Monday, 28 December 2009

Homecoming Scotland Part One






CELEBRATING SCOTTISHNESS

With Scotland this year marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of poet, Robert Burns, with its ‘Homecoming Scotland’ campaign, travel writer and broadcaster Mike Souter is one of many Scots who have been lured back to the land of his birth:

Thoughts of my childhood start even before touchdown. FlyGlobespan thoughtfully gives me an outstanding view of the Campsies and Blanefield before final approach over Milngavie and the River Clyde meandering out to sea. How that river courses through my life like a raspberry ripple through ice cream!
Travelling with hand luggage means that I am on the bus to Paisley within 20 minutes of touchdown although, at £1.60, the fare seems pretty high for the very short hop. Roll on the Glasgow Airport rail link!
Paisley’s Gilmour Street Station is an impressive structure, sweeping round a curve, with some lovely old windows, wooden mouldings and wrought iron work reflecting its Victorian heritage.
My first port of call, Gourock, is only forty minutes away. I am impressed with the cleanliness and punctuality of the ScotRail train. But I am in for a shock when we arrive at what used to be one of the Clyde Coast’s loveliest stations. Years of neglect and underinvestment by Network Rail and its’ predecessor means that Gourock is now run from portakabins, the glass roof long gone and the wrought ironwork rusting to decrepitude. How I could have wept. But there is no excuse for the litter. Nor for the station supervisor in his secure area ‘public not admitted’ having custody of the only key to the toilets.
It must be forty years since I took the CalMac ferry to Dunoon, to watch two of my brothers participate in the athletics meeting as part of the Cowal Games. I can bring back the memory of the 1000 pipers to this day.
I follow the sign to the tourist office, walk through the town centre, follow another sign back to the seafront with bag in tow, but never actually locate the information centre. (Locals tell me it’s on the prom and easy to find!).
But I have time to recall happy trips on Salar, an old wartime torpedo recovery vessel, owned in the 1960’s by a friend of my parents. I last saw her in Rothesay, looking very unloved.

Visit Scotland has kindly booked me into the Dhailling Lodge, a lovely little guest house on Alexandra Parade, nearly in Kirn. Afternoon tea is served in a splendid drawing room overlooking the prom, which gives you the chance to look at the menu for dinner. Very much a home from home with a great welcome from hosts who go the extra mile to make their guests feel welcome.
My visit to Dunoon is somewhat curtailed by the driving rain, but my walk through the centre certainly whets my appetite for a return visit.
Back at Gourock, the queue for the bus to Largs grows ever longer. The timetables have apparently changed and, when the bus arrives an hour later than expected, the poor driver has to deal with a load of angry pensioners using their concession tickets. I think I am the only passenger who actually parts with money, £3.70. But the McGills coach is warm, modern and the coastal views through the rain lashed windows are outstanding.
We pass Gourock’s outdoor swimming pool. Despite the conditions, people are actually using it. It may be heated to 84 degrees, but with lead-grey skies it really does look chilly.
Off Largs, HMS Hurworth is practicing minehunting, another reminder of my 38 years with the Royal Navy and Reserve as well as many visits to the Clyde on warships. Despite visiting Rio de Janeir, Sydney and Hong Kong, there is actually no river passage in the world quite as special as this one.
It’s my first ever visit to Millport and I am surprised to find that Cumbrae is only five miles from the mainland. A bus connects with the ferry for the 15 minute journey to the centre, £2.70 return.
Millport wraps itself around the waterfront, with Kames Bay being especially picturesque. It’s as if time has stood still with Victorian properties looking much as they would have done 100 years ago. I’d happily spend a few days exploring; next time, for sure, I will bring my bike.
I have time to explore Glasgow. I started my journalistic career at the art-deco Scottish Daily Express building in Albion Street, now apartments. With respect to subsequent owners, I’m slightly grumpy that it is now known as the Herald Building.

The City Chambers offers free guided tours. Although I have been inside on many occasions, especially during my time with Radio Clyde, when do you actually look at a place when you are either working or attending receptions? Some of the marble and ceilings is outstanding; we are lucky that there is nothing going on in the debating chamber, so I can be a councillor for a short while. I vote to bring back trams!
I have another reminder of Radio Clyde at the top of Buchanan Street, where stands the statue of Donald Dewar, who I saw often at Anderston Cross when we broadcast from there.
The joy of a rail pass is that you can make spot decisions about a destination. I was intending to go to Stirling, whose castle I rate well above that in Edinburgh. But there’s a train to Aberdeen about to depart, so I will go to Perth.
En route, we pass some really pretty countryside before arriving at what is a very attractive and well-maintained station complex.
I have two more treats in store. One is a lovely traditional afternoon tea at Goodfellow and Steven in the High Street; the other is seeing the beautifully restored carriages of the Royal Scotsman train, with its stylish Great Scottish and Western Railway livery. Dinner is being prepared and I think about becoming a stowaway, but I am sure they would notice. One day, maybe.
The line from Perth to Edinburgh passes some of the nicest scenery I have seen so far, although the heavens open as we cross the Forth Rail Bridge. ‘Just a wee bit of rain’, exclaims a fellow passenger. In fact, although there has been quite a lot of rain during the trip, it’s mostly been short, sharp showers and I haven’t had my umbrella up once.
It’s been too windy.
In Edinburgh, Princes Street is an absolute mess, but it’s all in a very good cause. Trams are coming! (Memo to Glasgow City Council).
I’m only passing through the Capital, because I want to take my first train trip to North Berwick. As a youngster, I used to caravan there with the family of a school chum and we used to have an Inter School camp at nearby Scoughall.

The train creeps into the station at just over walking speed. The driver tells me that it’s on quite a steep hill.
The town is just as I remember it. Not that I actually remember it at all. But, like Millport, it’s retained much of its historic charm. The promenade and links area is beautifully maintained, while the harbour is busy with fishing boats, leisure craft and orange survival-suit clad folk taking trips to the Bass Rock.
Having visited the very helpful tourist information centre and the nearby excellent public loos (with many well-deserved awards), I choose the Grange Restaurant in High Street for lunch, where three courses, at £8.95, is outstanding value.
I select a very tasty liver and brandy pate, a lovely mix of pork with black pudding with a good selection of vegetables, plus a very naughty bread and butter pudding. Service and food is excellent, but I am not keen on the paper napkins and tablecloths.
It’s back to the west, for my final ferry trip, this time to Arran. If there is one single place which brings back memories, this is it. From scout camps and family holidays, to running the press side of NATO exercises and visiting on warships, this is truly like coming home.
I am delighted to see that the Caledonian Isles is busy, the delights of Arran clearly not fading in the modern consciousness.
Goat Fell is hiding under a little hat of cloud; but I have been up there and probably still do have the t-shirt somewhere.
In a week, I’ve only used public transport. Every train has been bang on schedule, it has all been very modern roiling stock, the carriages have been spotlessly clean and it’s all been very impressive.
Even Globespan’s eight hour delay as a result of an aircraft bursting tires in Alicante – and their parsimoniously mean £6 food voucher - can’t spoil things.
If VisitScotland wanted to invoke memories, they have succeeded. Mind you, I haven’t thought about Burns once.

ENDS ` 1412 words


FACT BOX
HOMECOMING SCOTLAND
Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a year-long programme of events and activity celebrating many of Scotland's great contributions to the world and providing a platform for Scotland to re-connect with the many millions of people around the globe who have Scottish ancestry or affinity with the country. This is a Scottish Government initiative being delivered by EventScotland in partnership with VisitScotland www.homecomingscotland2009.com/default.html
FERRIES

Caledonian MacBrayne is the largest fleet in Scotland operating 31 ships which sails to 24 different destinations off Scotland’s west coast, with some of the most spectacular coastlines and landscapes in the UK. From Arran in the south to Lewis in the north, the network covers some of the most beautiful and dramatic places in Scotland. Website: www.calmac.co.uk Telephone: 08000 66 5000
RAIL
ScotRail is the largest regional operator in the UK, operating more than 340 stations and running more than 2,100 services every day. Its Strathclyde services cover the largest commuter network outside of London. ScotRail also serves famous rural and scenic lines such as the Far North and West Highland routes and runs the Caledonian Sleepers to and from London.

For details, visit www.scotrail.co.uk

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