Sons of the Highlands: Michael and Dan Go to Scotland
Daniel Emberley, October 2011
Michael and I have been talking about taking a tour of English country houses for years. When I started doing the research it was clear that this was too much turf for a single trip. We wanted to see great estates, but also sites (Bath, Stonehenge) and cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford, Cambridge). We decided to break off a chunk, and do Edinburgh, Glasgow, and parts of Yorkshire. This gave us a couple of city bases, some great houses, plus a road trip in the UK to see if we could make that work. Our friend Catie Robbins joined us. The experiment was a success; we’ll be back for other parts of the Kingdom. It rained off and on, but the only really bad weather was the day we arrived.
Sunday, October 16
We took Metro’s 5A bus from L’Enfant Plaza to Dulles. This is a direct and inexpensive way out there. Unfortunately, it is retarded. Metro needs to run buses on this route that are equipped to handle luggage, and drop the stops in Reston for reverse commuters. But, it worked.
British Airways got us to Heathrow with a brilliant view of London as we circled waiting for a gate. Overall, British is not a bad way to fly: enough space even in cattle class, with comp liquor and several hot meals. On the negative side, they charge you $35 to choose your seats in advance, and have some of the most obnoxious rules of any airline we’ve flown. We never paid for seat assignments, instead hovering until the 24-hour window opened to check in online, when the fee goes away.
Monday, October 17
We landed at Terminal 4, but our connection to Edinburgh left from Heathrow Terminal 5. Heathrow has the daunting feel of being its own little city. We had just enough time to clear Customs, ride the train between terminals, get back through security with our carry-ons, on another train to the proper part of Terminal 5, and into line to board the flight. Terminal 5 is beautiful, like a glass cube with escalators from hell, but nice people everywhere helping you get on your way. It was designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 2008. An exciting, efficient, and unexpectedly glamorous entry to the UK.
Edinburgh runs an easy-to-understand Airlink 100 bus every 10 minutes from the airport to Waverley Station downtown for only L3.5. It passed the expected boring suburban housing, then some cool ‘hoods closer in, through the New Town, Charlotte Square, and St. Andrew Square. When we arrived at Waverley rain was coming down in buckets. To understand what happened next you need to know some Edinburgh geography.
Like San Francisco, Edinburgh is beautiful partly due to its site: grids of streets imposed on steep hills. Everywhere you turn there is a view. The Firth of Forth runs to the north, there’s a coastal plain that slopes up to the New Town. A ridge on the south edge of the New Town is Princes Street, the main shopping strip. South of that is a steep valley that was once a loch, but was drained when the railway was run through it. The valley ascends again to the Old Town, the original medieval settlement, whose collection of main streets is the Royal Mile. At either end of the Mile are extinct volcanoes, the Castle on the western and Holyrood Palace on the eastern. The medieval city and less-affluent Victorian suburbs run south over more rolling hills. Flowing southwest to northwest is the Water of Leith, a creek that ends on the Forth in the port of Leith.
So, the bus dropped us at the bottom of an old lake. The only way out is up. We dragged our bags and jet lagged carcasses uphill to the Royal Mile. This is a steeper climb than Prospect Hill Road where I grew up. Backbreaking. In the rain. On the plus side, even in the stormy gloom the buildings were gorgeous, and we did not get lost, heading straight to our rooms at Gladstone’s Land. The signboard greeted us with a sculptured gold falcon catching a rat, whose symbolism we never quite got. To our surprise, the kind staff there had our suite ready.
The National Trust of Scotland runs Gladstone’s Land as a secondary tourist attraction on the Royal Mile. Not the Castle, not Holyrood, but a good number of tourists check out their interpretation of a medieval row house on the lower three floors. The 4th floor is an art gallery, the 5th rented office space. They lease the former caretaker’s apartment, the O’Neill Flat, to Trust members. Are we counting floors? The stairs are stone, in a tight spiral, with 350 years of wear. Michael thought he was going to die, and it did look like the premise of an Alfred Hitchcock mystery. Fortunately I’d been preparing my post-bypass heart for months by running up the stairs to our apartment. This was a great place to stay. Sturdy IKEA furniture and Anta (see below) furnishings, a full kitchen, bath, washing machine, and two bedrooms. All in 1630’s walls, some with original frescoes protected by Lucite from your bumping dining room chair. The windows look out on the Mile and across the New Town to Leith and the Forth.
Knowing we’d be bushed but wanting to push into their time zone, I’d scheduled us to do blatantly tourist stuff the first day. We walked up to the Castle. This is a fortress, former royal residence, war memorial, collection of museums, and active military base. The museums are deceptive, appearing from outside one to two stories high, but then expanding up, down, and into other buildings. Some brilliant views, especially from the walls, and cool spaces. Most of the collections suffer from poor interpretation and wax museum-esque mannequins, but there were some good wall murals, and decent history. The much vaunted St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest extant building in the complex, is small and dull. We preferred the palace rooms where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James I. The Museum of the Scottish Military was surprisingly great, a useful grounding in world history from the Scottish perspective. The 1920’s memorial building to WWI dead is a fantastic mélange of Gothic, Arts and Crafts, and Art Deco; we especially liked the pendant sculpture of St. Michael. As we were to discover in museums all through this trip, interpreters were ready to contribute, but not pushy. We rarely had to shut down an overzealous guide, and I often benefited from their correction.
We retreated down the Royal Mile, ducking out of the rain at St. Giles, Edinburgh’s main cathedral. It was cut up many times, with interiors rebuilt in a Victorian interpretation of Gothic, but is still cool. Great stained glass; we also liked the exterior angel carvings.
Back into the rain hunting for a place to buy food. We started at St. James Center, a new shopping mall, where we found Poundland, the Scot version of a dollar store. Then over to Harvey Nichols’ food court, where the last loaf of whole wheat bread was snatched from my hands by an aggressive Cherie Blair wannabe. Success and tomorrow’s breakfast came from a Sainsbury’s in the New Town.
Across the street is Edinburgh’s historic Jenner’s Department Store. I love European department stores; they have departments you might really use, like hardware, not just girls’ clothes. A cool and slightly musty atrium reminded me of Chicago’s old Marshall Field’s. The stock included great brightly colored socks, craft supplies, boring furniture, great linens, and okay Christmas. The Brits do minimal Halloween and no Thanksgiving, so the stores were installing Christmas displays in earnest all through our trip.
We got the groceries back to the apartment, then ate Indian buffet at Bay of Bengal on the Mile. Despite a pushy waiter, the food was surprisingly good.
Tuesday, October 18
A charm of the Old Town is the closes (inner courtyards) and wynds (covered alleyways) behind the buildings on the main streets. Most of these are dead ends, but a few carry you on to other parts of the city. Next to Gladstone’s Land, Lady Stair’s Close runs downhill to the Playfair Steps, across the valley and up to Princes Street Gardens. The Gardens line the north slope of the valley, providing prospects across to the Old Town. The Scott Memorial sits in the middle, like the tip of a Gothic spire brought to ground, covering a statue of Sir Walter Scott and encrusted with characters from his novels. I’d read up my “Rob Roy”, “Waverley”, and “Kenilworth”, but it was too drizzly to make out any of the players.
The Old Calton Burial Grounds reminded us of Recolleta in Buenos Aires, only wet: lots of monuments and mausoleums. David Hume’s tomb was designed by Robert Adam, the great Scottish architect who helped create Georgian architecture.
Across the street, Calton Hill holds a clutter of national memorials. The Nelson Monument looks like an odd telescope on end. The National Monument was supposed to reproduce the Parthenon, but unlike Nashville, they only got three of the walls up. It’s picturesque; a wedding party was using it for photos when we were there.
We crossed the hill to Regent Road Gardens and the Robert Burns Monument, then entered the environs of Holyrood Palace. Holyrood is Queen Elizabeth’s official residence in Scotland, partner to Buckingham Palace in London. As in London, a building has been renovated to serve as the Queen’s Gallery, a museum for the royal art collection. This is a jewel-box space of just a few rooms, big enough for a substantial show, but small enough that you’re not overwhelmed. The show up was of Northern Renaissance painting: Holbeins, Durers, and Cranachs that I’d only seen before in art history class.
The café at Holyrood Palace confirmed what we had already sensed: the food in the UK has improved tremendously since we were here for our honeymoon. We see a lot of museum cafes on our trips, because that’s where you eat if your first stop of the day is an art museum. We expected dry Saran-wrapped sandwiches and packaged cookies. Instead we got a rich vegetarian Scotch broth, tasty cheese & chutney in a box labeled “Made Here with Nothing Nasty”, and for dessert a scone with cream and strawberries.
We’d never been inside one of the Queen’s residences before, so Holyrood Palace was a treat. The royal apartments impressed us with their plaster ceilings. The many leafs in the dining room table extend it the length of a city block; Her Royal Majesty sits in the middle so she can converse with as many guests as possible. The Mary Queen of Scots apartments have been a tourist attraction since Mary’s death. We learned the Lord Darnley/David Riccio mythology, and toured rooms where Louis XVI’s brother stayed, using the “liberty of the Church” to avoid debtors. Holyrood tours end at the ruins of the original Holyrood Abbey. These are like a Wordsworth poem, the Romanticism of Victorian England in the decayed walls of the Gothic church.
The Scottish Parliament building was recently built to a design by Spanish architect Enric Miralles. We did a walk by, but decided not to tour the facility. The roof is cool, and the exterior grew on us over time, but we decided we had bigger fish to land. We walked up the Cannongate, part of the same touristy Royal Mile we were staying on further west. At Jeffery Street we descended the valley to Market Street, passed Waverley Station and headed up the Mound.
The Mound is a rise in the railroad valley, where Georgian Edinburgh dumped the dirt it excavated creating cellars in the New Town. It is topped by William Playfair’s National Gallery of Scotland. This is a premier collection of Western painting, in one of the best structures ever built to see art. Playfair created two banks of octagonal galleries, each with a skylight giving even natural light, in an easy path that takes you from medieval Italian painters through Raphael, Botticelli, Velasquez and Hogarth to the Impressionists. They’ve got a great Sargent portrait of a Scottish duchess, and a Frederick Edwin Church “Niagara Falls” that competes with the one in the Corcoran. A separate floor shows Scottish painters, not bad at all. We all liked Sir David Wilkie’s moralistic Victorian “Sins of Idleness”. Recently the Gallery linked via an underground passage to the former Royal Academy building. Since everything in Edinburgh is on changing ground levels, this subterranean link has large windows facing down the valley. We stopped in the café for a tea and carrot cake break. Nice gift shop. The Royal Academy building houses temporary shows. Up was Elizabeth Blackadder, who seems to do large floral canvases. We skipped, deciding against investing both the time and an admission fee.
I’ve been talking about the Old Town and the New Town. In an American context they’re both old: the New Town was an addition to the city made possible in the 1700’s when they bridged the now-railroad valley and made it possible for people to easily get from the north into the original city. Developed with great charm and in a consistent style following the lead of Robert Adam, the New Town is a World Heritage Site, one of the best places in the world to see Georgian town planning and architecture. We took a New Town walk, down the great shopping of Rose Street a block behind Princes to Charlotte Square. The first part of the New Town is basically a grid, with streets commemorating the British royal family to demonstrate Scottish loyalty after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion. West of there the Earl of Moray broke the grid by subdividing his land into a crescent, an oval, and an octagon. All of these are on the slope of a hill, so you have amazing ensembles of building and park with views from one to the other. Following Adam’s lead in Charlotte Square, architects designed unified facades, called palace fronts. Even though an oval may have twenty row house mansions, they look like two palaces facing each other across a green. We hiked up Charlotte Street to Moray Place (the octagon), Ainslie Place (the oval), and Randolph Crescent. While some of these houses are still residential, most are now banks, lawyers’ offices, and a few consulates.
Edinburgh is building a light rail system to connect the airport and the New Town. This did us no good at all, as it means the main drag, Princes Street, is torn up for construction, and all buses are detouring. It affected us less than we thought it would, though, and we shopped our way up Princes Street. My blood test device was flashing its every-five-years-put-in-a-new-battery warning. Fortunately, Boots, our favorite British pharmacy cum department store, had the battery, plus sweets and Wallace & Gromit socks.
Dinner was at Jimmy Chung’s Chinese Buffet, next to Waverly Station. Eh, it was okay for L11. We were surprised that it was mainly protein and carbs, with almost no vegetables. The ice cream and cake had no flavor at all. On the other hand, where else can you find sweet and sour mutton?
We walked up the steps of Anchor Close back to the High Street, while Michael gave us a history of the Scottish kingdom. All you need to remember is that James VI of Scotland is the same person as James I of England, the king Jamestown is named after.
We crashed in front of the tube once we hiked back up our turnpike steps. BBC contemporary dramas did not interest us, and the comedies are indecipherable due to language. Reality TV, though, speaks the language of all nations. Michael got hooked on “Mary Queen of Frocks”, the saga of an assertive lesbian creating her own boutique line for women of a certain age under the aegis of British department store chain House of Fraser. A hoot.
Wednesday, October 19
We crossed the Mound and turned left for a lovely walk up Princes Gardens west of Royal Academy, through the West End, over the Telford Bridge, and into Dean Village. Dean is a 1700’s settlement of flour mills along the Leith that has been renovated into a Georgetown-like neighborhood of trendy lofts and architects’ offices. Well Court, a trim complex of Arts and Crafts high rise apartments, was built in the 1880’s by a gentleman of the New Town who wanted a nicer view from his mansion than the mills. The road Upper Damside takes you exactly there, up a dam/waterfall on the creek to Leith Walk, here a footpath for dog walkers and baby strollers.
Our goal was the Dean Gallery, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Built as Dean Orphanage in 1831, the outside looks like a grand Tuscan country house. Inside the corridors are tight, but the gallery spaces work. The collection is okay. Their most notable holdings are of Eduardo Paolozzi, a mid-20th-century artist who is unworthy of this degree of veneration. There is a nice recreation of his studio. A temporary show of Edinburgh Colorists was being installed; we weren’t sorry that we missed it.
Across the grounds and Belford Road is the main building of the SNGMA. This was built as John Watson’s School in 1825, another pseudo-country house in grounds. They’ve recently installed a brilliant piece of land art by Charles Jencks, a spiral of grass-carpeted earth intertwined with a reflecting pool. Great fun walking it, then into the galleries. They have a collection of Modern painters with a lot of dreck. Educational, however, to see how another national collection does Modernism. I really liked artist David Wood from the School of St. Ives, and pieces by Joseph Cornell and Douglas Gordon. We learned that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was not a solo artist, but worked collaboratively with his wife Margaret MacDonald, her sister Frances, and Frances’ husband Herbert MacNair. Great drawings by the sisters were on display. More on the Mackintoshes when we get to Glasgow. The temporary show was of Tony Cragg, an artist working now who trained in a Rubbermaid factory and makes sculpture of plastic. I was used to his collage of colored plastic bits on the wall of the Hirshhorn, but here saw monumental pieces that bend and twist faces and shapes into space. Cool. His 2D work, not so much. Lovely lunch in the Museum’s café.
We returned east to the New Town by way of St. Mary’s Cathedral. An 1870’s Gilbert Scott-designed Gothic Revival Episcopal Church, with post-WWII Paolozzi windows in a chapel. Down Melville Street to the West End and Charlotte Square. When the New Town was first being developed, the city was concerned that the spaces were not being designed as beautifully as possible. They wanted more symmetry, balance, and classical details. In Robert Adam’s Charlotte Square, they got it. J.K. Rowling lived in Edinburgh when she began writing Harry Potter, and you can see her characters and ideas all over the city. Outside the homes of Charlotte Square are cast iron serpents heads once used by lamplighters to extinguish their torches, sinuously wound around fence posts. They could easily have been designed by the wizards of Slytherin.
Georgian House is on the Square, restored by the National Trust of Scotland to the mid-1750’s. They offer great interpretation, with an introductory video in a servants’ bedroom, and guides to answer questions in each room. In the kitchen a matron told us that the coal they burn in Scotland now comes from Poland. All the guides appeared interested in our being from the States, engaging in a genteel way.
We were far enough west that instead of going across the valley, we walked west and south around the Castle to the Grassmarket. Anta sells Scottish woolens that are conservative but oh so comfortable: furniture, pillows, bags. Also Scottish ceramics. We recognized several items in use at Gladstone’s Land.
The National Museum of Scotland is in the southern part of the Old Town. We thought it would be a one hour museum, but in 2.5 hours we only skimmed the surface. They’ve installed the History of Scotland on six floors in a modern addition, with natural history, technology, and science in renovated 1860 Victorian blocks surrounding sensational atriums.
Across the street is the original quadrangle of Edinburgh University, designed by Robert Adam in 1789, with interiors by William Playfair. It’s what you picture when your mind conjures an old European university. The land was the site where Mary Queen of Scot’s husband Lord Darnley died in a building explosion, suspiciously connected with her next husband, Lord Bothwell. We love the Stuarts.
Rowling wrote in a pub around here, but we did not track it down. Instead, we grabbed coffee and cake in an Italian coffee shop. We walked up South Bridge and North Bridge, the easiest ways to cross the valley north, to St. Andrew’s Square. This is the partner to Charlotte Square in the original New Town expansion. We walked up Thistle Street, which was not as good as Rose Street, more Nolita than Soho. Dinner was at Henderson’s, one of the best vegetarian restaurants we’ve ever tried. It seems to be the Moosewood Restaurant of the UK. Amazing crepes, mezze, and a bottle of Italian white for less than $25/head.
Dan gave a lecture on the schismatic history of the Scotch Presbyterian church on our walk home to do laundry and watch the BBC.
Thursday, October 20
We started the day walking due north through the New Town on Hanover Street, through the key-entry-only Queen Street Gardens and up Dundas Street. A lovely and downhill walk throughout – I kept thinking as we went that we so had to figure out a bus back. We took a left just before the Water of Leith to The Colonies. This is a wicked cool 1861 co-operative worker housing scheme. You can see the roots of the Arts & Crafts Movement in the structures, with carved lintels at the end of each row of houses representing trades. The streets are lined by two story houses with an apartment on each floor. The stairs up to the 2nd floor are on one side of street and ground floor entrances on the other, so each building is entered from two different streets. The whole ensemble stopped being workers housing long ago, it has been gentrified as part of the greater Stockbridge neighborhood.
We passed the cricket grounds and walked up Arboretum Place to the Royal Botanic Garden. This is one of the best gardens we have ever seen. Not so much extensive as dense, with many uses flowing one into the other. At the center, on top of a hill, is the original residence, Inverleith House, with shop, classrooms, management and café. On the grounds are: An Andy Goldsworthy slate cone. Demonstration/student gardens with amazingly straight high hedges. The Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden, anchored by trees of the continents of the realm, a labyrinth growing in, and a hut with a plain exterior but encrusted inside with sea shells on the walls and pine cones on the ceiling. Glasshouses including a Victorian palm house, possibly the tallest in world, a Montane Tropics, and a Wet Tropics house, with bananas, citrus, and vanilla. A Chinese garden, with switchback paths, waterfalls and bridges. A Peat Garden and Rock and Heath Gardens, amazing complexes of Alpine and Scottish heath plants and lichen. We had lunch in the Inverleith café with seemingly a million children, but it may have only been ten fast moving ones. On the street we easily caught a bus, and enjoyed the view from the top of the double decker back to the Royal Mile.
We’d been staying at Gladstone’s Land for a couple days, but still hadn’t seen the interpreted part. Run by the Trust, the same people who do the Georgian House, so similar interaction, but set in 1617. They’re famous for their painted ceiling from 1620, miraculously protected under a dropped ceiling and discovered during the renovation.
Shopped our way east on the Mile, having been casing the stores for a couple days. We purchased wool scarves, tourist tschochkes, and t-shirts from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Shop. The Museum of Childhood is small but dense. They present displays of toys from a UK perspective, well done, with spaces for kids to play and automata to turn on with 10p coins.
We expected to blow off the Museum of Edinburgh, but were glad we went in. It’s housed in the former Silver Masters Guild Hall, with collections of silver, pottery, and glass as well as history of the city up through the New Town. The rooms were great to be in, but the Museum of Scotland does it better. Kept walking up to Holyrood for a final stop in their shop, then retreated to Clarinda’s Tea Shop. Clarinda’s does a lovely gingerbread and scone tea. We were beginning to like their tradition of afternoon tea, it’s a great break in the day.
Back to mopping up the sights of Edinburgh, we descended the valley via Market Street to the Fruitmarket Gallery, near Waverly railway station, and the City Art Centre across the street. Both were in the midst of installing shows, so we only got to browse their gift shop/book stores. They both show contemporary art, but are only worth visiting if they having something up.
Up Fleshmarket Close (title of an Ian Rankin mystery, but in this case just a flight of steps back to the Mile) to relax at the apartment. When we got there, two women were blocking our stair. They wanted to get into the Museum, and were shaking our door, which was the wrong one, and the Museum was closed in any case. I politely let them know that yes, the Museum was closed, no, I did not know when they opened, and yes, those are the steps to my apartment that they were blocking, and would they kindly descend? They did.
Dinner at Above the Abbotsford, across the North Bridge on Rose Street. They’re an upscale pub, we got wonderful Scottish food: an Arran single malt, cock-a-leekie soup, venison sausage, chicken with tatties and neeps, and a couscous stuffed pepper.
Friday, October 21
To our surprise, we said a sentimental goodbye to Gladstone’s Land, even the stairs. As a docent at Georgian House suggested, they’d made us feel like real Edinburghers. Schlepped our bags downhill and into Waverley Station, where we caught the next train to Glasgow. We made a mistake and boarded the local, which takes 1.5 hours, instead of the express, which only takes 45 minutes. We decided we were in no hurry, though, and stayed. We were rewarded with classic views of Scotland’s countryside: old industry, stone farms, fields of sheep and cattle. We crossed the Clyde twice and entered Glasgow.
Due east on Gordon Street from Central Station took us into the Merchant City, where Glasgow expanded in the 1700’s with tobacco, wine, and linen warehouses. The warehouses and churches have now been renovated into luxury lofts, art galleries, and performing spaces. Who needed to leave D.C.’s 14th Street <smile>? Our hotel, the Fraser Suites Glasgow, looks good at first glance, but was sadly cheap. Like they wanted to build a W Hotel, but did all their shopping at IKEA and Costco. Made you nervous to open a cabinet for fear the door would fall off its hinges. But, we had two spacious efficiencies with gloriously high ceilings, kitchens, free laundry, and blissfully, elevators. This renovation is not going to wear well, don’t follow our lead to the Fraser Suites.
We walked next door for lunch in the old City Markets, now renovated into the home of the Scottish Symphony, offices, and an interior courtyard lined with restaurants. Tried the Italian place, so much better than anything we had 15 years ago. We liked the jug of iced, citrused water we got in most restaurants when we asked for tap.
The former Royal Exchange is now the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. The building is wonderful, with good spaces to show art. Unfortunately, most of the art was dreadful. They had a show of contemporary Glaswegian sculpture and a permanent collection bought ten years ago, eh. An okay Jenny Holzer, and Emily Jacir’s video drive across Texas, “From Texas with Love”. Wish we had been here to see when Jim Lambie did the space; he’s the artist who once carpeted the Hirshhorn with brightly colored tape.
Across the lovely Victorian buildings of George Square, we walked east and uphill through the University of Strathclyde. Inhuman Modern concrete crap. On the eastern rise of downtown is Glasgow Cathedral. Downtown Glasgow has been moving west for a millennium; it started at Glasgow Cross, the intersection of the main east-west street, Trongate, and the main north-south road, the Saltmarket, which connected the Clyde to this Cathedral. The Cathedral is gorgeously medieval, it was too far north for Henry VIII’s troops to gut and pillage during the Reformation. What Henry didn’t destroy Hitler did, as all the glass was blown out in WWII. It’s been replaced with some ho-hum modern, but the charm is in the stonework. The Blackadder Aisle, essentially a separate medieval church in the ground level, is nice, and the lower church nicer. In Walter Scott’s “Rob Roy” there is a pivotal scene in the lower church; it was cool and creepy to be where it had taken place.
On the Cathedral grounds, St. Mungo’s was built to be a Cathedral visitor’s center, but was picked up by the City for a museum when that fell through. St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life is surprisingly ecumenical. It has a good collection of stained glass, and a better interpretation of human life and how religions have tried to help us deal with life’s challenges.
Provand’s Lordship is the oldest house in Glasgow. It was built as a religious house on the grounds of the Cathedral, and has been through a variety of uses since. There is an okay interpretation of the building to 1500, but the best part was the pleasant St. Nicholas Garden of box and herbs of medieval healers. But maybe we were just tired.
Back to the Fraser Suites via an Aldi’s for groceries. What an unpleasant experience, the worst of Costco and Giant put together. We got set up in the apartment, then next door to Maggie Mae’s for dinner. 50-Year-olds pretending to be in their 20’s, with people actually in their 20’s serving them, and Dylan/Beatles Musak to make you think you’re young again. A horrendous place, but they serve a quite good soup, Angus burger, and lamb. All the hamburgers in Scotland were good, it must be the local beef.
Saturday, October 22
Glasgow is the second largest retail center in the UK, after London. Most of the shops are downtown, on the zigzag of Sauchiehall, Buchanan, and Argyle Streets. We walked west on Argyle through St. Enoch Place Mall to St. Enoch’s station, then took the subway counterclockwise. Glasgow’s subway was the world’s fourth, after London, Budapest, and Boston, but never grew from its original circular line. So, the map is an easy to read oval, and you’re either going clockwise or the reverse. It doesn’t cover too large an area, but does get close to the commuter stations that run well out into the suburbs and connect to the national rail system. The trains are claustrophobically small, but fun to ride. We got off at Hillhead and walked up Great George Street to the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery. They have a good teaching collection here of Old Masters, the world’s largest collection of Whistlers (including the cartoon for the Freer’s Peacock Room), posters, and work by Margaret & Frances Macdonald and James Herbert McNair. Star of the Gallery is Charles Rennie and Margaret Mackintosh’s town house, installed in a special Brutalist addition. We thought the addition hideous from the outside, but it definitely works to preserve what had once been a row house interior in a museum setting.
The main quadrangle of the University of Glasgow is by Gilbert Scott, the biggest name in Victorian Britain for Gothic Revival. Walking around the cloisters is fantastic, it made us feel like we were at Hogwarts. Upstairs is the Hunterian Museum. Same name as the Art Gallery, same original donor, but a very different collection. This one covers natural history and science. Cool and kooky collections of minerals, musical instruments, fossils, ceramics, and bird nests. We learned that the beautiful blue and white birds we’d seen all over Scotland were mockingbirds. An interesting exhibit on the Antonine Wall, which ran across Scotland well north of Hadrian’s Wall, but was only manned by the Romans for a few decades. Best, though, was their interpretation of science, especially of Lord Kelvin, who did a lot of his work on electricity here. We’re pretty smug about science museums, but walked out of this one knowing a lot more than we walked in with.
Lunch at an Indian buffet on Byres Road, then we walked down Argyle Street along Kelvingrove Park to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery. This is a Victorian red brick palace built by the city. The architecture guide says it’s Hispanic Baroque. Half of the massive floor plan is filled with art, and half natural and social history. Honestly, a lot of the collections are mixed up: paintings are used to illustrate science, bat wings are displayed to show how a sculpture works. They’ve installed a chapel painted by Italian POW’s in a British prison camp in Somalia during WWII – can’t get more esoteric than that. Dali’s St. John of the Cross gets its own space, discussing both the painting and its history in Glasgow. There are galleries on how to look at art, and video art teaching about taxidermied polar bears. Medieval armor is hung on contemporary metal sculpture. A room of French Impressionists. Lots of Victorian painting, our favorites reinterpreted for the Twitter and iPhone set (“Should she choose the boring suitor or the handsome bounder?” “Can this marriage be saved?”). A gallery of Mackintosh and other Glasgow Style furniture and decorative arts. A newly hung gallery of The Glasgow Boys, a Scottish spin off of Impressionism. Glasgow World’s Fairs. Italian and Dutch Old Master paintings. It’s like a cooler Smithsonian under one roof.
We took the subway from Kelvinhall to Cowcaddens, where we saw the sign for the Tenement Museum. We ran up Garnet Hill via Buccleuch Street to the Museum, on a street of renovated and some not tenements, but missed the National Trust’s 4:30 cutoff for admission. In a mainly flat city, Garnet Hill is a killer, so we rounded it the long way to return to Sauchiehall Street. This is the other end of the Style Mile that we’d started this morning on Argyle. We strolled up the shops from the M8 expressway, which cruelly cuts through the city, to downtown.
En route we stumbled on the Centre for Contemporary Art. The best thing about it is the Alexander “Greek” Thompson building it’s housed in. Thompson was Glasgow’s best Greek Revival architect in the first part of the19th Century. The Center was hosting a documentary film festival of protest films, with a companion show of student photos. Also “Warp and Woof”, work by artists Anna Barham and Bea McMahon which was okay, but nothing to write about. Unless you want to watch a half hour video of a house cat, or a lightning-speed slide show of irises.
Continued down Sauchiehall, passing the Willow Tea Rooms, Marks and Spencer’s, gourmet bakeries, and toy stores, then down Buchanan Street to Argyle. Back to the apartment to chill, then up Ingram to a Pizza Express near the Gallery of Modern Art. Pizza Express had been recommended to us by our friend Jeanine Scholl. This was a great lead, good and inexpensive, with a charming waitress from Spain, decent pizza, antipasto, and cannelloni. This is a chain, and for the rest of our trip it was our fall back restaurant: when we had to eat but weren’t sure where, if we saw a Pizza Express we knew that we had a respectable option.
Sunday, October 23
We started the day at Glasgow Cross, walking down the Gallowgate to Barras Market. The Barras is hailed in the tourist literature as Glasgow’s weekend open air market. It is ter-ASH-y, like a West Virginia “antiques” store crossed with a West Virginia yard sale, covering 10 blocks. It is well established, but the goods are of marginal quality. I suspect it speaks to a running level of poverty in recent Glasgow, but we were disappointed that at least some of the stalls were not better.
Just around the corner from the Barras, Glasgow Green is gorgeous. Glasgow has impressive cultural outreach to its citizenry dating back over a century. Kelvingrove had been built by the city, and Glasgow Green was its counterpart on the east side. In the center of the park is a flamboyant Victorian fountain of the colonies where Glaswegians emigrated. A Nelson monument/obelisk, and the looming 1962 Red Road public housing to the rear. Red Road plays a role in Britain similar to St. Louis’ Pruitt Igoe and Chicago’s Cabrini Green: too big, too ugly, and dangerous, evidence of callous attempts to warehouse the poor. From the Green, though, it’s just a backdrop. The gem in the center of Glasgow Green is the People’s Palace. Part museum, part palm house, the People’s Palace has exhibits on the daily life of Glaswegians. The shows are brilliant, small, and intimate. Among the topics covered were an Anderson shelter, WWII evacuations, comics, a history of tenement life pro and con, Glasgow industries, industrialists, labor movements, and steam wash houses. Fun.
We took a bus up to Sauchiehall Street to the Willow Tea Rooms. These were designed by Mackintosh for a Mrs. Cranston, who used Mackintosh’s designs as a lure to her empire of tea shops across the city. Willow is the best surviving of these, still serving tea in Art Nouveau splendor. We had a nice lunch of French toast, chili, meringue & cream, Victoria sponge, and chocolate slice. Notice the weighting toward dessert? It is just so good in Scotland, everything less sweet but richer with cream than what we are used to.
Back to Garnet Hill and the Tenement House. The Trust runs this as a look into the middle class apartment of Miss Agnes Toward, who lived here for fifty years and never threw a thing away. Those “goods”, like old ration books and recipes clipped from newspapers, are used on the flat below to interpret life in a tenement, what we would call a row house broken into apartments, with Miss Toward’s apartment restored to the WWI era. I expected Toward to be a crazy cat lady, but she comes across as a professional woman who supported her Mum and figured out how to make city life work for her. It’s impressive, a story I don’t think our museums would bother to tell.
The only thing on our trip we needed to book in advance was our tour of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art. The School is still in residence, using the building Mackintosh designed for them. It’s a gem, reminding us of the best buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. Tours are given by current students. Ours was Alice, who brought equal measures of knowledge and enthusiasm. Notable bits are the Governor’s Room, the Library, the Hen’s Run/roof studios, plasters casts, Mackintosh furniture from other buildings, rose and heart motifs we recognized from the Hunterian, stairs with openings to allow light to flow, and a grand staircase lined by Japanese columns with tabletop “finials”. Steven Holl, one of my favorite contemporary architects, has designed an expansion building going up across the street; it will be interesting to see how his work plays against Mackintosh’s.
Heading home we ducked out of the rain into the Buchanan Galleries shopping mall and John Lewis department store, whose fantastic shopping experience and design got us to stop and shop. We went to Café Gandolfi for dinner, down the block from our apartment. This had looked good as we walked by, but the lure was that Tim Stead, a Glasgow School of Art graduate whose wood installation we liked at the Gallery of Modern Art, had supposedly done some interior work. He had, he designed and crafted a ton of the furniture, including our chairs and table. The food is amazing: we got a Vesper (James Bond) martini, smoked fish casserole, red pepper soup, risotto stuffed pumpkin, smoked salmon, and meatloaf with mashed sweet potatoes. No room for dessert, sadly.
Monday, October 24
We took the subway from St. Enoch to Partick. Partick is famously a rough part of Glasgow. What we saw was an odd but workable path under trains, over the freeway, and down a dock to the Riverside Museum, where the Kelvin enters the Clyde. This is the most recent of Glasgow’s efforts to turn its former ship building waterfront into spaces that work in today’s economy. Zaha Hadid’s building did not impress us from the outside; it’s like a wide extrusion of toothpaste. We wandered along its side to the Tall Ship moored in the Clyde, enjoying the views of the reviving riverfront. Inside, to our surprise, the Museum works brilliantly. They’ve managed to install very large objects, like trains and cars, alongside fairly small ones, like LP’s and tickets, in ways that make sense and accommodate the heavy crowds. The flow is loosely historical, with transportation changes complemented by the cultural changes they caused. The Museum had only opened the previous week, having moved from a site opposite Kelvingrove. A recreated street of pre-1930’s UK was a popular exhibit that had made the move, with cool shops to walk into. For a transportation museum, it was pleasant and interesting, not just rows of cars, trains and planes appealing to technology geeks.
Lunch was at a chip shop in Partick. The place smelled like grease, but the classic fish supper, Scottish breakfast and jacket potato were all very good. We took the subway from Partick along the south side of the Clyde to Bridge Street in Gorbals. We transferred to the proper bus south to get to the Burrell Collection, but got off much too early. The Burrell is in the middle of the large Pollok Country Park, and the neighborhoods north and east all have variations of “Pollok” in their name. I’d confused Pollokshields West Station, near where the bus dropped us off, with Pollokshaws West Station, the closest to the park. Turns out they’re about two miles apart. We headed toward what we thought was Pollok Park, but turned out to be Maxwell Park, to its north. Fortunately we’d already eaten, and the ‘hoods we walked through were gorgeous, like Chevy Chase, River Oaks, or what McLean aspires to be but never will. Beautiful. Between a jogger and a dog walkers’ iPhones we found Pollok Country Park eventually, and once there had a great stroll to the center of the park and the Burrell Collection. If you’re following our lead, don’t even try the bus; just take a commuter train down from Central Station.
The Burrell Collection is one of the best municipal art collections in the world. The 1983 building looks dreadful from outside, like a bad shopping center. From within, though, glass walls open the artwork to the forest. Lots of medieval, decent Chinese and Islamic, and some okay late 19th century European painting. We liked the rooms of donor Burrell’s home, Hutton Castle, recreated in the gallery spaces. We finished in late afternoon, so had what had become our expected tea with sweets in the café.
We weren’t sure we had time, but just made it into Pollock House, the original country house whose grounds had become Pollock Country Park. The National Trust interprets it in what we’d gotten used to as their style; we got a bubbly woman whose history was weak, but enthusiasm made up for same. This had been the country seat of the Maxwell family since the 1200’s; the house dates back to 1740. William Adam, Robert’s brother, had advised the Duke of Maxwell, but it is probably not an Adam design. The reason to come is the Maxwell’s collection of Spanish Old Master paintings. Lots of Velasquez Hapsburg portraits, Goya etchings, and some amazing William Blake’s. The Warden ushered us out so he could close the building, but we strolled east through the estate grounds along a duck-filled path on White Cart Water. We passed Highlands cattle on our walk out of the park gates, from which we caught the 57 bus back into the center of Glasgow. The neighborhoods, the Park, the Burrell, and Pollock House are totally worth the effort to get out there, we were glad we did.
En route to the apartment, we stopped at our local pub for dinner. We never figured out its name, but they served good burgers and moussaka, whiskey, and Chardonnay, at happy hour prices with pleasant service. It had taken a week, but we were beginning to feel comfortable eating in a pub.
Tuesday, October 25
Today began out experiment driving in the UK. I’d planned sites, hotels, and car pickup/drop off locations close to major motorways to reduce the amount of city driving. That meant a long schlep with our bags on the Broomielaw west along the Clyde to the Hertz office downtown. They had an automatic with GPS for us. Unfortunately, it was a hybrid with an odd starter that took us a while to figure out. As in, there was no key, just an “On” button. That mastered, we were off south on the motorway. Scottish and, after Gretna Green, English countryside of fields, sheep, hills, and cattle. There are surprisingly few signs for food, gas, lodging, or even telling you what town you’re in. The biggest differences we saw from our interstates were that they use roundabouts instead of cloverleafs, and have no system of directional signage: signs just point you to the next town, and you have to know that Thirsk, say, is southwest, and the way you want to go. We were glad we got the GPS, it was a life saver.
In Yorkshire GPS got us off the motorway and took us via country roads to Castle Howard. This is where Brideshead Revisited was filmed, both in the 1980’s and 2000’s. The estate is the seat of the Howard family, who maneuvered two of their daughters into marriage with Henry VIII. Michael’s wanted to be here all his life, and was beaming. The grounds seduced us to the Atlas Fountain and architect John Vanbrugh’s Baroque façade. Then we realized we were halfway around from the visitor’s entrance, and hiked back. They have great interiors, and a decent painting collection. There’s a wall of Canalettos and Bellotos and another of views of Rome. Porcelain collections include a large set of unique botanical dessert plates. We walked through the park, to 1700’s designs by Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, to the Temple of the Four Winds. Saw the mausoleum/folly and bridge, walked down an avenue of trees lined with copies of Roman statues, and back to the house in the sunset.
It was a much easier drive down the motorway to the Holiday Inn Express York. Our accommodations were declining in quality from their Edinburgh high, but at least everything in the room worked, and did not shake when you opened a drawer or door. Dinner was across the parking lot at Toby’s Carvery. Toby’s is a chain, with an insane 45-minute wait for a table at 6:30. Then the buffet line itself was retarded: it went nowhere, first because there were no roast potatoes. Seriously, people just stood there and the line stopped until the dish of roast potatoes was filled. Then the carver person went on break. Then they ran out of plates. When we finally got our food, however, it was great, with fresh Yorkshire pudding, roast beef, ham, and turkey, and all we could eat of steamed and roasted vegetables. Got a pear cider for a nice change of alcohol.
Wednesday, October 26
An easy drive down the road took us to the Monks Cross Park and Ride and on to the Silver Line 9 Bus to downtown York. The bus has simple maps that make it easy to know when to jump off. Strolled through the Shambles, their highly-tourist-friendly medieval street, the market, shopped charity shops and walked up to the Cathedral.
York Cathedral is a textbook example of English Perpendicular Gothic. No one particularly great piece of art, glass or sculpture, but the overall effect is worth seeing. Their Chapter House got an interesting Victorian makeover, with Minton tiles like we have at the Building Museum in D.C. What was brilliant was the undercroft, where they interpreted simultaneously the Roman foundation of the city as an army camp, a Norman cathedral, the Medieval cathedral, and 1990’s engineering that now holds the latter up.
Old York is surrounded by medieval walls. We walked up and along the walls from Bootham Bar to Monk Bar (a “bar” is an entrance gate in Viking), descending via a flight of steps through the Richard III Museum gift shop. We tried to get into Betty’s Tea Room for lunch, but there was a line out the door. Betty’s is famous among tourists; we decided we had better things to do with our one day here. We happily retreated to a Pizza Express.
The National Trust’s Treasurer’s House is the creation of Frank Green, an industrialist’s gay second son who from 1897 into the 20th Century turned three buildings near the Minster into a home to display his period furniture collection. It’s more about great interior decorating than historic restoration, but lovely. There’s a nice garden with ancient Roman sculpture used as benches.
Clifford’s Tower is the remnant of a wall bastion; here medieval Jews committed mass suicide rather than surrender to Catholic persecution. The story was incorporated by Sir Walter Scott into “Ivanhoe”. Over to the York Castle Museum. Rick Steves liked it, which made us want to go, but the brochure looked very wax museum trashy. The line up front tipped the balance, and we skipped. Sometime around lunch the town had filled up with day trippers, and it was getting hard to walk the streets.
We escaped the crowds in Fairfax House, “the finest Georgian town house in England”. Restored by the York Civic Trust in 1984, it may just be. Amazing plaster ceilings, a big recreated kitchen, the “Noel Terry collection of furniture, clocks, (and barometers)”. Michael enjoyed tracing the Fairfax connection to Virginia (via a closely related branch of the family). Dan liked the botanical sketches by Mary Delaney, friend of King George III and Horace Walpole whose work we’d seen last year at Yale.
York St. Mary’s is a former church now used as an art gallery. Cornelia Parker took a steamroller to thousands of silver dishes, cups, and musical instruments. She suspended them from the church ceiling in circles to create the installation “Thirty Pieces of Silver”. A beautiful install.
Across the River Ouse to the train station, and the National Railway Museum. This is the world’s largest. Major sheds of historic and current train engines and carriages, a café between parked royal trains, an open-storage shed of signs, uniforms, dish sets, engineering equipment, and a gallery/garage where you can watch staff restore historic cars and engines. A million scuttling kiddies, but still fun, and overwhelming, for us.
Caught the bus back to Monks Cross, drove to the HI Express, and had another dinner at Toby’s Carvery. It was just the most convenient place, and the mountains of well prepared vegetables called us back. Tonight we got dessert, apple-cherry crumble with “Toby’s famous bottomless custard”: a not too sweet, creamy custard sauce, like a zabaglione, to pour over the crumble. Delicious. Even with Michael pouring the custard directly into his spoon we could still only master the first jug of the same.
Thursday, October 27
We drove to Durham via the aforementioned Thirsk: a place we’d never heard of, but a recurring landmark. Parked in the Prince Bishop Car Park, where visitors are shepherded to keep cars out of the historic center. Our goal was Durham Cathedral, one of the great examples of Norman architecture. Massive patterned columns that I’d last seen as a slide in Waltham High’s art history class. The glass was destroyed in WWII, but some decent new glass has been installed. The shrine of St. Cuthbert, Durham’s patron, fills the space behind the altar. The tomb of the Venerable Bede, author of one of the first works in modern English, is in a major chapel behind that. The Monk’s Cloister is where Harry Potter said goodbye to Hedwig (we couldn’t get out of Hogwarts). We got lunch at Bishop Cosin’s Almshouse, a café on the Cathedral grounds. Durham overall is great, with lots of colleges and decent shops mixed together, and much less of a tourist attraction than York.
Up the motorway north. We passed Antony Gormley’s contemporary sculpture “The Angel of the North” in Gateshead, at a motorway interchange outside Newcastle on Tyne. Eh, looks like an angel and an airplane, in rusted red. Newcastle is the next major city to the south of Edinburgh, but honestly, we couldn’t find any reason to stop there. The Baltic Arts Center, in a renovated grain elevator, was showing the recent Turner Prize finalists. The Turner Prize is a big deal in the British art world, but we skipped.
Instead, we pulled off the main roads and onto the very rural B6318 to Housesteads Roman Fort. This is the best preserved bit of Hadrian’s Wall, a U.N. World Heritage Site. In fact, there’s not much left. All those charming stone farm houses we’d been seeing? They were built from the Wall. At Housesteads is the bottom three feet of the stone foundation of a Roman military camp. It was hard to interpret, but beautifully positioned at the top of a hill. Easy to imagine one side as civilized Rome (the dogs herding sheep helped) and the other the wilderness of the Picts. Unlike in a U.S. National Park, we were able to climb all over it unsupervised. Cool. My Italian and English heritages come together here.
From Hadrian’s Wall we drove north on the A68, a two-lane country road posted 60 mph. I kept expecting GPS to merge us over to the A1, the main highway. Instead, we stayed on it for two hours to Edinburgh. It’s a lovely route, through the Pennines, Northumberland National Park, the Cheviot Hills, and the Scottish Borders. Almost no settlements, just lots of cattle, sheep, and rolling hills. At times the fog was reminiscent of the Great Smokies, although the change in elevation was more like when we drove from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. By the time we made it to the Pentland Hills outside Edinburgh, the sun was shining almost horizontally on the fields and farms. We pulled into the Edinburgh Airport Hilton around 6PM and returned the car to Hertz around the corner.
Friday, October 28
An uneventful morning at the airport. EDI is like El Paso or Manchester, NH: small enough that one can easily walk from the hotels to the terminal. We got Cornish pasties at a Cornish Pasty fast food place (who knew?), and hung out until our flights to Heathrow and Dulles. Nice shopping back in Terminal 5 at Heathrow, but overall, uneventful.
What did we think of the Scots and Yorkshiremen? Everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful, from customs agents to bus drivers to strangers asked directions on the street. Edinburgh is a lovely small city of limestone and granite; its grid makes it understandable and its hills make it beautiful. Glasgow came at us at first like Cleveland, a little sad and grey, but the more we unwrapped it the more we liked it. If we had to choose one of them to live in, Glasgow would give us more options.
Every place had a local history museum, and all museums recognized that some visitors would be kids, with exhibits/activities aimed at all ages. It was well worth getting the Royal Oak (National Trust of England) and National Trust of Scotland memberships. That said, we couldn’t believe how many museums were free, paid from taxes by the municipality. Their civic pride put ours to shame.
The food is yummy, especially dessert. People ate less than we are used to, which could be viewed as a kind of cheapness: no free bread, scratchy napkins, minimal ice. Or, maybe they just view dining differently. It was certainly more leisurely, and we never asked for something that wasn’t promptly delivered. The tradition of afternoon tea is lovely. Angus beef is amazing, the butter bright yellow, and the cream real.
Transit is fantastic. Even in suburban areas we never had to wait more than ten minutes for a bus or train. Systems are inexpensive, well laid out, and well marked, so you know how to get where you’re going.
Driving is expensive, but since transit so good, not the requirement it is in the States. When you do drive, you’re less likely to waste time in traffic. We saw almost none, but were mainly in less settled country areas. Michael loved the country roads, and didn’t mind the fact of few services. One needs to prepare more before you go; you can’t just jump in the car and follow signs to New York, or Los Angeles. The flow with roundabouts was much smoother than the exiting and merging of our interstates. Magic words were “dual carriage road” (two lane highway), “slip road” (entrance ramp), and “services” (rest stop).
What did we miss? In Edinburgh the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was closed for renovation. With another day we might have walked up to Leith, or taken the train to Dalmeny to see the Forth Bridge up close. In Glasgow we would have needed several more days to see sights that are a bus or train ride from downtown:
· Holmwood House, by Alexander “Greek” Thompson
· House for an Art Lover, contemporary construction of a Charles Rennie Mackintosh design
· Hill House, another Mackintosh/MacDonald, in Helensburgh
· Culzean Castle, a Robert Adam estate
· Robert Owen’s New Lanark, a utopian factory village on the falls of the Clyde turned Industrial Revolution tourist attraction