Taking a railway trip back in time to the seaside

The former station in Newtongrange
The former station in Newtongrange

Young people today find it difficult to imagine what it was like for old ones like myself who grew up in a world without computers, smart phones, multi-channel TV, Twitter and, of course, Facebook, writes local historian Jim Green.

In the field of home entertainment we had to settle for the old wireless – that’s the radio for you guys under 70!

They ask: “What did you do with yourselves?” Or, “What a bore life must have been back then.” Well actually, it wasn’t, at least for us kids growing up in Newtongrange in the late 1940s.

You see, we had our own picture house, grandly named the Palace which, once a week on Saturday afternoon, laid on a special show for the kids, called the matinee. For us, that couple of hours was a brief escape into a fantasy world when you could imagine you were Sheriff Wyatt Earp chasing the bad guys out of Tombstone. Or maybe swinging through the trees with Tarzan in darkest Africa. Or how about flying to the moon in a plastic ship with Flash Gordon? Youthful imaginations ran riot!

However, during the long summer months there was another, very different kind of attraction, one which, for today’s youngsters might seem a bit tame, maybe even laughable.

A trip to good old Portobello with the added excitement of the train journey from Newtongrange. For many of us it would be our very first experience of the steam train! But even the shabby old railway station had a magical allure as, for us, it seemed like a gateway to strange places and wonderful adventures!

I can remember just standing, watching those huge iron monsters hissing and puffing their way into the station, screeching to a halt amid a cloud of steam. People got off and people got on before it chugged off slowly to, well we didn’t really know where and to be honest it didn’t matter.

It was all part of the magical mystery. We waved to the passengers, pale anonymous faces at the window. Some waved to us and some even smiled as they continued their journey to some far off mysterious, destination.

As I got older, I began to hear some of the older boys talking about what a wonderful place Portobello was, the sea, the big waves, shows, the open-air pool. All capped with the magic and excitement of the train journey. I just couldn’t wait to get out there! I mentioned it to my mother a couple of times but her reply was always disappointing – something like “Oh aye son, mibbe some day”. I had all but given up hope when one day, totally unexpectedly, she said: “Oh by the way, you’re going to Portobello on Saturday. That’s if the weather’s fine – OK.”

The sun was shining and not a cloud in the sky! My prayers had been answered.

The queue for tickets was long and I began to panic at the possibility of the train arriving and leaving, before we had our tickets! But it all went well, and after about five minutes there was a buzz of excitement as the word went around that the train would be arriving soon. Then, a spontaneous cheer went up when we heard the distinctive “toot toot” in the distance, heralding the magic moment when we would get our first glimpse of the huge, iron monster chugging its way into the station. I stood in awe as I had never been this close to a train before and it was even better than I had hoped for. It looked magnificent!

We were hardly on our seats when there was an exodus into the long access corridor which all trains had in those days. The reason for all this frenzied activity soon became apparent. We were about to cross the Lothian Viaduct or, as we knew it locally, the Big Briggs. The view down into the Esk Gorge below was both stunning and, for some like me, just a wee bit stomach churning!

It was at that point my over-active imagination took over and I had visions of the train being derailed sending it hurtling down into the Esk below! By the time I had recovered, we had almost reached Porty and of course the mad rush to get off as quickly as possible was just a wee bit chaotic. We didn’t waste any time going along Bath Street passing shops selling the usual seaside stuff, the spade and pail, whirlies, balloons, sun glasses but, because of the austerity of the period, the range and variety of items for sale were severely limited by today’s standards.

At last the magic moment arrived, albeit from a distance – my first glimpse of the sea! Straight ahead of me, a narrow strip of deep blue and absolutely still. There seemed to be no sand, just people everywhere. I had never seen so many people and all of them enjoying themselves! After a prolonged search we eventually found a small patch of sand next to a family with unfamiliar accents. The woman welcomed us with a big smile and a wave of her hand. “Come oan son, there’s plenty o’ room for aw o’ us. Ah’ll jist move him ower a bit.”

She pointed to a pot-bellied middle-aged man lying flat on his back, snoring loudly. “Rab, Rab! Ye’ll need tae move yersel’.” She smiled reassuringly. “It’s aw right, he’s jist had a couple o’ pints ower the road.” Pot Belly slowly came to his senses, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He looked at us and smiled. “Hi there, ye aw right son? Come oan, get squeezed in here.”

They were maybe a bit rough and ready but, for my first glorious day by the seaside, they took us under their wings as though we were part of their family. They had four kids of their own and we all mucked in, playing together.

Needless to say, on the journey home we were all a bit leg weary and subdued. I even slept soundly as we thundered over the Big Brigg!! No bad thing for me!