Sunday 24 February 2019

Abington. Castle Hill. M74. Upper Reaches of the River Clyde.

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A rare day out with Alex and a hill for a change. As I get older, left to my own devices, I'm more interested, on solo trips, to do coastal walks, lower level tours, or visit interesting urban areas rather than mountains. Although I still enjoy them I really need company to motivate me towards the extra effort to go up them and unlike me, Alex has never deviated from a love of hill walks. To the point where he rarely suggests anything else, with me at least :)  Above is Abington village, right beside the busy M74, and the starting point for our walk.
A bridge over the River Clyde to get to the hills. At this point it's not far from its source in the mountainous Southern Uplands.
A young dancing river still at this crossing, soon to be joined by a dozen other mountain streams to swell its volume as it snakes across the valleys towards the central lowlands and Glasgow.
This was in December. Fairly cold but no snow anywhere. It's been a very mild winter so far with mid February breaking new ground as the warmest day since records began for Scotland at this time of year.
A kestrel looking for prey.
Coalburn bing. A area known for its open cast mines in the past. A few scattered villages still clinging on here now that heavy industry no longer provides employment locally.
Luckily the main artery of the M74 runs right through here connecting Scotland to England and Glasgow to Carlisle.
Likewise the young river beside the road, reaching Glasgow by a less direct alternative path through gorges, over waterfalls, into dark forests, wide sunlit valleys, then past farms, town and villages to finally reach the sea.
Us climbing the foothills with views spreading below.
A glimpse into the Camps Reservoir surrounded by wind turbines. This area has a rich abundance of these covering dozens of different hillsides with modern metal forests the new trees. The highest hill ranges down here stayed in the mist most of the day, only clearing by late afternoon.
Alex reaching his summit.
And we did the next in line. Raggengill Hill.
Tinto in the distance.
Returning to Abington Village where there is a large free car park, handy for these hills.
Sheeps in sunlight. The End.

Sunday 17 February 2019

Ayr Inland. A Brief History of Mine.

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Back in Ayr again but this time for a walk inland through Ayr itself. One of the real joys of going anywhere these days is finding out about the history of the areas I visit. It's probably also an age thing as in my younger days it was more about fleeting impressions seen in a blur of travel and sensory enjoyment/overload rather than any deeper thinking or analysis about what I observed. Also I was usually in company then and had to engage constantly with a group of equally energetic companions with different competing interests. Maybe it's that simple. Now I tend to think more about the objects I see in front of me and this trio of large buildings proved a perfect example.
I noticed them on my first trip down here (the initial walk along the beach one) and was immediately intrigued by their origins as they seemed so out of place with the neighbouring affluent but lower suburbia scattered around them. I thought at first they might be three grand mansions by rich industrialists but later found out they were purpose built like that in a neat row as Wellington School, built in the 1830s for fee paying pupils. For most of its life a prestigious boarding and day school for girls then later for both sexes. The model Kirsty Hume, Journalist and TV Presenter Kirsty Wark, and classical violinist Nicola Benedetti are all former pupils. Presumably one of the main reasons for sending pupils to fee paying schools and top universities is that they land the best jobs in society through a combination of hard work, ambition, talent, but also contacts and 'closed shop' institutions like the BBC and political/ city industries recruiting them, almost exclusively, from that background. Watching the recent Back in Time series it mentioned that in the 1960s and 1970s the optimism of ordinary folk in the UK after the war years appeared to be high as strides in social mobility had started to occur. More working class actors and actresses filtering into the entertainment industry in larger numbers being a very visual example of change during that period. Fast forward to the present day and its also obvious using that same litmus test entertainment genre for society in general it's reverted right back to the old order again, one of the reasons why so few programmes on TV feature working class families anymore except for the dire and utterly miserable East Enders where they are always biting chunks out of each other every episode. It's all Poirot, Downton Abbey, Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders to keep well heeled thespians with posh ascents in work. I do enjoy all these programmes but it is a noticeable change from previous decades, that presumably reflects a shift across wider society into two distinct camps despite so many young folk going into university education from every background... and it's not my imagination either :o)  
Although, going by the main shopping streets, it does not give that appearance, Ayr is a town with big money invested over many, many years- in the past and even today. Large well to do suburbs cover much of Ayr with leafy broad streets and sizable detached houses that would not look out of place in Bearsden, upmarket Glasgow or Edinburgh.
I suspect nowadays most of the residents of these fine streets do their shopping online thus avoiding the congested traffic of the town centre, any parking hassles, and the general downtrodden look of the main shopping district, which has a very strong feeling of depressed decay. I don't blame them as I would too if I was pushed for time and inclined to do most purchasing transactions online by habit, living locally. This does have consequences though. On my handful of visits here and other places Scotland wide only the poorest appear to frequent the high street shopping districts nowadays in person as a general rule and this is an honest snapshot as a first time visitor wandering around the place. It could be the type of shops however, mainly low budget outlets or specialist stores, perhaps reflecting that same pronounced divide in society that has evolved during the last 15 years. Either Waitrose or Poundland retail wise- with not much in-between in most urban areas in my vicinity. Previous visits to Saltcoats, Kilmarnock, Ardrossan, Prestwick, etc lends me a template of other clyde coast town shopping districts to compare with and they are similarly depressed looking in atmosphere with a larger working class coefficient in them ('austerity puddles' as Anne wickedly calls them, somewhat unkindly) but the big difference in the case of Ayr is, unlike the other towns, it has a very visible and largely affluent resident population as well, just going by house size alone, although some are now care homes, hotels, and the like.

 In short I expected the town centre to look much better than it did - more upmarket and tidy, given the income bracket of the surrounding area... but it was actually worse. Also, given that record numbers of people are in work, according to government figures, and supposedly lifted out of poverty, how come there always appears to be ever increasing levels of walking wounded, assorted anti social damaged souls, the left behind, and the frankly unemployable in any large town or city I've been in during the last five years- and that's local accents not immigrants. Surely with so many universities, colleges and other centres of learning the standard of education, opportunities, and general collective intelligence of the local population should also jump up creating a more balanced ordered society. But that's not the impression I get, wandering around. Something doesn't add up. Despite the propaganda recent predictions (in the Guardian) warn that another million UK households containing children with be pushed into poverty within the next few years.
I mention this because of the old Conservative ideology and way of thinking that if you funnel money to the richest in society it will trickle down to the poor eventually and Ayr is a perfect test tube for that theory as it should have has the right blend of residents. An ordinary Ayr housing estate above, where the base of the pyramid mainly resides so a half and half fairly mixed population of income brackets- rich and poor. I mention this not for any axe to grind or class prejudice but just because, as a first time wanderer, through the shopping district here, I was shocked and saddened by how downtrodden and neglected it looked with empty shops and untidy period buildings everywhere. It looked very shabby. Town centre buildings that should be preserved with Ayr's long proud history. Unfortunately, these two tribes of the modern UK live very separate lives and rarely meet anywhere- a process from way back that's only increased with technology as a facilitator to make them less likely to interact. Separate world's entirely. Today, the money never trickles down, only up, against the laws of gravity. In a cashless society, which big business is continually pushing towards, that may only get worse.  Poor districts just become poorer, year by year,- in post industrial urban areas a normal trend over many decades now if you squeeze any remaining wealth from them via austerity measures and benefit cuts. A downward spiral for many unlucky areas. That's my take on it anyway.

Having said that many immigrants from overseas still do believe that the UK offers abundant opportunities for advancement denied to them elsewhere so maybe that has some bearing on the equation.
I could put a dozen or more photos of Ayr High Street full of empty shops on here but this one will do. The historic Fish Cross where people have gathered to buy produce for over 800 years. 800 years of trading eroded away in a single decade/generation in our case.
Fish Cross info. The red flower on the fish almost stands as a lament for the death of the High Street. Ayr is and was a real shopping jewel of the Clyde coast with more shops per head of population than almost any other town its size in Scotland. And a great variety of independent stores and high street chains. My point being if Ayr looks like this, with its wealthy hinterland of affluent suburbs then there's little hope of revival for other places unless they have additional compelling attractions to pull punters in. Ayr still has loads of shops and three covered period arcades, which I enjoyed exploring, but my main feeling was one of decline and free fall in the retail sector here. And the reason that matters most is one of job losses as I'd imagine retail is a major or even the largest employer in any town centre or busy village throughout the UK, especially for young people and women, given the low wages. ( Shortly after my visit I learned that Ayr's first major department store, Hourstons, opened in the late 1800s, closed its doors after 100 plus years of trading with the loss of 81 jobs) Multiply that by several hundred shops in this single town and you get some idea of the numbers affected.
So although I enjoyed my wander around the shopping district, especially at Christmas, I was also dismayed by the obvious poverty of the empty buildings and the obvious poverty of the fellow shoppers around me. No homeless folk visible here in doorways  just a general look of seen better times in every street I visited with pawn shops, cash converters and budget stores the busiest places around.
As night descended it actually improved the look of the place as the empty store fronts diminished and Christmas lights took over.
My mood improved dramatically with the coming of darkness and I got my sparkle back again. Outside the Gaiety Theatre, seen here, I found myself suddenly surrounded and ambushed by laughing young children wearing flashing head gear, illuminated unicorn horns, glowing fake antlers, and the like, having seen a pantomime show inside. Being a single lone male in this age of rampant pedophilia this discombobulated me somewhat and I swiftly backhanded a few of these irritating little munchkins crowding around to clear a path and keep myself safe from any suspicion. Alas, that turned out to be completely the wrong thing to do as well and I was soon chased down the street by angry parents regardless. Who knew keeping a healthy distance could be so problematic and divisive?
I was more in my comfort zone here, earlier in the day, surrounded by wildlife. Mature woodlands in Belleisle Park in Ayr. I remembered this park/estate being rather grand, surrounded by upmarket suburbs so I was keen to reacquaint myself with its delights. Unfortunately major restoration work was taking place here thanks to a lottery grant so it was half beautiful park/ half building site at the moment but will be back to its former glory soon.
The grand mansion, currently closed and under restoration.
Rare breeds sheep. The park also has a few deer in a nearby enclosure.
A visit to the glasshouse came next.
Which was very nice inside.
and warm on a cold winter day.
I then visited Seafield House nearby, currently unoccupied but a sick children's hospital until the early 1990s.
Info on it here. Before that it belonged to Sir William Arrol, an extraordinary engineer who had a real talent for planning then building metal structures with a CV that included Brighton Pier, Glasgow's Central Station Bridge, London's Tower Bridge, The Forth Rail Bridge and Dundee's Tay Bridge. Wow.
His story here.
And lastly St Johns Tower, all that remains of a larger building on this walled plot of land. A 14th century tower that, as I mentioned in a previous Ayr post a couple of weeks ago, appears to have inspired more modern buildings along the Ayr waterfront, imitating its clean vertical lines for up to date housing stock. (The neglected period buildings around the High Street I've not included but if they occurred in Edinburgh, for instance, money would soon be found to preserve them. Paisley has the same problem with a very rich heritage of period architecture in serious decline but not enough money available to save or restore them all- same with Glasgow.


Sunday 10 February 2019

Ayrshire Coastal Path. Ayr to Dunure via Bower Hill Headlands.

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On the first visit to the west coast seaside town of Ayr on the beach walk I was looking across at the Carrick Hills and Bower Hill but the tide was covering most of Ayr beach that day so I knew the continuation walk on-wards to Dunure would be out of bounds as it's only accessible at low tide. A couple of weekends later therefore I was back again to do this longer walk of around 12 km, most of it under rugged cliffs and headlands where the Carrick Hills stop abruptly by plunging into the sea. Above is Ayr Beach, this time at low tide.
As I walked along I was watching a dog chasing the seabirds off the beach then saw something I've observed before with crows and ravens. Highly intelligent birds rather than being scared they flew up into the air and then seemed to enjoy mobbing the dog as much as the dog enjoyed chasing them. It was definitely a two way thing with the crows taunting the dog for its lack of ability to catch them, flying just in front  or swooping down near its head. Rather than attacking it they seemed to be in play mode, something that has been noted before between husky sled dogs and wild polar bears. The bear could easily kill and eat the chained dogs but the dogs, being vulnerable and static, adopted the 'play card' response and surprisingly the bear took up this offer. With otherwise hard lives dedicated to the continual hunt for food certain animals do seem to have a capacity for fun and games and will play with each other, even across species.
Half the time in this interaction the birds were deliberately chasing the dog who seemed to appreciate it although the wily crows definitely appeared to be the smarter of the two species playing the game. Even the gulls joined in, halfheartedly. A view across to Arran above. Contrasting this scene with that of a fox as a predator and the body language would be very different with a fox totally intent on getting a meal, probably trying to sneak in unnoticed, rather than barking and galloping in with a lot of noise and an obvious charge along the beach. It was fun to watch as well.
A curlew doing what curlews do best which is probing into soft sand or mud with its beak to find food. This is the main reason you will find curlews and other waders by the coast or in marshy ground as it needs to be soft enough material to do that.
Same bird who seems to have found something, maybe a razor clam under the sand.
A view of where I was heading. Greenan Castle beyond the River Doon estuary and the Carrick Hill headlands. This next stretch is uninhabited and one of the wildest stretches of the Ayrshire Coastal Path. It's also better attempted on a falling tide as you only have a few hours before the waves are coming in again right up to the cliffs. The ruined castle dates to the 16th century as a tower house but evidence of an earlier more basic fortress predates it, built around the 12th century.
There is a car park here at Doonfoot, just west of the River Doon but as I had taken the bus I walked from Ayr itself. Coming by car you could start the Ayr to Dunure walk from here, saving a few km. Greenan Shore is a local nature reserve. See info board above.
Redshank. A wader wading.
Heading for Bower Hill across the sands. At this point the coastal walk is pleasant and easy, at low tide, but further on it gets harder to make good time.
A distant view of Ayr getting left behind. This is a zoomed shot as it's much further away than this photo suggests.
A lone walker under Greenan Castle. The only other person spotted on this walk after crossing the River Doon until I reached Dunure. It's still very easy to find solitude in Scotland if you go to unfashionable places away from the tourist hot spots. Judging by the grassy paths inland once away from the coast this section of the Ayrshire Coastal Path does not get that many visitors, which is good to see. The River Doon district of Ayrshire used to be well known for its hanging trees where old time justice reached a speedy conclusion.
The low tide traverse under Bower Hill Headland. A committing stretch this with few escape routes if the tide turns.
In some places slippy going underfoot across seaweed and flat rock. As this section is under several feet of water at high tide it's not a place travelling alone to slip or fall. Years ago a friend had a climbing accident falling from a rock route on a sea cliff and was badly injured with the tide coming in. If he hadn't been with companions who carried him to safety and got help and medical assistance he would have drowned under the rising waves- something you have to take into consideration walking on your own over tricky ground like this.
Bower Hill. A sunlit arete.
Bower Hill cliffs.
I had a choice of routes here once past Bower Hill. A signpost for the Ayrshire Coastal Path led inland across grassy fields but as I'd never walked the next stretch of coastline before I fancied this unofficial route instead. I hadn't bothered to look it up beforehand online as that takes away any mystery so I was unaware if I could make it around the next two headlands  past Bracken Bay, seen here.
At this point the sun disappeared and the route suddenly became more serious in feel with awkward walking underfoot and the speed of travel across the ground went right down. The true distance back towards Ayr seen above.
A lonely bleak stretch this section with no certainty I would get around the next headland or find any escape routes up into the fields. Although lower the cliffs here were still steep and coated with thorn bushes like gorse and impenetrable, tightly packed scrub.
As a compensation for that five or six caves could be found along this stretch although most were dank and inhospitable places to spend more that five minutes exploring. Unbidden, I thought of the 16th century cannibal family Sawney Bean at this point who reputedly lived in a sea cave on the same stretch of coastline, not that far away at Bennane Head near Girvan. Hiding in a deep cave inaccessible at high tide this large incestuous family would creep out at night and murder luckless travellers, carrying the bodies back to eat. Although there is no hard evidence to prove they ever existed the wild coastline and uplands between here and Stranraer, known as Galloway was always a savage area populated by equally savage tribes in past times. Ayrshire by comparison was civilized, fertile and low lying. Looking at the history of the mountainous interior of Galloway during previous centuries and the well documented warlike tendencies of the inhabitants, an area known for fierce fighters in any battle, a few incidents of savagery and cannibalism probably did take place but only through desperation and starvation in dire times rather than a preference to eat human flesh. Wrecking ships and claiming salvage rights or gaining wealth through spoils of war were the main ways to prosper in these remote upland districts or preying on more settled farmlands below which probably gave rise to the legend of Sawney Bean- known throughout the world. Strange how it was placed in just this one area though yet over in the east and not the west was where most of the witch burning took place. Each area prone to outside influences and its own unique character traits. Funnily enough Sawney Bean was originally from the east coast- an outsider supposedly. Couldn't have a local family involved in such darkness. It's always an outsider in these tales-beware the stranger rather than your own kin... even today that rule applies. Not always wisely or correct, just tapping into primal fears of contact with unknown groups.
Of all the caves along here this one was definitely the finest. The one nearest the waterfall which possessed a flat dry floor, good views out to sea and was high enough up on the cliff face to deter any sheep from reaching it. Running through farmland this stream would not be safe to drink. I have occasionally slept in caves before during coastal walks but it is not something I enjoy much on my own. Quite creepy at night if you have a vivid imagination for all the weird sounds you hear in the long deep dark of winter evenings.The sun disappearing affected the mood somewhat, even now, making it bleak and cold in winter without its warmth, and I couldn't put my finger on it but this stretch was not that enjoyable or friendly feeling as a result. It had a grim aspect on this occasion with a cold raw wind.. Not the cave but the general coastline at this point felt intimidating and somewhat serious in nature. Rugged but certainly not beautiful at this point. Hard going underfoot as well.
Probably due to the tough walking conditions, the sea being very close to the cliffs and no handy escape routes.
The Sawney Bean story here as this seemed a fitting place to put it. A fascinating glimpse into Scotland's dark past in medieval times where history of common folk gets hazy. Even a prominent real life figure like William Wallace is unclear, his low status early life largely undocumented but he grew up either in Ayrshire or Renfrewshire, Elderslie being the best guess.

I reached as far as the next headland but it was slow tedious progress with the tide coming in fast and me getting pissed off and tired boulder hopping constantly- speed down to a crawl. Looking ahead there was no end to the cliffs in sight and I was going really slow now so I reluctantly turned back before my retreat was cut off by the incoming tide. My curiousity was satisfied. Not saying you couldn't get round this way just it was really tedious and desperate underfoot for an old guy like me who realized I still had a fair few miles to cover before the sun disappeared. I retraced my steps past the caves and took the signposted far easier route inland over the grassy fields.
As if to confirm it was a wise move the sun came out again and easy walking on good paths lifted my mood back to full enjoyment of the surroundings. The dark cliffs and boulder hopping slow pace of my aborted coastal romp can be seen here behind the sheep where the edge of the land drops vertically into the sea. An hour beforehand that was where I was with the tide coming in.
On the uphill inland section of the official path. Ayr in the distance.
Two crows and a buzzard. Unlike the play aspect of the crows and dog there was no love lost between crows and buzzard as they harassed it constantly until it disappeared into the distance.
Very different body language from the dog interaction.
Back down onto the rocky shoreline and only a few km from Dunure. Ailsa Craig in the distance here. A steep rocky island home to many breeding seabirds.
And finally the small coastal community of Dunure. I was very glad to reach this haven, also containing a ruined castle and rugged coastal cliffs. Here I intended to get a local bus back to Ayr but I bumped into a fellow keen photographer who kindly gave me a lift in his car back to Ayr. Many thanks as it saved me a long wait. An enjoyable day out. Around a 12km, five hour walk, longer and harder if you go off route and round the extra headlands at low tide.