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Rhu to not-far-from-Helensburgh

APRS Director Kat Jones is spending some of her weekends and evenings exploring Green Belts with the aim to circumnavigate greater Glasgow and surrounding towns. In this section she finds some lovely paths, encounters the Celtic Rainforest, cup and ring marked rocks and Hill House – the celebrated Arts and Crafts masterpiece designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald.

The plan was to walk all the way to Cardross on this section, however a heavy fall of snow in the night meant we had to spend most of the morning clearing the drive, and we only made it out to Rhu with a couple of hours of daylight. This section of the walk, combined with part of the next make a very nice and highly recommended walk which I have marked on this map.

I finished my last walk at Weymss Bay Train station, about a mile from the most westerly part of the greater Glasgow green belt – “That’s quite a long way from Glasgow” you might say, and it is. It is even further from my house (49.4km as the crow flies).  But at last, at this most westerly point, I am starting to head towards home.  

A hundred years ago steamers plied the Clyde, and it would have probably been possible to get a steamer direct from Wemyss bay to Rhu. In fact only a decade ago I would get a passenger ferry – run by SPT – Strathclyde Passenger Transport – from Helensburgh to Kilcreggan for a day out on a bike, and from there a regular car ferry would go to Gourock. It’s only 6km as the crow flies from Greenock to Helensburgh over the Firth of Clyde, but, short of commandeering a yacht at Inverkip Marina, my only option was to take the long way round.

This was another walk with my friend who lives in Berkhamsted, Ben. He’d joined me on one of the early walks as we passed Europe’s biggest landfill site, and nearly six months had passed since then. This time he’d brought his wellies, having learned from experience.

We started along a road from the top of Rhu that crossed that most picturesque of railways, the West Highland Line, and then morphed into a track through some lovely woodlands. We passed other walkers frequently, a noticeable change from previous green belt walks. The paths we were on were certainly very well marked, and good underfoot. We passed a large glacial erratic with an interpretation panel – it was Drumfad cup and ring marked rock – one of the mysterious carved rocks that occur along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe from the far North of Scotland to Galicia in the Neolithic or early Bronze Age. We searched the rough surface of the rock for a while but only managed to see one of the cup marks. Thousands of years of erosion had taken its toll, and, as the interpretation panel explained, so had the explosives drilled into the rock which blew the rock into four parts at some point before the first survey was done of the stone in the 1920s.

A well-trodden path took us along the line of the edge of Helensburgh, following the 100m contour and the edge of the green belt. We were on the Three Lochs Way, a 34 mile route which continued to Balloch, and then Arrochar beyond. It took us through a lovely oak woodland. There wasn’t any regeneration, presumably from the browsing of too many deer, but the trees were huge and with a healthy amount of moss and lichen on the boughs.

This is a remnant of the oak and hazel woodland that would have once grown all along the west coasts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Its official habitat name is western Atlantic woodlands, but ‘Celtic Rainforest’ describes it far more evocatively.  And it is a true rainforest – these habitats are special because of the bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), lichens, and fungi, which rely on damp conditions and clean air.  Western Atlantic woodlands only occur where there is high rainfall all year round, including summer, and mild winters.  As someone who has lived in western Scotland for the past 26 years I can vouch that this is a very good description of our climate. 

I imagined the view when the cup and ring marked rock was being carved thousands of years ago, when woodland would have covered these slopes. Would it have had a clearing that allowed, as today, the view down the firth of Clyde, both out towards the mouth of the Clyde and towards, what is now Glasgow?

The densest areas of cup and ring marked rocks  are found in the areas of Europe where temperate rainforest would have once grown: the west coast of Scotland1, Ireland, Galicia and Brittany, and I wondered whether this alignment of human culture and habitat was a coincidence.  An ancient connection between people and  landscape that echoes through the millennia until the present day.

Back in 2007 I had gone to an immersive performance created by NVA, an arts organisation, in Kilmartin Glen. It explored the deep cultural histories within the landscapes of the glen where there are over 350 pre-historic monuments including  numerous cup and ring marked rocks. With friends who had kids the same age, we dragged four children under 5 around a set of art installations at some of Britian’s most atmospheric historic sites, and then, at night, it was all brought together in a performance at Achnabreck, the site of one of Scotland’s most extensive cup and ring marked rocks. The same weekend we visited Taynish, a fantastic and large remnant of Celtic Rainforest just beyond Kilmartin Glen.

This performance sparked connections and relationships within my mind – these ancient people lived within the same places and spaces as us, walking the same land – but also walking a different land. The landscape we experience today bears the imprint of their lives and decisions, on the geology, topography and ecology, just as it bears the imprint of people who have lived since then. The landscape records our culture just as it recoded that of the ancients. I wonder what the archaeologists of the future would make of our culture if they were to look back on the landscapes we leave 3000 years hence?    

Since Neolithic times, the Celtic rainforest has now been pushed to the far westerly margins of the UK, with only 30,000 hectares remaining in Scotland. Remnants of this ancestral habitat remain close to where people live, even where they are very small, and offer a connection back to our ancient landscapes, along with the cup and ring marked rocks.  

The woodland we were walking through, however, was already too small to even be counted in this total – it was a 100m-wide vestige of what would have stretched up the hills behind us, and down to the loch shore. We passed a tree where the boughs were completely covered in sage green lichens, ferns grew from the depressions where branches joined the trunk.

The path took us straight to the Hill House – the celebrated Arts and Crafts masterpiece designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald. It wasn’t just the architecture, by Mackintosh, which makes the house special, but the interiors, where every single item of furniture, fixture and fitting, including the textiles, was designed and made by Macintosh and McDonald. The house is now shrouded in a huge chain-mail cube, designed to protect it from driving rain and allow wind through to dry out the cement render. The National Trust completed the £4.3million structure over the house in 2019. We asked the woman at reception how the project was going. She told us that, at the time the Hill House was built, Portland cement was a new material and they didn’t understand its properties. The lack of lime in the render meant that it didn’t breathe and has caused damp in the house which was threatening its internationally important interiors and the structure of the building. There was evidence that the house was starting to dry out but there was still six years before the structure would come down, while they researched the solution to save the Hill House.

After a scone and a cup of tea we headed back into the damp – with dark clouds threatening more snow. The marked path veered out of the green belt so we set off across country – past a council recycling centre, and over the tussocks and rushes of what must have once been a landfill site.

We crossed a golf course, skirting the top of the town until we found a way around the scary-looking galvanised steel fencing that kept the residents of the housing estate from exploring the golf course and the countryside beyond, and kept us from continuing our route. It took a bit of scouting but eventually we saw the path that locals were taking  – it traversed around the end of the fencing by taking a precarious route down a slope towards the burn and a scramble back up using tree roots as a makeshift ladder.  

We continued down the burn in some sycamore woodland, still following the edge of the town, walking the line of the green belt. The 10ft galvanised steel fencing was still on our right, fencing in the residents of Winston Road, but in a couple of places a section had been removed and an ordinary kissing gate put in. I wondered at the story here – presumably the fencing had gone up when the estate was built but the residents had objected to being caged in by industrial-style security infrastructure. Eventually the council must have taken some of it down and put in gates – but, it probably took years, if not decades to link the local people back to their local countryside.

We continued down the burn on the path but at some point we needed to head east and we set off across a field to a farm track in the direction of another branch of the Three Lochs Way which would take us a few kilometres further on. Dusk was threatening to fall, along with more snow and I was cursing myself for forgetting to bring torches, which would have, at least, got us to Cardross. Eventually we bowed to the inevitable – that we would need to retrace our steps and head down to Craigandoran station for a train back to Helensburgh and a taxi rank to return us to our car.

Post Script

When I had finished this blog I was contacted by one of our APRS members, Alastair Macbeth, longtime campaigner in the Helensburgh Green Belt group. He sent me some useful information about the wonderful footpaths I experienced around Helensburgh. He told me that as I entered the grounds of Hill House from the Upland Way I should have noticed a commemorative plaque to Alan Day, set into a boulder beside the path.

“Alan was a member of the Helensburgh Green Belt Group (HGBG) who planned, negotiated and saw into existence the footpath network around Helensburgh. Sadly, he died a few years back and the HGBG, with others, initiated the plaque in his memory.” said Alastair.

He sent an extract from the 20th Anniversary edition of ‘Greenery’, the magazine of the Helensburgh Greenbelt Group, published in August 2010 giving the following information about the paths network:

Residents and visitors currently enjoy a superb network of countryside footpaths around Helensburgh and we are grateful to landowners such as Luss Estates and local managers for co-operating so fully with their development. 

The first initiatives to create that network came from Green Belt Group Committee member Alan Day. He thought out the scheme of paths and negotiated the first of these with the old Dumbarton District Council more than 15 years ago. That was the path running behind Hill House called the Upland Way, though we thought it should be called the Day Way! We then helped to establish the Helensburgh and District Access Forum (now Trust), which brings together 15 local organ- isations to advance the paths network. The paths offer a big leap forward in leisure, recreation, health and tourism for the area. As green tourism increases in Britain and as the health benefits of more vigorous exercise than prim wanders around a Victorian park are recognised, so ready access to the countryside is more valued. Green Belts can foster such facilities. 

A feature of the development of our paths network has been the way that organisations besides the Access Trust have contributed work and funding. We mention in particular the Forestry Commission, Lower Clyde Greenspace, the Employability Team, Community Service, Duchess Wood personnel and, of course, Argyll and Bute Council.

Extract from ‘Greenery’ the magazine of the Helensburgh Green Belt Group, August 2010

Map from the leaflet: “The Countryside around Helensburgh”, produced by the Helensburgh Green Belt Group in 2010

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

  1. A whole post on my green belt walk concerns cup and ring marked rocks at Cochno ↩︎

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