Saturday, 27 March 2010

Another Edinburgh walk

For those of you who don't know Edinburgh, the 'historic' areas of the city are split into 2 distinct parts. The 'Old Town' is the earliest settlement, built on a narrow ridge, effectively along one long street  - The Royal Mile - which stretches between the Castle, perched on the volcanic plug that is Castle Rock, and Holyrood Palace. The tenements, originally medieval, are tall, narrow and crowded together along the main street and down steep  'wynds' and 'closes', and around small squares. In the 18th century, during Edinburgh's intellectual heyday as the cradle of the Enlightement (well, some French people might disagree about that statement!), the city fathers decided that the well-to-do burghers of the city needed somewhere more salubrious to live than the crowded Old Town (although I suppose it was just the 'Town' then!), where the gentry and hoi polloi mixed cheek by jowl in what was vividly called 'Auld Reekie' (i.e old stinky!).

So a town planning competition was held in 1766 to come up with a plan for a new development on the northern slopes of the city. This was won by 26 year old stonemason (not architect!) James Craig and the New Town was built over the next 70 or so years, sticking very much to the regular grid pattern central to Craig's initial conception, as this aerial photo shows.  So the New Town is not new at all.

Both the Old Town and the New Town are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites - which I think makes Edinburgh unique (if I might blow the city's trumpet for a moment!).  Edinburgh's New Town is the most extensive and sustained example of Georgian architecture in Britain - and according to UNESCO, in Europe! Bath, your warm golden stone might be a bit prettier than the austere grey of the Edinburgh sandstone, but frankly, eat your heart out!

When I first lived in Edinburgh as a student, over 20 years ago, I always lived in the South of the city, in the Old Town and in the student hotspots of Newington and Marchmont (where I live now). I thought the New Town was cold and cheerless, with the long, straight streets, restrained Georgian townhouses and little greenery to relieve the grey stone. Frankly, it was a bit posh for my tastes then as well.  It wasn't until I was forced to live in the North of the city, when I first moved back to Edinburgh, that I learnt to love the New Town. We didn't live in the New Town proper - not in that class! But with the New Town lying between our flat and the city centre, we spent many hours walking through the it, admiring the buildings, the gardens, and imagining a life in which we were wealthy enough to enjoy a New Town address.

Since being over in Marchmont in our new flat, I have rarely ventured North, but a few weeks ago I had an errand in the New Town - buying knitting beads, since you ask. I took the opportunity of a crisp, sunny Saturday to have a mooch about. There's something about the chill, north-eastern, winter sky that sets off the grey stone perfectly. Warm it wasn't - in any sense - but very elegant. My photography skills cannot really do justice to the grandeur of Edinburgh's New Town, but here's a taste.

Typical New Town Townhouse

Good New Town doors

Because Edinburgh is built on so many hills, the street level is often much higher than the ground level. You end up with buildings that are 3 storeys high on the street side and 5 or 6 storeys high at the back. You also get lots of unexpected basements, a lot of which are used as shops, and in the New Town these shops are often rarified antique or art dealers, or specialist craftspeople such as clockmakers or silversmiths. Lonsdale & Dutch (above) are, rather wonderfully, "tinsmiths and lantern restorers", who repair the traditional glass lightfittings and chandeliers you get in the New Town houses. 

In another basement on Howe St, I discovered Leo's Beanery. A very cosy and classy cafe, which had only been open a week when I visited. Everything was perfect - to the extent that I felt, perhaps cynically, that they just won't be able to keep up to this standard once they get busy. In addition to the usual newspapers to read, there was a shelf full of cookery books available for browsing. Bliss! And the food was exceptional. Reasonably priced, tasty and beautifully presented.

This was my 'simple' lunch of pate!

I ordered pate and biscuits and this is what I got: 3 types of pate, 3 types of biscuit, olives, rocket and sunblushed tomato salad, served on a roughly hewn slate platter!
This is life in the New Town. Not for the likes of us, except for a Saturday treat!

Friday, 26 March 2010

Wild Cumbrian weekend

I was back in Cumbria at the weekend, for my annual 'Wild Women' get together. I joined Wild Women more than 10 years ago, when I first moved to the Eden Valley in Cumbria. This is eastern Cumbria, the bit that isn't the Lake District. Wild Women started out as a creative writing course led by poet and creative activist Vik Bennett. 13 of us would meet every couple of weeks at Vik's cottage in the picturesque hamlet of Whale in the Eden Valley. We would talk, laugh, cry, eat  - and write poetry. It was as idyllic as it sounds! After the initial 10 week course, we all decided we wanted to carry on meeting, so we evolved into a writing and performance collective, and set up our own small press, Wild Women Press, and published our own poetry collections and even did some poetry readings. Gradually, the group dispersed, although some continued and continue to write and be published - see Gill's blogs and   Ruth's blogs - and Vik has set up another press, Blissfool Books. But the original group members still remain connected as 'fellow travellers'.

The one thing that we have continued (thanks to others more proactive and organised than me!) is our annual 'Wild Women Weekend', usually in February or March. We rent a self-catering property somewhere in Cumbria and get together to reconnect with our shared creative roots. It's always a magical, heart-warming experience. Not just to see everyone again, but to spend time doing the kind of activities that, for me at least, everyday life all too easily pushes out. We write, we dance, we paint, we connect with nature, we share rituals, we light fires and candles, we do tarot readings, we make wishes (or spells if that's what you prefer). And of course we eat and laugh and drink! It's a heady mix and my 'normal' life seems a bit monochrome when I come back after the weekend. But of course the challenge is to bring that Wild Women colour into everyday life. Other members of the group are better at that than me - as you can see from the links above.

This year, we were in an isolated 18th century farmhouse, Carhullan House, west of Shap. It was a fabulous spot. Very isolated, at the end of the track, dwarfed by the wide skies and open views across the hills. On the Saturday, I woke to the typical weather I remember suffering when I lived in Cumbria - drizzle, low cloud and grey, dank skies. It used to depress me. By late afternoon, the clouds were lifting and on Sunday we had the weather I remember loving in Cumbria - bright, crisp sunshine, with a big, blue sky stretching out above the fells. For the first time since I left Cumbria, nearly 4 years ago, it felt good to be back. I'm glad I don't live there any more, but the complicated feelings I was left with about that whole life episode, seem to have eased enough for me to remember why I was enticed to move there in the first place. It's called the Eden Valley for good reason.

Typical Cumbrian weather. Sodden.

More rain.

Low cloud.

Lower cloud.

The clouds start to clear.

Wall and sky.

More walls, more sky.

Carhullan House, Sunday morning.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Haar haar!

I've had a very busy month. As ever, when lots is going on and I feel as if I have plenty of good things to share, I'm too busy (or knackered) to write anything. Today however, I am enjoying the first quiet day at home I've had for a few weeks and watching the 'haar' roll in. The 'haar' is a very particular Edinburgh phenomenon - a sea mist that appears out of nowhere and steadily cloaks the city in a grey blanket of water vapour. It can happen at any time of year. One minute the sun is shining and then the next minute the temperature drops and the damp mist seeps its way through the streets. It's all very Jekyll and Hyde.

This is the view from my window at 5pm in the afternoon. It's been like this since about 10am. It doesn't depress me. I quite like 'interesting' weather. And it doesn't last - well, not longer than a day anyway. I know spring is out there somewhere.