Mini Breaks – Crossing the border

Barcelo Carlton HotelBy Dave Woodhall.

If you can spare the time, January’s a great opportunity to visit parts of the country you might otherwise not see. A couple of days away in one of the country’s more attractive cities will be quiet, reasonably cheap and makes the time between Christmas and the start of the summer seem a lot shorter.

That’s why we were at New Street station at an ungodly hour to catch a train to Edinburgh. Thanks to tickets were a ridiculously cheap £6 return each, which gave four relaxing hours, particularly after dawn broke and the stunning scenery from Lancaster onwards could be viewed at its early-morning best. Edinburgh arrived on time and we checked into the Barcelo Carlton hotel just round the corner from Waverley station well before 11am – another bonus of travelling out of season; your room is often waiting whenever you turn up. To be honest it wasn’t the best of rooms; small, hot and at the front of the hotel so therefore catching traffic noise, but this was no great drawback and at less than £50 a night we weren’t complaining.

There’s plenty to do in Edinburgh. The old dockside area of Leith has undergone a makeover and it’s nothing like the drug hotspot made (in)famous in the film Trainspotting. Apart from being the retirement home of the Royal Yacht Britannia it’s undergone a serious makeover that strangely seems to have run out of money somewhere along the way. This means Michelin-standard restaurants sitting in the shadow of tenement blocks and the marvellously old-fashioned Leith Walk shopping area boasting old-fashioned hardware and grocery shops rubbing shoulders with delis and hairdressers. It’s fascinating.

But of course, the main tourist area in Edinburgh is the Royal Mile. With Holyrood Palace (the queen’s official residence in Scotland) at one end and the castle at the other it’s never going to be anything other than incredibly touristy, with more tartan for sale than you could ever imagine. However, it never gets particularly tacky and there’s none of the crass commercialism and feeling you’re going to be separated from your last penny either by legal or other means, that’s often encountered in London. There are also plenty of opportunities to walk around a corner and find yourself in a completely different atmosphere, although whether that would still apply in August is something I couldn’t answer.

Edinburgh is without doubt a historic city, and the seamy side of the place is catered for with plenty of ghostly and horrific attractions. I can’t vouch for any of them because we didn’t do that side, although I have been told that the pretty nasty realities of life in the Scottish capital throughout the ages aren’t glossed over. Talking of nasty realities, there’s few things in life more ‘bracing’ than a walk along Portobello beach in January. Twenty minutes and £2.40 return on a bus from the city centre; think the Lickeys with sand. While a couple of days is plenty of time to do Edinburgh, hiring a car brings the borders and Speyside within easy reach should you wish to get out of the city.

I’ve also been informed that shopping in the city is fine, with some interesting independent outlets. I do know from first-hand experience that there are some good pubs. The Cafe Royal is a smaller version of our very own Barton’s Arms, with well-kept beer and fine food. The next door Guildford is more even beer-orientated. The Royal Mile Tavern (guess where that is) was another useful discovery, where we spent a memorable evening complete with proper pub food (ie basic and lots of it) plus a singer who came on at 9.45 and was still going strong well after midnight, his powerful voice covering classics from Pink Floyd to the Undertones.

Plenty to do, both during the day and at night. Not as expensive as it might seem. If you’ve a couple of days to spare and fancy going somewhere a bit different, you could do a lot worse.