Monday, 30 May 2016

Going Doon The Watter

Doon The Watter


Sailing "doon the watter" has a long history in Glasgow. Particularly during the Glasgow Fair in July when there would be a rush of people going down the Clyde, whether for day trips or to holiday by the coast. Since the launch of Henry Bell's, Port Glasgow built, Comet steamboat in 1812 trips down the Clyde started to become affordable to more people. This led to the growth of towns such as Helensburgh, Gourock, Largs, Rothesay, Dunoon and Millport which developed as seaside resorts for day trippers and those taking a holiday from Glasgow. The number of steamboats grew and as the development of the railway network made it easier to get away from the city the holiday trade on the Clyde coast boomed. In the early 20th century there were soon thousands of people queuing for buses, trains and boats out of Glasgow on holiday weekends.

Queuing for the bus to Gourock at the Glasgow Fair.
Picture: Newquest Herald and Times
In the past couple of weeks I have had the chance to visit some of these places again. The towns are now often bypassed as holiday destinations by Glaswegians for places further afield, but they are still popular places for day trippers (and, it has to be said, for retirement). With the towns down the Clyde coast still entertaining visitors with crazy golf, ice cream, buckets and spades and even an outdoor swimming pool it is easy to get a nostalgic sense of the former glories of these places.

Some of my grandfather's old holiday postcards home from
Millport, Stevenston, Arran and Ayr.
My grandfather on my dad's side had a habit of holding on to old postcards, which he passed on to me years ago. These were either received by him, or his parents from numerous holidays over the years from the early 1900s up until about 1939. Those pictured above were sent back to my great-grandad in Glasgow, where he worked in a foundry in Parkhead and then the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Govan. A trip doon the watter to Millport, Stevenston, Arran or Ayr was a pleasant break in the fresh air away from the smoke and grime of Glasgow in the early twentieth century.

The Millport postcard above shows a match on the Millport Golf Course between professional golfers; JH Taylor and Ted Ray vs James Braid and George Duncan from July 23, 1913. The postcard showing The Cross in Stevenston tells us that Isa was "having a great time down here" with the postmark showing that she was holidaying during the Glasgow Fair. The 1921 postcard from Caticol, Arran bemoans the poor weather that they are having and the 1932 postcard showing the "River Ayr Walk" tells us that they are have "...had a great holiday in Ayr. One of the best."

My mum at the front, her brother and sister and my grandad
on holiday in Dunoon
A couple of decades later, in the 1950s mum was also enjoying seaside holidays down the Clyde. This holiday photograph above from 1959 has my mum stood in front of her brother and sister and my grandad, having a break on the shore at Dunoon.

As a child of the 1970s, like many other Glaswegians, my earliest holidays were to these same places. I can remember going to Arran with my parents, my granny and grandad (above) when I was about 5 years old. My other memorable early holidays were to the Butlin's Holiday Camp in Ayr and a holiday stay in the youth Hostel at Fintry, making me the fourth generation to take my holidays in these places.

A trip further afield to Leven in Fife
In the days before telephones were widely available many of the postcards are passing on such mundane messages as "weather fine, we will be back on Saturday". Others have the address they are staying at and expect postcards back, as one grumpy card from the 1920s says "Your mother is disappointed that you haven't written". 

Occasionally one of  the postcards gives a wee glimpse into what people were up to, such as this one from Leven in Fife is from July 1931 and tells us that "Willie has been golfing, of course. Weather not good....Mr C and the boys are A-1. Alex cycled here on Saturday and was tired".

PS Waverley


PS Waverley, now based in Glasgow at the Science Centre
A few steamboats still take tourists around Scottish beauty spots, such as the Steamship Sir Walter Scott on Loch Katrine. The last paddle steamer to be built in Britain is currently docked at Balloch, on Loch Lomond. The Maid of the Loch. was built in Glasgow in 1953 at the Pointhouse Shipyard where the Glasgow Riverside Museum now stands. She is slowly being restored to bring her back into steam operation. 

Ready to leave on our trip
If you want to get a feel for the old days of paddle steamer trips down the Clyde there is only one option of course. The world's last sea-going paddle steamer, the beautiful PS Waverley. The first PS Waverley was built in 1899, named after Sir Walter Scott's novel. During the Second World War she was used by the navy as a minesweeper and was sunk in 1940 whilst evacuating British troops from Dunkirk. She was replaced in 1946 by the current Waverley, built at the Pointhouse Shipyards just across the River Clyde from where she is usually berthed now at the Glasgow Science Centre. All through the summer months various routes run to Largs, Helensburgh, Bute, Cumbrae and the lochs. You can either get a ticket to let you on and off at various points along the route or stay on board all day and enjoy refreshments in one of her two bars. This is often the most popular outing, and this longstanding tradition is the origin of the phrase "steaming" or "steamboats" to describe a state of drunkeness which may result.

Heading under the Erskine Bridge on PS Waverley
With the Waverley's 2016 season just started on the May holiday weekend, we decided to take a trip from Glasgow to Helensburgh, via Greenock. It can take a surprisingly large number of people spread throughout the various lounges, decks and bars. As everyone jockeys for position to get the best view, you soon realise that there is hardly a bad seat on the place. As people start to wander about, space opens up. You can soon see how little Glasgow now uses the river that runs through its heart. You puff down the Clyde today are rarely meet another boat, in stark contrast to old photographs when the banks were deep with ships and boats of various sizes. Passing the old shipyard slipways and the couple of remaining yards it is hard not to think we really need to try harder to utilise the Clyde and support those still working on it. At many points the biggest industry on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow seems to be scrapyards, with huge piles of metal on either bank awaiting transportation overseas to be recycled.

One of the bars on board the Waverley
The dining saloon offers rolls and bacon in the morning and meals later on, and you can take a break from watching Glasgow float past by going below deck to watch the mighty engine pumping away, a blur of beautiful brass and steel.

My favourite urinal to watch Glasgow
sail past whilst I pee on the Waverley
Powering across the Clyde from Greenock to Helensburgh 
After two hours we disembarked at Helensburgh pier and waved goodbye to the Waverley from the shore. It is a marvellous way to spend a few hours.

There may no longer be an outdoor swimming pool in Helensburgh, but I have vague childhood memories of swimming in it with my grandad in the late 1970s before it closed. I think I can remember the sides of the pool being very rough. More unbelievably, as I look into the murky water from the pier, I used to get the train here with school friends in the 1980s and we would all launch ourselves into the Clyde to swim. Helensburgh was home to Henry Bell, who started the steamboat fad with his Comet (he also owned the Helensburgh public baths). It was once also home to such luminaries as the inventor of the television, John Logie Baird, and Holywood actress Deborah Kerr.

The Waverley leaving the pier at Helensburgh
My grandad's old postcards show evidence of their trips on steamboats down the Clyde. These postcards below are of a boat arriving at Blairmore Pier near Dunoon, and of the PS Lord of the Isles in the Kyles of Bute, near Tighnabuaich. The Lord of the Isles ran the Glasgow to Inverary route from 1891 to 1928.

More old family postcards, with steamboats.
 Blairmore pier, Holy Loch near Dunoon and the
 "Lord of the Isles" in the Kyles of Bute,
Often the most well known family in these Clyde seaside resort towns were the local Italians who made the ice cream. Like Zavaroni's in Rothesay and Nardini's in Largs, if you come to Helensburgh you need to finish your trip with a visit to Dino's.

Dino's Ice Cream parlour, Helensburgh

Gourock Outdoor Pool


A popular attraction in many Scottish seaside resorts was the outdoor pool. Only two outdoor public pools still operate in Scotland, at Stonehaven and at Gourock. The pool at Stonehaven opened in the 1930s and could get 6000 visitors on popular days, one year recording over 100,000 visitors. These pools usually were filled with filtered seawater. My mum's dad loved swimming outdoors and was always taking any opportunity to swim in rivers and the sea, but one of his favourite places was Stonehaven pool. This picture below is of my grandad in his younger days on the diving boards at Stonehaven pool. It took me a while to locate it until I saw the old postcard below on this website where you can see the diving boards from another angle. Diving into pools was a thing my mum says her dad always enjoyed and if there wasn't any diving boards at a pool, he would often climb up on the doors of the poolside changing cubicles to dive into the water. 

My grandad on the diving boards at Stonehaven outdoor pool 1930s
Early postcard of Stonehaven outdoor pool and the diving boards
On the west coast we still have Gourock outdoor pool. Originally opened in 1909, they have been heating the water since 1969. Refurbished 15 years ago the pool is open from May to September. For £4 I enjoyed a lovely swim on a day of unexpected sunshine last week, with views of Kilcreggan and the Cowal peninsula across the Firth of Clyde. A mouthful of water and the unexpected buoyancy soon remind you that as in the past, the pool is still filled with filtered seawater.

Gourock outdoor pool 2016

Millport on the Isle of Great Cumbrae


A trip to Millport offers one of the easiest ways to spend a day by the sea that doesn't seem to have changed much from my great-grandfather's time. Driving, cycling or getting the train to Largs you then take the ferry over to the Isle of Cumbrae. The ferry runs every 15 minutes and takes barely 10 minutes to cross. If you don't take your car you will find a bus waiting for you when you get off the ferry for the short run down to Millport, the only town on the island. Millport itself is a decent size with just about enough bars, cafes and shops to distract you. Kayaks and boats can also be hired and there is a golf course just behind the town.

Crocodile Rock, Millport
Described by the local website as one of Scotland's most popular tourist attractions, everybody knows the Crocodile Rock on the beach in Millport. It was apparently first painted around 1913 but was so popular with visitors that it has been regularly re-painted to freshen it up ever since. It recently was given a centenary celebration. If you are unconvinced that it looks like a crocodile, wait until you cycle a couple of miles up the coast to see the "Lion Rock".
Crazy golf, Millport
Tidal paddling pool, Millport
My daughter and myself passed our recent day out on Millport in the traditional manner, hiring a bike from one of the numerous local shops providing them and taking a wee tour. The road around the island is about ten miles long, with very little traffic once you are away from the ferry terminal. There are various beaches and rockpools to explore as well as the traditional seaside entertainments of trampolines, crazy golf, amusement arcades, ice cream parlours and an old tidal paddling pool.

Calmac ferry leaving Cumbrae for Largs
Getting back to Largs we had to visit Nardini's for a pokey hat before heading up the road to Glasgow.

Nardini's Cafe, Largs
I always enjoy trips to these towns, partly for the nostalgia but also because they are beautiful places, filled with unexpected art deco architecture and views across the water. There are few places more magnificent in Scotland than the elegant curving glass roofed Wemyss Bay train station which connects to the ferry terminal for Rothesay and the Isle of Bute. 

For me though the best thing about trips down this way is remembering my happy childhood trips with my granny and grandad and my great uncle Andy. With me sitting on my mum's knee in the front seat of my grandad's car and my granny, dad, great uncle and my brother squashed in the back, a run down the coast was always an exciting day out. Just as my grandad did with us, I now find myself breaking off the bottom of my cone to scoop a wee bit of ice cream onto it to give my daughter a mini-cone. Maybe in 40 years time my children will be doing the same thing with other children. 

My brother and me on a 1970s family holiday, Pirnmill, Arran

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