I used to watch the steam trains from my bedroom window


Memories of the Alloway Railway

One of my early memories is of watching trains travelling along the railway to and from the Butlins Holiday Camp at Heads of Ayr.  My bedroom window looked out towards the Carrick Hills and beneath them the trains passed with their smoke streaming out behind.  The trains usually had two locomotive engines and half a dozen carriages.

I loved seeing trains come out of the Alloway Railway Tunnel, belching huge clouds of smoke.  My friend Andrew lived at Laigh Kyleston Farm, which is now The Heads of Ayr Farm Park, and we often played on the railway near his farm.  We were quite naughty at times!  We used to lay old pennies on the line for the trains to ‘stamp' as they passed over them.

In those days, the railway only went as far as Butlins.  In earlier times, beyond Butlins was the Light Railway to Girvan, with a siding link to Turnberry Hotel.  This line was used mainly for getting early Ayrshire potatoes to market.  Most of the locomotive engines pulling the goods trains were old and rather tatty. No doubt they were thought unsuitable for pulling passengers, but okay for freight.

The Burton Bridge

Once the railway ceased operating, it was dismantled and neglected for many years. In 2000 the National Cycle Network route NCN7 opened.  NCN7 ran from Irvine to Heads of Ayr and included the section of the old railway from Ayr to Dunure Road in Doonfoot.  In 2005, a second stretch of the old railway from Maybole Road Alloway to Dunure Road Doonfoot was used when the pedestrian and cycle path was created.  These two sections, however did not join up.  When the railway was in operation, the Burton Bridge spanned Dunure Road and the trains passed underneath.  However, the Burton Bridge underpass was subsequently filled in after the railway had been dismantled, probably for safety reasons, and remained blocked up until earlier this year.  

In May 2023, the underpass was re-excavated under Dunure Road on the line of the old railway and a concrete box section tunnel was installed.  This underpass now seamlessly extends the cycle and pedestrian path from Alloway to Greenan Castle and onwards towards Seafield and Ayr.

A sensory garden, The Sense-Ayr-Ee Garden, has been established at the exit from the underpass on the Greenan Castle side.  The Garden features a wetland area, pathways, a board walk with a sensory route and plantings that will stimulate visitors' senses through touch, sight, smell, taste and hearing.  It also provides a space for walkers and cyclists to pause in their journeys and enjoy the calmness of the Garden.


Lifelong Interest in Ayr

With the exception of the years I spent studying in Edinburgh, I have lived in Ayr all my life and I feel a real affinity with and an attachment to the town. My father was a house-builder and this stimulated my interest in building and buildings, so when I left school I studied architecture.  Although living in the east of Scotland while studying, I remained true to my western roots and Ayr was seldom far from my thoughts.  For my final-year Thesis, I chose to write up my proposal for a tourist centre in Ayr.

I proposed developing the area around the south side of the harbour.  In former times, it had been a thriving area with the Churchill Barracks, the shipbuilding industry, the dry dock and the gas works all contributing to a vibrant location. However, these industries and uses had all gone into decline and, in addition, there were old mine-workings underneath, which would always make it a difficult site to develop.  But by the mid-1960s the site was derelict and very much in need of rejuvenation.  It was bought by the Town Council and put into the Common Good Fund.

My proposal was to build a major tourist centre in this area. The facilities would include a swimming pool, an indoor beach, a cafe and space for beach games such as beach volley ball.  All these facilities were to be enclosed in a huge Perspex “bubble”.  Not only would this bring much-needed improvement to the area, it would also provide activities for tourists to enjoy when the weather was inclement.

The Council was very interested in my proposals, but were unable to provide the necessary finances.  At that time, there was a government grant of £5000 per bedroom available to encourage hotel development.  A private developer had proposals drawn up to build a hotel at the South Harbour location. He was interested in pairing his hotel plans with my tourist centre proposals.  However, although it was a great idea, again, the financial backing could not be found to take the plans forward.

At this time, the Council had plans to build a swimming pool on King Street, where the police headquarters were subsequently built.  The proposed pool was relocated from King Street to the South Harbour site as a catalyst for future development.  The Citadel Leisure Centre and the surrounding housing have now rejuvenated this once neglected area.

The Citadel Leisure Centre is out with the site of the original Citadel, which was built in 1657 for Oliver Cromwell as a secure fortress for his troops. The only parts of the Old Citadel still standing are the high walls adjacent to the Leisure Centre and along South Harbour Street and St John’s Tower.  In the late 19th century, the property was bought by an Ayr businessman, Mr Miller, who called himself Baron Miller. He built the small tower which still stands in a rather precarious position on the wall.  This is locally known as Miller’s Folly. As a student, I was fired up about the tourist facility I had developed and although it did not come to fruition, it did stimulate my interest in my local community.


Community Involvement

My father was a Town Councillor between 1952 and 1973.  He served as Housing Convenor, Planning Convenor and was Provost of the Royal Burgh of Ayr for three years in the early 1970s.  At the same time, he was also running his own house-building business.  In a way, I followed his footsteps by joining my local Community Council in 2000.  My passion at that time was, and still is, to prevent the erosion of our local open spaces by developers.

I was outraged by plans put forward in the early 2000s to develop the Ayr Low Green, that beautiful open strip of land which runs along adjacent to the Promenade.  It was originally a place for common grazing and now is a recreational space for picnickers, kite flyers, dog-walkers, festival-goers and anyone who enjoys being outdoors. It would have been a travesty if it had been lost to the community.  Fortunately, the campaign to prevent its development was successful and the Low Green has been preserved for us all to enjoy.  

The value of the Low Green to the whole community of Ayr was amply demonstrated during The International Ayr Show Festival of Flight in September 2023. Where else in the world is there such a magnificent backdrop for an Air Show?  It was anticipated that perhaps100,000 people would turn up for the event.  On the day, an estimated 250,000 locals and visitors enjoyed the Show.

While on the Community Council, I also campaigned, successfully I am pleased to say, to prevent the Local Authority from locating the new Ayr Grammar Primary School on the site of the Old Racecourse and, later, to prevent developers from building new golf holes to compensate for a Golf Academy.  The Old Racecourse is an open green space now used as playing fields, mainly for football and exercising.  I firmly believe it should remain an open green space to be enjoyed by the people of Ayr.

Although I resigned from the Community Council in 2022, I continue to be involved in any campaign which threatens our open spaces.


The Alloway Railway Tunnel Project

The Alloway Railway Tunnel Project is a fantastic idea.  It’s a natural!  I use the cycle/pedestrian path very frequently.  It forms part of a magnificent walk which goes through Belleisle Park, along the River at Cambusdoon, up to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, then by the cycle/pedestrian path through the Alloway Railway Tunnel to Burton Bridge, onwards west towards Greenan Casle and then back to Ayr.  What a wonderful route.  There’s the peace and tranquillity of the Parks, the soothing sounds of the River Doon and the spectacular views out over the Firth of Clyde to Arran. Adding the mural to the Alloway Railway Tunnel adds one more sparkling and marvellous feature to what I believe is a truly spectacular walk, difficult to surpass!

Norman McLean

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