Walk the Mile in my shoes
Edinburgh – the Athens of the North – has a perfectly serviceable airport. Turnhouse has links to Abu Dhabi and Dubai and on to Australia.
But by far the best way to arrive is by train at the world’s only railway station named after a novel – Waverley. (The impressive memorial to its author, Sir Walter Scott, stands conveniently on Princes Street overlooking it).
Waverley is more than a station. It’s a monument. Look up in what’s now the station shopping mall populated by chain stores and franchises for a glimpse of Waverley’s Victorian magnificence. Some of the original friezes are still there, plaintively begging for the restoration and recognition that we can only hope will be theirs.
We emerge at the Market St entrance directly opposite the art gallery where it would be easy to pass a day – but a few paces away stands the entrance to The Scotsman steps, named for what was once one of the world’s great newspapers, now brought low by a lack of vision and the scourge of the internet.
The steps are each of different hued marble from various parts of the globe.
Again, they could do with some TLC (and they’re not now a place to be after dark) but that seems to be happening as the local authority finally realises that here is true heritage.
The steps, which neatly link the Old Town at Market St to the New Town at Northbridge, scale the side of The Scotsman offices, a second home to generations of journalists of which mine, sadly, is probably the last.
The brass masthead still glitters proudly over the main entrance but the building itself is now a posh hotel.
It’s a stiff climb but worth the effort as the final landing opens to Northbridge in time to consider breakfast options.
A couple of doors from The Balmoral Hotel is Hadrian’s brasserie, a wee shoppie that proudly advertises its “full Scottish breakfast” which seems to be much the same as the English version with the added temptations of black pudding and haggis.
Or, on nearby Princes St, there’s Jenner’s tearoom.
It’s not the palm court experience it once was, with string and piano quintet, but there’s still something very old Edinburgh about the place where you can find real tea. We chose Jenners.
Fortified now against the icy blast that scours the city seemingly at all times of the year, we begin a walk down Northbridge and quickly intersect High St. Now we’re on “the Mile”, stepping through history. Turning left, we’re headed towards the palace of Holyrood, official home to Scottish monarchs and their British successors for six centuries or so.
Ignore the tartan tatt shops along the way to discover Aitchiesons. Possibly the last remaining independent bottler of wines and spirits in the land, they buy by the barrel, blend it and bottle it.
Next is John Knox House. Built in 1490, its association with the fire and brimstone preacher so pivotal in the blood-soaked Scottish Reformation is tenuous.
Knox may have lodged here at some stage in the 1580s but he lived not far away, a few yards up High St, at Warriston Close. He certainly didn’t have far to travel for his debates with Queen Mary on the true religion while she was still in possession of her head.
Knox would have taken a very jaundiced view of today’s Royal Mile with its countless tourist traps and bars.
It’s not too early for a cup of mulled wine (to keep out the cold) at the World’s End.
This old pub gets its name from its location at one of the gates of the early mediaeval city which for the city folk of the time marked the end of the known world. All that remains are brass cobbles on the High St marking where the gate stood. It’s narrower than you might expect.
The pub occupies the intersection of High St and St Mary St where a small section of the original city wall can still be seen.
Crossing St Mary St, we’re now in the Canongate which shouldn’t be confused with the World’s End gate. In this case the word “gate” appears to be a reference to “gait” or walk rather than any entry or exit.
It’s downhill now as we pass the old tollbooth on the left and dodge the hot air emanating from the National Parliament on the right.
And suddenly, or so it seems, here’s Holyrood. The end of The Royal Mile. Not nearly as flash as Buck House, it has an older dignity.
It’s built around the ruins of the 12th century Holyrood Abbey at the other end of the Mile from the scowling castle.
See if you can be persuaded that the stains on the wooden floor of the room which were Queen Mary’s quarters, are the blood of David Rizzio, her private secretary dragged from her presence and stabbed to death by a bunch of jealous nobles. Get a feel for a more brutal age. Or just amble around. It’s easy to be stunned by Holyrood. There are guided tours which for the time-challenged such as ourselves are an option.
And suddenly it’s three o’clock. The mid-winter light begins to fade and the sky says SNOW in large letters.
So now it’s uphill on the Canongate where the snow, as promised, starts to fall and makes the Old Tolbooth Bar a welcome haven.
Here are beers, wines and spirits with possibly the city’s best fish and chip shop directly opposite. But we have another plan. Fortified by a generous serving (this pub dispenses one-third gills as opposed to the standard one-fifth) of Balvenie single malt, we retrace our steps through the dark street in the lightening snow.
A crowd huddled around a narrator on the steps of the Old Tolbooth tells us the first ghost tours are out – historic Edinburgh has more than its fair share of ghosts with guided tours to match.
But we’re heading back to the Balmoral, home of the 75-quid cocktail (choose Krug or Dom Perignon as your preferred base) and Hadrian’s where we’ve booked an early dinner and settle for plain old martinis as the aperitif.
The tables in Hadrian’s are too close together, the décor is ’80s Desperate, the wine list could be a bit more adventurous and it’s not cheap. But we’re here for the food.
The Shetland smoked salmon gives an inkling of where the Michelin star comes from and the grilled snapper confirms it by the mouthful. Must go back when the credit card recovers.
Replete now with fine food and wine, we can manage the stroll to Waverley in good time to catch the sleeper train south.
Image: View down the historic Royal Mile