Edinburgh Fringe descends on George Street

Mademoiselle Boo, Spiegeltent Ringmistress. Picture: Greg Macvean
Mademoiselle Boo, Spiegeltent Ringmistress. Picture: Greg Macvean
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THE Fringe has once again descended on the Capital and this year brings a fledgling cultural hub. George Street, the city’s most prestigious shopping district, has been transformed in a bustling array of cafes, bars and entertainment.

It is hoped the thoroughfare’s fun but laid back al fresco ambience will see it become a central point for festival-goers – one a million miles away from the comparatively hectic exuberance of the Royal Mile.

Al fresco dining. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Al fresco dining. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Radical changes, which will remain in place until August 25, have seen the road halved and pedestrianised space doubled.

It is a way of life more commonly associated with a European boulevard but if successful, the city council has mooted that the traffic arrangements may be rolled out all year round.

But it remains to be seen if the ambitious revamp will sit well with shoppers, businesses and motorists who frequent the area on a daily basis.

We headed out on the first official day of the Festival Fringe to gauge the reaction to the makeover.

Early in the morning as the shops began to open, the street was very calm and only a smattering of early birds had braved the dreich weather.

David Watson, manager of the famous shirtmaker Hawes and Curtis, has a problem on his hands – how to get the weekly delivery from the van to the store.

“We’re an English company and London delivery firms don’t really appreciate what’s going on at the festival,” he said. “I’ve got no idea how we are going to get this stuff out of the van because there’s nowhere nearby to park.

“But it’s going be beneficial overall for us when it comes to trade. We’re already having a great week because there’s more people walking by.

“The cafe culture is a great idea – it’s just that logistically, there are a few problems.”

It is an opinion which many of the traders share, despite initial misgivings over a loss of parking bays.

Claire Richardson, a skincare specialist at Kiehl’s, said initial “shock” with “what had been done to the place” softened as the public rolled in.

“Honestly, it has been great – it’s brought in tourists who might not have otherwise been aware of our store.

“And it’s not too rowdy as the day goes on, there’s always Fringe people walking around and people have a reason to be here other than just drinking.”

Many had looked ahead to the closure of one of the lanes on the road, and the loss of parking, with a sense of trepidation.

Traffic will continue to flow westwards along the southern side – from Frederick Street – and eastwards on the northern side from Hanover Street. However this did little to allay fears that it would worsen congestion in a city already overburdened by the closure on York Place.

But for Raymond Davidson, secretary of the Edinburgh Taxi Association, the disruption is a small price to pay.

“We all have to be supportive of the festival – as long as it brings in the tourists, that’s all good for the taxi drivers.

“There certainly will be traffic problems, particularly on Queen Street, but the positives will outweigh the negatives.”

But not everyone was of the same opinion.

One city resident making her away from the box office at the Assembly Rooms admitted she was cynical about the changes.

“Traffic wise, it’s just another hassle when you live in the city centre.

“In 30 years’ time, when the trams are finished, it might be good for the city to make George Street more pedestrianised, but at the moment Princes Street is closed so it just seems totally nuts.”

Others believed regeneration would be better focussed elsewhere in the city.

Originally from Edinburgh, Viv Key, 33, had travelled up from Melrose to spend a day at the Fringe.

But she said: “I think it should have been Princes Street because it is very run down and really dirty.

“But when you look beyond that it is a much nicer street because you have the Castle and the Gardens in the background – it is a real shame.

“George Street has already been revamped and has an identity as somewhere that has great shops.”

But many were pleased with a new look George Street which will play host to on-street entertainment including music and exhibits.

Busily handing out flyers for a selection of shows at The Stand comedy club was 19-year-old Natasha Hughes from Newington.

“I absolutely love it,” she said: “It’s so exciting and it brings so many people to the street, it’s a little bit more like it is in Europe I think.

“It’s perfect for the Festival Fringe but it might get a bit wearing if they had the road closed the whole year round for drivers.”

As the day went on, a mix of Edinburgh-based Fringe goers, tired office workers in need of refreshment and tourists enjoying their first visit to the city descended on the thoroughfare.

The atmosphere transformed from that of a cafe culture to a bustling array of bars, live music and revelry.

Outside the iconic Speigeltent, a hub for festival goers, you would be hard pressed to get a spare seat.

Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, had suggested George Street could become a standard bearer for a new “continental-style approach to alfresco dining” in Scotland.

Easy to imagine.

In one bar Elaine Oran, 38, a teacher from Corstorphine and husband Steven, 30, an actor, are relaxing over a couple of drinks before a show.

“The atmosphere here is great, is much more than relaxed than the Royal Mile,” said Elaine. “I much prefer it here.”

Customers at the next table are enjoying some family time on a trip through from Glasgow. Donning a fun orange promo hat, one – who gave his name as David – said: “I’d recommend George Street to my family and friends.

“It’s a great atmosphere and the set-up is great, the bar staff are really friendly and everyone has been chatting away to each other – there’s a real buzz about the place.”

Equally enamoured with his environment, pal Bryan added: “It’s all pretty new, but it’s great.”

‘Enjoy a different angle’

George Street was billed as being the “antidote” to the “frantic and brash” Royal Mile when plans to halve traffic were passed last month. The comments were made by Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, who also said George Street could become a standard bearer for a new “continental-style approach to alfresco dining” and a haven from Festival madness. He said: “It will get to be that people won’t have done the Festival unless they have done George Street. To get the full experience you can do the rough and ready stuff and enjoy the more sophisticated and chilled side in George Street. You will be able to sit in George Street with a glass of wine, maybe have a string quartet playing and enjoy a different angle on the Festival.”

George Street report card

1. Atmosphere 9/10

2. Traffic chaos 4/10

3. Pedestrians 7/10

4. Things to do 8/10

5. Shopping 10/10

6. Business view 7/10

7. Eating out/drinking 8/10

8. Directions/signage 6/10