Friday, December 31, 2010

Life and death on the Clyde.

From the former Yarrow's shipyard at Scotstoun we paddled to Renfrew on the south bank. This is one of the oldest ferry points on the Clyde. Higher up the river we had already encountered the old chain driven "Renfrew", which served the route as a vehicle ferry from  1952 until 1984. Vehicle traffic had steadily fallen since the construction of the Clyde tunnel upstream in 1963/64 and the Erskine bridge downstream in 1971. You can see old photos of how Renfrew originally  looked here. She was replaced by two passenger ferries, the Renfrew Swan and the Yoker Rose and they remained in service until they were withdrawn in 2010.

Fortunately for the many people in the north that like to nip over the Clyde to shop in Braehead, a new private operator, Clyde Link has taken over the route. This is their aluminium landing craft, Island Trader, which operates from the old car ferry slipways. The crew were very friendly and we had no problem landing at the edge of the wide slipway. This was our first stop as most of the Clyde had either been vertical quays or steep rubble banks. The crew had not been informed of our passage by estuary control but were pleased to hear we had contacted estuary control and they noted our VHFs.

The reason that the old Renfrew dragged itself across the river on chains and the Island Trader has two very large outboards was now very obvious, the ebb tide was running past at 5km/hr! This is why we had been prepared to spend time higher up the river!

We again crossed to the north side of the river and paddled alongside the river quayside of the huge Rothesay dock which opened in 1907.  It is now a yard for recreational boats! Downstream of the dock entrance stands the Clydebank Titan crane. This is all that is left of the John Brown shipyard, which at one time was the World's biggest yard. In 1906 the yard launched the Lusitania, which was then the World's largest ship. In WW1 it launched HMS Repulse and HMS Hood.  In 1940 it launched HMS Duke of York. The yard also built the Cunard  "Queens": the Queen Mary 1934, the Queen Elizabeth 1938 and the Queen Elizabeth 2 1967.

The Titan crane was completed in 1907 by Sir William Arrol and was strengthened to lift 200 tons in 1940 during the building of the Duke of York. The crane was restored and opened as a visitor centre in 2007. All round the crane looks like a bombsite, the yards were demolished and cleared in 2002. The recession did to the yards what Hitler failed to do. On the nights of 13th and 14th March 1940, Hitler ordered a bombing raid on Clydeside and the Clydebank shipyards and munitions factories were targeted in what is known as the Clydebank Blitz. 260 bombers arrived the first night and while rescue operations were still continuing, 200 returned the second night. Most of the factories and shipyards escaped but residential areas were ravaged by incendiary bombs and 528 civilians were killed and 617 seriously injured. Almost every house was damaged and 48,000 people were made homeless. The hardy people of Clydebank recovered and went on to build more fine ships but what a cost their industry had brought them.

During WW2, my Grandfather had a senior job in the Dunlop Rubber company, which was engaged in the war effort, but he also volunteered as a part time special  constable. On the night of 13th March, he was on duty in Clydebank. He was horrified by what he saw, the next day he told my grandmother it was even worse than his experiences as a soldier in the trenches of France in WW1. He never spoke of it at home again.

The Golden Jubilee Hospital lies downstream from the former John Brown's yard. It was built as a private hospital but was taken over by the NHS in 2002. It serves to reduce waiting times for all the Health Boards of Scotland. The hospital stands on the site of the huge Beardmore shipyard that had a mile frontage on the Clyde. William Beardmore bought this site in 1900 and the yard and its cranes were built over the next few years by Sir William Arrol. It went on to specialise in battleships and oil tankers. In 1917 the yard built the World's first aircract carrier with a full length flight deck, HMS Argus.

The south bank of the Clyde we were now passing is undeveloped, in fact it is a nature reserve called Newshot Island, which is an area of intertidal mudflats and salt marsh frequented by wildfowl.

Two great pylons carrying power lines across the Clyde announced our approach to Erskine.

We took a break on a little beach just upstream of the old Erskine Ferry jetty and its replacement bridge, which is now the lowest crossing on the Clyde. Historically the Clyde at Erskine was shallow enough to ford before the navigation channel was dredged.

We had landed in the silted up old harbour of Erskine and had fully expected foul, stinking mud but found ourselves standing on firm, clean, reddish sand.

This is the slipway of the old Erskine ferry, which dragged itself across the currents of the Clyde by two chains strung from one side of the river to the other. The ferry last ran in 1971 when the bridge opened. These swans now had sole possession of the slipway, while a mixed flock of waders, redshanks, oystercatchers and curlews foraged on the sands exposed by the rapidly receding tide. There is an excellent car park here with easy access to the beach above. Erskine would make an ideal start or finish to a trip on the Clyde, either upstream or downstream depending on the tide.

The Erskine bridge was built in 1971 by William Brown. It is a concrete box girder bridge but shortly after it was built two towers and steel cable stays were added. This followed the collapse of a similar concrete box girder bridge in Australia. We saw some very large icicles dangling from the bridge and as the main span is 38m high we were careful not to paddle under them. Very sadly the bridge is a common spot for people to commit suicide. Many years ago I parked my motor bike near the bridge and walked up the passenger path to the middle with my camera. I was waiting to get a photo of the PS Waverley when a very nice policeman cycled up and asked if I was alright.

On a brighter note, we found a little tide race to play on in the shallows round St Patrick's Rock, which is marked by the green navigation buoy in the above photo. St Patrick was born in Old Kilpatrick on the north side of the river. Apparently the Devil was displeased to hear Patrick was leaving for Ireland so he ripped a bit out of nearby Dumbuck rock and cast it after the departing saint.

If you are enjoying this modern trip down the Clyde, then you might be interested to compare it with an excellent imaginary trip assembled from old postcard photos by Chris Jones.


  1. I know this area well and you are not wrong about the folk jumping off.I,m up on the Erskine bridge for a walk several times a year.(its good for photos)
    In the last 3 years alone I,ve phoned the bridge control twice alerting them about a girl then an older man who were obviously plucking up the courage to jump.
    Both happily were talked out of it, that day anyway.

  2. Hello Anon, thank you. It is so sad, recently we were a little further down the Clyde when we heard the coastguard put out an emergency call on the radio for boats in the area to assist in finding someone who had fallen from the bridge. The police who try and talk people out of jumping are very patient and skilled. I was very impressed by the way I was approached, when I was taking photos there. Sadly, I think that even if the bridge had high barriers all the way across (which might affect the windage of the bridge) desperately unhappy people might still find another way of committing suicide. It is so sad, I think the solution involves much more than just bridge barriers.