Day 5: Airdrie to Carfin Grotto

The fifth part of our Director Kat’s fundraising walk around the Green Belts of Greater Glasgow. This one from Airdrie to Carfin with plenty of chat about energy infrastructure, and a discovery of a secret doorway.

It had become obvious over the past couple of walks that a map published in 1995 is not sufficient for navigating west central Scotland in 2023. Roads and tracks have disappeared, forests have grown and whole settlements have sprung up. Besides, Sarah had refused to come walking with me again until I bought a decent map.  

When my brand new Ordnance Survey Map 1:25,000 (Motherwell & Coatbridge, Whitburn & Carluke) arrived last weekend I spent a rainy afternoon annotating it. I’ve always loved maps – they have a magical quality of packing in so much information while simultaneously creating in me a feeling of wistful mystery. I can explore a map; following the contours, discovering archaeological sites, finding hidden waterfalls. But there are always so many questions: Are there any plunge pools along that burn? Would that be a lovely walk? Do kingfishers live there? 

I drew the greenbelts on the map stretching south from Airdrie towards Larkhall, and the next few sections of my walk started to take shape. I ran green highlighter along the imaginary lines, my pen following roads and tracks, field boundaries and the edges of settlements. Every now and again it would take a foray into the heart of a built up area, following a stream or perhaps some playing fields or a park still linked to the countryside around.

I added SSSIs in orange highlighter and places of interest in blue. Any paths I knew existed I marked in too – there was a miners track near Hamilton from the Scotways Heritage Paths project, the Clyde Walkway from Scotland’s long distance paths website, and the Ladywell Way, one of Scotland’s pilgrim routes. 

In my research for the walk I came across ‘Carfin Grotto’. I had never heard of it, but it was evidently a place of great significance for Scotland’s Catholics. It was built in the early 1920s after the local priest returned from a pilgrimage to the shrine at Lourdes and felt inspired to build a similar shrine next to his church in Carfin. Local parishioners worked on it for two years, many of whom were miners needing work due to the 1921 strike. And it now covers an area of several acres with chapels, grottos and hundreds of life-size statues.

I mentioned it while chatting with some friends and the face of one of them lit up. John had grown up nearby and his secondary school was just across the road from Carfin Grotto. “It’s a very special place for me” he said, glowing with nostalgia “I had my first communion there and I still have the photos. My mum and dad had their wedding photos taken there.”  

I was fascinated to see the Grotto and the Ladywell pilgrim route went nearby on its way to Motherwell cathedral. It was starting to come together.   

The Ladywell Way seemed to follow quite a few main roads, and so I decided we’d take only a few kilometres of the Ladywell Way in favour of the usual disused railways and tracks. John couldn’t make it on this section but we agreed to walk the next, starting at Carfin. Could we begin after going along to the 3pm Sunday procession? I asked. “I haven’t been to one of those since I was a teenager.” said John. “The parking will be a nightmare.” 

So my fellow pilgrim on the walk was not one of my friends with a cultural connection to Carfin, but instead it was Tom, an energy networks engineer I’d known for 20 years. As soon as we met he started getting excited about the energy infrastructure all across route we were walking. “That’s Newarthill Networkwhat you or I would call a Grid Substation” he trilled as we passed by in the car. “It might surprise you Kat but I know this area very very well as, when I was at Scottish and Southern, I was responsible for our work in Lanarkshire and so I was always out here or sending teams out”. He then started to explain some of the energy infrastructure I might see on the walk.

I gathered there would be a lot of energy transmission chat on the walk, and not very much pilgrim chat, so I leaned in. I declared it ‘The Pylons and Transformers’ walk.

It’s something I really need to learn more about. At APRS, we are getting an increasing number of enquiries about energy transmission infrastructure – particularly on the High voltage power lines being put in to take renewable energy generated in the Highlands to the central belt and beyond to England. I was the captive audience of an electricity transmission nerd and I might as well take advantage.

We parked in the visitor car park of a huge whisky warehouse complex just outside Airdrie and headed straight into a piece of Forestry Commission land with great paths. Tom was excited about the prospect of bringing his new gravel bike back for a ride. He took photos of every track and path we came across, planning a return visit with his MAMILMiddle Aged Men in Lycra friends.

We crossed a country road from the forestry and climbed through a hole in the fence into the locked car park of the Roughrigg reservoir angling club. The reservoir was very low and the foreshore was dry and easy to walk on. We opened, and then closed, and opened again, the gate to the reservoir, admiring the construction. It was an innovative combination of an old iron garden gate, a closing mechanism from an office door, and various repurposed hardware for hinges, latches and attachments. It worked rather well.

Down on the foreshore someone had erected a wire litter bin. It was propped up with rocks half way between the original shoreline, which was built up with stone cobbles, and the waterline. The bin was full to overflowing with cans and bottles which lay scattered over the sparse vegetation around.

We walked along the foreshore to the head of the loch until it started to get muddy, then we cut across rushes and tussocks to a disused railway. This time the walking on the old railway was lovely – the farmer must take his quad bike along it from time to time as it was clear enough of vegetation for the two of us to walk side by side.  The track ran along the top of a low embankment which kept us above the boggy ground, and we walked between birches. The trees leant away from the dense young woodland either side reaching into the space above the track to form a tunnel of gothic arches.

We joined the Ladywell Way where it cut across the old railway and followed it for a couple of kilometres, coming over a rise where we could see over Glasgow to Eaglesham Moor beyond, and its wind farm, the largest in Europe when it was built. I was looking at the distant view but Tom was looking at pylons. Those huge metal ones, and a few sets of wooden ones too. “We call them towers, in the business, but you would probably call them pylons” he said.  

There were apparently three different types of pylons, all of which we could see from this vantage point. The giant steel towers carry either 400kV or 275kV and they make up the Supergrid of the electricity network. The largest wind farms, including Whitelee windfarm we could see, and gas and nuclear generation feed into this grid direct. “Eventually it all goes to Windyhill substations where it will be exported down the east or west coast inter-connectors to England.” said Tom. Windyhill, one of Scotland’s largest substations, will be on one of the last legs of my green belts walk, as I pass between Clydebank and Bearsden. It was about 25km away as the crow flies, but, by my planned route, I had about 180km to go and I wondered whether I’d get there before winter.

Feeds from smaller renewables installations connect into substations, such as the one at Newarthill that Tom had pointed out to me, at 132kV or 33kV, where it is stepped up to Supergrid voltages. These same substations step down the voltage from the Supergrid into the 33kV poles (I got a wee lesson in distinguishing them from 11kV ones from the ceramic insulators on each wire). The voltage is then stepped down further to 11kV to be transported towards homes and businesses. “Have you heard of three phase power” asked Tom. I was pleased to say that I had. “Well that is the three phase there”.

I asked why it was so hard to get permission to get small scale renewables put in, that there are limits to how much you can generate from domestic renewables. He explained that it is due to the way the grid was built. The whole grid was set up to take energy from a few huge generators, like nuclear and coal power stations, and distribute the power to towns and cities.

“Smaller generators effectively reduce demand (as far as National Grid are concerned) but the problem is if they create a negative demand and begin to export to a higher voltage.” said Tom. He explained that this is a problem because many transformers are not designed for this task. New sub-stations are built with the ability to do this but it would cost hundreds of millions to change all the transformers to be able to handle this two way flow. “A 33/11kv transformer change will cost around £1.5 million” said Tom, and there are 64 in Glasgow alone.

Electricity companies won’t connect in generators that risk this happening and have protection systems (load management schemes) that will automatically disconnect smaller generators if their output risks negative demand. This means that the grid we have inherited has locked in a pattern of huge renewable installations rather than promote more local forms of energy generation.

This seemed to be a good time to ask a few questions about the transmission lines being built in the north of Scotland. Tom explained that it is all about getting energy south to England. “Scotland has a peak energy demand (at teatime in January) of 5.5GW but Scotland produces around 7.5GW due to all the renewables, and this is growing fast”.

It is England, and particularly the South East, which really needs the energy. “It’s all about getting energy to London really” said Tom. “There are few power stations near London, they don’t want them in their back-yard, so it has to be brought in”. Since most coal power stations have been decommissioned, bringing more renewable generation online has been critical and increasing energy flow from Scotland to England is key. The existing East and West coast interconnectors, which are in overhead lines, do not have sufficient capacity so two undersea cable interconnectors are planned. The one between Hunterston and Wales, close to Liverpool, has already started being built and an additional undersea cable interconnector between Peterhead the north east of England will be commissioned by. These will need Supergrid connections and large pylons are being planned for a route between Beauly and Peterhead, via Blackhillock substation, the largest in the UK, and the second largest in Europe, which is due to get substantially bigger.

I asked why the electricity needs to go in the huge towers and isn’t put underground. “Undersea is now a more affordable option than it used to be” said Tom. He explained that the costs of cabling for undersea used to be prohibitively expensive but costs have come down and now laying sea cables is only slightly more expensive than building towers “You just get a big boat and roll it out”. However the costs of undergrounding cables on land is still around 10 times the costs of running the Supergrid on pylons. “But you’ve got to remember the additional costs of Navy patrols for undersea cables” he said.

Figure from Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks new projects page

Tom told me about the National Grid control room near Wokingham where they manage all the power for the UK. He explained that it is like a network of rivers of energy that flow into a large reservoir and National Grid must ensure generation and demand is constantly balanced. There is a continuous auction of generation to meet energy demand to ensure that there is never too much or too little.

Eventually our track joined the road, and while we were discussing the onward route, a woman in a black Range Rover stopped, reversed and opened the window. “Are you lost?” she asked, looking slightly surprised to see two walkers in the neighbourhood.

We walked a short way along the road then cut down a track, and that’s when the walk started to get less straightforward. We hit three barbed wire fences in a row. I demonstrated to Tom the technique I had honed over the previous walks where I would put my small, densely packed rucksack on the barbed wire and climb up the fence rocking over on the rucksac to land (almost) gracefully on the other side. Tom watched and then stepped over, completely clear of the barbed wire. “That’s a clever technique you’ve developed,” he said.

The next obstacle wasn’t barbed wire but a metal road barrier fixed in place with baler twine. I got halfway over and then got stuck.  “You’re doing so well Kat” said Tom and I looked up. He was taking a photo.

We’d climbed ourselves into what was marked as tip (disused) on the map. It looked pretty dishevelled with overgrown tarred roads, hard standing and derelict buildings.  There were various huge piles of rubbish. We couldn’t work out if they were supposed to be there or not. There was one with sofas, wood and chairs; three chrome chairs were set aside, another was twisted rusted metal. There were piles of old tarmac, bricks, broken concrete.

In the midst of all this were a few decrepit buildings, a motorhome, yellowed and growing algae around the edges and a strange cubic single story building with a flue and tall, narrow windows. “This looks like a film set for a Stephen King novel” said Tom as we scuttled away into a boggy woodland along a field margin, over yet another fence. It started to smell pretty bad and it seemed like the ditch and bog must be filled with sewage or something equally smelly. We hurried up to dry ground and decided to head for the road rather than carrying on this way.

This turned out to be a mistake. The road was very straight and very fast with trucks shooting past at 60mph and just a thistly verge for us to walk along, squeezed between lorries and an active landfill site. The sewage smell had gone, but had been replaced by a truly unbearable stench. I pulled my t-shirt up over my nose and mouth, put my head down and ploughed along the verge towards the layby ahead. 

We had seen two incinerator chimneys as we approached the road, adjacent to the landfill. I wondered whether the smell was connected to these or the landfill. Once at the layby the wind was no longer bringing the smell in our direction and I stopped for breath. There was a small brown building in the layby with roller blinds firmly clamped shut – ‘Snack Bar’, said the sign.  

We turned off the road, unfortified with bacon rolls, but relieved to find another farm track at last. Tom suddenly pointed up in the air, “that is a transformer to take voltage down to domestic 240V” he said and pointed at a large metal box attached to a wooden pylon. “It will be serving those three houses and their supplies will go underground”.

The track took us alongside the landfill and past Argent Energy and Caledonian Proteins, which seemed to have the incinerator towers. A quick search on the internet informed me that Argent Energy was turning waste cooking oils and animal fats into biodiesel – and Caledonian Proteins is a plant to process animal waste from fallen stock. They were certainly well fortified, and unfriendly signs told us of the danger of guard dogs on the loose. We passed them quickly and another track took us almost to the edge of Carfin. 

The last kilometre was much more enjoyable, walking through grazed fields alongside the railway and then cutting through hawthorn and blackthorn scrub to the edge of the town. We could see the characteristic funnel-shaped roof of St Francis Xavier’s Church right next to the Grotto only a few hundred metres away. But we couldn’t find a way to get through. None of the fields we were walking through had the characteristic networks of paths I’d seen near other settlements on the walk, where locals are using the area to walk and play. “I think we may be landlocked” said Tom as we surveyed the curtain wall of back garden fences round the estate. We started to walk along the outside of the fortified estate wondering whether there was a way through, when I came across signs of human footfall. A small path was visible on the other side of a hedge, and we followed it to a homemade bridge that crossed a ditch. The wooden bridge, made of scrap wood, looked pretty well made and sat on top of a previous bridge made of plastic fish boxes. I took it tentatively and then scrambled up a muddy bank to a gate.  

We emerged onto a piece of manicured grass with a few pieces of children’s play equipment in the centre. It seemed that someone had taken the lack of access to the surrounding countryside into their own hands and sawn through the fence, cutting out a door-shaped section and then attaching hinges. It was a secret doorway from the manicured and sterile estate, to the Narnia beyond.  

From there it was a skip and a jump to Carfin Grotto and a small chance that the tearoom would still be open.

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

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