Half an hour from Glasgow by train, on the road to Largs and the Ayrshire coast, where the Clyde, winding its way to the sea, begins gradually to expand its bed, there lies, at the bottom of a vale, a small harbor town which appears to be eternally shrouded in dark and ominous clouds, as if banished from the blissful promise of summer warmth.
This is a town regularly pelted by rain or hailstones. This is a town wrapped in the icy embrace of winter snow. This is a town forged by restless gales, elemental forces of a wrathful, untamed Nature that seems altogether to shape the land and its people alike.
Greenock is its name. It was given, we are commonly told, in days of yore, in reference from an oak that stood on the shore of the clyde. Notwithstanding the poetic charm of this anecdote, the truth is much more mundane. Greenock may have its origin in the Common Britonic “Graenag” which means gravelly or sandy place.
The history of Greenock is linked to its maritime enterprise, shipbuilding, manufacturing and trade. Many places still bear today marks of this past.
Fate, economic exigencies and political expediency have conspired to wrench prosperity from this community. A place once teeming with intense activity is now bent on becoming another ghost town. Local shops struggle to stay open and many have been inexorably replaced by pawn shops and gambling halls. Even big retail names, immune as they might be from reversals of fortune are shying away from the town. The local authority is expected to cut down jobs due to budgets cuts.
Unemployment is up. Crime, the perpetual thermometer for the health of a community, has hiked considerably and allayed the sense of safety and security of people living here. The specter of failure has set in.
One could be forgiven, under this dreary context, for burrowing oneself into a somber routine, bereft of any hopes or illusions. I had certainly been feeling this way for a many years as I had witnessed the last tide of changes that had afflicted this locality and its inhabitants since I arrived from Paris in 2001. Already in a state of acute depression, I had deeply felt the sting of woe, having myself fallen from grace.
After years of being scarred by a powerful sense of dejection, I failed to grasp if this vision of economic decay was another direct contribution to my recurrent state of gloom or if it represented the embodiment of the dark thoughts that were constantly churned out of my mind, a phantasm manufactured by fear and anxiety which had pressed upon me as far back as I could remember, distorting my view of the world.
Nevertheless, I felt that there was more about Greenock than met the eye.
Most people would find it hard to believe that it took me more than 10 years to start exploring the whereabouts. But then, most people might guess but don’t fully realize that mental health takes a terrible toll on the mind and body, virtually grinding one’s willpower to naught.
I used to walk regularly to and from IBM when I was working there, and I had often wondered what lies beyond the hills and woods visible from the road. Yet, it was not until recently that I began to venture outside the limits of the town. And so, I explored, tentatively,at first; my first strolls were separated by long periods of staying at home, as I was trying to break from some inertia that kept me into the enclave of downtown Greenock. It was not out of fear as much as a lack of confidence. Habits were hard to discard as they could infuse one’s soul with a strange sense of security, the familiar feeling of being within the confines of a comfort zone, how frail it might be.
I visited Port Glasgow, a place, like Greenock, plagued by the recession and the demise of the shipbuilding industry. I had the impression of entering a vestigial blue collar town, semingly abandoned by fate but, like a wounded steed, refused to lie down with defeat. However bleak the Coronation park might looked in Winter, I could see that it milled with activity in Summer.
I walked amidst the moor that stretches over a sharp elevation above winhill. I followed a thin path almost hidden in the grass, encountering, here and there, a few straggling young Hawthorn and pine sapling, patches of blooming bell heathers seemingly dancing in the wind, moss covered stone outcrops where sandworts grew, bunches of devil’s scabious flowers whose vivid blue contrasted sharply with the emerald waves of the grass, thorny thickets of gorse with their bright yellow blossoms. The path suddenly vanished into a cluster of pine whose wild network of branches checked my progress. It emerged again on the open moor and hugged, for a little while, the edge of the Whinhill golf club before ending abruptly near the domain of a farm which sits at a curve of the old Largs road.
I explored a lane that run along and above the railway track from Whinhill train station to Wemyss Bay; a lane that cut through fields of grass, shrubs of wild raspberries and brambles, small woodlands, and from which, at certain turns, offers a partial view of the Greenock town, its harbor, its esplanade, its surviving cranes attesting to its past, the Tail of the Bank and the Argyllshire hills and mountains. I walked past a ancient stone gate and, a few yards further, an abandoned structure in a state of dereliction that had once, I could fancy, been a barn. It now stood aloof, almost like a specter, among the luxurious vegetation which had taken possession of it, and was flanked by the remains of a ancient stone wall.
I went up the Kilmalcolm road to, past the Knocknairshill cemetery, the Knocknairshill and Harelaw reservoir, until I reached the Auchentiber farm, an isolated structure lost in the midst of patchworks of pastures, meadows and moorlands.
I trod upon the Greenock cut that starts from the Waterman’s cottage at Overton and ends at the Cornalee’s visitor centre. Designated, an ancient monument in 1972, it is full of historical interest and offers breathtaking vistas to the ridges of Arran and the Firth of Clyde in the South.
I travelled by train to the Inverkip village. A pleasant stroll downhill from the railways station led me to the main road which separated the village from its marina. Soon I found myself on the west edge of the marina where I found the start of the coastal trail, famous for its six miles of delightful scenic walk connecting the village with the beach of Lunderston bay. Although the view of the clyde was magnificent enough, with the impressive mountains on the horizon and , far away, the faint silhouette of Arran Island, I was soon tempted to enter the woodland that appeared before me, on the right side of the track, where I had reached and walked past the last habitation of inverkip. A footpath enticed me to plunge under the canopy, towards the heart of the woods which were, I soon learned, part of the 10,000 acres estate owned by the Shaw Stewarts family since 1406.
I lingered before dusk on the Wemyss Bay beach of sand and onyx pebbles, and observed the last rays of the light playing with the frothing waves of the Clyde, waves that rolled back and forth relentlessly over pebbles of all size shimmering under the golden light of the setting sun.
I went to Gourock, a resort town unmistakably alive, perhaps the only one of the three adjacent towns to have, somehow, survived the economic onslaught. It had, somehow, one could sense, preserved its small village spirit. Not doubt an inherent charm that was the key to attract tourism. I was strolling along the streets enriched with local shops of all sorts, craft shops, art galleries, vintage clothes stores, interspersed with picturesque cafes and restaurants and a surviving post office. Gourock Esplanade, its Royal Yacht club and its proximity to the Cloch lighthouse, the Cardwell garden center and Lunderston bay reinforced the feeling of an estival atmosphere.