Yet another squally day in Ayrshire. Still, the daffodils seem to be pressing on undaunted. Im sure spring will not be too far off now. The plants are keeping the faith even if us humans seem to be finding it difficult.
Who can tell exactly when the places of our childhood begin to die? I was born in the Irvine Valley in Ayrshire. Once, it was a string of thriving, happy-go-lucky little towns made famous by lace manufacture.
As an industry, it couldn't begin to rival the scale of Clyde shipbuilding or the romance of tourism. But my valley was good at lace. The climate is damp. And that meant that the thread was less liable to break. Here was the last remaining cluster of producers of high-quality "Nottingham" lace.
Today, almost all trace of this manufacture has gone. The factories have closed and many of the little shops and livelihoods they supported have fled. There are clusters of well-kept houses and tidy gardens, and the occasional spear of fresh start and new endeavour. But there are long stretches, too, where my disappearing valley runs like a frayed, grey thread of boarded-up shops and dereliction. In between, there is an ever encroaching latticework of trees and hedgerows as, with every year, through an insidious, relentless stealth, nature reclaims a little more of its own.
My valley now is little more than a ragged, untidy slow-down, a forgettable depression as the traffic on the A71 thunders through on a longer journey to somewhere else. Coming from Edinburgh on this road, the valley starts in the east, with the dramatic volcanic plug of Loudoun Hill, scene of battles fought by doughty patriots and Covenanters. In the westward lee of Loudoun Hill can be found the farmhouse home of Scottish artist Glen Scouller. It was his wonderful paintings of the valley - full of colour and freshness and light - that reminded me what a cheerful place this was in my childhood, and still may be.
After Loudoun Hill comes a swift procession of little parishes and towns: Priestland; the "lang toon" of Darvel, birthplace of Alexander Fleming, with its gaunt, grey, terraced houses and long, mournful windows; then Newmilns and the prettily maintained Flora Institute; Galston; Hurlford and Crookedholm. These were distinct places as I remember them. Now they are part of an understated same.
The incessant traffic rumbles on through, for there is no obvious reason or attraction to stop. Parts of the valley have succumbed to dormitory status for the bigger conurbations of Kilmarnock to the west and Glasgow to the north, and other parts have succumbed to social dumping. The sense that prevails is of a valley that has fallen to a quiescence of ghosts.
Sometimes, it seems as if the valley has never looked more pastoral and serene as it reverts to a pre-industrial state. But, to those who know the valley, those brought up in it, it is impossible not to sense the decay, the spooky presence of abandonment. Old landmarks have disappeared. Shops have long closed, houses boarded up. With each year, the streets become more run down and forlorn.
I was born in Newmilns, next to the printing press of the local newspaper, which inspired me to journalism. And I went to its proud little school. I remember the bustle of its main street on Saturday mornings, the smell of sacking and coffee beans in the grocers and the magical ice-cream machine in Mr. Perry's café. Mr. Perry was a voluble Italian of Pavarotti proportions. When his shop was open, it seemed the street was full of sunlight - and his imprecations when we stole his cones. When it closed, the entire valley darkened. I was told that when he died, he was so full of ice-cream and macaroni, he exploded. How could I not believe that?
Now, the main street is marked by boarded-up doors, down-at-heel shops and an off-license with a bleak steel grille across its windows. The process of tumbledown took such hold that even the Edwardian sandstone Co-operative store - the only building in the main street with any swagger - had given way to chickweed and buddleia sprouting out of its gaunt and gaping windows.
The worst depredations have now been cleared, thanks to the Irvine Valley Regeneration Partnership's clean-up work. Other glaring eyesores have been removed. But it is a battle against hopeless odds. Regeneration work has not reversed the damage, just daubed lipstick on a dying mouth.
In my youth, Newmilns was a bustling town. It had a quiet busyness and purpose, and a beat to its heart. There was a cinema, a railway station, a handsome school, and the wonderful local newspaper, the Irvine Valley News, with its Wild West masthead and long columns of unbroken type. The editor was Bertie Green, a former Glasgow Evening Times staffer with a face not so much lived in as bounced on, like a wrinkled trampoline.
Every Thursday, when the paper was put to bed, I would scramble over the wall to watch a demonic machine turn hot metal into slugs of type. When the press clattered into life, mayhem resulted, because it made the television pictures in all the nearby homes flicker and frizzle. But the Irvine Valley News press was a magical thing: words flowing on to lead, flowing on to type, flowing on to paper; an unmissable weekly record of births, marriages, deaths and crime and punishment and life all through the valley.
Even by the 1950s, it was clear a premonition of decline was setting in. Yet exploring the history of the valley now, going back through old photographs and descriptions of the first half of the last century, the valley never really had prosperity. Here was a valley that rose and fell with the business cycle; only this cycle seemed to have a buckled wheel and permanently flat tyre, a constant bias towards rundown. There were spikes of activity. But the period since the war has been a long, slow, remorseless exodus of businesses, activities and people, so that, with every new decade, that premonition of decline was made more real.
And it didn't seem to matter what happened in the outside world. Recessions or recoveries, consumer booms or busts, Labour eras or Tory ones, or devolution with all its promises. All have left my valley if anything poorer than before. And the biggest loss of all has been the valley's young people. As with so many areas of Scotland, they have upped and gone.
Nothing has made an impact, or stopped the loss and decline and decay. No lick of paint has touched that meaningless little milestone in the main street, just by Ronald the Bakers that proclaims "Edinburgh 54 miles". For what did Edinburgh ever mean to us? Very little, then. And little more now, I suspect. The valley was, and is even more, in a time warp, or in a place where time has ceased to matter.
The only times the valley makes the headlines is when it is hit by floods, which it often is. But few care to recall the flood of 1954 when a blocked stream above Newmilns suddenly burst and bore the entire contents of the town coup in a wall of mud through the Morton & Inglis lace factory and down through the main street. The avalanche had been preceded by a mass scuttling of rats, and for weeks afterwards hundreds of little wooden bobbins from the lace mill floated down the Irvine river: a livelihood, and an era, literally bobbing away.
The school, the newspaper, the railway station, the cinema and the big department store has all gone. So, too, are most of those cafés and shops that crowded many of the high streets in Scotland in that age before out-of-town stores and car-centred shopping. These are among the disappearances: the Clydesdale Bank branch, Pollock’s shoe shop, the Co-op hardware store, Skeoch's Garage, Greene's the printers and newsagents, Papini’s Italian ice-cream and sweetie shop, the Rex cinema, Cochrane's china and fancy gifts, Gilmour's Dairy and milk delivery, Oliver's the dentist, Johnston’s Grocers, Hamilton's fruit and vegetable shop, MK Stewart TV and electrical retailers and now, even the local ironmonger, the shop where everything could be found, and at times nothing because of its crowded shelves and crammed cupboards: the screws and nails and widgets and sprockets that kept every house in the valley together.
On the list rolls, like the fallen in some forgotten war, columns of casualties through time and circumstance. Cultural diversity is what is proclaimed now. But what happened to that rich and wonderful diversity that once we had?
I cannot say I enjoy going back. My visits are short. It is like listening to Gaelic music, evocatively pleasing for five minutes and terminally depressing after ten.
My valley, in truth, has not really vanished. Indeed, the reason for its sadness is that it has not greatly changed. There is much that has struggled on, through that unsparing degradation of the years, fighting an insistent loss of livelihood and purpose. My disappearing valley has clung on, like so much in Scotland has clung on, forever haunted by a hope that something would somehow turn up. It never did, of course.