Seaside Special - Lowlands highlife: the Ayrshires

Another sleeper experience. Having introduced the concept on the Night Riviera, and knowing that this series includes another two such journeys, I’ll skip the detail here and save it up for the Fort William piece. I was a Sleeper Virgin then. By the time I visited Ayr I was an old tart (but on new stock).

I emerged from the train at silly-o’clock, blinking into Glasgow Central. Time to seek out breakfast and devise a plan. On Gordon Street, apart from a hubbub around the station entrance (featuring a long, ornate canopy below a renaissance style hotel. Neither had the glorious glass and wrought iron canopy of the main hall escaped my attention. It’s never too early to remark on the architectural detail…), the streets were quiet. It was, after all, before 8am on a Tuesday morning.

I found the flower boxes and check tablecloths of Barolo on Mitchell Street very appealing and asked the manager who was just sweeping down the little patio area whether I was too early to be fed. I was ushered in to a booth fronting the hosed-down pavement with a smile and ordered the full Scottish breakfast before my backside had hit the couchette.

The hybrid Italian/Scottish feast was a treat. Heavy, oaty, bannocks soaked up beans and runny-yolked egg on a plate piled high with spicy sausages, back bacon and black pudding. Crucially, both brown and red sauce were neatly presented on a side-salver that I didn’t even have to ask for. It really is the simple things sometimes. I texted Mrs A and told her to put Glasgow on the house-hunt list. She laughed emoji-ly. Don’t think she caught my serious undertow.

The manager was chatty and interested to hear I’d come up on the sleeper. She didn’t even know the service still existed and remarked that not many people were beating a path from the arrival platform to her restaurant. The place was filling up, so I moved on, feeling like I had started the day in the most satisfying manner possible. I was due in Ayr that evening and my plan was to catch a train to Wemyss Bay initially, but taking a moment first to detour through Glasgow’s attractive, airy squares and handsome, wide boulevards before returning to the station for my departure.  

Heading out on a sparsely populated eight-car unit, we almost immediately crossed the River Clyde at Broomielaw and left it behind for a while, passing though Paisley before rejoining the estuary somewhere near Langbank and then dropping down to Port Glasgow.

The last named was much bigger than I was anticipating. The town of some 15,000 souls climbed away up the hill to my left, whilst what remained of the dock and shipyard warehousing and workshops stretched out along the riverbank. Port Glasgow came about as a result of large ships being unable to navigate the shallow and meandering River Clyde to the centre of Glasgow. The area became home to dry docks and shipbuilding beginning in 1780. By the mid-19th century, the newly deepened Clyde enabled ships to reach Glasgow and the port declined, followed by the closure of large-scale shipbuilding in the latter half of the 20th century.

The train rounded the headland at the mouth of the Clyde, turning south into the Firth towards Wemyss Bay and I had my first sight of two famous old golf courses - Greenock and Gourock. This part of the west coast is awash with courses. Later in the day I scooted past the chain around Royal Troon and Prestwick, and the following day, too close for comfort to Donald Trump’s Turnberry complex.

Wemyss Bay station is a wonder of modern architecture. I had decided to come here on the strength of a piece by Michael Portillo on his never-ending ‘Great Railway Journeys’ peregrination. I hope this is the only inspiration I ever take from the self-confessed Thatcher acolyte. It paid off on this occasion. The station was designed by James Miller in 1903 for the Caledonian Railway. This same clever bloke who also had plenty to do with Glasgow Central. Quite a track record. There’s a pun in there somewhere.  

There are two bits to the station which stand out. The first is the perfectly proportioned and gloriously fashioned concourse which welcomes you off one of the two platforms that remain in use. It is a circular glass and steel marvel with a roof spinning up and out from a central island ticket booth. I spent too long faffing about trying to get the perfect photo that combined sunlight, symmetry and sparseness. With inevitable failure.

The second gem is the gracefully arcing ramp down to the original steamer terminal. It incorporated the same classy glass and steel concept for the roof, held up by large frames of 12-inch square-glazed windows giving views of the Firth of Clyde above wood panelled walls. All offset by carefully placed planters to complete the impression of Victorian elegance.   

I have begun many lists of top-tens on this series of posts: seaside towns in which to relocate, Victorian piers, fishing harbours, fry-ups and real ales. Now I need one for stations. Wemyss Bay goes straight in No 1.

So beguiling was the scene, that I made a snap decision to get the next ferry out to Rothesay in an attempt to capture a whiff of the vision those romantic Victorians were after, with their integrated rail and ferry excursion from Glasgow. The 35-minute crossing on the functional Cally McBrayne car ferry might not have quite conjured up the golden age of steamer services, but it was good enough for me. I felt quite giddy with my reckless diversion and snapped merrily away at the views up Firth to Ardbeg and Kilmun, and then south to the Cumbraes and Kilchattan Bay. I enthusiastically asked a couple trying to take a selfie in the brisk north-westerly if they wanted me to complete the task, thinking the camera bag and lenses swinging round my neck might give me some credibility. ‘Nae thanks, pal. It’s much funnier this way.’ Too right. Who is this smug sassenach?

My Gran and Grandad used to holiday out here in the 1970’s, when I was just a lad and Rothesay sounded like somewhere across ice-floe seas at the end of the earth. Grandad was a retired railway worker – a tough job laying plates on the LNER - and used his hard won retirement railpass to travel with may Gran as far as he could on their annual holiday. I am pleased that this gritty and relentless pursuit of value has passed down in an unshakeable gene-line directly to my Dad and then to me.

I raised my bottle of water to them both (it should have been a Guinness, but needs must) as Rothesay swung into view off the port bow. The grand public buildings, hotels and villas on the shoreline cast a fine silhouette in front of the hills and I felt a rush of drama as the ferry carved a swathe across the bay. Up close the buildings betrayed a tired demeanour and I decided to stay on the ferry for the return trip, rather than the mere cursory exploration that my demanding timetable would allow.   

A hearse together with its funeral party loaded up onto the car deck for the ferry back to Wemyss Bay. On arrival, it was escorted off before anything else moved and with a good bit of respect from the other drivers too. I guess this kind of service is a fact of life (and death) round these parts. The only other unusual aspect of the crossing was the breasting of the Firth’s choppy surface by a nuclear sub. I’d never seen one up close before. I’d already harnessed the services of a sleeper, a commuter train, a ferry and would need a bus for the next leg. I didn’t feel I needed to enlist the assistance of the Royal Navy at this point.

For my onward journey south, I needed to hop the seven miles between Wemyss Bay and my next train departure point at Largs by bus. Curious, but it seems the ports were never connected by rail back in the day, both being termini for rival lines.

Largs is home to the Viking Festival. It marks the Battle of Largs in 1236, the last mainland confrontation between the Scots and Norse. Emphasising the legacy, the foreshore is home to a 16-foot metal sculpture of Magnus The Viking in full warrior kit. Very impressive too. I took a couple of snaps, having recently had my ancestry DNA results (interpreted via some well-dodgy science, it has to be said) which pretty much confirmed my own Viking heritage. Thus I felt very at home in the town. It was rather a shame that the impromptu trip to Rothesay meant my visit here was confined to a walk along the coast only as far the station.

Onwards to Ayr, via a change at Kilwinning. The tracks ran down coast for a good stretch out of Largs with impressive boat houses, piers and jetties flashing by the window. The names were evocative of Firth of Clyde industry and enterprise: Fairlie, Southannan, Hunterston.

Then the Firth opened out at Ardrossan and there were sweeping views towards the craggy, blue-tinged peaks of Arran. Goat Fell and the like. No time to visit them on this trip. I’ve also seen these peaks from the Argyll side, but still not quite made it over there. It’s on the list. Sigh.

Kilwinning was a bit grey and unremarkable. A family group on the platform were waiting for the same train as me. They were all dressed up to party and were already knocking back pre-mixed cocktails out of cans. I assumed it was a Hen do until I saw the Dad, Keith, they called him. Maybe he was just the chaperone. I saw them again at Ayr train station, which was being either rebuilt or knocked down. Possibly both at the same time. Keith couldn’t find the exit. I’d followed him and his party down a dead-end and we shared a bit of head-shaking mirth.

Ayr – pronounced more like ‘ear’ by the train announcers - was another of those towns of two halves. I really didn’t like the centre. I was tired after a long day and minimal sleep on the overnight train. So I was not in a forgiving mood about the drab concrete housing, run-down empty shops and chavvy, unfriendly, street-drinking locals.  For all its important, ancient and attractive buildings linked with Wallace, Burns, Cromwell, Government and the Church, the city centre displayed some criminally bad design. The grey concrete M&S store that crowded out and dwarfed the medieval auld brig across the River Ayr was a shocking case in point. The mistreatment of Ayr’s fine railway station hotel, currently under sheeting being left to rot, was another.

Yet the seafront was fantastic – the council building and law courts commanded a well-kept public square. Small hotels and guest houses clustered around Victorian dwellings near Queens Terrace. New low-rise apartment blocks overlooking the coast at least had a nod to tasteful design, including small balconies and materials easier on the eye than the grey-stained town centre slabs. Social housing doesn’t have to mean crap housing.

The wide, sweeping beach giving way to cliffs looking southward; and the working port to the north were the town’s best points, for my money. I leant on a rail by the harbour, fascinated by a crane tipping buckets of loose construction sand into a freighter from a mountain of the stuff piled up on the dock; and by the sheer size of a brace of wind turbine blades being made ready for dispatch. Strolling back to the beach, I grabbed a half-hour on a windy bench and watched a thunderous cloud formation play with sunset light on a trawler out in the Firth with the Isle of Arran dipping in and out of view. This is why I do these trips.

I say the port and the beach are the town’s best features. There is the racecourse as well, natch. When I planned this trip a fortnight or so before departure, a new evening meeting fixture at Ayr jumped out of the website like a free bet offer. The icing on the cake of my lowland trip.

The track was only a short walk from the town centre off an unassuming dual-carriageway. Hardly the prettiest setting, but once inside, this was a lovely course. Very unflashy for a Grade I track. The Victorian stands were supplemented by tasteful modern additions, but all low rise and pleasant. The parade ring was accessible, viewing lines good and decent bars…and a food snack I had never previously sampled: the Kilmarnock pie – steak and gravy in a scotch pie-like crusty pastry case and lid. I feel another top-ten list coming on.

It was striking how busy the racecourse was and how much punters had dressed up for a night at a pretty average set of races. I was in the minority in my scaggy jumper and trainers. No wonder the steward had looked me up and down at the ticket booth.

Walking back in to the bar and restaurant, I saw Keith and his glad-rag family again. So not a Hen do at all. They had made the effort just like the others. They were at a table overlooking the winning post, knocking back flutes of fizz now. I nodded to them again.

Winless, I walked back to my b&b near the seaside and collapsed into a deep slumber. Breakfast was served up by Martin, my chatty host (aren’t they all) who had me as his captive audience, in the absence of any other guests. He was fine, to be honest, even if he felt the need to unburden himself of various life events and achievements. I did pick up a couple of interesting nuggets though. Firstly English black pudding is different to Scottish black pudding (of which I had some fine examples on my plate) in that the recipe hereabouts used beef suet and oatmeal, giving a coarser texture than those at home.

Secondly, after hearing about my trip to the races, Martin told me that  fixtures remained popular with Irish racegoers who could get a 2 hour crossing from Belfast into Cairnryan, near Stranraer, and from there a direct bus service to the track. Ayr races is certainly the destination of choice around these parts.

Martin’s information was given added relevance by the fact that I was heading for Stranraer that very morning. Another end-of-the-line destination. Fabulous train ride. I know I say that a lot in these posts, but flippin’ ‘eck it was lovely around that neck of the woods. We were into the hills south east of Ayr pretty quickly, away from the coast around Dalrymple and Maybole and then south-west onto Girvan. Rolling and expansive landscapes that seemed to draw you out of the train window. Not soft limestone and chalk like southern England, not hard grit like the Pennines or Cumbria, not empty like the Moors, not craggy and extreme like the Highlands. Very much its own thing.  

Beyond the harbour town and seaside resort of Girvan, with Ailsa Craig hovering in the mid-distance, the view changed to be dominated by broad valley-sides dotted with white-washed cottages, farmsteads and hamlets. We followed the lively rivers Stinchar and then Duisk south, where the landscape felt like a different planet to Ayr and the northern coastline. The railway almost touched the south coast of Galloway at Luce Bay before swinging a wide curve back north-east into Stranraer.

The line skirted the edge of the town and then ran across vast acres of broken and concrete slabs enclosed by chain link fencing that used to be the car parks for the ferry terminal. The train trundled on past empty sheds and rusted rails towards what was once a harbour.

We came to an unceremonious halt in a dilapidated station at the edge of a jetty to nowhere. Stranraer used to be a major ferry passenger terminal to Belfast. This was its station. The ferry terminal closed and moved 5 miles up the coast in 2011. The station has remained here, deprived of the purpose it was built for. A sad reminder of a former bustling life. Gothically poignant, like a Victorian Romantic folly for the 21st century.

Attempts to keep it looking pretty were futile: rotting geraniums withered in pots on the window ledges; dead daisies left to compost themselves in a planter made out of barrels to look like an engine and carriage.

The visceral manifestation of neglect stretched out on all sides. This is what a port looks like when you take away its principal reason for being.

I loved it!

But that’s just my perverse love of ruinous landscapes. After more than 150 years, when the last crossing sailed from the town for Northern Ireland, it ripped the heart out of the place. The new £200m development at Cairnryan enabled Stena Line to cut costs and journey times with a port that wouldn’t silt up. It has seen freight levels and passenger numbers increase.

Billboards advertised the site for development, either wholesale or piecemeal, and there was at least some prospect that a new marina with Scottish Government and local authority investment might breath a bit of life back in to the town.

I couldn’t really understand why the station hadn’t been moved back down the line nearer to the town rather than left in the dereliction of a former ferry complex. There was a 15 minute walk back down a path next to the line and it didn’t seem overly ambitious to have put up a couple of platforms at this end of the spur. But maybe this was all part of a bigger redevelopment plan.

The town itself had some obvious signs of deprivation - the former landmark George Hotel was now a damaged eyesore, but the church square, streets in the older part of town and the park on the front all showed signs that Stranraer was intrinsically an attractive town, with a good bit of history to show off.

Back at the station, a couple I was chatting to remained unconvinced. They harked back to days when packed 12-car trains would pull in here and the town was alive with visitors waiting for ferries or for trains home. Now they said they couldn’t even get a bag of chips.

I enjoyed the evening train rides back to Glasgow via Ayr and a final ramble along the seafront. I knew I could get a bag of chips there.

The sleeper to Euston awaited. A good return leg, though I thought I was in for carnage when three beered-up Eastern European cyclists got on, swayed around, struggled to put bikes in the racks and cracked open bottles of San Miguel. Then I spied the contents of their whisky distillery bags spread out across the table. Party? Please, no! But within 15 minute they were all zonked out, snoring way like little piggies. One of them laid down on the floor between the luggage racks, another sprawled with his legs out in front of the vestibule door, grumbling every time the guard came through.

My local train back up the line to Berko left Euston at 5.30am. It was littered with youngsters assuming similar postures to my Eastern European friends. These were coming home after a night out clubbing in London.

Never a dull moment. Whatever their trip had been, it can’t have rivalled my own.

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous episode: Dumfries and Galloway

Next episode: Argyll


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