Archive for March, 2012

31 Mar 2012

In Praise of March

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March doesn’t usually enjoy much of a good press: noted for its winds, frequently cold and unpredictable temperatures and apart from its daffodils, not traditionally celebrated for its foliage. We normally have to wait until the end of the month to savour the blossom and, even then, blustery, sleety conditions more often than not reduce its delicate, transient buds to shreds within hours.

The delicate, but transient, beauty of magnolia blossom

But this year, as we approach the close of the third month donning sunglasses and shorts, rather than scarves and sweaters, perhaps the time has come to re-consider March and award it some overdue recognition as a better month that it’s usually given credit for.

OK, I know the present premature heatwave is not normal, even by our recent climate change-crazed weather patterns, but the sun is higher in the sky at the end of March than it is in September, so when sunny and in shelter, it can become quite warm.

The Merchant City in the sun

Once the clocks change, of course, we can fit in some walking, cycling, gardening in the evenings, but throughout the month there is an average of 12 hours daylight: more than enough for a day walk or cycle. So March is the ideal month to get out and about and into training for longer, higher days as the spring progresses.

So, with this in mind, a recent week based in Glasgow was planned around a weekend visit to a stunning, but overlooked, area of Mid Argyll  followed by a weekday morning walk up to Loch Humphrey and Duncolm in the Kilpatricks (both easily accessible by public transport) and a day out, museum-browsing, in the capital.

March can be an ideal time to travel. Unless Easter is early, it benefits from being a school holiday-free month and this year ScotRail recognised this by offering their Mad March half price fare promotion on most off-peak journeys. Hence the return journey to Kilpatrick cost whole £1.90  and the museum jaunt to Edinburgh amounted to £6.05.

Calton Hill dominates the Edinburgh skyline

And talking of museums and the capital, March can be perfect month to sample both. With the holiday season not yet in full swing, Edinburgh, if not exactly empty, was at least quiet enough to look round the Scottish Parliament, the new National Museum of Scotland  and have lunch  – can thoroughly recommend the soup and coffee at Peter’s Yard  -without having to queue.

The new National Museum is certainly worth a visit, particularly from now till June for the See Scotland by Train exhibition. With a background montage of 39 Steps, Railway Children, Brief Encounter, Night Mail and more, this well-staged presentation of fabulous railway posters takes us back to the heyday of overnight sleepers, art deco carriages and the seductive power of the Flying Scotsman and Coronation Scot.

A perfect way, then, to spend a cold, but bright, Edinburgh day and avoid running the gauntlet of tourists and cashmere outlets in the Old Town. If you time manage effectively, you can just about fit in a visit to the refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery   as well. It too is impressive and provides a good vantage point to explore the more sophisticated New Town.

March is also, of course, traditionally the month of high activity in the garden and, although our poor seedlings have been well confused by this year’s bizarre range of temperatures, it has been a pleasant change to plant in the warm, as opposed to the normal cold and wet.

So as March 2012 cruises to a balmy, sunny close, let’s hear it for the third month of the year; the true harbinger of spring.

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27 Mar 2012

Mid Argyll; make sure you don’t overlook this West of Scotland jewel

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Mid Argyll  could well be tagged as “Overlooked Scotland”; a little out of the way, no big towns or cities, not the easiest place to get to (certainly without a car), but, with its history, scenery, serenity, wildlife, culture and opportunities for walking and cycling, well worth the effort if you do go.

Dunadd Hill

OK, so you can’t get to Kintyre by train, but you can take the bus and, if you have a word with Citylink beforehand, you might even find they’ll transport your bike. Coach 926 leaves Glasgow’s Buchanan Bus Station four times a day for Ardrishaig and for as little as £6 single, the 2 hours 45 minutes journey won’t seem long enough to take in the view of all the passing lochs and mountains from the window

Indeed, if getting to your destination is as important as the holiday itself, why not make your journey into an epic?  Take the train from Glasgow to Gourock, then ferry to Dunoon, bus to Portavadie, another ferry to Tarbert and a final bus to Ardrishaig. It takes just over four hours, but where else on mainland UK ( and, yes, you are still on the mainland) could you combine rail, road and sea with scenery to die for? Use Traveline Scotland  to organise your journey.

This jewel in the west of Scotland has the lot: as well as its unique history, relaxed pace of life and jaw-dropping scenery, it also has hotel/restaurant/cafe owners who actually seem to like and welcome visitors! What’s not to like?

Standing Stones in Kilmartin Glen

Confined to a weekend visit, my major problem was so much to see, with so little time to do it. So, taking my theme as the area’s rich vein of history, ancient and modern, I headed for Kilmartin Glen to find out more about its standing stones, burial cairns, rock art, forts and carved stones that originated in the Neolithic period (6,000-4,000BC). Mid Argyll has the densest concentration of cup and ring marked rocks in the British Isles and the Glen contains Europe’s largest cup and ring marked site at Achnabreck.

The Glen is also home to one of Scotland’s most important historic sites of any period; Dunadd Fort, thought to have been built and occupied by the Dal Riata people from about 500AD. This area is now believed to have been a cultural and social centre where people, ideas and power were exchanged between lands connected by the sea.

Burial Pits in Klimartin Glen

Check out the artefacts and interpretations at the award-winning Kilmartin House Museum  browse the rock art silver jewellery in the shop and sample the yummy home baking in the adjoining cafe.

But don’t be misled into believing the area declined in importance as time moved on: the first book to be printed in Scots Gaelic, John Knox’s liturgy, was translated by John Carswell, a 16th century Protestant reformer, in 1567 at nearby Carnassie Castle  an attractive two mile stroll out of Kilmartin.

The Crinan Canal through Ardrishaig

Head back to Ardrishaig to enjoy a later, but no less important, artefact; the delightful nine mile Crinan Canal  Known as “Britain’s most beautiful shortcut”, it was built in the late eighteenth century between Ardrishaig on Loch Fyne and Crinan on the Sound of Jura.

Crinan Bridge

The canal provided a lifeline between the islands of the west coast and the Clyde Estuary and enabled the puffer ships that transported coal, food and other essentials throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to avoid the long, arduous voyage round the south end of the Kintyre Peninsular.

Today, around two thousand mainly pleasure vessels, still pass through the canal and the waterway can also be appreciated, on foot or by bike, as an engineering marvel and an idyllic route through some stunning scenery.

When you reach Crinan, check out the top-floor gallery at the Crinan Hotel and, at certain times of the year, you might be lucky enough to see round one of the old puffer boats under renovation in the harbour.

 

Puffer under renovation

Walking opportunities in the area are virtually endless, from gently coastal and woodland strolls to a lesser-visited Munro not too far away,  while the Sustrans National Cycle Route 78   (Oban to Campbeltown) directly links Kilmartin, Crinan, Lochgilphead and Ardrishaig.

 

Loch Crinan with Paps of Jura in the background

 

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24 Mar 2012

A Loch, a Hill and a Canal: and a Half Hour Commute from the City

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View over the Clyde and Erskine Bridge from Kilpatrick Braes

Five hours to spare, a mild, if cloudy, spring day in Glasgow; where else but the Kilpatricks? These surprisingly remote, heather-clad hills, set in relatively wild moorland, perch above Dumbarton a few miles north west of Glasgow. Given this location, their great asset is that they are very accessible from the city, by bus or train, even on Sundays.  And, as such, along with Dumgoyne, Conic, Ben Lomond and The Cobbler, they are part of that bizarre and beguiling Glaswegian idiosyncrasy: sizeable hills and mountains that can be accessed by the city’s suburban transport network.

The Kilpatrick Hills are ideal for getting rid of winter’s cobwebs, or as an afternoon or evening walk as the nights get lighter and provide extensive views, not only back along the Clyde to the city, but also across the Campsie Fells and northwards towards the Arrochar Alps.

Trains run every 30 minutes to Old Kilpatrick from Glasgow Queen Street, and once at Kilpatrick station, just head along the road under the A82 road bridge to Kilpatrick Gasworks and follow the broad track signposted “Loch Humphrey”.

The usual route then heads along this path as far as the loch, however, the Forestry Commission are currently resurfacing the track, so the route is temporarily diverted on discernible hill paths up Kilpatrick Braes and around The Stacks. Unlike on many diverted routes, these signs are plentiful and easy to follow and indeed, I think the diversion adds to the circuit as it makes it more of a hill walk, as opposed to a trudge up a sometimes busy track, often shared with mountain bikers and others.

Once at the loch continue on the track that skirts round the loch and then keep on this still obvious, but boggier, path that continues north east along a visible ridge that passes Fynloch Hill on your left and Little and Middle Duncolm on your right.

A Loch Humphrey resident seemed singularly unimpressed by its visitors

Head on for the furthest and highest mound: this is Duncolm and take a few minutes to enjoy the 360 degree panorama, including Ben Lomond and Stob Binnein, after the short, steepish, but easy climb to the summit. On this overcast Tuesday, the islands at the south of the loch were still clearly visible and it was just possible to see the summit of the Ben peeping through the clouds.

Retrace your steps to the loch, then head back down to Kilpatrick station (about 3 and a half hours at reasonable pace), or if you have another couple of hours to spare, bear right at the loch embankment and follow a path north west through a conifer wood.  After about a mile, turn left at a junction and follow a path downwards, in a south west direction, passing Brown Hill and Greenland Reservoir.

Follow the “Circular Crags Walk” signpost down to a road at Greenlands Farm, turn right and head along the “Crags Walk” to the Milton Inn. Then cross the A82 to the cycle track, turn left and follow this into Bowling, before turning right to the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Head along the towpath as far as Lock 37 at the Erskine Bridge. Cross the canal, turn left into Dumbarton Road, then right into Station Road back to the railway station.

Two trains an hour will take you back to the city for a late afternoon coffee, spot of shopping, or in plenty of time to scrub up for an evening out. Overall, an ideal way to spend the day that marks the equal division of daylight and darkness and heralds the advent of spring.

For details of other walks accessible by public transport Around Glasgow, visit:

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

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05 Mar 2012

City versus Country: where would you rather live?

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Country Lanes


 

Or City Streets?

 

 

 

 

 

Last week’s media was awash with debate about rural vs urban, with Mavis Cheek  fronting a campaign to warn older people about the hazards of retiring to the country, accompanied throughout the week by more angst about the rising cost of fuel. At the weekend cyclist Rob Penn countered for the countryside with a piece for the Observer extolling the delights of rural life in the Black Mountains.

As a resident of what is nominally regarded as a village, but who is seriously considering, for environmental among other reasons, a move back to the city, the debate had special resonance. Looking out at this morning’s sun-bathed, south-facing garden, embroidered by lilac crocuses, lemon daffodils, and plump furry magnolia buds almost ready to reveal the delicate white blossom protected within, the obvious solution would be to stay put. But nothing, as they say, is ever quite what it seems and the rural idyll outside the back door isn’t quite so appealing, ironically enough, when you try to live sustainably.

Perhaps we ought to start by establishing what we mean by living in the  countryside. Most of my fellow residents would regard their location as a village; thatched cottages, handsome church, hanging baskets and a few attractive looking pubs. But its location next to a fast dual carriageway, linking several large cities, has turned it into effectively a commuter settlement, with the population of a small town, but facilities of a small village.

The migration of commuters and second homers to rural areas has, I suspect, made this the case for many residents of what used to be regarded as the countryside and with damaging consequences for their quality of life,  to the extent that many of the traditional pleasures of living a rural existence are rapidly disappearing, if they haven’t already gone.

Listening to the birds, for example, one of Mr Penn’s favourite activities, is becoming much more of a rarity here as the hedgerows are destroyed, or manicured like privet hedges for the benefit of the day trippers to the National Forest walking tracks that criss cross the village.

Cycling for me, like Mr Penn, is an obsession, but unlike Mr Penn’s bucolic idyll in the Black Mountains, riding a bike around here, taking your chances with the 4x4s and agricultural vehicles, is arguably more dangerous than negotiating Highbury Corner alongside Boris’s new buses.  And, if you use your bike as a form of transport, rather than just recreation, then you need the skills of a military logistician to work out how to transport heavy goods, how to reach the shops, or how to arrange supermarket deliveries, always assuming you have and can use the internet.

And as for village community: try walking or cycling in the main road any morning from before 7am and observe the hundreds of cars leaving the village, packed with commuters driving to work with their children en route to the nearest nursery for the next 12 hours. There is little community during the day and not much more in the evening, hence the closure of some of the pubs, and the transformation of most of the others into eateries.

Of course it’s not all bad: it’s safe, most people are friendly and helpful and, as long as you don’t mind being regarded as an odd single female, or potentially subversive because you don’t believe what you read in the Daily Mail, and horror of horrors, take the Guardian instead, then life is generally quite tolerable (we even have a lovely cafe selling decent coffee and Fentiman’s ginger beer now).

Unless, that is, you do not drive a car. This week an appointment at the eye clinic will involve two buses and a journey time of about two hours to travel 20 miles, while next week an early morning taxi will cost about £20 to reach the nearest railway station. And, while  I am lucky in the sense that I possess a car and am able to drive, financially, and in terms of sustainability, a car is by far the biggest drain on my resources. But try living in the countryside without one and your rural dream will dissolve as quickly as your wallet empties.

It was then, encouraging, that another couple of articles published last week highlighted the real problem facing many people, of all ages, predominately but not exclusively in the countryside; that of transport poverty. Last Monday, Sustrans, the sustainable travel charity, reported that half of Wales faces debt from transport costs.  The report, also backed by Age UK, Citizens Advice and Save the Children in Wales, illustrated the real problem facing an increasing number of people is not the increasing price of fuel, but that they cannot afford to a car in the first place, nor pay the costs of public transport.

Later in the week, Left Foot Forward  focused on the same issue to campaign for a change in government priorities; away from the focus on car owning towards investing in public transport and improving facilities for walking and cycling.

Although the subject matter of both reports was depressing, it is at least positive that the real issue of transport poverty is being addressed. Being unable to travel, whether because of high costs, or lack of suitable options, is a real problem with potentially serious consequences for all of society, urban as well as rural.

And to return to the original debate, I suspect that before too long I will be prepared to swap my vegetable plot, garage and hanging baskets, for some regular buses and a station at the end of the road – preferably with a local farmers’ market, some good cafes and a bike shop nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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