Tom Lappin surveys the best finds at Edinburgh’s Doors Open Days 2012
TIME to let a little light in. The capital’s critics (and we’re looking west here, aren’t we?) have often accused Edinburgh of conducting its business behind closed doors.
It can seem that way, particularly to those excluded from the circles of the Edinburgh establishment, which revolve around schools, professional institutions, clubs and societies.
Once a year, however, the curious, voyeuristic and just plain nosy get to pry within the hallowed walls of Edinburgh’s institutions, historical edifices and follies. Doors Open Days is a glimpse of the city’s repressed identity. It’s a chance to poke around the civic mechanism of the capital across 121 venues. This year, it’s on the weekend of 22 and 23 September.
George Heriot’s School, on Lauriston Place, has been educating the offspring of the great and good of Edinburgh’s middle-classes for four centuries, with the occasional bad apple thrown in (Deacon Brodie was once a governor). It was established in 1628 to instil some learning into “fatherless bairns”, so long as they were “friemenes sones”.
History clings to the flagstones in the school’s old courtyard, still showing the engraved numbers where its pupils of the 17th century assembled in rows. The chapel has that antique wood whiff of centuries of piety, while the lists of Captains of the School is the sort of thing that could inspire an entire Alan Bennett trilogy. Heriot’s has an austere kind of beauty, leavened by the shrieks of contemporary pupils tapping out their LOL-texts and Facebook updates beneath the impressive Victorian hammerbeam roof of the school hall.
The sports wing, completed in January, may be ultra-modern – all sprung wood floors and basketball courts – but it squeezes into a corner within a World Heritage site that is a microcosm of Old Town industry and education. Heriot’s carries its history lightly but proudly in the imposing architecture of the old Council Room and the former refectory with its immense stone fireplaces.
From the tarmac you have a privileged view of the Castle Esplanade looming above. One of those persistent school legends tells of a piper setting off down one of the tunnels leading under the school playground towards the castle. The boys followed the skirl until it died away, and the piper was never heard of again.
Edinburgh’s reputation as a seat of learning has been closely linked to the medical profession. The Royal College of Physicians was established in 1681. Its present Queen Street premises offers a neat compromise between Regency elegance and the Victorian work ethic. The great hall boasts Corinthian pillars in a convincing imitation of ochre marble, even if they are lath and plaster.
The library is one of the medical profession’s most valuable archives. One of the more remarkable items found here was a copy of the autopsy of Napoleon Bonaparte, included in the correspondence of eminent Edinburgh physician John Abercrombie. Those conspiracy theorists who like to blame the Emperor’s demise on poisoned wallpaper will have been disappointed to learn that Old Boney was disconcertingly fat and was riddled with cancerous tumours.
The College’s Cullen Suite has been preserved as one of Edinburgh’s earliest New Town houses. The rooms with original plaster and pastel blue decorative flourishes, lit by enormous Georgian windows, provide the ideal setting for one of those multi-layered conversations in a Jane Austen novel, perhaps before the characters wander out to admire the medicinal plants in the Physic Garden. Unsurprisingly it’s a popular venue for weddings.
The College’s most surprising feature is its state-of-the-art modern auditorium and lecture theatre, concealed within an antique New Town edifice, a reminder that the College offers a functional rather than merely decorative environment.
Sir Walter Scott might have enjoyed the thought that a monument to his literary accomplishments features a soundtrack of the distant roars of big cats and shrieks of chimps, even if they emanate from Edinburgh Zoo. While the monument on Princes Street evokes the writer as a pillar of the Edinburgh literary establishment, Corstorphine Tower seems more in keeping with his role as a romancier, a spinner of racy adventure stories.
This stone-built Victorian folly atop Corstorphine Hill is one of Edinburgh Council’s more esoteric possessions. Viewed through the foliage it could be a desolate tower from one of Scott’s novels. It’s there to be climbed, the narrow staircase leading to the viewing platform, although outside the Doors Open days, it’s open only on Sunday summer afternoons, a characteristic touch of Edinburgh parsimony. It’s worth it for the panoramic views encompassing the city and over the Firth, from the Pentlands to the Trossachs, a literary lookout over some of Scott’s empire.
Edinburgh has a great affection for its maroon buses, the suburban links that take Maisie to the Botanic Gardens. Last year, the Lothian Bus Depot on Annandale Street was one of the biggest draws of the Doors Open Days, as crowds flocked to enjoy a rare glimpse of the home of the municipal company which still manages to defy the rapacious competition of the unloved First Group.
The depot began life as an Exhibition Hall, knocked up in a few weeks in 1922 to house funfairs, motor shows and trades fairs. Edinburgh was never going to be an international centre of commerce, and the buses moved in four years later.
There are vintage buses on show here from the 50s through to the latest eco-friendly models. Kids may be initially underwhelmed when the “bus tour” leaves the garage, takes an immediate U-turn and goes slowly back through the bus wash, but the narrative is sufficiently engrossing to make up for the dearth of open road.
Modernity strikes the venerable old capital in surprising ways. The Scottish Parliament aside, it’s not a city that has been overly keen to embrace the shock of the new, but there are exceptions. Doors Open Days highlights architectural innovation in the graceful curves of the Linburn Centre in Wilkieston, an ingenious Eco House in Currie and the striking McNeil House, blending with a Murrayfield hillside. • Doors Open Days in Edinburgh 2012 is on Saturday and Sunday, 22 and 23 September. See doorsopendays.org.uk
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
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Wind direction: West