It’s 5.01pm on a Friday afternoon and the Waverley on St Mary’s Street is definitely shut and doesn’t exactly look about to open. I carry on to the Holyrood 9A and alert my acquaintance to this fact. He gets this message 10 minutes later. When he’s in the Waverley. It’s comes as no real surprise as the Waverley has always been a bit of a mystery, but unlike a Rebus or Skinner tale, this is a very pleasant, unassuming mystery. So what does go on behind those black doors of an evening?
Free crisps for one thing. By the time I arrive, my acquaintance has settled himself in to a stool at the bar, in prime position to help himself to a packet of Tesco’s own-brand potato-based snacks as soon as they are topped up. And they soon are, by owner Ian Walker whose family have owned the pub for over a century. Keeping slightly varying opening hours, Ian is generally always there, well turned out in shirt and tie, buzzing as fast as he can around this bar near the Royal Mile as he has done for many years.
Given that it is about 5.15pm on a Friday and other bars in the area are packed with after-work drinkers, the Waverley is a place of serenity as the two of us are the only customers. A couple do come in and have a look, enquire at the bar as to whether they serve Innis & Gunn and then quickly leave when they realise that you don’t come to the Waverley for craft beer. There are two taps: Guinness or Tennents. In the fridges, you’ll spot bottles of Becks, Budweiser and even cans of Strongbow. The drinks offering does not extend much further than that. But there’s free crisps, remember, and not just bowls of them, but whole free packets of them, in a multitude of flavours. In fact, the mere presence of a Tesco multibag ensures there is a greater choice of crisp flavours than there are beers.
Whenever I walk into the Waverley, I’m always reminded of some of the traditional basement theatre bars in London’s West End. It’s that combination of red-velour banquette seating that reminds me of theatre seats and of the strange lighting that seems to make everything glow, as if we’re in the 1920s and the interior is still lit by gaslight. Ultimately the effect is to create a real feeling of warmth, especially on a bitingly cold January evening. It’s a bit like the whole pub has a retro, warm Instagram filter on it.
In terms of decor at the Waverley, music posters from through the years cover the walls and even the ceiling, a nod to the fact that this place used to be synonymous with live music. There’s also an eclectic mix of knick-knacks on the walls, including a couple of small crocodiles and a bicycle – it will have been there long before trendy design agencies started doing the same thing. I have to admit that I didn’t notice the rather old photo of the Queen and Prince Philip that usually has pride of place behind the bar but I’m sure it must have been there somewhere – this place does not change that dramatically in a few months. Indeed, during the recent World’s End murders retrial, archive footage showed that though the World’s End had changed over time, the exterior of the Waverley has remained identical over nearly 40 years. If the TV cameras had also looked inside, I’m guessing the interior of the Waverley in 1977 would not exactly differ from that which we see today.
The toilets lead straight off the downstairs bar but there is also a rather inviting staircase that takes you up to the Waverley’s other bar that is usually used as a function suite. On any given evening, you may find the upper floor full of people foot-tapping away to folk music or hanging on every word of the narrator at a meeting of a storytelling group. These regular meetings must at least put a bit of money behind the bar though you get the impression that Ian is not running this pub for profit. He’s running it because he has a sense of family pride and a determination to carry on the work of his late brother and his predecessors.
The Waverley is unique and worth a visit. Don’t expect craft beer, cutting-edge gins and an extensive wine list. Expect a quiet, comfortable, friendly place that cocoons you from not only the cold weather outside but also the 21st century. The sight of a smartphone in here is quite jarring as you sit with a pint in a traditional dimpled glass, listening to music that sounds as if it should be coming from a gramophone in the corner. This place has charm and a style and feeling all of its own. It may not stay like this for much longer so pop in now to sample it before it’s too late.
The Waverley is at 3-5 St Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TA and can be contacted on 0131 556 8855. Always worth checking when it’s opening on any given day to avoid disappointment.