Edinburgh is no stranger to plaudits: the Scottish capital has earned itself no less than twelve awards for the best UK city in the past eight years and was voted European destination of the year in 2012. It’s no wonder therefore that it is the second most popular tourist hotspot in the whole of Britain. This blogger was a strangely aloof to Edinburgh’s enduring popularity until very recently, but last week finally got round to making the trip north of the border.
I started with a cab to King’s Cross (Minicabster, if you’re asking), followed by a swift four-and-a-half-hour train journey (armed only with Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, a Glaswegian I know, but it seemed apt enough). Meanwhile Edinburgh Waverley was patiently waiting at the other end around 300 pages later.
Edinburgh is set in Scotland’s central belt, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, and maybe fifty or so miles east from its burly, industrial, big brother Glasgow. A valley cuts through the city centre, with rolling but orderly sandstone Victorian-gothic buildings heading to the coast in one direction, and the rustic volcanic pile-up atop of which Edinburgh Castle sits in the other. It casts a looming, stoic presence and a picture perfect silhouette over the city to boot: the kind that makes me as a Londoner with our Gherkins and our expensive ferris wheels feel a bit jealous.
Obviously the first thing I did was go and have a look. I’m a big fan of castles (and so should everyone else be), and this was not disappointing. It helps that it sits on a huge hill, allowing for countless cityscape snaps of the town below, but it’s also very big, very hilly, a bit spooky, riddled with a gory history, existentially cold and very very cool. It’s basically what people like me look for in a big, scary castle. Top marks, if a little pricey (£13, not exactly in a travel blogger’s budget).
But of course there’s plenty of other to keep you busy: for example the barman in my hotel, a resident in Edinburgh for eight years now, confessed he’d never even been to the castle because so much other stuff was on his doorstep. There’s the National Gallery, the National Museum, Scottish Parliament, a handful of theatres and Murrayfield Stadium to pick just a few across the city. Similarly, if you want restaurants, cafes or bars there is, as you would hope, plenty to choose from. Traditional cuisine if you want it (before you sneer, Haggis ain’t so bad), or the more typical, modern establishments you’d recognise across most of Europe (this blogger had a curry one night, don’t laugh).
However, there was one attraction which was curious: the Royal Yacht Britannia. It’s a retired yacht, once used and adored by the royals but now decommissioned, sat at the shore in Leith just north of the city centre looking a lot smaller than any of its portraits ever rendered it for the rest of us to have a nose around in. Various bus tours around the city list it among their destinations and so for Royalists, or anyone eager to see how the other half live, this should be filed under ‘must-see’.
But the thing basically feels slightly eerie, a bit Madame Tussauds if you will. You enter it through a shopping mall before someone in a suit hands you an audio guide, essentially a mobile phone from the 1980s, which you have you hold to your ear (listening to a barely intelligible crackle) as you wander around. It’s what you might expect from a museum tour had you just landed in 1997. But I won’t get caught up in that. It’s there for the people who want to see it, looking just about as dejected as an inanimate object can look.
Broadly speaking, there is a perhaps a secret to Edinburgh’s success. Its aforementioned industrial counterpart Glasgow, has helped massively in its flourishing cultural development. Glasgow’s growth as a hurly burly industrial hub has allowed Edinburgh’s meeker, more conventional charm a lot of room to flower: Glasgow has spent much of the past two hundred years huffing and puffing its way to its status as Scotland’s functional, sturdy spine of industry so that Edinburgh doesn’t have to. It can therefore play the quainter, cultural foil to the rough and tumble idea of Scottishness that Glasgow is largely renowned for.
Edinburgh is a city free of an especially war-torn past: a city which strolled into the 20th Century and came out clean the other side. It’s a city that has been largely trauma-free for around 500 years now (and they’re definitely over that now), a city that has never afforded itself the indulgence of gazing wistfully back at its former glory and beauty. It’s not exactly converted its castle into modern trendy penthouse suites, but it is a city that looks forward just as much as it looks back. I’ll sidestep the oversimplification of saying it’s a city of two halves because it’s more than that: it’s a city with a proud history but one which is constantly seeking out new endeavours, for better glories. It’s like your granddad with a rack of war medals across one pocket and an iPhone in the other. On his way to a Salsa class.
Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland used to be war-torn: the ignored corner of Britain divided by its politics, by sectarianism, by its history of violence and, most notably, by itself. A lot of us and our parents will remember the semi-desolate, fractured state with its finger dangling over the self-destruct button, long since Britain washed its hands of the little island off the west coast: it’s the victimised state, unfavourably dubbed the “European Capital of Terrorism” dogged by vigilantism, bombings, death and a hatred that a largely secular Britain (with its own war-torn 20th Century to worry about) has always found slightly bemusing.
The south on the other hand, is the liberated, cosmopolitan, if sometimes twee cultural hub of the Emerald Isle. At some point during the 80s Dublin and its neighbouring towns and cities fenced into a Republic flourished spectacularly, leaving its dark history behind it. It was something that Belfast and its own neighbours crucially did not seem to get round to doing.
Northern Ireland’s capital was the centre of The Troubles, but the numbing death and destruction it caused was by no means exclusive to Belfast’s city border: it washed over the north and even bled into the south, killing hundreds and hundreds of people. And only towards the end of the 90s were there promises of change: the Good Friday Agreement and IRA ceasefires went a way to ensuring a safer future. That is until the Omagh Bombings, just months after the Good Friday Agreement, killed 29 people. Northern Ireland entered the new millennium once again in turmoil, distrustful of promises of a brighter future.
But this is the 21st Century now, right? Things are, for the most part, looking progressive. Belfast is bourgeois, leafy (in places) and just as cosmopolitan, trendy and modern as Dublin is. And so too has the north moved forward. Its relationship with Westminster has gone some way to being repaired: David Cameron even apologised for Bloody Sunday in 2010. Things are surely looking up.
But what lasting effect can this history of violence and fracture have on its recovery? How well can a country so historically wracked with fear welcome outsiders? How can it even coexist with its own neighbours just across the border?
Well, this blogger went to Warrenpoint in County Down to go some way to finding out. My travels started with a cab ride (via Minicabster if you’re asking, Gatwick Express isn’t always to be trusted when yo’ve got a plane to catch) to Gatwick Airport. 45 minutes later I landed at Belfast International. My final destination was waiting a few hours later after a couple of bus journeys.
Warrenpoint, locally nicknamed “The Point” is a small town on the northern shore of Carlingford Lough, a sea inlet leading out to the Irish Sea. It’s separated from The Republic by only a narrow strait, and sits just over 40 miles outside of Belfast.
Of course, it wasn’t spared any part in the history of The Troubles: IRA clashes with the British Army 30 years ago ensure its place in the tragic, sprawling narrative of Ireland’s past hundred years. But like I say, we live in the 21st Century now. The last life claimed by sectarian violence was 14 years ago.
On arrival, with Warrenpoint’s floating skyline of burning autumnal mountains and the freezing water (more on that later) bouncing against the stony shore under the sun as it pokes through the milky clouds, you’re afforded respite from the dark past of Ireland. Just as the existentially cold sea breeze rushes through you, this becomes simply a different corner of Britain.
The place is conventionally recognisable as Blighty only to a point though. The left-side drivers, roundabouts, British cars and typically British look and feel of a sea-side town is back-dropped by a huge landscape of wooded mountains for miles and miles, running to the edge of the water, threatening almost to topple in. It’s easy to forget how different the the earthy, boggy geography of Ireland is to England. The effect is a kind of cut and paste feel of postcard Britain: Lake District mountain ranges with a Leigh on Sea seaside-shanty border.
The sea front is scattered loosely with pastel-coloured houses and buildings, a couple of modern hotels (the Whistledown and the Balmoral), unfortunately with a frequently busy road sat between. To the right of a stony pier is a bustling ferry port, further around the gentle arc of the shore are some old public swimming baths.
Not that, or the fact that the water is freezing cold in winter, should stop you from taking a dip. The beaches, stony and swamped with seaweed have a neatly unglamorous Britishness to them, with the water notching up to a mere 7 or 8 degrees at this time of year. But as long as you have a wet suit in tow and make it out early enough before the tide (around 09:00am onwards until 11:00am is a good slot for this time of year), you can go and prove to the hardy windswept locals that us out-of-towners ain’t wusses.
Off the shore and into the frayed hub of town there’s scattered parades of shops, small businesses, takeaways, refreshingly few super market chains and many hairdressers. The area is seemingly free of the apparent “death of the high street” that is afflicting towns across England, with many independent stores with quaintly enough painted signs and frontages operating quietly. What’s more, it’s not crammed with garish tourist-baiting merchandise everywhere you turn. I didn’t see a single Guinness or Blarney Stone-themed piece of tat the whole time I was there.
The unassuming nature of the town is similarly reflected in its people. Warrenpoint in 2001 had a population of around 7,000, and there isn’t an awful lot to suggest in the way of development that much has changed since then. People are friendly and accommodating without an overbearing presence on any tourist that may happen to pass through.
There is a notable sparsity into the mountains and hills as busy streets begin to tail off. But miles of solitude along a country road is, due to relaxed planning laws, soon jarringly punctuated by grey, ring-fenced houses jammed awkwardly into the landscape. Few people wander the winding roads around here (understandable in the increasingly cold winter), and only the sporadic 70s-era houses serve as a reminder that the place is comfortably populated. Those looking for picturesque remnants of Victorian prosperity or rustic barn houses will have to look elsewhere: others looking for scenery that looks and feels almost entirely untouched for thousands of years will be a little more fulfilled.
The largely sparse and unassuming, but quietly beautiful landscape of Warrenpoint lends itself warmly to the overall impression of rural Ireland. It’s a place that has had to come to terms, or at least coexist, with its own bizarre and frequently tragic heritage. And it’s a place that has done so in the least melodramatic, anti-militant way possible. It’s a place that is neither proud nor ashamed of politics, stifled by an unease and ambivalence about what it is supposed to stand for, but united by a deep contempt for the lives it has cost. There’s hardiness, a thick skin to Northern Ireland from too many heartbreaks that it would be easy to understand a cold mistrust in just about anyone that passes through its borders. But it doesn’t.
Dublin and its rowdy, golden boom of culture and self-congratulating, self-identification it ain’t: but Northern Ireland is more understated, it has got on with every devastating event that has been thrown its way, and it is stranger, more intriguing, and (whisper it), every bit as charming as the south. With Warrenpoint’s nonchalant, friendly stare into the Republic just across the water it’s one island, one Ireland, no matter how many squabbling politicians will attempt to tell you otherwise.