Friday 8 October 2021

Coast to Coast. Wemyss Bay to Millport

Coast to Coast Part 13. Wemyss Bay to Largs

Almost two years ago I decided to run, in stages, all across the Central Belt of Scotland. It started out as a way to give myself a change of scene on my longer weekend jogging routes. Eventually I decided to link two of my favourite coastal towns, bringing back memories of childhood holiday destinations. My runs would hopefully take me from Largs on the Ayrshire coast, to St Andrews in Fife. 

I followed the Pilgrim's Way footpath from St Andrews to Culross, then came through Falkirk and Kirkintilloch to reach Glasgow. From here my route took me through Paisley to Greenock, Gourock and to Wemyss Bay. By now it was March 2020. The first Covid lockdown stopped me getting to Largs. Today I finally got round to completing my Wemyss Bay to Largs section.

I was about 9 years old when we had a holiday in a static caravan in St Andrews. I remember clambering over the ruins of the cathedral and walking along the long sandy beaches there. However as kids it was the west coast where we usually spent our free time, Helensburgh, Rothesay, Dunoon, Largs and Millport.

Holidaying in St Andrew, 1980s

Doon the Watter

Since the launch of Henry Bell's, Port Glasgow built, PS Comet steamboat in 1812 trips down the Clyde became 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.

1952 - a steamship gets ready to leave Glasgow for the Ayrshire coast

Although trips "doon the watter" for the Glasgow Fair really belong to the generations before my time, like many Glaswegians as a family our earliest holidays were down to the Ayrshire coast. Aged about 4 or 5 years old I well remember staying in a wee lodge at Butlin's holiday camp in Ayr, now Craig Tara.

At Butlin's holiday camp in Ayr

The other early holiday memory I have was staying in a house on Arran with my mum and dad, my brother, my granny, grandad and great-uncle. The seven of us squeezed into my grandad's car for the journey down from Glasgow, me sitting on my mum's knee in the front. This was in the days before wearing seat belts was compulsory in cars. We didn't have a car ourselves but would often get the train, or go for a run with my granny and grandad, to the likes of Helensburgh or Largs.

Me in the kilt, on the beach in Arran

As I became active in Youth CND in the 1980s, my trips out west from Glasgow were usually connected to demonstrations, vigils or marches at the US and British bases on the Clyde and Holy Loch. A die-in at the American base on Holy Loch would then be combined with a wee visit to the Dunoon amusements before getting the ferry home. A march to Faslane was often combined with getting an ice cream cone in Helensburgh afterwards before squeezing into the back of a red Lada that my parents' friend owned, or catching the train back to Glasgow.

My grandad, aunt, uncle and mum on holiday in Dunoon

Largs was always my favourite day trip, either with my grandparents, with my parents or later on, with my own children. It is always just nice to be beside the seaside, but especially if it involves a single nougat (pronounced "nugget" of course) from Nardini's and a couple of hours in the amusement arcades there.


So the end point of my runs across Scotland was to be Largs on the west coast, both for personal nostalgia, and because it is easy to get the train back to Glasgow basically. The ferry from Largs to Millport and Great Cumbrae was to be the grand finale, as I was going to take part in a 10 mile race around the island in mid-May 2020 to finish off. This was my plan in the days before the Covid-19 pandemic brought necessary restrictions on people's movements and activities. 

The race was cancelled and I had got all the way from St Andrews to Weymss Bay before I had to stop. Now that restrictions have greatly eased, it was time to get the train back to Wemyss Bay, finish off my route and get that single nougat I had been craving.

Weymss Bay to Skelmorlie

1948 queue in Glasgow for the train to Weymss Bay

So after a necessary pause, I arrived back in the beautiful train station at Weymss Bay to run the 8 miles down the coast to Largs. Arriving in Weymss Bay train station, it is tempting just to walk down the glazed corridor towards the waiting CalMac ferry to Bute, and enjoy a day out in Rothesay. Not today however, as I had other plans...and the rain was tipping down.

The train line from Glasgow arrived here in 1865. The Wemyss Bay Steamboat Company hoped to steal away the day-trippers and holiday-makers from Glasgow who at that time would board steam boats in Glasgow to get to Cumbrae, Rothesay, Arran, and Tighnabruaich on the Cowal peninsula.

Wemyss Bay train station

Wemyss Bay train station

In 1903 the Weymss Bay train station was upgraded in grand style to accommodate the number of travellers using it to catch ferries, with the covered walkway leading down to the ferries providing shelter in inclement weather. Though the only ferry here now is the car ferry to Rothesay, my mum remembers getting the hovercraft from here that ran in the mid-1960s for a couple of years between Rothesay and Largs and Weymss Bay (see link).

Car ferry from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay meeting the train today

Weymss Bay was built in the 19th century by landowner and MP for Greenock, Robert Wallace. His father had made his money as a merchant and landowner in the West Indies, and Wallace created Weymss Bay as a "marine village and watering place". The increased popularity of the Clyde coast for Glasgow holiday-makers eventually brought the trains and the building of several large villas. One of them was owned by Sir George Burns in his retirement, co-founder of the Cunard Line shipping company. Lord Kelvin watched the ships pass his impressive mansion he had built in Largs.

Weymss Bay and Skelmorlie run into each other, but once you cross the Kelly Burn, you have left Renfrewshire and now entered Ayrshire. From here the Ayrshire Coastal Path can lead you for the next 100 miles to Glenapp.

Skelmorlie to Largs

Following the Ayrshire Coastal Path, where it begins just south of Wemyss Bay as you cross the Kelly Burn, I turned left and up the hill onto Skelmorlie Castle Road.

1879 map of Wemyss Bay and Skelmorlie

This map of Skelmorlie from 1879 is interesting. As well showing some features which have not changed, it also shows the "Skelmorlie nautical mile" off the coast. Established in 1866, a couple of the original marker poles for this still can be found on the shore. This was used to measure the speed of new ships built on the Clyde. Two pairs of poles stand behind each other at the start and end of the measured mile. The ship approaches at full speed on the correct bearing, and when the two poles viewed from the ship line up (the upward and downward V come together as a cross if the distance from the shore is correct), you know where the start and again the end of the mile lie.

The two poles marking the start of the nautical mile

This was a vital part of any ship's sea trials, before the new owners accepted the ship was up to the required standards. The first measured mile on the Clyde was at Gare Loch, used from 1831. From 1866 the Skelmorlie Measured Mile came to be regarded as the most important in the UK. 

Continuing along this road the Skelmorlie Reservoirs sit behind trees to the left, in what is now a golf course. In 1925 this reservoir supplied water to the village below and burst its banks in heavy rainfall when an embankment collapsed. As cottages below were washed away five people, including four children, were killed.

Further along in the fields to the left of this road, the OS maps show an ancient mound. It was too wet for me to go into the field to explore, but this is the site of the Skelmorlie Serpent. Allegedly the site of sun and serpent worship, bones, charcoal and a paved platform have previously been excavated here to suggest it may be more than just local fairy tales. 

Skelmorlie serpent?

Overlooking Skelmorlie village to the south is Skelmorlie Castle, a medieval country house that dates back to the 16th century, built upon an older structure. The ancient seat of the Clan Montgomery is now a private dwelling. It featured in a property article in The Guardian about 13 years ago, when it was for sale for £2.5 million pounds. 

Skelmorlie Castle in the rain

Skelmorlie Castle

The road south from Skelmorlie passes the hamlet of Meigle and crosses a bridge over Skelmorlie Water. The Ayrshire Coastal Path again then takes you away from the busy A-road that runs down the coast here. As the road climbs the hill above Meigle Bay you get views across the Firth of Clyde, a waterway long frequented by nuclear submarines passing to and from the naval bases at Holy Loch and Gare Loch. For this reason the quiet hillside here is home to a less well known secret nuclear bunker. Built in a farmer's field above Meigle Bay, Skelmorlie underground monitoring post would have been used by the Royal Observer Corps to observe nuclear bomb blasts over the targets across the water, and monitor radioactive fall-out afterwards. Stood down in 1991, visits can be arranged by appointment in non-Covid times, as the cramped space down there was only designed to accommodate three people.

Skelmorlie nuclear bunker

Knock Hill

I detoured off the path to shamble to the top of Knock Hill. Knock Hill was the site of an iron age fort, and the earthworks of it can still be seen. It also promised great views sweeping from the Cumbraes to Bute and across the Firth of Clyde. Unfortunately the weather had taken a turn for the worse, though I suspect the "path" here is never dry, even after a prolonged heatwave. 

Path to Knock Hill

Knock Hill through the clouds and rain

No views today from Knock Hill

Back on solid ground I passed Knock Castle, a private mansion built in 1857 by the boat-building Steele family beside the ruins of a much older castle. Then ran on past Routenburn golf course to reach the coast at the northern end of the Largs promenade. 

Ayrshire Coastal Path

Largs at last


People have lived in and around Largs for at least 5000 years, as Neolithic burial chambers can be seen above the town, and the remains of later iron age hill forts. Before the railway brought day-trippers and holiday-makers from Glasgow from 1895 the biggest thing to happen in Largs was the Battle of Largs. Vikingar (part museum, part swimming pool) can tell you the story of it when it re-opens, the Pencil monument built in 1912 commemorates it, and the giant Viking on the seafront was erected in 2013 to mark the 750th anniversary of the battle. Magnus (as he is apparently known) was in danger of being swept away today. The Battle of Largs in 1263 was part of the Scottish-Norwegian War when King Haakon Haakonsson tried to assert his authority over the Hebrides. Outnumbered, and with his ships cast about in an October storm Haakon retreated to Orkney to over-winter. When he unexpectedly died there of illness the campaign ground to a halt. 

Despite the weather I still felt the urge to get myself some ice cream at Nardini's. The Italian cafe has been an institution in the town since 1935, with its distinctive art deco design. I watched the car ferry go back and forwards to Cumbrae, and decided against going into the amusements in case I just left a wet puddle. 

Nardini's cafe, Largs

Ferry to Cumbrae and Millport
I wandered past the Skelmorlie Aisle where the Montgomerys from the castle are buried, but it was all locked up as Largs appeared to be battening down the hatches for winter. 

Skelmorlie Aisle

Finally got my ice cream

For me today it was time to get the train back to Glasgow and dry off. I was glad to finally make it to my intended final destination, after an 18 month delay, and hope this is the start of a normality returning. Writing this now in October 2021, I can only hope that the next few months will tell us if Covid abates, but this is still the fear that it could rise again over the winter months. We shall see. 

If you reach Largs on a drier day or with better visibility, you may want to head another mile south along the promenade to see "The Pencil" monument. Erected in 1921 to commemorate the Battle of Largs it mistakenly located the battle here, and mistakenly used a medieval defensive round tower design which wasn't deployed against Vikings.

The Pencil monument

If views is what you are after (not available today) go through Douglas Park and follow the steps and path up Castle Hill. You will pass the chambered tomb above Haylie Brae that dates to 3000BC, keep going up the steps, up the path, and on a clear day the view over Largs makes the effort worth it.

Burial mound Largs

Follow the steps 

View from Castle Hill, Largs

Friday 29 January 2021

Charles Rennie Mackintosh Half Marathon

With the days blurring into each other in yet another Covid-19 induced lockdown, the motivation to go for a cycle, a run or a walk in these Winter evenings can be hard to find sometimes. However, I know that after I get home from work it will be the best way to clear my head and relax. Trying to exercise near to home during our current lockdown does inevitably mean that you go walking or running over the same routes again and again. I am a bit tired of jazzing up my long Sunday run by maybe running around the Subway stations clockwise instead of anti-clockwise, or going out to Clydebank along the Yoker cyclepath, and back along the canal instead of doing it in the other direction (which for some reason feels as if it is more downhill). 

So a new week, and a new 13 mile route. A half marathon around the creations of Glasgow's most renowned architect, artist and designer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was born in 1868 at 70 Parson Street in Townhead, Glasgow, a flat which would now roughly lie underneath the on-ramp to the M8 at the top of Castle Street. His father was a policeman, and later chief clerk in the City of Glasgow Police. 

From 1880 to 1883 he went to Allan Glen's School where he began learning architectural and technical drawing, then from 1883 he studied part time for 10 years at Glasgow School of Art, while starting an internship under architect John Hutchison. In Glasgow of the 1880s there was a building boom as industry flourished and the population grew, with the city rapidly expanding. In around 1889 Mackintosh started working for architects Honeyman & Keppie, later becoming a partner in the company. He worked with them until 1913.

In 1900 Mackintosh married designer and artist Margaret MacDonald and they worked together on many projects, creating their distinctive ideas, that would later become synonymous with the term "Glasgow Style".

Many of the buildings designed by Mackintosh are now treasured museum pieces, looked after for us all to enjoy, such as Hill House in Helensburgh, by the National Trust for Scotland. Some are still private residences such as Windy Hill in Kilmacolm. In Glasgow many of his buildings are still in regular use, though not many for their original purpose. His masterpiece in the city however, the Glasgow School of Art "Mackintosh building", is a miserable sight as the current custodians of it have managed to see it burnt down not once, but twice in the past 10 years. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose it once may be regarded as a misfortune: to do it twice looks like carelessness.

So starting off on Byres Road I headed up to Maryhill to start my tour of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow buildings. It has been pointed out to me on Twitter that I missed some of his handiwork here at the start. Some Mackintosh flourishes can be seen on the old BBC building on Queen Margaret Drive. The former Queen Margaret College building had an extension designed by John Keppie in 1890, with Mackintosh assisting.

Ruchill Church Hall

Finished in 1899 as a Mission Hall for the Free Church of Scotland, Ruchill Church Hall stands on Shakespeare Street, now overshadowed by the later church building alongside it, and overlooking a drive-in McDonalds. When it re-opens take the chance to go in to their wee cafe to admire this simple, functional but handsome space.

Ruchill Church Hall, Glasgow

Ruchill Church Hall, Glasgow

Ruchill Church Hall, Glasgow

Queen's Cross Church

Now home to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, the Queen's Cross Church is the Mackintosh building that see most frequently, passing it every time I head to Firhill Stadium behind it. Opened in 1899 Mackintosh managed to smuggle in some stylish flourishes in the necessarily simple design for the Free Church. Inside the timber-lined barrel-vaulted ceiling makes me feel like I am in a ship whenever I am at any events in here and the unembellished stained glass heart in the window above the pulpit draws up your eyes. From the outside I always think it looks more like a castle than a church.

Queen's Cross Church, Glasgow

Queen's Cross Church, Glasgow about 12 months ago at a gig

Queen's Cross Church, Glasgow

Queen's Cross Church, Glasgow

Queen's Cross Church, Glasgow

Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School of Art
When the Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art opened in 1909 it heralded a new style of 20th century architecture. Inside and out it was beautiful, functional and practical and widely regarded at Charles Rennie Mackintosh's masterpiece. A devastating fire broke out in 2014, and reports at the time suggested a lack of fire protection in the building contributed to the blaze. As restoration work was nearing completion a more extensive fire in March 2020 gutted the art school building, and neighbouring buildings on Sauchiehall Street. The fire investigation has been long delayed and accusations have been laid at the door of the Art School management board for inadequately planning for these eventualities. 

Glasgow School of Art in former times

Glasgow Art Club

At 185 Bath Street the unassuming friontage below conceals a surprising interior designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In 1893 when the Glasgow Art Club commissioned Honeyman & Keppie to transform two adjacent townhouses into their new clubhouse. The 23 year old Mackintosh drew up many of the plans for the interior detail, including the glorious frieze in the main gallery. It is all closed up just now, and peering through the glass only reveals some delicate carving on the entry door, but if you see their annual exhibitions advertised, take the chance to step inside and have a look. 

Glasgow Art Club

Glasgow Art Club

Entrance to Glasgow Art Club, founded 1867

Willow Tea Rooms

Miss Cranston's Tea Rooms on Sauchiehall Street opened in 1903 and after designing parts of other tea rooms in the city, this time he was responsible for the exterior, interior, decor and furnishings, alongside his wife Margaret MacDonald. The Willow Tea Rooms as they came to be known were a great success. After a couple of decades of becoming rather shabby, with the tea rooms accessed through a jewellers shop on the ground floor, the Willow Tea Rooms have been extensively restored and had not long re-opened prior to the Covid induced lockdowns. Hopefully there will still be a few shops left open on Sauchiehall Street in the future to draw customers back to this wee gem of a building when it gets to open its doors again. 

Willow Tea Rooms, Sauchiehall Street

Willow Tea Rooms, Sauchiehall Street

Willow Tea Rooms, Sauchiehall Street

Martyrs' School

Heading east we come to Parson Street, where Mackintosh was born, and Martyrs' School. If you head here via the footpath from east of Buchanan Bus Station, that weaves through the high flats, there are a couple of memorials to local boy Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Commissioned in 1895, and built to accommodate 1000 pupils, Mackintosh had to stick to the authorities' design conventions for new schools, such as symmetry and separate entrances for boys and girls. You can still find some of his typical designs in the roof ventilators and around the windows. The building is not open to the public. 

Martyrs' School, Glasgow

Martyrs' School, Glasgow

Martyrs' School, Glasgow

(The completists wishing to take in every Mackintosh related building in the city may want to head 3 miles north here to walk past a villa on 140 Balgrayhill Road that Mackintosh seems to have designed for his cousin in 1890. However, I will leave that for another day. I headed next to the Necropolis.)

Gravestone, Glasgow Necropolis

An unassuming gravestone in the Glasgow Necropolis is an early piece of work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It marks the grave of Alexander McCall, for 18 years police chief of Glasgow, who died in 1888. He was in effect the boss of Mackintosh's father for many years. The gravestone is in the lower graveyard of the Necropolis, facing towards the Tennent's Wellpark Brewery

The Lighthouse/ Former Glasgow Herald Building

The Herald Building on Mitchell Street was one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's early public commissions. Built as a warehouse behind the Glasgow Herald printing office, its most distinctive feature is the water tower, designed to hold an 8000 litre tank of water to protect the building from fire. In 1999 it was remodelled interiorly and opened as The Lighthouse, a centre for architecture and design, with a gift shop, cafe and exhibition spaces. The Mackintosh gallery here is free to access, as is the stairwell to the top of the water tower. If you prefer an easier option there are fantastic views over the city available from the viewing room in the other tower that is serviced by a lift. The best views of the building can be had from the top floor of the NCP carpark across the road. 
The Lighthouse, Glasgow

Carved details on the sandstone doorway jostle for attention with modern clutter

The Lighthouse, Glasgow from across the street

Pre-lockdown views from the top of the water tower

Former Daily Record Building/ Stereo

Designed by Mackintosh in 1900, the former Daily Record printing works can be found hidden up Renfield Lane. Hard to spot as the lane is so narrow, but looking up you see the unusual features of this hidden building, with its white glazed tiles and art deco styling. Unfortunately the fantastic Stereo bar/ cafe/ venue located in the ground floor and basement here is closed at present, but will again hopefully soon be home to crowded gigs.

Former Daily Record building, Renfield Lane

Former Daily Record building, Renfield Lane

Former Daily Record building, Renfield Lane

Just around the corner from here, as I head south towards the river, can be found the less impressive side of Glasgow's Charles Rennie Mackintosh tourist honeypot. Just because you put a Mackintosh font on your building and a Margaret MacDonald style rose above the door, it does not make your building a Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, as the Rennie Mackintosh Hotel ably demonstrates. 

Scotland Street School

My daughter has mixed memories of a school trip here as one of the people acting as a mean Victorian teacher was overdoing it a bit and reduced one poor child to tears. Not sure that was a great idea. Usually open as a "museum of education" with period classrooms and related exhibitions, Scotland Street School is obviously closed at present during lockdown. However I see that plans are afoot to possibly open a nursery within the building in the future. 

Designed between 1903 and 1906 it was Mackintosh's last major commission in Glasgow, and he created a building that is both functional and handsome. The impressive glass towers at the stairwells mean that the interior is flooded with light and his typical flourishes can be found in the stonework and vents. Designed for 1250 pupils, urban redevelopment destroyed a lot of the local housing by ploughing the M8 motorway through this part of town,. The school roll had fallen to 100 in the 1970s and the school was closed in 1979. 

Scotland Street School, Glasgow

Scotland Street School, Glasgow

"School Board of Glasgow"

Infants' entrance at Scotland Street School, Glasgow

House for an Art Lover

Situated in Bellahouston Park, The House for an Art Lover was opened in 1996, a full 95 years after Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed it. His plans for this building were submitted to a German design magazine in 1901 as entry to a competition to design a "Haus Eines Kunstfreundes". He worked with his wife Margaret MacDonald on the project. The building in Bellahouston Park is therefore not quite the real thing, as it wasn't a fully worked up architectural plan that Mackintosh had created, but it is as near as you can get. It is available for hire as an events space and has a small cafe, gift shop and gallery. 
House for an Art Lover, Glasgow

House for an Art Lover, Glasgow

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

To make my walking/running/cycling loop an actual loop, I headed back across the Clyde at The Science Centre and headed back in the direction of Byres Road. But two further stops first. 

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum now has a gallery on the ground floor dedicated to "Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style" with a collection of furniture, jewellery, glass, interiors and textiles by Mackintosh and his contemporaries. 

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, 
 on a frosty January morning

The Mackintosh House

From 1906 until 1914 Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald lived in a terraced house at at 78 Southpark Terrace, which was demolished in the 1960s and replaced by a university building. The interiors have been reassembled in Glasgow University's Hunterian Museum, in a concrete replica of Mackintosh's house, roughly one block back from where the house would have stood. Inside the house layout is recreated, with all his own furniture and decoration. His beautiful, bright bedroom here makes it hard to believe that you are standing within a Victorian terraced house in Glasgow. 

The Mackintosh House, Glasgow

The Mackintosh House, Glasgow

In 1914 Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald moved to rural Suffolk, working increasingly as a watercolourist. During World War 1 he was briefly arrested as a possible spy, and fell out of love with Suffolk, moving to London. In 1923 they moved to Port Vendres in the south of France. Within 5 years they had to return to London due to his ill health, and he died of cancer in 1928, aged 60 years old. His style and imagination are unique, a blend of diverse influences pulled together to create something new. He's one of those people you wish you could go back and tell them how loved their work is a century after it was created. 
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (now wearing a face mask) on a mural above the Clutha Bar