The Central Bar and the old Central Station, image by LHOON
The Central Bar, 7-9 Leith Walk, Edinburgh EH6 8LN
Leith has undergone a famous transformation over the last fifteen years or so. Post-Trainspotting you could call it. The redevelopment has been mainly around the sea/ firthfront and such has been the change that many locals will have almost forgotten what it was like before. Of course the wealthy incomers won’t have a clue, and wouldn’t care either.
The Shore’s row of bars and restaurants, which includes such prestigious residents as Martin Wishart’s place, is the hub of the area’s hostelries. I took a few minutes there to reflect, in the aftermath of what was, ultimately, another bruising encounter with the machinations of the corporate world.
Nae money and an empty stomach
The main focus of that rumination was just how much of a dent in the ungenerous prospective salary would be caused by even a prix fixe lunch in any one of the restaurants here, let alone a Fruits De Mer platter at The Ship on The Shore.
I was, unsurprisingly, soon feeling hungry but needed to get to the other, cheaper parts of Leith. So hungry that I bypassed a pint in Carriers Quarters and the inestimable Port o’ Leith – a rare remnant at this end of town – and even a first visit to The Pond along Salamander Street.
Constitution Street, my route, is grim and grey looking as only Edinburgh thoroughfares can be. Its countenance is brightened by pubs such as the Port o’ and to a lesser extent places such as Nobles.
My pangs were that bad I reluctantly eschewed the well-loved Alan Breck (I wonder how many pubs in Edinburgh have RLS associations?) It was easier walking past the depressingly large Foot of the Walk Wetherspoon outlet. But once onto Leith Walk things brightened up somehow and I couldn’t walk past The Central Bar.
A modest gem of a pub
Situated back-to-back with the old railway station, even once having a direct exit/entrance door connecting the two, The Central is dated from the last year of the 19th century. Its modest frontage belies its cultural importance round here. A mainstay of night and day for over a century and counting, and with a celebrated interior.
The ceiling-to-floor tiling is the first thing that grabs when you enter the large square room. Red, brick-like tiles punctuated by colourful sporting scenes: golfing, hunting and sailing. Long mirrors also break-up the delightful monotony, as does the black plasterwork ceiling, and the excellent leaded glass.
Instantly you feel the old-fashioned nature in here. From the great examples of Victoriana to the mostly elderly clientele, to the way in which the punters regard each other - interact would be too active a verb. Acquaintances are greeted with a nod and a shift of the seat to allow them space at the bar, and strangers are watched subtly for a few moments before being allowed to get on with their own thing.
Getting a pint gives you the view of the famously ornate gantry. It, like the horseshoe counter, is a relatively small thing in this big, high-ceilinged room but it holds your attention. I noted down “mythical winged creatures” for the carved figures, which is correct, but the specific term is “Griffin”. The body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Something I should have known outright, knowing well the pub of the same name near Charing Cross, G2.
The counter has two short modesty screens or dividers or lean-againsts. They are primarily decorative, which is no bad thing.
As hinted at earlier, my budget was tight. So I ordered a half Carling. The Polish barman, however, misheard me, handing me a full one instead. But coming in at roughly £2.50 I felt unable to correct him.
Toilets are ok, but I wasn’t able to find the old door to the old rail platform. On the way I went past the superfluous Over 25s only sign, beside other notices such as No Dogs and No Illicit Substances. Perhaps these are more necessary to keep in line any recalcitrant locals. Bampots, many would call them.
But no such mayhem was anywhere near this afternoon, nor the various bands that liven the evenings. No, just a seat in one of the surprisingly comfortable low-booths. The perfect spot to watch the old guys at the bar, some TV sport, the passing tops of buses and the leaves fluttering up Leith Walk.
Have hip flask will sit
I left reluctantly. Time and empty stomach forcing me onwards. Soon I passed the Spey Lounge on the next corner of the Walk and was tempted to enter this notorious haven of hardened habitués. But no, I continued walking, and by a little barbershop I stopped in a little Polish-run café for a roll and tuna.
It seems that the barber’s is owned by the café lady’s partner. It would be good marketing to have one helping the custom of the other but I couldn’t think of any link. Sitting outside, feeling satisfied by the roll, I topped up my glass of coke with a few measures of whisky from my hip flask. It felt wrong though. It should really have been vodka.
Another great viewpoint, though, to watch the masses going about their days far from the Shore and its fancy restaurants. Mothers with prams, OAPs, groups of kids, Eastern Europeans, other economic migrants, not many suits, the incapacitated. Come to think of it, how badly would pubs be doing if it weren’t for Incapacity Benefit? There would be even more going the way of the boarded up Balfours Bar a little further up the street.
All around, lives planned from day-to-day, giro-to-giro, payment to next payment from the Cheque Centre. No expenses-lunches, or afternoon teas with the girls, or easy breaks between lucrative contracts, nor enough money to engage an advisor for financial planning.
Suddenly I was up and off to meet somebody within the maelstrom of the Festival, but nobody round here seemed affected by what was happening up in the city centre. They hurried by in all directions, eventually heading home today or tonight or tomorrow morning, to homes that would definitely be somewhere other than the expensive pads by the water in new Leith.