THIS time last month (as I write this), I left my hotel rested (and breakfasted) but I found myself in no immediate hurry to leave the town of Ayr (Inbhir Àir). Instead I bought myself a coffee and ambled idly through its streets, randomly taking in the sights.
In the first street, down which I wandered, stood the Wallace Tower. This was built in 1832 on the site of an earlier tower that had lately come to have the same name but had hitherto just been called the Auld Tower. The latter had needed repair in 1830 but was found to have no proper foundations, hence its replacement.
It had originally been the home of the Cathcarts of Corbieston but, after they died out in the mid sixteenth century, it passed to new owners before being bought by the burgh in 1673.
It has absolutely no connection with William Wallace except that there’s a statue of him on the side. But that was only added because it was called the Wallace Tower. Presumably, the tower was so re-named in a desperate effort to appropriate a famous name that wasn’t Robert Burns.
St John’s Tower
Heading seawards via a maze of back streets, I soon discovered another tower in a green square overlooked by Victorian townhouses. This one was called St John’s Tower.
The reason the tower is named for John the Baptist is that it started out as part of a church dedicated to him. Founded in the late twelfth century, the church hosted a parliament in 1315, which had been called by Robert I to decide the succession to the Scottish throne.
The tower was a later addition, constructed in the fifteenth century and made the church a commanding structure. It was this quality that attracted the interest of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers in 1654, when the church was commandeered for use as a military fortress. A new church — now confusingly called the Auld Kirk — was built for the use of Ayr’s townsfolk.
Demilitarised during the Restoration of 1660, the original church was given to a Royalist supporter and subsequently passed through various private hands. Its owners in the 1720s demolished the main structure, taking its stones for building material and leaving the tower free standing.
In 1852, a gunsmith named John Miller bought the tower and proceeded to have all manner of extensions added to it, turning it into a mansion renamed Fort Castle. He also sold off much of its land for the construction of the Victorian terraces that overlook it today.
Miller’s additions were all stripped away again when he died in 1910 and his estate was bought by John Crichton-Stuart, 4th Marquess of Bute, who had a thing for architectural restoration. His son, the 5th Marquess, gave the tower to Ayr in 1949. Sadly, it is only open to the public one day a year and I was not there on that day.
Having encountered two towers in little more than ten minutes, I continued my leisurely amble westwards through residential streets until they spat me out onto a promenade beside the beach.
The sky was grey and clouded and visibility poor with the Isle of Arran almost invisible in the haze. To my left, as I looked out to sea, the coast curved around to the Heads of Ayr, their cliffs likewise indistinct. To my right was the mouth of the River Ayr and the quaysides and warehouses of Ayr’s working port.
Today, the Port of Ayr occupies the northern side of Ayr’s harbour though in times past there were docks and quays along both shores. One dock on the south side stands dry but not empty, the resting place of a retired fishing boat, Watchful.
Decommissioned in 1995, she came to Ayr and then slowly mouldered, unloved and largely ignored. Fortunately, there were some who wished to see her restored and their recent efforts have saved her from disintegrating; she now stands as a memorial to souls lost at sea.
Port of Ayr
Meanwhile, across the river, the constant bustle and noise betrayed that even in this modern age, ship-borne trade remains important.
Having reached the banks of the Ayr, I followed them inland as I was going to need a bridge if I wanted to cross. As I made my way along the street, I passed the ruined remnants of an obvious fortification, namely Ayr Citadel.
When Cromwell’s troops marched north in the 1650s as part of the ongoing Wars of the Three Kingdoms (of which the English Civil War was just a part) they occupied the Kirk of St John, as I’ve said. But they used it mostly as a store and lookout, while constructing a much larger citadel next door on the site of an old castle of King William I (reigned 1165-1214). Cromwell’s citadel was the largest of five intended to keep Scotland under control, the others being at Leith, Perth, Inverlochy and Inverness.
Hexagonal with six mighty bastions, the citadel was certainly intimidating and come 1660 the newly restored King Charles II saw absolutely no need to leave it sitting about for his enemies to make use of. The citadel was partially demolished and its grounds given to his supporter, the Earl of Eglinton. Later it passed to the Earls of Cassilis and then to the aforementioned John Miller who added all manner of fanciful embellishments.
New Brig of Ayr
My first option for crossing the Ayr was the New Brig of Ayr. This is actually the second New Brig of Ayr, the New New Brig if you like, erected in 1879 after storm floods damaged the 1788 original so badly that it had to be demolished. Both were constructed at the site of an old ford and the 1788 bridge had required an Act of Parliament to authorise it.
Auld Brig of Ayr
The Auld Brig of Ayr lies a short way upstream where it remains in use as a footbridge.
The earliest known reference to a bridge here comes from a 1236 charter of Alexander II, which provides for its maintenance. The first bridge was probably timber, rebuilt in stone in 1470, and a local tradition ascribes as its founders two maiden sisters, who witnessed some poor unfortunate (in some versions the lover of one of them) drowning while fording the river.
By the late 1580s, the bridge was in a terrible state and extensive repairs were carried out which kept it intact for a while. A partial collapse in 1732 saw limited repairs and restriction of passage, with the old ford used for heavy traffic. With the opening of the New Brig, the Auld was relegated to pedestrian footbridge and once again neglected. The last major repairs took place in 1907, when it was found to be dangerously undercut and large volumes of concrete had to be used to stabilise it.
Scotland’s inescapable poet, Robert Burns, featured both bridges in The Brigs o’ Ayr, in which the pair taunt each other. In the course of so doing, the Auld Brig insists that it will still be standing long after the New Brig is gone, a claim that arguably came to pass with the 1879 rebuild of the latter. Even so, both bridges are champions of enduring persistence compared to their onetime companion, the Harbour Branch Railway Bridge.
Harbour Branch Railway Bridge
Built slightly downstream of the New Brig in 1899 for the Glasgow and South Western Railway, this was a five-span riveted steel curve, supported on pairs of circular stone piers. The bridge was removed in 1978 and now only the support piers remain.
I crossed the Ayr by the Auld Brig — because why wouldn’t I? — and picked up the signs and waymarks for the Ayrshire Coastal Path again. These initially led me along a busy high street in the suburb of Newton. Almost at once I found this…
This particular tower is a remnant of the old Newton Burgh council chambers and was built in 1787. Not really needed after Newton was merged into Ayr in 1873, the rest of the building was later demolished to make way for a new road system. The council has since shown a marked reluctance to look after it, considering it more of a hindrance than a historical asset.
Curiously though — and unlike a great many clock towers — its clock still keeps the right time.
For me it was now time to head through various back streets which started to become more industrial in nature. I crossed over a single-track goods branch connecting the docks to the railway and soon found myself in the backest and most industrial of industrial back streets, sandwiched between huge old warehouses and the sea.
Apart from a single lost-looking cyclist, I found myself alone there and I perched on a low wall to down a cold drink and apply sunscreen to my skin. The cloud cover had been slowly dissipating all morning and the temperature was starting to climb.
Bell Rock Beach
I followed the road along for a short distance but it soon became so depressed by its own circumstance that it turned inland to hide amongst some more industrial units. A footpath continued along the shoreline, separated from Ayr’s northern suburbs by the carefully-manicured mock-natural environs of a golf course. Now, I started to see others — some golfers, some dog-walkers — ambling about along the path.
I was just starting to really get into the swing of things, striding along the path with joyful determination, when the path veered left and ended, depositing me on the beach.
It was a patchy sort of beach: a mixture of coarse sand and pebbles. Arran, on the horizon, was still mostly lost in the haze. I mean, visually it was never going to compete with the kind of holiday brochure vistas that show miles of golden sand flanked by palm trees and a sea shade only Photoshop can show you. But it was certainly prettier than the industrial back street and, I reminded myself, it could have been a lot worse. The path could have veered right, for one thing, and sent me through the golf course instead.
Excitable Dog Man
I followed the beach around a low, rocky headland whereupon it got a little pebblier but never quite managed to downgrade to full shingle. Here, I encountered a man with a rather excitable dog who clearly thought I was the best thing she’d ever found on the beach (for all of about two minutes anyway). The man apologised for his dog’s exuberance in a tone that suggested he’d said it so often that the words had long since ceased to have meaning for him.
Changing the subject, we exchanged some equally meaningless pleasantries until I commented that the weather had perhaps got too hot for comfortable long-distance walking. Now, he looked at me with new, surprised eyes, as if seeing me for the first time. Then, slowly, as if talking to an idiot, he told me with feeling:
‘Can’t ever complain about not being cold.’
Ah yes, I remembered. This is Scotland.
As Excitable Dog Man and I parted company — he still shaking his head at my foolishness — I ascended a nearby handy ramp that gave access to a broad promenade. This then curved around the bay, leading into Prestwick.
My entrance to that town thus promised to be level and easy-going, though I would have to dodge a number of small children only nominally in control of their ice creams and a tightly knit gaggle of Canadian tourists excitedly comparing accent differences with their hosts.
History of Prestwick
Prestwick takes its name from the Old English for ‘priest’s place’ and may have been among the lands granted to churchmen by King Eadberht of Northumbria when he conquered southern and central Ayrshire in 750.
A small village for much of its history, Prestwick nonetheless lays claim to being Scotland’s oldest Royal burgh, based on a charter of James VI from 1600 affirming its status, in which it is said to have been a burgh for 617 years.
The village began to expand in the seventeenth century as industrialisation brought the growth of Glasgow and the Port of Ayr. The 1930s saw the establishment of an airport, perfectly placed to be a key refuelling stop on the great circle route between London and San Francisco, while the 1950s brought golf tourism.
Sea Urchin Apocalypse
Having equipped myself with an ice cream of my own, I skirted the edge of historic Prestwick and let the Ayrshire Coastal Path led me north along the beach. It was a good beach, composed of broad, flat, sands that were firm underfoot. They were also littered with the mortal remains of thousands of heart urchins (Echinocardium cordatum) whose empty shells often wash ashore upon this coast.
I crunched my way through the sea urchin apocalypse for about a mile, casting my eyes upwards every now and then as a plane came into land at Prestwick’s airport.
Glasgow Prestwick Airport
The airport was opened as a private airfield in 1934 by David Fowler McIntyre, owner of aircraft manufacturer Scottish Aviation Ltd, and Squadron Leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, who as heir to the 13th Duke of Hamilton was known as Lord Clydesdale. One year earlier, the pair had become the first aviators to fly over Mount Everest, the experience of which persuaded McIntyre that pressurised cabins would be needed for high altitude.
Passenger flights from Prestwick began in 1938 and continue to this day with the airport now known as Glasgow Prestwick Airport. Glasgow is 30 miles away.
My merry trek along the beach was rudely interrupted by Pow Burn, which flowed directly across it. Consulting my map I discovered that the coastal path had snuck inland a while back, heading for a bridge in a holiday park. I could go and find it, of course, but it was half a mile away. Or I could take off my boots and wade. Wading won.
Having taken my boots off, they stayed off for a while, and I merrily splashed and paddled as I followed the line of the beach for about another mile and a half. And then, almost before I knew it, the frolicking fun of my footwear-free feet was curtailed. It was time to boot up and de-beach. I had reached Troon.
Shipbuilding in Troon
Troon is a small port catering for freight and a seasonal ferry to Larne plus a marina for leisure craft. From 1885 to 2000 it was also home to a shipbuilding industry: The Ailsa Shipbuilding Company was founded by the 3rd Marquess of Ailsa and others and passed through various phases of nationalisation, privatisation and mergers until finally closing as Ailsa & Perth, Limited.
Royal Troon Golf Club
Today Troon’s main claim to fame is the Royal Troon Golf Club, whose course is one of the hosts for the Open. I’d bypassed the course with blissful obliviousness during my extended paddle.
Having left the beach, I followed the line of a grassy esplanade as it curved around towards Troon Harbour. The harbour sits on a projecting headland from which Troon takes its name via a Brythonic word cognate with Welsh trwyn, meaning ‘nose’.
Along the southern edge of this headland is the Ballast Bank, a 10 m high grass-covered embankment erected in 1840 to protect the then-new harbour from the prevailing weather, several ships having been damaged by south-westerly gales. The Ballast Bank is so named because dumped ship ballast is one of the materials used to build it.
I saw a path leading onto the Ballast Bank and felt compelled to go up there, gazing out across Troon and its harbour. From this vantage point I could see the lay of the streets and realised that while I could continue off the end of the bank and then double back along the road, I could also simply exit via a side path and miss out the very end of the headland.
Tea Shop Time
I was starting to get hungry and hoped to find food, so that’s what I did, heading down and past the marina before diverting into the centre of Troon. There, I found a number of options but chose to avail myself of a rather busy tea shop, reasoning that to be that popular it had to be fairly good. This assumption was quickly borne out by an excellent light lunch and refreshing cup of tea — just what I needed.
Once fed and rested, I decided not to tarry. The queue to be seated was now stretching out the door and a gaggle of impatient-looking pensioners were giving me the evil eye in the hope that I’d drop dead from their terrible curse and thus vacate my table.
I briefly contemplated staying put and ordering something else out of sheer stubbornness but I quickly resolved that I didn’t actually want it plus there was no actual need to defend my table against this army of marauding grannies. Choosing desertion over dessert, I left to continue onwards.
Onwards turned out to mostly mean following a metalled path across a grassy promenade that sat between the road and the sea. There was over a mile of this and it made an easy start to my post-prandial perambulation.
Somewhere near the northern outskirts of Troon the path shrugged me off, tipping me back onto the beach. Here the beach was again broad and sandy though far less scattered with the debris of the Massacre of the Heart Urchins. I strode briskly and merrily along, pausing now and then to gaze upon Arran, which was now peeking from the haze.
There were about three miles of beach, which was both glorious and just about enough. It ended at a car park and harbour pier at the mouth of the River Irvine (Irbhinn). The Irvine presented a significant obstacle, being joined by its tributary, the River Garnock (Gairneag), just before flowing out to sea.
The near shore was nicely paved, forming a riverside promenade and I started to follow this upstream. As I did so a youngish bloke ran up and asked if I’d seen a big brown dog. Well, yes, dozens of ’em. Sadly he wanted one particular dog and yet couldn’t give any better description than ‘large’, ‘brown’ and ‘you know, a dog.’ I wished him the best of luck.
I rather like this fisherman sculpture, with the boat on one side of the swell and the fishing net on the other. It is titled All at Sea and was created in 1990 by a Scottish sculptor — or, as her website would have it, ‘visual artist’ — called Mary Bourne.
Boyd’s Automatic Tide Signalling Tower
Not far from All at Sea stands a blockish-looking four storey tower that at first sight appears to be a product of the ’50s or ’60s but was actually built in 1905. The tower rejoices in the name of Boyd’s Automatic Tide Signalling Tower and was the brainchild of Martin Boyd, then Irvine’s harbourmaster.
Boyd wanted to harness the wonders of technology to warn boats if the tide was sufficiently deep for them to travel upriver. The principle is simple but the actual mechanism was quite complex. Basically, a float in a tank at the riverside was connected via wires and gearings to a system of coloured blinds and lights shown in seaward-facing windows.
Sadly, it fell into disuse in the 1970s and was allowed to deteriorate, leading to the loss of its internal mechanisms. And speaking of disuse and deterioration…
Bridge of Scottish Invention
The Bridge of Scottish Invention is an unusual sliding design, able to roll back its centre to allow boats to pass. It is decorated along its length with designs thematic to its name and was opened in 2000 to provide access to an ‘inventor centre’ called the Big Idea.
Basically a museum dedicated to Scottish inventions, the Big Idea was opened that same year at a cost of £14m on land donated by ICI; the site had once been Alfred Nobel’s original dynamite factory.
Unfortunately, as lovely an idea as the museum had been, it completely failed to draw enough visitors and made a crippling loss. It closed its doors in 2003 and the Bridge of Scottish Invention was locked open.
Former Capital of Scotland
I needed to find myself another bridge across the Irvine. I decided to look for one in the town of the same name.
Irvine is an ancient settlement and a former capital of Scotland. In mediaeval times it was not only a Royal burgh but the headquarters of the Lord High Constable, the commander of the King’s armies.
Kings John I, Robert I and Robert II all used the town as a base of operations during the Wars of Scottish Independence that followed from the death of Alexander III without heirs in 1286. The wars came to Irvine doorstep in 1296 when Edward I of England’s army marched on the town expecting to do battle but found the Scots too busy with their own internal power struggles to fight him. Instead, seeing a possible new ally, several of them simply swapped sides and joined Edward’s cause.
Port of Irvine
With its sheltered position round a bend of the Irvine, the town was Scotland’s principal port from mediaeval times until the nineteenth century, when others began to overshadow it. The 1707 Act of Union opened up England’s North American colonies to Scottish trade and Irvine, Greenock and Port Glasgow all benefited.
To transport the goods to and from the harbour, Irvine was home to an army of carters, with no less than sixty by the late eighteenth century. Today they are remembered with this statue sculpted by David Annand in 1996.
Crossing the River
I headed through Irvine, passing beneath a railway line and through a shopping centre, where I was able to obtain some water and snacks. Just north of there, I connected with the river again, it having looped right round so as to be ninety degrees to its downstream alignment.
Here, there were indeed bridges and I crossed on a small pedestrian affair, which was clearly waymarked for the Ayrshire Coastal Path. An elderly couple crossing in the other direction paused to consult their maps just as I checked against mine and we laughed at this impromptu game of Ordnance Survey Snap.
Once across the river, a footpath led me northwest along the river bank and I noted with wry amusement that thanks to the Irvine’s meandering, I was now following it downstream.
The path ducked under the A737 and quickly left Irvine’s buildings behind. A weir gurgled and splashed to my left as the path led me down the side of a green space — a small park — in which stood a statue surrounded by a fence. Who was this man so fearsome that even his effigy needed to be caged? Burns of course (he once worked in the town)! The cage was clearly a fireguard.
The footpath followed the bank of the Irvine for about half a mile until its progress was blocked by the railway line I’d ducked under in Irvine.
Constructed in 1839 by the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway, here the line crossed the Irvine by means of a solid-looking six-arch viaduct. From here it would continue to Kilwinning and the path would turn right and run parallel.
For about the next mile the path was a narrow, leafy affair, ostensibly a cycle route but so hemmed in by walls of greenery that I doubt two bikes could easily have passed side by side. At the end of this mile, the path veered away from the railway line, shunning it for a different mode of transport as it met up with the B779.
The B779 is a minor road that is but a shadow of its former self. Originally a bypass of Kilwinning, it headed north to the outskirts of that town before turning off to the west towards Stevenston.
The western end was declassified in the ’30s and the B779 was diverted into Kilwinning, making it a direct route between that town and, for no apparent reason, a junction on the A737 then some way outside Irvine.
Then, in the ’70s, a dual carriageway bypass — the A78 — was constructed, cutting the B779 in half. The B-road’s two ends still join with the A-road but they form a staggered junction and there is no gap in the central reservation. This means that it is now impossible to drive the length of the B779 without turning onto the A78, heading to the next roundabout, doing a U-turn around it, heading back to the ‘junction’ and pulling back off into the B779. And why would anyone do that? (Answer: they wouldn’t.)
As a result, the half mile or so of B779 between where I joined and the A-road was entirely untroubled by traffic. Bizarrely, and pointlessly, it was still a two-lane road for most of its length although that ended at Nethermains Bridge (shown above).
There, the Ayrshire Coast Path nipped off to the right along the bank of the Garnock, ducking under the A-road and aiming for Kilwinning. I, however, needed to get to a farmhouse on the section of B779 now north of the A78.
Crossing the A78
The safest and most sensible thing would have been to follow the path until it gave me an opportunity to double back to where I needed. I, however, am a Helpful Mammal not a Careful one. I therefore dashed across the A78’s westbound carriageway, climbed over the barrier in the central reservation, and then dashed over the eastbound carriageway when (eventually) a large enough gap permitted.
Just a few minutes later I was stood at the farmhouse door wondering why any B&B wouldn’t have a doorbell. The answer, the landlady told me, was that she didn’t need one — she just listened out for cars arriving in their courtyard. There was of course a flaw in this setup which I brilliantly illustrated with my carlessness but only after I’d had to phone her to say, ‘I’m outside; that’s me knocking. Please let me in.’
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,556½ miles