided to take a walk to the castle. Although we probably didn’t gain anything from this, it offered an interesting stroll out of the city centre and took about an hour. It made it all the more apparent that the castle sits amidst a sea of urban clutter, though the final section of the walk takes you into Craigmillar Country Park which goes some way towards preserving the illusion of the castle as a rural retreat.

The castle itself is a fascinating and handsome sight, having progressed from the earliest phases of construction in the 14th century to become a more complex residence in the 16th century, before finally being reduced to a romantic ruin by the late 18th century. After taking a good look round we opted to take the bus (from the nearby Royal Infirmary at Little France) back into town.

St Andrew's House and Calton Hill

St Andrew’s House and Calton Hill

The afternoon saw us take a somewhat haphazard walk around Edinburgh, incorporating the Royal Mile and the annual exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy (including a rather remarkable sculpture of a cheetah made from hundreds of wire coat hangers, entitled Spike). Finally, we made it to Calton Hill, which has to be one of my favourite spots in Edinburgh along with the nearby volcanic peak of Arthur’s Seat.

Calton Hill was one of the first public parks in the country. The philosopher David Hume was influential in persuading the council to build a walk ‘for the health and amusement of the inhabitants’ which you can still take today. The eclectic mix of buildings at the top is part of its appeal to me – including the National Monument of Scotland (modelled on the Parthenon), the Nelson Monument and the Dugald Stewart Monument (modelled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates).

The Dugald Stewart Monument on Calton Hill

The Dugald Stewart Monument on Calton Hill

The sights of Calton Hill looked as magnificent as ever in the afternoon sun, though that didn’t stop me coming back at sunset (around 10pm) to join a string of photographers trying to grab that perfect shot of the city as the light died. It was never going to be a particularly original shot, but it was fun all the same!

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Bo’ness, Blackness and the Forth

Posted in Blackness, Bo'ness, Scotland by folkestonejack on June 8, 2013

Our afternoon took us out to Blackness Castle and the contrast with Linlithgow Palace couldn’t have been greater. On the one hand you have a palace that was quite literally fit for a king and on the other you have an impregnable garrison fortress and state prison which was intended as a hefty deterrent to would be invaders.

We took advantage of a helpful free publication from Falkirk Council called Discover the path networks in and around Bo’ness and Blackness, sampling the walk between Bo’ness and Blackness foreshore. The walk took around an hour, though I may have skewed the timings by stopping for photographs a little too frequently…

Nearing Blackness

The footpath from Bo’ness to Blackness Foreshore

The walk was delightful, taking in the ruined church at Carriden, the neighbouring woods and the beautiful scenery along the shore of the Firth of Forth. At times the path was a little overgrown, forcing us down onto the pebbles of the foreshore, but never arduous. Unsurprisingly, the hot weather had brought many families to the beach at Blackness and to the green lawns that surround Blackness Castle – I am sure that it is rarely quite as busy as this!

One unexpected sight along the way was the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Fort Austin (A386) which could be seen berthed on the opposite shore at Crombie Jetty. Aside from this, a few freighters and a fair number of small sailing vessels could be seen on the water.

Blackness Castle

Blackness Castle

Blackness castle has a distinctive shape, which earned it the name of ‘the ship that never sailed’. The castle is located on a rocky promontory that juts into the Firth of Forth (this is never more obvious than when you cross the rough courtyard floor hewn from the rock!). The first mention of a castle at Blackness comes from 1449, though the castle we see today owes most to the major works commissioned by James V which were carried out between 1537 and 1543.

It is hard to imagine, but by the late nineteenth century the entire courtyard had been covered over by a concrete and iron roof (subsequently removed in the 1920s) to serve the castle in its new role as an ammunition depot. A pier out into the Forth was also added to facilitate the movement of munitions, including the supply of the fleet before the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The castle must surely have one of the longest and richest histories of active participation in war – its peace today is much deserved!

A guidebook is certainly a must here to get any real sense of the castle and its many layers of history. It is definetly well worth a visit – although it pays to plan carefully to ensure that you are not left waiting for too many hours for the infrequent buses back to Linlithgow!

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Sleeper to Scotland

Posted in Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Scotland by folkestonejack on June 8, 2013

Travelling across town to Euston as midnight approached seemed more than a little strange, but once you are on board the Caledonian Sleeper all such thoughts disappear. The simplicity of falling asleep in London and waking up in Edinburgh on a bright sunny morning was enough to persuade me that this was the perfect way to start a four day trip to Scotland.

Scenic Scotland

Our destination: Sunny Scotland

The two berth cabins on the Caledonian Sleeper are certainly cosier than those of many sleeper trains that I have travelled on, but the comfortable bedding and convenience of a flip-up wash basin certainly make this a great way to maximise the time at your destination.

The special ingredient on top of this arrangement were the charming hosts that greet you on your arrival at the carriage door and then do everything they can to make your journey work as smoothly as it should. The hosts help get you familiarised with the quirks of cabin life and stay on hand through the night if you need to get back after an early morning in the lounge car (it was reassuring to know that we could leave our baggage securely locked in our cabin if we wanted, though in practice we opted for sleep).

Our train arrived at Edinburgh Waverly on schedule at 7:22 in the morning, though you can remain in your berth until 7:45 which was sufficient to allow for a leisurely start. Coffee and shortbread had been delivered about half an hour before our arrival, so I felt surprisingly alert – though I wasn’t sure my sleepy cabin companion shared the same sentiments!

Linlithgow Cross and Burgh Halls

Linlithgow Cross and Burgh Halls

Within the hour we were on our way again, travelling the short distance to Linlithgow by a local ScotRail service (around 20 minutes away). Linlithgow is most famous for the magnificent ruins of Linlithgow Palace, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots, though in truth the whole town was a delight with its historic streetscape and plethora of interesting buildings.

The Linlithgow Heritage Trail provides a handy guide to the local sights which we haphazardly followed. The most striking of the sights was Linlithgow Cross Well, which is an early nineteenth century replica of a much earlier well which had been destroyed during the occupation of the town by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in the 1650s. A short walk up from the cross brought us to the sixteenth century Palace gatehouse.

Linlithgow Palace

Linlithgow Palace

The setting for Linlithgow Palace is stunning. The Palace is beautifully complemented by the waters of Linlithgow Loch and the lusciously green park of Linlithgow Peel. The waters seemed like an oasis of calm with a few boats peacefully settled for a spot of fishing, apart from the occasional squawking of the loch’s swans to break the peace!

The interior of the Palace is a wonderful, and sometimes bewildering, space to wander around. It is hard to visualise just how grand the rooms would have been in their time, but occasionally small traces of surviving ornamentation give you a clue – such as a unicorn carved into the ceiling of one room. The highlight of the visit was, without any doubt, the ornate King’s Fountain which sits in the middle of the courtyard. The fountain was commissioned by James V in 1537 and is believed to be the oldest surviving fountain in the United Kingdom. It was restored by Historic Scotland and continues to function to this day (although not on the day that we visited).

A pigeon joins the menagerie on the King's Fountain

A pigeon joins the menagerie on the King’s Fountain

After completing our tour of the Palace we visited the neighbouring medieval church of St Michael’s which holds its own place in history. Mary Queen of Scots was baptised in the font at the church, although this – and all bar one of the statues in the church – did not survive the Scottish reformation. The church is hard to miss today with an unusual aluminium spire that was added in the 1960s.

The final stop on our visit was the Old Post Office (1904) which has been converted to a pub. The building caught our eye from the outset and proved to be a good place to stop for refreshment before travelling onward.

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The Caledonian Sleeper

Posted in England, Inverness, London, Scotland by folkestonejack on April 19, 2011

After three full-on days of walking, trains and photography I was quite ready for a comfy bed on the Caledonian Sleeper from Inverness to London. It was the first time that I had tried this and was pleasantly surprised by the experience – maybe I’ve had a few too many nights on Chinese night sleepers lately which have perhaps not made the best case for how well you can sleep on a train!

After three days of beautiful weather it started to rain as I stood around on the platform at Inverness station. Passengers were allowed on board at 8pm and the train departed on time at 8.46pm. I was sharing a twin berth cabin for the journey back which turned out to be perfectly comfortable. I had a good night’s sleep and the first place I caught sight of after waking up was Berkhamsted. A morning coffee and shortbread were delivered for breakfast (just what I needed) and before I knew it we were at London Euston (arriving slightly early at 7.40am). Time to re-adjust to everyday life!

Steam across the Clachnaharry Swing Bridge

Posted in Clachnaharry, Scotland by folkestonejack on April 18, 2011

I took a short video clip of LMS Class 5MT 4-6-0s 44871 and 45407 hauling the Great Britain IV railtour through Clachnaharry on the evening of 18th April 2011 with the one way working from Wick to Inverness. At Clachnaharry the locomotives pass a traditional wooden signal box and cross the swing bridge over the Caledonian Canal. The glorious evening sun of the previous day was nowhere to be seen, but the sight was still worth coming out to see…

The Caledonian Canal and Clachnaharry

Posted in Clachnaharry, Scotland by folkestonejack on April 18, 2011

In the late afternoon I headed out of the town centre and followed the Caledonian Canal through its final few locks to Clachnaharry. I took a walk out to the last lock and enjoyed the sight of some of the regular ScotRail services passing over the Swing bridge here before the arrival of the two black fives (LMS Class 5MT 4-6-0s 44871 and 45407) with the Great Britain IV railtour from Wick to Inverness.

Culloden and Fort George

Posted in Inverness, Scotland by folkestonejack on April 18, 2011

As I had only one full day in Inverness I tried to make the most of this by heading out from Inverness on an early morning bus (no. 2) to Culloden Battlefield (a journey of about 25 minutes) from where I could walk to the Nairn viaduct and Clava Cairns before doubling back to the visitor centre at Culloden battlefield ready for its opening at 9am.

The battlefield visitor centre provides a fantastic explanation of the background to the conflict and the steps that led to the battle at Culloden. It’s fair to say that I had a limited knowledge of the battle and seem to have picked up many of the common misconceptions so it was good to get a much better grasp of what took place. I can’t stress highly enough what a good insight the visitor centre gives you into the reality – and with an interactive experience that helps to deliver this is an interesting way. One side of your route through the centre follows the government forces and the other the Jacobite forces – with the feed of artefacts and information broken up by hands on displays, moving maps and a battle immersion experience.

In particular I had fallen foul of the misconception that the Jacobite forces were a rabble (rather than a potent and organised military force) and was glad to have that corrected. I also had no idea about the night march to try and make a surprise attack on the government forces at Nairn in the early morning. How differently would things have turned out, had they succeeded?

At the end of the museum you can pick up a battlefield guide – a GPS device that shows you whereabouts you are on the battlefield and automatically starts playing when you reach the appropriate spots. Genius! I had a good wander round and got a reasonable grasp of the battlefield – ending back in the museum for the final displays on the aftermath of the battle. I would heartily recommend a visit to anyone.

I took a bus back into Inverness and headed to the bus station to catch the 11A bus to Ardesier, from where it is about a a 30 minute walk to the vast and imposing fortress that is Fort George. Unlike some of the forts I have visited recently this one is still an active military base, giving it a slightly different feel. I had a great time wandering around the walls and exploring the buildings open to the public before retracing my steps to Ardesier and catching the bus back into Inverness.

Inverness

Posted in Inverness, Scotland by folkestonejack on April 17, 2011

The journey from Edinburgh to Inverness was a first for me, reminding me of how many places I have not visited in Scotland that I would like to see. The list was already long enough but has grown a bit longer! I arrived at 17:38 and had some time to chill out before the arrival of Scots Guardsman with the railtour at 19:08.

Quite a crowd had gathered on the platform and I stood with some friendly guys who had decamped from an afternoon in the pub, raising a smile or two as I waited (thanks guys!). Afterwards I wandered round Inverness at sunset – it was one of those evenings where the combination of late evening sun and dark, threatening clouds gave the place an incredible look.

Edinburgh in the springtime

Posted in Edinburgh, Scotland by folkestonejack on April 17, 2011

I got back into Edinburgh just after midday and had just under two hours for a wander. I visited the Scott monument for the first time (it had never been open on any of my previous visits to Edinburgh many years ago as it was undergoing restoration at the time) and then around the gardens. It is hard not to be seduced by the view up to the castle, particularly with a carpet of daffodils in bloom before it and I had a few attempts at catching that on camera. I had a pleasant wander around and then boarded the 13:50 ScotRail service to Inverness.

Steam across the Forth Bridge

Posted in Scotland, South Queensferry by folkestonejack on April 17, 2011

I had some vague notion that I would get up early and take some photographs of the Forth Bridge at sunrise but after a relatively titring first day I quashed that thought as I woke up bleary-eyed. Nevertheless, I was still up and about fairly early, giving me a good chance to wander around South Queensferry before most people were up. In the early morning light the Forth Bridge looked especially beautiful. As you might expect, the sheer scale and enormity of the construction really hits as you wander underneath. I took a walk out to Long Craig Pier which had seemed a promising location on the map and decided that this was the spot for me…

Royal Scot Class steam locomotive 46115 'Scots Guardsman' crosses the Forth Bridge on 17th April 2011

Royal Scot Class steam locomotive 46115 'Scots Guardsman' crosses the Forth Bridge on 17th April 2011

After the railtour had passed I headed back to Dalmeny station using the steps/path just underneath the first lengths of the bridge. I can see it on the ordnance survey map now that I know what I am looking at but I hadn’t seen it at the time. It starts with some fairly steep steps up from the coast road and then eventually hooks up with a path straight to Dalmeny station. I knew that a diesel would be following the railtour and sure enough, a few minutes after I arrived at the station I was able to get a shot of this before it headed on to the bridge in pursuit.

A West Coast Railways class 47 diesel waits for a green signal to head onto the Forth Bridge in pursuit of the railtour

A West Coast Railways class 47 diesel waits for a green signal to head onto the Forth Bridge in pursuit of the railtour

I had a while to wait for a train back into Edinburgh so sat down on the platform and basked in the sun. It was good to be able to relax once again…