One delightful assistant visits Edinburgh

Earlier this week, while delightful assistant no.1 was living it up with her eldest daughter in the Scottish highlands on a short holiday, delightful assistant no.2 nipped down to Edinburgh with their chauffeur for a day out.

About halfway to their destination they called in at the motorway service station by Kinross.

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This particular service station not only provided nice Costa coffee, but 20% discount on same thanks to membership of the AA (Automobile Association). Two cappuccinos were ordered, along with a slice of lemon drizzle cake to share.

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The cake was cut into small chunks and enjoyed in a leisurely manner with the coffee and a newspaper apiece.

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When they had finished their snack, they got back into the car and proceeded in a southerly direction towards Edinburgh.

It had been their intention to visit the Our Dynamic Earth attraction, but when they arrived they found the car park was full. They hadn’t bargained on this and weren’t sure where else they might park, so they decided on a change of plan.

When thinking what they might do on their day out, a visit to the National Museum of Scotland had been considered. Having parked in a multi-storey car park near there once before, they decided to do the same again on this occasion. However, on reaching the entrance road for the car park they found their way was blocked due to roadworks. The car in front slowed down to ask a workman for directions, and when our daring duo did the same the workman simply said ‘Follow that car in front’.

Unfortunately, the car in front had not understood the directions given and both cars ended up at the bottom of a dead-end street. The car in front didn’t seem sure what to do about this, but decided to turn and drive off in a different direction. The delightful assistant and his chauffeur were not so keen to give up on the car park. It looked to them as if driving the wrong way down a one-way street might allow them to reach the car park entrance. They opted for this little bit of unruly behaviour and were rewarded with the entrance to the car park.

It had been a slightly stressful business, not helped by the fact that the Edinburgh cityscape had become bewildering due to new and disorientating building projects. By the time delightful assistant got out of the car park and out into the fresh air, he felt a mixture of relief and confusion.

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“I’m utterly discombobulated.” – delightful assistant no.2

They slowly recovered their sangfroid as they made their way to the museum, along streets familiar to them both from days gone by. Delightful assistant no.2 was enjoying reminiscing about his youth, when something stopped him in his tracks. Chambers Street, the location of the museum, was missing one of its landmarks.

In his youth, delightful assistant no.2 had walked along Chambers Street on his way to George Heriot’s School. Traversing this route he regularly passed a statue of Scottish engineer, James Watt, located outside what was then Heriot Watt University, opposite the National Museum.

Standing in Chambers Street in 2016, to his dismay, James Watt had completely disappeared. He looked at the empty space and wondered what had become of this old friend. Alas, there was no telling.

They entered the museum by what was, to them, a new entrance. Again, a feeling of disorientation came over delightful assistant no.2. Puzzled, he allowed his chauffeur to guide him upwards to the main hall, a space in which he immediately felt more at home. He sat down on a bench and got his bearings, studying a paper map of the museum.

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Delightful assistant no.2 seated at the left of a bench seat within the cavernous space of the museum’s great hall.

After a brief look at some stuffed animals, they moved onto the ‘Earth in Space’ exhibition, which contained a telescope from the Royal Observatory where delightful assistant no.2 used to work. He remembered the instrument and enjoyed reacquainting himself with it. After watching a short film about space, the chauffeur felt her stomach was telling her it was time for a spot of refreshment. It was after 12:30 and luncheon was calling.

On their way out of the museum, delightful assistant no.2 had a joyful experience when he bumped into an old chum. The statue of James Watt that had vanished from Chambers Street had been rehoused in the museum. He gazed upon it fondly.

They had previously decided to have lunch at a vegetarian restaurant off the Royal Mile, which was close to Our Dynamic Earth. They stuck to this plan and made their way towards it. En route, they passed along streets delightful assistant no.2 particularly remembered from his student days. As they approached High School Yards, he couldn’t resist popping into the Edinburgh University complex to have a look for his old office.

Way back in the 1950s, after completing a degree in physics, he chose to stay on at the university to study aurora borealis (the northern lights) as a PhD student. During this time he had an office on the ground floor of the physics department. He remembered exactly where it was, and led his chauffeur along a pigeon-infested alleyway to get to it.

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Along at the far end, he had a look in the window and the memories came flooding back.

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It was inside this office that a young delightful assistant slapped a slightly older Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, over the wrist in 1957.

1957 was designated the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a huge project involving dozens of different countries around the world, and Prince Philip was one of the organisation’s patrons. Meanwhile, delightful assistant no.2 was sitting in Drummond Street, pleasantly occupied in considering the wonders of the universe. The office in which he did this, previously known as Room No.1 of the University of Edinburgh’s physics department, was renamed the Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory for the IGY and it fell to delightful assistant no.2 to turn the one-desk-and-a-chair set-up into something more impressive that might live up to its new name.

One of the first things he did was to order headed notepaper, blue ink on white paper, reading ‘Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory’ with the physics department’s address underneath. He also had one of the walls in the room lined with a thick, cork-like material (into which drawing pins could be stuck) and freshly coated with emulsion paint.

During the IGY Prince Philip toured various participating establishments, and when he turned up at the Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory it was delightful assistant no.2’s job to give him the guided tour. After amusing themselves with tiny dictionaries pinned to the board (there are many stories attached to this period in his life that one hopes he might write up at some point), delightful assistant no.2 showed his royal guest into the adjacent darkroom.

As well as being used for developing photographs of aurora, the darkroom housed an instrument used for viewing films. Purchased specially for the IGY, the film viewer was obtained in order to look at reels of film sent back from the Antarctic, where a British scientist was filming auroral displays. As the Duke and his guide entered the room, all light was extinguished and delightful assistant no.2 approached the film viewer. This was his big moment: he was about to wow his guest with a wonderful show of Antarctic aurora.

As he reached out to the machine, however, his hand found itself on top of another hand. The Duke, having noticed the film viewer on entering the room and presumably having come across such an instrument before, had dived in to take control of it first. Delightful assistant no.2 was having none of this. He  quickly brushed the Prince’s hand off the equipment, took a firm hold of the handle himself and proceeded to play the auroral footage to the chastised patron.

Nearly 60 years after the event, he stood outside the window of the Balfour Stewart Auroral Laboratory happily recalling this small victory for the common people.

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Having indulged himself to his satisfaction, delightful assistant no.2 trooped off with his chauffeur (regaling her all the way with stories from his colourful past) to David Bann’s restaurant at the bottom of St Mary’s Street.

It was many years since either of them had eaten at this fine establishment and they were very much looking forward to the food. The restaurant was quiet and restful, with few other diners. They sat at a table mulling over the menu and sipping fruity water from a carafe that had been brought to the table. The water contained sprigs of mint, slices of lemon and orange and bits of strawberry.

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When the waiter came to take their order, delightful assistant no.2 went for aubergine, chickpea and cashew koftas, served with roasted sweet potato in a spicy coconut, courgette and tomato sauce.

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His chauffeur had been tempted by that option but in the end went for smoked sesame tofu with udon noodles and stir fried vegetables.

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They greatly enjoyed their meals, but alas were too full for puddings afterwards.

After leaving the museum they had thought they would return there after lunch, but when they remembered how close they were to Our Dynamic Earth they decided to go there instead. It was a cold day and they were very glad of their woolly hats. No sooner had they entered the attraction than a welcoming member of staff greeted them with a smile and a gush of admiration for their headgear. “I saw you coming and I thought ‘what wonderful hats’.” She directed them to the reception desk, where they handed over the tickets they had bought online and received in return annual passes that would allow them to revisit the place as often as they liked over the coming 12 months.

Note: to anyone in the Edinburgh area considering a visit to Our Dynamic Earth, this offer is available until the end of October 2016. If you buy a single day ticket, you can convert it into an annual pass by downloading a voucher from the website – see here for details.

By this time it was getting on for mid-afternoon and, because they wanted to leave Edinburgh by 16:00, they didn’t have much time to look round the attraction. The bit they were particularly keen to visit was the ShowDome, a sort of cinema/planetarium showing films on the hour and the half hour. According to the lady at the ticket desk all showings were booked up until the 16:00 one. Hoping they might in fact be able to squeeze into an earlier show, they went in search of the friendly welcoming person to see if she could help. She advised them to hot-foot it to the ShowDome and throw themselves on the mercy of the usher on duty. They did this, but he told them the show that was just starting was already very full. They encouraged him to check if there were any spare seats at all and, as luck would have it, there were two seats available together at the end of a row. They were hustled inside the dome in the dark and fell into their seats as the film began.

What followed was 25 minutes of enthralling and educational animation that kept them gripped throughout. They left the attraction with a spring in their step, chuffed to bits by their interesting and fun-filled day.

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The forecourt of Our Dynamic Earth with the Scottish Parliament buildings behind.

On their way north they called in at Le Jardin Cafe near Kinross for refreshing pots of tea and a large shared apple and cinnamon scone with apple and kiwi jam. Unfortunately, the chauffeur was not on the ball enough to remember to take photographs of this important event, but the scone they shared looked very much like the one shown below, another apple and cinnamon scone photographed at the same establishment a while ago.

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16 thoughts on “One delightful assistant visits Edinburgh

    1. Thanks, Darlene, it was a very good day out. My dad has a lot of stories I wish he’d write down. He’d like to do it but hasn’t got round to it yet. The lunches were jolly tasty.

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  1. Wow you two are absolutely intrepid! I would have been pretty darn whacked after that day out. I’m so glad you did get to Dynamic Earth, and found James Watt, and had such good food. I’ve heard Davy Bann’s is a vegetarian mecca but have never been there. Hilarious story about Prince P. Good for your Dad!

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    1. Thanks, Christine. We did far more than I had imagined we would. My dad amazes me with his energy and stamina. I’m so glad Bann’s is still going strong, I’m not surprised it’s become something of an Edinburgh institution. I think my dad is quite proud of his royal-slapping moment.

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  2. What a day out! I really enjoyed reading about your dad’s dealings with Prince Philip. If your dad has loads of stories to tell, maybe it would be easier to record him telling them? My sister in law did that for my father in law (who had lots of stories to tell, too).

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  3. Wonderful post, Lorna. Enjoyed it so much. The lunch looked yummy, and Dynamic Earth was certainly worth taking time to squeeze into your afternoon. Your father seems to be such an interesting and colorful personality……. would love to hear some of his stories. Maybe he will write that book!

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    1. Thank you, Wendy. I’m glad we had time to visit Our Dynamic Earth, and because we now have annual passes we can return for a more leisurely experience some time. My dad has many ideas for books, and has already started writing a sort of autobiography, but I’m afraid he has more ideas than time and who knows if he’ll ever finish it. I hope he does though.

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  4. I wonder if Prince Philip remembers? I’m with the person up the list a bit who says you should record your Dad’s stories! It’s a much more organic process than writing, and quite nice to be able to listen to the person telling the story literally in their own voice? You can always transcribe the recordings?

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  5. What a lovely day out, Lorna, and I particularly loved the reminiscences of Delightful Assistant No. 2! I wonder if Prince Philip remembers. So good that you found his old offices and the statue of James Watt. It sounds a fascinating field of work that he was involved in. Researching the northern lights!! The Museum is a fantastic place – we were there with some friends for the Celts exhibition in September, but for that reason we didn’t get to see the Earth and Space section. I think you would need weeks in there to take it all in. I haven’t been to Dynamic Earth but it sounds fabulous. Well done for navigating around the streets – that is something I just wouldn’t do. I hope that Delightful Assistant No.1 is having (or had) a nice holiday. PS. Brilliant idea about recording your Dad’s stories (just read the comments) 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Jo. What was a significant experience for my dad no doubt had less of an impact on the Duke, but you never know, he might have a vague memory of it. My dad is quite proud of the fact that during the International Geophysical Year his job title was Regional Auroral Reporter for Europe and North Africa. He didn’t actually set foot in Africa but he did visit a few European countries to gaze skywards. I totally agree with you on the museum, it’s overflowing with riches. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to look at the Celts, or indeed many of the other interesting galleries open on the day. One of my favourite bits used to be the Egyptian section, which is getting a remake at the moment. I’m looking forward to a return visit to see it when it’s open again. I think you’d enjoy Our Dynamic Earth – lots of rocks involved. My mum did have a nice trip away, thank you, and she was glad to have been in the highlands rather than Edinburgh.

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  6. I enjoyed this both as Assistant Number 2’s day out, and for giving me memories of very similar days with my father on his annual trip to Cambridge. His memories were less academic and more about the railings he climbed and the false link he made for gate chains. His actual rooms in College have gone, as an extension was built onto King’s after his time, but every year we would go and lay a rose beneath the War Memorial plaque in King’s Chapel for his friend and room-mate Michael Weizmann (son of Chaim Weizmann).

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