Didn’t I say that the Early Retiree’s life is not always unicorns and rainbows? Well, today is one of these days. I’m feeling sick.
Last week we went to England for our son’s graduation, and then on to Edinburgh in Scotland for a couple of days as his graduation gift. We had a great time, and the weather was fantastic.
It was almost 30 degrees on our first day in Edinburgh which seems to be super-hot by Scottish standards. But on the second day the temperature dropped by more than 10 degrees. That’s not cold either, but the difference from one day to the next made it feel quite chilly and I should have probably put on a jacket.
Maybe it doesn’t even have to do with that and I’m reacting allergic to some pollen flying around, but in any case I’m feeling like I’ve caught a massive cold. The great thing is that I don’t have to go to work anymore and can indulge in feeling bad for a day or two.
The bad thing, though, is that I really don’t feel like writing the post I had planned writing today. So instead, I will share a bit more about our trip to the UK.
If you’re interested in history and medieval cities, Durham might be for you as well. It’s located in the North-East of England, about half an hour’s drive from Newcastle Airport. It’s home to Durham University which was founded as the third university in England after Oxford and Cambridge. Out of a population of around 66,000 people, about 17,000 are students. Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle both are World Heritage Sites.
When you walk through Durham you’ll get a feel that it’s a university town very quickly. Durham University operates on a college system and the different college buildings are spread throughout the town. If you’re not familiar with the college system: within the university students are assigned to a single college, where they board, have their own cafeteria, library and societies (there are University societies on top of that as well).
It’s similar to the house system in boarding schools – think Harry Potter. One of the colleges actually resides in Durham Castle, that’s very cool. What’s also quite impressive are the sports facilities. You’ll find a stretch of rugby fields that doesn’t seem to end along the river Wear, for example.
The river Wear
The river Wear runs through Durham. Walking along the river towards the South-East is very idyllic. With the brilliant weather, people were having pick-nicks on the shore, couples were going for a romantic row, and further up people were enjoying the sun in the Old Durham Gardens.
If you want to visit: The lower gardens are always open, the upper walled gardens only during specific times. We went on the spur of the moment, and unfortunately couldn’t get in. So you better check it out before.
We only walked along the river, but you can also take a river cruise or rent a rowing boat. Just make sure you don’t get in the way of the rowing teams when they practice…
Durham students are very fortunate in having their graduation ceremony in Durham Cathedral. Construction of the cathedral as it stands today started in 1093. It’s situated on a hill in the middle of the medieval city center. It would seem surprisingly large for a town of Durham’s size today, but Durham was and is a Bishop’s seat, and it was an important town during the middle ages.
The cathedral is a beautiful building, and it is quite impressive from the inside as well. We didn’t get to look around properly as we were part of the graduation ceremony. And we didn’t get a chance later, as graduation ceremonies ran along the whole week. I would have liked to have a closer look at the altar. Maybe some other time…
It’s about a 2.5 / 3 hours drive from Durham to Edinburgh by car. It took us a little longer as we stopped by Coldingham, the site of an archeological dig where our son’s girl friend did a summer internship. They are looking for parts of a settlement that would have been mainly built from wood, and therefore deduct a lot from the different layers of earth rather than from finding stone tiles or similar things. So the dig doesn’t look very spectacular, but I still found it very interesting.
As the trip to Edinburgh was a graduation gift we splurged on two nights in a luxury hotel about 10 minutes from the city center by car. But our son had been to Edinburgh with a group of friends two weeks before and they booked a very nice and reasonably priced AirBnB. So I think that would have been a good option as well, and probably my choice for a longer stay.
There are loads of things to do and see in Edinburgh. On the first day we started off at the Royal Bank of Scotland in the city center since we had to change some ‘old’ 10-pound-notes that had – surprise for us – gone out of circulation some time ago. We got them changed – but in ‘Scottish’ pound notes. They’re just as valid as the ‘English’ ones, but they’re design is surprisingly different. Not a problem in Edinburgh, obviously, but in England you’ll find some people reluctant to take them as they aren’t sure whether they’re forgeries…
The Royal Mile
We started our tour of Edinburgh by walking up to the Castle. I would have liked to visit the National Gallery, but everybody else was not excited. So we settled for visiting the Palace of Holyrood House which is situated at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the castle.
Edinburgh Castle is one of the top sights in Scotland but we were a bit undecided whether to go in or not. Seeing the long queues we decided against it for the time being and went down the Royal Mile.
The Royal mile is a nice stretch of streets full of shops and restaurants. At this time of the year, it was quite full of tourists. We stopped at St. Giles Cathedral and had a look around inside and in the Thistle Chapel, but we didn’t do a guided tour.
When we arrived at Holyrood Palace it turned out the palace was closed to the public, since they were preparing for the arrival of the Queen the coming week-end (Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the Queen when she’s in Scotland). So we decided to take one of the hop-on-hop sightseeing bus tours instead.
Hop-on-hop-off bus tours
If you do want to take one of those tours when in Edinburgh, make sure the one you take goes by the sights you want to see. When the buses passed, we had noticed the stops ‘Royal Botanic Garden’ and ‘Royal Yacht Britannia’ on the side of the busses. We wanted to go to the Botanic Garden anyway, which is quite a walk from the center. And we would have been interested in the Royal Yacht as well.
But those two stops are only part of the blue line, the Majestic Tour. We didn’t realize that and got on the green line, the Edinburgh Tour. You can also buy a combined ticket, and then use the green, blue, and red buses, but that’s quite expensive in my opinion.
Royal Botanic Garden
The tour bus took us around Old Town, and then around the Georgian New Town. As we were set for the Royal Botanic Garden, we left the bus close to the train station and walked around 2.5 km to the North. We entered the garden by the West Gate where a nice elderly gentleman is selling ice-cream from a little booth – a very welcome refreshment!
Entrance to the Botanic Garden is free. You only have to pay if you want to see the tropical plants in the greenhouses. As it felt quite tropical outside, we skipped the greenhouses and just enjoyed the other sections of the garden.
I particularly liked the Alpine Garden and the Chinese Hill. Our walk back to the tour bus stop close to the Georgian House took us through Inverleith Park which had a very nice vibe to it. According to my husband’s fitness app we walked a total of more than 17,000 steps that day – it’s very attractive that Edinburgh is so walkable.
On the second day we had until early afternoon before driving back to Newcastle. So we made up our minds to visit Edinburgh Castle after all. There is quite a lot to see in the castle so we ended up not going anywhere else.
We took a tour around the outside of the castle first and went into St. Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh’s oldest building. Then we took a look at the Crown Jewels, the Royal Apartments and the Great Hall. The castle was home to Mary, Queen of Scots, and her son James (James, I, of England) which I wasn’t aware of before reading about the castle – I guess my romantic mind had always placed them somewhere in the Highlands.
The castle also hosts a variety of museums and exhibitions. We walked through the War Prisons, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the Museum of the Royal Scots. As I’m not into military history that was quite enough for me. The rest of our party also went into the National War Museum.
Last but not least we got to ‘enjoy’ the ‘one o’clock gun’ fired from the castle’s battery. This is a tradition dating back to 1861 when it allowed ships in the Firth of Forth to set their maritime clocks. We ended our visit with lunch in Edinburgh’s (supposedly) oldest pub, the White Hart Inn in the Grassmarket.
So what’s the overall verdict? We had a great time in Durham and Edinburgh, and I would certainly like to go again. There’s a lot we haven’t been able to see or do on this very short trip. Definitely a recommendation!
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