My pal, Gavin Bell, is a former foreign correspondent with Reuters and The Times. He is a man born with, as my wee granny would say 'ants in his pants.' He is now a travel writer and has been to more than 80 countries from the Antarctic to Zanzibar, from Madagascar to Fiji. He has stood on volcanoes as they erupted, been attacked by a shark named Margaret off the Southern Cape and he was one of the first to interview Mandela on his release. They struck on a topic of conversation that continued for many years; football. Seemingly Desmond Tutu is a Motherwell supporter. Sorry, THE Motherwell supporter! I think the other one died of boredom at half time in 1942 and nobody noticed.
Gavin has lived the life of the adventurous explorer, living on the edge, being shot at in many peculiar places both geographically and anatomically. For an interview in a national paper he was asked by a fellow travel writer where his favourite place in the world was and he replied without any hesitation, Largs.
That story came to mind as I sit here, in Largs, scribbling. It is the 26th of May, I am writing in short bursts of longhand as the only way I can keep my fingers from freezing is to wrap them round my cup of Americano. It is very cold here.
When I was small I had loads of aunts/uncles/grandparents that I wasn’t related to. Looking back they were unpaid childminders as both my parents worked. My sister and I were the first children to live in the small square for over 40 years so we had doting grannies and granddads galore. It was our great treat to be taken on the bus down to Largs and have a cake at the Green Shutters Tea Room on the seafront (from where I am writing this blog). In those days it was the height of sophistication as a selection of cakes appeared on a stand on the table and you paid for what you ate. If my mother was there, my sister and I might get half a meringue between us- she got all the cream and I got the glace cherry. If we were with Mrs Jeffries, we scoffed the lot.
Largs is a pretty place. It sits on the Firth of the Clyde in North Ayrshire about 30 miles from Glasgow. The original Gaelic name means 'the slopes'. It’s a popular seaside resort with a tiny harbour, and famous for Nardini's ice cream and Vikings (eating the former and fighting the latter).
In 1263 the Scots and Norwegians had a bit of an exchange of views and interestingly both sides have claimed victory in their sagas. It was after that battle and the Treaty of Perth in 1266 that the Hebrides were sold back to Scotland, with the Isle of Man thrown in as a buy one get one free deal. But we all made up in the end and in 1944 King Haakon the 7th of Norway, exiled due to German occupation, visited Largs and became its first honorary citizen. Every year at the end of the summer there is a range of beating up Viking activities and the traditional burning of a Viking galley during a firework display.
In the 19th Century, Largs was a busy and popular resort, large hotels appeared but it was when the railway came in 1895 things really took off for Largs. It became a fashionable place to live. Famous Largs folk include Daniela Nardini (award winning actress and daughter of the ice cream empire.)
William Thomson - better known as Lord Kelvin- he of the physics formulae but I am sure you all know that.
And Thomas Brisbane who gave his name to a crater on the Moon, the Brisbane river, the city of Brisbane, and the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. Sam Torrance the golfer, Lou Macari footballer and all round lovie John Sessions are all Largs born.
And of course the Waverley paddle steamer, the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world makes regular trips in the summer months. It's reported she floats like a butterfly, moves like a panther, steers like a cow. It's not the first time she's taken a pier away with her on her departure.
The town still tries hard as a tourist destination. There is the Vikingar Centre which has interactive advice on how to beat up a Viking. It is still best known for Nardini's which is a famous ice cream parlour, cafe and restaurant. The shop still has glass bottles of sweeties and trays of pastries to die for. Loads of my elderly patients get the train down to Largs for a fish tea special. My own favourite is a chip butty and an Irn Bru, sitting on the sea wall while trying to fight off seagulls with high blood cholesterol.
People who find nothing to do in Largs tend to get the ferry over to Cumbrae where there is even less to do. The ferries bing bong across the Firth like a game of tennis with both players rooted at the baseline, the air is regularly punctuated by the grinding of the metal car ramp being driven up the slipway. Often the pilots have to give a quick blast on the horn as a sailboat caught in a quiet wind tries to run the gauntlet.
The high street of Largs is full of For Sale signs. So many folk retire to Largs and die, the local cooncil had to ban any more lawyers and estate agents from setting up business. This is the result. This is a crowded beach.
The air is tinged with salt, from the sea and from the numerous chip shops on the front. There are two sets of shows on the front, both for wee kids. This is the west coast equivalent of the Las Vegas strip. The music was very Dean Martin skewed by the low quality and high volume, it slowed down and speeded up in time with the wee cars as they went round.
The famous Nardini building still dominates the north of Largs high street. It has an old fashioned tea room. Many times I have sat in their 1950's chairs listening to some jazz and people watching, munching a toastie while he devours a lemon drizzle cake. He looks with awe at those brave enough to tackle the north face of a knickerbocker glory without oxygen. Those were the days.
The patriarch founder of the business died and the two brothers eventually started to disagree on the way the business should move forward. In an interview, the actress daughter (Daniela) spoke of the feud over what part of the family got to keep the family name. The court battle cost a fortune. Even more than one of their knickerbocker glories.
So even though it's a bit old and done, a bit smelly and a bit run down, the ghost of the old Largs is still here and the shadows are long. The place keeps pulling you back like some genetic whiplash just in case you ever forget your roots and forget where you came from.
I guess after all that globetrotting what Gavin really meant, was there is no place like home...
I'm off to Bristol now.....
Caro GB Friday 31st May 2013
I'm off to Bristol now.....
Caro GB Friday 31st May 2013