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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.