Adventures in Edinburgh

The flight from London to Edinburgh was uneventful, and my hotel room turned out to be nicer, and bigger, than I had expected. It was an attic room, so I had to lump my fencing bag up three flights of stairs, but I’m getting used to that now (and the staircase was wider than the one in London).

In the afternoon, I bought a ticket for the hop-on-hop-off bus (the green one, with live guides, as recommended by the taxi driver I had from the airport). I did a complete circuit, which gave me a good overview of the layout and history of Edinburgh. But it turned out that everything I wanted to see was within walking distance of my hotel, so I didn’t actually use the bus after that.

On Thursday morning I did the Mercat Tours “Secrets of the Royal Mile” walk. The content was interesting, but I didn’t think the presentation wasn’t as good as I’d had on the London Walks. The walk finished up at Edinburgh Castle, so I went in and spent a few hours wandering around. It was a bit overcast, but not raining, so I was mostly able to appreciate the views; and I found the audio tour quite informative. After that, I did another Mercat Tours walk – “The Vaults”, which takes you into the vaults under the South Bridge. Again, it was interesting, but the presentation was adequate, rather than outstanding. And it’s starting to feel like every tour is compelled to spend time talking about Burke and Hare (who murdered people and sold the bodies to the Edinburgh Medical College).

On Friday morning, I went to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Unfortunately, Mary Queen of Scots’ chambers were closed, as was the garden, but the rest of it was interesting. Though after Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, I was getting a real sense of deja vu as the audio guide carefully explained the process of approaching the king, and how the room you got to was based on your social status. My audio guide conked out in the Great Gallery, but the attendant arranged to have a new one brought over for me. While I was waiting, he explained who a couple of the portraits were (Macbeth, Robert the Bruce, etc). He also said that most of the older kings weren’t real portraits (which the audio guide had already explained) and pointed out that most of them have exactly the same nose (which the audio guide hadn’t said).

After this, I walked up the Royal Mile, and went into the Real Mary King’s Close, one of a number of Closes that were completely built over by the Royal Exchange building. The tour had some very interesting information, and fascinating snapshots of life in Edinburgh at different historical periods, but the presentation was almost unbearably twee. The guide pretended to be a sixteenth century man (or maybe it was fifteenth, or eighteenth, or something else – I really can’t remember) and there was some tedious byplay between himself and another guide about how improperly the women in the tour group were dressed. I also found the bit where we had to sit and listen to a ghost story (to pass the time while we were finding out if we had caught the plague) less than engrossing. On the other hand, everyone else in the group seemed to really get into the spirit of it, so maybe the problem was just me. And the stuff we saw, and the actual information (aside from ghost stories), was very interesting.

On Saturday morning, I wandered around Calton Hill, which was just behind my hotel. The views were wonderful – particularly when I went right up to the top of the Nelson Monument. It probably wasn’t as good as I would have had if I’d walked up to Arthur’s Seat (extinct volcano in Holyrood Park), but the weather never seemed quite reliable enough for me to commit to such a long climb. In the afternoon, I did the Booklovers Walk. It was getting very cold (in fact, a blizzard had been predicted, though it didn’t actually eventuate that day) and I was the only person to turn up. I asked if he wanted to cancel, but he said he was quite happy to do it for just one person. I think it was the best presented of all the walking tours I did in Edinburgh. He talked about Scott, and Stevenson, and J. M. Barrie, and Conan Doyle, and McGonogall, and Ian Rankin, and he even showed me the location of the coffee shop where J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. And I discovered that two doors down from my hotel was a house that Helen Bannerman (author of Little Black Sambo) had lived in.

On Sunday morning it was snowing! Since I’m not a skier, this was actually the first time I had seen snow in about 20 years. It really was a magical world (like in the final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip) . As I stepped outside, I had the snow-crunching-underfoot thing (described in so many books) and managed to avoid the slipping-down-the-steps thing (not so often described). However, as this was the day of the Edinburgh Coupe du Nord Women’s Sabre competition, I was indoors all day, and couldn’t really get the full snow experience. Though the competition start was delayed by the weather, and some competitors simply couldn’t get there at all, which I guess is another aspect of the snow experience. I enjoyed the competition, and ended up placing about 19th of 34 fencers. I think I should have been able to do a little bit better – somewhere between 12th and 16th – but I messed up one of my pool bouts, and this affected my seeding, and meant that I had a somewhat harder DE bout than I might have (and I therefore lost the DE bout very comprehensively).

Early in the day, there was a rumour that Edinburgh Airport was closed due to the snow, and certainly a number of flights had been cancelled; but my flight wasn’t until quite late, by which time they had everything sorted out. It had stopped snowing by the time I was going to the airport, but it was still fairly thick on the ground, and it looked lovely – particularly in places where there were bits of greenery as well.

From Edinburgh, I got a flight back to Gatwick, and the next morning I caught a National Express coach to Heathrow for my flight back to Australia. (Yes, this sounds absurdly complicated; but at the time I was making my bookings, this worked out cheaper than a Heathrow-Edinburgh flight)..

Final Adventures in London

This is my last evening in London – I fly out to Edinburgh tomorrow morning.

Sunday morning was the second day of the England Cup. My bout was at 9:55, and it was over very quickly. I was completely outclassed by the Japanese fencer, Seira Nakayama, who demolished me 15-2 (she ended up placing 14th in the competition). However, it was an enjoyable – if short – bout, and I’m totally delighted with my final placing of 44th in a field of 84.

I had planned to stay on and watch the end of the competition, but the cold I had meant I went through all the handkerchiefs I had brought with me, so I decided it would be better to head off at about lunchtime. After resupplying myself with hankies, I went on the “Old Westminster” walk in the afternoon. It was half the “public” side of Westminster, and half walking through some of the back streets, and was very interesting, though VERY cold.

Mum had arrived in London on Sunday, so on Monday we went out together. In the morning we wandered around Bloomsbury, and then went into the British Museum so I could see the old Reading Room. Ever so swish! Then we went to the National Portrait Gallery, caught the bus down Piccadilly (riding the top of a double decker bus being One Of Those London Things) and finally walked through Hyde Park. In the evening I met up with Emma and Alex, as we had been invited to the “official” opening of a new elite fencing venue in North London. They had arranged a team match between the UK and China, and asked us to come along so they could have a UK-Australia match as well. Unfortunately, Jess couldn’t make it, as she wasn’t feeling well, so we were a weaker team than we might have been, and the UK beat us 45-37 (I think). China then beat them 45-44. It was a fun evening.

Today was cold and rainy. It was also the day I had decided to go to Hampton Court Palace, and I decided to stick with the plan, in spite of the weather. I’m very glad I did. Going around Henry VIII’s kitchens was cold (except for the room with a big fire in it), but the rest of the Palace wasn’t too bad, and it was fascinating seeing three different historical periods (Henry VIII, William-and-Mary, and George II-and-Caroline) all in one place. I was a bit worried at first, when numerous school groups seemed to be arriving, but they mostly seemed to be only looking at the Tudor bits. By the time we had finished going round the palace (four separate audio tours, which took several hours, plus a really nice and relatively inexpensive lunch in the cafe) the rain had more-or-less stopped, so we decided to walk through the gardens a bit.

We planned to just take a look at the maze, since it didn’t really seem the weather for potentially spending ages wandering around lost. But the man at the entrance said it wouldn’t take us more than 5 or 10 minutes, so we decided to go in … and it actually took much less time than that. I didn’t really have a fixed plan – and I certainly didn’t have a mental map of the maze – but for some reason, just following my instinct at each decision point seemed to get us to the centre in a remarkably short space of time, and without any obvious looping around. It didn’t seem quite like the description in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – once you got to the centre, the exit was right there next to you, so there was none of the leaving the centre and then unexpectedly finding oneself back there. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that there were audio recordings that played at you on certain corners. I recognised one of them (from Three Men in a Boat) so I assume the others were also quotes from things that specifically referenced the maze. But I found them annoying.

As well as the maze, we walked through some of the more formal parts of the garden. Much of the statuary was wrapped in cloth (presumably to protect it from the elements) so one could only guess what the figures were, but other than that, the gardens were very nice (if cold).

More Adventures in London

I didn’t do as much on Thursday and Friday as I did on my first three days in London. On Thursday morning I was feeling a bit sick (I’d picked up a cold from someone on the plane), so, since I wanted to go to Swash and Buckle Fencing Club again that night, I decided to have a quiet morning. In the afternoon, I did the Kensington Village walk, which was with Emily, who had also taken the Hampstead Village walk. Kensington Village was good – lots more blue plaques, and a fair bit of Royal history – although I think I preferred Hampstead. Towards the end of the walk, however, I suddenly realised my voice had become a croak, and it hurt to swallow. So I reluctantly decided not to go to Swash that night.

My throat was still bad on Friday morning, and I self-diagnosed a throat infection, which would probably need antibiotics. As a result, instead of doing the “Westminster Nobody Knows” walk, I went to see a doctor. He agreed with my diagnosis, gave me antibiotics for the throat and a decongestant for my chest … and told me I would fence badly in the competition the next day (a conclusion I had already come to myself). Since I didn’t feel too bad, apart from my throat, I decided that resting up in the afternoon would be unlikely to have a significant impact on my performance the next day, and I went off to do the “Legal and Illegal London” (Inns of Court) walk. It was another interesting one – though it seems like every walk I do has a bigger crowd than the one before – with some Dickens and Shakespeare references, as well as legal stuff. In the evening, I caught the train out to Reading, to have dinner with Erin O’Neill, a former Sydney Uni fencer who I haven’t seen in years.

This morning was Day 1 of the England Cup A-Grade Competition. Completely against my own expectations – and those of the doctor! – I won four bouts in my pool and ended up seeded 43rd in a field of 84. As a result, I got a bye straight through to the Direct Elimination of 64, which is being fenced off tomorrow. Admittedly, I had a certain amount of good luck, and a few fluke hits; but maybe it helps to go into an event with absolutely no expectation of doing well. Certainly I wasn’t at all nervous. My DE bout is at 9:55 tomorrow morning, against the number 22 seed. So, again I have absolutely no expecations, though I’m not sure that will actually help this time …

You Never Can Tell (George Bernard Shaw) – Peter Hall Company at the Garrick Theatre, London

I’d read You Never Can Tell years and years ago, but never had a chance to see it performed. I don’t think it’s one of Shaw’s best plays (my favourite is Arms and the Man) but it has some very good stuff in it.

This was a very straight-down-the-line, conventional production. On the whole, I was pleased about this. I think the first time you see a play – and particularly if it’s one you’re only ever likely to see once – it’s good to see it done straightforwardly, rather than an experimental or innovative production. Obviously, innovative productions can be amazing, but they can also be abysmal; whereas a production that takes less risks may not rise to the same heights, but it also won’t sink to the same depths.

I enjoyed this production a great deal. The two big stars were Edward Fox (as the waiter) and Diana Quick (as Mrs Clandon), and they were naturally wonderful; but in fact the whole cast was very strong. There was sometimes a degree of artificiality in the way the lines were delivered, but I think the script does demand this, and it never went too far.

Adventures in London

I am currently on a two week holiday in the UK. I organised this because (a) I was able to do it on Frequent Flier points; (b) it fitted in with submitting the final draft of my uni treatise; and (c) because there is an FIE A Grade Women’s Sabre on this weekend in London (and a satellite comp next weekend in Edinburgh).

I was a bit worried that I was choosing a rotten time of year in terms of weather, but the days have been beautifully clear – lots of blue sky, and no rain at all. However, it has certainly been very cold (at least by my standards) – gloves and a scarf have been mandatory, and I also bought a thermal hat: it looks really stupid, but it does keep my ears warm.

I’m staying at a place in Kensington – very central and remarkably cheap. The (very slight) downside is that it’s share bathroom, and I’m up three long flights of stairs, which is not a lot of fun with a fencing bag.

The first day I was here, I was absolutely exhausted from the flight (I don’t sleep at all on planes) so I just did a couple of local things to keep myself awake until the evening: went to Kensington Palace (which I’ve never seen before), wandered around the gardens and then went to the Victoria and Albert. Really enjoyed Kensington Palace, though by the time I got to the V&A I was just too tired to really take anything in. The gardens weren’t as lovely as in spring, but the bare trees were very striking, and snowdrops and other flowers were just starting to come out which was really nice.

I’m trying to go on an official “London Walk” every day. On Tuesday I did the “Secret London” walk in the city. Some of the highlights were Staple Inn (which I’m sure gets mentioned in Georgette Heyer somewhere), Dr Johnson’s house (including statue of Hodge, his cat) and St Ethereda’s Church (formerly the chapel of the Bishop of Ely’s London residence, and still technically part of Cambridgeshire). After the walk had finished, I went back and looked inside Dr Johnson’s house. In the evening, I went to the Swash and Buckle fencing club. It was a totally-sabre night, and I think there were more sabreurs in one room than there are in the whole of NSW.

On Wednesday I walked from Piccadilly Circus, through Green Park and St James’s Park to Trafalgar Square. Again, the bare trees made the parks very different from summer, but very attractive in their own way. After that I went out for the “Old Hampstead Village” walk. This included three bits of the heath, as well as some really nice parts of Hampstead. It was largely historical – she told us about the beneficial air, the waters, and the day trippers – and very interesting. There was a bit of pointing out the London houses of various celebrities (eg Judi Dench, Russell Crowe, Boy George) as well as the numerous blue plaque houses: one street had, at different times, been occupied by H G Wells, Constable, Wilkie Collins and Lord Alfred Douglas. I said above that it hadn’t rained at all while I’ve been in London, but for about 15 minutes of this walk, we had a light snowfall!

Lord of War on Qantas flight QF29 (Sydney to London)

Lord of War was one of those films that covers a long timeframe, so there’s really not a lot of sustained and detailed character development. Instead, you get lots of little bits, and you have to fill in the blanks yourself. Generally, this doesn’t really work for me. Similarly, the picture of the arms trade was very “bitty”, and when you add this to the fact that the main character was a pretty unpleasant person, the film didn’t really have a great deal to grab me.

The thing that did lift it, though, was the voiceover. The world-weary, ironic approach was curiously engaging, and did pull the film into a single, coherent whole, rather than just a series of connected bits.

March of the Penguins on Qantas flight QF29 (Sydney to London)

I’m not sure I really see what all the fuss is about March of the Penguins. Yes, Denzel Washington is a great voiceover, and the penguins have an amazingly challenging life, but it didn’t really seem much different from a top-quality animal documentary made for television. Maybe it would have been different if I’d seen it on the big screen, rather than on the small screen on the plane.