Day 8: A Pilgrimage to Carfin

The Eighth part of our Director Kat’s fundraising walk around the Green Belt of Greater Glasgow. This time, a very short jaunt from Cleland to Carfin in North Lanarkshire via one of the largest derelict sites in Europe, Ravenscraig.

Note: Of all the green belt walks I have done so far this is the only one that had paths the whole way and would comprise a very enjoyable walk. With this in mind I am sharing the route on the OS app for people to follow – it’s around 6.5km (2km longer if you do station to station) and you could take the train from Carfin back to Cleland. Let me know how you find it. Kat

Those readers who have been following my blogs will recall that I have been saving a short section of the walk for my friend John, who was disappointed to miss the walk to Carfin Grotto.  John’s primary school had been right opposite the shrine, and he’d glowed with nostalgia when I mentioned the place. 

I planned that we should do it on a Sunday afternoon, with the aim of arriving for the weekly Procession that I’d seen highlighted on the noticeboard the last time I’d been there, “3pm throughout the Pilgrimage season from April to October” it declared, along with a large poster showing priests clad in white robes carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary on a litter. It looked fascinating.  

John had done his research ahead of the walk, unlike me, and had proposed a detour from my planned route to visit the house he lived in until he was ten and to recreate his daily walk to school, which would end at the Grotto. He’d discovered that it was Carfin Grotto’s annual pilgrimage day.  “Parking will be a nightmare” he told me on the phone as we planned the logistics.  Sure enough, when we arrived at Carfin, a full two hours ahead of the event, traffic cones lined every street and stewards already stood in the car parks marshalling those with disabled badges into place. 

We parked a fair way away from the Grotto and then drove a couple of miles to Cleland. John filled me in on the famous footballers who had come from the area1, his mum’s cousin had been scout for Celtic (and provost of Motherwell), who had recruited many of Celtic’s famous Lisbon Lions team. (For those as ignorant as me, the Lisbon Lions were the first British team to win the European cup in Lisbon in 1967, All of them born within 30 miles of Glasgow.)   

John didn’t seem to have got the memo about footwear and showed up with his smartest trainers on. He had brought their black cockapoo Chappie who seemed up for the challenge. We set off down a lovely country lane, closed to traffic, leading southwards out of Cleland towards Ravenscraig, famous for its enormous steel works which closed in 1992.  

There were thick hedges either side and sycamores and oaks grew at intervals as we descended towards the River Calder.  On our right was a tall stone wall with dressed top-stones in a delicate curve. There was a very fine view over the Clyde valley and John pointed out the tower blocks of East Kilbride up on the hill to the west. “My Dad moved us to East Kilbride when I was around 10” he said. His Dad, having grown up with the smog of central Glasgow, was obsessed by clean air and worried about the effect the pollution from the steel works was having on his family.  “The snow fell yellow, which can’t have been good”.

But many of his family stayed close by and John pointed out the Motherwell tower blocks, “That’s where all my aunties lived.”  

While John and Chappie wandered at leisure, I strode out in front checking the time. I was anxious to get to Carfin by 3 o’clock.  John, meanwhile was blazé. He’d been dragged to many a service at the grotto with his mother, who, as a teacher at the local school, was more or less expected to attend. “The service will definitely last two hours, probably more,” he advised. There was absolutely no hurry.   

The road we were on skirted around the top of a steep river bank covered in ash and sycamore. We left the road to find a place where ‘footbridge’ was marked on the map – a direct route into Ravenscraig. But it wasn’t looking particularly auspicious – the indistinct path picked its way through jungles of giant knotweed and, when we reached the river, it was clear that the ‘footbridge’ was, yet again, a pipe line over the river with absolutely no pedestrian access. 

We had to divert over another bridge and then backtrack through the woods. We tried a couple of paths until we found the trails we wanted to be on – passing a large hole in the ground with a fence round which bore a sign that had seen better days. ‘The Coal Authority, No Entry. Danger’  it proclaimed. We peered down the hole, curious to see how far it went but all I could see was a wooden grid over an indentation of fallen leaves . The rest of the walk through the wood we took with care, there were a lot of indentations in the ground covered with leaves.

The green belt at this point follows the edge of what was Ravenscraig. A site which, when it was built, was the most sophisticated steel strip mill in Europe and one of the largest, covering an area of 1200 acres. After it closed in 1992 it became the largest derelict site in Europe. And that way it has stayed. The online map of the vacant and derelict land register shows the complete contrast between the west central belt and the east. Around Edinburgh there is hardly any vacant and derelict land marked, but the whole greater Glasgow area is spattered with a constellation of sites, many a couple of acres or less, but with a few giants, the largest, by far, being Ravenscraig.   

When I was working at SNH in the early 2000s,  there was much discussion about decontaminating the site and the redevelopment that would happen.  We walked past an estate of houses had been built and a large sports complex. But a huge amount of the site is still derelict. A Master plan Review for the site done in 2017 is informative reading and had representation from a resident who moved into those first houses “under the impression there was gong to be a new primary school, a train station and a shopping centre….there isn’t even so much as a local shop to buy rolls in the morning. I personally think that there should be a local shop as between Ravenscraig and Ravenscliff there are no local shops” 

We knew immediately that we were on the Ravenscraig site as the flora changed from a lush vegetation of hedgerows and wildflowers, to the characteristic flora of a post industrial site with its thin and contaminated soils. We came across what would have once been an enormous road. “Imagine the size of vehicles that this was designed to carry” said John. We walked up this boulevard through a patchwork of concrete bases of what must have been giant buildings, with spindly birches growing up. Every now and again a birch had managed to root through the road and grew up defiantly from the tarmac.  

I’ve just started reading ‘Motherwell’ by Deborah Orr – a memoir of her childhood. The opening words in the prologue fill in the gaps in my imagination of the scene that would have stood before me: 

“That view. That stunning dystopian panorama. A world unto itself. Stretched out, perfectly flat as far as the horizon. Monochrome, like the telly, except for the occasional blast of custard. Spikes of flame so fast moving that they seemed solid, roared implacably into the sky, day and night. Gas burn off.  
A steelworks twice the size of Monaco….The black thumping heart of our town” 

Deborah Orr, Motherwell

John grew animated as we passed under a railway bridge which soared overhead on stone pillars and red steel. Before us was an utterly vast slab of concrete and regenerating birch woodland. “There were huge blue buildings here. I did a school project on the steel industry so my auntie’s friend took me through a hole in the fence” he said. John had been given an unofficial tour, given a hard hat, and taken into the building with the continuous casting machines. “They said “just push that button” so I did, and the machine started firing out molten steel at about 40mph.”  

I tried to imagine the size of the buildings on this vast site; the noise, the smoke.

What fascinated me on the map was a tentacle of greenbelt which ventured into the heart of Ravenscraig. It looked like a wooded river gorge. But it came to a sharp end, the contours showing a steep bank curving to contain the river and then, beyond that, flat ground.  This was a place just crying out to be explored. 

We walked perpendicular to the line of the former mill buildings and that stray shoot of greenbelt was just alongside us. I mentioned to John that we must be close to the site of the disappearing river and headed down along a tiny path in the grass, hardly walked by anyone, but most definitely there. In a few meters we came upon a gate and a better path taking us down to our destination. John seemed impressed. “you’re like a Jedi for paths” he said.  

I suppose it was true – with each successive green belt walk I was spending less time thrashing about where no man (or woman) had ever trod, and more time finding places people had already found. I was getting better at spotting where people had walked. 

The path took us to the teenager trinity of discarded drinks containers; Strongbow Dark Fruits, Dragon Soup, and Mad Dog 2020 (some things never change). In addition we found that Lanarkshire staple, the tonic wine Buckfast.  My friend Jill from Coatbridge always delighted in telling me tales from when her town invited the Abbot of Buckfastleigh Abbey to switch on the Christmas lights. A true Lanarkshire celebrity.   

This was another gathering spot for local young people. And you could see why. Within the woodland setting a tunnel shaped like a half-buried ellipse was set in a backdrop of slag, with a river running out of it. If we’d had a couple of torches with us instead of Chappie the cockapoo, I think I might have been able to pursued John to explore it with me. Instead we climbed up the slag to the housing estate above, picking up a couple of pieces, glassy and rippled, as souvenirs. 

John was determined to take me to the other side of the tunnel, where the river flowed into the immense slagheap. After a couple of false starts we found our way around the back of another housing estate past a couple of no entry signs and down a bramble- covered slope to a flat meadow below.  We were surprised to see a group of four people and a dog sitting on a circle of stones, the first people we had seen on our walk, and they were even more surprised to see us.  A hundred meters further on was the same elliptical tunnel and the river flowing out of the hillside of tumbling slag. 

We climbed up another slag heap, this time with a woodland growing out of it, into a new housing estate. When we stopped for breath at the top, John pointed out a view over the valley to the remaining Dalziel Works, the mill that both pre-dated, and outlasted Ravenscraig. It was sky-blue, “the colour of British Steel” said John and had towering chimneys. I tried to imagine what that would look like 20 times the size. 

We were now close to John’s old home and he posed in front of it for photos, before taking me to what was the playpark in his day, now a multisport court and a field of grass. We could see the rise of a bing just beyond, with a man walking his dog along the spine, and then the flat expanse of Ravenscraig.  He showed me a photo he’d found online that had been taken from this exact spot in the 1980s showing the city of vast sheds and chimneys billowing smoke.  “In winter you could feel the heat of it on your face from here” he said. 

We continued up into Carfin to John’s old school, built of dark creosoted wood – he couldn’t believe it had survived pretty much unchanged since the 1970s. By this time we were at Carfin Grotto. We crossed the road to find at least 1000 people seated on foldable plastic chairs on the red gravel in front of the shrine. An A4 notice which had been printed and laminated was attached to the railings. In Capital letters it said “UNLESS IT IS THE LORD CALLING SWITCH OFF YOUR MOBILE PHONES” 

We picked our way as quietly as we could over the gravel and stood with the others who hadn’t managed to find a seat, arriving just in time for the collection. John explained to me in hushed tones that there was a Ukrainian bishop leading the mass to pray for Peace in Ukraine. There must have been about 50 priests there, as well as a goodly number of bishops (you could tell by the mitres).

It really was a spectacle to behold. 

John started to get worried that we’d get to a point in the service where everyone would need to kneel on the gravel and suggested we leave. Which we did, but not before observing that much fewer people kneel on the gravel than back in John’s day.

Of all the green belt walks I have done so far this is the only one that had paths the whole way and would comprise a very enjoyable walk. With this in mind I am sharing the route on the OS app for people to follow – let me know how you find it. Kat



  1. Footballers such as Billy McNeil and Iain St John and managerial legends like Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein ↩︎

If you’d like to read about the other green belt walks you can do so here

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