What a welcome! A little town, whose grey houses keep their backs to the sea

LAST RESORT; Stranraer
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The Independent Travel
When you round the Hammerhead Peninsula on the approach from Belfast, Stranraer greets you with barely a murmur. Cosy in the shelter of Loch Ryan, the town huddles beneath low hills. Stranraer is at the end of the A77, the road to almost nowhere, and is all the finer for its isolation.

As you approach the quayside, not a single surprise greets you: the awkward concrete ugliness of the jetties lead the eye up to austerely grey houses and shops that keep their backs to the sea. Trucks arriving from Larne and motorists from Belfast are diverted around the town, and miss out on its modest attractions.

The chief civic asset is the Castle of St John, possibly the smallest you will ever see. It is more like a turret rising molar-like from the middle of Stranraer, but like the rings of a tree its layers tell the history of the port. The ferry business began only in 1872; for centuries before that, agriculture was the way to scrape a living here. Cattle were raised on the hillsides around Stranraer, then driven hundreds of miles south to the market in Norwich.

The Adairs of Kinhilt, the local squires, built the first couple of the castle's storeys in 1510 to make their mark on the town. A century later, it was requisitioned and enlarged by government troops, in order to subdue the early radical movement known as the Covenanters. Finally, the council took control and turned it into the local jail, building a couple more floors and topping it out with a tiny exercise yard. There was barely room to do much more than carve your initials in the ruddy sandstone, as one convict with the unfortunate name of Prisoner Walls did in 1850.

From the top you can survey the Royal Burgh and plan a tour around its modest monuments, perhaps ending up at the George Hotel for lunch. Thistle, shamrock and rose emblems welcome those from Scotland, Ireland and England; the Welsh leek has apparently been sprung.

If you wander down to the seafront to watch the ferries drift back and forth from Ireland, you will probably find yourself on the scruffy patch of grass known as Agnew Park. The only structure of interest is the memorial to those who died when the ferry Princess Victoria sank in the year Elizabeth II was crowned. But as the town celebrates 400 years of being a Royal Burgh, these five acres of scrubland are the beneficiary of pounds 546,980 of Millennium money (the Wigtown Free Press and Stranraer Advertiser is quite specific about the amount). In Whisky Galore!, the source of the sudden municipal windfall was alcohol; in 1995, the origin is gambling, with the National Lottery contributing. With another pounds 750,000 or so of council funds, the seafront is to be rejuvenated with a boating lake, miniature railway and cafe. A commendable civic project, creating a brighter welcome to the tiny proportion of foreign visitors who reach these shores by the northerly route. Now all we have to do is clean up the devastating unattractiveness of the Heathrow area, knock down Dover Harbour and start again, and tidy up the squalor that greets Eurostar passengers as soon as they emerge from Waterloo station.

The Millennium has come to Stranraer - but will anyone come to Britain if we have the poverty of imagination to restrict our restructuring to such minimalism?

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