Book recalls North Berwick holiday spot glory days

North Berwick: Wish You Were Here. Picture: Comp
North Berwick: Wish You Were Here. Picture: Comp
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THEY called it the Biarritz of the North – perhaps stretching the imagination just slightly – but for decades North Berwick, with her beach and outdoor swimming pool, golf courses and non-stop fun was the place to spend summer.

From building sand castles and enjoying pony rides by the sea to fancy dress cycle parades, diving exhibitions at the pool and, of course, the formidable landladies, the East Lothian town had everything the discerning holidaymaker of a bygone age
really required.

No need for all-night clubbing, bungee-jumping or, heaven forbid, topless sunbathing – actually, bathers at the town’s outdoor pool were forced to cover up from neck to knees.

Instead there were gentle hours spent eating Luca’s ice cream bought from a stall on Harbour Terrace, before slipping into a rented beach hut to emerge dressed in an all-in-one costume armed with bucket, spade and determination to build the best sand castle ever.

For excitement, there was always a steamboat trip to May Island, shooting geese on the Bass Rock or taking to the skies in a flying boat . . .

Now those much simpler days have been captured in a fascinating book compiled by Dirleton author John Fergie, featuring photographs from down the years.

The images map 200 years of summer life in what began as a sleepy fishing village and went on to become the “must do” holiday spot for nobility, wealthy business leaders and “ordinary” folks who would return in droves, generation after generation.

“It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why families would come year after year, or what it was that drew them back,” says John, who collected the photographs from family, friends and local people keen to share personal snapshot memories of life in the town.

“Some people can go back four or five generations and say they came to North Berwick.”

Head further back to the early-19th century, to when well-to-do tourists first arrived, drawn by the town’s pleasant location by the sea.

Eventually their numbers swelled as locals – with incredible vision for the unique asset they had – laid on exhibitions and amusements
designed to lure more visitors. And, of course, golf fans needed no excuses to venture to the area’s stunning courses.

“It ended up with everyone coming, working class people would come down for the trades holidays
or just for the day. It’s appeal was right across the spectrum,” says John.
Royal patronage came from Prince Edward of Saxe-Weiner, a cousin of Queen Victoria, who set up a summer home in the town in the late 1800s.

The town’s status as “the” place to go was sealed in 1902 when Edward VII, in his coronation year, visited and toured the town in his open-top carriage.

Improved train links eased the passage for increasing numbers of visitors but left North Berwick with an accommodation problem: where to put them?

“A big industrialist of the day might put on a private train to send his family to North Berwick, and also hire an entire train for their workforce,” explains John.

“A trainload of 500 people would unload and stay for their holidays. The income it brought to the town was incredible.”

So to cope with the demand, many local homes were turned into makeshift boarding houses, with the children of the house often having to decamp elsewhere.

“It was amazing the hardships that some put up with, kids would sleep in the garden shed so their room could be given over
to guests.

“One woman told me she lived in a tenement, her mum had a tallboy and she slept in the bottom drawer with her sister out on the landing so there was space for guests,” John adds.

“Families would stay four or five to a single room, sometimes they’d even bring their own food and the land-
lady was expected to cook the meal.

“Some came with new-fangled
recipes such as spaghetti bolognese and the landlady was expected to make this new concoction for the guests – it didn’t always go down well.”

Writer Anne Cowan, who grew up as a boarding house child and whose picture appears in the book, says having an influx of summer guests meant she enjoyed a free-range childhood.

“We didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘supervised’. Summers in North Berwick were action-packed and idyllic, the town was buzzing with holiday-makers. People came down here to
enjoy themselves and they were good at it.

“Life was not without drawbacks for the displaced ones. In winter, I loved my seafront bedroom above the front door of Chelmsford House.

“Then the ‘visitors’
arrived, and suddenly it was a cramped below-stairs lifestyle for everybody. My gran and aunt came through from Glasgow to be the cook and waitress. My cousins and I slept on camp beds in an old hay loft off the cobbled back yard.”

North Berwick’s boom time lasted until the 1960s and 70s when visitor numbers dropped as holidaymakers looked abroad for their summer holiday fix.

However, adds John, the town has evolved and remains a busy holiday spot for many.

“It has the seabird centre, the Fringe by the Sea,” he adds.

“It’s not the same as it was, but it’s a modern buzz.”

• North Berwick Wish You Were Here by John Fergie is published by Bramble Publishing, Dirleton, East Lothian,, price £15.