Europe 1998 ????????????????????

Scotland, here I come

It’d been ages since I’d spent a night in a YHA bed, and it was surprisingly comfortable. I awoke not particularly bright, and not particularly early, and prepared for the day, chatting with my room mates and rummaging around in my backpack trying to find things. Then I showered in a cupboard-like shower – wearing, if you can picture this, nothing but my thongs, as recommended by Lonely Planet to avoid hideous foot diseases. Then I shaved and got dressed, though I don’t recall if it was in that order.

The shower gave me a chance to try my Magic Towel, a small, flannel-sized towel of strange absorbent stuff, which I had been given for my birthday a few weeks before, and which was meant to be as capable of taking care of my towelling requirements on the road as a fully sized bath towel. The recommendations I had got were so glowing that I had, perhaps foolishly, elected not to pack a “real” towel.

The Magic Towel very nearly succeeded. It did get me almost comfortably dry, except for the fact that after a while it was damp enough that as I kept rubbing it over myself, I was more moving the remaining damp patches around than actually drying them. The other problem was that the towel had to get dry again. I hung it up on the end of my bed, in the hope that it would at least partially dry in the hour or so before I planned to leave.

I went to the cafeteria and handed in my breakfast coupon. “Toast?” “Yes please.” “Bacon?” “Yes.” “Eggs?” “Yes.” “Beans?” “Yes.” “Black pudding?”

Ah. Black Pudding. It brought back the memory of a million repeats of the Goodies episode about the ancient martial art of Ecky-Thump, and in particular that scene where Graeme goes tumbling into the black pudding goo.

Oh what the hell, I was on holiday, and it would stop me feeling guilty in Scotland for not daring to try haggis. “Yes please.” It was quite nice actually, though I admit I tried not to think about it being made of blood as I gulped it down.

After breakfast, which included a chat with the late-to-bed Dutch cyclist bloke from my room, I went back and attempted, mostly successfully, to fit everything back into my backpack. Except the Magic Towel, which was still damp so I decided I’d carry it, letting it wave around in the wind, in the vain hope that a few more drops of water might evaporate.

Checking out, I made my way back along the river to the station, stopping every few hundred metres to adjust the straps on the pack to some position that might render me slightly less in need of a chiropractor, or to wave the Magic Towel around in a particularly strong gust of wind.

Back at the station I found the left luggage counter, where I left the pack for a few hours while I finished up my visit of York. A railways bloke took the pack (with Magic Towel now safely and damply stowed inside – in its special waterproof pouch of course) and my coins (exact change please) and went and worked the automatic locker for me, and returned with my receipt. No doubt this is for security. The English are wary of terrorists who would stop at nothing to blow up their luggage lockers. Perhaps someone should have thought more carefully about the security implications before they went and bought an automated locker system.

I went for a short walk around the town again, ducking along ancient streets, gawping up at the old buildings, taking pictures of the extremely scenic river Ouse. I took a look at Clifford’s Tower, the remains of an ancient castle tower, sitting in a corner of the city centre, on top of a little hillock which the builders must have presumed would afford the guards a good view of the surrounding countryside, so they could be ready to defend the city against any travelling minstrels.

At the National Gunzel Convention - err, that is, the National Railway Museum, YorkBy this time it was almost 10am, the opening time of my next port of call, the National Railway Museum.

Most of my friends know this, but it’s time to admit it to the world. I’m a bit of a gunzel. I have an interest in rail vehicles which is marginally above that of the average person. Not so much that I go around with a notepad and an anorak noting the numbers of passing trains and trams, but I do take mild interest in such things, and I try to keep up to date with issues surrounding my local public transport services at home.

It’s probably at least partially because I grew up riding trains and trams because my family didn’t have a car, and in fact I never had a car either until earlier this year. I also fervently believe that public transport has an important role in big cities, for moving large numbers of people quickly, quietly, cleanly and efficiently.

So a visit to the National Railway Museum was definitely on the cards for my stop off in York. I ended up spending several hours there, poking around in the displays, checking out all the ancient and impressive preserved engines and trains, and just generally pottering around, wondering why on earth the museums at home devoted to this topic are nowhere near as well organised and funded.

Rather than do my usual thing of wandering around for ages trying to decide what to eat, I sat in the museum cafe, consuming a delicious chunk of bread with an equally delicious chunk of butter on it, and some very tasty tomato soup.Then I looked around at the geek merchandise the gift shop had to offer, and headed back to the station.

Next on the agenda was a train to Edinburgh. I had been wondering if I should plan to be at the station at a particular time for the train, but as it turned out, from York there’s a train to Edinburgh about every 15 minutes. So after recovering my backpack, I didn’t have long to wait before I was once again whizzing northward through the countryside.

The train sped along, through countless little towns, the signs proclaiming their names just a blur. In bigger towns it would slow down and stop, a steady stream of people joining and leaving the train, no doubt taking the conductor’s frequent advice to check that they had all their belongings before leaving.

As we glided into Newcastle I noticed a row of identical streets with identical houses, very much reminiscent of The Meaning Of Life. Then the train went over the Tyne and I saw the brilliantly picturesque (boy am I overusing that word on this trip) view of the bridges that cross over it.

The train headed further north, and I happened to be glancing out of the window when I saw a sign zip past, indicating the location of the England/Scotland border. We had entered Scotland. Instantly the heather seemed thicker, the nearby coastline seemed more craggy.

The train rolled into Edinburgh, and I got out. Waverley Station is Edinburgh’s main station, and is probably chaotic enough at the best of times. I had caught it in the middle of renovations, and it was doubly chaotic. People were roaming all over the place, obviously well aware of exactly where they were going, which gave them a distinct advantage over me, who didn’t.

I consulted my map, with particular reference to the location of my YHA booking for the night. It was actually much closer to Haymarket station than Waverley, so rather than traipse the two kilometres or so with the backpack (masochism has never been my strong point), I found another train that would take me to Haymarket. I found the hostel, tucked away in thoroughly charming side street called Eglington Crescent.

After checking in and dumping my pack (top bunk again, in a room of six on the first floor, a lovely cool breeze coming in through the wide open window) and re-hanging my still-damp Magic Towel, I went out to explore Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle, 7/9/1998
Edinburgh’s damn impressive castle

Clutching a small map I’d found in the hostel, I made my way along West Maitland Street to Edinburgh’s main shopping strip, Princes Street, stopping every few minutes to admire the views across the road of the gardens and the very imposing looking castle above.

After a while I tired of McDonald’s Virgin Gap, and crossed the street and roamed around the gardens. It was yet another meal time, and I found a stall in the park selling what they claimed was the world’s best hotdog. Well, I hadn’t come halfway across the world to eat crappy substandard hotdogs, so I thought I’d better try it.

I’m by no means the world’s most seasoned traveller, but I have eaten quite a few hotdogs in my time. Probably some of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most were back in my uni days at the corner shop. None of my mates would touch them for fear of contracting exploding-bowel food poisoning, but I thought they were pretty tasty.

As for this “world’s best” hotdog, well, I’m not quite sure that the title was justified. But that’s advertising for you.

I kept walking, through the gardens, up a street charmingly titled The Mound, and up Ramsay Lane, which could have been called Mountainclimber Alley, it was so steep. I found myself at the entrance to the absolutely incredible looking Edinburgh Castle. I made a mental note to come back tomorrow when it was open, and walked down the hill, back in the vague direction of the hostel.

A bit further on I found a very nice Net Cafe in Bread Street, which was having a happy hour, so I slurped on a hot chocolate as I caught up with my e-mails, and read The Age for a bit of news from home.

It was well and truly dark by the time I left an hour later, and for the most part the streets back to the hostel were deserted enough to make me wonder for the first time if I ought to be at all concerned for my personal safety. For all I know they might have a thousand muggings a year in that street, but nothing in the least bit worrying happened while I was there, and I made it back to the hostel in one piece.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.