Day 21: From Rhu to Renton

This year’s family Boxing Day walk had to be another section of Kat’s circumnavigation of Glasgow’s green belt. She dragged three generations of her family out to navigate past decaying ruins from a medieval chapel and a castle, to a masterpiece of Brutalist architecture. They encounter railway, dual carriageway and river crossings and a farmer determined that they won’t be allowed across his land.

Note: This isn’t actually ‘Rhu to Renton’ – It’s somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Helensburgh and Cardross to near Renton. But it sounds better for a title – and the last walk started at Rhu. To assuage the complaints of the sticklers I have created this OS route of a very lovely walk which is a mix of the two and makes a perfectly lovely walk to do with the minimum fence climbing.

Part 1: Picturesque Ruins and Perfect Paths

This year our traditional family boxing day walk had to be a section of my green belt walk. The weather had been dreadful for weeks. Some days it seemed that the sun barely came up in these midwinter days shrouded in cloud and drenched by rain. But the forecast for boxing day was a miraculous bluebird day, clear sunshine from morning until night, when the rain was due to return in force.

Despite being part of my wettest yet greenbelt walk, the daughter agreed to join us, ‘because it’s Christmas’ and my nephew and mum and dad came along too.

Part by planning and part coincidence meant that the walk split quite nicely in to two parts – the first part all historical interest, walking through old country estates and on straightforward paths. The second necessitating a crossing of Renton, and a negotiation of the outskirts of Dumbarton via an uncertain route which would need a crossing of the greenbelt trilogy of railway, dual carriageway and river in close succession.  

We decided that my mother would do half the route and so we left a car at the midway point and then drove to the middle of nowhere between Helensburgh and Cardross to start where my previous walk had finished when we ran out of light and had to retrace our steps to the nearest train station. 

My dad had been keen to join me on one of my walks since I started this adventure and had, indeed, given me the single most useful bit of advice I’d received. As a botanist – and when I say botanist I mean obsessive twitcher of plants (mosses is his current passion) – he’s climbed over more than his fair share of barbed wire fences. “I always take a length of pipe insulation with me” he’d told me, and I had always intended to bring one with me. However, on every walk, I would reach the first barbed wire fence and then realise that I hadn’t managed to pack the pipe insulation.

This time I remembered the pipe insulation, but couldn’t find it, so I improvised with an old tetrapack of apple juice cut so as to rest comfortably on the wire. Two would have been better, but one was better than nothing.

The first part of the walk, however, had no need of fence climbing tools – it was along tracks and paths, all the way. I chose this particular route because the map was scattered with gothic script marking historical places. Maps are so intriguing to me and these words were calling to me from the page.

I wanted to avoid the main buildings of the Darleith estate, in case they were still occupied, so we started on a path that took us around the back of an enormous walled garden. Hundreds of bulbs were pushing their green shoots out along the bank of a burn which ran parallel with the walled garden, bounded by stone dykes. “Dear oh dear” said Dad as we walked, “what’s the matter” I asked, wondering what could have gone wrong so early in the walk. “There’s just toooo much moss” he groaned, looking wistfully around at the trees and rocks which we were passing at a brisk pace. 

We walked through the woodland until we popped out in what seemed to be someone’s veggie patch– with fruit cages and raised beds. We headed towards the empty shell of a once-grand mansion house, windowless and roofless, which we had assumed would be away from habitation but it had a slightly smaller mansion house attached at the side, which looked as odd as it looked occupied. We scuttled past on the gravel drive and out of a gate onto the road we should have taken.

Ahead was an unusual building – a round tower with a conical slate roof emerged from the top of a small square building. It was an unusual design to see in Scotland, slightly reminiscent of the medieval round towers we’d seen a few summers before on a visit to County Wicklow. It turned out that this was the dovecote, built around 1685. It was in very good condition and only the roof of the rectangular building was missing – a huge pile of sticks lay on the ground, and above, on one of the remaining beams below the round tower, was a messy nest of sticks. Ravens are known to build large, messy nests and are very site faithful, returning year on year to add to their nest. The ravens here must be labouring in vain to build up their nest only to find the pile of twigs on the ground growing year by year. The birds were evidently known locally – someone had hung two large branches as perches for them from the rafters with wires.

Beside the dovecote was a square building with low walls and no roof. There was a date, 1685, carved above the doorway noting when it was restored, but the original building was much older, a medieval chapel. We went inside where the sunlight projected a glowing arched window onto the bare stone wall.

Stopping for Baileys flavour Leibniz biscuits (the snack joys of a Boxing day walk…) with the teenagers we realised we’d got ahead of mum and dad. We had just negotiated a particularly wet bit of track, a linear pond where the path dipped down before climbing up to a small sycamore woodland, and I assumed Mum was going a bit slower with her new-ish hip. As we waited, Dad bounced up holding some pondweed “look at this” he said, dangling it from his finger. They’d been waylaid again by botany, in this case water starwort.

“It’s not particularly uncommon” he said.  

“Ah!” I said, looking intently at the drooping green stems. They may not have been uncommon, but they were evidently interesting enough to wade into the stream to retrieve some to show me.

More gothic script decorated the map at our entry to Kilmahew estate, and soon we came upon a imposing castle – walls complete up to rampart height but with no roof. The light streamed in through a large door sending a shaft of light across the ground to a metal grid welded in place. We prodded sticks into the ground under the grid to find the well beneath, but decades of fallen leaves had clogged the entrance. The castle seemed a mismatch of styles, and additions and, when I looked it up, I found out it was mostly the remains of a 16th Century tower house but had been remodelled, in a gothic style in the mid 18th Century either as a folly, or as a mansion house, which was never completed. It now made a useful substrate for graffiti and large amounts of climbing ivy.

Kilmahew estate was my key objective in planning this section of the walk  – not only did a core path run through the estate – helping with the route finding – it was also the location of the long-abandoned St Peter’s Seminary, completed in 1966 when concrete was a new and exciting material. The Seminary is now considered the most significant post-war Modernist building in Scotland. The uniqueness of the structure, which is held in reverence by architects worldwide, has not saved it from falling completely derelict since it was closed in 1987. In fact the uniqueness of the building, and its reliance on concrete probably contributed to its ruin, having problems with damp and water ingress since the beginning.  We’d visited in 2016 to see a light and sound installation created by arts organisation NVA, which took us through the abandoned buildings after dark, when there was talk of restoration and bringing this A-listed building back from the brink. We dragged our complaining children along, who perked up when we were given long walking sticks with glowing ends to guide us on a route through the graffitied maze of basements and into the main soaring chapel atrium to experience an immersive installation of light and sound.  

I wanted to return to see how it was faring eight years on, the plans to partially restore it and create a performance and arts venue having been abandoned. There were bridges over the Kilmahew Burn marked on the map at a couple of points, which were evidently long gone and, with the burn in full spate, we carried on along the path which took us through an arched tunnel of rhododendrons growing thickly from a bank. Bare twisting branches wove a lattice over our heads and gave a magical feel to our arrival at the Seminary.

The main entrance to the seminary, was over a dramatic bridge built originally to access Kilmahew House in the mid 19th century. The parapet walls had now fallen into the gorge below and intruder fencing lay in disarray along one side. We saw the rolls of razor wire and the 10ft-high galvanised steel spikes on the gate and almost turned back. But the gate was open so we tentatively entered to get a look at the building, which had been obscured by the woodland along the walk thus far with only tantalising glimpses of towering walls of concrete between trees.

It was certainly impressive – multi storey car park meets the Barbican – and absolutely huge. Five layers of linear balconies, each successive one stepped back from the last, and each parapet encrusted with pebbles pushed into the concrete. Five 30ft high brick cylinders side by side along the wall domed by concrete looked like they could house an industrial installation, or a baptistry.  There were arches, rooves and supporting walls, but no partitions, and you could see through the whole building as if it were a skeleton.

Water was everywhere – a waterfall tumbled over the retaining wall and flowed down underneath the Seminary, a square pond had formed in the base of the atrium which was once the central chapel, and water poured continuously from the top levels of the building onto the floors below. It hadn’t rained for at least 10 hours so the accumulation of water on the upper storeys was particularly impressive. 

The remains of scores of shallow concrete arches and alcoves showed how the interior architecture must have once appeared. And on every surface, graffiti. It was only just after midday but the low midwinter sun meant light poured into the main space through the shallow arches, reflecting off the wet surfaces.

“This doesn’t look very safe, it’s amazing they don’t do more to keep visitors out” said Mum as she added an empty MD2020 Bottle to a pile of bin bags to give the height she needed for an awkward step up. We pointed out the palisades of steel spikes, and the razor wire and decided we’d better retreat back to the path and continue with the walk.

Part 2: Peri-urban adventuring (again) and a discussion of access rights

We left mum at the entrance to Kilmahew estate to walk back to Cardross and we continued along a farm track towards Renton and the A82. We passed yet another grand stately home, in the trees and with a goodly amount of fly tipping around it’s front gate, just before we met the main road and were back in the familiar territory of peri-urban adventuring.

The puzzle I’d had while planning the walk was how to cross a railway, a dual carriageway and a river in close succession, while also staying within the greenbelt, which became very narrow at this point. There was a stretch of about half a kilometre where the greenbelt shrank to a width of only 50m, passing through an industrial estate. The solution had needed an examination of maps, aerial views and google street view to come up with a solution with a solid enough chance of success to venture bringing along the oldest and youngest members of my immediate family.

We started with a little safety briefing from me describing the route. It started down the kilometre-long slip road off the A82, which would enable us to cross the railway. There was a wide verge but my dad insisted on walking on the road because it was easier.  I was relieved when we had crossed the railway and could scramble down the wooded bank and into the fields alongside. As I set up the fruit juice carton over some barbed wire dad made a happy exclamation. He had found a moss. “Quite a rare one actually” he said.  It was  Cryphaea heteromalla. “It only lives on tree bark and is very sensitive to SO2 pollution and so is a good indicator of clean air” which was encouraging given its proximity to the A82 and some of what remains of the industrial heart of the west of Scotland.

Cryphaea heteromalla – an interesting and rare moss. It’s the one standing upright, rather than the one that is star-shaped.

We crossed the field ankle deep in water (“well it was marked curling pond on the map” said dad), and soon reached a tarmac path –Sustrans Route 7 which, were we to continue on it, would take us to Loch Lomond, through the Trossachs, along Loch Tay and then all the way to Inverness. We, however, had only 50m on cycle route 7, enough to allow us to cross under the dual carriageway where it spanned the Riven Leven.

Railway and dual carriageway now crossed we now just had the river, and the industrial estate to cross before were home and dry.

A scramble up the bank and over the traffic barrier took us onto the road bridge and a wide pavement next to the carriageway (which I knew was there because I checked on google maps street view the day before – I’m not a totally irresponsible aunt and parent…). I looked back to check the teenagers were walking in single file as far from the speeding traffic as possible and spotted a gritter heading our way. I assumed that it would stop gritting as it passed us, but it did not and sprayed its mixture of salt and grit over the backs of our legs. Deri, who was wearing shorts, yelped. As soon as we were over the river we dived back into the undergrowth next to the carriageway and down the bank. “What really? Exclaimed Deri “Down there?”

But it wasn’t so bad. We followed a bank alongside a swampy tributary of the Leven to the 50m wide arbitrary and undistinguished strip of grass, which had dictated my route planning. There was nothing particularly special about this piece of green belt except that it lay between two huge building sites. Anti-intruder fencing  stretched across our path to each horizon. Undaunted, we approached and, magically, a gate appeared to let us pass. Beyond that another set of fencing had another gate. In the end four gates through four separate sets of intruder fencing took us from the muddy river bank to the roundabout at the industrial estate. In my experiences thus far on my green bets walk I have never come across such a miraculous parting of the waters. Later, puzzling over the experience, I looked back at the core paths map that I had flung metaphorically aside after that day south of Newton Mearns when every core path I’d planned to walk along didn’t exist. It turned out that this unassuming route was actually a core path, and it seemed that the local authority was actually enforcing it with their planning conditions for the development of the industrial estate – perhaps that is why that tiny 50m stretch remains as greenbelt. I suppose the cause of the core paths is not entirely un-championed – although I would love to know who actually walks this route and where they are going.

We were now an hour before sunset and with three kilometres still to go. I worked out we should have time to make it to the rendezvous point we had planned with my mother before dark, so we fuelled up with more Leibnitz biscuits and picked up the pace on a farm track we hoped would be a relatively straightforward route to our destination.

At the farm buildings a man in his late thirties was working in a barn. I greeted him, and started explaining what our plan was for the rest of our walk – as I have done every time I’ve met a farmer on the route so far.  Each time they’ve been more than helpful, offering directions, pointing out hazards, recommending preferred routes. This time, however, I was met with a curt ‘There is no route across here you have to go back and round the roads’.

I showed him the route I had planned on the map, along a track, and he said that we couldn’t walk there. I suggested that we go along field margins south of the buildings to avoid the farm steadings to meet the track. No we can’t go there, there are cattle in the fields. What about north of the farm? Not there either. There are cattle in all the fields. Could we walk along the track then as there wouldn’t be cattle there? Absolutely not.

This was going to be a tricky one.

“So if we were to take our right of responsible access over your land, what would be the way that you would recommend we should take?” I ventured.

“You can’t go anywhere because this is a working farm” he countered.

I took a deep breath, “So we are planning to walk from here to Overtoun House using our right to responsible access, are there any particular fields with cattle you would like us to avoid?”.

You can’t come past.

I tried a few more permutations of my phrasing and he tried a few more ways of saying ‘No’. Time was moving on rapidly towards dusk. Eventually I spotted a gate to a burn and some woodland and said “We are going to take our right of responsible access through that gate and through the woodlands”. He said “Well it’s going in the wrong direction – it won’t take you to Overtoun”.

“Ok, no problem!” I said, and I opened the gate before he could say anything else to try and stop us. We started up the burn and along the steeply wooded slopes.

In my mind’s eye the farmer was waiting at the gate for us to reappear so he could say ‘told you that you couldn’t get to Overtoun that way’. There was no way that was going to happen, so we slipped our way through the leaf litter, scrambling up to the fence line at the top of the gorge. After 15 minutes we were high enough up the hill that we could only see the roofs of the farm and barns. We ducked under the fence and walked along a hedge line far above the track, not a cow to be seen, and down to meet the old drive to Overtoun house which starts from a very unassuming 1960s housing estate on the edge of Dumbarton.  

Just as it began to get quite dark, we saw my mum waiting for us on the ornate stone bridge leading to the Baronial mansion of Overtoun House, and to one of West Dumbartonshire council’s best-placed car-parks.

Mission accomplished.

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

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