Friday, 18 May 2012

Between the Rail Track and the River


The weather forecast said, among other things, bursts of sunshine. It was recommended that I not read the ‘other things’, but I caught a glimpse of them anyway, something about snow, hail and rain. But the bursts of sunshine sounded good. And the sun shone, most of the day. There were one or two bursts of hail, but not much and not for long and mostly over in another valley or blotting out the peak of another mountain.

We climb up to a cemetery and the gravestones explode in colours – rust red and sea green, mould green lichens. The sun gleams on the snowy peaks of Ben Nevis. Thin straggling lines, like cornrow plaited hair.

And the parallel roads? Old drover roads? I ask. No, they are the old shorelines, old beaches, where the sea reached long ago, ice age long ago, so the new theory goes. Lines cut along the sides of the mountain. Some clearly visible. So – no, not drover roads, where the cattle passed, on their way to market. Tracks now like small rivers, red and turquoise stones glinting like jewels just below the surface, the stepping stones, the left-behind stones, stones among peat, covered up by peat, cairn stones, marker stones, stones that do not shift beneath your feet.

Mounds of green moss, that give way underfoot, soaked with water. Moss of reddish, orange, terracotta, pink and purple colours, honeycomb patterned, growing high up on the hillslope where only skylarks see them. Wasted beauty. Only the hail clouds drifting like thin muslin curtains from one valley to the next, screening the hill behind. They see them. Skylarks and hailstorms, that’s all.

Boots squelching into a moss-topped bog. Thin yellow grasses, dried-out and forming a loose weave over the moss clumps. Wish they had woven a mat, a raft above the water-surface. The ground is saturated.

The path peters out, into quagmire. We change direction and head for the wood and the river. When we reach a sandy track we stop, take off our boots, and wring out our socks. After that, walking now along the track, with no clumps of springy sodden grass, my feet feel almost dry. The track reaches the river, and follows alongside it.

Birch woods. A cuckoo. The first I’ve heard this year. One or two skylarks. A grasshopper warbler. Woodpecker. And the river passing between banks of grey rock. When it tumbles over falls, it’s the colour of champagne. Away from the high rocks, down deep in some chasm underwater, the surface turns mahogany. Unimaginable depths, once you’ve stepped off the banks of rocks.

Cupped handfuls from a small spring, the water tastes of cool sweetness, evaporating on the tongue.

The track turns into a paved road and comes out at Roy Bridge. We cross the road, and then the bridge over the railway line, and find another path that leads through the woods, and follows the river again. There’s the road, with its sound of traffic. Then there’s the railway. And the path slides between the rail track and the river.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Kilcreggan Ferry, Foot Passengers Only

The clouds pulled back once the ferry took to the water. That’s how it seemed. They retreated a little inland and hung there, clumps of knotted lacework, dark at the centre like the shadows of stars, white as cotton at the edges. Hanging there, reluctant to move further out along the estuary, out beyond the peninsula and the islands, out to the unsheltered sea, a net of flickering reflected light on its surface.

The sun always went for a watery horizon, if it could. Those flat lines of division, marking here and beyond. The blue door the sun could slip behind, throwing a scatter of pink light on any drifting clouds. The theatrical display that’s what sun would go for, if possible. 

But the small land clouds hung back, preferring hill-slopes, bracken covered, where they could attract attention with their shadows, playing at being dragons, whales, griffins, just as long as they made a grand effect. Who ever heard of cloud shadows being noticed on the ocean? Land is the place to get your point across, to make your dark impressive entrances, to play with pulling back the curtains, to bow to the applause. 

Across the hillsides, then dipping down into the straths with their hurrying streams and silver birch trees, twisting them all into shadows like a flickering snake. Then moving on to clumps of houses clustered around natural harbours with flimsy jetties and pebble beaches. The buildings rarely fanned out into the hills as if afraid to leave the pier behind, with its promises of cities, of urban gold and wealth, pinnacles of glass and stone, of reflections, images, success.
The ferry is moored to the pier at Gourock, just next to the train station. A couple of slim ropes hold it to the rusted metal structure of the pier. The rust is partially hidden by a swarm of barnacles, intricate as a crochet pattern. A flimsy metal gangway is placed between the boat and pier. There are thin handrails to hold onto and the walkway has raised ridges on it, useful in bad weather no doubt, when the gangway is wet and slippery with spray. A man stands on either side of it, to bolster your confidence and, I imagine, catch you if you fall.

Still, it has a makeshift and homely feel to it, this easily dismantled and lightweight gangplank, emphasising the temporary nature of ferries and crossings, these transitional places, where you are suspended on water surface, while the sea bubbles and froths below you. Where you are kept afloat by belief and by confidence that this water will not abruptly break apart and cast you into its deeps, but it will all hold together, this tiny wooden scooped out shell, floating on the sea’s back the way a dragonfly skims across the surface of a pond.

Once across the metal bridge, passengers walk down a small flight of steps to the seating area, divided into an open part, and an inner cabin. Seating is on plain wooden benches and maximum capacity would be at a guess, around twenty.

The jetty on the Kilcreggan side is made of thick wooden timbers. As the boat approaches, the ferryman reaches out with a hook to pull in the dangling thread of rope, and attach it to the boat’s metal rails. Once the boat is alongside the pier, he secures the rope with a couple of knots. The boat rocks lightly in the water. The gangway is placed across the gap between boat and jetty.

The sun shines, out of reach of clouds.

I walk along the beach and see some unexpected things. First of all there is a large rock and a face is painted on one side. It is a very recognizable face, a copy of the one on Tutankhamen’s tomb. The large eyes are thickly outlined in black, and the face is surrounded by blue and gold, like a crown or halo, as it is in all the pictures we have seen of it.

A little further on, a yellow air ambulance helicopter is parked on the grass between the beach and the road. As I walk towards it I see the crew get inside. As far as I could see, there was no injured person on board. A few minutes later, the blades start rotating and the helicopter lifts up into the air and flies away.

The beach is of grey pebbles, all rounded and flattened by contact with the sea. The sunlight sparkles on the water. It catches a few distant specks of white sails. And gleams on a closer object - long and grey, barely protruding above the surface. 

spot the submarine


I am the only passenger on the ferry back to Gourock. I tell the ferryman I saw something that looked like a submarine. He nods. Yes, there’s submarines around here. Some based at Helensburgh. And Faslane isn’t far away.

I ask him if he has seen the Tutankhamen-painted rock. No, he has not. It turns out that he has not walked along the beach.
Do you live on the Gourock side or the Kilcreggan side? I ask. Neither, he lives in Glasgow.

I ask him if he has been doing this for years. It looks as if he has, he looks very practised and in control. He looks as if he is so used to doing this that it has become part of who he is. He looks quietly competent, the kind of person you would trust to hold the sea together, not let it fly apart, but keep the threads held in his hand, hold them in his fist, and knot together any frayed ends, knot them in the way he knots the rope that keeps the boat beside the jetty. Rope or sea spray, you could imagine a calm dexterity.

This is my first day here he says. This seems so unlikely, so contrary to what I have watched, with my own eyes.
Your first day I say, openly disbelieving.
On this ferry, yes. But I’m the captain of the Renfrew ferry and I’ve been doing that for years.
He sits outside, looks relaxed, as the sun falls on the tilting choppy water.
I like this work, he says, I like being outside in the open air.