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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 48 - Trains of thought that carry affectionate Waverley memories

I KNOW my station in life. It is Edinburgh’s Waverley, where, despite its manicured modernity, the suggestion of steam-shrouded platforms seems to linger and the spirit of the old hissing, clanking locomotives, coal-shovelled descendants of George Stephenson’s kettle-on-wheels, the Rocket, lives on.

The station, in the black-and-white 1945 film, Brief Encounter, evokes for me a picture of what the old Waverley was like, a place loved by rail passengers who had a taste for shadow, where the sounds of slow, sullen shunting were drowned by the staccato clatter and shriek of non-stopping trains, their passage leaving a quivering gap in the atmosphere.

In the old stations, steam flitted like restless ghosts along ill-lit passageways, around platforms and into cafeterias, subtly dampening dried-up sandwiches and adding a piquant smokiness to the metallic railway tea taste.

The Waverley was also a place of Sunday entertainment in the late Forties and Fifties when boredom wrapped Edinburgh like a grey bandage, and other escapes from time-dragging tedium included church-going or sitting in one of the few, enlightened, Italian cafes where acne-carriaged teenagers drank coffee and dispiritedly ogled the opposite sex.

In the Waverley’s dark maw, however, there was an Ali Baba’s cave of unexpected joys. The main ones were glass-covered cases, one containing moustached, football-playing mani-kins, whose right legs kicked vigorously, when operated by outside handles, to get an outsize ball into opposing goals. The other displayed two tiny, bearded WG Grace-type batsmen frantically lunging at a ball of similar size.

So I and friends clicked on while time passed imperceptibly. If the games palled, there was always the vein-bulging Test Your Grip machine, the foot massage that felt like standing on an electric chair and a device that could print one’s name on metal strips. Such diversions probably saved the sanity of many teenagers and sustained their will to reach the sixties.

My own trains of thought carry many Waverley memories. One of the most embarrassing concerned the early 1950s arrival in Edinburgh of King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. The monarch, resplendent in regal Arab dress, received the station’s red-carpeted welcome.

As a reporter covering the event, I sought a word I was certain described his attire. A colleague, a former corporal who had served in Cairo and re-garded himself as a Middle East expert, concluded that the king would have worn a gallabea.

Grateful, I typed the word, not knowing it might have ignited a diplomatic powder- keg. The "arab street" was stirred. Several weeks later, a letter signed, "Disgusted, Beirut," arrived. It dress-ed me down and indicated that gallabeas were worn by Egyptian peasants and that I had some gall to describe the king’s garb thus.

There must be many among the travelling legions who still regard, as I do, the Waverley with affection. It is a part of the architectural upsurge of central Edinburgh, like the Castle, the Scott Monument, The Scotsman’s former North Bridge home, the Balmoral Hotel and Jenners.

They will be fired-up at the news that Network Rail plans the destruction of the station that dates back to 1844, and its re-placement by a grass and glass-covered structure. Among plans to enable 32 to 36 trains an hour to use the station’s west side compared with the present 22 to 24, would be the demolition of the grade A-listed booking hall with its elegant panelled and domed ceiling - the most striking remnant of the old Waverley - and its place occupied by a glass-roofed concourse on Waverley Bridge with views of Edinburgh Castle and the Scott Monument.

It is the proposed elimination of that hall, which once contain-ed the austere but authoritative-looking central booking office, made of varnished timber, that should stoke full-steam indignation. The hall, now the Travel Centre, although occupied mainly by cafes is, apart from its architectural stature and emotional appeal to older travelling generations, a piquant reminder of Scotland’s railway past.

Network Rail is, I submit, on the wrong lines in proposing this drastic restructuring, possibly costing around £400 million, and should switch points for compromise solutions combining increased efficiency with the preservation of an evocative part of our industrial heritage.

There will be many, like myself, who hope that this blatant assault on an historic site, reminiscent of 1960s architectural arrogance, will decisively hit the planning buffers.

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