Greenhead Moss to Garrion Gill: lost in the jungle

The latest episode of Kat’s fundraising walk around the Green Belts of Greater Glasgow. This section takes her from Greenhead Moss Community Nature Park on the outskirts of Wishaw down Garrion Gill, an SSSI and an impassable jungle.

The main object of this section was to walk the length of Garrion Gill SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. After I had come across an exquisite bog of dwarf birch teeming with bog asphodel on one of my early walks, and discovered later that it was an SSSI, I have looked ahead for other SSSIs to explore. There are not many in North Lanarkshire’s green belt, but this steep-sided and wooded glen drew my eye – about 3 km long leading from the edge of Wishaw, to the Clyde. Garrion Gill is cited for its upland ash woodland and is also part of a suite of places which make up the Special Protection Area (SPA) of the Clyde Valley Woodlands. An SPA is a European designation which protects the most special habitats and species, and means that this woodland is significant at the European level.

On the hottest day of the year we drove to the start of the walk and I explained to Jill that this was a gap in the circumnavigation that I was returning to. I had missed this part off the last walk I did with our friend Tina as she had specifically requested a walk with no barbed wire, no bogs, no river crossings and most of all, no jeopardy. We’d instead taken the Clyde walkway, a well marked long-distance path which fulfilled the brief, but it meant this significant glen would go unexplored. 

“I didn’t want to make Tina grumpy by bringing her somewhere that may not have had paths” I said. Jill expressed surprise that Tina would ever be grumpy but I suggested that anyone, even Tina, would be grumpy if dragged through a pathless wilderness when they had asked for paths and smooth sailing.

We navigated to the main Cambusnethan entrance of Greenhead Moss but found the road sign, instead of taking us to a car park, just took us down a side street with a rough unpaved turning area past the communal bins of some nearby flats. We turned and parked by a small demolition yard.

I’d hoped that at this second attempt, I would find some of the interpretation, and particularly the blue steel ‘Stratigraphic Staircase’ that I had been involved with in a previous job back in the early 2000s. However there was no map on entry to the Moss and no sign of the staircase. However we did walk across the remnant of the original raised bog, which gives the origin of the name ‘moss’. It was looking very dry though, with much more heather and regenerating birch than sphagnum moss. The path took us on through some lovely species rich grassland at the edge of an escarpment that must have been the rim of the opencast mine. 

Somewhere in this area, nearly a hundred years ago, a local man digging peat for fuel discovered a body.  It turned out to be the remains of a Covenanter who died in the late 1600s, preserved by the acidic and anoxic conditions of the peat. He was wearing a perfectly preserved jacket, and it was thought he had been murdered and buried in secret on the bog.

I had Jill marked down as a potential walking partner because, as well as being the kind of person who flourishes in trackless wilderness (more on that later), she also works at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health. I wanted to have a chat about green belts and what their role could be in terms of health and wellbeing.

Jill asked me, as we walked through the vast area of semi-natural flowering grassland and scrub, what my observations were of my walks so far. It was an interesting exercise in looking back on the past eighty(ish) kilometres of walk and where it had led me. There were a few themes that were starting to stand out to me.

Firstly, everywhere close to people’s homes I would find paths trodden by local people. I had become an expert at spotting a bit of trodden grass that could lead to a cut through between houses to a piece of local greenspace, or a path that might lead somewhere interesting. But these paths tended to be relatively close to houses and did not usually extend far into the countryside. 

Second, I observed that a huge amount of more recently built housing stood in complete isolation to its surroundings, with houses facing inward towards cul-de-sacs, and a hard and impermeable border, usually a high wooden fence, between the housing estate and the countryside. Older housing in grid designs, did not have such limitations and often had cut-throughs and paths designed in, making them much more joined up with the surrounding landscape.

Thirdly, I had found that even in places with extremely poor design for accessing countryside from people’s houses, some individuals were taking public access into their own hands. Both times I had needed to access a housing estate from my greenbelt walk I found that local people had cut a gate into the fencing so they could access the fields beyond.

We hadn’t seen anyone on the walk so far, even though the paths here were good and constructed mainly in tarmac. It was a lovely day, and we couldn’t see a building from where we were – it felt as lovely a regenerating coal open cast as I’d seen so far on the walk, and with much intact habitat.  

Jill explained that their research showed that walking is largely functional in more deprived areas of Glasgow and surrounding towns. 

“People need to walk to get around as many people don’t have cars and public transport provision can be poor” she said, “But in well-off areas people tend to walk mainly for leisure.“ Fewer people walking for leisure in less affluent areas is thought to be, at least partly, due to the lack of good quality open space. “You need space where people feel safe, feel a sense of ownership and would choose to spend time in”. 

Research has shown that access to greenspace has a positive effect on physical health and improves mental health and the ability to face problems,  However, poorer communities are far more likely to visit a green space infrequently.  It appears that the sense of heightened risk in public space is one of the most significant barriers to using it

We reflected that, although we were enjoying the sense of adventure in this walk, (now on a small footpath through the middle of the kilometre squared site), the fact that it is completely deserted, and that we couldn’t see or hear human habitation from here may cause a sense of danger, especially in people walking alone.

The quality of the green space we were walking through also declined markedly as we approached the edge of Wishaw. The small path we were on ran between giant metal pylons and the contiguous back fences of the estate. None of the gardens had gates that opened into this area. The ground vegetation was thistle, nettle and rank grass with some areas of bramble. 

We popped out at the edge of the estate and walked along the main road a hundred metres to the edge of the town where there was a farm gate that would lead us to a track over the railway. We had two railways to cross, but the map clearly showed an overpass, an underpass and then a path leading down to a footbridge over the river at Garrion Gill. Further along the river another footbridge denoted the dead certainty that there would be a path linking the two. We were well on the way to getting back to the car in plenty of time before the garden centre, where we had parked, would shut.

Our first hurdle was encountered as we passed two young men building a fence in the field. “That bridge over the railway got taken down recently” said the older of the two, “you’ll need to cross the railway at the main road. Where are you going” 

We told him we were heading for Garrion Gill. “Jacob’s Ladder? Yes. That’s really nice,” he said, and explained some navigation to us.

He pointed us across the field where we’d be able to climb the fence by the railway bridge, which we did. But I must not have been paying proper attention to the rest of the instructions, as we soon found ourselves in one of the most impassable sections of my walk so far. A marshy area of shoulder-high rushes with muddy holes to fall down. It was hot – it had reached 27 degrees in the middle of the day. We struggled through, and, after what seemed like miles, we crossed under the pylons again and found a path. 

There had been a lot of works by the railway since the most recent map on my phone, with a huge yard of hard standing springing up in the angle where the two railways met. I was worried that the underpass no longer existed but Jill saw some overgrown steps and beneath we found one of the more salubrious underpasses I have been on the trip. No mud, no fly-tipping, just a big impossible-to-see hole in the middle that fortunately neither of us fell down.

At the other side of the tunnel we plunged into hazel and ash woodland on a steep and muddy slope down to the river. I wondered how on earth this came to be marked as a path on the OS map.

“This reminds me of being lost in the forest in Malaysia” said Jill as we clung to branches and lowered ourselves down the impossibly steep slope. “When we were first lost it was just like this – a steep, steep slope, and when we were down we just couldn’t get up again.” 

When Jill was travelling in South East Asia in her early 20s, she had headed off for an afternoon walk from their hostel and was not seen again for four days. She went with an American she’d just met and they were equipped for a couple of hours’ stroll, and carrying a hand drawn map from a local.

Jill explained that at first they didn’t really think they were lost, and that they were sure that at the bottom of the slope they’d find the path again. 

“Then it got dark. So suddenly it took us by surprise.” 

She pointed to a slightly flatter spot on the slope, between two trees. 

“We just had to sit down in a place like that and wait until morning.”

We were quite close to the bottom of the slope now. 

“There’s a footbridge at the bottom so there will definitely be a path”, I said gaily, just as the rusty remains of two iron beams of the footbridge came into view, and it was clear that nothing but badgers had been past this way in a very, very long time. 

The understory was thick with bramble, and young ash growing through a mesh of fallen trees.  We were bathed in a green light: green above and green below. There was absolutely no path through.

“Do you ever think about bringing a machete on these trips?” asked Jill. 

“I always assumed that might be frowned upon in these parts” I replied.

There was nothing for it but to walk along the river. It wasn’t very deep – mostly shallower than knee deep-  and, in the heat, it was rather pleasant. As we picked our way over slippery river rocks, edged round the deepest pools and shimmied inelegantly over fallen trees, I continued to quiz Jill about her Malaysian story.  

“On the second night we were a bit wiser and we found a cave to shelter in before dark.” she said. 

They had nothing to eat, but drank from the rivers. On the third night they built a shelter to stay in.

After about half an hour I thought we might be near enough to the village of Overtown, where I knew a path came down to the woodlands, via Jacob’s Ladder, a long set of steps made to link the mining villages of Overtown and Law. We scrambled up from the river to seek a path, but there was nothing. We returned to the river and I checked the map on my phone. We had travelled about 200m. 

Onward we went downstream, as I formulated a plan to get back to the car on time. 

“Do you think that this is the kind of thing that would have made Tina grumpy?” asked Jill, clambering over yet another fallen tree to land in a pool mid-thigh in depth.

Noone in Jill’s family knew she was lost but fortunately, meanwhile, the wife of the American, who had stayed behind in the hostel, was mobilising the full might of American influence overseas to search for them. A helicopter and four groups of Gurkas were sent out to search for the missing pair.  

On the fourth day they turned round and started retracing their steps. Eventually they were found, not too far from where they were lost. Jill called home to say she was safe and sound and to let her Mum know that she’d be extending her journey another two months. 

“Now I am a mum myself I can’t believe I did that” said Jill.

When we were a few hundred metres from Overtown we emerged from the river onto a clear badger track. It wound through the woodland but we needed to constantly stoop or crawl under branches and bushes that overhung. The path led up the slope and then, suddenly, the undergrowth opened up and we stood between an ancient beech and a large oak at the top of the slope. Two old benches lay in a decrepit state under the trees. 

“We’re saved!” I whooped as we galloped up the open grass towards a life size model of a baby elephant reaching up to a tree with its trunk. 

“There’s a dinosaur too” said Jill pointing to a bit of open ground where a Brontosaurus surveyed us tranquilly.

It was strange, but it was a proper path, used by humans, and the first since we had left Greenhead Moss. 

It turned out to be someone’s garden and, as we scurried out of a pair of fancy iron gates, a woman tapped on the window and stared out at us, shaking her head.

We now had 20 minutes to get back to the garden centre before they locked up. I tried to get a taxi but it wasn’t happening. We had abandoned the thought of continuing down the glen – although there was an SWT reserve further along and Jacob’s ladder. I later discovered that this was a wise decision as, when I read up on the internet about the steps, I discovered that the bridge had been taken down at least a decade before. In the absence of a taxi, hitch-hiking would have to do, but to my great surprise no one stopped. I couldn’t imagine why no one was stopping for a couple of 40 something women, soaked from the waist down jogging frantically down the road in walking boots that must have weighed a kilo each in terms of water content alone.

I apologised profusely to Jill as we jogged. At least it was downhill. I’d become complacent as the last couple of walks had been pretty straightforward. But Jill didn’t seem annoyed at all, she seemed to be enjoying herself. I suppose once you’ve been lost in the Malaysian forests for four days almost anything else, even the green belts of Greater Glasgow, is a breeze. 

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