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 to raise money for APRS.
It was always going to be the crux of the day’s walk, and perhaps the crux of the whole task of walking the greenbelts of Greater Glasgow and west Central Scotland. The greenbelt narrows to a less than 100m section along the curve of a duel carriageway on the outskirts of Cumbernauld, and then somehow you need to cross a canal, a railway and a motorway in quick succession. It is the narrowest part of the near-contiguous green belt that surrounds Glasgow and its neighbouring towns, and it is the only part where I will need to cross a stretch that is not greenbelt in this whole 250km odyssey.
I think it was the narrowness of this part of the greenbelt – a thin shelterbelt of trees- that attracted me to start here. I haven’t done much research yet, or downloaded the various apps that might help me, so the thin-ness of the green belt at this point made it obvious where we would have to walk. We would just follow our noses for the rest of the afternoon. ‘We surely won’t be the first people to go that way’ I told myself.
I’d done a little research on maps and on various websites which detail local paths but there was nothing marked for that area so I picked up my friend Sarah, who had agreed to a ‘wee afternoon walk’ with me and set off. The narrow belt of trees was alongside ‘Forest Drive’, either a whimsical name for a busy duel carriageway surrounding new housing estates, or an indication of what was here before. We parked in a residential area and then scuttled into the trees at the other side of the road. The belt of trees was considerably narrower than 100m – probably only 50m – but there was a path that had obviously been walked by other humans between the Scots pines and sycamores. It wasn’t long before a stile took us into the neighbouring field and we skirted the fence until it was obvious we needed to climb through the barbed wire continue on the path through a woodland.
We scrambled through the trees and up a bank to pop up on the bridge that takes the dual carriageway over the burn, far below, and the railway. The bridge had a pavement alongside it, to our relief, and when this disappeared we plunged back into the woodland of ash and sycamore. Here, too, we found a path that led down onto the access road for a sewage works and then over more stiles onto a beautiful overgrown track through mature oak woodland.
The track was squeezed between road and sewage works, perhaps not the most auspicious position, but ringlet butterflies chased each other in the clearings and spotted orchids were growing all over the path. At one point we stopped and we counted oak, hazel, ash (a mighty specimen), larch and alder. The ground was covered with green spikes of bluebells, carrying bursting seedcases. This narrow section of woodland must been the remains of a much larger ancient woodland that once stood here before roads took over.
My OS map from 1996 became more and more defunct as we approached the route of the M80, completed in 2011. We came to a set of ponds that must have been made as part of the construction process and it was here that we saw the largest oak – at least a couple of hundred years old – standing right on the edge of the aggregate that surrounds the ponds, now being recolonised by low-nutrient grassland species. Perhaps the people building the motorway had also looked up into the canopy of that enormous tree, and decided that it could be saved from the chainsaws and diggers while the surrounding woodland fell.
Deep beds of meadowsweet and valerian surrounded the ponds, and on the hard-packed aggregate a butterfly orchid stood in full-bloom. Red admirals, and meadow brown butterflies flew from flower to flower and a six-spot burnet moth rested on a thistle. At this point things started to get a bit more challenging as the path disappeared and we clambered over an ancient and metre-wide dry stone wall into the wood proper. Dogs mercury grew to our knees, hiding the fallen branches and other trip hazards as we blundered through the oaks. The distance between motorway and burn narrowed and we wondered when we should cross the stream and seek the B-road that would take us to the canal via one of the forts on the Antonine wall.
Just as we had plucked up the courage to take off shoes and socks and ford the river – shallow after weeks of drought – we saw the culvert under the motorway and it called to the urban adventurers within, and all thoughts of the original plan vanished. It was a huge arched tunnel with a curved base over which flowed the burn, but when we got closer to the stream we noticed that dead fish lay caught against boulders and lying in slow-moving pools – many were as big as 20cms long. We wondered what could have caused this die-off – the heat perhaps, which leads to de-oxygenation of the water, or perhaps a toxic spill. Whatever it was, it cooled our enthusiasm for diving into the long dark tunnel, but we did it anyway – we were committed.
Because the water was so low it was possible to walk half way though without getting wet feet and then I took off my shoes and paddled the last bit – the water was warm and shallow and I could see dead fish every few meters, even in the semi darkness of the tunnel.
At the other side, we popped out into a small green oasis of cow parsley grass and red campion. The concrete mass of the motorway towered behind, and ahead, the viaduct of the main Glasgow-Edinburgh railway arched far, far above us, crossing the motorway at an angle. Beyond that was an overgrown, 18th century stone bridge crossing the burn. We debated whether it would be easier to wade across the burn again, or to climb up and over the tree covered bridge. Looking up and at the stones at the edge of the arch starting to ease away from the rest we decided to paddle.
I wasn’t far now to the canal, perhaps 250m, and the Shangri-La of a proper path in a straight line to our destination, Colzium Country Park in Kilsyth. On a bank of dogs mercury we spotted rusty barrels, car parts and other plastic and metal detritus, sure sign of a road just above, and carefully climbed up to it – celebrating, with a few squares of chocolate, having turned the crux of the day.
But we soon discovered that we were the wrong side of a security gate, cameras everywhere. When the gate started to open after about 15 minutes we sprinted out of it, enduring some very stern questioning about how we got there from the man in the car coming through. From there we started on yet another detour, going under the railway again and crossing the motorway on a road bridge to find a cycle path that took us to the blessed, tranquil and foot-pathed canal.
We were only two kilometres into our 10 km walk of the day…. I might need to recalculate how long this journey is going to take me, I thought. Sarah is recalculating whether she wants to join me on any further walks.
We followed the canal easily for five kilometres and then headed along a beautiful path along one of the feeder lades for the canal, which is a historical monument, and past the old stables built in 1790, towards Kilsyth. Another path through gorse and heath habitats led us to our destination – Colzium Country Park.
As we walked Sarah explained how the whole valley was the site of many battles- the covenanters marched through here in 1645 and one of the major battles took place at Kilsyth when the Scottish Covenanter army, allied with the English Parliament, fought the Royalist forces of Charles I.
We reported the dead fish to SEPA when we got home on their incident reporting form. I heard back from SEPA very quickly who are now investigating. This is what they said:
“27 June 2023: SEPA officers observed dead fish today in the Red Burn at Castlecary (under the rail bridge) and at Walton Road, but not upstream of Dunnswood sewage treatment works (STW). The water continued to be dark and cloudy upstream to Cumbernauld Glen but no fish were seen. Between the STW and Castlecary there are a number of balancing ponds which discharge surface water from the Industrial Estate into the Red Burn (after treatment). Our ecology team will be carrying out an assessment of the water quality tomorrow to see if we can narrow down the source.”
If you’d like to read about the other green belt walks you can do so here