Our Edinburgh Fringe Weekend

As usual our Edinburgh Fringe weekend started with breakfast at London Kings Cross Station. We’d heard about a new fast food joint in the refurbished station called Kiosk and the idea of a breakfast roll made with Gloucester Old Spots bacon, Portobello mushroom, Cumberland sausage and black pudding (£5.75) to kick off a weekend of comedy, beer and decadent grub in our favourite European city  sounded too good to miss. As it happens it was pretty good, but next time I have one I will ask for it without the grilled tomato, since it makes the bread soggy and eventually fall apart.

It didn’t come as any surprise to discover that our train was delayed arriving because of ongoing engineering works over the weekend, but to give East Coast trains credit, they suspended the normal irrelevant ticket checks and just opened the automatic barriers so when it arrived at 10.20 the passengers were disembarked and we were in our reserved seats and off by 10.29. I suspect that in the twisted world of lies and privatised railway statistics this meant that our departure fell inside the window of being close enough to the advertised schedule to count as not being late.

Aside from an obnoxious stag party who boarded the train at Doncaster and got off at Newcastle it was a fairly unremarkable journey. People often remark about how as you get older time seems to fly past ever quicker, but the hour and half we spent in the company of those idiots ably demonstrated to me how to drag time out to the extent that immortality could come within humanity’s grasp.

Somehow East Coast managed to make up the time lost on the journey and we got into Edinburgh early. Amazingly when we got to Dr Caligari’s Travelprison

they let us book in early and we didn’t have to ask for towels, mugs or toilet paper, although judging from the massive great crack in wall by the bed the previous guest had been Wolverine.

So on to the shows. we kicked off with Ed Byrne’s Roaring Forties. As the title suggests Byrne turned forty this year, but the show also includes some wry observations on politics. I particularly liked the notion of how following Scottish independence Ireland, Portugal and Greece would have to club together to buy an embassy in Edinburgh and then let it out to Jason Manford for the festival. Here’s the bit about Ski holidays.

The following Sunday we woke up to find Edinburgh swathed in mist, a bit like a Hammer Horror movie. After a good breakfast at the Circus bistro in Mary Street,

Circus bistro

Circus Bistro

we took the free gallery bus from outside the Scottish National Gallery in Princes street to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art which is on the west side of the city in Belford Road. It was the first time we had been to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and we had been drawn in by the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition (£7.00) that was running there. Sadly no photos were allowed inside the exhibition but some interesting material by artists ranging from Durer and Goya to William Blake, Frederick Sandys and Paula Rego.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

We’d only found out about the exhibition because of an article in the Fortean Times that one of us was reading on the train on the way up and now we have discovered that free bus I think we will pay another visit to the Gallery to see some of the regular exhibits over the two buildings on either side of Belford Road. I did get a sneaky peak at the reconstruction of Eduardo Paolozzi’s Sci Fi collection on the ground floor before we left, it’s always good to discover that someone famous is a bigger nerd than you are!

Earth and water ground sculpture, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh

Earth and water ground sculpture, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh

Back in town we had lunch at the Auld Hoose in St Leonard’s Street, This is a great little boozer if you like punk, metal or goth (there were some confused looking tourists amongst the regulars), it has real ales, Czech lager and a great value menu.

Monster Chicken Burrito at the Auld Hoose

Monster Chicken Burrito at the Auld Hoose

My chicken burrito (£7.50) was massive and packed with good-sized chunks of chicken while the tower of onion rings (£5.00, including dips) was huge,

The Onion Rings of the Auld Hoose

The towering Onion Rings of the Auld Hoose

so it’s just as well we had a brisk walk across town before taking in some more comedy.

First off was Stewart Lee at the Stand Comedy Club. Unlike Ed Byrne’s stadium gig at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre the Stand was a sweaty little room below a hotel, ideal for Lee’s observations on the Torys and UKIP. sure they were easy targets, but still very funny.

following Lee’s gig we traipsed back out into the street to queue in the sunshine for Alexie Sayle in the precise same sweaty little room. Sayle was brilliant, the 17 years between this and his last stand up gigs have not mellowed his material, brutally funny stuff about Alastair Campbell, the Millibands, Ben Elton and a wicked parody of Michael MacIntyre. I couldn’t find a recent clip of Alexie’s stand-up so here’s the pet Bishop sketch from his TV show

Leaving the show the daughter says to me ‘he’s just like you’

As an old sweary fat bloke with a beard I took that as a compliment!

Final gig was Omid Djalili at the Assembly Rooms.

Another very funny show from the British-Iranian comic with plenty of  gags about cross-cultural misunderstanding which rounded the weekend off perfectly.

Edinburgh – We hit the Road to Portobello

There can’t be many of the world’s capitals that can boast of a beach looking like this.

Portobello Beach

Portobello Beach

Naturally being in Scotland, Edinburgh’s suburb of Portobello isn’t exactly a tropical paradise, but there were a few brave souls splashing about in the water even if most of those had four legs and a cold wet nose! Portobello is about five miles from the centre of Edinburgh and easily accessible by a number of buses from the city centre (£1.50 each way).

Originally known as Friggate Muir, it used to be hangout for smugglers and other miscreants, but in 1742 George Hamilton a former sailor who had served under Admiral Edward Vernan at the capture of Panama’s Porto Bello in 1739, built a cottage on the high street, named it Portobello Hut after the victory and the name stuck.

In the early 19th century Sir Walter Scott used to drill with the Edinburgh Light Horse on the beach at Portobello and it was here that he finished The Lay of the Last Minstrel after being kicked by a horse and confined to bed.

By the middle of the 19th century Portobello had developed into an industrial town and then later into tourist resort, a sort of Scottish Southend with similar amusements and a pier.

Portobello's Gothic Police Station - originally the town hall

Portobello’s Gothic Police Station – originally the town hall

Most of the amusement arcades and the pier are long gone now but the town does still have some splendid 19th Century buildings like the Police Station (built in 1878) and this rather nice, if a little bit pricy boozer on the sea front, the Dalriada where I enjoyed a nice pint of hand drawn Macbeth bitter.

The Dalriada

The Dalriada

Another local landmark is a small community garden on the seafront promenade. Within the garden three coade stone pillars rescued from the garden of Portobello’s Argyle House stand. Coade stone is an artificial ceramic material  containing crushed flint which can be moulded before firing to produce quite exquisite results. It was perfected by Eleanor Coade in the 18th century, but fell out of use with the invention of Portland cement.

Coade Stone pillars - Portobello Beach

Coade Stone pillars – Portobello Beach

Portobello’s most famous son was the entertainer Harry Lauder, who was born there in 1870, and an aspiring actor from Edinburgh, one Sean Connery no less, used to be a lifeguard at the now demolished outdoor swimming pool. The floodlit football match in the film Trainspotting was filmed on the site of Portobello’s former Lido. Also gone is the original Arcari’s ice cream parlour where the 99 ice cream cone, the one with a chocolate flake stuffed into it is said to have been invented.

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

Chuffin Puffins at Planet Gannet – The Return to Bass Rock

Just off the east coast of Scotland and only a few miles from the centre of Edinburgh is the largest breeding colony of Atlantic Gannets in the world.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

Bass Rock is one of a group of volcanic islands  off the coast of North Berwick that also include Fidra and Craigleith and during the spring they are host to 300,000 pairs of nesting seabirds. On a previous visit I joined the Scottish Sea Bird Centre’s RIB boat excursion out to the island (read about it here), which was pretty exciting, but now the RIB has been joined by a high-speed catamaran which gets you as close to the birds as the RIB, but in much more comfort and with no need for those alluring oilskins! It’s also cheaper at £16 per adult.

It only took a few minutes to speed out to Craigleith where the puffins were perched along the heights, just like Red Indians in a Western movie,

Puffins

Puffins

while out on the sea rafts of puffins were fishing for sand eels

Puffins all at sea

Puffins all at sea

to take back to their island burrows and feed their young.

Puffins Craigleith

Puffins Craigleith

Further down the rock face guillemots were nesting upon the precarious cliff face,

Guillimots Craigleith

Gillemotts, Craigleith

along with kittiwakes, fulmar, cormarants, eider ducks and shags.

Shag, Craigleith

Shag, Craigleith

From Craigleith it was about ten minutes to Bass Rock.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

As I’ve said before there is something pretty primal about Bass Rock. Every space on the rock surface is occupied by these majestic seabirds.

Gannets Bass Roak

Gannets Bass Rock

The noise of 300,000 birds is incredible, (as is the smell of their fishy poo).

Nice bit od seaweed for the home

Nice bit of seaweed for the home

The catamaran was soon surrounded by birds searching for nesting material and fishing. Gannets are Britain’s largest seabird with an eight foot wingspan and you really get to appreciate the size of these birds as they take to the air around you.

Gannets Bass rock

Gannets Bass Rock

As we rounded the island a small voice piped up ‘seals’ and there in a cave were a group of around five or six grey seals bobbing around in the water.

Seal

Seal

It was the icing on the cake for our trip and to think it was only half an hour from the centre of Edinburgh. (off peak Scotrail Day Return from Edinburgh Waverley £6.80)

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

The Edinburgh Fringe – Here We Come

As my regular readers know we always try to get along to some of the best shows at the Edinburgh Fringe during the summer.

Greetings from the Fringe

Greetings from the Fringe

Well booking has already opened and yesterday I got tickets for Ed Byrne, Omid Djalili, Stewart Lee and best of all Alexie Sayle‘s first stand up comedy show for 17 years.

Somehow I never got to see Alexie perform live first time around so I’m really excited about catching his new show. Here’s a few tastes of his surreal world from his BBC show of many years ago.

Tickets for the top comedy shows at the Fringe sell fast so if you fancy catching some of the pick of today’s talent you can see what’s on and book here

The Tolbooth, The People’s Story and the Museum of Edinburgh

About two thirds of the way down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in Canongate is the Tolbooth Tavern.

Tolbooth Tavern and the People's Story

Tolbooth Tavern and the People’s Story

It’s one of our regular Edinburgh boozers and you can read more about the Tolbooth’s history here. The pub only occupies part of the building. Sharing the former tax office and jail is The People’s Story (163 Canongate), a museum that celebrates the lives of ordinary Edinburgh folk.

The People's Story

The People’s Story

Oddly enough we had never strayed inside the museum until last week, but it was quite an interesting way to spend an hour or so. Inside there are a number of displays  illustrating the city’s trades and social activities from the 1700s right up to the present: everything from bookbinders and fishwives to Trade Unions, the foundation of the Labour Party and life in the worker’s hostels is neatly brought to life. Some of the exhibits could do with a bit of loving care and some clearer labels, but it is free to get in.

And while we are on the subject of free stuff, on the opposite side of the road is The Museum of Edinburgh (142 Canongate).

The Museum of Edinburgh

The Museum of Edinburgh

This is another place we hadn’t got around to visiting before the weekend, but I’m really glad we did. Although it doesn’t look that impressive from the front it does extend quite a long way back through a maze of 16th to 18th century buildings set around a central court. In Victorian times over 300 people lived within what is now the museum in very cramped conditions. Today it is home to an eclectic collection of things from the historical to the decorative.

Arts and Crafts Ceramics

Charles Bellfield Arts and Crafts Ceramics

I was impressed by the collection of 19th century ceramic ware from local potteries like Wemyss Ware from Fife. This fabulous carp tureen is very rare particularly because it still has its lid.

Wemyss Ware Carp Tureen

Wemyss Ware Carp Tureen

Amongst the historical displays we were horrified to discover that Greyfriars Bobby, far from being the wee dog who pined over his owner’s grave was actually a mutt trained to turn up at Mr Trial’s Coffee House for his lunch when the Edinburgh midday gun went off, what’s more the first Bobby was such a tourist draw that when he died a second lookalike was secretly procured to carry on the tradition! See the shocking fibs here.

I think my favourite set of exhibits were in the gallery devoted to Britain’s World War One General, Earl Douglas Haig. Set amongst his uniforms, trophies and photos was a fabulous set of Toby Jugs featuring the Allied war leaders.

Lloyd George and Admiral Jelicoe

Lloyd George and Admiral Jelicoe

Naturally King George V took pride of place in the centre.

King George V and Earl Haig

King George V and Earl Haig

Edinburgh’s Wise and Foolish Virgins

I have often remarked about how much there is to see above street level, if only people took the trouble to look above street level there is a wealth of interesting material to be discovered.  After lunch at the rather splendid Dome on our recent Edinburgh adventure (see here) I discovered these wonderful relief sculptures along the pediment of the Standard Life Building just over the road in George Street.

Three wise virgins

Three unwise virgins

The friezes, known as the Glass Virgins, were commissioned from the sculptor Gerald Laing for the pediment of Standard Life’s headquarters when the Victorian building was given an otherwise bland corporate face lift in 1975, Laing’s sculptures were added to the pediment in 1977.

the last two wise virgins

the rest of the unwise virgins

I imagine Standard Life must have drawn a comparison between the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, where the smatypants virgins are bright enough to bring along extra lamp oil to light the wedding procession, and taking out one of their life assurance policies.

virgins

Five clever virgins

Personally I think the Wise  Virgins are rather lovely, looking almost like a piece of 1930s Art Deco, having said that it’s troubling that the wise should all look the same, but that’s a corporate stance for you.

Dr Caligari’s Edinburgh an Explanation

Anyone who has read my Edinburgh posts may be puzzled by my references to the Travelodge of Dr Caligari.

I christened the place so because the bedroom fixtures and fittings had been fastened to the walls without any use of a spirit level and their exagerated wonkyness reminded me of the German Expressionist set design of Robert Weine’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Here’s a brief clip, best played with the sound off, but the full film can be found on You Tube, where the story of how Cesare the sonambulist is forced to carry out the evil Dr Caligari’s bidding makes for some very interesting viewing.

To be fair the last refurbishment seems to have taken care of the wonky fittings.

Edinburgh Weekend – No Tapas, but we Sink a Gurkha

Our Edinburgh weekend didn’t get off to a good start, when the idiot genie kicked in at King’s Cross Station. Here’s a message for the management of the station’s WH Smith branch, if you don’t want people to queue on the ‘wrong’ side of the barrier thinking it’s for the till staffed by a real person, block it off – don’t employ some bossy little squirt to tell us we are in the wrong place. Once you have done that you can try making the self-service tills actually work. That’s why you lost two potential book and magazine sales to Waterstones on Saturday . On the positive side we did have some very good pasties from The Pasty Shop, which I thoroughly recommend.

After a relatively uneventful journey to Edinburgh (although I did spot some hares around the border) we arrived with about half an hour to spare before the 3.pm check in at the Travelodge of Dr Caligari (to be fair the most recent refurb took care of most of the wonky fittings that gave the interior the look of a 1920s German expressionist film). What to do? Should we fork out an extra tenner to check in early or invest it in beer? See if you can imagine what won.

And the lucky £10 winner is No.1 High Street

This boozer on the corner of the Royal Mile used to be called The Tass and did a nice line in live entertainment for people of a certain age. Despite the recent refurbishment, I couldn’t see any difference inside other than the new name printed on the menu. The menu looked pretty good though and from what I saw of the burgers coming out of the kitchen I’m sure a return visit for lunch will be in order soon.

Gear dumped at Caligari’s our plans for the evening began to unravel. We had booked a table at Alba Flamenca’s El Bar (6-8 Howden Street)  for tapas, but the restaurant had unexpectedly closed until Christmas.  As Barioja, the only other proper tapas bar we know in the city, had let us down so badly on our last visit, Spanish was off the menu, added to that Saturday afternoon was rapidly slipping away so a desperate search for table for four at a decent restaurant ensued.

Eventually we settled on The Gurkha Cafe in Cockburn Street as it had some good Tripadvisor reviews and I’m glad we did.

The Gurkha Cafe

It’s a bit shabby inside, but I was immediately sold on the knives which were shaped like Gurkha kukris. This is only the second Nepalese restaurant I have eaten in, the first was also called the Gurkha Cafe only it was in Reading. Having had a long and frustrating day we got stuck into some drinks, the ice-cold Gurkha lager was just the thing I needed while the Everest Paradise cocktails were deceptively strong and pretty good value at £4.95. I started with Piro Khukura, marinated chicken cooked with onions and green peppers and followed by Bhutteko Khasi a dish of lamb, green chili and garlic. Both were absolutely delicious as was Mab’s Lamb Choila, basically a lamb shank braised in sauce, so tender that it that just falls apart under the fork. The bhindi (okra) side was pretty good too. The portions here are pretty big and we certainly over ordered judging by what was left on the table when we had finished.

The staff are very pleasant and the manager dealt very effectively and kindly with the member of Edinburgh’s street community who let himself in for a spot of begging. Complete with a bottle of Pinot Grigio, two beers and two cocktails, rice, naans and three sides the bill came in at £129 for four, which isn’t bad value for a city centre restaurant.

Travel A to Z – Xcellent View to Zealous Sports Fans

So the A to Z grinds to its close and no matter how hard I worked ‘my little grey cells’ I could not come up with a better way of using the alphabet’s most problematic letter. Let’s face it unless you have a travel xylophone or become the captain of a xebec (small three-masted vessel used by Algerian pirates) there are not that many applications of the letter other than having your flip-flops screened for plutonium by some airport jobsworth or a visit to casuality on a ski holiday.

Right what is the most excellent view I have ever beheld, having thought about it I decided that you can’t really beat raw Scotland.

Castle Urquhart, Loch Ness

This is Castle Urquhart on the banks of Loch Ness. The photo was taken from a boat and I think it has just the right balance of natural beauty and a man-made edifice.  It was also the place that I got something decent to eat after the epic fail of our lunch stop that day, plus a tot of rum, which may also have had something to do with the choice.

We also got to meet Hamish the Highland Coo that day

Hamish

We were told he was a film star, having been in Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, think I’d rather have seen her kiss Hamish than Sean!

Y for Years spent travelling

My first overseas trip was to Sitges in Spain when I was a toddler so I reckon about 52 so far.

Z for Zealous sports fans

Right I don’t do sport, but can remember vividly being in Cyprus when France won the 1998 World Cup Final. There were a lot of French guests in the hotel and all of them, plus several bystanders, staff and the manager’s dog ended up in the pool.

Mind you Z is also for Zebra and I really like this photo I took at Edinburgh Zoo

Life in line zebras at Edinburgh Zoo

Only you can’t look at it for too long or the vertical hold in your brain goes.

Edinburgh – From the Fringe of Madness

We made our annual trip to the UK’s top cultural festival over the past weekend to take in some spectacular shows, spot a few celebs and take a few drinks.

Teetering on the Brink at Edinburgh’s Fringe

The Shows

The first show we had booked was Marcus Brigstocke’s the Brig Society at the Assembly’s Rainy Hall. As you would imagine from the show’s title, it riffs off the Tories big con-trick The Big Society. Coming from a privileged background himself, Brigstocke ably demonstrated how the present government feathers the nest of its own members at the expense of everyone else, exposing the hypocrisy of cuts designed to hurt the least well off in society while millionaires like UK Prime Minister David Cameron (personal fortune £30 million) just get richer. I particularly enjoyed the way he showed how bankers caused the financial crisis by borrowing money from the audience. Lots of great jokes (which I always have trouble remembering), I liked this one on Scottish independence “Alex Salmond likens the Scottish economy to a Celtic tiger, that’s like a normal tiger only with type two diabetes”.

Naturally Brigstocke also enjoyed telling us that the present UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has decided that the UK should, in the wake of the success of the 2012 Games, host an annual cultural festival with dance, music, literature, poetry and art. Must be news for the organisers of the UK’s annual International Arts Festival that has only been going on in Edinburgh since 1947! Shows how out of touch the idiots running the UK are, either that or they consider Scotland’s independence a done deal.

Brigstocke’s show finished at 10.20 so we had to beat it across Edinburgh to the George Square Theatre to catch Reanimator the Musical at 10.40. If you haven’t seen Stuart Gordon’s 1985 movie of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale of how medical student Herbert West brings corpses back to life, you are probably at a disadvantage, as the show is packed full of gags based upon it.

The cast, which includes George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) as Dean Halsey were brilliant, the musical score is somewhere between 70s prog rock and Gilbert and Sullivan and the effects, achieved with minimal props excellent. If you ever get the chance to see it, the first three rows are the splatter zone, you will get squirted with fake blood and other fluids. You have been warned.
Sunday’s main events were both at the very intimate Pleasance Cabaret Bar. We knew what to expect from The Tim Vine Chat Show and the Not Going Out comic did not disappoint, quick fire gags like this,

were supplemented by chats with volunteers from the audience, although Formula One engineer Ross Brawn didn’t put himself forward, Vine managed to get laughs even from an accountant who admitted that accountants were boring!

Hardeep Singh Kohli was in the audience for Reginald D Hunter‘s Work in Progress. More observational than quick fire gag riffing Hunter’s show took us from his family in the deep south of the USA to people’s reaction to his so-called celebrity status in Britain and then on to a tabloid newspaper attempts to honey-trap him and the duplicity of blackmailers. Very relaxed, laconic delivery as you would expect from his Have I Got News For You appearances.

We also watched part of a free show by a singing accupuntuarist at the Meadows pub. It was different.

What we ate
Food is always an important part of our Edinburgh weekends. Our first meal was very disappointing and sad to say it was at somewhere we have recommended in the past. Lunch at Barioja (19 Jeffrey Street)  has usually been very good, but on Saturday it was dreadful, the tortilla boccadillo might just as well have been stuffed with instant mash there was so little egg in it, the meat in the Mixta boccadillo could have soled an army boot, the waitress was inattentive and there was no draft beer. The tapas bar’s next door cousin Spanish restaurant  Igg’s was recently featured as a business in trouble on Channel 5’s The Restaurant Inspector. On the basis of our experience on Saturday I’m not surprised.

Shamoli (105 High Street) in the Royal Mile, was somewhere we had often passed but never ventured inside before. On Saturday night the first floor Indian/Thai restaurant was packed . I thought the food was OK but not that remarkable. It was also a bit pricey at £99 for four with a bottle of cheap white and the service was a bit lacklustre.

Breakfast at retro diner Mums  (4a Forest Road) on the other hand was superlative. Three full Scottish (eggs, sausage, black pudding, bacon, potato scone, beans, mushrooms and toast) with tea and coffee all for just £26.70, all served with a smile, plus a complementary fruit salad and blackjack retro sweet for everyone. To top that there was someone dressed as a reindeer at the next table, that’s one of the reasons I love Edinburgh during the Fringe.

Huzzah for Mums

We also ate at a branch of La Tasca (Omni Centre). I know it’s not a real Spanish restaurant, but the food was better than Barioja’s. With a discount card it came to £90 for four including sangria, coffees, two draft Estrellas, two brandies and two liqueur 43s.  My only criticism is the expensive poncy bread-board, I’d rather have a basket of bread.

Where we stayed

Because hoteliers get greedy and charge-rip off prices during the festival we stayed at the Travelodge in Egglington Crescent. Converted from a couple of Georgian terraced houses, this hotel offered a relatively cheap option even factoring cab fares in and out of the town centre during our stay (about £9 a go). We have stayed here a couple of times and have had the odd problem with noisy plumbing. This time we got a room on the third floor overlooking some very neat gardens, but the toilet flush had a knack to it that only I mastered. Lucky old me!