Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Longest Day

Tuesday was the summer solstice - the day with the longest amount of daylight. Here in Stevenage, the sun rose at 4:40 am and set at 9:24 pm.

That's a lot of sunlight.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Sorry, no more today...

It’s just too hot. Of course, sitting here with the hot laptop on my lap isn’t helping. But don’t worry, this is England and it’ll be cold and rainy again soon. And when it is, I’ll dig into the archives. I’ve been saving some things for you!

It's So Hot

It’s so hot in England…

(This is where you say, ‘How hot is it?’)

It’s so hot that…oh, I don’t know…it’s just hot.

Now, I know what you all are saying: ‘There’s so way it’s hotter than Texas/Washington/Roanoke/Texas.’ And you’re probably right. It was in the high 80s today – probably as hot as Texas has been since March.

The difference, though, is that there is almost no air conditioning in this country. In fact, I talked to some people today who got a new car last Monday. Now, these are quite well off people for whom money, while not being NO object, isn’t exactly an obstacle. She was telling me about the new car and said (in a very, VERY excited voice), ‘and it’s got air conditioning!’ When’s the last time you even considered test-driving a car without air conditioning?

At the church barbecue on Saturday evening, the big talk was about who had a fan at home. A fan! They were even comparing stories:

‘We have a fan at home.’

‘Really? I wish WE had a fan.’

‘You can get one at Tesco.’

‘Really? Hmm….we may have to stop by there today…’

And you know, they might be right. I may have to stop by Tesco and check out the fans. Or, rather, fan. (Evidently, there’s just one type of fan.)

I can’t wait ‘til the next church barbecue!

It's So Hot - Part 2

On Sunday, the temperature in London reached 33 degrees Celsius (in the 90s). That's the highest temperature there since 1976.

The Queen's Birthday

ast Saturday (June 11th) was the Queen’s official birthday. (Her real one happens to be some other time during the year when the weather isn’t as nice.) As part of the celebrations, the Queen issues the Birthday Honours List. On the list this year were 900 people who were being honoured for various things. Strangely enough, my name was omitted this year…an oversight I’m sure will be corrected sooner or later. I mean, she is a busy lady.

In fact, last Saturday, she was quite busy. You see, as part of her official birthday celebration, she reviews the troops. And, in traditional British style, this is no small thing. Called Trooping of the Colour, it starts out at Buckingham Palace and stretches the entire way down the Mall and on to the Horse Guards. The Mall, which is rather long, was lined with guards in their red uniforms and tall bearskin hats. Various sets of military groups (I’m sure there is a specific name for them…Units? Brigades? Corps? Companies? Troops?) marched from the Palace towards Horse Guards. There were several bands and lots of horses. My favourite horse guy was the one who was playing the kettledrums while riding his horse. (I feel like I’m six again: ‘My favourite horse guy played the big drums…they were loud!’) Anyway…

After the various military units march past, then the Royal Family makes their way down the Mall. Since I had somehow managed to find a place just across from the Palace, right by the barricades, I have a very nice view of the Royals as they rode by. Everyone from Prince William and Camilla, all the way through to the Queen herself rode by and waved at me. (Okay, they didn’t stop and point directly at me when they waved, but still…)

Then, after the Royals passed by, we have a nice, long, 90 minute wait while they all made their way down the Mall to do whatever it was they did at Horse Guards. But, our patience was finally rewarded. (Well, it had less to do with patience and more to do with the fact that I was in the island in the middle of the square and the exits were closed off the entire time.) Before too long, the entire parade returned back to Buckingham Palace while the Queen stood just across from me (that part really is true) and reviewed the troops as they passed by.

Soon, she rode back inside the Palace while an artillery group fired a 21-gun salute. Then, after the 21-gun salute, they continued for another 21 shots or so. (Really. Even the British people were surprised.) The Royal Family reappeared on the Palace Balcony and waved at the adoring crowds as jets from the Air Force flew over.

Then, the Royal Family returned to the relative calm of the Palace as the adoring crowd scurried out of the way of the military bands that don’t stop for anyone in their way. At least, that’s what we were told. And none of us really wanted to find out if that was truly their marching order. (Get it? Marching order? *sigh*)

Next year, I have to figure out how to get a ticket to the seats at Horse Guards. I have to figure out what they do for those 90 minutes.

Some Summer Plans

I’ve booked a couple of trips for my upcoming summer holiday. (First, though, keep in mind that, over here, school lasts until nearly the end of July.) I’ll be spending a week in Dubrovnik. Three points if you know where that is. Five points if you can find it on a map. But, failing that, read on.

Dubrovnik is on the southern coast of Croatia, near the edges of Bosnia and Montenegro. Croatia is located on the Adriatic Sea across from Italy.

The question I keep getting asked is ‘Why?’ Let’s see…it’s supposed to be very nice, I’ve never been there before, it’s got some very historic things, and the war is over.

‘Gee, that’s nice,’ you say, ‘but how about the other trip?’

Right! Thanks for asking. I’m also spending a week in Belfast.

(I’ll pause to let that sink in…)

(Another pause while you think, ‘Wait, isn’t that in Northern Ireland?’)

(Still more pausing while you remember that thing you read in Saturday’s paper about the Catholics and Protestants and the marching season and the police turning the water cannon on a thousand rioting Catholics.)

(Or maybe that was just MY newspaper…)

But, yes. Belfast. Why? Who knows? I found a very cheap round-trip flight. I found a very cheap hostel. (And now I’m starting to realize why…) It’s a place I’ve been interested in, probably because I’m having such trouble understanding the whole Catholic/Protestant fighting thing.

But just in case you think my summer will be nothing but dodging Protestant marchers and rioting Catholics or looking at what’s left of the war-torn regions of southern Croatia, I’m also taking a nice first-class train trip to Bath (or Bristol – we have a choice) and I’m going to the UK Harry Potter Conference.

And I’ll probably get a sunburn.

The Kumars

There’s this show on the BBC called The Kumars at No 42 (um…that’s Number 42, but it’s listed as No 42). Anyway, the premise is this: An Indian family (from India, not New Mexico or someplace like that) consisting of the adult son Sanjeev, his mother and father, and his elderly grandmother. Each week they invite two famous people to their house that somehow, in the back room, just happens to have a stage and room for an audience. Anyway, after some witty banter in the living room, they move to the more proper interview in the stage area. Sanjeev and the guest sit at a desk (as in other talk shows) and talk. Off to the side, though, are Sanjeev’s parents and grandmother who also ask questions.

Heavens…from reading my description, there’s probably no way anyone will ever want to watch this thing. But really, it’s funny. Probably one of the best ‘talk show’ type shows I’ve seen.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Archives

Previously, my blog archives have consisted of me seeing something interesting in the paper or writing down a thought and putting it on my desk where it would linger and get lost. This has lead to great delays in posting bits of interest. Fortunately for you readers, I have instituted a new, revolutionary method of archiving things for the blog. Now, when I see something interesting in the paper or write down a thought, instead of simply putting it on my desk to linger and get lost, I put it in a…folder!

Revolutionary and labour-intensive, yes. But if it means bringing you the posts sooner, then it’s worth it.

What I Learned This Weekend

According to an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London, the average person in the UK drinks 52 litres of cola each year.

It’s nice to know I’m above average.

From the Weather Reports

From the BBC:
‘We’re all going to see sunshine, but we’ll all see rain as well.’

From ITV1:
The words at the top of the screen for last week’s bank holiday weather: ‘Not that bad, really.’

Up in the air about something

As part of Birmingham’s Fierce Festival in May, Benjamin Verdonck was living in a nest attached to a building. He spent three months building this nest using the crowns of seven adul silver birches, a beech tree, a willow, three bales of straw, 180 pounds of cement, 12 large buckets of glue, and 120 pounds of something else (which unfortunately got torn off the article when I ‘archived’ it). The picture shows this nest…it’s truly stuck to the side second story of this building.

I suppose that’s one way to fix the housing shortage.

Cuba Again

According to The Guardian on Friday (June 3), the American National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed Ernest Hemingway’s house on the list of America’s most endangered historic places. The house is now a museum housing Hemingway’s books and manuscripts.

What’s interesting is that this house is located in Cuba.

What’s also interesting is that the Bush administration has denied permission for money to be spent on restoring this home. Evidently, restoring this museum will boost the Cuban economy, something America simply can’t allow.

Mark my words (mark them…mark them good! Um…mark them well…), one day, probably not to far from now, someone intelligent will realize that the tiny island of Cuba really isn’t a threat to America anymore. I mean, if George Bush can stand in Red Square next to Vladimir Putin and watch a VE Day parade, that pretty much rules out the possibility of the Soviets putting missiles in Cuba…right?

You should have seen the looks I got when I told a couple of my students that Americans were prohibited from visiting Cuba. (Okay, since it’s a Treasury Department ban, technically, I suppose the prohibition is on spending any money there, but it basically amounts to the same thing.)

Mexican Food

You know how I seem to have this irrational fascination with eating Mexican food? Evidently, I’m not alone. According to The Guardian, ‘Mexican food will soon replace Chinese as British shoppers’ second favourite non-European meal to pick up from the supermarket.’ Last year, sales of Mexican meals grew by 10% in the past year.

Now, if only my local Waitrose would actually stock these popular Mexican meals…

I Never Knew I Was So Deprived

The company Siemens had a two-page colour advert in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine today touting their ‘brand new state-of-the-art interactive fridge freezer coolMedia.’ The main selling feature of this refrigerator is the 15-inch flat screen LCD integrated television. Really. Out of eleven sentences in the main advert copy, only once is the actual fridge function mentioned, and even then, it’s almost an after thought:
‘Not only does the KG39MT90 keep all your fresh and frozen food stored safely, but it also provides you with a 15” flat screen LCD integrated TV, to make sure that you never miss any of your favourite TV programmes when cooking or partying.’

The advert goes on to describe the brightness and contrast controls, the stereo sound, the hand-finished, stainless steel finish, and the remote control. It seems you can also hook it up to your DVD, VCR, camcorder and videogame console so you can ‘simulate cinema viewing, too.’

Oh my. Isn’t progress great?! Back in my day, when we went looking for a refrigerator, we were concerned with things like whether it had adjustable shelves, whether it had a special niche for the butter dish, and whether it actually got cold. Now we can stop our misguided refrigerator shopping and focus on what really matters: the fact that I can play video games while I cook.

(Lest you think I’m making this up, visit

Noise Impairs Learning

From The Guardian this week (June 3): ‘Children in schools under airport flight paths have more difficulty learning to read and score less well in memory tests, researchers reported today in the Lancet medical journal.’

It seems that (and stop me if I’m going too quickly here) the effect of loud aircraft noise impairs reading comprehension. Children at primary schools near Heathrow lost two months in reading age for every extra five decibels in the noise level. (On an interesting note, children near Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam lost only one month in reading age.) Aircraft noise also seems to affect ability to identify previously learned material. Heavy road noise, however, did not have an effect on reading although the children in schools near noisy roads did better in memory tests. (This seems to be related to the fact that road noise is more constant than aircraft noise.)

The report concluded with this finding: ‘Schools exposed to high levels of aircraft noise are not healthy educational environments.’

Huh…imagine that.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due?

This one is about a month old (May 10) but I lost it in the ‘archive.’

It seems that Lloyds Bank has gotten into some trouble over some loans they had made. In a sample of 185 personal loans granted in November 2004, 16% of the people couldn’t afford the loans. In one case, a vulnerable couple was ‘badgered into taking out loans totalling £100,000 in the space of a year.’ What’s more, Lloyds sent Jamie McCoy a credit card (which he had not applied for) despite the fact he had been homeless and living on the streets for 20 years.

This is the same bank that took nearly two months to open my account despite the fact that I had provided (on more than one occasion) proof of my identity, proof of my employment (including salary), and proof of my residence. They still won’t give me a credit card.

Maybe I’ll just tell them I’ve been homeless for the past 20 years…

Placing Blame Where Blame Is Due

A couple of weeks ago, the papers here were all reporting on Julie Atkins and her three daughters, Jemma, Jade, and Natasha. The three sisters all became pregnant within three months of one another. The problem was that they were aged 12, 14, and 16 at the time.

What did Julie have to say about all this?

‘I blame the schools. Sex education for young girls should be better.’

Well of course. We must have been doing other, less important things…like teaching maths or English.

Actually, evidence from the Office of National Statistics suggests that ‘when there was open discussion of sex in the home, young people were more likely to delay sexual activity, have fewer partners, and use contraceptives when they do have sex.’

Of course, we can always say that schools should do more. But we can also say that, no matter what we do in schools, we still have the kids for less than seven hours a day, about 180 days each year…which is less than 15% of the year. Surely, if teachers here have to fit maths, science, English, history, geography, religious education, music, art, and PE into that 15%, parents could find a bit of time in their 85% to talk about sex.

Still Not Focusing on Sex Education...

Remember Jamie’s School Dinners? Well, some schools in Glasgow (that’s in Scotland) have come up with a way to get kids to choose healthy dinners. And no, it doesn’t involve screaming or yelling, just bribery.

As reported in The Times on May 20 (another ‘archive’ problem), students in 29 Glaswegian secondary schools get points based upon their meal choices. At the end of the term, students can redeem their points for things like movie tickets and iPods.

To earn the maximum points, choose a Vital Mix meal – soup, a pitta (I suppose this is a ‘pita’), yoghurt, raisins, and milk. This costs only £1.15 and nets the student 40 points. Fresh fruit or salad earns you 15 points, and a baked potato is worth 10. Pizzas, burgers, and hot dogs are three points each while chips (fries) and crisps (chips) are worth zero. Water earns 15 points, milk earns 10, and fizzy drinks (soft drinks) earn none. To receive an iPod-20GB Click Wheel MP3 player, you only need 4,000 points. This is only 100 Vital Mix meals, not too bad really…especially compared with 1,333 hot dogs. (For those with shorter-term goals, movie tickets are only 850 points).

The plan is costing Glasgow about £40,000 but since it started a year ago the number of students eating school dinners has risen from 46% to 70%. With nearly 21,000 students eating school dinners, the city council is able to have a much more direct influence on what children eat for school dinners. And, at less than £2 per student, it’s certainly a lot cheaper than the health care costs years down the road.

While We're on the Topic of School Dinners...

In England, there is a company called Rentokil Initial that provides a variety of services, including both pest control and school dinners. Really.

Now I understand how it’s possible to serve school dinners at a cost of less than 50p a student. It also solves that annoying problem of how to dispose of the pests.

(Oh please…name your school dinner company Rentokil and you’re just asking for snide remarks.)

Signs of the Times

I saw these signs around London a couple weeks ago.

In Norbury: ‘Internet Barber’ - At last…now I can avoid that oh-so-annoying trip to have my hair actually cut…now I just email it in.

At Streatham Tattoos and Piercing: ‘All equipment 200% sterile’ - Oh yeah, like I want THAT person making permanent marks on my body?

In Streatham: ‘Kennedy Fried Chicken’ – That’s why I moved to England – so that Jackie O could serve me up some chicken!

Oh Spit!

Lost in the archives but now found (and I’ll just copy it in its entirety):

Spit Kits for Traffic Wardens

Car park form NCP has issued its staff in central London with kits that will allow them to collect the saliva and possibly have it identified by DNA testing if they are spat at by customers.

Whew…good thing I only spit on parking attendants in SOUTH London…

More Exam Issues

Remember when I wrote about the fact that spelling doesn’t count for much on English exams? And when I wrote that having a headache could get you extra marks on the exams?

Well, now it seems that last year, there were 18,300 cases where examiners had to change grades on the upper level school exams (for the 16 and 18 year-olds). The article doesn’t say why, but it’s not too reassuring, is it?


I don’t understand cricket. Really, I don’t. I tried, honest. In fact, I even started to read an article in the paper about it. It started like this:

You could have heard a pin drop, but for Jon Lewis the silence must have been deafening.

Not bad, right? ‘I can understand this!’ I thought. So, I read the next paragraph:

Surrey needed 17 off 12 balls when he was square-driven for six by Martin Bicknell. Then, with the target reduced to seven off the final over, Lewis’s fumble at short fineleg turned Rikki Clarke’s routine flick for one into an all-run four.
And that is why I don’t understand cricket. I mean, why would Lewis fumble at the short fineleg?

Finally, you can have two pees in a pod

Oh yes, those innovative Brits have done it again. On May 11, Metro reported that Barbara May and Dr. James Shippen from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire have developed what they claim is the first in-car toilet. It’s called the Indipod and it consists of a portable chemical unit with a nylon cubicle. To inflate the cubicle, you simply plug the fan into a cigarette lighter. The inventors say it will fit into most modern estate or 4x4 cars. They have sold 200 of the things at a cost of £295 each.

For once, I’m at a loss for words. I only wish there were a photo…I’m having trouble picturing the whole thing. Then again, maybe that’s a good thing.

Unfortunate Photo

Here in England, one of the most popular football (that’s soccer) teams is Arsenal. In May, The Times ran a picture of an Arsenal player modelling the suit the players were to wear to the finals. The player is standing in front of large red capital letters spelling out the team’s name. Unfortunately, the way the picture was cropped, you only see part of the first four letters of the name.

(Think about it...)

Positive Outlook Quote of the Day

I tore this out back during the election campaigning but I held off posting it. When Lucille Nicholson (evidently, the world’s most optimistic person) was campaigning for a seat in Parliament, she made this remark:

The first door I knocked on, I was told to burn in hell. I felt things could only get better after that.


The next time you’re in Brighton, besides eating at the Mexican restaurant I mentioned, stop by Montezuma’s Chocolates. While you’re there, pick up a bar of their organic dark chocolate with chilli.

That’s right. Chilli. Well, chilli powder, I think. Whatever it is, it doesn’t taste much different from regular dark chocolate but just when you’re thinking, ‘my, that wasn’t too bad at all,’ you feel a burning in your mouth and throat.

It keeps you from eating the chocolate too quickly, I suppose.

Not going to Brighton anytime soon? Order some online at

This Says It All

Today’s Sunday Telegraph has a quote from Peter Ridsdale, former chairman of the Leeds United football club.
I would have no problem with players speaking to the press if I believed that they were intellectually capable of doing so.

The Size of Things

For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out just how big England is. According to the Natural History Museum, it’s just slightly smaller than Oregon.


The Sunday Telegraph reported that Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, private secretary to Pope John Paul II, refused to burn the Pope’s personal papers despite explicit instructions in the Pope’s will to do so. He said he felt the papers ought to be preserved instead.

Wait…isn’t this the type of independent thinking that the Vatican generally frowns upon?


Today’s Sunday Telegraph has a huge article about the, evidently, very real possibility of Hillary Rodham Clinton becoming the 44th president in 2008. Gracious. First we had George I, then Bill and then George II. I suppose next will be Hillary and then Jeb. After that, aren’t we out of Bushes and Clintons for a while? I can only hope so. But by then, there will probably be a Kennedy old enough to be president again.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

A Few Edinburgh Links

Three New Posts!

I promised them and here they are! Three posts about my trip to Edinburgh. A warning, though...they are fairly long.

And, don't worry, my blog folder is overflowing with more things to post about. Soon...very soon...

Edinburgh – Some Geology and History, Some Ghosts and Hauntings

I decided to head to Edinburgh for a few days during my half-term break. I visited there a couple months ago (just after Easter) but I was only there for the day. (Just a side note: visiting Edinburgh ‘just for the day’ is only a good plan if you live someplace close, like, say, Glasgow.)

Anyway, on Tuesday morning, I caught the early train (7:19) and headed north, arriving at Edinburgh Waverley Station before noon. I followed my directions (printed from the new map section of Google – try to the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite where I had reservations for the next two nights. Sunday, my mother asked how I chose the place to stay. The answer was, ‘it was the cheapest place on the list that was also within walking distance of the train station.’ Yes, not the absolute best way to choose a hotel, but it worked out just fine this time. Despite being an all up-hill walk (but in Edinburgh, everything is either uphill or downhill the entire way…in fact, at one point, I had to climb up a flight of stairs from street level in order to go underground, but now I’m getting ahead of myself), it wasn’t too far. It turns out that the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite is part of the University of Edinburgh, which runs this set of rooms for visitors to the school. It is also open to outside visitors (like me). As part of my room fee, a full Scottish breakfast was included.

So, after checking in and lugging my stuff up four flights of stairs (top floor room, no lift), I decided to get some lunch. While walking about, I was going to head towards the centre part of town, but a nearby restaurant caught my eye. I figured that anyplace called ‘Elephants and Bagels’ was worth a try; plus I haven’t had a decent, proper bagel since I left Roanoke. Well, after lunch, I still hadn’t had a decent, proper bagel, but it wasn’t bad.

Before I left Stevenage, I made sure to download all the digital pictures from my camera’s memory card onto the computer. Well, I thought I had. Seized with a bout of conflusteration (Did I write-protect the pictures on the computer or just, accidentally, the ones on the card? Could I have clicked the wrong key and NOT saved the pictures?), I decided to play it safe and not delete my already-full memory cards just yet. Instead, I found a nice little photo place on the Royal Mile that was able to copy both of my cards onto a CD. While I waited for the copying process to take place, I walked around the Royal Mile to see what trouble I could get into…I mean, to see what I might find to occupy my afternoon.

Ah, the Royal Mile. It’s one of those relatively rare street names that actually describes the street. I mean, streets called Oak Street often commemorate the trees that were there BEFORE they were cut down to build the road. And, despite the utmost commonality (it must be a word, it’s in the computer’s thesaurus) of High Streets in the UK, they generally aren’t much higher that the other streets. The Royal Mile, however, is both. Stretching almost exactly one mile, it begins at the top of the hill at the entrance of Edinburgh Castle and runs downhill where it finally ends at the gate of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

After picking up my CD and my memory cards, I decided to join a tour of some of Edinburgh’s underground vaults. I mentioned earlier that most places in Edinburgh are either all uphill or downhill from where you are (and it’s usually uphill, it seems). Here’s where a brief geology lesson comes in. Edinburgh Castle is built on the core of an extinct volcano. Three sides of the castle overlook steep, nearly vertical drops (making the site ideal for defence purposes) while the fourth side slopes somewhat steeply down what is now the Royal Mile. In fact, the Royal Mile is the spine of the hill, which slopes downhill on both sides. (Sound confusing? Picture this…you’re standing at the gate to Edinburgh Castle. The Castle is behind you, and in front of you is the Royal Mile, sloping downhill the entire way. Then, both the left and right sides of the Royal Mile slope downhill.)

In olden times (a technical term which means ‘a long time ago’), Edinburgh was a walled city measuring one mile by one-quarter of a mile. (The first decent wall was built in about 1450.) Since the residents of the city were supposedly terrified to leave the confines of the city walls (fearing an invasion by the British), the city inside the walls became rather crowded. As a result, buildings grew taller and taller. By 1500, the average building height was ten or eleven stories. The tallest building was fourteen stories tall. (Keep in mind that this was the year 1500, only eight years after Columbus voyaged to North America, nearly three hundred years before the American colonies declared independence from England.)

Now, when you are building structures in the 1500s, there is eventually going to be a limit to how tall you can build (evidently the limit was about 130 feet)…particularly if you are building them out of wood. (Besides the risk of fire, wood warps when it gets wet.) So, with the population of Edinburgh still increasing, and the population still terrified to venture outside the walls (for almost 250 years, nearly no houses were built outside the walls), people resorted to digging underground. There are several other hills in Edinburgh, most of which are fairly steep. One of the benefits to having such steep hills was that people could dig into the sides of the hills, digging horizontally rather than vertically.

Okay, so far we have hugely tall buildings as well as tunnels dug into the hill, all of this is inside a walled area about one-fourth of a square mile, which lead to some of the worst sanitary conditions in Europe. Yet people still arrived in Edinburgh. Between 1800 and 1830, the city’s population doubled, due mostly to the famine in Ireland. The Lonely Planet guidebook I have here says that during the 19th century, the population of Edinburgh quadrupled to 400,000 (yep, that’s four hundred thousand, I double checked). Needless to say, the city was facing a major space crisis.

Remember those steep hills I mentioned? Well, between 1765 and 1833, five bridges were built between those hills. And rather than just having roads across them, the bridges soon had buildings on top and surrounding the bridges. One bridge, the South Bridge, is over 1000 feet long. In fact, walking across the bridge, I didn’t even realize it was a bridge until I looked through a gap between buildings and saw a road beneath. Built into these bridges were a number of vaults. Intended for use as storage places by the buildings above, the vaults were soon abandoned when shopkeepers found out that the vaults weren’t watertight.

So, to sum up things so far, we have a huge housing crisis and a bunch of empty bridge vaults. It wasn’t long before people began using the vaults for purposes other than those originally intended. Unfortunately, the vaults became home to those too poor to afford anything else. In fact, one tour guide said that if you could afford candles to light up the vault, you could afford to live elsewhere. Basically, the vaults soon housed the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the forgotten. The vaults also attracted quite a bit of illegal activity. In short, they were a sad, terrible place very few people would choose to go.

Today, however, several tour companies do a brisk business taking tourists down into these vaults. On Tuesday after lunch (remember, I mentioned this an entire page ago…) I decided to tour some of the vaults. The tour I took was basically just an excursion into some of the vaults beneath the South Bridge. We saw a few of the rough rooms and heard some of the stories of life below ground (including how the University of Edinburgh’s anatomy department was able to become the world’s finest). We finished by seeing some of the artefacts discovered when the vaults were recently excavated (and by recent, I’m referring to the European sense of the word rather than the American…where ‘recent’ means within the last fifty years or so ago rather than the last six months or so).

Another note on the vaults: Since the underground vaults were built over a period of several hundred years, there is no plan or diagram that shows them all. It is completely realistic that some of the vaults go unknown for a hundred years or more until someone happens to knock through a wall or a floor. In fact, one account I read told about the University of Edinburgh knocking through a wall only to found a vault that had been sealed up for fourteen years…with a working electricity meter inside. Needless to say, there is no map to these vaults and passages and you shouldn’t go wandering about all alone, particularly as some are haunted. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself again… One final note: In the 1960s, an athlete from Communist Hungary used the South Bridge vaults to escape his security agents and defect to the West.

After returning to the Royal Mile, I decided to head up to The Real Mary King’s Close. But this requires another (brief) history lesson. In 1645 the plague came to Edinburgh. When it passed, out of the original 40,000 inhabitants of the city, only sixty were deemed fit to defend the city. During the infection, the area of Mary King’s Close (a particular street and block of buildings named for one of the major inhabitants) was walled up with its inhabitants still inside. Two months later, the City Council decided it was safe enough to send people in to remove the bodies. Despite the difficulty finding housing, most people avoided the area of Mary King’s Close…something about the sinister lingering feelings of death and the disembodied heads people said they saw floating about.

Anyway, in 1750, the city council decided to build the Royal Exchange market area. The area on which they chose to build was Mary King’s Close (and two or three adjoining closes). Remember how I said the hill sloped down from the Royal Mile? Rather than totally knock down the existing buildings, the builders simply knocked them down to the level of the Royal Mile, which in turn left the foundations several stories high at the rear of the building site. (I know it sounds confusing. Think of it this way…ever been in a house that was built on a hill? The front door is at street level but the back window on the same floor might be ten or fifteen feet off the ground. Now, imagine a huge building built on a really, really steep hill.)

Okay, so the Royal Exchange was built on the foundations of the tenement houses that used to be part of Mary King’s Close. What was left was simply blocked up and forgotten for years. (This is Edinburgh…they seem rather fond of burying things and forgetting them until years and years later…then they make money by taking tourists there.) But, now tourists can take tours of what is left. It’s rather creepy to descend the stairs and walk along an alley, looking in windows and doors and then to look up and see a building above you. Incidentally, after the Royal Exchange was built, merchants refused to use it due to the lingering hauntedness of the area. Today, the building houses the city council offices.

I had Mexican food for dinner. (Considering how I spent most of my time here, it was probably the most normal thing I did in Scotland. Of course, the cheese and haggis quesadillas sounded rather scary.)

And, just in case you thought you might possibly get away with anything less than a geology or history lesson in that paragraph, you’re probably right.

After dinner, I couldn’t help myself. I headed towards the City of the Dead Haunted Cemetery Tour. I went on the 8:30 tour and was a bit worried since, in Edinburgh, at 8:30 in the summer it’s still quite light outside. As it turned out, the tour was scary enough without it being pitch dark outside. First, though, let me stress that I’m not one of those ‘oh look, it’s a ghost, I’m so scared’ people. I just thought that it would be interesting, after seeing the underground parts of the city, to see some aboveground parts, particularly since old graveyards are pretty cool.

So, a guide dressed in all black, including a black leather trench coat, met us. The tour started off on the Royal Mile. We learned about some of the things that happened nearby, including some of the witch trials. Eventually, though, we ended up at Greyfriar’s Cemetery. We started on the ‘good side’ by hearing about some of the ‘good people’ buried there. (We also saw the back of the Elephant House – the coffee shop where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel…but more on that later.) Moving to the ‘bad side’ of the cemetery, we heard about some of the ‘bad people’ buried there. Then, though, we moved slowly towards the Covenanters’ Prison and another history lesson.

In 1625, King James VI and I (he was the sixth Scottish King James and the first English King James) died leaving his son, Charles I, to become the next king of England and Scotland. Unfortunately, Charles I decided that he wanted all of his subjects to worship the same way. Despite his Scottish roots, he was not Presbyterian but was Episcopal instead (or Catholic as one book says, but I believe that refers to the Episcopal Church of England being a reformed Catholic Church). Anyway, in1638, the National Covenant was signed in Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh. In the Covenant, the signers agreed that Presbyterianism would be the religion of Scotland. After a series of battles, Charles I agreed to allow them to worship as they chose.

Unfortunately, in 1642, the English Civil War broke out. Sensing an opportunity, the Covenanters negotiated a treaty, called the Solemn League and Covenant, with Oliver Cromwell and the English Parliament in which the Covenanters offered military help to Cromwell in exchange for Scottish Presbyterianism being established in all of Britain. In 1650, Cromwell executed Charles I in a move that upset the Scottish (despite their covenant with Cromwell, the Scottish felt he couldn’t just go about lopping of the head of a Scottish king, no matter what he had done). In retaliation, the Covenanter’s leader, Argyll, crowned the son of Charles I the new king, Charles II. Until Cromwell’s death in 1660, Argyll kept Charles II hidden and made sure he was moulded into a proper Presbyterian.

Regrettably for Argyll, his moulding of Charles II did not work. In 1660, Charles II had Argyll executed and immediately began to destroy what was left of the Covenanters. Jump forward to 1672 when 1,200 Covenanters were finally rounded up, bound two by two and dragged across Scotland to Edinburgh where they were herded into the Greyfriars churchyard and locked into the south-west section. Now, having been there, I can tell you that the south-west section is not large, certainly not large enough for 1,200 people. Nonetheless, they were kept there, outside with no roof, for five months. They were forced to sleep on the cold ground and snipers were posted to shoot anyone who was heard moving around at night. By mid-November there were just 257 prisoners left. Those prisoners were rounded up and crammed into a boat bound for Australia. Unfortunately, the boat hit rocks off the shore of Orkney and sunk, killing more than 200 people. In a move to ruthlessly intimidate anyone who clung to the remnants of the Covenanters’ movement, the next 18 years saw the slaughter of an estimated 18,000 men, women, and children during what became known as the ‘Killing Times.’ The man responsible for this slaying was the King’s Advocate in Scotland, George Mackenzie.

Four paragraphs ago, I mentioned that we were heading towards the Covenanters’ Prison. This is the area where nearly all of the 1,200 Covenanters were killed during the five months in 1672. Just outside this walled section is a rather large, domed mausoleum…the burial site of George Mackenzie. So, within about 50 feet we have the place where nearly 1000 people were killed and the tomb of the man responsible for their death. In anyone’s book, this is a rather poor idea. For specialists in the paranormal, this is a very, very poor idea.
Stopping just outside the locked gates of the Covenanters’ Prison, our guide told us that the area was known for its strange happenings. We were told of people who had felt terrible cold spots, tourists who has felt deep feelings of doom, those who were knocked unconscious by mysterious unseen forces, and individuals who left the area with strange scratches on their faces and arms. Needless to say, we were all eager to get inside.

Before stepping in, however, he showed us one of the odd things that sometimes happens in this area. The guide asked if anyone was a doctor or a nurse or perhaps trained in first aid. Since we had nobody willing to admit to being a doctor or a nurse, I had to admit to being trained in first aid. He asked if I could take a pulse. I can. It’s fairly simple, really. I mean, he head out his left wrist, I put two fingers on his artery and felt the pulse. But then, as he brought his right hand closer to his left, the pulse disappeared. Really. It was gone. Totally. As he moved his right hand away, the pulse returned. Really.

After that, we couldn’t wait to go inside. I mean, the sooner we got inside, the sooner we could leave, right?

Unlocking the gate, the guide explained that people on the tours were the only people allowed inside the Covanenters’ Prison. Several years ago, after the strange happenings increased, the City Council decided to lock the gates. It is only by being part of the tour that people are able to go inside. We walked slowly into the walled area. On each side are large stone tombs. Large, dark, scary, stone tombs. Stopping in front of a tomb known as the Black Mausoleum, we heard more about the haunting believed to be responsible for the mysterious scratches and other happenings.

You know how I’m always getting into things without enough research? Yeah, well, evidently, I had stumbled across something that just happened to be the world’s best-documented poltergeist, the Mackenzie Poltergeist. Really. I mean, evidently this wasn’t just some guy who decided to walk people around a graveyard at night and scare them. It was only after all the scary happenings (including people being mysteriously being knocked unconscious) that the city decided to lock the gate. And it was only after that happened that the tour company was formed. And it seems that there are quite a few well-documented cases of mysterious things happening. And television companies have come from around the world to film stories about this place. About this pitch dark Black Mausoleum in which I was now standing.

Well, fortunately (or unfortunately, depending…), none of us was knocked unconscious by the Mackenzie Poltergeist. We all got out safely. And leaving the cemetery, even though it was nearly 10:00, it was still not totally dark yet. Oh, that, and the tour guide showed me how he could drive a nail up his nose.

Well, since I’m on page six of this entry, that’s probably enough for now. There’s more, much more, to write about my trip to Edinburgh. I realize that this entry is fairly heavy on the history. It’s not just to show off that I learned something on my trip, but it’s because I think you really need to know the context for these things. It wasn’t just me climbing around in underground and creeping about in cemeteries at night. Well, it was at first, but I did end up learning a few things.


Okay, evidently I picked up a bit of history on this trip. And a touch of geology and science, too. I also picked up a couple of great books about the area:

The Town Below Ground, by Jan-Andrew Henderson has a great description of the underground areas of the city as well as an introduction to the local hauntings.

The Ghost That Haunted Itself, also by Jan-Andrew Henderson tell all about the Mackenzie poltergeist and the City of the Dead tour company.

Edinburgh – Cannons, Spiral Staircases, and Pig Lungs

Okay, so I spent the first day in Edinburgh climbing around underground and creeping about in a graveyard. After all that, I needed a drink. And, this being Scotland, the land where the whisky flows freely, I decided to have a wee nip of hot chocolate. Leaving the graveyard, I headed to the first coffee house I saw…the Elephant House. Now, I had ulterior motives for heading here. After all, it was here that JK Rowling sat and wrote the first Harry Potter novel. And, evidently, while sitting here she had a few inspirations for the book. Looking out the windows (in the autumn when the leaves fall off the trees), you can look across Greyfriars Cemetery and see George Heriots School, housed in an old, very large, castle-like building. Also, buried in the cemetery is William McGonagall, perhaps where a certain character’s name came from. And, standing in the bathroom, looking up at the ceiling (don’t ask, really), I saw the exhaust fan, labelled ‘expellair.’

After my hot chocolate and a quick internet session, I headed back to the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite. (And despite the name, there was no poltergeist. Or, if there was, either it ignored me or I just slept really soundly.) Included in my room price was a full Scottish Breakfast. Excited though I was to be eating some genuine Scottish cuisine, the only difference that I could see between a full English Breakfast and a full Scottish Breakfast was that the full Scottish Breakfast came with a rather large black hair in the mushrooms. But perhaps I’m just being picky…

Despite the rain (look, it’s Scotland, it rains), I decided to continue with my sightseeing plans (look, it’s Scotland, it might rain forever). I headed up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle. (Yes, it was uphill…the entire way.) I paid my money and collected my handy audio guide. (You know, perhaps I’ll add an audio guide to the blog…you know, so you can walk around your house or place of work and listen to me talk and read this blog…yeah, that’d be well good!)

Despite the rain (look, it’s Scotland, but it’s not the same paragraph as last time), I still had a very nice view of Edinburgh. Let’s see, what else can I say about the castle… It has some museums (including the National War Museum and some regimental museums. It has cannons…lots of them. It has the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny. It has a rather nice Great Hall. It has some prisons – some old ones from the 1700s and some newer ones, last used briefly during World War II. It has St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh – it dates from around 1130. It also has a large gun that fires each day (other than Sundays and Christmas) at 1:00 – a tradition dating back to the time when this was the only way to let people know the exact time.

Despite the rain (look, it’s Scotland, and yet another paragraph starting this way), I headed to the Scott Monument. Now, before you pick on my spelling, it really is Scott not Scot. It’s a memorial to the writer Sir Walter Scott. It’s huge (200 feet, six inches to the tip top). It rises out of the centre of Edinburgh like some sort of terribly out-of-place black stone monument (which it is…). Well, actually, I don’t think it was originally black, it’s just the last 165 years of soot and grime. Anyway, given my penchant for winding my way up spiral staircases, it’s no wonder I was drawn to this monument like a moth to a fluorescent lamp – it won’t kill me but I’ll bounce around against it for a bit.

As a side note, I’m happy to report that spiral stairs at the Scott Monument are not the cantilevered type. Instead, they are centrally-supported. (Warning: Engineering geek stuff coming up.) Does this matter? Structurally, probably not. Psychologically and physically, yes. The cantilevered type of spiral stairs are imbedded into the side walls and there is no central column going up, just an empty space going all the way up (or down). The centrally-supported type has a supporting column running the height of the staircase. So, when there is just a hole running the whole height of the staircase, it’s rather creepy to be able to see the entire was down and there is nothing but empty space on one side of you (on the other hand, it is nice to be able to gauge how close to the end you are). With a centrally-supported stairs, you have some type of enclosure on either side of you as you climb (or descend).

After the Scott Monument, I walked across the street to Jenner’s. According to an advert I saw, New York has Bloomingdale’s, London has Harrod’s, and Edinburgh has Jenner’s, supposedly the oldest independent department store in the world. It’s not as huge as Harrod’s (which automatically makes it better) but it’s fairly nice. It has a large central hall that is open to about three stories above. I saw a few nice ties, but all I bought was some summer fruit sweets and some cherry shortbread biscuits in a Jenner’s tin.

For dinner, I went to Viva Mexico again. (Ah yes, I got to Scotland and eat Mexican food. Well, it was either that or pig lungs.) And, it was very, very nice. It’s just off the Royal Mile on Cockburn Street. Go there. But I’m not sure I’d recommend the cheese and haggis quesadilas.

After dinner, I decided to walk around Greyfriar’s Cemetery again. This time it was lighter out and I took some pictures. But I made sure to stay far, far away from the Covenanters’ Prison.

And then, despite the fact that the rain had stopped, I was still damp so I went back to the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite.

Edinburgh – Of Elevators, Rolling out the Barrels, and More Ghosts

On Thursday morning, I had a less-than-full Scottish Breakfast. And, evidently, what they say must be true: Hair one day, gone the next. I had to check out of the Kenneth Mackenzie Suite by 9:30 but they were kind enough to let me leave my suitcase there until my train left in the late afternoon. (Incidentally, Edinburgh has got to be the most backpacker-friendly town I’ve ever been in.)

Since it was raining and I didn’t really fancy a four-hour train ride home in damp clothes, I figured I’d try an inside activity…one that didn’t involve crawling about in dark spaces. So, I went to the Scottish National Gallery. Upon entering on ground level, I was directed to the free cloakroom down stairs. I walked down a spiral staircase (wide but centrally-supported)…down, down, down some more…and eventually come out on the bottom level. Walking down the corridor and turning right, I saw beautiful gardens and bright daylight. (You’ll remember that I entered on ground level and then took the stairs down two stories.) This perfectly illustrates what Edinburgh buildings are like – you enter on ground level, go down flights and flights of stairs and end up on…ground level again due to the hills.

Anyway, after checking my jacket and backpack, I decided to take the elevator up. Remember the centrally-supported spiral staircase I mentioned? Well, in the central core was an elevator. And, what’s more, when the elevator got to your floor, the door lit up. And, what’s even more, the elevator was circular (the car, that is, not the path…the elevator itself just went up and down) – with rounded doors and walls. It was great.

After that, I saw some paintings and stuff.

(Okay, how’s that for sad? I go on for paragraphs about the engineering aspects spiral staircases and a bloody elevator but don’t mention at all any of the Roman sculptures, famous French Impressionist paintings, Dutch masters, or anything like that. Oh well, I suppose they’re right: you can take the boy out of engineering school but you can’t take the engineering school out of the boy.)

For lunch, I went to Pizza Hut.

What? They had a buffet.

And, FREE REFILLS!!! (Heck, that alone would have been worth it…it’s the first time I’ve gotten a free drink refill in Europe. Ever.) And then they gave me five of those little mints.

After lunch, I had one of the oddest experiences I’ve had in recent memory. And this is after the climbing about in dark, plague-abandoned underground rooms. I visited the Scottish Whiskey Heritage Centre. Basically, it’s one big ode to drinking. The main message is, ‘Scottish whiskey is great, particularly if you buy it in our shop on your way out.’ Upon entering the tour, they start you off with an Official Scottish Whiskey Tasting by giving you just a tiny dram (I suppose that’s the right term although the thesaurus says I could use nip, slug, shot, drop or tot) of Official Blended Scottish Whiskey in your very own Official Scottish Whiskey Heritage Glencairn Glass. We learned The Five Steps to Appreciating Scottish Whiskey: Colour, Body, Nose, Palate, Finish. (It sounds rather creepy thinking about it now…) And just so you don’t get too worried, I didn’t remember all that, I’m simply reading it off the Official Scottish Whiskey Heritage Glencairn Glass Cardboard Box they gave us.

After the tasting, we went into a small auditorium where we watched an Official Scottish Whiskey Short Film About How Whiskey is Made. It involved a cheesy American tourist (camera around his neck) visiting a Scottish pub, musing about the origins of whiskey, uttering ‘saliente’ (crud, I can’t figure out how to spell it…the blasted computer will correct spelling in 20 types of Spanish, 14 types of French, and 10 types of English, but evidently not in Scottish), getting mystically transported across Scotland to a distillery, and then back to the pub. It was enough to put one off drinking altogether rather than encouraging one to buy some whisky.

After that, we moved into another small auditorium where we saw an Official Small Scottish Whiskey Illuminated Model of a Distillery, watched a short film on how whisky differs based upon the region where it is distilled, and then had a short lesson on how Scottish whisky differs from grain whisky. Then, we got to smell three different kinds of the stuff.

Next, we were herded into yet another small auditorium, this one decorated as an Official Scottish Whisky Bar of Yore. (I dunno…there was a counter and lots of bottles.) This time, the movie was in the form of a simulated hologram – a green, ghostly figure of an Official Scottish Whiskey Master Blender was projected from below and reflected off of a mirror placed 45 degrees to the horizontal. (See how enthralled I was with the whisky making process?) Oh, and did I mention how vital the making of Scottish Whiskey is to the economy of all of Great Britain? I mean from the farmers to the distillers to the very men who make the oaken casts in which whiskey gets its deep, yellow colour…

Finally, we were walked up two flights of stairs and sat in an Official Scottish Whisky-Mobile. Actually, I don’t know what it was called. It was a small car made in the shape of two cut away whisky barrels, each barrel providing two seats. Once in this car, it moved very slowly through the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit. How the car knew where to move and when to turn is a mystery to me – there were no visible tracks, just a worn path on the floor…perhaps there were imbedded sensors in the floor. I did see some reflectors places so that when the car broke the light beam, it activated certain aspects of the display.

So, here I was, sitting in an Official Plastic Scottish Whiskey Barrel Mobile puttering through the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit. And by puttering, I mean moving at a crawl. Really. We were passed by an escaped baby from the car behind us. No, not that’s not true. The baby was from two cars behind us.

Anyway, the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit took us from the farmer and his family who made whiskey in the farmhouse they shared with their pigs (really), past the distiller illegally making whiskey in the forests, through to the glory days of American prohibition. Once we passed by the glorious barley fields from which Scotland makes this, the glorious brew that is so vital to life, the Official Scottish Whisky Throughout Time Exhibit was at long last, finally, mercifully over.

After making my escape from the Scottish Whiskey Propaganda…I mean Heritage… Centre, I decided to go someplace a bit less freakish. So, naturally, I took the Auld Reekie’s Ghost and Torture Tour. Really.

Once again, I found myself entering the South Bridge vaults. This time, we paid our money, stepped up the highest doorstep in Edinburgh and climbed another spiral staircase (centrally-supported, of course) one flight up in order to go underground. Remember way back, about ten pages ago when I said that at one point, I had to climb up a flight of stairs from street level in order to go underground? By now, this shouldn’t surprise you at all. Anyway, the way the story goes, a few years ago a university student was living in this dark, windowless flat when he decided to put off studying for exams by knocking out a wall. He had done some tapping on the walls and noticed a hollow-sounding spot. When he took his sledgehammer (What? Don’t all kids take sledgehammers off to university with them?) to the wall, he knocked his way into a vault that had been hidden for more than a hundred years.

With that story, we entered the vault. And it wasn’t just a room…it was a hallway that lead to a long corridor, off of which were a number of side vaults. Now, due to insurance regulations and some plain common sense, a few emergency lights have been installed. But still, the place is dark. Very, very dark. We were shown an empty vault and told that up to fifteen people or more may have lived there in total darkness during the height of Edinburgh’s housing troubles. We were shown an actual pagan temple. Really. There is a coven of witches that has received permission to use one of the vaults for their ceremonies. We were assured, though, that these were white witches who practice only good ceremonies not bad.

We were then taken up the corridor and shown a staircase where The Watcher has sometimes been seen. (The Watcher is the name of one of the local ghosts.) We were taken into the vault that used to be used by the witches’ coven. They moved vaults after a particularly bad series of happenings (the mirror they were using for ceremonies kept moving mysteriously, people would see strange ghosts, the previously dry vault suddenly began to drip water despite no pipes being anywhere nearby, that type of thing…oh, and one couple who had entered the sacred circle woke up the next morning covered in scratches and there was fresh blood on the sheets). Before entering the final vault, we were separated: men on the left, women on the right. It seems that the poltergeist that haunted this particular vault had a habit of attacking only women and only when they stood on the left of the vault.

Upon leaving the vault, we stopped in at the torture museum. While eating our complimentary shortbread and pretending to drink out complimentary whiskey (after my tasting lesson I knew that this particular whiskey was crap) we got to browse the various implements of torture.

And somehow, after visiting the Scottish Whiskey Heritage Centre, none of this seemed too strange.

But you know, I’ve got a pretty cool idea…they start the Ghost Tour with a video of an American tourist walking into a Scottish pub and musing about ghosts. With a swig of whiskey he is transported through time and space to the South Bridge vaults. Then there’s a model of the vaults. Then a ghostly faux hologram proclaims how the economy of Great Britain is aided so wonderfully by the addition of these ghost tours. Then people pile into plastic cars for a creeping tour through some old vaults.

Naw, people would never pay for something like that.