Disney, Coastguards and Light Shows: Southsea’s Magical Past

In this charming memoir, writer and actor John Bartlett describes how the Southsea we know today has changed so dramatically from the Southsea he used to visit as a boy.

When I was small, I was taken down to Portsmouth to watch the lifeguards practise their life-saving techniques. Emsworth is a fair distance from Southsea, but somehow we made the journey on more than one occasion. At that time, much of Portsmouth was still either bomb damaged or covered in swathes of barbed wire left over from World War II. The lifeguards practised off Southsea beach, close to Henry VIII’s iconic squat grey castle. Quite a crowd used to gather to watch muscular young men, hands on swimming caps, passing out a line to a swimmer clutching a white oval floatation device as he powered through the waves.

To gain a better vantage point, we took an overgrown path that partially wound round the left hand side of the castle before it was abruptly cordoned off by ominous “Keep Out” signs that had been placed there by the MOD during the war. From this elevated position the serious business of life-saving could be viewed with a certain amount of excitement and trepidation. The rest of the castle and beyond was out of bounds, however on the far extremity of this boundary where the Blue Reef Sea Life Centre is situated today, there was a miniature steam railway. The small but powerful engines were beautifully maintained, with polished brass and brightly coloured steam boxes. They were red, blue or green, all slightly filmy from the driver’s oily rags. There was a proper station with a ticket office with a small white picket fence encircling the area. The unforgettable smell of coal fire and sooty steam, whipping this way and that due to the playful, stiff onshore breeze, only added to the atmosphere. However, the air of anticipation was not solely down to the impending ride expectancy and pending anticipation because the tracks snaked off into the distance toward the castle and the forbidden fenced-off section. I have always been inquisitive so, for me, the promise of exploring an area that nobody could get to was equally as exhilarating as the ride itself.

Once the driver was ready we would set off, pungent smoke stinging our youthful eyes as we were bathed in thick vapour. On the right, near the start of the journey, the engine would rattle past the outdoor swimming pool. Old concrete walls formed a gully which amplified the sound of the engine and intensified the smoke. At this point the track ran parallel to the sea before opening out onto a large green oval area, to which the public were denied access. There was a superfluous corrugated iron tunnel, which served no actual purpose other than to allow the train to thunder through it whilst bothering the passengers with yet more sooty smoke. Periodically – and quite bizarrely – interspersed along the route were large colourful full-sized statues of Walt Disney characters, a thrilling sight for 1950s Britain, at least. When new, these larger-than-life figures were embedded straight in the ground, but as time passed they started to lean at crazy, drunken angles. A spur off the main track led off to the engine shed where, if you were lucky, you might catch a glimpse of another engine. The steam train continued on its way and before you knew it, was pulling into the station where my mother, dressed in a bright summer frock and clutching a large rectangular leather bag, would be anxiously awaiting my return.

When the light was fading, another treat was to explore the slightly sunken Rock Gardens. They are still there but have changed quite considerably since my boyhood days. At the western end, but barely visible because of the shrubbery, stood the pavilion which must have been relatively new in the fifties. Later in my teenage years, my mother, father, brother Richard and I would often fetch up there on Sunday lunchtimes to listen to the big bands performing. Much later still, the sheets of music these bands used were retrieved from an attic and donated to the music department at South Downs College. I went to see the students playing all these old arrangements and felt quite odd, as I hadn’t heard them for thirty years or so. As the music swelled and filled the Courtyard Café, a feeling of nostalgia swept through me. That said, the passage of time had not been kind to all the tunes. Tempus fugit, as they say – all things change. The old pavilion has now been replaced with a modern complex called the Pyramids, which was a popular venue in the beginning but now strikes me as forlorn and dilapidated. There was some talk a few years ago that the venue would be closed down and demolished.

The Rock Gardens were and still are very well-kept. However, today they are merely gardens set, as the name suggests, in an artificial rocky landscape, with a number of twisting paths through the shrubbery. What set them apart and made them extraordinary at the time, was the myriad of colourful lights positioned under the bushes. These lights have long since been removed due to maintenance costs and vandalism. In the days of my youth, though, as dusk fell, the Rock Gardens changed into the strange, delightful magical world of Titania’s bower. Mauves, pinks, greens and blues highlighted the underside of the plants and cast ethereal projections throughout the park. On one edge and roughly halfway through the park, a large fountain squirted a stream of water high into the air. The fountain, also lit with a playful sequence of changing colours, was set in a large circular bowl out, surplus water escaping over the rim to create mini waterfalls which cascaded down into the rocky pools below. Situated at the eastern perimeter of the gardens and creating yet another diversion for my eager eyes, was a large aviary, stocked with a variety of exotic birds.

At Southsea seafront there was always so much to see. There was – and still is – an eighteenth century anchor from HMS Victory, lying as if a passing giant had inadvertently dropped one of his set of jacks. The stock thrusts defiantly at the sky, whilst, at an angle, the shank and crown incongruously rest on a concrete plinth. Other monuments along the seafront depict almost forgotten sea battles, fought with great stoicism, bravery and fortitude.

According to my grandmother, it was to this same shoreline in the early 1800s that an ancestor of mine was posted from Cornwall to become Southsea’s coastguard. He was prepared to leave the wild Cornish coastline of his birth for the gentle swathes of oval brown flint that make up Southsea’s foreshore. At the time it was forbidden to become a coastguard in your local area lest you fell prey to bribery from the ‘Gentlemen’, as Rudyard Kipling, who grew up in Portsmouth, put it:

“If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.”

What must it have been like to move to another part of the country and be treated with constant suspicion and mistrust? Whatever the rewards, such a life in those days must have been very hard.

My grandmother claimed that our coastguard had been part of the famous Cornish Trevillion family. Some time later, my uncle Roy pointed out the name Trevillion on a Portsmouth Theatre Royal poster, which referred to a principal violinist and possibly a descendant of the coastguard and therefore a relation of ours. Now there’s a thin thread for future genealogists to follow…

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.