When you tell folk you come from a wee village just outside Stranraer, most nod and tell you they’ve been there once. To get the ferry to Northern Ireland.
It’s long been a ferry town but that ends tonight: the last Stena ferry has sailed and none will return to fill the pier.
From 21st November, all sailings to Northern Ireland – formerly landing at Larne but now berthing at Belfast – from the Scottish mainland will be from Cairnryan, a ribbon village just a few miles along the coast. While many are nostalgic and some are sad, expect the householders all along the lorries’ routes in and out of the port to be cheering. At last they can fill the cracks in their walls caused by all the rumbling, though it might be a while before any of them get a decent night’s sleep after years of doing so to the accompaniment of artics’ deep-throated gear shifts.
The toon has been quivering with trepidation for months now as the change, long promised, loomed closer. While natural to fear the future without the presence of the commercial port and the boats, as they are known locally, such fear is largely misplaced.
Jobs haven’t been lost: in fact, many were created out of the new port development at Old House point. Indeed, the new port development and investment by Stena will safeguard existing jobs in an area with few alternative employers. The ferry route has been making a loss for years – it was in effect, move or bust.
Travellers now have a decent facility, making the crossing more attractive, as does the shorter journey time. And while a poor section of the A77 has been upgraded to accommodate the extra traffic, significant infrastructure improvements are still required. The lack of investment in the A77 and indeed, the A75 by successive Scottish Executives and Governments has been a disgrace. Maybole has been campaigning for its bypass since I was a child and the Challoch railway bridge on the A75 holds the questionable accolade of being the country’s worst accident blackspot.
Fears are acute for the continued presence of the railway with its station sited right down the pier. The answer to that, dear locals, is to use the train instead of the car to head North. But promoting and marketing Stranraer as the perfect base for small conferences, golf weekends and short breaks would do much to increase passenger use.
Commercial use has dominated and compromised Loch Ryan for decades, yet it is a beautiful sea loch of significant scientific and environmental importance. The ability to develop its natural resource for alternative and varied use was limited by the need to keep the whole of the loch free and safe for the ferries. No longer. Now that the ferry port is concentrated on the north-east point of the loch, the rest is opened up to possibilities.
Already a nascent marina development is underway. Some years ago, a business plan for just such an activity was drawn up and promptly shelved. Dust it off, learn from the likes of Peterhead and Port Stewart and watch new, smaller, sleeker boats and yachts come in, along with new money and visitors.
Loch Ryan is the UK’s only wild native oyster site. Forget Loch Fyne where the “babies” are imported; in Loch Ryan, they breed, making them a prize dish indeed. Without the dredging required to keep the sand channels clear for large boats and the churn caused by the fastcraft especially, the beds will be able to grow and develop. Not so many jobs perhaps, but still a lucrative and prestigious fresh food industry.
The loch used to be fantastic for sea-fishing; with the right support, it can be again. Sea-angling still attracts a huge and enthusiastic following as a hobby, with folk travelling from all over to take part in competitions. They all require beds, food and refreshment. Twitchers too have long visited the area to see a huge variety of birds, including blow-ins of rare birds, but also the UK’s largest tern nesting colony. Create the right environment all around the foreshore and not only birds will flock.
Stranraer’s cockle shore has been an eyesore for years and now that the boats have gone, a proper beach can be sensitively and appropriately developed to attract families, watersports enthusiasts and the afore-mentioned birdwatchers and fishermen.
And unlike those rushing for the boat who might stop off to fill up with petrol or to grab a cup of tea and quick bite, these visitors will want to stay. The boats helped fuel the economy but diminishing passenger numbers caused the incidental gain to wither. Now the town has the chance to reverse that trend.
To do so, however, will require strong leadership, a clear vision and a boldness of touch. A short while ago, plans were afoot to build a coastal casino. Some local councillors were eager, while many residents were aghast. Ditching plans for the casino-isation of small towns all over Britain was one of the few domestic decisions Gordon Brown got right during his short-lived rein as Prime Minister.
Loch Ryan is truly a jewel that can contribute much to the regeneration of Stranraer and the Rhinns of Galloway. If the right decisions are made for the right reasons, without the interference of vested interests, then the future could be very much brighter. And while local people might be lamenting what seems like a huge loss tonight, with time they will also come to see what opportunities lie before them. Now the boat no longer comes in.