by Luke Waterson, The Telegraph, June 4, 2019
When funding plans for Inverclyde’s state-of-the-art Ocean Terminal, tipped to handle hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers and economically and culturally transform the region into the UK’s key cruise hub got finalised in 2015, residents could have been forgiven for saying they had heard it all before.
This region, spread-eagled along the mouth of the River Clyde, has had fortunes as up and down as an estuary tide over the years. But there is a palpable feeling around communities here that 2019 really is the start of a major upturn.
The showpiece development, the Ocean Terminal, will open in 2020 and the hope is that it will underscore Inverclyde’s place as one of the principal gateways to Scotland for international tourists: 150,000 cruise-goers already disembark here annually.
An incorporated visitor centre, restaurant and, most interestingly, a gallery exhibiting the ground-breaking sculpture of one of Scotland’s best-known modern artists, George Wyllie, are part of plans which highlight how authorities want to show off Inverclyde not just as a transport nucleus but as a destination to linger in its own right.
“The Ocean Terminal project illustrates the overall intent here,” says George Barbour, communications manager at Inverclyde Council. “It has been my pleasure to work with a network of individuals across Inverclyde that I know are committed to letting outsiders know what we have to offer.”
The fabulously wealthy merchants that once turned this humble set of fishing villages into a prosperous port and industrial powerhouse during the 19th century would have approved. Greenock, the region’s main town, was raised in imposing brown-grey stonework, chock-a-block with grand townhouses, a decadent Doric colonnaded customs house and palatial municipal offices with a height to its towers that patrons ensured eclipsed that of Glasgow City Chambers – just.
Holding the highest accessible point on the Clyde for big vessels gave Inverclyde immense power: here dues had to be paid on goods landed from the lucrative trade routes the river had with the rest of the world; here the major ships, including those for companies such as P&O, were built; from here, steamers departed daily for glamorous destinations such as Liverpool, Belfast and Dublin. This gave the flourishing port and surrounds a sense of one-upmanship over Glasgow.
The magisterial scale of its building design ensured Greenock gave a striking impression, even from far out at sea. The legacy of the boom times lace Inverclyde still, and make for some interesting exploration. Businessmen could afford to bring in the best artists and architects to showcase the region’s riches: Pre-Raphaelite prodigy Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, was recruited to do the stained glass in the Old West Kirk.
But the shipping and sugar trade upon which Inverclyde built its wealth became a curse rather than a blessing as the 20th century progressed. Google Inverclyde before now and you’d likely dredge up results of departing businesses and industrial decline.
A future of change
Perhaps no part of Scotland has been in need of a new lease of life as much as Inverclyde, but no part could have put the opportunity to better use, either.
In central Greenock, the big new change is the art museum, due to reopen following refurbishment in August as the Watt Institution. Fittingly for a museum originally endowed by favourite local son James Watt, leading light of the Industrial Revolution, this ranks among Scotland’s most impressive regional museums.
Local bigwigs encouraged outward-bound sea captains to seek out noteworthy potential artefacts to bolster the collection and the results on display today range from seminal works by Scottish Colourists to extensive Egyptian artefacts.
August’s reopening, complete with an exhibition on Watt’s legacy enlivened through the museum’s array of Watt-related memorabilia, will be a highlight of numerous events planned worldwide this year to celebrate the great inventor’s bicentenary. Even Inverclyde’s annual fireworks display will have a Watt theme this year.
Jostling for prime position down on Greenock’s iconic waterfront besides the Customs House, meanwhile, is recently-added Beacon Arts Centre, completing a trio of major cultural institutions that will stand in Inverclyde from next year. It is an impressive glassy space with floor-to-ceiling windows opening up the full panorama of the Clyde estuary, showing that Inverclyde is far from built-up.
From here you can see that housing and industry form a thin steeply-shelving strip that is flanked by country houses, castles, the lush contours of Scotland’s largest regional park, Clyde Muirshiel and the ribbon of distant mountains. Brochures in vestibules around town neatly allude to the fact that a taste of bucolic Highland scenery awaits here, mere miles from central Glasgow. And they are right.
Rejuvenation is in evidence all along Inverclyde’s coast. Sugar refineries may have shut, but Port Glasgow’s gourmet chocolate factory start-up the New Chocolate Company has a growing reputation for sublime chocs such as its Irn-Bru ganache (tours and tastings available).
And while the shipbuilding days are over, thriving Kip Marina, Scotland’s first, hosts the huge yearly crowd-puller, Scotland’s Boat Show (October 11-13 2019; scotlandsboatshow.co.uk), and you can have you a stretch of the Clyde estuary to yourself within hours. The Luftwaffe bombed the region’s last whisky distillery, yet this too is set to rise from the ashes with Ardgowan Distillery expected to open in 2020.
“With over 150,000 cruise passengers arriving at your backdoor you don’t want them going off to Edinburgh Castle or the Highlands; you want them here,” says Martin McAdam, Ardgowan Distillery’s CEO. “I think that has been a big factor behind why so many exciting new attractions are popping up.”
A saying hereabouts used to run that the Clyde would provide. Perhaps, once more, it is. It may be cruise ships as the catalyst this time, but for Inverclyde, the tide is turning again.