Part of something bigger
This was the only section I walked with company. My wife Karen came along on a sunny Saturday for the stretch to Ayr and back, one of the shorter but no less interesting sections for that.
Parking near the shore at Titchfield Street is generally easy and the way south along the promenade is pleasant, with youngsters preparing their buckets for a day on the beach and cyclists weaving among the joggers. The signposted path continues along the front and then, via Smuggler’s Trail, past the refined grandeur of the Marine Highland Hotel and Royal Troon golf course.
The path winds a little to cross the Pow Burn, though it remains well signposted. One of these signs caught my attention, clearly marked IAT in vertical letters.
The Ayrshire Coastal Path forms part of a much larger walk, the International Appalachian Trail. This walking route extends from Portpatrick in the south to Cape Wrath at the northwest-most corner of the Scottish mainland and was inaugurated in 2010 as the first European chapter of the IAT. Why Scotland? The British Geological Survey notes that it is only the Atlantic Ocean which separates the Appalachian mountains in eastern North America from Scotland; at one time they were part of the same mountain range.
I hadn’t realised the Whithorn Way included a section of a much larger route. The ancient buildings, disused railways and landmarks I’d walked past so far had all helped me see Scotland through the years: Glasgow and Paisley Cathedrals spoke to a millennium and more of Christian faith, while the Clydeside docks and Irvine Harbour had been about Scotland’s industrial past. Here was, in a sense, a way to see through the miles to different landscapes and countries connected by ancient history. There may be more that joins nations than we first think.
Shortly after crossing the Pow Burn there was a good view, across Prestwick Golf Club’s well-tended fairways, of Prestwick International Airport. Between us and it ran the rail link from Girvan to Glasgow. Only one plane took off while we were passing, its engines roaring as it gained height over the Clyde, but around the same time a couple of trains had called at the station. Loads of modern transport connections were taking place in the area where, centuries before, boats would have been as popular a means of getting around as carts, or even walking.
It didn’t take long before we were in Prestwick, though we avoided the town centre and stayed on the esplanade. We could have turned left along Maryborough Road to visit Bruce’s Well and the ruins of Lazar House, a hospital for lepers supposedly founded by Robert the Bruce whose eponymous well was said to have healing properties. Looking for liquid with its own healing properties, and ideally bubbles, too, we continued along the beach and past St Nicholas Golf Club, joining Bell Rock Avenue after crossing the railway.
Ayr’s prominence as a shopping and residential area makes it easy to forget its long industrial heritage and particularly its connections with land and sea. Here, near the docks, was a deal of evidence of a formerly significant railway siding system and the warehouse of Scottish Agricultural Industries.
Passing Newton on Ayr station we joined Prestwick Road and were soon entering Ayr itself, crossing the River Ayr at New Bridge. The pillars of the former bridge which took the railway across the River Ayr are still visible, though much of the harbour area has been redeveloped for housing.
We felt that, having made it to Ayr and finding a place for lunch on the Sandgate, we should just pop in. The lady who served us was impressed that we had walked from Troon, and astonished that we were planning to walk back. The bite of lunch was, though, just what we needed before we largely retraced our steps.
Heading north along the beach, we came across a timber shelter. It had clearly been a bit of a labour of love for someone at the seaside, and it was easy to imagine this properly covered and forming a cosy shelter from the wind and rain.
I hadn’t thought much about the living, and sleeping, arrangements pilgrims would have had to make. Even if they were walking in one direction, there may have been need for them to sleep outside during their walk: the distances between religious houses was in some cases too great to make in a day, and there may simply not have been dwellings on some parts of the route. A shelter like this may have seemed like a palace to pilgrims who might well have spent the night by the roadside wrapped only in their cloak.
This shelter was a complicated structure made from driftwood collected from the beach. The wood, carried on ocean currents, could have come from anywhere in the world and was used, for this time, as a covering for anyone who needed it here.
I wonder what kinds of temporary shelter, made from all kinds of assorted bits and pieces from across the world, might be helpful today? At its best the church should aspire to be like this: people in a particular time brought together from many places to provide cover, hospitality, friendship, grace and, perhaps, point to the presence of God. Temporary tabernacles have a long provenance in Jewish-Christian thought.
I was interested that on a walk, which is about making progress and moving on, one thing which most powerfully caught my attention was somewhere I could have stopped. There again, all pilgrim routes need stopping-places. Perhaps pilgrimage is, itself, a sort of stopping-place?