Walking with Sharon Lancaster on 12 April 2010

Up Arthur’s Seat

I am walking with my friend Sharon. I’ve known Sharon since first year of university (1987). We met in our halls of residence (Wolfson Halls). Though she still lives only about ten minutes away, we’ve spent very little time together over the past few years, in spite of our repeated text-message pledges and best intentions to fix a date. Today, happily, we’ll succeed.

It’s another glorious morning that begins with a short, chat-filled train ride through to Edinburgh. Sharon has chosen Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano, for our walk. I feel as if I should have climbed Arthur’s Seat at least once before (surely?), but I actually don’t think I have. Standing close to the Parliament building, at the bottom of the Royal Mile, looking up at the hill ahead of us, it seems really remarkable that such a thing should exist inside a city. We admire it and then we wonder how we get up it. In the end, we ask a friendly (though armed) policeman for directions and he directs us towards an information board. As we get closer to the bottom of Arthur’s Seat it becomes apparent that we don’t really need directions because a) there are obvious paths scored into the hill side and b) the sunny weather has brought lots of people out. Though there are multiple paths trodden with the footfall of the undoubtedly millions of people who choose to climb this hill every day of the year, all paths eventually lead to the top.

The ascent becomes fairly steep fairly quickly and soon we’re both walking in t-shirts, a bit red in the face. I’m grateful that Sharon (ever prepared mum) had the foresight to bring suntan cream – Kids, Factor 50. The appeal of Arthur’s Seat is almost immediately apparent – turn around and just look at that view stretching out below us.  North to Leith and out on to the River Forth. Every step of the ascent adds another dimension to the view, the impetus to keep going up.

Before too long we stop for a breather. This is not a race to the top, after all. This is our day trip away. Sitting beside each other on a man-made step on the side of the hill, the sun on our faces, we close some of the gap of the past few years, chuntering away as if we’d only seen each other a few days ago. It’s like being 18 again. We’re in a world of our own, oblivious to the comings and goings that circle around Arthur’s Seat; there’s just us and the view.

Onwards, upwards, higher, a touch out of breath, a touch hotter and redder, a more inspiring view with each backward glance. Sharon says that if she lived in Edinburgh she’d climb up here every day. I wonder if people do. In the winter, or in the rain, it’s surely emptier? But the colony of people making their way up today lends it a holiday feel; lots of young children running excitedly (with the occasional daft jogger puncturing that sense of stepping outside of the everyday).

As we get even higher, the panorama unfolds on other sides than North. Our gaze follows the shore line towards North Berwick, Sharon’s childhood home. The last leg is a short steep climb – or a bit of scramble, it’s so eroded. The summit is marked by a trig point, and in fact the stones surrounding this are so polished by feet that they are impossibly slippery (as Sharon finds out). Having made it to the top, we decide to head down to a plateau below, on the south, to get a different view of the city. The ground is marked with stone graffiti (words spelt out using stones), the rather serious nationalist sentiment of ‘Freedom’, placed within a saltire, humorously undercut by the ‘Highland Fling’ close by. It’s not even noon yet, so we sit for a while on the short grass, basking in the sun, continuing to make up for lost time, a making up that probably relies more on our accounts of the daily than our tales of the dramatic.

Part of Sharon’s plans for the day (our ‘day package’) is some respite in that Edinburgh institution, the deli-restaurant Valvona and Crolla (a bit of effort rewarded by a lot of treat). Our descent takes us on a different, slightly boggier route and at the bottom we head in what we think is a Westerly direction, hoping that our instincts (or noses) will lead us to the pasta and white wine. Remarkably, it does (with a little help from a local). On the train home to Glasgow, we’re still a bit red in the face – a healthy combination, probably, of sun and refreshment.

To our shame, I must admit that neither Sharon nor I know why Arthur’s Seat is called Arthur’s Seat. Sharon, a primary teacher, promises to find out and let me know. And we both promise to get together again soon.

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