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Glasgow Green Belt Walk Part 3: bogs, birches and a country park

Kat discovers that the map doesn’t always reflect what is on the ground and gets bogged down in a birch woodland between Cumbernauld and Airdrie. This is the latest instalment of APRS Director Kat Jones’ fundraising walk around the circumference of the Greater Glasgow Green Belts.

“There’s no route through if you carry on this way” said the farmer as he opened the door of his tractor next to us on the farm track. “Where are you headed?”

We were planning to continue on the track and then wind our way along field boundaries and over the burn to the footpath, but the farmer counselled against it – “There’s quite a bit of water in the burn, it will be hard to cross” he said. “You could try turning right and going through the deer fence, but you’d be running the gauntlet of the cars on the dual carriageway. Best head back and go along the roads.”

We explained that we didn’t mind a bit of tough terrain and recounted the route we had taken over the past two hours of walking. We’d just emerged from a beautiful birch bog woodland, thick with tussocks, where I slipped and tripped like I was hamming it up for a slapstick comedy. At one point I looked back towards Jamie and he’d completely disappeared, then I saw him clambering out of one of the holes between the tussocks.

a small patch of Heathland in a woodland clearing close to the claypits at Bellstane
a small patch of Heathland in a woodland clearing close to the claypits at Bellstane

We’d been following the line, on my map, of some clearly marked tracks but there seemed absolutely no evidence of them on the ground. If it hadn’t been for Jamie’s OS app showing us the exact location on his phone walking along the line of route, I would not have believed that there was ever a track – it was simply a birch woodland. The dry woodland, where the track was marked, made way for bog, and the sturdy 20 foot high birches made way for trees twisted and dwarfed by a lifetime with their roots in peaty sphagnum. We came across a flush full of flowering Bog Asphodel – a field of yellow stars – this gorgeous bog could have been anywhere in the wilds of the Highlands, Finland, or even Canada. But, instead, we were between Airdrie and Cumbernauld with the roar of the dual carriageway only 100m to the East.

Bog Asphodel - growing in the woodland bog of North Bellstane Plantation SSSI
Bog Asphodel – growing in the woodland bog of North Bellstane Plantation SSSI

The farmer explained that we’d been walking through an SSSI. North Bellstane Plantation, according to the citation, is a ‘species-poor wet woodland dominated by downy birch surrounding an area of raised bog’, and is the best example of its type within central and south west Scotland.

“We’ve got some really special butterflies there – but it’s quite hard walking though. Where have you come from?”

We waved over towards a wind turbine which was only just over a kilometre away, but it had taken us a good 45 minutes to get here. “We came past the turbine but we’ve come from the disused railway down at RoughRigg”, I said.

Ironically, for a day characterised by trackless walking, I’d actually planned this part of the walk because there were good paths and routes marked on the map, You never know what a disused railway would be like but we were pleasantly surprised that it was relatively clear of vegetation and offered a dry route through wet fields at the start of the walk. However the path that we expected to take from there to the road tuned out to be overgrown and barely visible on the ground. But it wasn’t just the paths that were marked on the map but weren’t present on the ground.

I described our walk along Douglas Glen, to the farmer. It was marked as a small B road on my paper map (printed in the 1990s) and as a track on the latest OS map on Jamie’s phone. But on the ground the road simply didn’t exist. There was a low drystone wall topped with a thick bed of blaeberry running along the route the road would have taken, but there was no sign of tarmac, simply a knee high sward of grass. We couldn’t even see any evidence that people used the route for walking – there was no compacted earth or crushed vegetation. Nature had simply reclaimed the road as her own.  

This was marked as a B road on my paper map labelled Douglas Glen, and a track on the current OS maps. There was no evidence of it on the ground.
This was marked as a B road on my paper map labelled Douglas Glen, and a track on the current OS maps. There was no evidence of it on the ground.

The farmer was familiar with the road “I had to drag a car out of there a few years ago” he laughed. “Apparently googlemaps had taken him down there and he had got so far, he was committed”.

Old Car Found at the start of Douglas Glen - perhaps one of the vehicles that got lost on googlemaps ...
Found at the start of Douglas Glen – perhaps one of the vehicles that got lost on googlemaps …

We were incredulous as to how someone could just keep on going down a path that was evidently not passable. This observation somehow brought us back round to the subject of our walk, and our onward progress. The farmer must have decided that we perhaps were the kind of people who could indeed make headway to Luggiebank through the fields ahead. No ordinary ramblers: but bog-trotting, tussock-hopping peri-urban adventurers. He took us into his confidence and started to describe a complicated route: through the field with the bullocks – (don’t worry they are just curious), over the fence and down the culvert under the railway, across the stream (I hope you don’t mind getting very wet) and under the railway a second time.

We thanked him and headed off.

I was actually extremely worried about the bullocks – as we climbed into the field they all started charging towards us shaking their heads, looking absolutely ferocious and definitely not merely curious. “Don’t run Kat it just makes it worse” said Jamie so I walked as fast as I could without running, a gait which my daughter refers to as ‘the angry gnome walk’

At the corner of the field I dropped to the ground and commando crawled under the lowest of three strands of barbed wire to safety (from the bullocks, at least).

Under the railway bridge close to Luggie Water
Under the railway bridge close to Luggie Water

After a few hundred meters more of wet vegetation, we saw the passage under the railway, and the burn beyond: just a steep muddy bank, a fence and a sea of giant butterbur still to negotiate. Giant butterbur is an invasive plant from Japan which can quickly cover large areas of land alongside rivers – the circular leaves are huge, but at least they don’t have poisonous hairs like giant hogweed. Jamie had forgotten his walking poles which are pretty helpful for him, with his prosthetic legs, when the underfoot conditions get uneven and slippery, so we crossed the burn holding on to each other’s shoulders, the water sloshing half way up my calves. At the other side we crawled up the muddy bank and into the forest of butterbur like the first tetrapods emerging into a prehistoric landscape.  

Giant Butterbur - and invasive plant on the banks of the Luggie Water
Giant Butterbur – an invasive plant on the banks of the Luggie Water

We met the path with whoops of joy and talked of the wonders of a good footpath and the unbeatable feeling of finding your way to a proper path with gates and gravel and interpretation panels. We were walking through a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve and the panels told us the story of the Luggie Water eels and their epic journeys home to North Lanarkshire from the Sargassso Sea.

In Luggiebank we met up with Dan, a local resident who had joined APRS after we’d given him some advice on objecting to a housing development in the greenbelt nearby. Despite saying “I’m not a campaigner, I didn’t really do anything” he managed to galvanize 60 people in his tiny community to write letters of objection and the development was stopped. For now. He walked with us further along the Luggie Water chatting about the campaign, his work on the railways and his dogs (“they’re poorly today so couldn’t come out”)

Viaduct taking the A73 over the Luggie Water
Viaduct taking the A73 over the Luggie Water

As we left the obvious path and started to walk up a rise and alongside a stand of Scots pines, Dan turned back “I have no sense of direction, but I think I can find my way back safely from here so I’d better not come any further”.

We said our farewells and carried on towards Palacerigg country park. It was such an effortless joy to walk along the footpaths, and see the product of thousands of trees and hedgerows that were planted in the 1970s to create the country park. There is a raised bog at the heart of the park, a habitat that would have once been common across he whole of central Scotland and now remains only in tiny fragments. The bog is an SSSI and there is also a Special Protection Area (a European designation for birds) nearby on the Slamanan Plateau which protects the Taiga Bean geese which overwinter at Fannyside Loch, just next to Palacerigg.  We made quick progress through the woods, alongside some small lochs and then up and over a more exposed moorland section to reach the edge of Cumbernauld. A final walk along the shelterbelt of trees, where the greenbelt narrows to a line less than 100m wide skirting the dual carriageway, took us back to the car, parked in a residential cul-de-sac, and the prospect of dry shoes.

With food and coffee on our minds we headed back to Palacerigg visitor centre hoping also for a peek at the Alaistair Gray mural, ‘Scottish Wildlife’, which he painted for its opening in 1974, and subsequently restored in 2001, but we found the café, the visitor centre, and even the toilets firmly locked. A passer-by told us it had been that way for a few years.

A fire break in some woodlands at waterhead south of Palacerigg
A fire break in some woodlands at waterhead south of Palacerigg

We weighed up the possibility of negotiating Cumbernauld town centre to find a cafe but decided to stay within the green belt so we drove back to Luggiebank and the café at ‘World of Wings’.

I imagined ‘World of Wings’ to be one of those rather sad birds of prey centres catering for local kids who come to see a moth-eared Harris hawk sitting on a stick.  The car park was small, with a climbing frame and a wooden chalet which contained the shop and café. As we ate our toasties we got chatting with Jo Timson, who came over take our plates, and also runs World of Wings with her husband. She spoke with a nerdy passion about their vultures. They had a young Andean condor, the only one in Scotland,  which was part of a breeding programme and who soon would be getting a mate – their babies would become part of the international conservation effort of the largest flying bird in the world.

She told us that one of their Eurasian Griffin vultures was about to head to Turkey to be part of the reintroduction programme. “There aren’t any other places in Scotland in the breeding programmes for vultures” she explained, so they are collaborating with zoos in England and around the world.

We chatted about the crisis of vultures worldwide with 90% declines in most places due to an anti-inflammatory drug used on domestic animals, diclofenac, being lethally poisonous for birds. Vultures, who will scavenge dead livestock, were dying in their droves. Europe has, at last, managed to ban the substance but not before the Eurasian griffin vulture had almost been wiped out.  But diclofenac is still used in many other parts of the world – in India vultures are essential for clearing dead animals and for the sky burials – the dramatic reduction on vultures is causing a real public health risk. Jo explained that they, along with their collaborator zoos across the world,  were holding the vultures in safety and breeding up a population which could be released back into the wild when it was safe to do so. Apparently some captive-bred vultures had recently been sent to India where they succumbed to diclofenac poisoning “we’ll not be sending any of ours anywhere until it is 100% safe for them”.

Another day in Greater Glasgow’s Green Belt completed, and another 15 km under my belt. Another idiosyncratic wander bringing in a tiny zoo on the edge of Cumbernauld involved in the international conservation efforts for critically endangered vultures, roads completely reclaimed by nature, a gorgeous bog woodland as good as any in the highlands of Scotland, and a whole day of adventure on your doorstep. I am starting to get a little obsessed.

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

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