Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 8

I’m sorry to say it, but this is the second time I’ve been to Scotland and endured terrible showers. When my mom and I visited Scotland in 2003 for Michelle’s wedding, my mother was so frustrated with the showers at our b&b, that when we returned to London, she insisted we stay in a hotel (some major chain like Hilton or Marriott or something) right by Heathrow Airport so she could have a decent shower.  I was really surprised to find that this situation was no better at The Jury’s Inn. Great hotel in other respects –within walking distance of The Royal Mile, very nice rooms, and relatively comfortable beds (although Stephen described all UK hotel beds as cardboard boxes with a sheet spread across them), and the most wonderful hot, British breakfasts (included in the cost of the hotel—yay!). But honestly, I just didn’t bother with the showers by the last day.

In order to get the water running, you have to turn this knob, flip this switch, rotate this dial—all without any knowledge of what any of the apparatuses are actually doing. We could get the water to maintain a relatively steady pressure, but it was ice cold. If we wanted hot water, we had to dance under a trickle that dripped down in one long stream. The worst of it occurred the second day. Stephen managed to get warm water running, but just as he was all lathered up—his eyes closed as the soap ran from his hair into his eyes—the water petered into a trickling stream (sort of resembling a leak from a faucet).

“Could you help me please?” he called desperately to me in the next room. But as I turned this knob and that knob, the water pressure changing only to unleash a freezing cold spray, I was forced to admit defeat. And Stephen was forced to finish his shower with ice-cold water. Having said all of this, my Scottish friends tell me that they have never experienced plumbing problems in all their years of living in Scotland, so maybe it’s just a conspiracy against tourists!

Our second day in Scotland was spent walking around the city. There really is so much to see in Edinburgh, and every sight is worthwhile. We decided to check out the National Gallery, but we never actually found a way to enter the building. Either it was closed due to the festival, or we simply never found the right entrance or the right building. Whatever the case, we had walked too far to backtrack and try to find it again. By 10:00 that morning, the streets were crawling with festival goers, and the ticket booth was near Waverley Station where the lines of people zigzagged back and forth and blocked a lot of the pedestrian activity.

Edinburgh has an old and a new section. The old section has the castle, tourist shops, pubs, restaurants, and gorgeous architecture. The new section is not far from the old (at least if you’re driving), and features many modern clothing stores, businesses, and some restaurants and pubs as well. We walked from the old section into the new, and as we had no particular place we were going, we ended up wandering—first up the street and then back down it. Soon it was raining, and we ducked inside Jenner’s (a department store somewhat reminiscent of Harrod’s, but on a much smaller and more manageable scale). By the time we left Jenner’s, it had quit raining, and we made our way back up the hill, into the old section of town, and back onto The Royal Mile, where we finally made our way into the National Museum of Scotland.

This is a truly interesting museum, as it has a little bit of everything. It’s mixture of natural history, Scottish origins and culture, and technological progress. The museum is multi-level (I think there are four or five floors) and architecturally open and very attractive. They were featuring an exhibition on Mary Queen of Scots, but that cost extra money (whereas the museum itself is free), so we skipped it. Actually, neither of us are big museum people (I think we discovered that on this trip), so we spent a little time looking at the old Victrolas and gramophones and paused for a mesmerizing 1:00 chiming of The Millennium Clock. This structure is hard to describe. All I can tell you is that it's impossible to stop watching it! There are four sections to the clock and each section moves independently at first, and then all of the animated characters move together. According to the museum, the clock is made up of “the best and the worst of the twentieth century.” With this in mind, there are human figures (including grotesques of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin), animals (horses and monkeys), and all sorts of moving parts. Each of the four sections is representative of something, and apparently the piece is quite controversial amongst museum-goers, but I found I found it nearly hypnotic to behold. It reminded me a little of the huge clock in Melbourne that drops from the ceiling at 12:00 every day to play “Waltzing Matilda,” except the thematic material was much darker and less obvious in its intent.

We skipped the rest of the museum to find a place to eat lunch since we were starving (oh, I know—what else is new for us?). Much to my delight, just across from the museum was a pub called Frankenstein’s. You know I was all over that! I need to stop here just for a minute to express that I am not a huge Frankenstein monster lover. I actually find the monster sad and pitiful, and the story itself is tragic. What I love is the Victoria era, and the story behind the story. Mary Shelley (if you hearken back to my first blog entry about our trip, you will recall that I discussed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife and her demise in The Serpentine) wasn’t quite married to Percy Shelley at the time that she wrote Frankenstein, but they did marry later. As the story goes, Mary S., Percy B.S., Lord George Gordon Byron, and another bloke—John Polidori, were all hanging out together on a “dark and stormy night” in Geneva, Switzerland when Byron suggested they have a little competition as to who could write the best ghost story. Byron wrote the beginnings of a vampire novel he never finished, and Mary Shelley wrote a quiet little story about the horrors of science and the industrial age called Frankenstein. The novel was published in 1818. What has any of this to do with Scotland?  Well, nothing that I know of (although those more scholarly may correct me).  But this wonderful pub is there, and it is everything you might imagine from a pub with the name.

As we entered, I noted that the inside décor had been painstakingly ornamented to look like Victor Frankenstein’s lair. Electrical voltage emanated from circular outlets in the wall; green lights adorned the brown-paneled bar area; a statue of Frankenstein’s monster loomed in the corner; and two large screens simultaneously showed old black and white films of Frankenstein and some other movies involving Frankenstein's bride and the Wolfman. And as a bonus, the food was magnificent! I had a traditional fish and chips, and I can honestly say that it was one of the best I had the whole trip!

While sitting, we discussed what we wanted to do next, and I mentioned to Stephen that Mary King’s Close now had a tour affiliated with it (The Real Mary King’s Close is the title of the attraction).
A little bit of background information on that: When I first visited the UK in 1994 with Michelle (who was living in England at the time) she took me up to Edinburgh, and we spent a few days exploring the city. One of our explorations included a trip with Auld Reekie Tours to Edinburgh’s underground vaults. There is a long, long history with the vaults, but in an inarticulate nutshell, the vaults (chambers) held mostly storage and shopkeepers, tradesmen, etc. After flooding and disrepair, the vaults became a bevy of crime and squalor. Indeed, the dwellers had no sunlight, no fresh air, and no running water—so you can imagine the conditions this encouraged.  In the 1990s, the vaults were under construction, so when I toured them in 1994 and again in 1996, the vaults were partially unearthed but still under excavation. When I visited the underground city with Michelle, the ghost tour had strategically placed in the last room of the tour a man covered with a sheet. He jumped out with a “boo!”, scaring us all senseless on our way out. Yes, it was a nice thrill and we all laughed about it. When I went returned in 1996 with my friend, Lisa (who had come to visit me from America), I did the same tour, but this time, Lisa and I (and many others in the vault with us), experienced a dark presence (and when I say dark, I mean that it was not only an evil sensation, but it was a visible, dark, shadow-like entity) that slithered past us, causing mass hysteria and a near-trampling of the tour guide. This experience profoundly affected me, especially as it accompanied a room that had a pentagram on the wall, and we were told that witches often used that particular vault chamber for their coven meetings. The connection was not lost on me then, nor was it now as I suggested to Stephen that we return—not to the vaults per se—but to the underground of Mary King’s Close, once part of Edinburgh’s underground city.

With my previous encounter in mind, Stephen was skeptical about visiting this tourist attraction. After I read him the pamphlet, however, he was keen to go. Mary King’s Close (named after one of the inhabitants) is a close (or an alley) located under the Royal Exchange in Edinburgh. It’s actually one of several streets located in this area. It is 17th century and part of several alleyways that were covered and built-over in the modern age.  It was used in World War II as a bomb shelter, and it has also served as storage for the Royal Exchange over the years. Now it is an organized and commercial tourist attraction which begins with a gift shop and ends with souvenir pictures (really?). The tour guides are well-trained (most likely struggling actors), and unlike the stark, dark, primitive feel of the vaults (although quite honestly, the close feels a little ominous at certain points), this tour incorporates a touch of Disney Land, as the tour guides “interact” with talking pictures (video projections of bygone inhabitants) and special effects illuminate walls and project shadow figures as a disembodied voice tells a ghost story. If I had seen an amusement park train or car to transport us through catacombs mechanically animated with floating heads and talking mannequins, I would have howled with joy. But the Scots are a little more tasteful than we are about those things.

This was a truly well-done, professional tour that gave a nice glimpse of the underground city and what it might have been like to live down there in the 1600s (no thank you). I would highly recommend this tour, as it the tour guides are knowledgeable, and the stories that they have to tell about the underground city (and the fact that another city was built over top of it) are very worthwhile.

It was raining when we left Mary King’s Close (surprise!), we decided to head back to the hotel to rest before the very exciting event of meeting up with my long-time friend, Michelle.

Michelle and I went to high school together. We met in the 10th grade when we realized that we both shared a love of heavy metal music and long-haired men. (Thank you, God—for moving me on!). The last time I had seen her was in 2003 at her wedding when we’d only had about five minutes to talk.  It had been ten years since then! But when we saw each other in the lobby of The Jury’s Inn, it was like a day hadn’t passed. Michelle had not changed one iota! She looked exactly the same! (Stephen confirmed this later when we watched some video footage from 1994).

We walked to a local pub where we had dinner and reminisced about old times. I was only sorry that Stephen did not get to meet her husband, Keith, and I did not get to meet her daughter, Scarlett (Keith was babysitting), but I was very excited for Michelle to meet Stephen for the first time. Michelle is now the principal of a high school in Edinburgh, and I could not be more proud of her! She is such a charismatic, warm, and all-around beautiful individual, and I have always admired her spunk and her magnetism. Michelle, if you’re reading—you are a gem!

After a nice long dinner of comparing notes and catching up, we were off to the karaoke club to meet up with others I had not seen in ages—Shoena and Jane. These ladies were flatmates of Michelle’s back in the 90s, and I used to stay with them on my weekends in Edinburgh when I lived in London. Again, these women are unchanged. I complained about the plumbing, but perhaps there is something in the Scottish water that promotes youth? Maybe that’s why the hotel water is so stingy. It’s the best-kept Scottish secret and they don’t want it getting out!

Karaoke in Edinburgh was not what we expected. We were not in front of a large crowd. At Supercube, we were in a tiny room that housed around seven people. No one heard what we sang but us. We programmed the music into the computer ourselves, and it played the songs whilst broadcasting the lyrics on the wall. Wireless mics were provided, and a waiter was at our disposal—we only needed to press the call button for drinks or snacks or whatever.
We sang from 8:30 until 11:30. I sang until I was hoarse. Michelle and I reprised our “famous” recording from Virginia Beach (from 1992 or some such time) of “Hotel California.” Stephen and Shoena sang “Penny Lane.”  Michelle sang Miley Cyrus. There were renditions of Jewel, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, as well as lots of artists I didn’t know. It was SO MUCH FUN!

Alas, I had to let Michelle go home, since she had an entire school to face the next day, and Stephen and I knew that we would soon turn into pumpkins if we stayed out much longer.

But it was a wonderful night, and I went to bed feeling good about the day…and auld lang syne…and Depeche Mode… 

1 comment:

  1. Ooooo - I would have had to have gone into Frankenstein's too! yes the vault tour - Tabby likes me to tell her that story when she wants to feel spooked. That slithering - swishing darkness - that really was evil feeling. I remember moving because I did not want it to touch me. Then after the tour we were on our way to find food (surprise!) and that guy yelled "bug a boo!" (or something like that) at us on the darkened street and we jumped a mile!