A Ramble from Lochwinnoch

This route is day 15 of Kat’s circumnavigation of the Greater Glasgow Green Belt. Helen Todd of Ramblers Scotland joins in to chat about Access and campaigns and they have an encounter with a herd of Spanish Fighting Bulls.

I’d been meaning to arrange a walk with Helen Todd of the Ramblers since I started this green belt adventure. A chance to chat about the Land Reform Act and our ‘Right to Roam’, and to collaborate over some of our shared aims around countryside and landscape. But when, on one of my walks, I found that the core path I was following didn’t exist on the ground, I emailed Helen to find why core paths also weren’t marked on OS maps and arranged this walk.

I met Helen and her bike at Lochwinnoch station on one of those perfectly clear, bright, and bone-chillingly cold days you sometimes get in winter, but usually not in November. We started with figuring out how to fit her bike into my car and then drove up to the Muirshiel car park, sitting just a little below the 250m contour.

As we drove we chatted about Coul Links, the incredible dune system under threat, yet again, from a golf course development – the decision was due in the next week or so. Ramblers were one of the NGOs involved in the campaign  to save Coul Links the first time around. It is one of the very last natural dune systems left in eastern Scotland, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an internationally designated Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar site.

“It’s so frustrating” said Helen, it takes so much time and resource to fight these things.”

Many people reading this will have participated in the campaign – signing petitions, writing to MSPs, even attending protests. The decision went to judicial review and the NGOs won. So why are we revisiting it you may ask? Well that’s because the developer has gone back with a revised application. I ask Helen how much has been revised. 

“Very little, she says, especially in the main areas we were objecting to” she says. “What outcome are we expecting, I asked. Well the planners have recommended refusal but the same planning committee who passed it last time will be making the decision.” (update in postscript)

Scrambling round the Rhododendrons to follow a long-since overgrowth track at Castle Semple Country Park

At the car park we extracted Helen’s bike from the boot, and mine, and started on a 7km freewheel back down the hill to Castle Semple Loch, and the start of our walk. It was a joyous descent, not steep enough to have your brakes squealing with the effort, and just above freezing so we didn’t have to worry about ice. It was a long, lovely glide, starting up in the moorland with a view of the shining lochs below and taking us through woods, past the web of roots on a windblown beech tree and eventually into the village of Lochwinnoch.

Ramblers Scotland have been at the forefront of the access movement since they were established. Led by the formidable Dave Morris, they were key in enshrining our rights into law in the 2003 Land Reform Act, and they have been active, ever since, in challenging those who transgress Scotland’s access legislation.

Dave Morris was in attendance at an event organised by Right to Roam, the English campaign for a right of access, on the Scottish Border back in September. He and a couple of stalwarts of the Scottish access campaign were there to mark 20 years since the Land Reform Act (Scotland) 2023 and to hand over a copy of a Draft Bill for England. Andy Wightman, who brought together the Draft Bill, explained the situation in Scotland as he handed it over to one of the campaigners. 

“We already had access to all the upland areas – but we needed the legislation to make it clearer that people also had access rights over countryside in the lowland areas,” he said as part of his speech.

The remnants of Gockstane Wood on a prominent hill at West Mitchelton Farm

It was very much in this spirit that Helen and I set off on our walk. I’d assumed that this section of walk would be straightforward – there must be a path linking two major car-parks within the Regional Park: one at the Strathclyde loch in Lochwinnoch, and and one up the hill at Muirsheil. But no path existed and, if we didn’t want to walk along the road, we had to find an alternative route which would mean the usual tramping across fields, through gates and over the odd fence, with a start along the paths of Castle Semple country park.

The disused railway was lined with hawthorns, heavy with berries and full of birds. Two white rumps, a pair of bullfinches, bounced out of a bush and along the cycle path ahead, while a clammer of fieldfares moved through the hawthorns, stripping them bare. 

The path took us through a gate with an opening mechanism for horse riders and I commented on it.  “One of  the first cases  that took place after the Land Reform Act was about horse access” said Helen. The Tuley Case was brought by a landowner who had put in paths and wanted to stop horse riders from using it as he felt they were damaging the paths. The landowner lost at first but won on appeal and the result was that the landowner had the power to decide whether damage was likely to be caused and close a path. 

“This result set back the cause of access because it relied on a subjective assessment of what landowners were thinking.” said Helen. “For example, they could claim they had locked a gate to keep out fly-tippers, rather than to block access”. This decision made it difficult to challenge landowners preventing access under the Land Reform Act. 

“Fortunately the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park finally won a case at appeal”. Said Helen. This was the Drumlean case at Loch Ard where the judges clearly said that any test about obstructions had to be based on the effect of the blockage, not what a landowner was thinking. “Common sense prevailed at last!” 

The ruins of a Grotto at Castle Semple, once a place where Victorian ladies and gentlemen would go to see the landscaped grounds and views of the Temple Folly.

The path was wooded on either side now and we stopped at an overgrown Victorian grotto to read the poem on an interpretation panel. Surrounded by a tangle of woodland, we wondered what it would have been like to come and sit here in the grotto a century and a half ago, and see landscaped lochs and parkland designed to draw the eye to the Temple Folly on a distant hill.   

Parkhill woods folds secrets to their heart

Behind translucent landscape skin

Sometimes before the darkening of day

in an eerie play of light

The golden finger of a solitary sunbeam shaft

Can throw up shadows of the people who have been

Poem on Interpretation at Castle Semple – Author unknown

Our time on the well-made paths of the country park was now over and we branched off through a thicket of scrub to follow, what was marked as a track on the ordnance survey map. We soon had to climb over a sturdy metal gate in a deer fence, evidence that this was, once-upon a-time, a well-used route. On the other side rhododendrons completely blocked the path but we managed to get around and back onto the ancient track which led us to some derelict farm buildings.  It had been a long time since the buildings were in use and most of the asbestos roof of a brick stables or pig shed lay cracked on the ground among bricks, mud and rotten wood.

I’d only had to climb over a couple of deer fences on my green belt walk so far – and both times I’d been able to find an easy to climb spot, with posts to stand on, evidently places other people had done the same thing.

The track to the Kaim Dam

“One of our access cases recently was about a deer fence” said Helen. “Often a lack of access officers in Local Authorities means that sometimes things are missed in the planning system – In this case a deer fence had been put up along a road1 but access was not provided for people to cross the fence. Locals were unable to take access they had taken previously to enjoy the woodland and lochs beyond the fence. “One of our members raised a complaint. But as far as I know nothing has changed yet.”

We started up a farm track and came past a farmhouse with an older man sitting in his conservatory – I waved and he came out to chat.

“Not many people come this way, are you from the village?” he asked, and waved us up the track beside the house. “It’s a bit muddy” he said.

“A bit muddy” was a major understatement. We slopped through calf-deep mud mixed with cow pats, but this was the least of our problems. I quickly worked out why not many people pass this way – young cows were all over the place – on the track, in the farmyard and in all the fields. They were jumpy and startled by our every move. Eventually we worked out a route that avoided them as much as possible, but maximised our contact with mud. On the gate of a field was a half broken sign that had once said ‘footpath’.

A field of bullocks square up to us as we pass their field.

Towards the hilltop we passed a field of black bullocks which looked remarkably like Spanish fighting bulls – they had those horns that were flat across their foreheads and which curled up at the ends – with back tips. Their coats were jet back. The herd ran towards us when they saw us and then kept backing off and mock charging. If it hadn’t been for the fact that there were two fences between us and them – either side of a hedge – then I doubt that we would be here to tell the tale.

This prompted a bit of a discussion on farmer liability for dangers on their land.

It must have once been a footpath ….

“There’s a challenge at the moment from landowners concerned about what happens when people put up their walks on Strava or the OS maps app and they are public on the internet, yet landowners and farmers might not know about these routes.” 

“There was this discussion when the Land Reform Bill was going through Parliament of course, but it’s come up again with all the internet apps”

Only one of my green belt walks up to now had been straightforward or pleasant enough to post as a public walk – the one from Clelland to Carfin – but apparently the plethora of walks going up on web platforms is causing concern among farmers who worry that they might be liable for accidents that happen on their land when people follow these walks

This issue is very live for Ramblers Scotland as they have a project where volunteers are mapping Scotland’s Paths, which will then go online.  This project was born, partly out of the long saga of trying (and failing) to get the core paths marked on the OS maps, and partly because there are so many paths in addition to core paths that are not marked on any maps, and could be a wonderful resource for walkers.  NatureScot is seeking legal advice, but Ramblers Scotland believes there shouldn’t be any impact on the duty of care farmers and landowners already have. 

“We all take access at our own risk, but clearly major hazards like quarry edges, need warning signs or fencing.” said Helen2.

The walk continued up and past a reservoir through an area of new Sitka planting. I was a bit worried about whether we would be able to get through but, satisfyingly, there were gates into and out of the deer fence at exactly the right places for our walk, and then it was only a short squelch to take us into the established plantation. A circular walk through the wood was marked on the core paths map which took us almost as far as Windy Hill and the track to the Muirshiel carpark.

We climbed over a low drystone wall and headed across the bog just as the low sun dipped under the clouds and bathed everything in a beautiful golden light. The most boggy and unpromising of landscapes is transformed to gold in that magical light, just before sunset. It felt like we were the subjects of an award-winning photograph of the Flow Country, and not in a bog in Renfrewshire. We posed for photos and then squelched onward. 

“Landscape is so important, it’s so much more than a nice view” said Helen, as we were on the final stretch to the car-park. “It’s the biodiversity that it contains, it’s the livelihoods it supports.” She told me about some Visit Scotland research that found that walking is worth £1.2 billion a year to Scotland’s economy.

“And it’s somewhere people get joy and exercise – access is such an important part of that. What’s the joy of going to the gym to get exercise when you could be slopping through mud and cowpats?”

“Quite” I said, looking down at my mud-caked wellies and my trousers splattered all-over with the story of our day’s walk.  

Postscript: Coul Links

I started writing this blog on the day that we heard the result of this new application so here is an update. 

The planning committee have approved the application. After hundreds of thousands of hours of NGO and campaigner time, an in-depth and exhaustive public inquiry had turned it down back in 2019. But a very very similar application had once-again been approved by the Planning Committee.

The officials at the council had recommended refusal, but the decision was made by Councillors at a meeting of the Planning committee. Of course there is no right of appeal for communities and NGOs in this case (even though, if the developers were turned down, they would have a right to appeal.) The government is bringing in mandatory training on planning for elected members, but that is not there yet. 

Now we can only hope that the Scottish Government calls in this decision. You can call on the Government to call in the application via an RSPB campaign, but the government has to decide by 28 February.

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

  1. Deer fences along road sides do need planning permission ↩︎
  2. After the walk I asked Helen what the case is if landowners have natural hazards like cliffs on their land. She said “there’s a huge element of common sense about natural hazards, and taking care of yourself.  If you had a cliff edge on your land with gorse and other bushes totally obscuring it, you might want to highlight that there’s a cliff edge there, but generally no.  The legal principle is volenti non fit injuria
    Helen Todd
    Campaigns and policy manager ↩︎

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