Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Where are all the Seagulls?

The Braehead Maritime Museum has been shut. It looked disappointingly small anyway when I was down there this week on my bike, but I should have known that from the satellite picture I looked at online beforehand. Also in the satellite was a tall ship, masts and booms and all, which was one of the reasons I made such haste. (Once started, rain spurred me on.) Sadly the masts are in fact concreted into the ground but the whole still lent a mysterious nautical air, albeit a sad one, Ancient Mariner rather than Onedin Line.

Also in the satellite was the wreck of the Captayannis, a steel ship nearly 400 foot long. The Captayannis went down mid-way between Greenock and Helensburgh in 1974 having been swept there by a storm and then colliding with another ship’s anchor which drew a massive hole in its side. Initially I thought there was a fault in my computer programme or a mark on my screen but, on zooming in with gannet-like speed and determination, I found this perfect silver hull lying on its side with mast, rails and bridge clearly to be seen, like a discarded Monopoly piece. It lies on a sandbank which I never knew was there. Fabulous. Excuse this photo taken of it on my screen, which doesn’t do it justice.

Back on the real earth I found a pleasant walk/cycleway along the waterfront, behind Braehead and all its garishness, with views at various yards on the other side of the river, many of which are still operational. This was a surprise, the path and the activity. The path continued (via a small number of steps) along the river until it almost reaches the Renfrew ferry terminal. Here I turned up Lapwing Road, (near Redsnank and Whimbrel) along King’s Inch Road (love these names and being a tourist in my own town) and down Ferry Road, obviously.

I had seen the little ferry from a distance having only been vaguely aware of its existence until that moment, another silver boat but this time the right way up. The day was grey. The water was murky. There was flotsam and jetsam of all kinds catching anywhere it could against all the old slipways, jetties and docks and the broken stonework of the river walls. Some brilliant swans risked our progress as we backed in to the river, the only other sailing bodies to be seen. The ferryman was silent but not unfriendly. We reached the bank in no time at all and I pushed my two-wheeled friend up the cobbled slip past once-grand or at least functional buildings and an old boatyard full of boatyard debris. Bright new houses stood on the rise, gleaming fresh white paint and a brave new world.

My next stop was the site of John Brown’s Shipyard. It seems odd I haven’t been there before, given how much time I’ve spent in and around Clydebank. It was an odd feeling. Clydebank College, a truly courageous new building, stands on the eastern side of it with two simple plaques to mark the place where the Queen Mary and the QE2, amongst countless other fine ships, were launched into the Clyde opposite the Black Cart Water on the other side (for extra leeway). A rough track took me round the dock where these ships would have been finished, a desolate spot where all the buildings and trappings of greater days have been removed. A row of feral pigeons lined the edge, perched on metalwork whose working days are over, but no seagulls. Not a one. Which seemed strange. Continuing round I reached the base of the Titan, seen here through the same high fence which surrounds the whole area. Beautiful and giant and iconic, the Titan crane can be seen from a considerable distance and stood blue against the grey autumn sky of that day. It must surely be some consolation to the good Bankies (of Clydebank) that this fabulous structure was restored a few years ago instead of being taken down as was the Singer Clock Tower (bigger than Big Ben) even after it survived the devastating Blitz of 1941.

Feeling rather overwhelmed by the vast emptiness of the spot, I took a train to Dumbarton and visited the Maritime Museum there. Here was Denny’s Shipyard or the only part left of it, the Ship Model Experimental Tank (totally mental it was). Here scale models of proposed ships were made of wood or wax,then sailed down a long water tank with replicated sea conditions. Being rather geeky by nature I found the whole process fascinating. But probably the most meaningful part of the museum for me was a giant photograph of the entire yard in which Dumbarton Rock and Castle sit comfortably over the snaking arrival of the River Leven into the Clyde Estuary. The photo was taken at the end of WW2 and shows several large ships fanning out from the Leven, sitting on its banks being built from the ground up. The finishing dock hides in the shelter of the Rock. The yard buildings sprawl out from this central and curving natural arrangement, the tank building being dwarfed by the massive workshops around it. All gone now, and replaced by all the super-hyper-capitalist-markets of the day, and acres of windswept car park. One saving grace is the finishing dock, which has been filled in and holds a football field.

Do we really want all this leisure? Wouldn’t we rather have work, dirty and dangerous though it was? Where are all the seagulls?


  1. I have only been to Braehead once – possibly twice now I think about it – since I came back to Glasgow. I can’t say I was impressed. I like the idea of malls but they always underwhelm me, even the MetroCentre in Gateshead; it might have been bigger but then so were the shops inside and they were the same chains that are everywhere. I have a friend who lives in Dunoon, a poet, Marion McCready, who write a lot about the Clyde, and it was she who first drew my attention to the wreck of the Captayannis:

          A part of me crept inside her
          while she slept in my womb,
          smaller than a plumb.
           I imagined I could keep her buried
           like a treasure. But even the Captayannis
          could not keep her cargo.

    You’re right though, your photo does look like an abandoned Monopoly piece. Before I read Marion’s poem I also knew nothing about it. It’s amazing the things that are sitting in our own backyard that we know nothing about. I didn’t even know the new Clydebank College was finished. I pass the site of the old one regularly – still nothing happening there – but I’ve never thought to find out where the new one is. Although Clydebank is where I’ve lived for the past eight years and I feel at home here it’s still not home, not in that way.

  2. It made a very interesting trip, cycling down the Clyde and seeing it from so many different angles. It's quite a winding river with all those indents for docks and slipways, large and small. It really brought the past to life. It's amazing there weren't more crashes and shipwrecks than there were. I'm not from Clydebank either, as you know, but I do enjoy being a tourist in my own region.