How Portobello has changed since my day – Kevan Christie

Kevan Christie returns to his old childhood haunt of Portobello and discovers it remains as edgy and bohemian as ever.

Kevan Christie feared his view of Portobello might have been distorted by looking through rose-tinted spectacles. He needn’t have worried (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Kevan Christie feared his view of Portobello might have been distorted by looking through rose-tinted spectacles. He needn’t have worried (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

I took a trip down memory lane last weekend folks with an outing to Sunny Portobello, a place that has taken on a mythical status in my head for years having grown up there as a child.

The Scottish Government’s decision to let us travel more than five miles to meet people – provided we strictly adhere to stage 3, sub-section 2.8, paragraph 4, clause 14.1 (a) of the route-out-of-lockdown road map while wearing a face covering but not in the boozer – was too good an opportunity to miss. “Stay safe, protect others and safe lives.”

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My travelling companion on this occasion was my long-suffering wife who I regaled with stories of long hot summers spent at the Open Air Pool, the paddling pool, the Trampoline Centre and playing crazy golf.

As we drove over the Queensferry Crossing with the Very Best of Daryl Hall and John Oates blasting out of the new (ish) Toyota Auris 2017 plate, I gave her the lowdown on my essential Porty credentials comparing the beach to the Catalan Coast.

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I waxed lyrical in a no-way-boring fashion, about how much I loved the library building, how the beach was rammed during the old Glasgow Fair holiday and the joys of playing the Space Invaders and Galaxian arcade games at the amusements while Margo looked on in bemusement.

I winged the origins of the place vaguely recalling it being named after a naval victory in Porto Bello in Panama but I never told the wife that I used to think Portobello mushrooms came from there as some things are best left unsaid.

The journey flew by, dear readers, as I covered going to see The Green Berets starring John Wayne at the art deco George Cinema in Bath Street with my dad in the early 1970s and buying candy floss from Mrs Webber’s sweet shop.

I may have briefly touched on playing football for Portobello Thistle at the old Volta pitch, swimming in saltwater at Portobello Baths, then washing my hair with pink carbolic soap before getting a shivery bite in the form of a bag of chips from the van at the bottom of Bellfield Street.

I dug up memories of seeing local Ned Barnie, the first Scot and oldest person to swim the English Channel in 1950 marching into the freezing water for his daily constitutional. Not a paddle board in sight.

Part of the trip was to seek out a new bread product imported from America that I’d heard whispers of, something that those in the know refer to as a bagel.

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Apparently these bagels, which are best served with an oat milk flat white coffee, are only available in the trendier regions of the Capital like Porty obviously – although there have been rumours of sales on the black market in Stockbridge and sightings in Bruntsfield.

Although I consider myself an honorary Fifer and custodian of a lavish estate in the picturesque former mining village of Crossgates, a part of me will always be Old Porty.

This is in no small part due to my mum, a pupil like my brother of Towerbank Primary School, where she was a classmate of Scottish boxing maestro Ken Buchanan in the days when securing a place at that prestigious learning institute was a tad easier than it is now.

The old man also taught at Portobello High School at the same time as my auntie was a pupil and counted future Hearts legend and Hibs tormentor John Robertson and Dave Bowman among his star players in the football team.

My mum had exotic pals who lived in old mansions and I definitely remember there being a bohemian feel to Portobello in the 70s – think the movie Performance with James Fox and Mick Jagger.

I spent every Saturday afternoon at my grannies in Regent Street where she would take in lodgers, who my brother and I would spy on to ascertain if they were in fact spies.

My grandad, a driver on the old corporation buses who would let us on the 42 for free, would place his bets then head off down The Flying Dutchman for a pint – now a trendy bar and eatery called The Espy.

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Today Portobello is of course hipster central, with that mixture of charity shops, barbers and decent coffee shops you also see in Leith.

The influx of people from other parts has given the place a cosmopolitan feel and I don’t mind the New Porty and all it has to offer one iota.

No doubt there’s sometimes the odd bit of friction between those who have stayed there all their lives and so-called incomers but you get that everywhere. Like the best seaside towns, Portobello always had a wee bit of an edge.

I believe it still exists in some of the bars on the High Street where drink is taken and taken seriously.

There was a nightclub called Misty’s in the 80s which I seem to remember going to for an underage disco and the Porty Mods, who we looked up to, were definitely a force to be reckoned with.

I was worried that I may have been looking at Porty through the prism of my rose-tinted spectacles but a casual stroll round the Daisy Park and the view across the calm of the Firth of Forth to Fife made me realise, my vision is still 20/20.

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