At the top of my lane there’s an abandoned village. It hasn’t been abandoned by its residents – no-one ever lived there – but by, well, I don’t know. Who has abandoned Polphail village? Someone must have, because it has sat, slowly decaying, for nearly 40 years now, unlived in and unloved, an ugly blot on a beautiful landscape.
It’s the strangest place. It was built in the early 1970s to house the 500 workers that were needed for the oil rig construction site just round the coast, where an enormous hole had been dug to create a dry dock. The plan was to build the rigs and then float them out of the loch and up the coast to the North Sea. But, despite the millions of pounds of Government money pumped into the project, the site never went into production. It seems that somebody discovered – a little late in the day – that Loch Fyne’s tides were too treacherous for floating oil rigs.
There was talk (perhaps even a promise) of the village being knocked down and the area returned to its original state. But it was sold into private hands, sold on again. Stories came and went about it being transformed into a hotel, into apartments. Whispers of change. But nothing changed. And then as the years went by, I stopped noticing it. Or maybe I just stopped looking. Until the other day, that is, when I walked past and something drew me in.
It’s much bigger than I’d remembered, but instantly familiar. We used to play here as kids, running down the corridors, our shouts echoing around the cold, concrete spaces. It was brand new back then, half-fitted out with light bulbs and towel rails and wardrobes. I didn’t have the words to describe it at that age. My older self would say functional, Soviet, stark.
It’s desolate now. The grey walls are stained and streaked with the years. The windows are long gone, apart from a few shards of glass that cling like rotting teeth to the frames. I peer inside. A wardrobe door swings half open, a ladder leans against the wall, an old sofa, floral pink, lies on its side and wires hang from the roof. Bright green moss, as thick and plump as a carpet, covers the floor. Further round there’s a kiosk, its shutters down, where cigarettes were never sold, giant washing machines and a canteen, the floor slimy with stinking mud. It’s quiet as I stand here, but it’s not peaceful. It’s sad and lonely and strange. Emptiness clings to the crumbling walls and hangs in the fetid air. It feels as seedy as the old caravans that have been left to waste away, mouldy curtains drawn shut, in the scrub at the back.
And then there’s the graffiti. In 2009, the owner of the site announced that within a year demolition would clear the site and 270 new homes would be built. Six street artists known as Agents of Change got permission to decorate Polphail’s battered walls prior to the demolition. Of course the demolition didn’t happen. Polphail’s still standing and now wears graffiti like a grey-suited man wears novelty socks. Not to say the graffiti isn’t good – it is. It’s brilliant and witty and clever and some of it’s very beautiful. But it was meant to be one last artistic hurrah before the whole place got knocked down. Now the fading art adds to the sense of dislocation, of something imposed on a place, not from it.
And what of the hole? It housed a fish farm for a while. Then a few years ago it became a spanking new marina. It’s really quite nice – all modern design, clean lines and bobbing boats. It’s a shame, though, that I never got to see the Salen – the sweep of sandy bay that was dug up and wiped out to make way for the hole. I was born too late. My gran used to say how she’d loved wading here at high tide, when the warm water would wash in over the soft grass. I suppose at some point, as the generations pass, the Salen and its stories will be gone from memories and maps. And who will know, when there’s no-one to remember, what this landscape once was; that it had ever changed.