Enjoying the sun in Edinburgh

This morning I braved the tourists and sales shoppers to buy some post-Christmas birthday presents in the city centre. The roads were fairly quiet but the pavements were full of people. I had to step into the road to avoid the horde who were taking pictures of Greyfriars Bobby. My purchases completed, I headed back to the flat via the West End. I always have a look at the mural on St John’s Church which is usually very challenging. As I could not take a photograph due to the building work going on around it, here is the Christmas photograph for 2016 taken from their Facebook page:
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Back at the Meadows it was sunny enough for some people to sit out.
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At the flat the sun on the bare cherry tree branches made a very abstract pattern and might turn into an abstract painting one day.
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A wood pigeon was waddling around feeding underneath. Almost every house I have lived in has had wood pigeons in the garden or next door. I think the only exception was a student flat in Aberdeen where there were no trees nearby. One year I was doing the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch which takes place at the end of January each year, in Edinburgh. I did not expect to see as many different birds as I do in my garden in Cheshire but it was rather cold and frosty and I counted 18 wood pigeons on one shrub eating the red berries.
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Now that the trees are bare, I could see the sun disappearing behind the west end of the Pentland Hills through the trees next door. Some energetic people were watching it from the top of Blackford Hill which must have given them a great view but I walked 4.7 miles this morning so I was content to look out of my window.
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If you are after the precise timings of sunrise/sunset/moonrise etc there is a very useful piece of software for use on a computer or as a mobile app which can give the timings on any given date, anywhere on earth:
http://photoephemeris.com/
I am continuing to read David Bain’s book and have just read the chapters on Wyoming. I recall driving through the places he describes, seeing the Medicine Bow and Wasatch Mountains and learning about the Sand Creek Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians by US Cavalry in 1864. I also remember passing through Medicine Bow and seeing the Virginian Hotel, the most impressive building in the town. It is often said to be the place that Owen Wister wrote the novel ‘The Virginian’.It became one of the cowboy shows on TV during my childhood. However, Bain knows that the hotel was built in 1911, 11 years after the novel had been published. There were also significant dinosaur fossil finds in the area, many of which are now displayed in museums in New York and Washington. Bain and his family stayed in the Virginian Hotel and found themselves in a room over the bar and could hear the music and noise all night plus the early departure of railroad construction crews who were also staying there. We had a similar experience when we walked the West Highland Way in 2009. We stayed at the Drovers Inn at Inverarnan, a historic hostelry. Our room was above the bar and unfortunately, Friday night was music night. Added to that it was someone’s 40th birthday. Over at breakfast next morning which is served in the newer building over the road, I said maybe we would have been quieter in a room in that building. Another couple told us that it had been quiet until 1am when the birthday party contingent had noisily returned to their rooms shouting that they had never been so drunk in their lives. I shall be more careful when selecting rooms in the future.

Reading about travelling westward on the train north

England was beginning to move again yesterday after the Christmas break but not for long as the M6 was completely stationary in both directions last night and other roads were reporting problems. I was glad that I was taking the train this morning. Scotland is recovering from two severe storms over Christmas, while in Northern England we had much less severe wind and rain. We left the house in frosty darkness with all the stars visible as James took me to the station. In the lounge, I watched a TV programme highlighting the benefits recent wet summers and mild winters have had for farmers who have could keep animals outside for longer and cut more hay from the long grass but also the adverse impact it has had on many insects and wildflowers that need shorter grass to survive and birds such as barn owls who cannot see their prey in longer grass and whose numbers are declining. Yet another consequence of climate change.
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Not driving meant that I could dip into a book I found on Tuesday at Cavern Books, Dagfields, near Nantwich: http://www.cavernbooks.co.uk/. It is David Haward Bain’s The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads and the Urge to Go West. In 2000, the author (who is an established non-fiction writer and academic at a Vermont college) travelled along the routes followed by the early rail road, Lincoln Highway, California, Oregon and Pony Express trails with his family. He had more time than we could squeeze out of our jobs on our transcontinental drive and has researched and added much of the associated history along the way, including that of his own grandmother’s family. There is also a selection of old photographs in the book.

He began in Missouri, travelling north up the river valley from Kansas City and Independence where the California and Oregon trails often began. We passed through St Louis on our Route 66 drive before continuing southwest and here is the Lewis & Clark memorial by the river:
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At Omaha, his route coincided with the Lincoln Highway on Route 30 and our drive as we entered Nebraska on R30 from Iowa.
One of the things I enjoyed in Nebraska was the prairie grass in the Cottonmill Park near Kearney.
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By the time I had reached this stage of his book, dawn had broken in South Lancashire and the sun was fully up well before we reached Carlisle. The Cumbrian hills were covered in frost and mist but there were still large pools of water in the fields in southern Scotland. As I emerged from the station in Edinburgh, it was much milder. The city is gearing up for the Hogmanay celebrations and it will get much busier over the next two days. I shed my woollies and as I walked to the shops from the flat, noticed large numbers of branches on the ground from the surrounding trees. I will be out tomorrow to do a few things in town and looking forward to Friday to meeting friends and celebrating James’s birthday.

Winter Sun in South Queensferry

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We had spent Saturday wandering around Edinburgh with my father who had not visited the city for 20 years. He enjoyed seeing what had changed and what had not. Sunday morning brought one of the still sunny winter days that the east coast of Britain often gets in winter while those of us on the western side of the country are experiencing grey wet weather. As my father is a retired engineer, I knew he would be interested to see the new Queensferry Bridge. He still has copies of ‘The Engineer’ magazine from the 19th century which were found in my grandfather’s garage when it was being cleared after his death. They contain a month-by-month account of the building of the Forth Rail Bridge which is fascinating. The visitors’ centre for the new bridge is not open on Sundays so we contented ourselves with a wander along the shore and into the historic old town of South Queensferry. The name of the town dates from the ferry service for Queen Margaret which was established in the 11th century and ran at first from some rocks to the west of the current harbour. The ferry ran until 1964 when the Road Bridge opened. The new bridge is scheduled to open in early May 2017 so we hope to be able to cross it when we go to Shetland in May. At the moment there is still a small section missing. I hope it joins up satisfactorily, I remember the Kessock Bridge near Inverness not quite matching up in the middle when the two halves were joined South Queensferry also has a bookshop so a return trip on a day other than a Sunday might have to be made at some point.
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A second open door in Edinburgh

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Today’s Open Door for Advent was Summerhall. The 100-year-old building was the University of Edinburgh’s Veterinary School until 2011 but is now an events and arts hub with workshops and workspaces, exhibitions, a café, several event spaces and Pickering’s Gin Distillery. I had been in town to do a few things and on the way to Summerhall walked up Clerk Street. Like most urban areas, shops and businesses have closed in Edinburgh and some new ones have opened. For the circus performers among you, there is now a juggling shop on Clerk Street and the other thing that attracted my attention as I walked along was a notice in a shop window advertising ‘Lesbian Donkey for Sale’.

I was a little early for the exhibition tour at Summerhall so wandered around some of the open rooms. The old anatomy lecture theatre is one of the few remaining with wooden seating:
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The dissection room has large windows on one side unlike the one at my medical school in Marischal College in Aberdeen which was in the basement and known as ‘The Drain’.
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However, the old lab was very reminiscent of school science labs.
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At two, the tour of the exhibitions began and the group was smaller than yesterday so we could chat with each other. Our guide, Sergio Madrigal, was extremely knowledgeable about the work of Ross Fraser McLean whose exhibition was entitled ‘Ceiba – Casa de Todos Los Muertes’. He had spent eight months exploring death in Mexico from both socio-political and spiritual stand points. The exhibition includes photography, music and installations in the old vet school specimen display cabinets.
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The cabinets contain Mexican craft artefacts, offerings of flowers, fruit and vegetables left to decay like offerings on an altar and other objects documenting Mexican life and death.
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It took almost an hour to even begin to absorb everything on display. We had a brief look at another gallery and then I had to leave. Ceiba continues until 23 December and we were told about another in the old church which is part of the complex. This exhibition chronicles the life of women in Yemen after the recent wars and is part a portrait exhibition but also comments on how their life has changed and the many ways in which gains in freedom have now been reversed. That and a tour of the gin distillery must wait for another day. On the way out I noticed there was a Thermos Museum, another time perhaps.
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Opening the door to history in Edinburgh

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Like Jim Perrin whose book I was reading on the train last night, I always enjoy finding new things or revisiting old favourites in familiar places. My first port of call this morning was the Assembly Rooms in George Street, the first Advent Door to be opened. I joined the 11am guided tour with a small crowd and heard about the various adaptations and renovations of the current building since it was opened in 1787, the most recent being completed in 2012. It replaced buildings in the old town which were described by Youngson in his book The Making of Classical Edinburgh as providing opportunities for ‘dancing. This – as a later age would have thought of it – unpresbyterian diversion was carried on in the form of public assemblies in the Old Assembly Room in the West Bow as early perhaps as 1710’. Here is an illustration of that building:
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That Assembly and its predecessor did not only provide entertainment for the upper classes but also raised funds for the support of the poor. After the last renovation, the building is now a venue for conferences, exhibitions and weddings. They are keen to advertise their green credentials but no mention of supporting the poor. It does have a fabulous ballroom:
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Here is one of the Coade Sybils in the Crush:
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and a chandelier in the later drawing room made from pressed rather than cut glass:
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The music room was lit in red for World Aids Day
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I ended the day at the Queen’s Hall enjoying the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s concert:

SIBELIUS 
Valse Triste
Scene with Cranes
MAXWELL DAVIES 
Strathclyde Concerto No 2
BARTOK 
Divertimento
MAXWELL DAVIES 
An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise – this last piece with the obligatory dram for the conductor, cheers from the orchestra and a finale with a piper.

On the rails in the dark

Most of my train journeys to Edinburgh are in the early morning with good views of the Cumbrian hills and the Southern Uplands. Not so on this occasion, I was on the last train in the evening. In the week or so leading up to my trip yesterday evening there had been innumerable reports of problems on the rail network so I was not hopeful. As it turned out, my train was only three minutes late and I was soon installed in my seat with a coffee in front of me. The staff member in the carriage explained that due to staff sickness there would be no at-seat service in first class after Preston and plied us with enough food and wine to take us all the way to our destination. The wine came in a plastic bottle which I will hang on to as they are useful means of carrying alcohol into festivals where glass is forbidden for obvious reasons. I settled into the rest of my journey with Jim Perrin’s ‘Travels with a Flea and other Eccentric Journeys’, a collection of his essays on trips to various parts of the world and around his home in Wales. We arrived in Edinburgh on time and although my usual short cut to the bus stop was blocked by the ice rink and Christmas market, I did get a quick shot with my phone of the castle lit up in blue for St Andrews Day just before the bus pulled in.
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I came up a little earlier than James and my father who will drive up on Friday afternoon as I wanted to fit in some last-minute Christmas shopping. I then discovered several things that will distract me from shopping. Firstly, Edinburgh is doing something a little different for the festive season this year. Each day from the 1st December to the 24th they are opening a building or part of a building which is not usually accessible to the public. The event, which is free, is entitled 24 Doors of Advent. Each day from 1-24th December, a different building or part of one not usually open to the public, will open its doors for a day.
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I plan to visit the venues for the 1st and 2nd and possibly the 3rd, depending upon the preferences of the others. I also discovered that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are performing Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Orkney Wedding’ on Thursday evening so that is my treat for this evening.