North Berwick | Leisure

[See also Economy]

With North Berwick’s dual role as a residential centre and tourist attraction, both groups were attracted to many of the leisure services. Local interests were looked after in the winter by numerous clubs and associations with the still popular scouts and guides catering for the youngsters. Entertainment of a different kind was provided by the North Berwick & District Operatic Society that produced a variety of musicals such as The Desert Song, Carousel and South Pacific to name but three. Two of the churches also had their dramatic clubs with enthusiastic memberships. The North Berwick Drama Circle began in 1976 as the St Andrew’s Drama Circle; their two shows a year play to full houses, and make a lot of money for charity. There is a core of some 15-20 members. In 2001 the group returned to the refurbished St Andrews Blackaddder church hall. Lady Skrene’s St Andrew’s Drama Club (1956-65), with Roberta Greig as producer, ran between 1956-65.

The present North Berwick Pipe Band was formed in 1957. Its immediate predecessor – the scout band – had run from 1950-c54, having itself been just another in a long tradition of bands in the town, dating back to the 19th century. The new band was built around the membership of the scout band, using their equipment and adopting the McKenzie (Seaforth) tartan. Between 1967 and 1974, the band organised a successful annual contest in the town; 54 bands competed in the final contest. Since 1995, with annual British Energy sponsorship, the North Berwick Highland Games Association has organised a pipe band contest, in which the band participates.

North Berwick outdoor swimming pool

North Berwick outdoor swimming pool closed in 1998 and has been filled in. The Pavilion was demolished in 1997. The harbour buildings beyond are still intact, as is the tiny black and white half-timbered building in the middle distance. This is the Lifeboat House on the corner of Melbourne Road. (A&J Gordon)

The beaches and open-air swimming pool were very popular as were, needless to say, the east and west golf courses. So far as these latter were concerned there was no problem for a local to join provided his character was satisfactory (see Economy).

Of the numerous facilities on offer, a few stand out.

The outdoor swimming pool next to the harbour was always tremendously popular with numerous events during the day and the evening including galas and celebrities to attract people. Huge crowds would attend these events and the end of season party in September included a big firework display. The pool was allegedly heated but swimming could still be a chilly experience! In winter, north-east gales used to sweep waves across the pool, which acted as a kind of safety valve protecting the rest of the harbour area. The pool was just short of its centenary when it was closed in 1998 despite a vigorous local campaign to save it; the council was blamed for neglecting the pool until they claimed it was uneconomic to restore it.

The pool lay for some years in what could only be described as a filthy pond filled with green stagnant water; it was a disgrace in a tourist town.

Anne Cowie

For many years the centre of North Berwick’s social life – for both locals and visitors – was the Pavilion at the harbour (built 1930). The Pavilion had many uses, with regular dances all year round; in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s with live bands on stage it was packed with dancers (although troublemakers from elsewhere forced the ending of the Saturday dances).

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jim Johnston and his band played the Pavilion – Scottish country dance music…The Saturday night disco and dance with a live band – there was no drink, so we were in the pub until ten, then went to the dance; they were well attended, especially after ten! The age group was about 16-22 ish. I think the last bus out was about twenty to midnight – to Haddington and along the coast.

Robert Gray

Public meetings were held here with, perhaps, the most popular being the annual ratepayers meeting when the local population had the chance to verbally criticise the council or air complaints such as the length of the council housing list or one’s position on it.

The Pavilion had become derelict and was vandalised for several years prior to the eventual decision to demolish it; consideration was given in 1996 to its possible use as a seabird centre but this was considered to be too expensive and so the treasured building which had become an eyesore was demolished in 1997 (despite the protests). This left the town with no hall capable of hosting a meeting of any decent numbers of townsfolk.

Like many other traditional Scottish coastal resorts North Berwick lost much of its tourist business in the 1970s and 1980s. By the late 1980s this had affected the former busy High Street with 20 shops lying empty. Even the picturesque harbour area was blighted with its old outdoor swimming pool and harbour Pavilion both in need of repair and a sad reminder of happier days.

Bill Gardner

The harbour has not changed much over the period but its use has altered a little. Until the 1960s, pilot cutters used North Berwick as a base in suitable weather conditions when waiting for ships to pilot up the Forth. The harbour has been principally used for pleasure craft over the period but yachts and sailing dinghies have become larger and are not made of wood as they all were until the 1950s. The harbour is now completely full of small boats with a lengthy waiting list.

The granary (the large building by the harbour) was converted into flats in the 1960s. Before that it was a fishermen’s store as well as being used for storing the rowing boats, which were hired out to visitors in considerable numbers up to the 1950s when safety regulations brought that to an end. The outdoor swimming pool is now filled in and the space used for storing dinghies and as a diver’s preparation area.

The yacht club started in 1928 and has been based in the same building by the harbour ever since – and owned by the club since 1995. Its membership has grown steadily over the period and is now 275, mainly young people but including all ages. Sailing is mostly in dinghies with relatively few larger boats. After the war, boats of all sizes would compete with each other in races but now races are restricted to the specific classes. The club runs a training scheme leading to the RYA certificate.

Other water-based activities that have become popular in recent years are canoeing, windsurfing and diving.

Sports centre

A highlight each year was the town fete held on the Coo’s Green, in the area beyond the east putting green. The North Berwick Traders’ Association organised the event, which included a children’s fancy dress competition, followed by a parade through the town. The fire engine and town council vehicles, decorated in flags and bunting, carried the children through the streets.

The fete started after the first world war to raise funds for the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. During the 1930s the parade included the traders and their staff riding on horseback to the various mansion houses in the west end to collect money from his ‘Lordship’ while the housemaid gave them a dram of whisky at the back door. The horse remained sober throughout!

The Coo’s Green was used for the last time in 1959 and that year also saw the final fancy dress parade. The town council had purchased Lady Jane Park (lodge grounds) and mansion house in 1938 and the town fete moved to that location in 1960. At that time the lodge grounds had two fields, both fenced off for grazing cattle and sheep. Later the livestock were moved to the east field and the other opened up to the public, although the practice of locking the gates to the lodge grounds at dusk continued.

The fund raising progressed during the 1960s and the traders’ association decided to form a sub-committee to manage the capital and oversee the financing of a worthwhile project in the town. The North Berwick and District Community Association was constituted and after much discussion it was decided that all future fund raising should go towards the building of a Sports Centre. This was completed and opened by Princess Margaret in June 1971. In 1977 the building was sold to East Lothian District Council who extended the facility. In May 1996, after a £2.6 million refurbishment programme, sporting a new swimming pool, a health suite and a cafe, it was opened to the public.

Other sports too were popular, although support varied over the period; in 1952, the North Berwick Rugby Club was established and it attracted many youngsters new to the sport. The Bass Rock Football Club was also going through a successful period in the Lothian’s Amateur League.

Anne Cowan recalls growing up in the 1950s

Enid Blyton land it has been called, by journalist, Julie Davidson, whose father taught French at the High School. We were free to roam right to the edges of the town, up the Glen, down Trainers Brae, along the beaches and all round the harbour and rocks. You went out with your pals and came back at meal times. Five shillings bought a season ticket for the outdoor pool, which was the most wonderful place to play. A car on the Law Brae was a rarity. We could play ball diagonally across the road on the way to school.

Indoor pursuits included visiting the picture house, where serials like ‘Nyoka, The Jungle Girl’, kept us in suspense till the following Saturday matinee. At brownies and guides were the same people as at school. Sunday school trips by tractor and trailer were idyllic. Later, Miss Middleton’s teenage dancing class in the Hope Rooms was popular and the dancing, three nights weekly at the Pavilion, packed them in. The trades holidays and Glasgow Fair brought fresh talent to these local hops. Late buses left shortly before midnight to take revellers to outlying farms and villages.

In the 1950s people had less money for treats or luxuries. At the time of the Coronation, only one boy in my class had television at home. Travel was the prerogative of the privileged. Horizons were, for many locals, quite limited. One woman I worked beside in a cafe had not been to Edinburgh for 27 years. All through the decade I could hardly wait to get out of North Berwick, to go abroad. If anyone had told me then that I’d happily spend most of my life here, I would not have believed them.

And Alastair McKay recalls North Berwick in the 1970s

When the sports centre opened on 8 June 1971, I was there without a flag to see Princess Margaret plant a tree. I overheard someone describe the building as a white elephant which was strange, but now seems like a literal description of the architecture. We played five-a-sides at the centre, and my team, the Fireballs, won gold-coloured medals. The referee, Mr Vineyard, was known as Grapes. Two men played squash for days, hallucinating grand pianos, earning a paragraph in the Guinness Book of Records.

My head was split by a rock in a fight at the side of the building. I was taken to the Edington hospital and made to lie down. Woken later by my mother, I feared retribution, but instead she presented me with a pair of purple underpants. She had been to Edinburgh.

In 1972, Arnold Palmer and Tony Jacklin helicoptered in to play the 15th hole on the West links. The Open was at Muirfield that year, followed by the Ryder Cup. I watched both tournaments through a cardboard periscope. Blue Peter came to town in 1972, and Peter Purves opened the fete. The Law burned for days one year. Graffiti appeared on the lookout at the summit: MRS. It stood for Midnight Riot Squad, a gang who pretended to be droogs from A Clockwork Orange. We met them once in the Lodge, after Scouts. I remember looking at the stills from the film outside the picture house and wondering. Later, Kung Fu came, and though I was still too young, I saw the crowds on the high street, kicking the air. The picture house was dying, but we didn’t know.

Mine was the last Primary 7 in the school on Law Brae. By the time we left, it stank of rats. Law primary opened in 1975. The decade was punctuated by strikes and power cuts. They were fun. When the high school ran out of oil, we were taught in St Baldred’s church hall, and allowed to wear jeans.

For 224 days, the local MP was a Conservative. In the two elections of 1974, Michael Ancram won, then lost East Lothian and Berwickshire to John Mackintosh. The seat was so important that News at Ten filmed Ted Heath speaking at the Harbour Pavilion. I stood at the back, watching the lights.

On the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, I ploughed my spare change into a fruit machine at the Pavilion. I won – three cherries – and was promptly expelled. Sulking, I went to the Melody Centre to look at the punk records. God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols was in the window but the sleeve was backwards, in case it caused offence.

It seemed like one long summer. In reality, the long summer was 1976. For a while, it felt endless.