Childhood adventures at Ardencaple Castle

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IN ANOTHER article, posted here on January 30 2017, I described how I, and several friends, were introduced to the Royal Navy, shortly after they had commandeered Ardencaple Castle. That was in 1942 when I was six years old.

When we discovered that we, the neighbourhood children, were welcome on the castle grounds we no longer had to approach them by sneaking through the Ardencaple Woods, or maybe they were the Castle Woods.

In my memory we used neither label, to us they were simply “The Woods”. But whatever they were called, we no longer had to hide just inside the trees in the hope of seeing something of interest.

While the pathway through the woods remained the most direct approach, we often entered the estate in the conventional manner; by walking up the long driveway. That is if passing two armed sentries, who always snapped to attention and saluted, could be considered conventional.

Once on the grounds we were permitted to wander freely in most areas — including the kitchen garden, the courtyard, the rose garden and an area at the foot of the ivy-covered rampart that we called the “Hidden Garden”.

Occasionally we would venture into the castle; but not often since we were not allowed to move beyond the entrance hall. And from that hall all we could really see was the adjacent banquet chamber, a less than interesting room that seemed to have become a storage area. Never did we get upstairs.

When we felt hungry, which was often, we presented ourselves at the ratings mess hall. There we were provided with milk and biscuits or sometimes tea with toast and marmalade.

As they say word gets around, so within a few weeks our small group of four had grown to ten or twelve and sometimes more. Occasionally we would all be there at the same time but we mostly turned up in small groups.

Usually we did little more than watch the sailors as they worked, many tending the grounds and the kitchen garden. They would chat with us when off duty and sometimes when no officer was around.

Some days we poked about in the old stables; that is those that were not padlocked or had, because of age, lost their doors. One day we found much of the castle’s old furniture stored under tarpaulins.

On summer Sunday afternoons the war was seemingly suspended, certainly no one appeared to work, and many of the sailors and some of the officers played cricket on the castle lawn.

During the three years that we had access to the castle grounds we had many adventures. Having said that, to a child between six and nine, almost anything that is new, different and enjoyable, could be considered an adventure.

Most were minor and have largely been forgotten; three however are still very clear in my mind.

They were the fun we had with Navy hats, the rejuvenation of the castle’s two ornamental gardens, and the considerable fuss we caused when we found two boxes of glass prisms.

Let me first tell you about the hats.

During the war the Home Fleet was based in the Gareloch and ships rotated in and out for repairs and to rest their crews. While the ships at anchor changed the one constant was the large complement of sailors.

Sadly, many of the sailors got much of their rest in the local pubs and some got so much rest that they had difficulty making it back to the tenders that transferred them from and to their ships. While we assumed and hoped that they all eventually got on board, there was ample evidence that many of them did so without their hats.

It was well known, especially to Helensburgh’s children, that a walk along the shore on any morning, except Monday, would turn up several hats that had been washed ashore after being blown from the sailors heads as they encountered Scotland’s west coast winds.

The ships and the sailors had been in place prior to the Royal Navy requisitioning and then arriving at the castle, and during that time there had been hats along the shore but we paid little or no attention to them.

At best we would kick them along until that stopped being fun, or they ended back in the water. But when we developed a Navy connection they took on a new meaning and an unexpected usefulness.

Over a period of a few weeks when we found hats we did not kick them away. Rather, we took them home, dried them out and stuffed them with newspaper. We then wore them with varying degrees of success. It was somewhat akin to balancing a plate on one’s head.

Some of our mothers objected and confiscated the hats. All objections seemed to have something to do with them being fished from the sea or having been worn by drunken sailors, or both. Those of us who were faced with the problem simply gathered up replacements and carefully hid them in the woods.

Usually we found hats that had belonged to ratings — officer’s hats were a truly rare discovery. My father, who as usual was willing to explain almost anything, supposed that the shortage of officers hats had nothing to do with the sailors getting drunk and the officers remaining sober.

The officers in his experience — our family did after all own a pub — drank as much or more. The secret was that the officers had to buy their hats while the government supplied hats to the ratings. I have no idea if there was, but there may have been some punishment for returning hatless.

So, in short order, many of the Ardencaple Quadrant children had hats and we wore them, pretending to be sailors. To go with them my father, and some other dads who were not off in service, made some wooden rifles and many wooden swords. Seemingly swords were easier to fashion than rifles.

Almost daily, in summer when we were not in school, we, properly dressed in our hats and carrying our weapons, would form up in single file and march up the driveway to the castle. Any one of us who had been fortunate enough to find an officer’s hat was immediately self-promoted and marched alongside the others, usually with one or two swords held high.

As we approached the sentries they would, as usual, snap to attention and salute our small crew as we passed through the castle gate. I recall one day we arrived just as an officer was walking out, causing saluting confusing for the sentries who had not immediately noticed him. The officer took that with good humour, but did suggest to the sentries that they make sure that some of us were not miniature German spies.

Now the formal gardens.

The castle was built on a rise a few hundred yards from the shoreline and the land between the shore and the castle sloped gently upward to that rise. The result was a clear view over hay fields to the River Clyde Estuary at the point where it merged with the Gareloch.

A stone wall, perhaps thirty feet high, fronted the rise and over time it had become thickly covered in ivy. The castle itself was set about forty feet back from the top of the wall.

Within those forty feet there were small lawns and rose gardens surrounded by low privet hedges. I remember thinking that it looked very much like my grandfather’s front garden but on a much larger scale.

We assumed that once they had been well cared for and that previous owners very likely employed gardeners. That is very much an assumption, since before we met the sailors we never got close enough to know that the gardens existed, never mind inspect them.

It was also likely that for some time before the Navy took up residence that the gardens had been ignored and had become overgrown. When we first saw them, the roses were fighting with weeds for possession of the plots and the small hedges were totally unkempt.

At some point we decided to trim the hedges and weed the rose beds. Clearly we were a group of children with much too much time on our hands and much ambition without skill.

Nevertheless we surreptitiously borrowed clippers and hoes from our homes and set about the task. It took only a few hours for us to become bored with the project and to realise that we had bitten off much more than we could chew. Fortunately a few off-duty sailors came to our aid and by the end of the day the area was looking more like a tended garden.

As it often did, school time got in the way but when we returned a week later the work had been completed and I believe the sailors maintained the garden, as an off-duty activity, for the rest of the war.

I noted earlier that we usually approached the castle grounds through the woods or by walking up the driveway — but there was in fact a third approach.

We would come at the castle from the hay field in front and climb the wall using the ivy. The ivy was so thick that we made vertical tunnels within it, and when they were completed we could climb the wall unseen. This was our usual approach when we played at invading the castle.

We did not spend much time in the area along the bottom of the wall but we were aware that there were several small statues, mostly on pedestals and mostly of dogs. We also knew that at the west end of the wall there was a substantial stone bench; it actually looked like a stone sofa.

One day a few of us were gathered at the foot of the wall, fooling about and wrestling each other in an open area. As one of us tried to get a foothold, the ground seemed to slip away revealing brick red tiles.

We immediately cleared a larger area and found many more tiles. After scraping away an accumulation of new, rotting and long since rotted leaves we discovered that the tiled section was about four feet wide and there seemed to be no immediate end to its length.

The next day tools were again borrowed and we cleared about twenty feet of a pathway, all paved with red tile. We had no idea how old the pathway was — I doubt that we cared — but it was and in remarkably good shape. We immediately told some of our Navy friends, the ones who had worked on the rose garden, about the pathway.

In a matter of weeks, with our regular supervision and occasional help, they cleared the pathway. It ran all the way to the stone bench with occasional diversions to some of the statues.

Our most amazing find was that two of the pedestals were in the centre of small stone ponds. There was no water in the ponds since over many years they had become filled with leaves and overgrown with brambles. The sailors cleaned them out and in time, not a very long time in Helensburgh, the rain refilled the ponds.

Finally, the great prism caper.

This most memorable castle adventure should have landed us in jail — age fortunately has its privileges at both ends of the spectrum.

In April 1943 Hermitage School was closed for the Easter holiday. The break gave us more time than was usual hang around the castle grounds. One morning three of us spent some time wandering about with no purpose or plan, an normal day, and in due course we made our way to the courtyard.

For the umpteenth time since we had gained access, we went around the stables peering through some small dust and grime covered windows that were set in the remaining sagging, but padlocked, doors.

One stable intrigued us and, although it was too dark to see the inside, we were sure that it must hold something of interest since the old doors were held closed by a large rusty padlock.

The stable was in the northwest corner of the courtyard and it had high but warped double doors. They were substantial, so substantial that a man-door had been built into the right side main door. It was also held closed, but by a smaller and newer padlock.

We glanced around to confirm that we were not being watched, and, for no sensible reason, we casually pulled on the door. To our great surprise that it gave about an inch.

Closer inspection showed that the padlock was still closed and the hasp still intact and attached to the door. The other end of the hasp was, however, no longer connected to the doorframe; the rusted screws and the rotting wood frame had parted company.

With difficulty we pulled the door open another few inches. When we had an opening of about nine inches we again checked to see that we were not being watched and squeezed through.

Inside it was almost dark, the only light was coming from the barely open door. The window was useless being even dirtier on the inside. We groped around for a few minutes, tripping over some unidentified objects but found nothing of interest. We agreed to get some torches and come back later.

We returned mid-afternoon, with our borrowed torches concealed inside our jackets, to find a Navy work party in the courtyard. While they may not have paid any attention we kept walking and delayed further exploration.

The next day, after teatime, we again returned to the courtyard. Despite wartime blackout regulations a few lights were barely visible in the flats above the stables but no-one was around as we pulled on the creaking stable man-door.

We slipped inside, tugged the door closed, turned on our torches and looked around. The stable was perhaps twelve feet square, much smaller than I had expected.

To our disgust it was also empty, except for some wooden planks, burlap sacks and two wooded boxes that sat near the rear wall. A closer look revealed that the boxes, each about two feet by two feet and perhaps eighteen inches high, were each held closed by two metal bands, wrapped totally around the box and nailed in place.

We soon found that they were too heavy to lift and we had no way of opening them. We were foiled again.

Nevertheless, the next evening we returned after dark armed with a hammer, a chisel and a small crowbar; each borrowed with stealth from our fathers toolboxes — not really a particularly difficult task since none of our fathers were at home.

Inside the stable the boxes were still in place and undisturbed. We set about opening one of them. Eventually we pried back the steel strapping, with more noise than we wished, and raised the hinged top.

At first glance we thought that our hard work had been wasted, as the box seemed to be filled with nothing but old newspapers. I reached in and picked up a wad of the paper and realised that it had was wrapped around something hard.

When unwrapped, to our amazement, we found a beautiful long glass prism. The three of us dived into the box, throwing paper everywhere, discovering that it was full of prisms of many shapes; small and large, short, long, square and round. As it turned out was the second box. This was an amazing treasure if you are seven years-old.

We sat in the stable surrounded by crushed paper and an ever growing pile of prisms. Our immediate problem was what to do with our treasure.

If we divided it up it would be too heavy to carry. If we had been able to carry it we had no idea where we to take it. It could not be taken home and we had no place to hide it. We decided to take two pieces each and to put the rest back in the boxes.

This was much easier said than done, with many of the prisms unwrapped, the paper and prisms would not fit. We stuffed everything in as best we could and pulled the lids down as far as it they would go.

We gathered up some of the burlap sacks and casually draped them over the boxes until we were satisfied that they looked like a pile of old sacks. We left, closing the door over carefully and quietly. None of us slept well that night.

A few days after Easter we were back in school. At first, as we had agreed, we told no-one of our find. Slowly however we let the secret out, swearing our friends to silence as we gave them each a prism from the trove.

Eventually some were given, not to friends, but to those that we wished to impress, and some were given to more senior students who were big enough to demand one.

Within a few weeks the boxes were almost empty and fifty, or more, students must have had prisms. There were so many around the school and so many students using them to catch the sun’s rays that some teachers began to wonder where they had come from.

Soon, nearly everyone lost interest in the prisms. Everyone that is but the local police, who had got wind of the fact that many students at Hermitage Primary School had toys from an unknown source — toys that could set paper on fire.

One evening, just after tea, on a day when my father was actually at home, a police constable arrived at our front door and asked to talk to me. I had no idea what he wanted and sat with him and my father at our dining room table.

The constable asked if I played in and around Ardencaple Castle. I quickly admitted that I did, along with several of my friends. At the constable’s prompting I agreed that I had been to the castle many times during the past couple of months.

He took a small prism from a pocket and asked if I had seen it before, or one like it. Being eager to please I admitted that I had seen many prisms like his and that we had found two boxes of them in an old stable in the castle courtyard.

I further confessed without hesitation that we had given most of them to our schoolmates. The constable asked me to stand up in front of him.

He then advised in his best police officer's voice that what we had done was stealing. That taking property that did not belong to us was against the law and that only our age prevented us from being arrested. My father was clearly shocked and my mother was probably on the verge of fainting.

Later that evening my friends also received a visit from the constable. He left each of us with a final warning that any action would depend upon the wishes of the owner of the prisms.

In time nothing happened and we decided to sneak back into the stable. While the boxes were still in place and still covered by the burlap sacks, all the remaining prisms had been removed.

We visited the castle grounds less often after the prism caper and when there we stayed away from the courtyard.

I do not recall how I got this information, and it may just be reasonable speculation, but I was given to understand that when the Navy moved into the castle they detached the prisms from the banquet hall chandeliers and stored them in the locked stable for safe-keeping.

About the Author


Iain G.Campbell was born in Helensburgh in April 1936 and from age two lived in Ardencaple Quadrant. He attended Hermitage School until his family emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, in 1952. There he spent his working life in manufacturing and logistics management with three multinational companies.


He married twice and has three children from his first marriage. His hobbies include traveling — he has visited 40 countries — cooking and writing. He retired twenty years ago and lives less than a mile from the United States border in the Vancouver suburb of South Surrey. His paternal grandfather owned The Station Bar on Princes Street until his retirement in 1951.