I've been going to Scotland's home matches in the 6 Nations (and previously 5 Nations) rugby tournament for close on 2 decades now (scary!). Irrespective of the score and the weather it's still a great day out with friends that I've known for ages. Today it was the Scotland-England Calcutta Cup game in the late afternoon kick-off match and this would let me try a few pubs in Edinburgh city centre, attempt to get a few beers in the packed pubs & bars and then meet up with my pals nearer Murrayfield. On a day like today there was no way I would be able to get the hi-res photos and pub descriptions that I would normally try for, but hopefully these iPhone camera images will suffice.
First off was the problem of trying to get to Edinburgh by train. With four trains an hour from Glasgow Queen Street this is not normally too difficult, but on Rugby Days it can be a real test of patience and endurance. I've seen (and been in) queues which can snake all the way from the Queen Street concourse, around 3 sides of Queen Street car park and then back up North Hannover Street to almost Bath Street - a waiting time of an hour or more. However as of last year there is a 'secret' route if you come from the west of Glasgow - a direct train from Milngavie to Edinburgh through Queen Street low-level on the Airdrie/Bathgate line. It's maybe 15-20 minutes longer than taking 2 trains on a 'normal' day, but today it was by far the best option.
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Outward transport was as follows:-
Train: Glasgow Westerton to Edinburgh Waverley (Airdie/Bathgate line)
First stop after leaving the south/rear exit of Waverley Station was the Half Way House, situated approximately 'half-way' up the steep steps of Fleshmarket Close.
It's a really, really small pub, and difficult enough to find elbow space in at the best of times, but today it was nigh on impossible. A group of England fans had encamped on most of the seats since opening time (probably since last night) and were quite happy to get involved in some banter (and some singing - not so good). There's normally a decent selection of Scottish or North-East England beers - today there was Tempest Into the Light, Kelburn Red Smiddy, Inveralmond Independance and Wells Bombardier(!?) - it seemed as if most of the England fans were taking the Bombardier - more fool them with all the other offerings available!
I decided that some sustenance was required to start the day and went for the Cullen Skink - nice and filling with all that cream, tatties and fish. However it was a bit of a pain to eat standing up and almost wedged into the coatstand (only slight exaggeration!).
After this I climbed the rest of the steps, crossed the Royal Mile and descended down to the Cowgate, past tourists waiting for their 'free' walking tour and into Brewdog Edinburgh.
I had high hopes that this might be 'relatively' quiet since there wouldn't be any TV screens for the early 6-Nations game (France v Italy) and it's not really the type of place for throwing masses of pints down your neck, and I was right - it was very quiet - in fact there was almost tumbleweed blowing through some parts of the bar (not likely to be the case come the evening I suspect).
The staff here are still great - dealing informatively with the people who knew what they wanted to drink and more patiently with those who didn't. Say what you want about Brewdog's marketing, occasional crass pronouncements etc... but Mr Bruce Gray really does train the staff well. I was given a sample of the Evil Twin The Talented Mr. Orangutan and then went for a 1/3 pint - a great orange sherbertiness to go with the dark chocolate base stout.
Next I walked along the Cowgate to the start of the Grassmarket and up to the Bow Bar which was almost at the end of its Winter Beer Festival (preview here).
My guess was that the Bow was going to be completely stowed out and that was proved to be completely correct. The 5 minutes or so that it took me to get to the bar meant that I could peruse the beer board and try to make my choices from the great selection available.
I went for the Deeside Talorcan, a great chocolatey, amazingly smooth stout (think they use whey in this) and the Brodies Hoxton IPA, very bitter and almost oily - both were great beers. I managed to persuade a couple of guys to also try the Talorcan - a few pints of their original choice (Profanity Stout @ 7% abv) would have meant they would have probably missed the game! I could have quite happily stayed in the Bow all afternoon, but eventually had to leave, for some fresh air if nothing else, making my way slowly through the very polite clientèle to the door.
I gave the rest of the bars in the Grassmarket area a miss and headed out through the West Port - past guys kicking rugby balls high into the sky, fast food stalls, pipers & drummers busking their trade and (very) confused tourists to Blue Blazer.
It was busy, but not completely packed out, with space in both the main bar and the large adjoining room. They normally have a good selection of Scottish beer and today was no exception with 3x Stewart, Orkney, Cairngorm and 2x Knops Beers on. I chose a half of the Knops 3 Threads, a blend of his first 3 beers in a cool, heavy stemmed 1/2 pint glass and it tasted really smooth up-front, but seemed to have a slightly tart after-taste - it was possibly close to the end of the cask - damn!
I then crossed Lothian Road (somehow managing to resist the temptations of Cloisters up the road) and headed vaguely towards Haymarket and William Street via 4 cash machines (3 having no money). A couple of the pubs in William Street are very good, Bert's Bar (now a Maclays pub) & Teuchters, but I was meeting my friends in The Melville because the place has a child license until 8pm and one of my friends was bring was bringing his son along to the game.
The Meville was really busy due to the 4 large screen TVs and the fact that the France-Italy game had just started. There's only Caledonian Deuchars IPA and 80/- on hand-pull and they go through an incredible amount of it. My friends and I are now well known to the main barman and some of the staff that are in for the 6-Nations games (they coo over my friend's son) so we can normally get served fairly easily when one of us eventually percolates to the front of the bar - not queue jumping, just good non-verbal communication.
Between about an hour or 45 minutes to go before kick-off everyone leaves the pubs and heads out to Murrayfield. There were a lot of roadworks to dodge today but it was still like a human wall of people heading out past Haymarket Station and the Donaldson's College building to Roseburn Street. Normally the traffic stops, but sometimes you get a lone car or bus attempting to make it against the pedestrian flow - with panic on the poor driver's face!
Today all the turnstiles were open at the stadium and the crowd flowed in without too much of a problem. I had a quick look at the huge temporary bars in the ground but could only see Carling, Guinness or Caffreys (didn't know this still existed) and some sort of cider - an absolutely stunning choice - not! I went for Bovril because it was a more palatable alternative and because it kept my hands warm for a few milliseconds at a time.
We had seats high, high, high up in the East Stand, but there's still a great atmosphere when the National Anthems are sung and you get involved in the singing between the different supporters. One of my friends also referees the match somewhat differently to the match officials which can cause a few heads to turn!
The result today - well a fairly lucky win for England with some debatable decisions not going Scotland's way (whinge over).
After the game it was even more a crush to get out of the ground and back to the city centre, not helped by the roadworks and diversions today (for the semi-mythical trams).
When we arrived back in William Street the pubs were far busier than earlier and people spilled out onto the street for the best part of a couple of hours.
After a couple of additional Deuchars's (Deuchari ?) I bade my friends farewell and made my way to Haymarket Station (note that the main entrance into the station was closed for over an hour after the game), but had just enough time to drop into the newly revamped Haymarket Bar, now a Mitchells & Butlers pub. The line up of 12 hand-pulls in a row is pretty impressive, but I only had time for one very swift half and went for my first ever Moor beer, the Amoor - a great coffee'n'hazelnuts porter.
I'd definitely recommend this as a day out experience to try at least once - it's expensive (but most 'events' are nowadays), but a great deal of fun and the memories stay for a long time.
Return transport was as follows:-
Train: Edinburgh Haymarket to Glasgow Queen Street