I was only about nine or 10 when I holidayed there, but for me the Helensburgh shoreline seemed to be a fairly regular beach. I don’t mean that in a blasé way; what I mean is, I always thought I was on a beach facing the open seas. I had no idea back then that the Clyde was a river.
Come on, I was little and a bit stupid. And the Clyde is big – the third longest river in Scotland. Also, that part of the country has had the allure of a seaside resort since Victorian times, when Glaswegians would travel ”doon the watter” on steamboats and paddle steamers. The crowd of tourists who preferred to travel by rail would flock to Helensburgh and its neighbouring picturesque villages and towns using the West Highland Railway service.
Nowadays, there is still a good rail service and a regular ferry across the Clyde, too. If you fancy a dally on a paddle steamer, The Waverley, the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer, offers a glimpse into the past. It runs regular crossings to Rothesay, the Kyles of Bute and the Isle of Arran.
Lazy, hazy days
I remember my dad trying to coax me into going for walks in the foothills of the West Highlands, but there in Helensburgh it was all about the beach and the water for me. I would spend hours exploring the sand and shingle, paddling, splashing and annoying fishermen. I’d scrutinise the
vast expanse of water, hoping to catch a glimpse of a dolphin or a pilot whale. Shells and funny shapes of seaweed would keep me amused for whole mornings and afternoons.
One day I saw the ultimate prize, beached in the sands. Was it a minke whale? No, it was a shark! Well, a dogfish anyway – they’re the same family – stranded and in need of assistance. I rushed back to the bungalow where we were staying to call for help, and dad came trudging back to the beach with me.
I was fascinated by this giant creature, with its sandpaper skin and Jaws-like fins. We lifted it together and took it to the shore, where we lapped water over its gills. Nothing. It didn’t budge.
I looked at my dad anxiously, but then, with a flex of its powerful tail, the dogfish motored off into the Clyde. I grinned from ear to ear, holding dad’s hand, chuffed to bits.
In recent years, there have been major clean-ups of the beaches around Helensburgh, so they’re still great for beachcombing and scrambling around rockpools.
Low tide is prime time for anglers to descend on the shore and dig up lugworms to use as bait for sea fishing, a popular pastime in the area. The town’s tree-lined streets have plenty of quirky, independent shops to rummage around in, and cafés in which to sit and absorb the Highland ambience.
I’ve recently heard about a long-distance walking route called the Three Lochs Way, which passes through Helensburgh and links up Loch Lomond, the Gareloch and Loch Long. The walk takes about three or four days to complete and leads you through epic landscapes of glens, fiords and mountains. If only my dad had mentioned about this on our holiday, I might have gone with him on one of his adventurous hikes. But I suppose I was way too much of a beach and water babe back then.
Maybe one day I’ll relive my childhood memories and lose myself in that cherished, shingly spot by the Clyde again. I might even save another dogfish.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Glasgow, head west on the A82, then take the A814 to Helensburgh. Trains run from Glasgow Queen Street.
Sinclair Street, Helensburgh G84 8RN
An award-winning tearoom.
Colquhoun Street, Helensburgh
Enjoy a traditional breakfast at this peaceful guesthouse.