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Up the hill, and down the pub

What to do with a couple of hours to kill in Edinburgh before the train home? I was up there for the day yesterday, and so was faced with this question. After browsing the souvenir-shops along the Royal Mile, I thought it would be fun to climb Arthur’s Seat, the big hill just to the east of the city, but realised that this would probably take longer than the time I had left.

Instead, I focused my attention on the smaller Calton Hill which rises above the eastern end of Princes Street and is topped by a variety of early-19th century monuments which has led it to be dubbed Edinburgh’s answer to the Acropolis (and thus, probably, the reason why Edinburgh has sometimes been referred to as the ‘Athens of the North’, although as the city has seven hills it has also been compared with Rome).

The climb was a fairly easy one. From the top, you can see all the way to the docks and beyond into the Firth of Forth – the island of Inchkeith is clearly visible, as is the Forth Bridge. As for the city, much of it is laid out before you, from Holyrood Palace and the Parliament building up to the Castle perched atop its rock.

Like several others who had come to Calton Hill, I climbed up onto the National Monument, that unfinished replica of the Parthenon which was started in 1822 as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who had died during the Napoleonic Wars, although they’d only managed to erect a dozen of the columns before the money ran out. 

Nearby, among various other structures, is the Nelson Monument, a tower built on the highest point of Calton Hill shortly before the National Monument to commemorate Lord Nelson; it replaced a mast that had been used to send signals to the ships on the Firth of Forth (the flags that make up Nelson’s famous signal, the ‘England expects’ one, are flown from the monument every Trafalgar Day). The fact that it looks a bit like an upturned telescope is, apparently, deliberate.  

Naturally I can never resist the chance of climbing any available tower and as luck would have it I was there about half an hour before it closed for the day; plenty of time to go to the top and enjoy the panoramic view of this historic city.

After descending back into the city, I felt that a pre-train pint was in order, and that there was one Edinburgh pub above all others where this need could be best met. I have long been a fan of the Rebus books, Ian Rankin’s series of detective novels which are set in Edinburgh and which present a view of the city far removed from what the tourists see (rather like what the Morse books did for Oxford and the Zen ones for Italy, I suppose). The curmudgeonly yet likeable John Rebus may be a fictional character but he has a favourite pub, which he shares with his creator: The Oxford Bar in the New Town, that part of the city which was built in the late 18th century and which retains much of its Georgian charm.

My guide book describes the pub as “that rarest of things: a real pub for real people, with no ‘theme’, no music, no frills and no pretensions”. I rather liked the sound of that, for it sounded like my sort of pub.

I also rather liked the name of the street on which it is located.

I really liked what I found – a quiet, old-fashioned sort of back-street pub where one could order a pint – it had to be Deuchars IPA – from the small bar at the front and take it to the main room and sip it in quiet contentment with the only accompanying sound being the rambling conversation from the people on the table opposite (even in the week before Christmas, there is clearly a point before which it is not the done thing to just leave work early and head to the boozer).

It brought to mind pubs like the Mitre off Hatton Garden (a favourite of mine) and various others, usually located in the back-streets, which have an authentic air which is sadly missing from so many watering-holes these days. The Oxford Bar was, I felt, definitely worth a visit in the short time I had before I walked back to Waverley Station, and onto the 17:00 to King’s Cross.

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