Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Three Lochs Way - The old ways

Sometimes the old ways are best. Like creating a handwritten letter and despatching it by post, instead of firing off an impersonal email. Or eating chips from newspaper instead of those horrible polystyrene trays. And when you’re wandering the gentle hills around Helensburgh on a winter weekend, the best way to explore is by the ancient tracks and trails that make up the old ways. So last weekend, with walking friends Graham and Andrew, I spent two days trekking some of the Three Lochs Way which passes through Helensburgh and links it with nearby villages on old roads and ancient paths.

We jumped off the bus at the sleepy village of Garelochhead into a brisk morning with blue skies above and dollops of snow on the hills. Our route immediately started to climb steeply above the waters of the Gare Loch, at first on a new path that wound its way up through sparse birch wood alive with the twitter of tits and then latterly on a thin trail following the undulating line of an old drystane dyke. As we’d made a late start, it was already lunchtime so we sat in warm sunshine munching a picnic with our backs against the dyke and our feet pointing down to Faslane, Scotland’s nuclear submarine base, that nestles on the shores of the loch below. 

When Andrew pointed out that we were in the worst possible spot if nuclear war erupted at that moment, we finished lunch quickly and got moving again. Or perhaps it was just that the sun disappeared behind a cloud and the temperature changed to chilly. The muddy trail under our feet gave way to firm tarmac as we joined one of the old roads in the area, the American Road. It was built during the Second World War as part of the Americans’ land lease agreements and today gives access to the military training area that covers the upper slopes here. The road also gave us lovely views over the snow-capped, rocky hills of Argyll.

Where the American Road ends, the Three Lochs Way markers point you down into Glen Fruin on a quiet back road but we decided to stay high and walk over the ridge of hills above Rhu and Helensburgh called The Fruin. Very quickly we wished we had taken the road. There seemed to be no firm ground as we plodded with heavy packs through bog and water, climbed over barbed wire fences and jumped over a series of deep trenches that had been dug for forestry but never planted. By the time we were at the end of the ridge, we felt like we’d gone through one of those military style training workouts. 

Andrew was less than pleased. Graham was complaining about wet feet. And I think I swore. However it was worth the effort to be up high in the open air, the empty landscape and the big skies as a late afternoon sun created patterns of light on the snow-covered hills. Despite being quite close to civilisation, there was a surprisingly wild feel to this place, perhaps heightened by the patches of snow that we crossed or the lateness of the day. At the far end of the ridge, we gratefully found a path down the other side and rejoined the Three Lochs Way.

We started to descend towards Helensburgh on one of the old ways on our journey, the Highlandman’s Road. The road is an old pack horse track that once provided a link for the people of Glen Fruin to the nearest church at Rhu, on the shores of the Gare Loch. The muddy track entered the darkening Highlandman’s Wood and passed close to a cup-marked boulder. This old rock is a glacial erratic, picked up and then deposited here by retreating glaciers in the last ice age. Bronze Age people carved out the cup shapes which may have been boundary signs or way markers. And modern man added his own graffiti and plastic litter. We found a camp spot by crossing two bendy, precarious planks over the burn and got the tents up as the last light faded and the wood descended into darkness.

Next morning we woke to a light shower of snowflakes drifting gently through the trees to the forest floor. We made hot breakfasts before returning to the Highlandman’s Road via the planks which had acquired a thin coating of ice overnight. By now the sun was up, casting long tree shadows across our track. The Three Lochs Way enters Helensburgh at the Hill House, a stately home at the top of the town designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. It’s not open at this time of year so we had to peer over the walls and through the gates for a peek.  Even if it was open, I'm sure they wouldn’t admit mud-splattered walkers into the fine interiors. The route continued down to the waterfront at Helensburgh passing large, expensive Victorian villas. I imagined people munching triangles of toast, sipping lashings of tea and pouring over the Sunday papers in their big, bay windows, oblivious to the three unwashed walkers passing who’d spent the night in the woods nearby.

Helensburgh surprised me. As we walked the wide avenues we had spectacular views along the streets to the snow-covered mountains further west. I had never placed Helensburgh as a mountain town. Secondly, it was larger than I had imagined. It took quite a time to cross before we popped out on the other side on a farm track that climbed back up into the hills. As we climbed, the Clyde Estuary was at our backs, its southern shore obliterated from view by vast sheets of rain while we stayed in beautiful sunshine on the northern shore. The Three Lochs Way was heading now to Balloch over a high pass that opened up spectacular views to Loch Lomond and its snow-plastered namesake, Ben Lomond.

As we began the descent from the pass, the underfoot conditions changed from mud to a stony track, in places bounded by an old, moss-covered drystane dyke and in other places by an avenue of tall beech trees illuminated by soft afternoon sun. These final few miles were following another old route, the Stoneymollan Road. The road is an ancient coffin route that people used for carrying coffins from Balloch on Loch Lomond to consecrated ground in Cardross on the Clyde. At 7km long and with a bit of climbing, that’s quite a way to carry the deadweight of a coffin. Mind you, after two days on a walking route that might have been easy but for bog and mud, our rucksacks also felt like deadweights.

At the bottom of the Stoneymollan Road, our boots returned to tarmac as we crossed a flyover above the screaming traffic on the A82, entered Balloch and left behind the old ways.

More photos -click here or on the Flickr logo.

Fact File
Start: Garelochhead. Trains on the West Highland Line stop at Garelochhead but as there's a limited number, we took a train to Helensburgh (direct from Edinburgh or connections in Glasgow) and then a short bus ride to Garelochhead (around the corner from the station, take buses to Garelochhead or Coulport).
Finish: Balloch. Trains/buses to Glasgow.
Maps: We used printouts from the Three Lochs Way website - click here. They also gave some background snippets of information. Most of the route is on OS Landranger 56.
Route: The route is mostly well signed with Three Lochs Way markers. In Garelochhead the link path to the Three Lochs Way leaves from Station Road just below the station and is well signed. Instead of following the official route on the unclassified road through Glen Fruin, we walked over the Fruin. I can't really recommend this route - it was wet, boggy, rough and really hard going. At the far end of the ridge there is a bit of path that takes you back down to rejoin the official route on the Highlandman's Road. We followed a large firebreak in the forestry here and found a camp spot in the old wood. Signs take you along a path into Helensburgh called the Upland Way then along the main Glasgow road. The route leaves Helensburgh just before the new high school. Look carefully for the sign as we missed it and maps are a little confusing because of building work. A clear, if muddy, well-signed route takes you up to the pass below Ben Bowie then into forestry. You enter the forestry on a path which joins a track - turn right when you join the track (there's no sign here). The forest track ends at a turning circle and a faint path continues straight on into the trees. You now have to follow red and white tape tied to the trees through dense forestry. The route is steep and slippy in places. The tape takes you to a point deep in the forestry so that you have no idea where you are ... and then stops! At this point head north along a faint gap in the trees and you'll soon leave the forestry and come onto a track. Turn right and pick up Three Lochs Way markers again all the way into Balloch.
Tip: There is a website dedicated to old routes and drove roads in Scotland called Heritage Paths - click here.

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