Thursday, 10 January 2013

Stars and Stripes

It was still dark as I left the house on my bicycle at quarter past eight on Sunday morning, to meet my friend Pauline. The reason for the early start? We'd set ourselves the challenge of cycling to each of the seven hills that our home city of Edinburgh is built on and climbing to the top of every one!

The first hill of our challenge was Arthurs Seat, an extinct volcano rising from the very heart of the city to a height of 820 feet. It was to be the hardest hill of the day. We made a steep cycle to the half way point and then continued on foot as the sun started to rise, casting an orange glow over the landscape, though the city itself stayed in shadow below the volcano. From the top we could see across Edinburgh, over the Forth Estuary . . . to the rest of the six hills we had to climb.

We easily polished off the next two city-centre hills. The 337-foot Calton Hill hosts an observatory dating back to 1776 but, as the sun was fully up now, there was no chance for stargazing.
We then became two of the 1.3million people who each year visit Scotland's most popular and iconic tourist attraction, Edinburgh Castle, sitting at 420 feet on its rock. There's been a castle on this site since the 12th century but today it's best known as the backdrop for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the spectacular New Year fireworks show.

Fortified by coffee and cake, we made a three-mile dash across the busy city centre and through the chaos of the tram works to the west side to climb the 530 feet of Corstorphine Hill. We had chained up our bikes and were picking our way up the maze of paths when suddenly we saw a vision of black and white stripes. Zebras!
Yes, you read correctly. Zebras! You see, Corstorphine Hill overlooks Edinburgh Zoo. The zoo is celebrating its centenary this year and the recent arrival of two other black and white guests, the giant pandas from China, Yang Guang and Tian Tian.
On top of the hill there's a tower, built in 1872 and dedicated to Sir Walter Scott and from here we looked south to the distant remaining three hills of our challenge.

The Water of Leith Walkway took us towards out fifth hill, Craiglockhart. We climbed the higher west top at 574 feet having chained up our bikes in the campus of Napier University at its base. The way up was steep and narrow but we rewarded our efforts with a picnic lunch, hunkered down out of the wind in a depression that in prehistoric times was a vitrified fort. Past excavations revealed that the Romans also probably took lunch here!

To the south of Edinburgh is a small mountain range called the Pentlands and the last two of our "seven hills" are the northern most extent of that range. The 700-foot summit of Braid Hills sits in the middle of a very challenging golf course - lucky we had our cycle helmets on! A steep-sided valley on its north side called the Hermitage of Braid provides a leafy corridor for dog-walkers, joggers and for us to cycle to our seventh and final hill, Blackford. We were elated as we made the stiff climb up its 540 feet and gazed over what I believe is the absolute iconic view of the Edinburgh skyline.

Blackford Hill also has an observatory on top and a huge telescope for spotting stars in the night sky or, if you point it westward, for spotting Zebras on Corstrophine Hill.

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