| Entry 6 of 49
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Today as I stood on the platform at Belfast Central Station I was not downhearted. Rail has been battered by storms of neglect over the past 60 years but I felt a renaissance had begun. The love of air travel has passed as passengers groan under the burden of ever increasing security measures combined with airlines which charge for absolutely everything. The car is also a poor alternative given the congested state of the road network across much of Europe. I was reminded of the travel writer, Paul Mansfield, who took five days to reach Lisbon from London by rail in 2002. He stated, “I could have made this journey by plane in two hours. And missed everything.”
It was time to start our rail adventure across Europe to the Near East, at least as far as the Armenian frontier. Rather exciting because it is not all confirmed. We are less restricted now the children are a little older and in theory can endure a little more hardship! A degree of flexibility is one thing but let us hope our cobbled together trip does not unravel as we get off the beaten track.
We left Belfast Central Station at 1512hrs and pressed on north, across the multi-million pound Cross Harbour Link (Dargan Bridge – Lagan River Crossing) to Yorkgate Station, on the edge of North Belfast. I recall arriving here by train from Larne in early 1992. In those days it was still called York Road and had been one of the three main Belfast stations (the others being Great Victoria Street and Queen’s Quay). It was end of the line then; a bus being required to reach the city centre. Today the modern Yorkgate Station is little more than a glorified brick built bus shelter. The old station, having been bombed by the Germans and the IRA, was demolished in the early 1970’s.
We pressed on along the shoreline of Belfast Lough towards Carrickfergus, famous for the castle of the same name, and being the place where King William of Orange landed in Ireland on the 14th June 1690. The castle was built by one of the original Anglo-Norman occupiers of Ireland, John de Courcy in the 1170's. King John of England captured the castle in 1210. It was later besieged by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert the Bruce (King of Scots) in 1315 and captured in 1316. It is rumoured that during the siege several Scots prisoners were eaten by the English garrison!
I read an interesting historical footnote on the Downpatrick & County Down Railway website regarding the issue of gauge.
“One question that is frequently asked is why Ireland has a gauge (distance between the rails) of 5ft 3in (1600 mm) instead of the most common 'standard' gauge, 4ft 8½ inches, especially as all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at that time. Indeed, the Dublin & Kingstown Railway was initially built to George Stephenson's gauge of 4ft 8½ inches, but circumstances would soon change, leading to Ireland's distinctive gauge.
The problem arose when the Ulster Railway began to construct its line between Belfast and Armagh. They chose the gauge of 6ft 2in, and the proposers behind the planned Dublin and Drogheda Railway were going to build their line to a gauge of 5'2". Immediately this caused political wranglings, as the different gauges between Ireland's three railway would lead to the problems faced by railways across the water in Great Britain - where trains from one railway could not run on another.
At this point, the Board of Trade stepped in and asked Major-General Pasley of the Royal Engineers to examine the situation. After ruling out Brunel's 7ft broad-gauge he asked the opinion of the Stephensons their opinion, who (while committed to 4ft 8½ in GB) suggested a compromise gauge for Ireland between 5ft 0in and 5ft 6in.
It was at this point that Major-General Pasley discovered that the exact average between all three gauges was 5ft 3in, and so made his recommendation that this should be the standard gauge throughout Ireland, which was readily accepted by the Board of Trade. A brilliant example of a political compromise!
This unusual gauge is otherwise found only in the Australian states of Victoria, southern New South Wales (as part of Victoria's rail network) and South Australia (where it was introduced by the Irish railway engineer F.W. Shields), and in Brazil.”
We arrived at Larne Harbour railway station at 1620hrs, a little later than expected. This was not my main worry; rather I was concerned about the P & O Express sailing to Troon. I had made the mistake at lunchtime of checking their website and learnt that all Express sailings to Troon were cancelled (1/7/10) due to adverse weather conditions. I called P & O and was reassured that this would not affect the 1730hrs sailing today, however you just never know. If we had been travelling tomorrow we would have been transported by ferry to Cairnryan and then transported by bus to Troon. By the time we would have arrived in Troon we would have missed our connections to Glasgow, London, Paris and Munich. I walked into the terminal building to find that our sailing was on time – what a relief!
"Larne is believed to have derived its name from Lathar, son of Hugony the Great, High King of Ireland in pre-Christian times who reputedly gave him an area along the Antrim coast roughly from Glenarm to the River Inver which became known in the Gaelic as Latharna. It is recorded that the Roman Emperor Serverus described how, in 204AD a Roman galley bound for Scotland was blown off course to a place called Portus Saxa which was thought to be Larne Lough. The ancient Greeks also had knowledge of the Antrim Coast and Ptolemy, the astronomer and geographer of the 2nd century AD, referred to Islandmagee on one of his maps."
Whilst there are some wonderful countryside and coastal walks near Larne, the town itself is far from picturesque. It was economically depressed long before the current credit crunch; even McDonald's closed their restaurant several years ago! That said, the port itself is quite active, with around 750,000 passengers passing through on an annual basis.
We boarded the P & O Express service to Troon at 1645hrs and left ahead of schedule at 1715hrs. The boat was only half full, which was surprising given the arrival of the holiday season.
As we left port I looked back towards the Antrim Hills Way and could see many familiar landmarks, including in the distance, Agnew's Hill. As we left Larne on board a modern fast ferry on a reasonably mild but windy day, I remembered that the sea is not always so kind in this part of the world.
"A car ferry has sunk in the Irish Sea in one of the worst gales in living memory claiming the lives of more than 130 passengers and crew.
The Princess Victoria, a British Railways car ferry, bound for Larne in Northern Ireland, had left Stranraer on the south-west coast of Scotland an hour before when the stern gates to the car deck were forced open in heavy seas.
Water flooded into the ship and as the cargo shifted, the ferry, one of the first of the roll on-roll off design, fell onto her side and within four hours she sank.
Among the passengers who perished were the Northern Ireland Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Major J M Sinclair, and Sir Walter Smiles, the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down.
The Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Lord Basil Brookeborough, paid this tribute: "The waves that yesterday were mountainous are relatively calm again but they've become the tomb of 130 of our fellow citizens. Under this cruel stroke of fate, many families are sorrowing today, they have the heartfelt sympathy of us all."
BBC - On this day 31st January 1953
The public inquiry into the loss of the Princess Victoria praised the crew for their efforts in trying to save the ship. The owners were held principally responsible for the loss. Judge Campbell's report concluded saying that if the 'Princess Victoria' had been as staunch as the men who manned her, then disaster would have been averted. The Inquiry also highlighted the outstanding and selfless conduct of David Broadfoot, the wireless operator of the ferry, who remained at his post to the last, transmitting messages in circumstances of the utmost difficulty and danger. Mr Broadfoot was awarded a posthumous George Cross.
We crossed the North Channel and started to head up the Scottish coastline into the Firth of Clyde. For the Burnett family one of the highlights of this route involves passing close to 'Paddy's Milestone' (halfway between Glasgow & Belfast), the island of Ailsa Craig. I believe that the island is owned by the Marquis of Ailsa and has been in the family since 1560. There is a castle keep on the island, which dates from around this period. A visit to this island is on my list of things to do, if only for Ailsa's sake.
"Ailsa Craig, in the Firth of Clyde, is an Island rising abruptly from the sea to an elevation of 1,110 feet. It has a conical summit and is very precipitous except on the North East Side where it slopes more gently and is accessible.
It was famous for a number of years for the curling stones fashioned from its rock. It was here that the curling stones used by the Scottish Women’s Curling Team, Winter 2002 Olympic Gold medal winners, were made.
In 1881, petitions were received by the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses from Lloyds and the Scottish Shipmasters Association requesting the erection of two fog signals and a lighthouse on Ailsa Craig. The Board of Trade and Trinity House both agreed to the proposal and work commenced the following year. The light was first exhibited on the night of 15 June 1886, an oil burning light which remained in use until 24 January 1911, when it was converted to incandescent. The construction was supervised by Thomas and David Stevenson, Engineers to the Board. (Thomas was the father of Robert Louis Stevenson)...
The lighthouse was automated in 1990 and is now remotely monitored from the Northern Lighthouse Board’s offices in Edinburgh. In 2001 as part of the refurbishment and de-gassing programme Alisa Craig Lighthouse was converted to solar-electric power."
We arrived at Troon harbour at around 1925hrs and were bussed to the terminal building. After picking up our cases from a trailer (reminded me of Hobart airport) we were free to leave the terminal area and walk towards the centre of Troon.
"The name Troon is derived from a Celtic word “Trwyn” and means point or head of land. The name is fitting as the land is centered in a somewhat crescent shape."
Troon and the adjacent residential settlement of Barassie occupy a strip of land along the Firth of Clyde, about 30 miles south-west of Glasgow. Today the town is best known as a tourist destination, especially where the game of golf is concerned. However the town owes its development to the industrial revolution and the coming of the railway.
"The Kilmarnock and Troon Railway was built to convey coal from pits to the west of Kilmarnock to Troon Harbour. It was the first line in Scotland to be authorised by an Act of Parliament and the first in Scotland on which a locomotive was used. Despite its age and the absence of the original local coal traffic, the line remains open."
It was the Marquis of Titchfield (later the 4th Duke of Portland) who in 1807 commissioned William Jessop to survey the line. Jessop had experience of industrial railways in England. As stated above the development of the Kilmarnock and Troon Railway was authorised by Parliament in 1808. The line became operational in 1811 and was originally only 10 miles in length. Under the patronage of the Portland family, the largest landowners in Ayrshire, the railway and the port of Troon were extensively developed. The 4ft gauge track was originally worked by horses but an interesting story is recounted by Ewan Crawford, as follows:
"The Duke of Portland, hearing of George Stephenson's work with steam engines at Killingworth in the north east of England, invited him to demonstrate one of his locomotives on the railway. In 1816/7 the locomotive, named The Duke, was set on the rails near Kilmarnock House and was driven by Robert Stephenson. Although the engine proved itself, it was too heavy (5 tons) for the cast-iron track. There is a legend that a locomotive with wooden wheels was in use on the line until 1848."
Coal was exported from Scotland to Ireland via the port of Troon for many years. It is reported that the line was converted to standard gauge during the 1840's and purchased by the Glasgow and South Western Railway in 1899. Today the line is part of Scotrail, which is operated by FirstGroup.
Our first port of call was Morrison’s Supermarket. Ruth had exactly four minutes to enter and purchase supplies before it closed at 2000hrs. We have grown so used to 24 hour shopping in Belfast that it never dawned on me that Morrison’s would close at 8! She did manage to purchase buns and bread for breakfast. Also she secured two bottles of Spanish wine at a total cost of £5. If we are travelling to Europe we must immerse ourselves in the bread and wine culture – starting now!
We walked to Troon railway station and took the 2025hrs service to Glasgow Central station.
The commencement of travel, on this long trip to the Near East, has totally absorbed me today, especially after months of preparation. The trip to Glasgow Central only takes 40 minutes, but I feel it is time to get out my holiday book and make a start. On previous trips I have tried to match literature to my geographical location. Reading about a Soviet prison camp escape whilst in Siberia, or the Indian Mutiny in Lucknow. This year the subject is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, specifically a biography by Lord Kinross published in 1964. Given that it is over 500 pages of small print, I will probably still be reading it when we leave Turkey. Ataturk built modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and fought foreign powers to preserve its independence. 20th century Turkey is in a word, 'Ataturk'. Time to make a start!
" Unlimited liberties are inconceivable. Even the right to live, the greatest of rights, is not absolute." (1930)
We arrived at Glasgow Central Railway Station at 2107hrs and settled down in the concourse area near the platforms. I sent Ruth and the children out to explore the station whilst I guarded the luggage from potential thieves and vagabonds. I was approached by a couple of locals who appeared to be both worse the wear from drink and suffering from mental health problems – welcome home to Scotland!
Ruth and the children returned with details of our onward connection to London and a couple of bags of chips from a local eatery outside the main station entrance.
Central Station (1879) is not the oldest city centre railway station in Glasgow; this honour goes to Queen Street (1842). Returning by public transport from Rothesay twenty-seven years ago, I arrived at Central Station and took a bus to Queen Street to continue my journey to Aberdeen. In 1983 Central Station looked rather decrepit, as if it had been neglected by British Rail for many years. It reminded me of a 19th century botanic garden with its decaying wrought ironwork and broken glass. My first impressions today are that the place has had a makeover and is not near as grim as I recall. It is certainly a huge terminus, located on the northern side of the River Clyde. It even goes over the top of Argyle Street, which I had forgotten.
"The station's famous architectural features are the large glass-walled bridge that takes the station building over Argyle Street, nicknamed as the "Heilanman's Umbrella Heilanman's UmbrellaThe Heilanman's Umbrella is a famous landmark in the centre of Glasgow, Scotland. It is the local nickname for the glass walled railway bridge which carries the platforms of Glasgow Central station across Argyle Street....
" or Hellamans Umbrella. by locals because it was used as a gathering place for visiting Highlanders Scottish HighlandsThe Scottish Highlands include the rugged and mountainous regions of Scotland north and west of the Highland Boundary Fault, although the exact boundaries are not clearly defined, particularly to the east...
; and the former ticket offices / platform and train-destination information building. This was a large oval building, with the booking office on the ground floor and the train information display for passengers on large printed cloth destination boards placed behind large windows on the first floor by a team of two men. Underneath the "Umbrella" is a bustling array of shops and bars, as well as the "Arches" nightclub, theatre, gallery and restaurant complex."
Central Station is the northern terminus of the West Coast Main Line, which commences at London Euston. It is reported to be the busiest station outside of London, servicing 34 million passengers per year. At the Gordon Street entrance stands the Central Hotel, which opened in 1883. Sadly the hotel went into administration in 2009, rather in need of total refurbishment.
"Located in the heart of Glasgow City Centre, next to Central Station, the historic Glasgow Central Hotel was designed by Robert Rowand Andersen. Many famous guests have entered its doors, but is perhaps best known for being the venue from which the world's first long-distance television pictures were transmitted to on 24 May 1927 by John Logie Baird.
It is fitting therefore that such a Grand Old Dame of hospitality undergoes a complete transformation to once again take its place as one of Glasgow's leading four-star hotels. The hotel will remain closed during its £20 million refurbishment programme, which includes the overhaul of all the public areas and the addition of an extra 30 bedrooms.
The hotel will re-open in June 2010 as the newly re-named ‘Grand Central Hotel', once again firmly on the map as Glasgow's leading 4-star conference and leisure hotel."
The Grand Central Hotel still appeared to be a work in progress, but most promising. Glasgow is certainly miles better. I enjoyed a walk around the concourse area and especially noted all the plaques around the entrance. There is a lot of history here and it would appear that the station will continue as a rail transport hub for many years to come.
We were able to board the Caledonian Sleeper service at 2215hrs, although it does not depart until 2340hrs. Our compact compartments brought back floods of memories stretching back over a number of international rail networks. The children are most enthusiastic – we are returning to ‘sleepy’ trains! Time for a glass or two of Spanish wine before bed.
| Entry 6 of 49
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