It is sad to recollect a time long since gone, when I was but a young man myself, and lived through this romantic period, but that is the way of things and these tales need recounting on cold wet summers days or when the sea freezes on the edges.
In my memory, Gourock was a place of perpetual clear blue skies with the most spectacular scenery in the world, given free to all of those lucky people with a window facing the shore, or who could make the long hike to the top of Tower Hill. I cannot recall so clearly the continuous days of drizzly rain that made your bed feel like a cold wet sponge or where you had red blotches all over your legs from standing to close to the fire in an effort to dry out or stay warm or both. With the steam rising from your shrinking corduroy trousers you would pull the soggy material away from your skin to stop it burning and give it a better chance to dry out quickly.
Chilblains are long forgotten as well; no such ailments affect an adult who is no longer daft enough to stick his freezing feet in front of the coal fire and luxuriate in the painful sensation of blood recirculating in those frozen protuberances. The agony of pulling on salt water hardened shoes as well as the hand knitted woollen socks, an absolute necessity in those climes, chaffed cruelly against the hard leather and tender skin.
It is only when one returns to see the wind reddened faces of the local inhabitants that such unnatural thoughts come back. My mother has always insisted that was is a healthy sign “Good ruddy cheeks” she would say giving me a light pinch of affection that on a cold day felt like the first few layers of skin had been removed.
Gourock to me will always hold the romantic memories of one who has left, only to return fleetingly, but with great affection.
It is the old fishing village that was hurtled into the modern age by the Victorians intent on providing a summer haven for the Glaswegians and the like, which would rival any foreign Riviera. “The Costa del Clyde” as dubbed by some patronising outsider, who had obviously read some travellers’ tales or perhaps had even worked on a merchant boat.
The town is idyllically situated on the bend of the River Clyde, some twenty-six miles west of Glasgow and thrusts itself into the river giving imposing views in all directions. From the top of Tower Hill, it is possible to see upstream to the industrial heartland of Scotland, where the shipyards blended uncannily into the landscape, the cranes, constant hammerings and flashes from welding torches were part of the scenery. John Brown, Scotts, Lithgows, these names that are carved into the history of the area, where great ships were launched as casually as rape seed now grows.
As a young man I watched the QE2 (Queen Elizabeth II) being built from the grassy knowles above Greenock, where I was supposed to be studying for my Higher exams. We would collect in a group at lunchtimes, puffing on our snubbed fag ends and continually fascinated at the steadily growing shape that one day would become the pride of a fleet and make luxury cruises all over the world. What wonders we would behold, and what tales we could tell, but only we the privileged few, would actually witness these events.
Were the owners of the proud QE2 aware of the fact that she was nearly built twice? – at least according to our calculations. The security guards never seemed to be aware that the rolls of carpet, carefully checked on at the bow, were given a full tour of the upper decks, and then brought down again at the stern, loaded onto another van only to be re-loaded a second time. How could they have known that there was a flourishing trade in P&O crockery and cutlery long before the boat ever sailed, these were already second hand by the time sea trials began. Did anyone ever notice that in some parts of Greenock many houses acquired the latest fashion of designer curtains, uncannily similar to those of the great ship, and some careless individuals even left the logo. I could not tell if these same houses were carpeted as well but given the sheer quantity that came back down the gangplanks, it was likely.
Genuine unused souvenirs were widely available at remarkably reasonable prices and crockery especially did a roaring trade, but had anyone asked, it may have been difficult to explain how the owners managed to obtain souvenirs before the ship was launched.
The agony of the launch, when we all thought that they had miscalculated the drag chains and she would hit the other bank. It is incredulous to think that to launch such a massive ship was down to a man with a sledgehammer carefully knocking away the chocks in sequence. As she hesitated at first, but then slid gracefully into the water, we all stood and cheered, but then our mouths stayed open as the huge wall of water being pushed in front of the ship swamped the other bank, making the crowd of black ants scurry from its path only to be followed by the ever encroaching mass of white painted metal.
It seemed incredible, but there was no stopping the most majestic boat launched on the Clyde since the Queen Mary. Her drag chains were not holding, and even Her Majesty must have had some misgivings about swinging that bottle of champers so hard on the third attempt. But then, almost in slow motion, she slewed and pulled hard against the chains which by this time were straining out of the water and stopped to within what looked like inches of the bank, before bobbing back towards the centre of the river.
The cheering was so great from down below that it could be clearly heard from miles away, and even the crowds of sodden ants on the far bank could be seen waving their hats and arms in salute, their recent misery and bad temper temporarily forgotten.