Walking back to where I started

Postcard from Millport

This story begins, as all good stories do, with a journey. The Ritz Cafe was founded in 1903 by Luigi Coia who, according to family legend, walked from Monte Cassino in Italy to Millport, via London and Glasgow.

Leo, as he became known, sold hot peas in vinegar, coffee and ice cream to locals and visitors alike, and the cafe remained in his family for more than 100 years and four generations. Where his trek ended, mine began.

This walk is a journey into the past. It is also a journey through geographical space, around the island of Cumbrae, of which the town of Millport is the main settlement.

It begins in the Ritz, 26 Stuart Street, Millport, in the second fortnight of July 1969, during the Glasgow Fair, the city’s annual trades holiday.

Some people visit family in the places they left for Glasgow, others light out for unfamiliar territory. For most, though, it’s a week or two “doon the watter” (down the water) in one of the Clyde coast resorts.

Most families are predictable, and return to the same town, if not the same lodgings, year after year. Our summer house was in the top floor of a tenement in Barend Street, one street back from the shore road at Kames Bay, with a sawmill to the rear.

On this particular holiday, I am 11 and my father is 48. Neither of us know it, but he will be dead in three years. All through my childhood, he had been ill, brought on by his experiences as a prisoner of war during the Second World War.

The journey we are about to take today is the only long walk I had with my dad. The arrangement was simple. My mum and young sister would cycle round the island, dad and I would walk, and we would meet to go to the pictures in the evening.

Today I am sitting in the Ritz. I’m in a window seat because my dad once said (in a cafe very close to here, now closed) that you got bigger portions if you sat there, to encourage others to venture inside.

I’m struggling to picture my family in here, although I know we were regular customers. The formica table tops and wall coverings are exactly as they were 53 years ago, but they can’t help me conjure a connection to those times.

It’s bit early for the “famous hot peas” (£2.60), so I’m having a breakfast roll “doubler” of fried egg and potato scone. It’s almost noon, so I should think of setting off.

As well as hot peas in vinegar, we used to have, as a treat, a knickerbocker glory (now £7.60). And here, in 1969, I was introduced to the delights of frothy coffee from the Gaggia machine, served in glass cups with saucers.

The other revelation was the jukebox. Now, I had grown up with a deaf mother, and my dad decided that while mum could share in watching TV, having a radio would be selfish. So I was pretty innocent of pop music, indeed any music, until the summer of 1969.

From memory, popular choices on the jukebox were In the year 2525 by Zager and Evans; Ghost riders in the sky, maybe by The Bros. Bogaardt; Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum; Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman; and Eve of Destruction, probably by Barry McGuire.

The Ritz jukebox was the slippery slope to Radio Luxembourg on a small blue transistor radio with a plastic strap and one earphone (vintage design), generally under the bedclothes at night, and then to decades of less furtive enjoyment of music.

Today, the jukebox in the Ritz is silent. I’d step up, but only if I had a handful of pre-decimal coins and the machine could play the sounds of summer ’69.

The Taj Mahal of the Clyde coast

Crocodile Rock

Prising myself from the Ritz, whose decor and demeanour remain in the 1960s, I set out to recreate that childhood walk, taking the anti-clockwise route, in the footsteps of my father and my younger self.

There are queues, as ever, at Mapes. The only other bike hirer is Bremner’s in Cardiff Street near the Town Pier. There was a third, on the corner of Glasgow Street and Craig Street. A plaque nearby describes cycling as “the national sport” of the island.

Looking up Reid Street, a few streets east of the cafe, I spot Strahoun Lodge, once the summer house of Robert Reid (1773-1865), a Glaswegian mahogany dealer and cabinetmaker who recorded many aspects of 19th century Glasgow under the name Senex (Latin for old man).

Reid, who retired to Millport at the age of 80, had decided to record his 18th century childhood and his 19th century business career, because of the momentous changes he had lived through, and the increasing speed of progress, which he was concerned that young people would take for granted. He is buried in Millport Old Cemetery in Golf Road.

The next turning to the left, Clifton Street, houses the Old Town Hall, former nerve centre of the Burgh of Millport. There is an active campaign to return the building to community use.

Next on the left is the Garrison, first built in 1745 by Captain James Crawford, commander of the revenue cutter The Royal George, which was employed to engage smugglers on the Clyde. The building housed the captain and crew. Later, it became the Earl of Glasgow’s summer house.

When I first knew it, it housed local government offices and a library, where I borrowed many books. At the rear of the building stood the Beachcomber cafe, hung with fishermen’s nets, orange floats and plastic sea stars. It had a sunny outside space and a cool and dark inner space.

The extensive grounds of the Garrison included trampolines dug into pits, a sunken garden, and a number of long dark wooden sheds, probably wartime relics, which were pressed into service as cinemas in the summer.

One of these sheds would have housed the cinema my family were heading for. It also offered late-night film shows, after 10pm (when the pubs closed) on Fridays, when young Glaswegians would catcall and improvise dialogue over horror or sci-fi B-movies. This was an education.

After a fire, the Garrison has been restored to provide a library, museum, cafe and courtyard, with a medical practice on the first floor.

Opposite, on the seaward side of the main street, is the island’s war memorial, commemorating 42 people who died in the First World War and 19 in the Second. My first encounter with death on this pleasure island.

The solemn aspect of the memorial is deflated by the neighbouring crazy golf course.

At the other end of the main beach stands an older structure, the Crocodile Rock, a local hit long before Sir Elton. This is one of the island’s two painted rocks (“Indian Rock” is the other), first brought to life more than 100 years ago. Robert Brown, who invoked the rock’s inner beast with a few cans of paint, was publicly thanked for his work in 1913.

The creature is probably the Taj Mahal of the Clyde coast, with people still seeking it out as the background for photographs, proof of having been to this exotic location.

All at sea in the yacht pool

Kames Bay

Next up is Kames Bay, where our usual summer residence stood in Barend Street, a top-floor tenement flat owned by a friend of my dad’s oldest sister. This end of the town was a place apart, more residential and less trafficked.

I can’t now recall the layout or decor, or even if the toilet was in the house or on the stairs. I have visited the island often as an adult, and shallow familiarity has replaced early memories.

The sheltered bay was ideal for paddling, swimming, building sandcastles. I remember it sometimes offered Punch and Judy shows, or religious proselytisers preying on bored children.

In the evenings, we would promenade to Farland Point, or “go into town” to central Millport. I have faded memories of my dad struggling to walk, but cannot dredge up any specific instances or conversations from these walks.

The road to Farland Point goes past the houses shown as “New Town” on modern maps. These detached and semi-detached family homes have gardens both front and back, running up to the cliffs at the head of the raised beach.

In front of these, on the other side of the promenade, was a pond for sitting at or – in my case – sailing little wooden yachts. Now cracked and dry.

Unknown to me until I started delving into my family history, previous generations on my mum’s side had built and sailed real yachts on the Clyde, as boatbuilders in Fife’s yard in Fairlie and as crew members on private yachts in the firth.

These ghostly ancestors, from generations long past and known to me only through certificates and censuses, are almost as real as the faded shade of my father.

Beyond the point is the Robertson or Marine Station, on Marine Parade. The full title was the University Marine Biological Station, run by the universities of Glasgow and London, which researched the ecosystem of the deep waters off Cumbrae.

It’s now the Millport Field Centre and operated by the Field Studies Council, and it still houses parties of visiting students, who dive in the firth and abduct its fishy inhabitants. The main sandstone building houses the Robertson Museum and Aquarium, next to bunk-houses for visiting students.

As a child, all I knew was that the aquarium housed fish, shellfish and other creatures of the deep, sitting in muddy tanks in a badly lit room. It may not have been too educational, but to a city boy who had spent a day or two in the sun, it offered damp, dark relief.

On the other side of the main road is Keppel Pier, owned by the marine station. Close by is a plaque to the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-04, which set up the first weather station in the Antarctic and discovered new land to the east of the Weddell Sea.

Sunshine and time banish ghosts

Hunterston

There is a big difference in the views from the town and Kames Bay and from the east side of the island, looking over to north Ayrshire and, to the north east, Inverclyde.

South of Fairlie there are two nuclear power stations, a deep sea port at Hunterston, today being visited by a huge rust-coloured tanker, but at least the intrusive chimney of the oil-fired power station at Inverkip has gone, along with the station itself.

The 774 feet tall chimney was the tallest free-standing structure in Scotland and the third tallest chimney in Great Britain. The smokestack was a landmark for navigation, but a nuisance for landscape photographers. The site was finally cleared in 2013.

I’m not sure how all this looked in 1969. I do remember the view from 22 Bay Street, Fairlie, sitting in the front parlour of my great aunt’s house, scanning the horizon with my great grandfather’s binoculars, always called glasses, and how Hunterston inflicted greater and greater scars on the southern aspect of the view.

Then, there was no Largs Marina, just a field where the Scotland football team trained, but there was a NATO depot, now gone, which maintained a submarine net that saw service in the Second World War and again in the Cold War.

Most of the changes have been on the North Ayrshire coast. Plus wind farms on the hills above. All in one of Europe’s best coastal sailing areas. Like putting an oil well in the middle of the Old Course at St Andrews.

Sunshine and time banish ghosts. Today I’m walking alone in the heat, with only a vanishing memory of my father. The only episode I can recall of this walk with him is being told the detailed story of a recent hospital operation. I assume he thought I was old enough to share this experience.

I’m sorry to say that my squeamishness and embarrassment at being taken into the adult world in this way made me avoid laying down a proper memory of that conversation, and it is lost to me now.

All I remember is that the talk took place in the stretch leading to Fairhaven, now back to being a private house, but which used to be a very busy tearoom, one third of the way round the island on a widdershins trip.

As a historian, I am trained to see the built environment, and attempt to make sense of it. There’s plenty of that today, but very little of it evokes emotion or memory. That, I suppose, has been buried by growing up, like Pompeii under its blanket of ash.

If I was a nature writer, I’d be lathering this account with the 27 shades of green sported by trees and bushes, and the scattered and brightly-coloured blooms. Not to mention the birds that swoop and circle around them.

But I am a city boy who has made a career learning to read and write about the urban. It’s all very pretty, of course, but I’m afraid the detail passes me by.

Let sleeping warriors lie

Sleeping Warrior

The next landmark is a recent one, although currently abandoned. The National Water Sports Centre, operated by Sportscotland, is up for sale for offers over £550,000.

Nearby, hidden below the waves, is the wreck of a Catalina flying boat that crashed during a training flight in 1943.

Three of the crew survived, but the body of the flight engineer was never found. The second reminder of death today.

Then comes Balloch Pier, which was built by the Earl of Glasgow in 1872 on the site of a former ferry point. The iron pier was removed in 1900, but the stone jetty remains.

The Cumbrae Ferry Slip, which was built by Caledonian MacBrayne in 1971, was constructed on the site of the Tattie Pier, used to sail the island’s potatoes and other produce to the mainland.

From the ferry slip, the coast starts to curve west, revealing views to the north, of Cowal and the distant Highlands. Then, as the road turns again, the southern uplands flank the island, and more jagged skylines loom beyond the Highland Boundary Fault.

The third Memento Mori appears by the roadside, an obelisk to two young seamen who drowned in 1844. The young midshipmen had borrowed a small sailing boat, which was driven below the waves by a strong north-east wind.

Despite an extensive search, all that was recovered was the boys’ caps. Their shipmates on HMS Shearwater, a wooden paddle steamer used by the Royal Navy to survey the coast of Scotland, built this memorial.

Then Arran swings into view, all sharp peaks and valleys, showing the profile known as the Sleeping Warrior. The resting human figure involves three geological features, as seen from north Ayrshire: the face is made by the hill known as the Witches Step, the folded arms are Caisteal Abhail, and the body continues along the ridge towards Meall Mòr.

From the variety of landscapes, that island is known as Scotland in miniature.

The Hush Hush and other silences

The Hush Hush

Close to the suitably-named Eerie Port, a clutch of barrack-like buildings is being reconstructed. They began life during the Second World War as an Acoustic Listening Post, where shifts of people sat in silence listening to an array of hydrophones (underwater microphones), alert for the sounds of submarines approaching the Firth of Clyde.

The site was officially Greycraigs, but were locally called the Hush Hush, a name that persists today.

The nickname probably alludes to both the clandestine nature of the operation, and the absolute quiet needed to hear untoward signals among the noise. The site was protected by a small machine-gun emplacement.

After the war, the buildings were used for holiday accommodation by a church in Glasgow, but became unsafe. In 1992, the television programme Challenge Anneka asked local businesses to donate materials and time to restore the complex in three days, which destroyed the interiors of the buildings.

The resulting holiday centre for children was known as the Osprey Centre.

I’m increasingly feeling like a solo traveller. There are plenty of others in cars, on foot or on a variety of wheeled vehicles – from a “round table” to an electric scooter – travelling in twos, threes and fours, but I can’t manifest my travelling companion.

My father, after 50 years, is not even a memory. He’s a series of black and white images, degraded photocopies of photocopies, memories of having once remembered.

I can picture him only as I see him in photographs. Brylcreemed hair, glasses, clean shaven, in a tweed sports jacket with woven leather buttons. A squat box of Player’s No. 6 cigarettes never far away.

You can’t step in the same river twice, even the river of time. Should I have brought my dad’s watch or wallet? His war medals (which he never claimed, but I did)?

Maybe his death certificate to prove that he’s free from walking, excused boots, and hardly substantial enough to be carried in his son’s head round this holiday island, where pleasure and pain are always in the moment.

No future, spat Johnny Rotten. And scarcely any past, it seems.

The secret of Dead Man’s Point

Fintry Bay Kiosk

In 1969, Fintry Bay had a shack selling refreshments at ambient temperatures. Now there’s a restaurant and carry-out, stiff with cyclists slurping cold ice cream and hot drinks. Picnic tables crowd the paved area, with covered seats and tables to the east.

The courtyard also offers a low-budget adventure playground and a double decker bus clad in astroturf and not quite blending into the trees behind. Ding ding! All aboard! Fares please!

Leaving Fintry Bay, I saw that the toilet had a framed poster with the first verse of Starman by David Bowie. This was by far the strongest memory prompt of the day, and took me straight back to 1972, and life in a multi-storey flat in Ibrox, where my family had moved the previous year.

On the wall opposite the toilets was a gallery of previous versions of the Fintry Bay Kiosk, including one showing Tommy Kennedy’s Cafe and Mineral Water Factory in 1965.

About three miles to go now, not punctuated by much, except the Forces Monument, death’s fourth and final intrusion today. Appropriately, this is close to Dead Man’s Point. There’s a story here, but the map is keeping its secret.

All day I’ve been hobbled by achilles tendinopathy in my left ankle. This has literally been a drag, and a reminder of my dad’s sciatica, which must have pained him more. Maybe he is with me, in my halting gait and weariness.

Half-hidden in the cliff face to the left of the road is the painted “Indian Head”, now sanitised between quote marks. Older island guides cheerfully refer to the Red Indian Head, a natural rock formation that inspired a local with some white, red and black paint to render this caricature.

Faded glories of the Ritz

The Ritz Cafe

After a long slog past Alpine chalets and static caravans, the town comes into view. It took longer than I remembered to go through the cluster of old cottages and two-storey terraces west of the pier, shown on the map as “Old Town”.

At the pier, I recall a parcels office, a weigh-bridge (the cast iron plate is still in place), toilets and turnstiles (there are ghostly traces in the tarmac). The turnstiles regulated visitors to and from the pier.

The George Hotel is now the Millport Pier Hotel, upgraded and gentrified by a team from Glasgow, and offering designer rooms and a “wrap round beer garden”. The Cumbrae Hotel, on the other side of the square, has long been converted into holiday flats.

Near the bus stop for the ferry, the railing round the harbour looks to be thicker by a couple of coats of paint, but otherwise unchanged. There’s no trace of the vending machine that sold half-pint cartons of milk.

This story, like all good stories, ends where it began. Back in the Ritz, the circle has been closed, the snake has taken its tail in its mouth. But my memories are – like the cafe – under new management. And knickerbocker glories will never be 7/6 again. 

This piece was selected to be part of the Fourth World Congress of Psychogeography, and the postcard featured in the finale on Sunday 4 September 2022.