Carry On in the Central Belt

“Listen, listen. Ooh – aah – titter ye not. Ooh no missus… Settle down now, settle down,” as Frankie Howerd might have said.

First of all, my apologies, for the cheeky title to this blog – well, we all need to promote ourselves a little.

Second, some explanations, for those not born in the UK and for younger readers. Frankie Howerd was a very funny comedian who appeared in some of the many Carry On films produced from the late 1950s through to the late 1970s. Carry On films were known for their cheeky and vulgar humour – a bit like the heading on this blog.

That said, I am not a big fan of Carry On films but find Frankie Howerd very funny. I particularly enjoyed the BBC television series Up Pompeii!, first broadcast in 1970, in which Howerd played the lead character, a Roman slave. Various aspects of the programme would not pass the political correctness test now, but Howerd’s performances, and the way he talked to the audience in the studio and at home, are a masterclass.

There are many examples of the programme online, probably from someone’s home video recordings, this is Nymphia featuring another Carry On regular, Barbara Windsor (no relation to Her Majesty The Queen)…

Anyway, rather like Frankie Howerd, I digress. I am, in fact, writing about the Central Belt of Scotland, the country’s area of greatest population which includes its two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

If you picture a map of Scotland, and think of it as a body, the central belt would be where the waist is, albeit that the body has short legs. Err, like me.

Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I visited Edinburgh in both 2015 and 2016 (my blogs “Reflections on Edinburgh…” and “Auld Reekie”) and Glasgow in April this year (my blog “Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow”).

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View of Edinburgh from the roof of the Camera Obscura building (image: Graham Brown)

In May it was the turn of Edinburgh, again. We stayed in the same conveniently-placed hotel, next to the transport interchange between trams, buses and trains at Haymarket, albeit now changed from a Tune Hotel (in which you paid for all extras) to the Haymarket Hub Hotel (in which everything is included). Visiting Edinburgh two months later in the year than our 2016 visit it was noticeable how busy the city was with tourists – and how expensive our hotel was as a result.

I feel going back to a city for a second visit relaxes the mind – there is not the urgency to get around all the essentials, rather Kathie and I could concentrate on whatever took our fancy.

So it was that on our first full day we made a late start, after a late evening/early morning at a friend’s house, and wandered from the hotel along the nearby Dalry Road to visit the series of charity shops on either side. Prices, not surprisingly, were higher than in Orkney’s charity shops but we found a few bargains including a CD of Hanna-Barbera cartoon music – ever since we got home I have been annoying Kathie, and our dog Roscoe, with the theme tune to Top Cat, less than a minute long, brilliant, concise writing, snappily arranged and played…

On another day we took time for a relaxed stroll in the sunshine through Princes Street Gardens, running alongside but below Edinburgh’s principal shopping street and with great views of Edinburgh Castle.

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Scottish American Memorial in Princes Street Gardens (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoyed the sculptures on display, and were particularly impressed with the Scottish American Memorial, given by Scottish-Americans – I know there are many of you out there – to honour Scots who served in the Great War, or First World War as we now know it. We thought Roscoe would have appreciated the shepherd on the frieze with his Border collie. The memorial was designed by R. Tait McKenzie and erected in 1927.

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Kathie Touin poses with Wojtek and his polished nose (image: Graham Brown)

But I think everyone’s favourite sculpture is Wojtek the bear, by Alan Heriot (2015). Wojtek was adopted by Polish troops in the Second World War, served alongside them, and enjoyed beer and cigarettes. After the war he was retired to Edinburgh Zoo. Like many tourists, we posed with Wojtek and noticed they had rubbed his nose to a bright shine.

The Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens was cordoned off for restoration but, my goodness, we could tell by peeking through the hoardings that it will be spectacular and colourful when it is unveiled. Produced in France, it was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London, bought by gunmaker Daniel Ross for £2,000, transported in 122 pieces and placed in the gardens in 1872.

Just along Princes Street from the gardens is Edinburgh Waverley station. We walked through there one evening and caught a glimpse of something very special. So, after some online checking about the next appearance, we returned at nine the next morning – an early start for us on holiday.

The excitement for us, and others, mounted as we stood on the platform, there was even a policeman on duty to ensure good order, and then, yes, here she comes…

The steam locomotive Flying Scotsman, one of the most famous in the world, arrived, looking resplendent. She was in Edinburgh to haul a series of excursions across the Forth Rail Bridge.

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Flying Scotsman in Edinburgh Waverley station (image: Graham Brown)

 

Kathie and I were thrilled – yes, we both were. Kathie had not seen the Flying Scotsman in steam before, if at all, and I had to cast my mind back to remember when I had last seen this venerable locomotive, built in 1923, running.

I think it was about 1968 when I went with my father to watch the locomotive run along the main railway line south of Peterborough. It occurred to me that the Flying Scotsman was about 45 years old then, but now has more than doubled in aged to 95 – a sign of my age!

My late father, Clive Brown, always took a great interest in railways. His father, my grandfather, worked for LNER, the company which operated the Flying Scotsman before the railways were nationalised in 1948.

I remember also that my father rode on the footplate of the Flying Scotsman and wrote an article about his experience when the locomotive was visiting the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. There is a framed photo of my father and the driver standing in front of the loco here in my office.

Other outings during our Edinburgh trip included…

the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden – we only got part way round, so will need to return on another visit, but we did walk through all of the glasshouses;

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John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (image: National Galleries Scotland)

the Scottish National Gallery, a return visit, where my favourite paintings were John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, Thomas Warrender’s Still-Life (a curious mix of ancient objects in an apparently modern setting) and, new to public display, Valentin Serov’s Alexandrvitch, Tsar of All the Russias;

the Mexican food store Lupe Pintos, in Leven Street, a must for Kathie to get her Mexican cooking supplies (they also have a shop in Great Western Road, Glasgow);

and Camera Obscura, a fun half-day for children of all ages. It is in a narrow building with steep stairs over several levels so it is not for all. But there are super views of the city from the roof terrace, the wonders of the Camera Obscura itself, and then a series of fun, interactive (two words that would normally put me off) illusions as you walk back down through the various floors.

Naturally we ate out at several restaurants, I would say my favourite for food, atmosphere and decor was Viva Mexico in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where we have eaten before. It might look busy from the outside but there is a cosy basement so do check if there is a table. If you have only ever visited Mexican chain restaurants in the UK (they were once fashionable in London) you should try an authentic experience.

However, the original reason we were in Edinburgh at this particular time was for music. We booked the trip in order to see the wonderful Gretchen Peters again, then discovered that during the same short visit we could also see the musical Wicked and the phenomenal guitarist Nils Lofgren.

Nils was brilliant, performing a show at the Queen’s Hall as part of a tour to mark his 50 years on the road. What a great guitarist he is and, though this can be overlooked, an expressive singer and handy songwriter. For those who do not know Nils’ work, he has spent many years playing in bands for the likes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. He appeared with multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta, who was fabulous.

We saw Wicked many years ago when we lived in London though for some reason – my tired and stressed life in London, perhaps? – I did not have a great recall of the show. But I know Kathie, like her Mom, is a big fan of The Wizard Of Oz, so when I discovered the back-story Wicked would be playing in Edinburgh at the Playhouse Theatre I jumped at the chance to book tickets.

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Leaving Edinburgh Playhouse after Wicked (image: Graham Brown)

It was an impressive production, great movement and costumes (we were only sat a few rows from the front), and the two women taking the lead roles – Amy Ross and Helen Woolf – were fabulous singers with great presence. As Kathie said, they had some really big numbers to nail, and they did. It was super as well to hear a live band coming from the orchestra pit. And the Playhouse is a superbly ornate theatre, originally a cinema modelled on the Roxy Cinema in New York.

And our final Edinburgh show was due to be Gretchen Peters, touring the UK with her keyboard player (and husband and all-round good egg) Barry Walsh to mark the release of her new album. She brought a band with her, and support artist and accompanying singer Kim Richey.

Unfortunately I saw none of this – on the night of the concert at the Queen’s Hall I was sick in my hotel room, and very fed up. If I’m honest, I am still not over this disappointment but I try to remember what my mother (and probably yours) would say on occasions like this….

“Worse things happen at sea…”

“There are many people in the world worse off than you…”

And so on. And she would be right. So I must get over it.

Having met Gretchen and Barry on previous tours I did drop them a line on social media to say I could not attend and it was very sweet of both of them, and Kim, to send me get well messages at what would be a busy time for them. Thank you all.

Gretchen’s new album, Dancing With The Beast, produced by Doug Lancio, Gretchen and Barry, is the follow-up to the 2015 Blackbirds. Gretchen’s songs tackle some difficult themes such as the state of the so-called United States, abuse, the ageing process and loss – “50 minutes of exquisite-sounding emotional devastation, depression, murder and heartbreak” according to The Tennessean – but there is compassion and hope in there too.

The song Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea will become a firm fan favourite, like Five Minutes on her Hello Cruel World album. In fact, here is Gretchen singing the song at the end of the Queen’s Hall concert (dammit)…

I’m no critic and I’m not good at describing the music I like in words. Really, you need to buy Dancing With The Beast, and Blackbirds, and, while you are about it, the previous album Hello Cruel World. There is also an excellent double album, The Essential Gretchen Peters. I could go on…

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Frankie Howerd – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Howerd

Wikipedia: Up Pompeii! – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Pompeii!

My blog: Reflections on Edinburgh – and back to a busy Orkney – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/reflections-on-edinburgh-and-back-to-a-busy-orkney/

My blog: Auld Reekie – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/auld-reekie/

My blog: Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2018/05/17/brief-impressions-of-a-trip-to-glasgow/

Wikipedia: Hanna-Barbera – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanna-Barbera

Wikipedia: Scottish American Memorial – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_American_Memorial

Wikipedia: Flying Scotsman – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Class_A3_4472_Flying_Scotsman

Royal Botanic Garden – http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/home

National Galleries Scotland – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Lupe Pintos – http://www.lupepintos.com/

Camera Obscura – https://www.camera-obscura.co.uk/

Viva Mexico – http://www.viva-mexico.co.uk/

Nils Lofgren – http://www.nilslofgren.com/

Wicked – http://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/

Edinburgh Playhouse – https://www.playhousetheatre.com/

Gretchen Peters – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Gretchen’s videos – https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters/videos

Auld Reekie

Mrs Brown, that is Kathie Touin, and I spent a weekend in Edinburgh – the excitement of the big city, in contrast to our quieter, slower life in Orkney.

The noise – of traffic and people – is one of the most noticeable differences from our home life. But the journey from Edinburgh Airport to our hotel was on the relatively new tram which is pleasantly smooth and quiet. In fact, the most noise came from a hen party which had been on our flight from Orkney and was then on our tram.

We stayed, as we did for our visit last year, at the Tune Hotel opposite Haymarket station. The hotel is run on the principle of a budget airline, so you get a room and then pay extra if you want towels, TV, wi-fi, and so on. Rather than splash our cash, we just paid for one towel and soap package. But when we arrived we discovered we had two sets of towels and soap, and a working TV – perhaps we had someone else’s room.

Our many years spent living in London give us an advantage in a big city – we are quite happy to get an all-day tram and bus ticket and set off to unfamiliar places. What can go wrong? Got to the wrong place? Just get another bus somewhere else.

I’ve entitled this blog Auld Reekie, the former nickname for Edinburgh, meaning old smoky. Of course, it isn’t smoky these days – though it presumably has unseen diesel pollution – but I think Auld Reekie is a great name that rolls around the tongue.

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Auld Reekie with The Heart of Midlothian train leaving Edinburgh, Waverley, for London, Kings Cross (image: British Railways postcard – thanks to David Ward’s Flickr feed)

Railway experts like my father will know that Auld Reekie was also a steam locomotive, an A1 class, one of many steam engines built after the Second World War but soon disposed of by British Railways – according to Wikipedia, built in December 1949 in Doncaster but withdrawn just 14 years later in December 1963.

You might know a more recent steam locomotive, Tornado, built by enthusiasts in 2008 and regularly seen up-and-down the UK – well, that is also an A1.

Anyway, back to our weekend in Edinburgh…

On arrival on Friday afternoon we went by bus to Grassmarket and Red Dog Music where Kathie looked at keyboards. We returned the following morning for another look and to purchase a keyboard (delivered to Orkney by courier today, as I write).

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The author with a Stewart Formula 1 car at the National Museum of Scotland (image: Kathie Touin)

Our Saturday continued – via a quick stop at the Scooby Doo cafe – at the National Museum of Scotland (free entry). It is an eclectic collection of exhibits, and is undergoing a revamp prior to new galleries opening this summer. But it was fascinating – among the treasures we saw were a Stewart Formula 1 racing car, a huge dinosaur, intricate face masks, musical instruments and many ancient artefacts excavated in Orkney.

There was far more than we could get round in one day, so we will be back. And it was refreshing, if a little noisy, to see how many parents were visiting a museum with small children.

On Sunday we took a tram to a shopping centre to look for a new dog-walking coat for me at TK Maxx. We failed to find one but came away with a lion, that is, a toy for our Border collie Roscoe.

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The Great Hall at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (image: Graham Brown)

Then it was on to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (free entry again), a fascinating collection of paintings and a chance to brush up on our Jacobite history. There were two pleasant surprises in store for us as well.

First, in the centre of the gallery, the beautiful Great Hall – arches, balconies, hanging lamps and murals depicting Scottish history.

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One of the excellent BP Portrait Award paintings: Ordeal by Murat Tezcan Demirbas

 

The second surprise was one of the temporary exhibitions – the BP Portrait Award 2015. I am not, I admit, much for modern art – you like a pile of bricks, or rubbish? Well, come and look in our garage or round the side of our house. But here we found a beautiful, striking, thought-provoking, sometimes sad, sometimes uplifing, selection of paintings of real people that did not look like the work of a small child.

On the Sunday evening we went to the Queen’s Hall to see Gretchen Peters in concert, the event around which we arranged our weekend away. This was the last night of Gretchen’s 20th anniversary tour (20 years since her first album and UK tour) but you would not have known it was the final gig – her voice was strong, clear and full of emotion. Of course, it helps that she has a fantastic selection of songs to perform – all, with one exception, written by herself.

Gretchen also has a great band – her long-time musical partner, and now husband, Barry Walsh plays piano and accordion. He is such a tasteful musician, sometimes choosing to play nothing at all rather than constantly trying to “add” to a song.

The band was completed for this tour by two musicians from Northern Ireland, Conor McCreanor on bass and Colm McClean on guitar and pedal steel.

If you do not know Gretchen’s music then please try her newly-released double CD, The Essential Gretchen Peters – I promise you will love it.

I should also say that despite this being the last date of the tour – and with long flights to the USA the following morning – Gretchen and Barry were very gracious with their time with fans in the foyer afterwards, great musicians but also thoroughly decent people.

Incidentally, proving the saying that wherever you go in the world you meet people from Orkney, we met two friends from Orkney in the audience.

On Monday we walked from our hotel to some local charity shops where we bought more books. This is not something we really need but who can resist two books of Paddington stories? Well, not me.

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Sun bear at Edinburgh Zoo (image: Graham Brown)

Then we were off to Edinburgh Zoo, just a short bus ride from our hotel. We had a great day, and got some good exercise as the zoo is built on a hillside. The animals seems to have generous enclosures and places where they can get away from public gaze. This meant that we did not see all of the animals, but that’s ok.

Our favourites included the chimpanzees, one of whom had discovered he could make a really loud noise by jumping up and down on an overhead metal walkway, the curious sun bear who seemed to be looking for his dinner, the elegant and beautifully-coloured African painted dogs, koalas, and the comical penguins.

During the weekend we went to some excellent restaurants which we hope to visit again and would certainly recommend: Khukuri (Nepalese), Frontier (American) and Cafe Jules (French). And not forgetting a fantastic Mediterranean breakfast at the Troy Cafe.

Edinburgh is certainly a great spot for a long weekend – or longer – and the visit charged our batteries for some challenges ahead this year.

Graham Brown

Postscript

Following my failure to buy a dog-walking coat at TK Maxx, I went to some of Orkney’s charity shops and in Kirkwall’s Blue Door (which helps a different cause each week) I found just what I was looking for – and it cost me £3. The discreet logo says “Stratstone Harrogate” which turns out to be a BMW dealer. “Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.

Finally, as I complete this blog I learn that my month-long trip to England, for family reasons, has been postponed by three weeks until 25 March.

To find out more

A previous blog about our 2015 trip to Edinburgh: Reflections on Edinburgh… and back to a busy Orkney – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/reflections-on-edinburgh-and-back-to-a-busy-orkney/

A previous blog about Gretchen Peters: Sorry I can’t be in London, or Belfast… but I can be in Edinburgh – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/sorry-i-cant-be-in-london-or-belfast-but-i-can-be-in-edinburgh/

Gretchen Peters – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

A1 steam locomotives – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Peppercorn_Class_A1

David Ward’s railway photographs on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/70607220@N04/

National Museum of Scotland – http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/

Scottish National Portrait Gallery – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/portraitgallery

Edinburgh Zoo – http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/