Seaside Memories

By Jennifer Skene

It was snowing in North Berwick in May 1957. The young woman in the small black and white photo smiles cheerily, her coat covering the thin maternity dress she had packed for her Spring trip to the seaside town.

I was due to be born in July and my parents were staying at Milsey House, a boarding house by the sea. Mrs Dickson looked after the young couple well, serving scones to eat by the coal fire in the front room as they looked out across the grey sea to the Bass Rock.

North Berwick and Milsey House were to become a regular part of my family’s life for many years to come. Travelling down from our home in Edinburgh and then all the way from Aberdeen, my brother and I spent two weeks there every July during our childhood. Stopping for a Luca’s ice cream cone in Musselburgh on the way meant the holiday had really begun.

Over the years we got to know the families who stayed for the same fortnight. Within minutes of arriving, we children would have renewed our friendship and resumed all the activities from the previous year.

From the large house we could be on the wide stretch of sandy beach in minutes, crossing the quiet road with a quick glance to each side, climbing up and over a couple of steps and carefully through the dune grass, which could sting if it whipped against bare legs. The sand and rocks were where we spent most of our time. We set off for the rock pools with buckets and bandy nets and returned with all sorts of treasures. Mrs Dickson insisted that the buckets were left at the front door and it was a common sight to see crabs crawling along the path from the many buckets left there. Looking back, I think she must have been a very patient landlady with a love of children. Every summer Milsey House was filled with families, from grandparents to babies.

One of the highlights of the holiday for me was Auntie Dot’s. On two or three evenings each week, this children’s entertainment took place in the pavilion. I fancied myself as a dancer and the twisting competition was my chance to shine! I won a number of prizes for my twisting and many years later I still have one, a wooden pencil case with a painted lid. When our gang of kids returned to Milsey House the excitement levels remained high. It was supper time. Although everyone was served a full meal in the early evening, there was more to come and we scoffed banana sandwiches, cakes and flavoured milk before bed.

Looking back of course, childhood summers were always warm and sunny, but coming out of the water at the outdoor pool could definitely be a chilly experience. The pool had tiered seating on two sides, with little changing cubicles at one end. It even had a diving board, though I didn’t ever venture near that. My dad would be in the water, splashing and playing with us. Mum didn’t ever learn to swim and would be ready to wrap a large towel round our shivering bodies as soon as we came out. The pool seemed to be built right into the rocks near the harbour and was enclosed by large coloured plastic panels. If you walked up on the rocks you could peer through the gaps in the panels and watch the swimmers down below.

Behind Milsey House was a huge area of grass, with an enormous hill at one end and the path leading into the Fairy Glen at the other. We spent many evenings playing rounders and French cricket there until it became too dark to see the ball.  Many years later this vast expanse had of course shrunk and the hill was a mound.

Introducing my husband, then children to the delights of North Berwick brought me enormous joy as they listened to my memories and then made some of their own there.

Our wedding night was spent in a small hotel there and the next day we went putting. The only shoes I had with me for our overnight night stay were my wedding shoes, and I still cringe as I picture the little holes my white stilettos made on the smooth green surface.

Our children enjoyed many of the same things I had so many years before. On day trips with grandparents they picnicked on the beach, explored the rockpools and ate Luca’s ice cream from the little van parked at the seafront. They played tennis and putting, bounced on the trampolines and spent holiday money in the toy shop as my brother and I had.

Milsey House looks the same from the outside, but Mrs Dickson is long gone and families generally prefer to jet off abroad to the sun than stay in a boarding house in East Lothian. The pavilion has gone and the swimming pool is concreted over, but the stunning Seabird Centre is a great addition.

As a family we have holidayed abroad often and my grown up children have travelled and lived in many different countries, but there is a feeling of coming home every time we visit North Berwick. We all follow the same pattern on every visit, as if to check and confirm that the important things have not changed. The long sandy beach, the rocks, the hill to be climbed at the east end and the view of the little town to be looked back down. The boats in the harbour, tennis courts and putting greens.

My daughter sent a photo to my phone last week. In it she is standing with friends on North Berwick beach, hood up against the wind and rain, but smiling happily, a Luca’s ice cream cone in her hand.