Visiting a new town, for me, is like opening the first page of a book. I may have a vague idea of what lies within but not until I devour the contents do I really understand what it’s all about. Every corner turned is a new page, every street a new chapter. The town is its own narrator, telling stories, spilling gossip, revealing secrets.
Girvan sits on the west coast of Ayrshire, 21 miles south of Ayr. It has a railway station and a harbour but those are the only details I glean from the premise. The harbour is modest, a haven for brawn rather than beauty. These are hardworking vessels, destined for distress and permanent fatigue, their splintered decks and tangled nets a far cry from the polished perfection found in other, more salubrious harbours. They represent sweat and toil, not suntan oil.
A crooked lighthouse stands at the mouth of the harbour, its light long since removed. It leans to the side like a wind-battered tree, rust staining its trunk like sap. I long to open its red painted door, to feel the strength of its roots and hear the echoes of its past. But the door remains locked, like a well written mystery yet to be solved.
At the opposite end of the beach, a snack bar vies for passing trade. The shack itself is a sandwich, the filling between undulating land and unpredictable sea, serving satisfying views to its customers. The rich aroma of coffee combines with seaweed and salty sea air, the occasional rasher of bacon confusing the blend. Crows patrol the car park and seagulls clear the tables. A hungry Alsatian empties the bin.
The beach is deserted, a trail of footprints the only sign of life. The gentle lapping of waves and the bark of an invisible dog accompany me on my stroll. A Victorian bandstand stands tall to my right. The surrounding green is filled with bonnets, petticoats and parasols as images of seventeenth century grandeur flood my mind. My ears are full of pomp and ceremony until a Jack Russell terrier chases a ball and I’m back to the present with a yap. The regal structure, once the home of music and theatrics is now the scene of clandestine meetings and mischief-making. Empty beer cans and other pleasure-seeking paraphernalia litter the floor.
Alongside the bandstand, a War Memorial commemorates those who died in the First and Second World Wars. Atop a slight slope, it stands tall and erect, an obelisk reaching for the sky as though in touch with those it remembers. Tracing a finger along the list of names, it’s impossible to imagine the heartache suffered at this very spot when loved ones failed to return home. I shoo away the terrier as it cocks its leg up the base of the column.
The High Street in Girvan is typical of so many. A number of shops lie empty, their windows hidden by posters promoting events long gone and forgotten. The betting shop is among the casualties, the wall of screens now silent. Where tobacco stained fingers once slid notes across the counter and rheumy eyes searched for the day’s dead cert, the door stays closed, a definite non-runner. Along the street, the chain-store takeaway (famous for its sausage rolls) is the clear favourite.
An impressive clock tower separates the High Street from the harbour. It is, in fact, a former gaol built in 1787. I gaze skyward at the clock and can’t help but wonder about the time served by the building’s previous, unlawful occupants. Gap-toothed smugglers and light-fingered beggars spring to mind.
I sit beneath the old prison where colourful flowers nod their heads at passers-by. At the cross roads, mile-wide mobile homes head north to the Highlands and traffic-stopping juggernauts drive south to Cairnryan. They leave a trail of fumes as they lumber through the streets, covering the once handsome façades in sixty shades of grey.
The boatyard is dotted with vessels as tired as the town. Some sit on dry land, hulls exposed, desperate to return to the waves. Others, glad of the rest, have said their goodbyes to the water. Retired from duty, they sit back and reflect on a job well done, watching on as the next generation lifts its anchors and takes to the sea.
My feet follow the path inland. The homes gradually grow in size, as though a nest of Russian dolls has separated and stood in line. Tiny flats lead to red brick terraces, bay fronted semis and, finally, to grand gated villas. They’re still of a traditional style but more refined than their unassuming neighbours. The windows shine, refuse bins are hidden, doors boast names instead of numbers. The wealth in Girvan is evident but discreet, the gleaming brass knockers a mere hint at the private prosperity.
Back at the harbour, I’m greeted by the lip-licking smell of fish and chips. It’s impossible to resist so balancing my fish supper with a can of Irn Bru, I make myself comfortable on a bench looking out to sea. One chip at a time, I ponder the story told by Girvan’s streets. It’s a story of hardship but also one of hope. Like its buildings, its characters bear the scars of a challenging past. It’s a place where fishing boats are moored and kids are easily bored. A place to drive through rather than to.
There are signs, however, that things are beginning to change. It’s as though the town is waking from a decade-long slumber. A modern leisure centre brings welcome activities – and jobs – to the community. Bikes and beach wheelchairs are available for hire. Motorhomes and campervans line up in new allocated bays. A boating pond and play area attract locals and visitors alike. Once a hotspot for smugglers, the town is now a haven for tourists, no longer just a route but a destination.
As if to advertise its appeal and remind us of its splendour, a beam of sun pierces the evening clouds. The sun is a spotlight and Girvan, it seems, is the stage. A new performance is about to begin and it promises to be a long-running family show guaranteed to entertain.
I’m reluctant to leave my front row seat but as I come to the end of this particular story, a sherbet sunset reveals itself behind Ailsa Craig. It’s an effervescent epilogue with a gratifying end and I look forward very much to the sequel. In the meantime, as the seagulls eye what’s left of my supper, a solitary wind turbine waves a farewell.