A Day out with Elspeth in The Real Mary King’s Close

When I say a day, I mean an hour. That’s how long it lasts. For £15.

Let me put this Edinburgh Royal Mile attraction’s entry fee into perspective. It’s up to double a cinema ticket, which lasts twice as long. £15 is what you’d pay to go round a stately home – with grounds. It’s almost 50% more than the palace less than a mile away, and unlike many other museums (of course many of which are free, even the big ones), you can’t spend half a day here, and you can’t come back unlimited times within a year, or even the week. Nope, £15 (or £13 for concessions, which they are miserly about) and you have your 60 minutes, once – and then it’s over.

You don’t get a guidebook with that – that is extra. They try to flog you a photo they take during the tour – unwarned – which also means that they have a record of who’s been. Once you leave, you are greeted by staff in tacky Scots outfits saying, buy a guide and that photo we took.

I believe that photography is banned for two reasons – for this snap to be exclusive so that you buy it, and to not reveal how little there is to see for your money.

We knew we needed no gismos, just great story telling, say the Continuum group who run the attraction. They created the sight, sound and sometimes smell historic experiences at Canterbury Tales, York’s Jorvik (no longer theirs – they’ve now got chocolate instead), Oxford’s Story (now they’ve just got the castle) and they also had Dover’s White Cliffs Experience. But York and Canterbury’s rides through history are about 1/3 less money than this is.

And in these other cities, Continuum created worlds – Saxon streets, medieval pilgrimages. You often rode round on something – at Oxford, it was a bike. There are tableaus and recreated sets; famous actors often provided the voices for the audio guide.

 

Yet at Edinburgh, they recreate nothing. The city’s only ride is to be found at the Whisky distillery (also cheaper, as are the other tours). Unlike at Great Yarmouth which also has wee streets to pack in its pre-Georgian population, there’s no recreated row here. You only see actual Mary King’s Close at the end – with the photo – and it’s the best looking part. The hanging washing’s not accurate, we we told – so why is it there, at a site which often boasts of its authentic and academic research?

We are often in the homes of the relatively wealthy, but there’s only the tiniest mock up of one – like a no budget movie. The “Changing Room” is a delicate chamber held up with joists. The guidebook shows how this might have looked in successive centuries. There is nothing down there to show this – no model, picture or projections over the walls.

You quickly realise that you are being taken down into a series of indistinguishable windowless rooms, lit by tiny torches – a joke much like the Blarney Stone. Is that why it’s called the “Real” close – is that shorthand for “we’ve done sod all to how we found it, even after 15 years of having the site, yet charge as if we’d rebuilt it!”

They do use gismos once: talking portraits which interact with each other, but it’s that false acting with little information, and it didn’t last long.

And everyone working at the Close is very young – too young for the roles they play. This is the post student, aspiring actor den of the distinctly under 30. Yet the quality of the tour I went on was not something requiring an equity card. The stories (and there were really few actual narratives) are not engagingly regaled.

So with tours of up to a dozen every fifteen minutes, daily, year round (and some evenings too) these are the best paid heritage interpreters I’ve come across. Or is the money making its way higher up the echelons of the close?

The cost of entry is omitted from the leaflets ubiquitous across Scotland and even from the boards outside.

And what are we really paying for? Insurance? Bumping up the taxes of the City Council above, who own the site?

The guide book is more informative than the tour – and also hints that the lack of pictures of the actual tour must mean that there is little to see. When you’ve got a full page of 17th C handwriting, you know they’re scrabbling to illustrate the book.

The latest leaflet claims that there is new for this year an “enhanced visitor” experience and a pre tour exhibition. You stand for about 15 minutes in a tiny room not big enough to accommodate the size of the tour with a model of the Close (which was already there – I have an older guidebook to prove it) and a very short video which constantly tells you that this is a world class award winning visitor attraction.

It is no such thing, and the boast set up higher expectations which rankled all the more when, unlike Continuum’s claim about their brief, was not fulfilled at all. The tone of their website and its trendy business speak did nothing to impress or appeal.

And using universities just keeps knowledge in a small preserve, one which eschews spirituality (or in the past, propounds only its own brand), speaks for the establishment (ie Edinburgh’s council) and therefore offers no critique of the treatment in all senses of those who lived here. Spirituality is important to Mary King’s Close: the faiths of those who lived there and those infamous spirits that visitors came for a score before Continuum opened the attraction in 2002.

The supposed sign of academic kudos comes in the form of continuous mentions of money – which is not of interest or the way to evaluate.

I had no sense of a story of Ms King (yet another successful trader, something we hear too much about in history tours) or anyone else.

It seems the council is making money from its uninhabitable basement.

It’s not funny, informative, interesting or even scary. I was often bored.

Edinburgh’s is stuffed with closes, freely accessible in both senses. They are other cheaper tours, some of which also take you underground. You can visit contemporary buildings along the Mile at The Writers’ Museum, Riddell’s Court, Gladstone’s Land, John Knox’s House and The Museum of Edinburgh.

You don’t need this.

Save your money and time and go and find another of the nearly 30 attractions that Edinburgh has – many of which are on the same street.

After fulfilling a 10 year ambition, I felt a real sense of being cheated.

Hence I have been as cauterizing as those plague doctors.

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A Day Out With Elspeth in Southwold and Walberswick

Before I introduce you to these Suffolk seaside places, I would like to speak of the kindness I found in nearby Halesworth. Not only the friendliness at the event I attended, but when something went wrong, and from strangers in the street.

 

Southwold’s inhabitants were nice too; I didn’t encounter a soul in the other half of Sole bay. But before I praise, I must critique getting there – heavily.

 

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Southwold by public transport is pretty difficult. You can bus from Beccles, Lowestoft or Norwich, and if with the right network, this may coast as little as £7 for your return journey. But you need a strong stomach for 2 hours of bussing, only hourly, and which ends with the afternoon. So I opted for the train, with a 3 in 7 rover ticket which aren’t well advertised and nor as they quite as good value as they were. You need to choose your journey well and probably cross a county border and not get off and on too much to make it worthwhile. I couldn’t add Halesworth (the nearest station) to Southwold by bus onto my ticket, meaning that in one sense, I’d save only £3 with my ranger ticket. But not only did I save my stomach but it was possible to stay out late for another activity, which you learn about on my cinema blog.

 

Halesworth station is on the East Suffolk line between Ipswich and Lowestoft. It has information about ongoing journeys, but not in a place you’d easily see. It’s out of date – the 520 bus has become the family of 88s, which is what you need for Southwold. Getting the add on with your train ticket is no advantage – it costs that much anyway. And they don’t tell you where to stand for the bus – which is on the non station building side, the platform that you’d board towards Ipswich. Locals calls it “uphill”. It’s right by the platform exit, but there’s no real time info boards. And when the yellow and blue Anglian bus arrives, it goes right past and you think you’re abandoned – but no, it’s turning round. It does that too at the Southwold end, so don’t panic. Yes, I did a bit. No, the buses do not liaise well with the train times. They will – I’m working on it!

 

Nearly 400 words and we’re not even there yet. The bus flies (I do mean FLY) through narrow lanes of countryside, but the one thing to pick out is Blythburgh with its exaggerated church hovering over (not dominating) the marshes and wide water. It’s the only thing you’ll see on the way back if you travel after dark; there’s no landmarks, no announcements or information, and I only found Halesworth with the help of a passenger who told me to look for a white sign with a wheatsheaf to ring the bell and be dropped back on a residential road by Halesworth station.

 

Southwold no longer has a station; again I curse Beeching, even though it was shut in the 1920s (but they’re trying to bring it back – hurrah!). The track is now a path for walkers but its narrow gauge I don’t think is very suitable for cyclists as well. Its bridge is the only way across the river Blyth. Cars have about 8 miles to get from Southwold to the village of Walberswick, which you can easily see. But even walkers have about 3 miles of MUD (do hear that) and again, not often suitable for cycles. The ferry site has one of the signs that I also noted in Woodbridge and despise, the many “private” “authorised” “prohibited” signs that are favourites of riversides. It looked pretty scruffy and muddy here too, and I couldn’t believe that there were threats about using the ferry’s jetty out of season, but it’s obligatory to stand on it if you want to use that little boat when the unspecified season is here as the only direct way across to Southwold.

 

Since we’ve crossed the river and are talking about it and almost in it, let me do Walberswick first. Let me explain why I wanted to encounter all that mud and waste the best light of the day and most of the shop opening hours in a vast common.

 

Because of the Bridge. What bridge? The tourist info (very helpful), didn’t know about it. Not a bridge you’d photograph for its own right, although it has been painted. By Philip Wilson Steer, an impressionist, who like his chum Charles Rennie Mackintosh, came to stay and paint at Walberswick. And Maggie Hemingway imagined the story behind his painting, and it was made into a film starring Saskia Reeves, about an affair with the lady of the manor. Remember it now? It’s flawed but both book and film haunt me, even after 20 years. I couldn’t find a plaque but I thought I found the bridge – there are two, dull they might seem, unless you imagine the story. And you walk the dunes where Philip becomes infatuated and the beach huts where….

 

Again, all this is accessible on foot only. I’m not sure where you’d put a bike and certainly not a car as there’s lots of polite “residents* parking only” signs, but where do you put your jalopy in Walberswick? Many *residents are temporary, so why do they get parking rights before other visitors? The village seems to spread towards the church, which is a half a ruin. but as it took longer than I was estimated to get here AND the tea rooms were both shut (for sale and out of season), I was too hungry to find out more; I had those posh shops to judge on the other side of the Blyth.

 

So I will have to leave a full Steer and Mackintosh trail for another time. I will say that there are at least toilets here, out of season too, and better than a lot of seaside ones, but no mirrors. And Walberswick does have a something – not pretty in a Lavenham way, but I am gleaning that a local builder created the look of an old and varied village. If you know more about Walberswick than I, please tell me. I am frustrated in my attempts to learn much so far.

 

So, we’re nearing the landmark that tells you you’re nearly in Southwold. Not the 100ft high church tower – a favourite of mine; not the Lighthouse, and not yet the pier. No, Southwold is first announced by a water tower. When you’re on that bus, or back from 2 hours in the mud, you’re glad to see it. It’s surrounded by bracken and golf course. But soon, you’re near the bus stop (no station here – just two shelters for all routes and directions). They call it the Kings’ Head stop, but I think it should be called Fat Face, since that clothes shop is more obvious.

 

And you’re near Adnams, which for those of you not local, is the beer maker and wine importer who has a large shop and a cafe, as well as a brewery to tour. The church isn’t far, but the gabled local museum by the edge of its yard has short seasonal opening hours.

 

The church will be talked of more on my churches quest, but it is one of my favourites in the region, but not quite right…. I felt affection more than admiration after I’d looked round. I so wish I’d had a camera as the light was perfect (I’m without one at present but I will put pictures of some kind up). There’s a an unstaffed shop inside, and a nice atmosphere, and several things are coloured in – the pulpit, screen, font, and the roof of the choir. At 160ft long, it is quite large, but not enormous.

 

My thought was – where is the Southwold that built this church? For I didn’t see any timbered frontages and much seems Georgian or Victorian. But peeking inside, you can seek that some shops have beams. And that there was a 17th C town fire which required major rebuilding. The fishing lanes have become greens for the gentry. There was little individually that stood out for me building-wise.

 

My other test was the pier, where I got off the bus. I thought that Southwold was Suffolk’s Fritton on Sea – ie a cheapy and rowdy free seaside, all very upmarket. But I’m greeted by something like Felixstowe c1950 – a pink lumpy building filled with rowdy slot machines. Was this really Southwold I’d got off in, or Yarmouth’s little sister? But I soon escaped the amusement arcade and walked out onto the pier itself, rebuilt c2001. I do like a stroll on a pier. But this one isn’t architecturally outstanding, now that I’ve walked on a few – no pavilion to give it a focus, and it seems (a bit like Brighton) to be of a different world to the rest of the town. But you can shop and get tea here (hints of Southwold’s persona were coming out) and there was a hilarious slot machine heralding: “Businessmen pay for awards, now so can you” and it squashed a ten pence piece into a pseudo medal. I thought that the idea was funnier than the outcome.

 

Turning round from the pier is telling, and often enthralling. It changed my view of Worthing, it’s a delight to do in Cromer. Southwold felt like there was something missing. Yes, I can see the coloured beach huts (which loads of places have) and the lighthouse; but the north (right) side felt it needed a feature. All I could see was the dun coloured eroding cliffs. There felt a ghost of something missing, and not just the sort distilled by Adnams.

 

I felt that Southwold was giving up its secrets all to quickly, and that there wasn’t much of reveal. I’d found the little cinema, down a backstreet (not the one on the 3D map, it’s a mistake, it’s on Black Mill Road, near Adnams and the buses). But it’s out of season so no leaflets even, and buying a ticket sounds a complicated affair, where there are 15 members’ bums per seat and Ecclesiastical times to book and not to book, depending on the moon… I felt it would craze me, not being able to just visit. So my cinema blog does not yet feature the Electric Picture Palace, hewn from a garage and a cartshed.

 

But finding the high street, I did start to enjoy myself. Sadly, Mr Steer had taken up much of my time and some shops by 4pm were already closed, and all felt like they were about to get their hoovers out any minute, so I didn’t get much browsing time. As dark drew on, Southwold felt dead, and that anywhere open for evening meals was not yet receiving visitors for an hour or two.

 

Hence my return to the joggedly bus in the dark and part 3 of my day…

 

But I later felt anger at the way Southwold has evolved and who has evolved it and why. It links in with my Counting Thief thoughts from a recent sermon – about money and value and snobbery. But I will say that the Southwold I met today was not that of London weekenders, but of pleasant people who seemed to belong here. So perhaps it’s what other people say as much as what I actually found. Is posh bad? Is migration wrong? Is having money or a plummy accent or a holiday wrong? No. And certainly not classy shops and cafes. But is outpricing locals and taking over wrong, of spreading the insidious City into the provinces… YES. Another pillar I’ll be talking about on my other blog is that of property. I’ll cease here, but will say that I will try not to judge without meeting people and that I am aware of my prejudices as much as my principles.