This is the sort of unexpected riddle that I like. You’re out for a walk and you see an old gateway that is rather too well made and doesn’t seem to lead anywhere.
Beyond the unimpressive wooden gate, there’s just a little wedge of grass and overgrowth before it descends straight down to the East Coast Mainline railway.
So why is this old gate here? This isn’t just any old railway access gate, this is an old Royal railway access gate. This, you see, is all that remains of Queen Victoria’s personal, private railway station for when she was visiting Edinburgh and lodging in the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
It was just a short royal stroll up a flight of steps to be met by one’s personal carriage to be whisked away from the crowds through the back gate of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
In 1850 The Scotsman reported that the Directors of the North British Railway were “in the course of erection” of a platform at Meadowbank for the Royal Train to stop at following its inaugural run over the Tweed on the Royal Border Bridge. “which is to be tastefully ornamented for the occasion, there is to be a stair leading up to the old public road at Meadowbank, and distant only a few yards from the gate into Holyrood Park. Her Majesty’s private carriage will here be in waiting to receive her; so that, in the course of ten minutes are the arrival of the train, the Queen and the Royal Consort will, in all likelihood, be occupying the apartments that have been fitted up for their reception in Holyrood Palace.“ Fortunately for us, the London Illustrated News sent ahead an artist who was there to capture the scene and gives us the only known image of the station.
For the Queen’s visit to Edinburgh in September 1852, the Scotsman went so far as to refer to the “Victoria Station at Meadowbank“. Ten horses and two private carriages were sent ahead from London to Edinburgh via York, arriving by the afternoon mail train for her Majesty’s personal use in travelling between Meadowbank and Holyrood. When the Queen arrived on September 1st, “The engine was beautifully decorated, having in front the words “God Save the Queen” in large gilt letters.” After the formalities were concluded with the greeting party, the Queen and Prince Albert ascended the stairs from the platform to their waiting carriages, where a guard of honour of the 7th Hussars from Piershill Barracks was waiting, their band striking up “God Save the Queen”.
Once the royal party were officially in residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Royal Standard was run up the flagpole and the gunners of Edinburgh castle fired a salute. This was however their second of the day; a signal hoisted earlier in the morning from the Nelson Memorial on the top of Calton Hill to a London steamer approaching Leith had been misinterpreted and an over-enthusiastic garrison had fired the royal salute. This created a minor panic amongst the dignitaries, railway officials and spectators of the city who suddenly feared that the Queen had arrived and nobody was there to greet her. One can only imagine the pandemonium until the railway telegraph office located the royal train outside Dunbar.
For the 1860 visit, a description is given of how the station was decorated for such visits. “The stair leading from the platform to the road was covered with an awning of white and pink calico, and the recesses on either side contained a neatly arranged assortment of flowers, evergreens and heather. The stair-case was covered with a merled carpet, with a stripe of Stuart tartan in the centre“.
As far as is known, there was only one occasion when a regular passenger train stopped here; on August 22nd 1872 a London to Edinburgh express was temporarily halted to allow some of Queen Victoria’s children to disembark. The last use of the station was for the Royal visit to Scotland in 1881. Even the Victorians realised stopping trains on the mainline into Edinburgh from London just a mile shy of the final destination for Royal purposes wasn’t the best use of the railway. The practice of also loading wagons onto the back of the royal train carrying state coaches and horses incurred further delays, as these had to be brought down the line from North Bridge Station (what would later become Waverley).
In 1882, an irate letter was written to the green ink page of the Scotsman to complain that the Town Council were now using the platform as a collection point for the “ashes and dirt” of one quarter of the city before its onwards transport by rail for disposal.
The station was only “open” for 31 years – and even then it was used only once or twice a year – but those gate piers have survived 141 years longer than that. There’s a planning application out though to build on this gushet*, so catch them while you still can. (* = gushet is a Scots term for a triangular portion of land).
The same stretch of wall has another (unresolved) little secret too. The ghost of a small building that I can’t quite unravel. It looks like two wall ends (green) with the back of a fireplace or window (yellow) in between.
If there was something here, it’s missing from the 1817 and 1849 town plans, so either is older than both or came and went in between. The boundary wall pre-dates the railway and this road was widened on a number of occasions starting with the Royal Visit of George IV in 1822. No structure is marked but this could have been a gardener’s bothy removed when the road was widened.
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