WE went up to Edinburgh for a concert at the festival (John Eliot Gardiner conducting West Side Story, if you are interested, and it was brilliant) and stayed somewhere new to us – Portobello.
On the Forth coast, between Leith and Musselburgh, Portobello is a slightly faded 19th century seaside resort that has not been gentrified but has huge charm, without tipping over into the sort of expensive, hip image that has overtaken Leith.
Since our former favourite place to stay is no longer operating we looked for somewhere new. It had to be easy to find and convenient, but not too close, to the city centre, which is enjoyable but chaotic during the festival.
We looked at Portobello, which we didn’t know at all, and found a real gem. Abercorn Guesthouse is a former manse run by Angela and Willy McDonald, who offer the warmest welcome, great food, in a Victorian family house that is beautifully furnished and decorated.
Angie and Willy take a real interest in their guests, some of whom were evidently regulars who have become friends. It’s one of those special places which you half want to share and half want to keep secret. It has big windows that make the most of the northern light, and a lovely garden to sit in and enjoy a pot of tea or a glass of whisky or wine.
Instead of madly “doing the fringe’ – an often frustrating exercise in which you can’t park, can’t get into the show you want to get into, settle for something deeply weird and nihilistic in a converted attic and then wonder why – we decided to explore Portobello.
Abercorn is just two minutes walk to the sandy beach on a vast sweep of bay, which is dog-friendly, gently sloping for swimmers and peaceful if all you want to do is sit a bench on the promenade and read or meditate on the view.
You can also have an excellent coffee or tea, cold drink, home-made cake, snack or light meal, from The Little Green Van, one of those cute vintage Citroens, which is parked by the pedestrian promenade at weekends and holidays.
There’s an information board, painted like a 1950s comic, which tells the story of this one-time favourite seaside resort of people from the city and the surrounding area. It was popular from the late 1700s and right through the 19th century, with hot and cold sea water baths – the former swimming centre and Turkish baths are currently being restored – as will as mineral springs.
It had one of Scotland’s very few pleasure piers – opened in 1871 (and demolished in 1917), with a restaurant, concert hall, camera obscura and a mooring for steamers to take holidaymakers for day trips.
There were bathing machines, Punch and Judy shows on the beach, Pierrot shows, a funfair and donkey and pony rides.
Nowadays most of the entertainments and activities have gone, but the promenade and beach remain popular with runners, dog walkers, families, swimmers and people like us, just enjoying a cup of tea by the sea.
Portobello has many independent shops, selling everything from food to pharmaceuticals and a delightful little shop at 239 High Street which sells bags and clothes made in Harris tweed.
Locals are most excited about the latest opening, the Portobello Bookshop and they are right to be pleased. This is a wonderful, airy and spacious shop, with lots of room to sit and read, and books on every subject from environment to arts to gay history to food, plus popular fiction – including of course the latest Rebus novel from Ian Rankin. We could have spent hours there!
Like its London namesake, Portobello is a bit racy, a bit arty, full of odd shops and interesting little corners, a place to love, with a real sense of community. We’re looking forward to going back!