Edinburgh Castle

Dateline: 28 October 2009

Edinburgh Castle

The first official stop on the tour of Scotland was the ancient city of Edinburgh.  Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline.  We were amazed at just how dominating that is.  Castle Rock, an extinct volcano, has been the site of human settlement since pre-history and provides the most amazing natural defenses.  However, during Robert the Bruce’s time, a group of Scots scaled Castle rock and took the fort by force from the English.  The Castle was been a pawn (or a Rook, I guess) in the ongoing power struggles between the English and Scots until the Union of the Crowns in 1603.  I took tons of pictures (shocking, I know!), but don’t think I captured the sheer magnitude of height and forbidding nature of Castle Rock.

Walking through the Castle gates was overwhelming.  I’ve always loved history (thanks Dad!), but visiting the places where events that changed the course of history is indescribable.  A couple of years ago I read English History for Dummies, and, to be honest, I can’t really remember much from it.  I thought it was just my memory, but having been to the places and read the signs/listened to the audio tour (Erin Travel Tip:  totally worth the small extra cost!) it has come alive in my mind!  I could tell you all about who sat on the throne of England from Henry VII to James I and then all about the Jacobite revolts and Bonnie Prince Charlie.  And wouldn’t that just be fascinating – listening to a Canadian maths teacher waffle on about British history!  Currently there’s a show on BBC on Scottish history.  It’s so much fun to watch (beyond the eye candy of an attractive, intelligent man with a Scottish burr) because I’ve been to many of the places that are shown.  One of Piers’s favourite hobbies is to say “you’ve been there” while watching British TV.  And it’s a totally cool feeling.  Perhaps, even indescribable!

Portcullis Gate 1574-77 Built after the Long Siege of 1571-3 as the main gateway into the castle.

Yup, that’s Piers with the backpack.  He’s so sweet; he won’t let me carry anything unless there is absolutely no possible way for him to carry one more thing!  He lugged that backpack, filled with my large bottle of water, heavy guide books, camera gear, and any other ‘essential items’ all day with nary a complaint.

Just a little bit further ...

The castle courtyard is really uneven as it follows the shape

The tippy-top of Castle Rock

of the volcanic rock.  You keep spiraling upward, closer and closer to the center of the castle.  Again Piers was kept busy on ‘clumsy Erin watch’ and didn’t let me trip over my own feet or any other unexpected obstacle!

I'm the Queen of the castle and you're the dirty rascal

Once inside the gates, you have an inspiring view of the city.  Hard to believe, but the area between the castle and the Firth of Forth was once dotted with villages.  Oh, how I’d like to be able to step back in time to see that!  For those of you who, like me, have no idea what a firth is:

Firth is the word in the Lowland Scots language used to denote various coastal waters in Scotland. In mainland Scotland it is used to describe a large sea bay, or even a strait

courtesy of wikipedia.

Looking down at where we came up from

I suppose one of the most interesting aspects for me of traveling in Great Britain, is the juxtaposition of old and new.  Perhaps I should say the juxtaposition of old, older, and even older beside new.  I find it jarring.  I haven’t become accustom to it (and hope I never do, sightseeing would lose some of it’s magic) and marvel at it every time I see it.  I keep wondering how impressive Edinburgh Castle must have been to early medieval envoys and I suppose the medieval population in general.

St Margaret's Chapel

This is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh.  It was thought that it was were St. Margaret, who was considered a “just ruler” and influenced her husband and children to be just and holy rulers,  worshipped.  Turns out it was likely built by her son, King David (not that one!) sometime in the early 12th century.   It’s an example of Romanesque architecture (which came just before Gothic) and is only 3m wide inside.  Cool, eh?

The most moving part of the whole experience was the War Memorial.  The building was fashioned out of what was once an army barracks (until 1914 the castle had been the main barracks for the Infantry garrison of Edinburgh and soldiers had lived there and guarded its walls for many centuries).  The official Edinburgh Castle website says:

The exterior emphasises the nobility of those who fell, with statues representing Courage, Peace, Justice and Mercy. At the centre, a figure rising from a phoenix symbolises the survival of the Spirit.

Inside, the atmosphere invokes a deadly quietness and you move around as silently as possible, overcome with the magnitude of loss.  Loss of life, limbs, dreams, hopes, innocence.  There are numerous large volumes, The Rolls, that contain the names of every Scottish man and woman who has died in service to their country since 1914.  There are over 100,000 names from WWI, another 50,000 from WWII, and sadly more are being added still due to the war in Afghanistan (the Brits have pulled out of Iraq).

National War Memorial


And we’re off…

I have wanted to see the heather in Scotland since I was old enough to read romance novels.  I swear every one, especially historical romances, have a simile comparing the heroine and heather covered highlands.  While I was dreaming about living here I thought “And I could see the heather!”  One Google search later, I found out that the heather blooms in late August and early September.  Doh!  However, I did find out that the autumn colours in Scotland are amazing.  Thanks to the amazing British educational system and soul-reviving term breaks, a plan to see Scotland was put into motion … details to be announced.

While I was changing planes in Reykjavik, I overheard a couple reminiscing about a train trip they had taken from London to Edinburgh.  Erin version 3.0 talks to strangers.  I took a deep breath and asked them to tell me about it.  They had gone in the fall and loved the ever-changing scenery.  Aha!  I thought, I can do a train trip.

Of course, meeting Piers changed this plan.  Together, we decided we would drive up to Scotland, spend a couple of days in Edinburgh, move on to Inverness, and then see what happens.  I’m used to having a rather fixed-in-stone itinerary and found this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants (trousers) plan to be mildly terrifying.  Piers did calm my fears by booking a couple of hotels before we left.

Josiah Wedgwood

We spent Saturday driving to York via Stoke-on-Trent, which really isn’t en-route from Tonbridge to York.  Stoke-on-Trent is the home to many famous china and pottery manufactures, but we were there to see the Wedgwood Museum.  I’ve been fascinated by Wedgwood ever since Uncle Fawcett moved back to Kelwood all those years ago and I learned about it from him.  Piers patiently went through the museum.  Even more remarkably, he judicially said nothing during my buying spree at the shop (a number of Christmas presents were shipped to Canada).  We both experience a lot of sticker shock.  There was a £3000 vase.  It was stunning, but a plumber and a teacher do not spend that kind of money on a vase.  I had hoped to find a nice teapot, meaning the stereotypical jasper with white relief, and was willing to spend around £80.  Turns out a cup & saucer were that much!!  I’d love to have one, but at that price and my clumsy nature, I’d never, ever use it!  I’m glad I went to the museum, but don’t think I’d ever go again.

Constantine the Great

The next day found us in York.  What a beautiful city!  We both want to go back and give it a real going over.  There are so many nooks and crannies to explore.  My guide book says “The appeal of York is its many layers of history.”  It started off as the capital of a Roman province in 71 AD.  In 306 York was the site where Constantine the Great was made emperor.  After the Romans left, the Saxons made it a Christian stronghold.  The Danish street names are a reminder that it was a Viking centre from 867 and an important European trading base.  It was England’s second city between 1100 and 1500.

The city of York has retained so much of its medieval structure that walking into its centre is like entering a living museum.

Medieval streets

Medieval street

Piers and I found the above guide book quote spot on.  York was fascinating.  One of our favourite spots were the narrow, winding streets with crooked, ancient, timber buildings perched over top.  One street is actually named ‘The Shambles.’  I’m so disappointed that the meaning of shambles isn’t derived from this street.  Oh well, my Google search brought up the following which is almost as good.

The way that fifteenth century buildings lean into the middle of the cobbled street means that the roofs almost touch in the middle. Mentioned in the Domesday book (making it date over 900 years), we know Shambles to be York ‘s oldest street, and Europe’s best preserved Medieval street. It really is a very special place.

The word Shambles originates from the Medieval word Shamel, which meant booth or bench. It was once also referred to as Flesshammel, a word with meaning around flesh; this is because Shambles was historically a street of butchers shops and houses. Records state that in 1872 there were 26 butchers on the street. The last butcher to trade on Shambles was at number 27 of the name Dewhurst.

Livestock was slaughtered on Shambles also, the meat was served over what are now the shop window bottoms, and these were originally the Shamels.

It is also interesting to notice the way the pavements on either side of the street are raised up, this was done to create a channel which the butchers would wash away their waste through; offal and blood would gush down Shambles twice weekly.

York Minster

Perhaps the most famous landmark of York is it’s cathedral, York Minster.  This is the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps.  That means it’s even bigger than Notre Dame in Paris!  Before walking through the doors, I didn’t comprehend just how big it truly was.  The outside is huge, but inside it’s massive.  It’s 519′ long and 249′ wide.  This is the 7th minster in York.  It was started in 1220 and finished 250 years later.  York Minster interior

I kept thinking of Ken Follet’s Pillar’s of the Earth and wondering what Tom Builder would think of this architectural masterpiece.  My guide book encouraged me to check out what became my favourite cranny in the minster – the Chapter House (where cathedral meetings are held).  According to Wikipedia:

The windows cover almost all of the upper wall space, filling the chapter house with light. The chapter house is octagonal, as is the case in many cathedrals, but is notable in that it has no central column supporting the roof. The wooden roof, which was of an innovative design, is light enough to be able to be supported by the buttressed  walls. The chapter house has many sculptured heads above the canopies, representing some of the finest Gothic sculpture in the country. There are human heads, no two alike, and some pulling faces; angels; animals and grotesques. Unique to the transepts and chapter house is the use of Purbeck marble to adorn the piers, adding to the richness of decoration.

I lit a candle for all my family and friends back in Canada

York also boasts a 3 mile long city wall.  Piers and I didn’t walk the whole length, but we did get a real sense of the what the medieval city must have been like.

York Minister from the city walls.

The views were amazing.  The people must have been daft to volunteer to patrol the walls!  So narrow and windy (even to this prairie girl!).  I also wonder about the awe that this view must have given a medieval citizen.  It sparked a great deal of awe in this 21st century citizen!

What might have been?

King Henry VIII forever changed the history of Christianity in England when he forced the English church to separate from Rome.  Part of the fall-out of that was the dissolution of the abbeys.  We came across the ruins of one such abbey.  I can’t begin to describe the sense of loss I felt while I gazed on what once must have been a utterly beautiful building built to glorify God.  We saw many such ruins (one of which was absolutely spectacular, all lit up at night) and I felt less and less uneasy, but the feelings never totally left me.

And for those of you who aren’t on Facebook yet:


Day 1 – Wednesday, August 12

As my last post shows, I was exhausted after my trip. The flight stuff was all great, got through immigration just fine, etc. I was a little nervous (and I knew this because I started to sweat!) and only picked up 4 of my 5 suitcases. Yup, the maths teacher can’t count!

Victoria Station

Victoria Station

A girl named Candice, another Canadian, met me at Heathrow. We took the train from terminal 1 to terminal 5, the tube to Victoria Station, the train to the Impact Teachers office. This took 3 hours and include multiple flights of stairs. Let me tell you, in England chivalry is NOT dead! Many lovely men helped us carry my 2 humongous, heavy suitcases. Thank you to all those men!

I was pretty dead on my feet at the office and will be going back in next Thursday to complete all the paperwork, get a bank account (Barclays), and find out all the things I need to know. The office people were super nice. It looks like a really fun place to work. I do find it rather ironical that most of the office staff are not former teachers.

English countryside near Leigh (which is pronounced Lye)

English countryside near Leigh (which is pronounced Lye)

I then took the train from Clapham Junction (the closest station to the office) to Tonbridge. So neat to go through the countryside. Most of the track was bordered by grassy banks and/or thick trees. Occasionally there would be a break and I could spot some of the beautiful Kent countryside. It was truly breathtaking. I befriended the train conductor who turned out to be a transplanted Canadian! He helped me get my luggage (which just doesn’t do justice to the amount of baggage I brought) off the train and up to street level. Again, more chivalrous men were involved as well as rather banged up luggage trolley!

Paul (my landlord) and his girlfriend, Sue, picked me up at Tonbridge Station. Somehow, they both made me feel right at home within minutes. (Mom, don’t read this next bit out to Dad.) The glass of wine might have helped! I’ve discovered that I quite like the British definition of a curry. It was very good, even as left-overs the next evening!

I was so tired and so happy to go to bed. I had been traveling for upwards of 36 hours with only a short nap on the plane between Toronto and Iceland. I slept hard and long; 15 hours in fact!

Erin’s Travel Tip: pack less, ship more later.