Animals Inside Out

This trip was such an outstanding experience that it deserves a post of its own: for a limited time, one of Gunther von Hagens’ Animals Inside Out exhibitions is on display at the Life Science Centre in Newcastle.

I’d known months in advance that it was coming, and knew that I could not miss out. Rowena and I had booked train tickets for an early train down the East coast line, and arranged to meet an old friend of mine, and her flatmate, in Newcastle.

After a long week of lectures, dragging myself out of bed early on Saturday was a monumental effort. But adventure awaits!

The bus to the station was very, very cold and so was the station itself. Second only to London Waterloo in size, Edinburgh Waverley is an intimidating place to find a train. Neither of us had eaten breakfast after rolling out of bed, so we grabbed an extortionately expensive bacon roll and huddled in a waiting area. Rowena was still flicking through the six or seven tickets the machine had produced, trying to work out which one was the actual ticket for the journey. Having used the train to bob back and forth between uni and home, I knew the complex and stressful drill.

One thing I’ve learnt is that the East coast line between the two capitals can appear as a number of things on the departure board. Mostly, the destination is King’s Cross, but sometimes it’s Bristol Temple Meads or something completely different. This makes for a very weary and confused Elise trying to negotiate Waverley alone. We identified our train and its departure time, and kept our eyes fixed on the board for a platform number. There are so many trains leaving Waverley that often the board only displays departures in the next twenty minutes.

The minute we had our platform number, we made a beeline for it. The train pulled in right on time and , predictably,  our carriage was at the farthest end of the damn thing. We had reserved seats, and I was going to insist that we were the ones sitting in them. Thankfully, there was no need for any insisting because the carriage was blissfully quiet. At exactly 08:30, the train began pulling out of Waverley.

The sun was rising, and Arthur’s Seat glowed a beautiful orange as we picked up speed. That was such a straightforward departure. Today is a good day.

A few hundred yards down the line we pulled into a siding, presumably to let another train past. Except half an hour later we hadn’t moved an inch. As per usual, not a single word of explanation was uttered over the intercom. I was trying to remain calm and lighthearted.

“They do this sometimes, I’m sure we’ll be on our way soon.”

‘Soon’ never came, and after 45 minutes of absolutely naff all, the intercom crackled, “There’s a problem with the line and we can’t get past it. We’ll be returning to platform 2. You can stay on the train or you may disembark.”

I thought, just for a second, that I’d misheard. But then the train began rolling backwards… we’re going back to Waverley.

In utter disbelief, we made the decision to get off and speak to the information desk to get, you know, information. There was a small crowd around the desk, presumably all passengers trying to get down to London. I wiggled to the front and said that our 08:30 to London was cancelled, will there be another?

“No trains going south. Nope, no trains going south. All of the southbound trains are cancelled, there are no trains going south.” he was repeating loudly.

No trains going south? THIS IS SCOTLAND – THERE IS ONLY SOUTH.

“What should we do?” I asked.

He looked right at me for the first time. “You can get a cup of tea and you can sit down.” he snapped.

How dare you? I just stood open-mouthed for a second. I have paid an extortionate amount of money to travel on a train that never left, only to have my wrist slapped like a toddler by a knobhead whose wages are paid by passengers. But then I realised I was travelling by train and I should never have expected to be treated with any courtesy in the first place.

Rowena looked at me, “What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to get back on that train. If anything is going to leave this station, that one will be first. If nothing is leaving, they’re going to have to tell us that to get us off it.”

In other words, we’re going to have sit-down protest and force them to communicate with us. And so that’s what we did. We resumed our seats on the train and waited. About half an hour later, a man in uniform walked the length of the aisle shouting “This train is not leaving, but there’s another southbound train on platform 11 that will be.”

Simultaneously, an entire train of people scrambled out of their seats and onto the platform. Nobody had reserved seats on that other train, and it already had its own passengers in it. There was a mass migration of people running through Waverley, and we joined the stampede.  Other passengers waiting on the platform assumed we were getting off their train and tried to get on, but were swept backwards by the tide of angry southbound travellers.

“This train isn’t leaving, this isn’t your train!” people were yelling.

We ran with the herd across the entire length of the station and jostled to get through the train doors. Out of breath and majorly cheesed off we dived into the nearest free seats, much to the alarm of the train’s own passengers. Thank God, we got seats – we’re going to Newcastle!

For the next half an hour we waited to pull away. The train contained a group of Scottish football fans on their way down to the toon for a match, and the carriage was filled with their guffawing. I assured Rowena that this was the typical Edinburgh-Newcastle clientele and that among the other discomforts of travelling with these gentlemen, hearing the intercom was nigh bloody impossible.

My point was made when an announcement crackled over the intercom and we all missed it because of the stupid louts. It appears some people knew what was going on though, because there was mass movement and shouts of, “They’re combining three southbound trains, we need to go back to platform 2!”

Oh for f-“Let’s go, let’s go, we have seats reserved on that train.”

This time the migration was twice the size of the first. Other travellers had to leap out of the way for the oncoming stampede. Business women in high heels were dangerously close to breaking their ankles, and those who dropped belongings chose to abandon them instead of risking going back. Still on the hoof, I pulled out my ticket to double-check our seats, “This way! Coach C!”

We broke off from the masses and began running down the length of the train. Passengers already seated watched out of the windows in horror as the crowd infiltrated their train like a nightmare zombie apocalypse.

At 10:30, two hours after the intended departure, we pulled out of Waverley for the second time. I didn’t allow myself to believe we would ever get to Newcastle until we were nearly 100 miles down the line in Alnmouth.

By this point, the friends we’d intended to meet up with had started sending texts like:

We can always rearrange to another weekend if its going to be a problem x

I read this out to Rowena, followed by, “I will be absolutely damned if we go through all of this just to rearrange. No, we are going. We are going to Newcastle. We have paid for the tickets, we have run a half-marathon, and this is the last weekend we can afford to take off before exams. No, we are going.”

Rowena agreed, although I’m not sure disagreeing with me was an option at that point anyway. We made it to Newcastle, we found our friends, and we were extorted yet again to obtain tickets for the exhibition.

But none of that mattered once I entered the exhibition. I can tell you now, Rowena and I would have paid any amount of money to see what we saw that day. After over three hours looking around, the other two had grown a little bored and were ready to go. But we could have stayed all day and done the circuit another four times. Gunther von Hagens developed a method called plastination to preserve human and animal bodies. He has put hundreds of thousands of hours into creating specimens for public education. Apart from the single human specimen, this exhibition  was a selection of his many animal specimens. And they were beautiful beyond description. Having studied the anatomy of animals for over a year, to see them so perfectly presented was an absolute privilege. I am familiar with many of the domestic species, but never had I seen them dissected so well and completely. And the exotic specimens just blew my mind.

I could waffle all day about how absolutely awe-inspired I was, but really you need to see it to understand. The exhibition actually lives in America, and a selection have been brought over temporarily. They return across the pond in January, otherwise I would urge you all to see this exhibition. But not everyone can, so I’ll leave some images here to offer at least a taste of this spectacular creation:

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I kid you not, these are slices of a giraffe

Of all the specimens in the exhibition, there was one that literally took my breath away as I walked around the corner. von Hagens has preserved and dissected an entire Asian elephant, and the results are phenomenal. Pictures will never do justice to things like this, but they can at least help you to appreciate why I wanted to walk around this animal endlessly.

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I’ve always considered myself to have enormous respect for the natural world. But seeing these animals in this way has increased that respect and wonder tenfold. If ever you see that this exhibition will be in a city in your country, get yourself down there and see it.

You’ll never look at your neighbour’s dog in the same way again.

Eventually we did have to leave, however, because Rowena and I had a train booked to go home. This train was, thankfully, straightforward and got us back to Waverley by 6 o’clock. We were shattered, but were we crashing for the evening? Hell no – it’s Bonfire Night!

With so many layers on that we could barely bend at the joints, we began the long, dark trek up onto the crags. When we got up there, we found them absolutely deserted and pitch, pitch black. Those who usually set fireworks off up there had done so and gone back down into the city to drink even more. And so we had the entire Salisbury Crags to ourselves. If you’ve ever been up the crags, you’ll know that the highest point is a sheer drop 570 feet above the city. You can see absolutely everything from up there.

Unfortunately, my phone wouldn’t take images of the view in such darkness, but this shot of the crags at sunset certainly gives you an impression.

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Rowena and I stood right on that point where there’s a person in the image. That’s Edinburgh Castle standing over on the left.

Suffice to say we saw everybody’s fireworks from up there as the freezing wind howled past us. Most people will never get to see their city this way, and my city is pretty stunning.

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As I write this, I’m beginning the last furlong of revision before exams. That means I’ll be underground with my head in a book for a couple of weeks! As soon as I’m done, I’ll be sure to write a few more posts to update you about what I got up to in November. Until then, thanks for reading!

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