Friday 20 March 2015

The Kelpies. River Carron. Carron Iron Works. Docks and Dams. Cycletracks. Grangemouth.

I'm amazed I'm still finding new places in the Central Belt of Scotland to visit after six years of  doing an almost weekly blog. Part of the reason for this is that I,m not just into hillwalking but cycling, coastal walking, photography, island bagging, city and town exploration, canal and river paths, and finding out about the history of these places as well. The Central Belt has a wealth of these in abundance.
                                              ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
The Kelpies are a new Andy Scott installation at the Helix Park on the Forth and Clyde Canal between Falkirk and Grangemouth, where canal boats can enter or exit the Carron Sea Lock, sculptures that have attracted worldwide interest and acclaim. This was my first visit, apart from shooting past on the nearby M9, so I decided to take my bike. Like a lot of "Honeypot" media hyped events it was very popular but three large car parks soak up the visitor numbers. The Kelpies are an amazing sight for first time visitors and any additional new car parks with a network of walking and bike trails in Scotland are always a bonus. Both Falkirk and Grangemouth have many tourist attractions which can now be linked by bike and it was this I was intending to explore. My heart will always belong to Arria though. My favourite A.S. sculpture now for years...   Full history and reason for her name here.

Dog walker on the entrance to the Sea Lock which leads out into the Firth of Forth and eventually the open sea past Edinburgh. Wonder if the old sea going puffers would still fit?
The development of this site has created a network of trails and linked up many more existing ones, often through a post industrial landscape but with a rich history attached. As I've not explored the River Carron in any great detail I thought I'd just go there and follow my nose when I arrived. Sometimes, magical days out happen because you haven't researched the area beforehand and everything is then a complete surprise and unexpected delight. As I'd already seen the Kelpies and the Helix Park on TV and in numerous photographs from all directions the highlights of this trip turned out to be the range of unknown or half remembered other finds along the way. Obvious really.
One of the things that surprised me the most was how swampy and low lying the trails are in this vicinity. Many go through the genuine swampy wilderness of the River Carron floodplain and its marsh land environment which is fairly extensive by Scottish standards. I had no idea this existed until last weeks cycle trip, a lot of it on boardwalks. This is near the Kelpies heading for the new lagoon area and Falkirk F.C. Stadium.
Home of "the Bairns" where apart from the usual football matches taking place, silver fox Tom Jones will be entertaining the stadium crowd with a medley of winners as well. Found that fact out by visiting the photo gallery in here.
 At this point I turned back around as I was entering Falkirk and heading in the direction of 14th century tourist destination Callendar House, and the Roman built Antonine Wall which I had already explored on previous posts. Although tracks led in numerous directions the River Carron exerted a mighty pull on my curiosity magnet so I turned around and headed back into the elephant swallowing swamps of Stenhousemuir and Downtown Larbert. Mostly terra incognita for me ( and most casual visitors I'd imagine.)
 Would I discover a lost tribe of feral hillbillies living in its depths? A old juke joint or illicit honkytonk perhaps selling swamp made whiskey supped out of old rusty tin cans....or maybe a row of possum pelts or rattle snakes hanging up in the porch... anything seemed possible. It was that kind of place.
Teal Duck. ( I have found my long lost bird book again :o)
The sky was that perfect shade of porcelain blue that has always inspired me throughout my life. Hence the title of this blog of course. My first official cycle ride of "Spring."
Eventually, I arrived via walkway/cycle tracks at the twin loops in the River Carron near Carronshore. More wetland habitats here than you could shake a bullrush at and very few people away from the crowds around the Helix and Kelpies. Mostly local dog walkers and the occasional cyclist. More than a few casual visitors would get lost here in this maze of tracks through the swamplands without a map as indicator boards are either vandalized or tell you nothing. (A sign with "path" pointing in four different directions at once but telling you absolutely nothing about where they might actually end up is not helpful.) Maybe all swamps have this in common judging by late night horror films where outsiders always get lost away from the main highway as soon as they leave town. Maybe they do indeed lead nowhere or join up into a circle as one track looked very much like another out here.
Eventually I found the River Carron itself and then a good cycle track/ walkway leading west along the south bank (Falkirk side) towards Larbert. This passed through Mungal. A great backwoods swamp place name if ever there was one.
Fairly colourful in places though.
With fine rest stops where indeed the locals do seem to have indulged in hard liquor and good times of an evening with winsome female company. I knew I'd find a friendly honky- tonk somewhere on the route! I always do! One to keep in mind when the occasional bar opens again.
The Carron Iron Works came next. This gate house and the high surrounding wall is all that is left of the original Carron Iron Works, for many years the largest and greatest of its kind in Europe. Full and amazing history here.
I had an uncle and aunt who lived near Falkirk and offered to take me as a boy to see the works on an unofficial tour, while they were still open.(1960s at a guess) Shame I've waited until this time for a visit but I still enjoyed vague half memories of certain nearby areas.
The Famous Carronade. Winner of many a ship to ship battle at close quarters at sea.
The massive restored gate near Carron Phoenix.
The Grahamston Gate info.
Detail on the gate.
This is the place I had vague memories about. I've been here before many, many decades ago in early childhood but it looked very different then. It used to be an open dam and curling pond in hard winters but now its completely overgrown into a marshy wildlife reserve with a trail around it (fairly tricky but I managed to get the bike round it, mostly on foot) Strange feeling when you have such strong yet half formed memories about places.
Anyway, it now looks like this. One of the clearer viewpoints on the circular trail and no sign of a water filled middle. I was just thinking " not going to see much here" when I noticed a large fox and more importantly, he failed to notice me. As I could see where he was heading... a strip of green grass higher ground that curved round to my position I lowered the bike and crouched down to wait for his arrival.
A magic moment when I realized he still wasn't aware of me and I might get very close.
He or she was only six to eight feet away when I was spotted by a very surprised fox who seemed disgusted I'd created such a successful ambush and got almost within touching distance. Great result for me though. Probably hunting for wildfowl out in the marshlands as it's paws had black mud on them. Also met a guy out here with a sabre, an air rifle, a large husky dog and an axe who filled the necessary top billing of a local hillbilly nicely so I returned happy as a pig in thick mud. Another mission fulfilled.
A scenic cycle tour around Grangemouth followed. Don't know what it is about this place but I've been fascinated by Grangemouth for many years.
Like cycling through a vast meccano set.
The other local river, The Avon meets Grangemouth. Gas Flares. Even taken from here the heat was noticeable. Felt good after a very cold morning cycle.
What a cracking and varied day out. Grangemouth supplies petrochemicals and oil to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Northern England so it's a vital industry needed to keep our oil based economy on track.
The River Avon. A beautiful wild river running through the Falkirk Uplands, by the time it gets to this point the modern desolation of humanity and it's relentless quest for oil occupies both banks. This entire region sits on thick beds of the right stuff so the Central Belt of Scotland will be the new battle ground for intensive fracking proposals.
Also found out that Grangemouth once had an airfield and trained British and allied pilots during the war with strong links to Poland as many Polish airmen were stationed here and some that survived remained in the neighbourhood.
Replica Spitfire. Grangemouth.

A great song from a local singer. The soaring vocals of Elizabeth Fraser and band the Cocteau Twins who all came from Grangemouth... A beautiful and very under rated Peter Jackson film, much better story and plot than the over hyped King Kong or the Hobbit. Great music throughout and no dwarfs or elves in sight. Saoirse Ronan has since gone on to be one of the most sought after young actresses in Hollywood with Hanna, The Way Back, and Byzantium an interesting and eclectic mix of parts. Song to the Siren is also an under rated classic that's been covered by many different artists over the years.

Cocteau Twins info here. Was she the first mainstream artist to deliberately "sing in tongues" and be noticed for it? Dead can dance formed in 1981 a few years after the twins and REM formed in 1980 as well. Two bands who also seemed to use "glossolalia " at times although certain religious groups have practiced it for centuries. Not an important thing to know but it's the little things that bother me the most.  This particular song has conventional lyrics though.


Friday 13 March 2015

Inverness Gothic.Secret Hovel Y. Charlestown of Aberlour

After a short rest and a chip supper Alex decided he had regained enough strength to walk into the secret bothy. It had been a while since any of us had been into a secret bothy and this was the secret bothy of secret bothies. What a privilege! We parked in the Secret bothy Lay-by, specially reserved for secret bothy guests only. then shouldered our heavy overnight rucksacks and head-torches. It was now pitch black, around 8 o clock and snowing heavily.
"Just as well it's a good track and it's easy to pick out a line with the snow around. " I remarked.
" Yeah, we'll be in there in no time." Alex replied. "Two hours walk at the most. GPS and SAT NAV technology has taken all the mystery out these places nowadays. It's no fun anymore."
We set off at a good pace into a wild, bleak area of snowy mountains. It was fairly windy and the falling snow hitting our faces made it hard to see anything as we followed a roaring river into the desolation.
We were also carrying a bag of coal and kindling in for the fire.
After several hard miles a startled barn owl flew up from the wall of a building where it had been sheltering. Barn owls have an Achilles heel in that in order to fly silently at night their feathers are downy but not completely waterproof and they hate rain or heavy snow on them which tends to cling to the down surface and makes flying much harder.
" This must be it." Alex stated proudly. "The Original Secret bothy X. Still undiscovered by the masses!"
"It's certainly well hidden." John commented, looking at the outside. " Full marks for disguise." 
It turned out the bold custodians of secret bothy X had taken GPS and SAT NAV technology into account and given a false set of coordinates. We had arrived at secret hovel Y instead. All the glass had long ago departed from the windows, the floors were covered in rubble from collapsed ceilings on the upper level, the place had no doors and a poor dead frozen jackdaw adorned the bedroom. It made "Bleak House" look like a five star hotel. Unknown scampering things scampered in the rafters.

As we were completely spent, no other building had been observed nearby, and as it was a freezing raging blizzard outside we had no choice but accept our fate and make the best of it. We didn't have the energy to go anywhere else.
John swept the best looking floor of rubbish, (see above) I found a large section of plasterboard upstairs to block the open downstairs window with and then I constructed a makeshift fireplace just out from where the fireplace would have been. Having carried coal and kindling all this way it seemed stupid not to use it... with suitable caution of course as we only wanted a manageable fire that would keep us warm. Just as well we did have a fire as we were all damp after the walk in and the temperature was below freezing outside with a howling snowy wind. It also helped to keep hungry rats at bay.
As the coal was wet and difficult to burn at first it got rather smoky for a while but eventually it cleared and a good bed of embers built up.
I became quite proud of my wee fire as it did take the chill off the room and provided some much needed cheer. Alex was asleep by this time and snoring loudly so I had to smoke him awake again by furtively putting some fresh wet materiel on. Sorry. Poor boy was completely knackered and done in..
I stayed awake for a few hours enjoying the convivial ambiance of secret hovel Y. ( I did leave a space at the top of the window for smoke to get out and snow to blow in.)
In the morning we tidied up, hid the evidence of any fire, and left our ruin in the same immaculate state we found it in. Surprisingly, we were still alive and unchewed by vermin... although we had been well smoked overnight.
As we had arranged to meet Gail in Charlestown of Aberlour we headed down to this lovely spot beside the River Spey. It's actually on the long distance multi day Speyside Way. A first visit for most of us and we were pleasantly surprised by this prosperous looking place. The photo galleries within this link are worth a look.       
What used to be the railway station but now toilets and a tea room.
As this area is well known for its distilleries this is an appropriately shaped barrel building for a pub.
In the afternoon Gail arrived with her geocaching friend, having had a great time themselves hunting hidden things in a group. Corbett's seemed to be off the menu as both John and Alex were knackered and not in the mood for any more inclines.
" Is there a kipper shop in the town? Gail asked when she met us. " Very strong smell of smoked produce around here. It's usually top quality around this neck of the woods"
She learned the sad truth on the confined journey back....

The End.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Northern Gothic. Inverness.Ness islands.

                                              ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN
After an overnight stay on the Black Isle with our convivial hosts B and M, Alex and John were up early to bag another isolated Corbett. As the weather was even worse than the day before with rain, frequent snow showers, dark clouds and high winds over the mountains I elected to do a sunny coastal walk with the elusive M around Cromarty instead.(see first Northern Gothic post.)
Around lunch time my hosts kindly dropped me off in Inverness as they were going there anyway and I fancied a comprehensive city tour of the Highland Capital. I love city explorations (especially when it's grim on the mountain tops.) Above is Whin Park, a lovely area packed with interesting features like an extensive children's adventure playground, various colourful public shelters, ponds and a miniature railway running in summer. This area is situated near the city centre and lies very close to the River Ness so it's prone to flooding. The Caledonian Canal sits on one side of the park with the river on the other so winter flooding seems to be a regular occurrence now. Hope the miniature railway survives.  Pretty unique little railway this far north and a firm favourite with families.
I stayed briefly in this area around the Black Isle and Strathpeffer during the late 1970s- early 1980s and remembered Inverness and the walk round the islands well. The River Ness, the Ness islands and Whin park are the jewels in the crown of this northern city. Several ornate iron bridges span the fast flowing River Ness, connecting up the wooded islands in mid stream and a further bridge leads to the opposite bank.
A well made walking trail runs though them with good views and they are just as pretty as I remembered them.
View upstream from the islands.
Path on the Ness islands. The bulbs would indicate that they are lit at night during special events although the recent floods may have knackered them.
From here I continued up- river to where the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal almost join at a large weir across the river. At this point a heavy rain storm approached from the north and as there was little shelter on the open banks of the canal I scurried back towards the warm embrace of the city.  Good Inverness Map and Ness islands walk here.
Bellfield Park was my next port of call just as the first drops started then I crossed another bridge to visit St Andrew's Cathedral, The most northerly cathedral in the British Isles.
A large, squat, almost square building but beautiful inside. I neatly avoided a heavy shower by ducking within its massive wooden doors.
Jesus on a famous walking tour of his own.
Inside the cathedral.

Stained Glass Artwork.
Beautiful carving.

The heavy shower didn't last long and I was soon in blue skies and sunshine again while the northern mountains stayed black and dismal. A fine day for low level walking.
 Inverness Castle was my next port of call. This is a working castle as it is the highland capital court and not open to the public unless you are appearing before the bench or you are a visitor, a witness in a trial or on the jury.
I was mainly up here for the views over the city as Inverness does not have many urban hills within the built up districts.
One of the River Ness and the cathedral from the castle walkway.
Climbing up to the castle.
Inverness from the castle.
The main street and bridge over the river.
Flora Mac Donald's sculpure outside Inverness castle. Waiting in vain for the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
I had a wander round the town shopping district then headed for the Eastgate centre. If I,d remembered Inverness Botanic Gardens were open on a Sunday I'd have visited them as well for the glasshouses and fish filled indoor delights but I completely forgot about this attraction. Plenty of  things to see and do in Inverness though. Unfortunately, the Museum was shut on a Sunday and also the Victorian Arcade. See photo below.
The Caledonian is now a pub. This A listed ornate building used to be the Bank Of Scotland.
After a tour round the shopping streets I headed for the new covered in Eastgate Centre as another heavy shower was imminent.
Warm and dry again listening to the rain hammering outside on the roof.
The Eastgate Clock Display. Very Nice. A large modern shopping arcade on several levels.
As I'd arranged to meet Alex and John at Tiso's on the outskirts near the Kessock Bridge I had a wander down in that direction to see the old ferry slipway at South Kessock and ended up exploring under the bridge for a while before returning for a sticky bun and a coke in the indoor cafe. Another heavy rain shower avoided.
At five o'clock Tiso's shut their doors to the public and I spent a long chilly hour sitting on this wall outside waiting for my lift to arrive. Now I know how prostitutes feel waiting for a client as I watched cosy car after cosy car zoom past my frozen wall, hoping for a pick up. Any pick up.... as the freezing chill started to seep right into tired limbs. What if they failed to turn up? Where would I spend the night? Must be a cold, lonely profession. Me being me however, I soon became fascinated by the amount of moss growing beside me on the bare slab. An entire micro world of small scattered islands on a concrete sea. Must be the lack of light and damp air up here. It was a mini forest in its own right.
When my companions eventually arrived they had tales of gale force icy winds on the heights, frequent rain and savage sleet showers all day, wading knee deep melting snow in the gullies, raging burns in the glens, and murk laden invisible summits.
" One of the worst days I've had on a hill yet." muttered a shattered Alex. " Frozen and soaked beyond belief. Find me a warm hole to crawl into then let me die." He croaked. "Just shovel in the dirt."
"It was hard." a younger John admitted.
"That's the spirit. Only a few more to go now." I gave him a friendly pat on the back.
By now it was getting dark so we had much needed chip suppers for sustenance then braced our bodies for the long walk in to the fabled secret of all secrets... "the" original secret  bothy X...   We were not finished yet. Head torches and large packs would have to be shouldered and miles of tough ground covered before we could sleep tonight in this fabled luxury abode............. " just let me die in the car." Alex moaned. "The idea of a walk in the dark up an unfamiliar glen in winter has gone right off me now I,m here.......... I'd rather die in this motor than have a heart attack on the side of a hill somewhere during a blizzard......
......... To be continued.