I am doing a house sit in Portrush, Northern Ireland this weekend, looking after a gorgeous dog called Betsy. It’s only for four days and I have only had one full day here so far but it has been a real walk down memory lane for me.
My Portrush Past
Portrush is where I went to college 48 years ago. It was the first year that The Hotel and Catering College opened in Portrush and I was part of the first intake of students to a brand new, state of the art, catering college.
I remember microwaves where a really new thing then and we were all in awe of this incredible machine that could cook, or reheat food, in such a short time. We also, of course, stood well back when using them because we had heard stories of people having had their internal organs cooked by the microwaves!
But it’s not really the college itself that I want to reminisce about, it’s long gone now, it’s more the people, the places we went, and the fun we had that have all come flooding back to me over the last couple of days. I went out and about yesterday to retrace my steps from all those years ago and found Portrush, in many ways unchanged, and in others ways like a different world. I’ll be writing a blog about Portrush as a place to visit once I have done a bit more investigation but for now I am going to stick with my memories.
There were other girls in our class but in the main I remember our little tribe of four that formed an immediate bond. There was myself, Rhonda, Roisin and Isobel, all from different parts of the country and with different backgrounds, it was very much my first meaningful encounter with anyone outside of my social and cultural experience, which was no bad thing back in the days of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
I have kept in touch with Rhonda off and on over the years, but as for the other two they have faded into my past and I have little knowledge of what happened to them since. As I walked around yesterday though, fleeting memories returned and they became ‘friends again’. I remember meeting Roisin when she opened the door of one of the boarding houses I went to see, she had helped out there in the summer and was staying on while she went to college. I don’t remember my first meeting with either Rhonda or Isobel but I do know that from the first night, when we all went to The Londonderry Hotel (which is still there) for a drink, we became firm friends.
Then there were the lads! I remember only some of the names now but several of them rented a cottage on the road out towards Portstewart, a bleak, blustery, and very cold walk away, but one that we usually undertook once a week when virtually the whole class went up there for a party. I’m not so sure it was even the party we went for, it might have been the heat, for there was a range in the kitchen where we gathered to warm our perpetually frozen feet.
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Student accommodation then was nothing like it is now. Most of us stayed in really grotty, cold and damp flats or bedsits. I had teamed up with 2 older university girls to rent somewhere, after spending a few very lonely nights in a room in a boarding house. Our first place was actually really nice although there was no heating, phone, or TV, not that we expected one, but there was a range in the kitchen there which kept the chill off the place. There was also a rule of no boys to set foot in the house and unfortunately one of the girls, whose name I won’t mention, had her boyfriend stay the night and we were promptly evicted. I often wondered how the owners discovered this had even taken place, but they did, and all three of us found ourselves looking for somewhere else to stay.
Where we ended up was possibly the coldest, bleakest house in the entire town because everywhere else was taken by then. It was right up on Ramore Head, overlooking the wild Atlantic and so windy that it was hard at times to even walk. I remember meeting the postman some mornings as he struggled to climb the steps to the house, clinging on to the hand rail lest he be blown away. I went back there yesterday to see if the house was still there and it is, although it is boarded up and has a sold sign on it. I imagine it may be demolished for even back then, all those years ago, it was starting to crumble. Walking was very difficult yesterday too with a very strong wind to struggle against and the sound of crashing waves behind me.
I remember in the very small and dark kitchen that we had at the back, if anyone slammed a door, bits of the ceiling fell down and the back door wouldn’t close properly so it could never be locked. The front door was never locked either because the people who lived on the floors above us had to come in and out. These were the days when flats of this nature were not self contained, our rooms were simply off the downstairs hallway and even our bedroom didn’t have locks. I’m surprised we weren’t all murdered in our beds.
Another thing that didn’t close was one of the windows in the bedroom that I and another flatmate shared. During the night the wind would suck the curtain out through the gap and we would have to pull it back in come the morning. It was such a cold place to live, we slept with multiple layers of clothing on and I don’t remember that I even had a hot water bottle! As for ever taking a bath (no showers back then either) it was unthinkable, the cost of heating the water would have been way beyond our means as students and we would have frozen to death in the bathroom, I can remember having to break ice on the water in the toilet bowl at times. I also remember trying to do laundry in the bath because of course we didn’t have a washing machine but I generally took my laundry home with me at the weekends.
Another memory that came back to me yesterday was of my pale blue Oxford Bags. If you have never heard of these, they are a very wide legged trouser, with turn ups and a high waist. I loved mine, although not the most sensible thing to be wearing in such conditions.
And bomber jackets! They were all the rage then but totally impractical as they only came down to the waist so didn’t provide much heat. I remember a boy I went out with who wore a red and orange, large checked, lumber jacket which somehow looked OK even with his red hair. I wonder whatever became of him? We also wore short sweaters with 3/4 length sleeves so that the sleeves of our blouses added a contrast of colour. I seem to remember the sleeves were very wide and gathered at the cuff.
It was always lovely to arrive at the college on the mornings that we were having cookery classes. After the walk to college, which seemed quite long, and often with our clothes soaked through, it was so nice to change into freshly laundered and starched whites and work in a really warm kitchen for the day. I was always very thankful that our whites were laundered for us by the college.
This is a photo from January 1973, I’m third from the left. Wish I was that skinny now!
The White House
As I walked around yesterday I came across some other places that triggered memories. The White House for instance, a department store that also held functions for weddings. I remember we used to sneak out of the college and over the back fence so we could go and work at the functions. I think we might have got paid something like £2.00 for a half day’s work but back then it was a decent amount. My share of the rent for the flat was £3.00 a week so it went a long way to covering that. There was no such thing as student loans then, there were means tested grants but mine worked out at 33p a day so it didn’t cover much. I also worked in a bar when I went home at the weekends.
Oh, and another way we gathered up a few pennies was by collecting empty cider bottles on a Monday afternoon. Over the weekend there would have been lots of underage drinkers using back alleyways and the beach to drink and they always abandoned the empty bottles. These could be returned to the off sales for a refund and some weeks we made quite a haul! See, how environmentally friendly we were back then!
The Londonderry Arms
I already mentioned this place, it was where we went most nights to meet up for some socialising. Often we shared a half pint of lager between two of us but I remember my flatmate, who had a full grant, was able to drink Bacardi and Coke, we were all so envious, she seemed so sophisticated! Back then there had to be a planned meeting place because we had no way of contacting each other outside of college, no mobile phones, or even phones in most people’s homes in those days.
The Harbour Bar
The Harbour Bar used to hold Open Mic Nights, although I don’t think we called them that then but I do remember being there and thinking it was great that people could get up and perform a song, recite a poem, or tell a story. I went back to the bar yesterday and goodness, what a change there has been but I managed to find someone who remembered it from all that time ago and described it perfectly right down to the fact that there was an outside toilet. That area is now a Bistro but other parts of the building remain unchanged, I’ll be mentioning it in another blog. The one song that has stayed with me ever since those nights is the Irish Rover which has been performed by many groups but for me the best version is by the Clancy Brothers And Tommy Makem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojiqyGvjbg8
There are a few other places that come to mind. Kellys, where we went to discos and I worked an odd time behind the bar. I remember they charged 1p for ice! And the song that I associate with Kellys is The Clapping Song, I don’t remember which version was played then but I do remember dancing until we were ready to collapse. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWuSPPLtkEQ. Music is a great aid to memory, no wonder it is so often used as a therapy for people with dementia.
Then there is the Arcadia Ballroom where we also went to dance, the amusement arcades, and Barry’s Amusements, a funfair beside the train station. The memories are flowing now, the more I write, but I think I have probably reminisced for long enough now, they were happy, fun times and it’s been good to revisit them. However, not all my memories of that time are good ones.
The Precarious Journey Home
I did go home most weekends but it was, at times, a precarious journey. Back then the train only went to York Road in Belfast and to continue the journey to Bangor it necessitated a walk across the city to another station. Now, this was at the height of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and Belfast, in the evenings was pretty much deserted, everything shut down by teatime and you would rarely have met anyone along the way. I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson but suffice to say it was not a safe place to be at any time never mind alone after dark.
One weekend going home I was stopped and heckled by a group of children, probably around 9 or 10 years of age. They wanted to know where I was coming from and where I was going, who was I etc. I was surrounded and unable to move for what felt like a lifetime. There had been reports around that time of children luring people into ambushes and mention of snipers on the rooftops so I was quite convinced I was going to die. There wasn’t another person in sight nor a car on the road to flag down and I doubt anyone would have stopped anyway.
I managed to break out of the circle, and make a run for it, but all the while fully expecting a bullet in the back. The children must have lost interest by then, they didn’t pursue me. I made it to the other train station, which of course had no staff on duty, and I sat there in the dark scared for my life until the train arrived. I was never so glad to get on a train and the only lasting damage was the sleeve of my coat was torn from the shoulder. I hadn’t thought about this incident in years until yesterday, just goes to show how memories get triggered, you can understand why so many people suffer with PTSD.
Sorry to end on a low note but it would be wrong to paint a picture that showed everything through rose tinted glasses, life was good, and life was bad, back then but I suppose with the exuberance of youth we focussed as much as possible on the fun until the moments when reality touched our lives, or the lives of those close to us, which was more frequent than any of us would have liked.
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