A Doors Open Day Marathon

Yes, a marathon! 26 venues.

A huge debt of appreciation is due to the behind-the-scenes office workers at the Cockburn Association and Civic Trust for organising Doors Open weekend. Their office was the penultimate venue I visited, tucked away down narrow Trunk’s Close, next to John Knox’s house on the Royal Mile. As the Doors Open doors closed, my feet were sore but my head was buzzing happily with fascinating insights, warm welcomes and beautiful experiences. Which venues, and why twenty-six?

I returned to Edinburgh last year after seven years abroad in hot, dry, dusty places, where Scotland’s lush countryside was to die for. So, back home, I’ve been enjoying my city with heightened awareness: the autumn colours and deliciously crunchy leaves, the Norwegian-gifted Christmas tree on The Mound, the daffodils in Princes Street Gardens and, of course, the delights of the Festivals. So, when Doors Open weekend presented so many opportunities, I decided to grasp them with both hands.

How to choose? Of the 115 venues on offer, I totted up that I had already visited 17, so chose not to repeat. Should I favour those where I already had an interest? No – better to extend my borders. I decided to leave the car at home, take a bus to the first venue, then rely on Shanks’ pony. Admittedly I was confined to manageable distances, but it precluded the hassle and expense of parking. Should I take in guided tours? Mostly not, because the timing would be restricting, then there might be the problem of cerebral overload…

So I started with some of the Edinburgh University venues, and soon realised that Doors Open day coincided with University Open Day, so middle-aged sight-seers clutching Doors Open brochures and city maps mingled with eager young hopefuls (and sometimes their mums) finding their way around the campus. The atmosphere was enlivened by a couple of outdoor brass band ensembles entertaining the passersby, and affable old gents in uniform, with a badge Can I help you?

If the beautifully refurbished main library indicated a hard-working student environment, then the comfortable old Teviot Row House, home to student union activities, gave a sense of balance. Right next to the MacEwan Hall, not looking its best under layers of scaffolding, is the Reid Concert Hall, which hosts lectures, performances and concerts and which houses a small but fascinating museum collection of musical instruments from every section of the orchestra. There I learned that the ophicleide was the forerunner of the saxophone – that Adolphe Sax exchanged its small trumpet mouthpiece for a reed, and, as its shape evolved, so the saxophone was born.

To balance arts and sciences, I trudged up the 52 steps to the anatomical museum for a glimpse of both historical and contemporary material used by anatomy students. (Do they use the elephant and gorilla skeletons, I wonder, or the rhino’s vertebrae or whale’s jawbone?)

Off the quadrangle of the Old College on South Bridge is the Playfair Library, an elegant hall where Sir Walter Scott and Mrs Margaret Oliphant, prolific writers of their day, were willing to pose for photos.

At the University’s Centre for Carbon Innovation, I expected a scientific lecture, but for Doors Open day, the centre was showing more of its elegant refurbishment than its scientific enquiry. The rebuild project successfully preserved the heritage of the Old High School while transforming the interior into an attractive, functional, light work-and-study space, winning an award as ‘an exemplar of social, economic and environmental sustainability’. During the excavations the skeleton of a knight was discovered, with the plaque that marked him out as a nobleman.

Of the various court rooms open to the public I visited the Supreme Court and the Sheriff Courts, where the stunning ceiling  pictured above left can be seen and the trial of Dr Edward William Pritchard (1825 – 1865) was taking place. He was convicted of contempt of court, false witness, stealing, adultery and finally of two murders, for which he received the death sentence on 28 July 1865, the last man to be executed publicly in Glasgow.

Edinburgh boasts many beautiful Victorian and Georgian buildings, many of them hidden away behind tenements, often with picturesque spiral staircases or galleries, most in beautiful condition or, like Riddles Court, about to undergo refurbishment. What a privilege to be allowed to peep behind the scenes at an elegant household when the pace of life was slower and the rich and influential were often generous philanthropists. It was an era of stunning ceilings and domes, cupolas and murals. Wonderful examples are Leith Town Hall and the Merchants’ Hall in Hanover Street.

Some places might remain unnoticed by the unobservant passerby, except for Doors Open day: Stills’ photography centre on Cockburn Street, currently with an exhibition of war photos; the Edinburgh Printmakers on Union Street with a Japanese-themed exhibition by Nana Shiomi, entitled Reverse Universe; and a real hidden ‘gem’ – The Scottish Mineral and Lapidary Club in Leith. There I broke my no-guided-tours rule, and enjoyed a lesson from Wendy on how to recognise, cut and polish gem stones. She showed us how some gems glow in ultra violet light, and how diamond-edged wheels can cut gems but not fingers! Less subtle is Summerhall, previously the Royal ‘Dick’ Vet School, with its current large-scale colourful sculpture comprised of old furniture.

Community art work on display at the City of Edinburgh Methodist ChurchSome of the churches displayed harvest gifts, community artwork such as this, on display at the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church and neighbourhood involvement, as well as attractive, comfortable, refurbished interiors.

The Indian summer blessed us with two fine, warm days, so access to the (usually private) gardens in Queen Street (east, central and west) meant a welcome oasis in the middle of the busy city trek.

There were so many places I’d have loved to visit, some out-of-town venues and some ticket-only ones, but in my estimation the Number One venue was the Cyrenians Fareshare Depot in Leith, not for the beauty of their warehouse and walk-in fridges (organised and functional) but for the magnificent work they do for the less advantaged of Edinburgh. Their display featured the dozens of supermarkets and shops who support them with gifts of food. Fareshare is open10 hours a day every day and run almost entirely by volunteers who drive, collect, stack, categorise, clean and distribute food to the many organisations who benefit from these gifts. They also have a well-equipped kitchen where they teach cooking with its attendant skills of budgeting, nutrition and hygiene to anyone in need. Their kitchen table is a friendly place of community and encouragement.

Finally a resounding Well Done and Thank You to the friendly, welcoming individuals and teams at every venue I visited. The weekend was as good as a holiday.

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