Going to Helensburgh came about because I happened to see an article from the Helensburgh Advertiser on Twitter on Friday morning. Nothing bad, a nice news story as reflects the neat, perjink place Helensburgh is, and I got to thinking about going up there to the Hill House. I had been there once before, quite a few years ago, and I was in a state of distress by the time I got there. You see, Helensburgh is built on a hill and the Hill House, naturally enough, is right at the top. Of Helensburgh’s two train stations, guess which one has the most trains? That’s right, the one at the bottom. Luckily, the Hill House is a nice place and I like architecture so it is worth the walk. It’s just as well because sherpas and oxygen were almost required.
Before I headed up to the Hill House, I decided to find the terminus of the John Muir Way, the long-distance footpath opened a few years back that stretches all the way across to Dunbar. I looked at a map only to find that it was about 3 feet away from where I was standing. That happens to me a little too often. Anyway, there was a bench identical to the one in the Glebe in Dunbar only this one was installed with someone with a sense of humour for it bore the words:
‘The sun shines not on us but in us’
Inevitably, it was raining at the time and I had a good long laugh as I surveyed the bench and looked towards a rather fine round artwork featuring some words placed around some footprints. The quote was another Muir quote, one of his most famous, in fact, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe’. It was handwritten, I think, closely imitating Muir’s own distinctive scrawl. A Scottish Water sub-station nearby also featured a mural, definitely not Muir’s work but showing Muir Glacier in Alaska, one of the lesser-known parts of Muir’s travels. Anything to spur folk on for the 134 mile walk across this great country to my hometown.
I walked to the end of the pier, enjoying the views across to Rosneath with a mountain peeking through the rain and the low cloud. The sun shone low on the Clyde as I looked across towards Greenock and Gourock. Helensburgh is where Scotland begins to get interesting with mountains, boats and far fewer trappings of urban life at points north and west. As a town, particularly at the waterfront, there is a certain faded grandeur about the place, which it has in common with a lot of the seaside towns that emerged in the Victorian period like Rothesay, Oban and Campbeltown. There is still a grandeur and there is a general air of money and comfort, as I saw as I walked up to the Hill House with the houses like castles, mostly with names, and the cars mostly jeeps, not many Ford Fiestas. I felt generally out of place as I walked, particularly as for much of the way there were no pavements. It is a fine place but it’s gey posh.
You know you are getting closer to the Hill House by the fine Charles Rennie Mackintosh-style lampposts that line Upper Colquhoun Street. I sat in the gardens for a few minutes to catch my breath and got a sense of altitude as I looked back down towards the Clyde. The Hill House was designed by Rennie Mackintosh for the Blackie family and it is a fine house, fitting in well with its surroundings as much as being nice inside. Mackintosh had a distinctive style and the Hill House is a good example of it, practical yet chic. Over a century after it was built, it still looks like something out of the Ideal Home magazine. At the top of the stairs was a painting by the Scottish Colourist JD Fergusson featuring a very genteel portrait of a lady in white. As would befit a family home, the portrait was quiet and understated and unlike a lot of Fergusson’s work, the subject’s top half was clothed. I also liked the library just as you go in the door and also Little Walter’s book cupboard upstairs, a wee cubby hole in the wee boy’s bedroom. That was a very nice touch that made the place much more homely.
I sat upstairs in a bay window for a bit writing up some notes and looked out over the gardens for a bit. When I stepped outside, I took a turn around the gardens, liberally sprinkled with fallen autumn leaves, before it started to rain again. It was getting heavier and heavier but luckily I had found a quiet shaded area, complete with a pond and two benches covered in moss and lichen. As I stood there, watching and listening to the rain, I felt unbelievably at peace. A line from an Edwin Morgan poem came to mind – ‘A Chinese moment in the Mearns’ – and until then I had no idea what it meant. Standing under a tree just then, I did. It was quite a moment and I could have been anywhere in the world but there I was in Helensburgh, in sight of the Clyde.
When the rain went off, I walked down to Helensburgh Upper station, thankfully closer to the Hill House, served less often then Helensburgh Central but with a more direct service back to Glasgow. On the way up to Helensburgh, it had been weird passing through West Dunbartonshire, where I worked for two years and hadn’t really been in since. It was particularly good to see Bowling Harbour again, with its abandoned boats rotting away, all too often the comforting sight and reminder of the sea I needed as I got used to my new reality. As I headed back to Glasgow this time, passing between Drumry and Drumchapel, I also had an unexpected good view towards the Gleniffer Braes, not so far from where I work now, funnily enough.
Sometimes on a Friday, I travel long distances and leave early in the morning; other times I have a lie in and don’t go so far. This Friday was because I fancied a lie in but still wanted to go out. I scrolled through Twitter at the right moment and I ended up in Helensburgh an hour or two later. As a day, it yielded far more than I expected. I was back in familiar surroundings and got a glimpse of another side of our country, in fact more than one side if you count the scenery. And all within an hour of the house.