Fresh air in Auld Reekie

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Buses from both operators at the St Andrew Square departure point. JONATHAN WELCH

In the next instalment of our Staycation series, Jonathan Welch takes to the top deck for two different tours of the Scottish capital

Edinburgh is without doubt one of the jewels in the crown of Scotland’s tourist trail, with its contrasting Old Town and castle separated from the elegance of the neoclassical Georgian new town by the railway and Waverley Station, which opened in 1846, and has been much rebuilt since. One of the bridges across the railway, Waverley Bridge, at the western end of the station, will be familiar to many already as the traditional starting point for Edinburgh’s open-top city tours.
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Still affectionately known as Auld Reekie, Scots for ‘old smokey’ and dating from a time when smoke from coal and peat-fuelled fires hung over the city, my visit would see clearer skies — though it has to be said, the stereotypical Scottish liquid sunshine also made its presence felt. I took two different tours visiting different parts of the city, and giving me the chance to sample both open-top operators. Municipal operator Lothian’s Edinburgh Bus Tours open top fleets, recently carrying a range of bright yellow, blue, green and red colours, are well-known, but 2019 saw the launch by First Scotland East of Bright Bus Tours, its bright orange buses recently celebrating their second year of operation and the launch of a second route.

 

 

Bright Bus Tours’ on-street staff Amy and Kayleigh. JONATHAN WELCH

Bright Bus

Bright Bus Tours (BBT)’s second route takes its bright orange buses a little further out from the historic city centre, and ventures to Leith to provide a connection to the Royal Yacht Britannia, among other places. Little surprise then, that the new route is known as the Britannia Tour, the original A1 route being the City Tour. It was aboard the A2 that I started my Edinburgh tour odyssey.
All tours currently depart from the north side of St Andrew Square rather than the traditional Waverley Bridge location, due to coronavirus restrictions closing the bridge to create more pedestrian space. Anyone unfamiliar with the location would be hard-pressed to miss it, with its regular stream of BBT and Lothian-operated buses. I arrived to find an A2 already waiting, with an A1 arriving just behind. With a few minutes to wait before departure, I had a chat with a couple of BBT’s on-street staff, the very friendly Amy and Kayleigh before joining driver William aboard his half-open-top Alexander ALX400.

I travelled not long after the re-launch of tours and the start of the second route. BBT’s Tour Manager Tony Stewart explained that staff had all been keen to get back to work after lockdown restrictions lifted. “We’ve had staff back in doing training over the last few weeks,” he said. “Everyone was really keen to get stuck in and start showing off Edinburgh again. The buses were all cleaned and the branding updated. We spent time doing training on our new ticketing system and on the changed stops to accommodate the road closures, as well as the new route.”

The second route was not the only new aspect of the operation, as Tony himself was taking up a new role as Tour Manager, having joined First through its graduate scheme and worked in its West Yorkshire, Glasgow and Leeds businesses. “It’s very different to service work,” he said. “This is a unique, stand-alone business. I’m excited to be part of it, and have some great ideas.”

 

The upper deck of BBT’s ex-Stagecoach ALX400 lives up to its bright name. JONATHAN WELCH

Stepping aboard

Aboard the tour, I took a seat upstairs. Not entirely trusting the weather, I opted for the offside front above the driver, and under the roof of the ex-Stagecoach bus. BBT uses a recorded commentary, and as I boarded headphones were available in matching bright orange, which plug into boxes located by each seat offering a choice of all the common tourist languages. As we left St Andrew Square, no one else joined us to start the tour, though a few did board en route, and in the weeks since my trip numbers have slowly risen. Whereas the hour-long City Tour heads along Princes Street, before looping around the Old Town, past the tourist hotspots of the Grassmarket and Castle before heading down towards Holyrood at the other end of the Royal Mile, we made straight for the North Bridge and headed south, passing the University and close to the ever-interesting National Museum of Scotland.

The route then makes a U-shape, allowing the tour to pass close to the Pickerings Gin Distillery and Holyrood Distillery, before returning to familiar ground at Holyrood. First has made a point of taking in some less-obvious destinations, and Tony said that the venues were pleased to have the tour passing by, helping to increase footfall and speed up the recovery of other local businesses. After taking in the contrasting architecture of the Palace of Holyrood and the Scottish Parliament, we passed underneath the railway line, which we were told has 28 trains per day to London. I couldn’t help but wonder if the commentary might be amended in future to highlight First’s forthcoming Open Access East Coast Trains operation, which when launched promises five low-cost return services to London every day.

Seeing double: The castle stands over a Bright Bus double-decker bearing its image. RICHARD WALTER

No sunshine on Leith

Heading for Leith and the Royal Yacht, we struck off down Easter Road, a name which will be familiar to football fans, though it has to be said the road itself it has to be said is of limited interest. And I like that. Although the recorded commentary gave us some detail of the area and surroundings, I have to admit that I find the ‘ordinary’ sometimes just as interesting as the sometimes sanitised or clichéd tourist areas.

Passing Leith Links and one of the oldest cricket pitches in Scotland brought us to the former heavily industrial area of Leith. The cobbled streets did nothing for my ability to take notes, and gave the suspension a good work out, as passengers got their first glimpse of the water. A stop outside Ocean Terminal, which despite the name is a shopping and entertainment centre, gave passengers chance to visit the Royal Yacht — which previous experience tells me is worth a visit for anyone in the area. For those not wishing to, it can be glimpsed as the bus makes its way back towards the city centre.

As we left Leith behind, the haar — a sea mist — started to roll in, surprisingly quickly covering the tops of silos in the neighbouring former fishing port of Newhaven, where lots of roadworks signalled the impending arrival of Edinburgh’s next tram route. The steep climb away from the shore proved a test for our bus, and as we reached the summit a pair of Lothian buses gave way to allow us through without stopping.

Another tour of some of Edinburgh’s less-travelled (at least by tourists) streets took us to the Royal Botanical Garden and Arboretum, before returning to the busier avenues of the New Town, with its familiar-name shops and restaurants, and a loop around Charlotte Square, home of the residence of the First Minister.

Glimpses of the Castle sat high above Queen Street Gardens across the valley provided an extra photo opportunity of a classic Edinburgh view, and around 90 minutes after leaving, we drew up again at St Andrew Square. Our driver William had had a reasonably quiet trip, though by the time we returned a few more passengers had joined us and despite his assertion to the contrary when I boarded, it only being his second day driving the tour, we didn’t get lost on the way, and nor did he press the wrong buttons for the commentary!

 

The Edinburgh Tour’s live guide can be seen in his rear-facing seat upstairs as SJ16 ZZD passes Calton Hill in rather dreich weather. RICHARD WALTER

Edinburgh Bus Tours

The well-known Edinburgh tour operator, a part of Lothian Buses, offers a choice of four tours of its home city. A familiar name to tourists everywhere is the City Sightseeing option, alongside which are the operator’s own-branded Majestic Tour and Edinburgh Tour, plus the longer closed-top Three Bridges Tour which as its name suggests heads to South Queensferry for views of the famous trio of Forth Bridges. The latter also offers a 90-minute cruise on the Firth of Forth, but for my trip I chose the one-hour Edinburgh Tour.

Edinburgh Bus Tours’ (EBT) open-top routes use a specially-built fleet of part-open-top double-deckers, carrying either City Sightseeing red, Majestic Tour blue and yellow, or Edinburgh Tour green and yellow. The City Sightseeing option sticks to the main tourist area of the Old Town and Princes Street, while the green buses of the Edinburgh Tour expand this slightly with a longer run around the New Town. The Majestic Tour expands the offering further, and is to a large degree the reverse of my earlier journey, serving the Botanic Gardens and Leith for the Royal Yacht.

 

 

 

 

From left, Members of EBT’s team Alan Hope, Head Guide Scott Shaw, Tommy Sutherland, Davie Bertram, and John Ness ready to greet returning tourists. JONATHAN WELCH

’Appy passengers

Joined by Edinburgh Bus Tours’ General Manager Willie Hamilton and Head Guide Scott Shaw, we boarded the impressive open-topper at St Andrew Square, and took a seat upstairs towards the rear, which rapidly proved to be a mistake as within minutes of departing the reasonable day became a rainy one, and we again got the ‘full Scottish’ experience! Suitably bathed once more in liquid sunshine, the opportunity to move downstairs at the first stop gave the opportunity to note the three video screens installed on the lower deck, to give passengers a forward view — especially useful for anyone travelling in a wheelchair with their back to the direction of travel.

Scott and Willie explained that as part of the preparations for the relaunch, the operator launched a new app, to help enhance the customer experience. Customers are able to buy tickets in advance as well as plan their journeys using the real-time information available through the app. “We still have ticket sellers on the street too, but we are very much encouraging people to book in advance. We need to continue to adapt and change, things will be very fluid for the next few years. It reduces stress for passengers unfamiliar with the city. It reassures them that a bus is arriving, and tells them when and exactly where to catch it. That’s good for them, and for us. It also helps people plan their day better, with lots of venues using time slots for visits.”

Reflecting on the last year and a half, Willie continued: “After 23 March last year, the city became a ghost town. With the easing on 12 July [2020], we saw a cautious optimism, and that has carried on to today. There has been a lot of positivity every time restrictions have eased. Things picked up in August and September last year, and that is happening again now. We came back with a reduced service, and have continued to review that as the situation changes. It has been strange to see the city without tourists. We saw Edinburgh in a different light, it was almost beautiful in a strange way, but we missed them and are looking forward to welcoming them back.”

 

Demographics

My Edinburgh Tour was a little busier than my Bright Bus one, though that is probably no surprise given that EBT’s tours had the benefit of having returned sooner before my visit. As we headed off around the square, turning along Princes Street towards Calton Hill and its observatory overlooking the city, there was a respectable number of passengers with us, though no doubt still much below a ‘normal’ year. After a stop outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse, I estimated around 20 other passengers were aboard.

The lack of visitors in the streets was certainly noticeable as we slowly made our way up the Royal Mile, passing the well-known tourist sites as well as a staple of my own visits to Edinburgh — The Fudge House, highly recommended, if not so good for the waistline!
Scott said that the changed demographics were noticeable too. “We have found that it is now predominantly English visitors to Edinburgh,” he said. “The furthest we’ve had so far was from Cornwall. Edinburgh is traditionally a very international market. There’s a different vibe just now. We’ve had to change the commentary slightly, although the most political we get is passing Nicola Sturgeon’s residence at Bute House!”

Another classic Edinburgh view. JONATHAN WELCH

Live Guide

Two of the four EBT options use live guides, with the others featuring recorded commentary, again in a wide choice of languages to suit most visitors. My tour featured a live guide, in the form of Wayne Williams, now in his fifth season with EBT. Throughout the tour, Wayne provided a lively and interesting commentary, tailoring it to his audience, helped no doubt by his background in acting. “I was semi-retired and looking for a new challenge,” Wayne explained between tours. “I lived here for 17 years but new nothing about Edinburgh. The training was comprehensive, and we were given the tools to prepare our own commentary. Hopefully the humour comes through, it’s not just a history lesson. All the guides have very different personalities,” he continued, “so you can do the tour more than once and hear different views and stories. We have a big passion for Edinburgh. For a lot of people we’re the first point of contact with the city, and doing a tour can help them plan their trip when they see it from the bus.”

Willie explained that the operation employs a team of 30 drivers, 21 guides, 10 ticket sellers and around half a dozen supervisors, and operates a fleet of 30 Wrightbus-bodied Volvo B5TLs. Based at Marine depot and fitted out with Fainsa seats, wood-effect flooring and additional glazing at the front, the buses were new in 2016 and are Euro VI-compliant. “There has been a big push towards accessibility,” he said, “and each bus has two wheelchair spaces and commentary in nine languages. The Majestic Tour also now includes a Gaelic language version as well. We have to constantly adapt as new languages become prevalent. Through our V6E software, we can gather data on trends and see what language people are listening to. Many of our guides and drivers speak other languages too.”

“It’s all about people,” continued Scott, “not just places. We encourage our guides to see the tour from the passenger’s perspective. If there’s a delay, that’s a chance to start a conversation. That’s one of the good things about it being quiet, it gives more chance to interact with each passenger.”

During the tour, besides the usual commentary, Wayne reminded passengers of the need to pre-book a number of attractions and venues, including the National Museum of Scotland, home of ‘Dolly the Sheep’ and which has something for everyone. Passing the Museum on our left, we looped around for a view of Greyfriars Bobby before making our way past the Castle high above, and down past the home of the Bank of Scotland, founded in 1695. The building now houses a museum, which is equally worth visiting, and Wayne highlighted the irony that the Bank of Scotland, the world’s second, was founded by an Englishman whilst the world’s first bank, The Bank of England, was founded by a Scotsman. Before long, after a loop around the New Town, we were back at St Andrew Square after a second enjoyable tour, the early soaking quickly forgotten.

Haste ye back

Both tours were enjoyable and fulfilled their brief well, delivering an informative and interesting journey around the Scottish capital. It goes almost without saying that the available publicity was both plentiful and easy to understand, with maps provided: no matter how many apps are available, I always think a good map is invaluable in such situations.

In terms of pricing, it would be hard to call either tour ‘cheap,’ especially for a family, although with fares starting from a special £8 on EBT’s Edinburgh Tour and £10 on BBT, the trip doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, and when viewed as a package some of the combined ticket deals appear good value for those planning to visit multiple attractions, despite their high price. As the saying goes, ‘quality is remembered long after price is fogotten,’ and in this case both operator’s staff were faultless in their manner, striking the right balance between professional and friendly, and both tours offered a fun and entertaining journey.

To borrow a phrase from guide Wayne, lang may yer lum reek, haste ye back for the next instalment of our Staycation sightseeing series in a few week’s time.

Visit our YouTube channel for some video clips of the tours
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