Helensburgh

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.

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John Muir bench – quote from Mountain Thoughts (to read more, please see the full text from the Sierra Club website)
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Muir artwork
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Possibly the best decorated Scottish Water sub-station anywhere

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.

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Looking along the pier towards Rosneath and a mountain somewhere
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Looking towards the Clyde and Greenock beyond

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.

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Lamp post
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Hill House

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.

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A Chinese moment in Helensburgh?

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.

 

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Amidst the trees

One of the most tempting sights is the horizon. Looking over the horizon and seeing something new and unfamiliar is something I find very hard not to act upon, especially when time and circumstances are on my side. This is particularly true when I am in a place I know well and there is something there that just tempts me on to explore. This happened recently on a visit to Prestongrange, my old work and a place I know and have a deep love for. At the far end of the site are some railway tracks. They have long fascinated me even while I knew they did not lead very far. I even used a photograph of them as a prompt for the writing group recently, though only I ended up writing about them.

The tracks aren’t used much now. Prestongrange has some volunteers who spend their Sunday afternoons tinkering with diesel engines and they sometimes run them along the tracks but that’s about it. Mostly they are for walking on, leading into the woods at the back of Sammy Burns’s yard. I hadn’t ever been beyond the glassworks, now a wild flower meadow, but my friend JA and I ended up taking a walk along, just to satisfy our curiosity. Being a rather precise sort of person, I stepped from track to track even while some were split and cracked, rotted and just plain gone. After a few minutes, an end was in sight, a buffer with its red paint weathered to orange, though there was a path that continued on through thickening woods with ever-lower branches. There was a rope swing that looked recent and not so many drink bottles as you would expect in a hidden place in sight of a main road.

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In thinking on it now, this short walk into the woods broadened my knowledge and appreciation of a place whose secrets I thought I had a fair idea of. It also brought back memories of growing up near the woods in Dunbar. From when I was 12 until I was 19, I lived right next to Lochend Woods. I often walked through the woods, often on sunny afternoons, sometimes late into summer nights, and a lot of my early creative ideas and writing were fuelled by those wanderings. There was a path right through the heart of the woods I used to call the ‘avenue’ though I often furrowed routes to the left and right of it, sometimes venturing out along farm tracks that are now pretty much lined by houses. One of my favourite routes, out to Eweford, is now dominated by the new primary school.

Despite being a rational sort, I often imagined fairy tales and spirits roaming those woods, their stories just waiting to be told. I usually came back with poems and ideas, just as I often do when I am out for a long walk or day trip now. I was also a loner as a teenager so on days when I felt miserable, I would often just go out for a walk. I didn’t have enough to do, as most teenagers don’t, but I also had the added problem of just being plain lonely and feeling misunderstood and that I couldn’t understand people in turn. The woods were a refuge, where I felt comfortable and connected with the world around me. I never felt unsafe but then again I was close to home and I knew my routes. When I heard other people, I could turn this way or that if I felt like it.

Walking helped me appreciate the world a bit better then. One Saturday morning, I was walking along the beach at Belhaven and saw a dead seagull that had been washed in. It must have been ten years ago now. I always remember its innards ripped open, its rib cage pointing upwards and its beady eye just staring but not seeing. Strangely, a few years later, I went to what used to be called the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh (now prosaically known as Modern Two) and saw a painting by Salvador Dali called ‘Oiseau’ which showed a gull in a similar position only with an embryo in its belly. It’s strange how images stay with you and how other people are affected by them in different ways.

I’ve digressed a bit from the railway tracks at Prestongrange. Prestongrange was a place where I became more connected with people too. It was a place I appreciated while I was there but ever more so after I left and became a visitor. Lochend Woods, meanwhile, I haven’t been to in years. The last time was not long before I moved through here. There was a group set up specifically for the care of the woods and they had put up a stone at the corner of Kellie Road with a John Muir quote. One year they also had an open-air performance of Shakespeare, specifically A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which must have been amazing and brought to life the spirits and characters dwelling amidst the trees.

 

Newhaven

When most people think of Edinburgh, they think of the Castle, the Royal Mile or the city centre more generally. I have been around the city for most of my life and I know full well that the best bits of the city are those places not everyone knows about, a little off the beaten track, not too far but just enough to see something good. Every so often, I see photographs of Newhaven Harbour, a small harbour in the north of the capital, just along from Ocean Terminal. The photos are usually from sunrise or sunset but with the long days just now, I’m not getting from my house in Glasgow to Edinburgh for sunrise or home after sunset. In all my years, I have passed Newhaven by but never been for a wander around, at least until yesterday.

I took the bus to Leith where I had lunch (details in yesterday’s post, It’s better to be single…) before walking along past Victoria Quay to Newhaven. It was cloudy and a little cool, a complete contrast from the gorgeous sunshine I had left in Glasgow. I didn’t care since I am one of those oddballs who prefers to be a little warm rather than absolutely roasting. Besides I could see some blue sky though at that point it was over the Forth and Fife. The harbour was full of yachts with one lone guy working on one. It was low tide so the harbour was all mud. But the smell of fish was present and correct, as were the sounds of seagulls, even above the noise from the busy road adjacent.

The harbour was like many others on the east coast, horseshoe-shaped with two piers at either side. On one was a lighthouse, probably built in 1837, an elegant white tower that is now defunct but remains a prominent landmark. A lighthouse is usually enough to make a place for me but it was a clear day and I could see across the Forth towards Kirkcaldy where tower blocks and houses could easily be made out and to Inchcolm Island too. I walked down the tidal defences to the shore line, looking out beyond the buoys to a flat Forth. I sat a while by the lighthouse, watching the clouds shift in just a few minutes, changing the day completely from cloudy to sunny and warm. I looked along the skyline, along the city to Granton and its gas tower towards the Forth Bridges, three of them now, then across to Fife. I sat for maybe twenty minutes, just gathering my thoughts, before heading away.

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I walked to Ocean Terminal, a shopping centre with the Royal Yacht Britannia attached. I know it well since it is usually a quieter place to shop than Edinburgh city centre. It is also noteworthy for the great views across the city from the front and across the Docks at the back. I went up to the back of the Shopping Centre to stand a few minutes looking out at the boats.

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After that, I decided to head back into town but as I so often do, I decided to take the long way round, via Queen Charlotte Street, Leith Links and Easter Road. As I came near to Leith police station, I happened to glance down Maritime Lane at a fine building at the other end. In one of those pleasing stumbling-upon moments, I found a neat piece of graffiti, which stated ‘the things I love are not at home’ with a loveheart below. I liked that a lot. While I love my home, I can’t help but agree. The things I love tend to be found when I am out in the world, sometimes far from home.

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The last time I had been in Leith Links was at the end of the Scottish Cup victory parade last weekend and I was among a fair few thousand people trying to get a glimpse of the hallowed trophy. This time, it was much quieter and I stood atop what has been christened Hanlon Hill. Pleasingly, one of the sounds around me was a kid from the local primary school. He was singing:

‘2-1 down, 3-2 up

David Gray has won the Cup’.

That’s good education right there. Numeracy and rhyming, with a fair bit of local pride chucked in.

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The view from Hanlon Hill
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The view from Hanlon Hill

It’s better to be single…

A while ago, I posted a photograph of one of my favourite spots in Leith, right by the Water of Leith in fact where there is a quotation involving the word ‘persevere’, a word that forms both the motto of the Port but also a mantra I hold very dear. I sat there earlier eating my lunch and took some photos of the other quotes around about it. The one about preferring being single to a married wife is thought-provoking. I wonder whether it is a feminist statement; it is certainly one that is quite fitting with the way society is now and how the expectations of relationships are changing. Being a Glaswegian means I can relate all too well to the rain being everywhere too.

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