Wednesday, 25 June 2014

A blow by blow account of yon bonnie research trip to "Embra...."

Friday Night:

   After a very sweaty and stressful rush to Bristol Airport during rush hour, getting beeped at the body scanner (this always happens...I swear I don't have adamantium bones, not the last time I checked, anyway), lots of hanging around waiting, and a sickness-inducing flight north, I find myself sweeping down over the Solway Firth. I have never been in this situation before. About to arrive in a strange city, everything I have to my name in a backpack, nobody meeting me at the airport, and not really any certainty as to where I'm going. I didn't get to do the whole Gap Year thing, for various reasons, despite wanting to, and I suddenly feel very alone. 
   Before long, I find myself in the back of a taxi whizzing through the streets of Edinburgh, and I'm starting to wonder if all Scottish taxi drivers are a wee bit nuts...certainly every time I've been to Scotland and ridden in a taxi they've scared the wits out of me...driving in the middle of the road and way too fast, claiming they're watching out for "deer." Really? Deer, in Edinburgh? Come on, what is this, Haze The English Tourist Week or something? Not unless "deer" is a euphemism for a rabid Edinburgh University student on a pub crawl.....anyway, I make it to my little single room in the guest house in one piece...then can't get to sleep until 2AM because there's a party in the garden, it's too hot to shut the window (!!!) and I've forgotten my earplugs. Great.


   After breakfast (including copious amounts of coffee) I make my way into the city with my backpack, stopping to buy earplugs on the way. I catch my first glimpse of the castle when I'm still just round the corner from the guest house...between two modern office blocks. Quite a juxtaposition, but I can't take a picture because there's too many buses going past.
    Before long, I'm crossing George IV Bridge and find myself on the Royal Mile, surrounded by Japanese tourists and grinning like an idiot. I have done it. I have got myself here, alone. It may not be Cambodia or Sydney, but it feels good nonetheless. 
   First stop, St Giles Cathedral, dating from the 13th century. I take loads of pictures (despite the fact that you're apparently not supposed to without purchasing a £2 photography permit) which I find out a little too late when I accidentally set off the fill flash on my camera (I'm not a techno-bod by any stretch of the imagination), fill the cathedral with bright blue light, earn myself some very dirty looks, and decide it's probably time to leave. 
   Round the back of the cathedral, at the Mercat Cross, I sit and soak up the atmosphere while I wait for my first tour. Across the street a guy dressed as Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean is standing on a box looking the part doing his little camp hand-waving thing in return for coins. (?!) Before long, I am off down the Blair Street Vaults with Mercat Tours. The vaults date from the 18th century, so they wouldn't have actually been there at the time I'm writing (15th century) but it gave me a chance to get some very atmospheric footage which will be useful for this film I'm making to promote Spiral; The Finding. I tell you what though, there was one room in the vaults I didn't want to go in. The Double-Height room gave me the absolute willies, and after hearing some of the ghost stories from Jason the guide, now I know why....apparently a nasty man the guides have nick-named Mr Boots hangs out in there. Nobody's really sure what he did when he was alive, but he's not a nice character by all accounts. 
   Back up in daylight, and I'm off the the National Museum of Scotland. After a quick whizz round the Scottish History bit, making notes on anything 15th century and prior I can find, I'm for my lunch. The Villager, a cocktail lounge on George IV Bridge, does stonking food. It's old fashioned favourites that have been spiced up with flavours of the world. I had the sweet potato, chickpea and spinach curry with chickpea fritters. I highly recommend :)
   In the afternoon, there was still time before my next tour, so I popped down the Royal Mile to see a chunk of the original Mercat Cross in the Museum of Edinburgh. It was a lot smaller than I expected, but it gave me an idea of what it would have looked like in medieval times. Afterwards, I joined a free tour, with Sandemans Free Tours. Lots of interesting history to be had, with guide Sabela. It gave me a real chance to walk around Edinburgh and get a feel for the place, what can be got to from where, and get a feel for the different levels of streets. Edinburgh is one of the those places where the city seems to exist on multiple different levels because it's built up the two sides of what is essentially a massive drumlin. So there are bridges over streets and funny little closes and wynds that come out where you least expect. It's easy to get lost if you don't know the place. And I was able to pick up loads of interesting stuff about how people lived in medieval Edinburgh, which is what I was looking for. 
    After the tour, it was off to the Princes Street Gardens, to see where the Nor' Loch would have once been...a man-made body of water created for defence of the city, and used as a source of drinking well as a sewage dumping ground and a place to duck witches. Apparently, when it was drained in the 18th and 19th centuries, they found the bones of all the innocent "witches" who had been drowned in it. Ick. 
    Dinner was fish and chips in the Gardens, listening to someone playing the bagpipes up by the Scottish National Gallery and watching locals playing football on the sunken lawns below, enjoying the thoroughly un-Scottish weather. A lovely end to the first day.


   Today I set off up to the Royal Mile again, then all the way down to Holyrood Palace at the bottom. The Abbey was a point of interest for me, but it costs £20 to get into the Palace, which you have to pay for to access the Abbey. As the Palace holds no interest for me, I decided to research the Abbey online, and headed up Arthur's Seat instead. It's the wrong side of the city for what I'm writing about. But I wanted to get an idea of what you could see from a high vantage point, looking down into the city below. 
    Now, it's only 251 metres high. And I'm very fit, but no mountain-climber. Anyone out there who has climbed Kilimajaro or something is probably going to laugh their ars* off at me when I say this, but it's a pretty punishing climb for the untrained. Very steep and rocky in places, and I had to keep stopping for a breather. I was thankful for my dirty old hiking boots by this point. The last bit of the climb, certainly, is nothing short of a scramble, looking for hand and foot holds. But I made it. And here is a city shot and a selfie to prove it....

   The way back down was almost worse. I was practically running, tripping over rocks, sliding on scree, and landing on my knees and bum more often than staying upright. By the time I got back to the ground and the Royal Mile, I was done in. I hit a coffee shop for lunch, even though it was only 11:30, because I had no energy left at all. 
   After a sandwich and a coffee, I was ready to head back to the museum to take some pictures of the surrounding city from the roof terrace (looking across at Arthur's Seat, rising up in the distance, and thinking "I can't believe I just climbed that!), and do some bumbling about. Because that was all I was good for at this point...bumbling about! I took some pictures of the view in different directions from the site of the old Mercat Cross, and the Heart of Midlothian, where the old Tolbooth used to stand, and did a wee bit of souvenir shopping. Then I headed back to the Mercat Cross to wait for the next tour. 
   While I was sat there catching breather, a big, shaggy haired man with a piece of tartan wrapped round his waist stomped up the mile dragging a bag behind him. He stops about twenty feet from where I'm sitting, drops his bag, and starts taking swords and knives out of it! I very quickly realised this guy is supposed to be William Wallace, or some such bod, and take a few sneaky pics as he proceeds to get his bits and pieces arranged, pick up his claymore, and strike a pose with it, much to the annoyance of Jack Sparrow across the street. After a while I get bored of watching him, and it is only when a gaggle of teenagers wander past him that things start to get interesting.

   Well, this guy lunges into the group with a roar, scattering teenage girls across the road. Even the boys abandon their swaggering facade and look like they're about to wet themselves. I crack up, and when Wallace turns round and catches me laughing, he makes a very suggestive gesture at me with his tongue and several fingers. Yeah right. In your dreams, mate. 
    The afternoon tour contained some repeated bits of the history tour from the previous day, but a lot of it was more in depth and a bit more medieval-oriented. It also included the castle, the perfect end to my trip. I made a point of focusing on the older parts of the castle (St Margaret's Chapel, Mon's Meg, what's left of David's Tower, the banqueting hall, and the Stone of Destiny.) I got more excellent shots of the city, and was very surprised to walk past Mon's Meg, the huge cannon, only to see some guy pull his mate out of it! The mate (about 5.10" and 11st) was bodily and completely obscured inside the thing, which gives you an idea of how big it is...and even gave me a few writing ideas as well :)
    Dinner at a wee pub on the mile. The enormous plate of lamb shank, neeps and tatties that was put in front of me didn't last five minutes. I think I disturbed the next table slightly by picking up the bone, cracking the joint with my bare hands, and sucking the meat off. As if the Scots needed any more reason to think the English are barbarians. The barkeep who took my plate was gob-smacked "Well, you really are finished, aren't you?!" I don't even like to think of the amount of calories I burned on this trip. And then I still had to walk all the way back to the guest house! Sore feet like you wouldn't believe.....

Monday Morning:

Up at 5AM to vacate the room and get another scary taxi ride to the airport. After a misunderstanding at the duty free over a bottle of whiskey and a quick doze on the plane, I negotiated Bristol traffic again, only to get home and collapse, stiff-legged and sun-burned, into the shower and the most comfy cotton dress I own. I mean honestly...sun-burn in Scotland? Doesn't seem right somehow. I won't be wearing closed-in shoes for a while either, my feet are an absolute state from all the trekking. But I learned so much, got some great pictures, and some fantastic ideas, which is what I went for. Now...back to the drawing this space for Spiral 2 !

Thanks for reading everyone :)

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Bonnie Scotland !!!

Hello everyone,

The writing thing has been on hold for a while now. I have spent the last few days crawling about in the eaves storage of my house, clearing out a load of junk, so I've got space to store a load of stuff for my business. I am quite sure I've got dust, spiders and paper cuts in places I didn't even know I had.....

But despite that, I am really excited, because next weekend (Friday 20th) I am off to Edinburgh! It's somewhere I've never been before, and I'm really excited, but it's not a pleasure trip, oh no. There's no rest for us wicked sorts. I'm going on a research trip :)

Which all sounds incredibly glamorous and wonderful, but it has a practical element. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up the sequel to Spiral; The Finding again, and started cracking on with it. However, I very soon realised (small spoiler here) that when, ahem, certain characters, arrive in Edinburgh (shh, don't tell anyone!) that I didn't have the foggiest clue what the place was like.

Now, it's all very well rummaging around on the internet and trying to find out what was there in the 15th century (of which not a lot of info exists, take it from one who knows!) but without actually going to a place, getting a feel for the atmosphere, and what landmarks you can see from other landmarks, it's a bit difficult to actually write anything convincing. So, I am going straight to the source. Edinburgh itself...for a bit of 15th century history and landmark spotting, some photography, and a bit of filming for the viral film I am currently making to get the word about Spiral; The Finding out there to a bigger slice of the world. 

One thing that does make me a bit nervous, however...I am going to be descending into the depths of the Blair Street Vaults while I'm there. If my recent experience in the eaves storage is anything to go by...crawling around whimpering with a torch in my mouth, whilst trying to avoid the spider webs and drag heavy boxes into the daylight....I'm not that keen on small, dark, musty spaces. A trip to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam when I was fifteen ended on a bit of an anti-climax, because I absolutely refused to go down them. My (at the time) twelve year old sister, who was made of braver stuff, did it...and then gleefully reported that she had crawled across a board covering a hole full of sharpened stakes.....said board then falling away just as she removed her feet. Not my cup of tea. 

So I think I'll have to get dosed up on Kalms before I go entering the vaults. But I should get some fantastic footage down there :)

I'm also going to see the castle (obviously) and do a couple of history tours and pick the brains of the guides, take loads of pictures of St Giles and the Mercat cross, try and get to the Edinburgh Museum to see a chunk of the original cross to get an idea for what it would have been like in the 15th century, and just generally walk around with my camera round my neck and notebook in hand like a complete nerd and make a general touristic nuisance of myself. It'll be great :)

Scotland, here I come !