Friday 25 October 2013

EDINBURGH LOG( Coffee time) ( Part 2)

A cup of delicious coffee.

Edinburgh has many cafes. The chain shops such as Starbucks and Costa are there, in fact, recently when I was in Edinburgh, I discovered one of each. They were hard to find. I came across them unexpectedly. It appears the big chains have not been successful in dominating the café world in Edinburgh.  The Edinburgh Coffee Shops are mostly individual businesses, some of them family run establishments. A few are what is termed,” pop ups.” The Edinburgh Festival held each year, during the month of August, attracts people from all over the world to view artists work, performance art, experimental theater productions, comedy and music shown at various venues around the city. The cafes thrive. Their use continues throughout the year, being frequented by locals and the large student population who attend Edinburgh University with its campus sites situated in the heart of the city and further out in the suburbs.

I was walking along Princes Street towards Calton Hill. I had passed, Princes Gardens, The National Gallery of Scotland, with its multi-coloured Ionic columns, Waverley Station down in the hollow of the N’Or Loch and the cathedral like gothic spire of Walter Scott’s memorial were all on my right. In front of me I could see the  memorials high on Calton Hill, Nelsons Tower, The Dugald Monument, like a small round temple from Ancient Greece, and, The National Monument or, as it is termed by many Scots ”The National Disgrace."

The, "National Disgrace."

At the bottom of Calton Hill, before I was about to make my way up the steep road to the monuments, I saw a small café called, “Pep and Fodder”. There were a few tables and chairs on the pavement outside and some clean deal tables with harp back chairs inside. The ceiling was high. It was an old Victorian shop and by the tiles on the walls it looked as though it had once been a butchers shop or maybe an old dairy. A young couple were behind the counter. The girl, with tattoos up her arms and a neat workmanlike striped apron, asked me what I would like. I looked up at the menu behind her on large blackboards, painted carefully in bright white paint. I chose an Americano with milk and decided to try one of their delicious looking cheese and ham paninis. She heated the panini for me in a grill. I chose a table inside by the café window so I could look out at the world. A couple of other people came in and ordered coffees and sat down at one of the other tables. It was a welcoming place, warm and fresh and new. I noticed on the pavement outside that a sign had been stuck to the pavement saying, “pop up.” I asked the waitress what this meant. She explained that a ,"pop up," was a small business that is provided with a premise for a short period at a low rent to enable the business to get established. If the business is successful,  then a more substantial rent is  charged and the business can continue. The Pep and Fodder, fresh and bright, seemed popular. It was offering, good coffees and freshly made food. I noticed new pieces of art work on the walls. The bloke behind the counter informed me that they were painted by friends, art students who were trying to make their way too.
I left the café and explored Calton Hill and took photographs of Edinburgh from on high. There was a fantastic view of, Holyrood Palace, with Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags, massive, behind the palace. Edinburgh stretched out towards the castle and I could pick out many famous Edinburgh sites now that I had got to know Edinburgh.

Holyrood Palace from Calton Hill.

On my walk each day from and to Priestfield, about a mile and half from the centre of Edinburgh, I passed many local cafes. As I walked down Nicolson Street each day I was  attracted  first by the sight of The Festival Theatre, glass fronted and modern which is the main venue for the Edinburgh Festival every year and  the Greek columned  Surgeons Hall on my right, then the domed edifice of Edinburgh University on my left. At first, little did I know, that just before the university entrance and across the street from it, was, SPOON, a very famous Edinburgh café. I walked past it a few times and didn’t even look in. This was one of the cafes JK Rowling sat in while she penned Harry Potter. Being so close to the old and main part of the university it is often full of students with their Apple Mac laptops open, writing essays.

The Hula Juice bar in the Grassmarket area, just down behind The Royal Mile, was one of the friendliest and heart-warming cafes I went into. It too, like the Pep and Fodder café had a sign on the pavement outside announcing it as a ,"pop up," business. It was immaculate inside and the people running the shop were warm and friendly in their welcome. The coffee was freshly roasted and ground, it smelled and tasted wonderful,appealing to all the senses. The food was delicious and made right in front of me. I sat down at a table near two ladies discussing their children. A brash young man with his girlfriend sat two tables away. He spoke so loudly in his American accent, I knew all about his business in no time. A student at Edinburgh he talked about Paris and Amsterdam, Rome and Berlin, places he had been to while in Europe and he talked on and on, laughing at his own witticisms, about where he was going next when the university term ended at Christmas. I wondered what his degree could be. The girl with him didn't say much. A couple of free newspapers lay on the table next to me and I picked one up. It was a local student paper. It had articles about new music, art and  places to go in Edinburgh. It had interviews with students asking about their experiences of Edinburgh. Some of it, the arts pages were analytical and thought provoking. There was an article about  a sex club just set up in Edinburgh based on a club that somebody had come across in Barcelona; bondage and mild forms of pain, that sort of thing. I turned a page and there was a full page about the Hula Bar itself. The girl behind the counter I now discovered was the owner and she was interviewed on the page. There was a photograph displayed on the page taken of her, taken just about where she was standing as I looked across at her.  In the article she spoke about the, “pop up,” schemes in Edinburgh and the ethos and philosophy of the Hula Café and her plans for the development of the cafe. I was most impressed and mentioned the article to her. She smiled and was pleased. She told me about another place I should visit, which a friend of hers had set up.

The Dugald Monument on Calton Hill overlooking Edinburgh.

On another day I was walking up the cobbled street of The Royal Mile between high sided shops selling kilts and tweeds. I walked past The Whisky Centre and a restaurant or two, and just before the entrance to the forecourt of Edinburgh Castle there is a tall 18th century church with a high steeple that is now called, The Hub. It is the offices and  focal point for The Edinburgh Festival. I walked inside and  discovered the layout with gothic arched windows and a vaulted barrel ceiling with wide oak beam arches. The church has been divided into rooms.There is a café and restaurant to one side and various offices and performance and display spaces. In the entrance there was a wonderful display showing sketches, finished watercolours and hand written text with annotations. It portrayed the  development of a children’s book called," Ruffled Russell"; a collaboration between Mary Paulson the story writer and Audrey Grant the artist. It is the existential journey of a dog called, Russell, who is in search of a soul.

Ruffled Russel in search of his soul.

I sat there looking at the various elements of the display and actually began to think about my own soul and what it’s essence was. 

One afternoon it began to rain and I escaped into a café called the, Brew Lab, situated again on The Royal Mile. Two nice young ladies served me a coffee and I took it upstairs. There were a lot of people up there, mostly students with their Hewlett Packards, Acers  and Apple Macs flipped open in front of them. They sat singly or in pairs. Most of the tables were taken except one small table by a window. A bespectacled girl sat at the table close to the table I was aiming for. The back of her chair was touching the rim of the table I wanted to sit at. She was totally focussed on the screen of her Apple Mac. She had a couple of weighty looking books open on the window sill next to her. She had marked pages by placing post it notes sticking out with page numbers and an annotation on each. Without looking at me or removing her gaze from the laptop screen she muttered, “sorry,”  and shuffled her chair sideways to allow me room to get to the table. Her focus on her bright screen never wavered. I couldn't help look over at her screen. She had got to the end of her essay. I could see she was working on the bibliography and she was formatting the essay. I glanced at one of the books. It was a book on theology. I tried hard to glimpse the first line of her concluding paragraph. I wear glasses and my eyesight isn't great. I squinted. I didn't want her to realise I was looking at her work. She couldn't see me. I was slightly to one side of her and behind. I managed to work out a sentence, something about Jesus as a philosopher. I couldn't quite get the full gist of it. I looked around me and noticed that all the other people in the café appeared to be working on essays too.

The Elephant House where J K Rowling drafted some of Harry Potter and The Philosophers Stone.

It made me think of what I had heard about JK Rowling who as an unemployed mother with a baby, living on government benefits, who worked on  her first Harry Potter novel, The Philosophers Stone, in Edinburgh cafes. Indeed, The Spoon, opposite the Edinburgh Festival Theatre was one place where JK Rowling wrote.  I came across The Elephant House, another JK Rowling haunt. The Elephant House is interesting, because the rear of the café, where JK Rowling is supposed to have sat, overlooks the back of Edinburgh Castle high on its rocky outcrop. I have never seen anything more like a vision of Hogworts School. Just across the road from the Elephant House is the National Library of Scotland. A library member can study and research any subject they choose. JK Rowling, if she had been a member, could have requested every book written on witchcraft, black magic and the dark arts. Edinburgh is famous for its haunted graveyards and the ,"haunted," cemetery of Greyfriars Church is nearby the cafe too. Close by, The Elephant House, there is an old,  renowned Edinburgh School called George Heriots. It is a private school housed in a stone built and turreted mansion. High achieving  pupils do very well there. It is a mixed, boys and girls school and in the late afternoon I watched the pupils on their way home walking past The Elephant House in their smart dark blazers, striped ties and white collared shirts, the boys in grey flannels, the girls in tartan skirts. The pupils of Hogwarts, no less!!!!

The cafes in Edinburgh are places to read papers, to enjoy reading novels, for students to write their essays, for Mums to relax and for authors to set themselves on the way to fame. They often display art work, live music is performed in some and next to John Knox House not far from Holyrood Palace is the Story Telling centre, which is a café and restaurant. It is where poets and story writers come to perform their work to the public.

John Knox House with the Story Telling cafe next door.

 These varied and inspiring uses for cafes in Edinburgh reminded me of the cafes of the 18th century that first of all sprung up in Oxford and a little later, in London and their importance to all forms of public, artistic, scientific and economic life.

       Tom in The Rakes Progress outside of Whites Chocolate House. St James's Palace is in the background.

It is easy to compare Edinburgh’s coffee shops with London and Oxfords Coffee houses in the 17th century, as places of gossip, news, education, discussion, art and literature. Nothing has much changed. 

Roasted Coffee beans.

A cup of coffee, depending on its strength, has 20 to 100 milligrams of caffeine in it. Caffeine has been proven over the centuries to be a mild stimulant that reduces tiredness and can make people more alert. It is easy to see why from the 18th century right up to the present day coffee shops in Edinburgh, they are places for discussion, debate, writers, writing, thinkers and academics. The other sort of place for social gathering, the pub, which involves the drinking of beer, can very quickly prevent thinking clearly. Caffeine can also help remove headaches, increase heart rate, the metabolic rate and blood pressure; just the things to promote exciting performances from poets, debaters, musicians and comedians. But of course it has its down side, restlessness, nausea, sleep disturbances and cause the heart to have an arrhythmic beat, so it needs to be drunk responsibly!!!


  1. Interesting post, Tony. I liked especially the photos of Holyrood Palace, with the hills in the background, and the Duglad Monument. I just got back myself from one of our two main coffee shops in Westdale. The one I was in might be described as "upscale". Often, when you go in there, the majority of the customers are seated by themselves, gazing intently at a laptop computer screen. The other establishment, just down the street - where I go every morning at 6:30 for my first-of-the-day hot of caffeine - is a much more down-to-earth place. Virtually no computers here - even though they installed wi-fi access about a year ago - and during the day you usually find people in groups of two and three busy chatting. Interesting example of a distinct class and social difference.

  2. I like that idea about Pop Up businesses. Small towns in the U.S. with decaying downtowns and shuttered businesses could take a cue from it. Nurture small businesses and help them grow, and then let them fly out of the nest on their own.

    As a writer, sometimes I appreciate being able to get out of the house and find a friendly place to set up my little laptop. That change of scenery can be inspiring, or at least refreshing to one's muse!

    Love the insights into "what Rowling saw" as she was drafting the Potter books. I've never been to Edinburgh (yet) but have always been fascinated by the "skyscrapers" and the verticality of the city. It sounds like a great place to visit and live.

  3. Tony, your "A brash young man with his girlfriend sat two tables away but he spoke so loudly in his American accent, I knew all about his business in no time." reminded me of my top three pet peeves when I go to any type of food and beverage place: 1. People who talk loudly (especially on their mobile phones), 2. People who smell "loudly" (fragrances interfere with the sense of taste), and 3. Proprietors and employees who have the background music volume so high it's definitely in the foreground!

  4. Thanks for your comments, Clive, Mags and Jean.I must admit I have tried decaffeinated coffee. It just doesn't work for me. I love the flavour, smell and the buzz provided by the real thing. But, it is a thought,would the Western World be the same without those 18th century coffee houses? Edinburgh students, and I know students everywhere, can't do without that coffee boost either.All the best, Tony

  5. Tony, I forgot to mention: I drink ONLY decafeinated coffee. Organic, fair trade, decaf. The caffeine in coffee must be very different from the caffeine in tea. I can drink POTS of very strong black tea with no ill effects. One cup of regular coffee and I'm buzzing and then crashing!

  6. Very interesting read indeed! Many thanks for sharing it!