Appleby, 11 September Day 135 3565 miles
I have come inland 40 miles from Carlisle to spend a few days with my Aunt Janet. In the last seven days I have covered 340 miles since leaving Ayr which shows how flat it is compared with the Highlands of Scotland. For the first time I realise I really must be fitter than when I left London.
Yesterday I crossed the border back into England after 2460 miles and 87 days in Scotland. It's a relief to be able to hear English voices again, to see English countryside, and to drink English beer. The only problem is, we seem to have come back to typically English weather!
Lots of love,
There had been no cancellations at the youth hostel so I had to pack up all my belongings again and look for accommodation. The warden said there would probably be cheap places near the station but, since I needed maps and guides for the town anyway, I thought I might just as well head straight for the Tourist Information Centre in the centre of the old town. This turned out to be more difficult than expected. The signposts I followed lead me to where the Centre used to be. A shopper gave me directions to where she thought it might have been moved. Unfortunately she was wrong. Another person gave me further directions which brought me round in a circle again to where the Centre had once been. A third person gave me fresh directions, which eventually turned out to be correct, but on the way I made the mistake of following some new signposts but these just stranded me in a car park behind a shopping centre. Eventually I found the new Tourist Information Centre near the station and they found me a bed and breakfast just a few streets away from the youth hostel! It was nearly midday by the time I had completed this simple transaction.
With a population of 50,000 Ayr was the largest town I had stayed in for nearly three months. I wandered aimlessly round the town centre gazing wide-eyed at all the chain stores I had not seen for so long. There was a Woolworths, a Littlewoods, a British Home Stores, and even a Marks and Spencer. Since they were there it seemed a pity not to buy something. After all on this kind of trip you never know when you will see your next Marks and Spencer. I felt shop-starved but really they could provide nothing I needed. It was just nice to know they were there, to feel that I was back in familiar territory. More relevant was the Graham Tiso shop where I spent a happy half hour checking out all the latest outdoor equipment, a sensuous process known to enthusiasts as gear fondling. But again there was nothing I needed for this journey which I did not already have.
But I did need a new watch and H. Samuels had a window full of them. The assistant was rather amused when I explained that I needed a waterproof watch because I sweated so much. He explained the various categories of water-resistance from which it seemed that I would need a watch claiming to be waterproof to a depth of at least fifty metres to survive the onslaught of my sweat glands and the odd downpour of rain. I didn't want one with lots of obscure digital displays so I bought the cheapest waterproof, electronic watch with an analogue display. At £22 it was four pounds less than I paid for my mechanical Omega in 1969. I would have to pay twice that just to have the Omega cleaned.
It was a relief to have a watch back on my wrist again. Despite the carefree nature of my journey my days were still bounded by time. Times when I still had to fit in with other peoples days such as when hostels opened and closed, and bed and breakfasts served breakfast; times when I had to turn on the radio for a weather forecast; times when shops and Tourist Information Centres opened and closed. Times by which I regulated my own day such as when to get up in the morning and go to bed in the evening. Times I recorded in my logbook: when I set off on my bike in the morning; the time I finished cycling in the afternoon; and the times spent at various rest and meal breaks during the day; the time at which each photograph was taken. Not until getting an electronic watch did I realise quite how ingrained into the minutiae of my life my Omega had become. Every morning for weeks afterwards by reflex action I tried to wind up my new watch. And whenever there was a time check on the radio I glanced at my new watch only to find it displaying exactly the right time. How I resented not having to correct my watch each week!
My bed and breakfast was in a terrace of typical Scottish houses, stone-built and solid, well-proportioned, with fine rope-work detailing cut into the stone door posts and lintels, a prosperous neighbourhood. That is how I saw all the Scottish towns in which I stayed, stone-built, solid, and well-proportioned. I generally stayed in the centres of towns so it was always a shock to come across areas of post-war development every bit as awful as English housing estates. But in England development seemed a more gradual process with Victorian brick built houses slowly turning into nineties brick-built houses. In Scotland I kept seeing modern tackiness right next to the old solidity; bungalows of brick, breeze-block, and white-painted wooden fascias erupting like boils from a landscape and climate which cried out for stone. In Ayr it was the blocks of flats along the riverside which didn't look as if they would ever grow old gracefully as the other ages of Ayr had done.
Ayr is an ancient town but little of it is old. It became a Royal Burgh in about 1200 but few surviving buildings are more than two centuries old, and even the old town is mainly late nineteenth century. The industrious burghers built and rebuilt on the medieval street plan, with the result that solid nineteenth century buildings are pierced by medieval Wynds and Vennels. The Auld Brig was built about four hundred years ago to replace an earlier wooden bridge and probably only survived because it starred in the poem The Brigs of Ayr written by the local hero Robert Burns. It is impossibly narrow and now used only as a foot bridge. From it you can see downstream the New Bridge - not the New Brig of Burns' poem built in 1787 for that was demolished - but the new one which replaced it in 1857. And upstream the three other bridges which grace the River Ayr, another footbridge, a railway bridge and another road bridge. Even the Auld Kirk is only seventeenth century, built to replace the earlier kirk which became the armoury for the fort which Cromwell built at the mouth of the river. I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering the streets but didn't do any real sightseeing until the Sunday.
Sunday was Open Door Day throughout Ayrshire, a day when many of the usual historic buildings were open for free, and when many more not routinely open threw open their doors to anybody in search of their cultural and architectural history. This was not just a local initiative but radiated outward from the Council of Europe through more than twenty European countries, to the Scottish Civic Trust, Strathclyde Regional Council, Enterprise Ayrshire, the District Councils of Cunninghame, Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Cumnock and Doon Valley, and Kyle and Carrick, and finally to the organising ability of Kyle and Carrick Civic Society. You wouldn't have thought it took so many organisations to open a few doors. But at least it meant that somebody was prepared to pay the cost of preparing the free map and guide to all the participating venues in Ayrshire.
There was little to interest me in the nineteenth century Ayr Town Buildings or the thirties-built Ayr County Buildings. If I'd been a local I might have enjoyed poking around the offices and meeting rooms of the officials and elected representatives of my local government. But are local people still interested in the signed photographs of the Queen presented to every town after her progress around the country in the early years of her reign, in ceremonial swords commemorating the granting of the freedom of the town to a minor part of the British Army, in paintings of local earls, barons, and miscellaneous forgotten notables, in stained-glass windows depicting the heraldic crests and industries of local boroughs? Did the citizens of Ayr draw moral strength from being presented recently with the European Flag of Honour, awarded by the Council of Europe to the people of the District for their contribution to European unity? Or are these merely ephemeral symbols important only to the participants in what are, or soon would be, forgotten past events?
I felt more at home in the tiny disused lighthouse built at the mouth of the river in 1841 to guide coastal shipping to the once thriving port of Ayr. The two lower floors of the five-storey tower were residential but almost a quarter of these small rooms was taken up by the enclosed spiral staircases. Each floor is enclosed by a beautifully made curved door matching the profile of the staircase and the ground floor room still houses the original kitchen range. After about ten years the port authorities must have taken pity on the lighthouse keeper for a single storey cottage was added containing living room, fireplace, and storerooms. The Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine has hopes of eventually opening it as a museum, but for the moment all that can be achieved is to open it occasionally with the help of local volunteers.
There was a good panoramic view from the top of St John's Tower, which is all that remains of the original parish church. And the unfurnished shell of Ayr's oldest house, the fifteenth century Loudoun Hall was interesting enough. But what really caught my fancy was Ayr Academy. Scotland takes education very seriously so the classical frontage with Corinthian portico is exactly what you would expect of such a nineteenth century establishment. And the medallions of Wilkie, Watt, and Burns, representing Art, Science, and Literature show what every Scottish student should aspire to emulate. The main hall was open but the real reason for opening the building was to show the Art Department which was added in 1907. These immensely high rooms with tall studio windows overlook the River Ayr and all the walls and corridors covered with a planked panelling were designed by James A Morris heavily influenced by the work of Mackintosh, the Scottish god of style.
Beautiful and functional though the interior of the Art Department is, its real cultural significance is that it was actually built as The Science and Art Department. In nineteenth century England the precursor of the Board of Education had been called the Science and Art Department, and Dublin, Edinburgh, and London each had Science and Art Museums with explicitly educational intentions and the hope that the arts and sciences might inform each other. It was a concept which didn't survive long into the twentieth century before Art and Science went their separate ways. If Ayr Academy had built their extension after the first world war it's doubtful it would have been called the Science and Art Department.