Walking with Gordon Heddon on 9 June 2010


I am walking with my dad. We’re heading off to the place of his childhood, in fact the town where he lived till he left home – Alloa. It seems remarkable to me – bewildering even – that I have never been here before.

The train station at Alloa only opened in 2008. Its previous one had closed in 1968 (the year before I was born). My dad tells me that when he first alighted at the new station he was completely disorientated. Nothing was how he remembered it. He then realised this was because the station had physically moved a few hundred metres from where it used to be. Along with the new station, there’s a massive new Asda which sits on the previous site of the Alloa Brewery. This used to be a vibrant industrial town: 8 or so breweries (ale as well as lager – including, latterly, Skol – a name I remember); a handful of mines; a woollen mill; a busy river port (River Forth);  and a glassworks. The glassworks is all that now remains, but even when my dad was a boy the town was in a slump.

Walking down Primrose Street we come to the grand, civic ‘Public Baths and Gymnasium’. The ‘baths’ part of it, where my dad learned to swim, is no longer operational. The pool has been covered over with a large blue gymnastics floor, the colour of which at least allows me to imagine what it might have looked like filled with water. Light streams through the glass pitched roof.

On High Street dad provides a roll-call of the previous lives of shops – this one used to be owned by his mum’s friend; that used to be the Co-Op; that empty one used to sell bikes…  The Bingo hall used to be the cinema, where he would go and see films on Saturday mornings.

At Candleriggs he points out Cram’s Bar, where, as a young man, his tipple would be rum and blackcurrant. Down onto Greenside Street, and the impressive Kilncraigs. Built in 1904, this is all that remains of the wool-spinning mill belonging to John Paton Son & Co, a company founded in 1814 which then became Patons & Baldwins. My granddad Ken worked here. Kilncraigs is now a business centre, its old architecture melded with a modern glass and steel frontage.

Further along Greenside Street are the remains of the 17th Century Parish Church’s tower, like a Tollbooth, with a glorious golden cockerel weather vane gleaming in the sun. There’s also a striking Art Deco building that my dad remembers being the Gas showrooms (and which is now the Careers building). At Lime Street – where the kids used to run around barefoot – is the church on the corner that he attended as a boy.  The streets of Alloa tell something of its previous history: Mill Street, Coalgate, Ludgate…

The grand houses on the edge of the town speak of an affluent past too (many are probably divided into flats now). The old post office has become a home (To Let). The garden centre, owned by the Colvilles, has become a row of new apartments, called, appropriately, Colville Gardens. The site of my dad’s primary school is now a block of dreary brown flats; the roundabout and main roads are additions to the landscape too. Even the war memorial has been moved here from somewhere else.

We walk on to Claremont, on the corner of which there used to be a sweetie shop, popular when rations were lifted. The properties at this end of Claremont are huge – at the window of one stands a fully armoured knight. As the street unfurls the houses become more modest and dad points out former homes of former school friends. And then we arrive – ‘Braeside’, 56 Claremont Street – dad’s old home. Built in the mid-1930s under his granny’s instructions (an unusual occurence, surely), it has 3 bedrooms, with the living room and kitchen looking out onto a spectacular view of the Ochil hills. In the garden stand two large trees planted by dad – a cherry and a holly. (Portents of the profession he would go on to choose –  the Forestry Commission). Dad is certain that the house’s front door is the same as when he lived here.

Retracing his dog-walking route (a Shetland Collie) we soon pass the former site of Alloa Academy, glimpsing the flat roofed structure of his old school. In front of this, there’s a newer building, erected in 1989. Remarkably, this too is now empty and awaiting demolition as Alloa Academy has moved. Dad still remembers his wonderful school motto – Look Aboot Ye (not a hint of Latin in sight.)

Beyond the old school, the extensive wooded parkland has forfeited a large chunk to the spread of modern bungalows. We make our way into the ‘Pleasure Grounds’, above Stirling Road. They used to be well maintained, and the flashes of views that we catch between the thick bushes are spectacular – right down to the river and beyond to the fields. I can understand why this was a favourite place. Where once there were benches, though, now there are only empty spaces or the occasional bench-skeletons. Finally, a single intact bench offers us a perfect spot for our picnic. Fittingly, we sit under a canopy of tall Corsican Pines, with glorious blooms of rhododendrons to our left. My dad last sat here when he was seventeen – 50 years ago. Having received his Higher examination results, this is where he came to think about his future, the options opening up, the choices to be made. I ask him what he’d say to his younger self: ‘I’d say. you didn’t do at all badly, not bad at all.’ This is a good answer.

As I’m sitting, a cone from a tree falls directly onto me. I put it in my pocket. We wind our way back to the new station, seeking in vain any signs of the old one.  Tomorrow morning, the pine cone, resting on my kitchen table, will open itself up and gently cast its seeds.

9 Responses to “Walking with Gordon Heddon on 9 June 2010”

  1. Lisa Kapur Says:

    “Look Aboot Ye” – what a great motto, I think I’ll use that one myself. Really enjoying the blog, Dee.

  2. Beanie Says:

    I wonder if we will come back to the places we were seventeen in, and find everything shfted a hundred metres, more or less, each place geographically not exactly the place it was? Landmarks are ofcourse not only markings on a particular spot, but entities in their own right, valued for the things that happened there personally and publicly, for their beauty, for their function- so that if they are moved when we go back we have to make a commitment in our memories to the importance they held for us (the space that was occupied or the object itself?), and have to accept so literally how time will shift even the physical landscape we pin our past to.
    This walk, the telling of it, really moved me. It’s making me consider the shifts of memory not only within my mind from time, but also that it may not be possible to pin my life physically, in a way I hadn’t really anticipated.
    Keep on walking!

  3. Lesley Says:

    Really enjoyed reading of your walk with Gordon, the last sentence gave me goosebumps ! x

  4. Grahame Lawson Says:

    Came across your blog by chance but I love both the idea of the walks and the style of writing. I remember your father well but more especially his younger twin sisters, Pat and Anne who were in the same class as me at Alloa Academy. I often wonder what happened to them.

    Your father refers to the “old Academy”, now totally demolished, but this itself was a 1959 replacement for the original school at the bottom end of Claremont.

    Alloa is a sad place these days but I still visit from time to time as my mother still lives in Clackmannanshire.

    Keep on walking and if you are ever back in Glasgow, I now live in Milngavie and am out and about on part of the West Highland Way every day with our collie dog.

  5. Dee Heddon Says:

    Thanks Grahame, glad you’ve encountered and enjoyed the blog.

  6. Aileen Thomson Says:

    I came across your story for the first time today. Your father Gordon & I were in the same class at Alloa Academy. Although I’ve lived in the States since 1965 I still go back to Alloa & walk around some of the same places you walked. Trying not to get too depressed I look over at the Ochils and they are spectacular. Claremont is exactly how you describe it. About five years ago I passed your Dad’s old house & there was an elderly couple working in the garden & the house & garden looked pretty nice. Not all the houses look as good. My best school friend Helen Robertson lived up the street from Gordon; her house has an old high stone wall – to keep the gawkers out!

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