Wine on the pavement (photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth).

Circumstances conspired in a most wonderful way this year and supplied me with the opportunity to spend New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, the city of Hogmanay, with my closest friends. Some magic had worked to get them all up there, individually, and made comfortable accommodation available to me for free. So of course I went.
The train journey from King’s Cross was pleasantly smooth and speedy, and the scenery on the way into Scotland was, as ever, gorgeous. I got the usual little thrill I get from speeding through the country, getting brief glimpses of Newcastle, and York, and observing the change in the colours and contours of the landscape out of the window.

Edinburgh’s usual, imposing, grey and brown magnificence was tempered slightly by the scaffolds and temporary barriers set up in her streets, and the swilling herds of people which already filled them. On arriving in the city at around 3pm we went at once to pick up our street party passes, which we had booked online. When we reached St Andrew’s Square where the temporary ticket booths had been set up, it slowly dawned on us that the long and unmoving queue which wound all the way around and through the square, and stretched off down a side street, was for collecting pre-booked tickets, and we would have to stand in it to collect ours. I was filled with despair. However, on accosting a man with a clipboard, I discovered that tickets could be bought from him on the spot, from a thick bundle in his hand. I did so, willing to spend another tenner rather than queue for the rest of the day. As it turned out, £10 street party passes were NOT sold out, as we were led to believe they would be. They were freely available in the street, as late as 4pm on New Year’s Eve, and probably later. A lesson for next year.

Happy and relieved to be spending the afternoon at my leisure, I joined my friends at The Voodoo Rooms, where we enjoyed comfy and elegant surroundings and I was served a pot of tea in a mini cafetière. We then walked to Comely Bank Avenue (all street names in Edinburgh are fantastic), where some friends of my friends had a lovely flat where we would be staying. On the journey I was, as usual, blown away by the picturesque and sombrely beautiful city, and also made physically breathless by the steep, cobbled streets. Sadly there wasn’t time to gawp as much as I would have liked, as we had to prepare for the nights revelries.

The Hogmanay Street Party. Reading about it I imagined a sort of very cold Ibiza, but in reality it turned out to be more like an enormous fairground, reminiscent of the type that had visited the village where I grew up, except that in this one the rides were rather more impressive and cost £20 a go. The stalls selling hot dogs and candyfloss were just the same however, and these were everywhere. Mixed up in this were a number of outdoor stages with very exciting acts, although we somehow managed to miss the big names by getting lost in the confusing one-way system. The streets had been closed off to traffic for the party, and were guarded at each end by rows of men in yellow macs enthusiastically inspecting partiers for their red wrist bands, which came with the tickets, and making sure they were not carrying any glass bottles. Each street could only be entered from one end, which meant that having started at the wrong side of town, we had to walk huge distances up steps and through back alleys simply to get to the next street. This also led to our group becoming fragmented during the evening. However, as the old year ended we found ourselves all together in the audience of an invigorating stage act which fused traditional Scottish country dancing music, violin and bagpipes included, with modern drum beats. At first it grated on my ears a bit, but by the time the important moment drew near I was jumping along to it with the rest. After centuries of tradition, something about that quick, itchy fiddle melody seems to be hotwired to the part of the human brain that says “dance!”, and so we did. It was fun. While we were dancing, indoor partiers looked down and waved to us from windows above. And when the music finished, we turned around and realised that, quite by accident, we had positioned ourselves with a perfect view of the fireworks. All that remained was to hold that position, while a tide of revellers broke against us, every man trying to get a good view himself. We managed to hold fast together, although there was a worrying moment when my face was pressed into the coat of a stranger in front of me, and seemed lodged immovably– never a pleasant experience, unless the stranger is George Clooney. He wasn’t.
The fireworks were wonderful. There was no official countdown within earshot, but thankfully a quick thinking man next to me had called the talking clock, and simply yelled the numbers at the top of his voice. Others nearby followed suit, and soon everyone was counting along. At the inevitable moment, we all spent a few moments kissing each other and then the musicians came back on stage to lead a rousing three verses and chorus of Auld Lang Syne, the lyrics of which were thoughtfully printed on our tickets. Unfortunately we had all lost them, except for one friend, who passed it around for us to memorise. We forgot them immediately (except for the “willy waught” bit) but sang along, regardless.

After extricating ourselves from the surging crowd, we walked up to where it was a bit quieter, passing on the way several nice looking hotels and bars which had their doors open onto the street, where a few very well dressed partiers were chatting and smoking. They had obviously enjoyed a quite different Hogmanay celebration to ours, and looked considerably more relaxed and sleek than the straggling, anorak-ed masses around me. Hogmanay turns Edinburgh into one huge party, and with so many guests it is possible for thousands of very different evenings to occur simultaneously in close proximity, and overlap comfortably. This, I suppose, is the magic of New Year’s Eve. And so, dodging around families with whooping children, gangs of drunken youths, and couples in tail coats and cocktail dresses, we spied a bicycle rickshaw and, exhausted, hopped aboard.

New Year’s Day gave me the opportunity to get properly jealous of the people who owned the flat we were staying in. It was really fabulous, in one of those old, tall, grey-stone terraced buildings you find everywhere in Edinburgh, and the view from the bay window of the steep, cobbled street, with the buildings of the city beyond, was just lovely. It only compounded my misery to learn that the rental payment on this two double bedroom, centrally located haven was considerably less than what I am paying for my bedsit in London. Perhaps it’s time to move.

Too hung over for site-seeing, we watched telly and then went home. Pulling into King’s Cross in the late evening, I was cheerfully satisfied that I had seen the year in properly, for once. And a Happy New Year to all.

First published in Travelmag online magazine, January 2009 (Attribution as Natalie Gowans).