In this 15th section of her green belts walk, Kat tries to navigate via Core Paths and learns that, 20 years since the Land reform Act brought about a commitment to a Core Path Network, we are still very far from that ideal.
Today was going to be an easy walk – my friend Christine was joining me and I’d determined that this would be a lovely, relaxing day without the usual stress of route-finding and fence climbing. Anyway, we were now in a great part of the world for walking, and where the core path network gave lots of options for our route. We would follow core paths and the world would be our oyster.
Well, that was the plan at least. Those readers who have been following my walks will know that nothing is ever simple, and almost nothing goes to plan.
The saga had started a week previously as I tried to find a way of easily accessing the core paths network in a format that would work for my green belt walk. When I worked in SNH, now Nature Scot, back when the access legislation was new, all local authorities were creating core path networks, as obliged by the Land Reform Act. These would ensure every local area had access to the countryside around their towns and cities. The process of designation was supposed to last a few years, but was not completed until 10 years after the Act.
These core paths would seem ideal for navigating the green belts. However the networks of paths have never made it onto OS maps, which is why I was trying to find out how I could access them in a useful format for my walk. I could see where they were on the Nature Scot website – but this was no good for using in the field, you can’t even make the embedded map full-screen size.
It seemed to me ludicrous that Core Paths aren’t on OS maps, the most commonly used map by walkers. So I emailed Helen Todd of the Ramblers Scotland to find out what was going on. Helen has worked on this issue since the beginning and would know all there was to know about the detail. And sure enough, Helen sent a long email of the saga of their efforts to get the core paths listed on maps, or even in one coordinated place in the public domain.
The Rambers’ frustration at their thwarted efforts to get the core paths onto maps is why they set up the ‘Mapping Scotland’s Paths Project’ – a project bringing volunteers together to create a map of all Scotland’s paths, not just the Core Paths. Helen let me know, though, that the Government’s Improvement Service had just, very recently, made the datasets of the core paths opensource. Perhaps this was a lead…
APRS are already in the process of trying to make the greenbelt maps data more accessible on our website, so I contacted the person responsible for the data in the Government improvement Service. I wanted to know if I could download the paths in GPX format that I could then upload direct into my OS maps App. Could this be a way around the two-decade old mapping issue?
But things were, of course, more complicated. All the formats that the system would offer as downloads were only compatible with proper GIS (Geographic Information Systems). I asked whether they could add GPX files to the formats, so ordinary users of maps apps and GPS could use them. It is something that they will think about for the future, but it was obviously going to be too late for my green belt walk.
I wondered whether, if I found someone who works with GIS, or learned how to use it myself and got the software, I could upload the files and then download them in a format compatible with mapping apps (and perhaps even put them on our website for others to use…)
But with time of the essence, for my walk, I had to go with the low tech solution of printing out the OS maps and drawing the core paths on top with a pen.
It happened that the track of my last walk had finished very close to a core path so we headed down there (after a take-away flat white from Caulders Garden Centre and cutting through the back, behind the car park, and hopping over a fence). After about a kilometre of farm track and a substantial bridge over the river Earn, we came to, what was marked on the map as Blackhouse farm. As we walked it became increasingly clear that we were walking though someone’s carefully landscaped gardens – lawns mown to within few millimetres of their lives were scattered with neatly pruned shrubs and a little stream we passed had a tiny, beautifully crafted, bridge. It didn’t feel much like a farm, and when we reached the farmhouse, it had evidently undergone much renovation with all the outbuildings brought into service as part of a very substantial and grand home.
We stopped on the gravel outside the house completely flummoxed. The core path suggested a track should take us past the front of the house and through the lawns then off along a field margin into the distance. All we saw was manicured lawn. It felt like a desecration just to step on it – and certainly this would be classed as the privacy zone for their home, and therefore not subject to our access rights. We backtracked a little to look for signs that the core path had been diverted, but there were none. However we did see that there was a stile over the fence at the other side of the lawn and, given that there were no cars parked in the drive, and it didn’t seem like there was anyone in, we speedwalked across the lovely lawn and exited into a field of turnips.
We stopped to review the situation – how could a core path go through someone’s garden? Presumably the house had made changes to the layout of the farm recently and had not diverted the path. “But surely a core path would be in someone’s deeds and they’d need to divert it” I said. When we looked on the internet later, we saw an article in country life about the sale of the property in 2014 – the photos showed the house and grounds looking pretty similar to the layout we found. So what was going on?
We continued past turnips bigger than footballs and, with Halloween just gone, we chatted about the demise of the tradition in Scotland of turnip carving in favour of the pumpkin – although we concluded that Accident and Emergency departments must be glad that Scottish children aren’t being encouraged to carve a vegetable well known to be harder-than-wood into a lantern with kitchen knives.
We definitely weren’t on anything like a track or a path, it might have once been a track, and indeed the map indicated that might have been the case, but now it was just a field margin. It felt doubtful that this could ever constitute being a core path, despite it being marked as one on the universal map. But at least we weren’t in someone’s garden, or being chased by cows. I found out that Chris was even more terrified of cows than me – she’d worked on a dairy farm as a child “the farmer’s wife had a broken pelvis from being charged by a bullock and so he warned us to never go in a field with cows.” Cow pats and cow-poached mud were everywhere. And Chris was on constant high-alert. The final farm we encountered before we met the road, North Moorhouse, seemed, fortunately, to have taken their cows into their barns so, despite having to cross lakes of ankle-deep cow poo – we didn’t encounter any face to face. We greeted the farmer as we passed – as he fed his peacocks “They’re just pets” he said, when I enquired whether they were part of the livestock.
At the main road there was a monument to Robert Pollok “Author of The Course of Time – born 1798- died 1827” the monument said that it had been erected for his centenary. A bronze relief depicted him in a sharp twin breasted dress coat and cravat with a crown hovering above him pouring rays of light around him.
Never being far from google, we googled him. Pollok was a poet who grew up on the farm we’d just walked through, and had written an epic 10-book poem in blank verse. It was, according to reports, a Calvanist version of Milton’s Paradise lost, written shortly after and sharing much of the structure, and had drawn praise from eminent critics of the day – but, unlike Milton, seems to have sunk from view today.
We carried on, noting that the sun was already low in the sky, full of hope that the core paths in the area of lochs and farms between Newton Means and Neilston would offer far easier walking. There was a path marked that would take us past Brother Loch and around Mearns Law. But when we got there, there was no evidence a path had ever existed. The route on the map would have taken us over a decrepit barbed wire fence that was at least 30 years old, and almost immediately over another barbed wire fence of similar age and decrepitude. The route then headed across a pathless field of long grass, tussocks and some ditches. It was evident that this was just a line drawn on a map and no path had existed here.
As we stood comparing maps of the core paths and the OS App two men in a council van stopped and asked if we were lost and suggested we try the golf course.
The golf club was busy and we picked our way over the course, dodging small groups of men teeing off, and others wandering the fairway. Of all the times I’ve been challenged taking my right of access in Scotland, it has been by men on golf courses. Access rights in Scotland extend to golf courses (after campaigning by access groups during the passage of the legislation), in order to cross them, and so long as you don’t interfere with games or go on any greens.
We continued through some really interesting countryside of small hills and curved escarpments, speculating that the landscape must have been made by glaciers leaving moraines and kettle lochs as they retreated. By this time we’d stopped navigating by core paths and simply were following the obvious routes suggested by farm tracks marked on the OS map, and cutting across fields where it made sense. Very soon we saw Neilston Pad, like a giant cake rising out of the undulating landscape around. It is a volcanic plug with steep slopes on all sides and a large plateau about 300m wide and 500m long on top.
Our car was just around the back of this and some well-trodden walking routes surrounded it. The berries were hanging heavy on the hawthorn hedges as we passed. The exceptional year for May blossom had transfigured into hedges crammed with berries and flocks of migrating thrushes stocking up for the next move.
Unfortunately our route didn’t quite join up with the path network and so we needed to climb a couple of fences, but then it was a straightforward walk past the Pad, and Craighall Dam, one of the many lochs in the area, to the car, just as the sun was setting.
Postscript: I thought I had better also approach Harveys Maps, based in Doune, to see whether core paths were labelled on their maps. They said that core paths are only marked on some of their maps such as some of our Superwalker series (eg. Crieff & Comrie, the Ochil Hills and Pitlochry). In these cases the paths that are marked have been checked on the ground to ensure that they do exist, and only those which exist on the ground will be mapped.