Time out in the Trossachs 2: it’s BLiSS out there!

The LookOut mirrored cabin on the shores of Loch Voil and Loch Doine

On a dreich day in February getting out-of-doors might not be uppermost in your mind! On the other hand, it can be a time to think about, and plan for, trips in the not-too-distant future. A favourite place of mine is one of the innovative Scenic Routes installations in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park: The LookOut on Loch Voil.

Strictly speaking, it’s not on Loch Voil, but sits in a flat meadow between the head of Loch Voil and its smaller neighbour, Loch Doine.  Here the stretch of water between the two lochs is so short and narrow that the south bank is barely yards away and accessible by stepping stones for the brave!

Even the puddles are reflected in the LookOut cabin!

To reach the LookOut you follow the twisting single-track road that runs through Balquhidder Glen along the beautiful north shore of Loch Voil, until you come to Monachyle Mhor farm restaurant and hotel, where you can leave your car and walk down to the shore.

The LookOut is a Tardis-like mirrored cabin, that reflects different views of the landscape in which it stands. Depending on the light, it can be almost invisible as it blends in with the surrounding meadow, hills and lochs: so much so that it can be easy to miss, only to come as a surprise as you begin to see yourself approaching!  In a curious way it can make you feel that you’re part of this beautiful landscape.

Balquhidder is also on the BLiSS (Balqhuidder, Lochearnhead, Strathyre and St Fillans) Trail: a community extension of the Scottish Scenic Routes project. Gordon Watson, Chief Executive, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park welcomed BLiSS, saying: ” I wanted to say how impressed I am at your efforts to extend the success of the Scottish Scenic Routes initiative through the launch of the BLiSS Trail.  I was delighted to see the coverage that the launch attracted. Your dedication to improving the visitor experience in the area is a real credit to the National Park, so thank you.”

Monachyle Mhor farm restaurant and hotel

The BLiSS Trail is in Rob Roy Country and it’s hard to miss that Balquhidder Glen is very much MacGregor territory!  On the approach to Loch Voil you come through the village of Balquidder, with its tiny church and the graves of Rob Roy and his family.  While across the water from the LookOut is Monachyle Tuarach, a working farm and a comfortable hostel today, but once home to Rob and his wife before his final move in 1722 to Inverlochlarig, at the head of the glen, where he lived peaceably until his death in 1734.

If you’re feeling adventurous, it’s possible to drive to the end of the public road at Inverlochlarig, where there is a small car park and picnic area, and from here you can take to the hills!  But what is a dead-end to us today was once the ‘Coffin Road’ from Glen Falloch to Balquidder Kirk.  Take a look at a map and find Bealach nan Corp – Pass of the Corpses – and it’s amazing to think that coffins were carried for such a distance and over such wild and high terrain as this.

The road along Balquhidder Glen

Balquhidder Glen had long been of spiritual importance and legend has it that St Angus, who brought Christianity to the area in the 8th century, recognised it as a “thin place”, a spot, the Celts believed, where Earth and Heaven, the earthly and the spiritual, are very close.

St Angus is said to have spent the rest of his life in Balquhidder and to be buried somewhere near the site of the original first church there: Eaglais Beag, the Little Church. Clach Aonghais, the Angus Stone, which once covered his grave, can today be found in the church.

Looking down Loch Doine

So, if you’ve not yet been to the LookOut, or followed the BLiSS Trail, put them firmly on your to-visit-list. And when you reach the LookOut, make sure you take a photo of yourself reflected in its mirrors. Designed by Daniel Tyler and Angus Ritchie, this scenic viewpoint is one that, quite literally, puts you in the picture!

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park

Rob Roy Country : Bliss Trail

Scottish Scenic Routes

Bute’s West Island Way

iScot magazine have a special free download offer this month. Among many other interesting items, it contains an article I’ve written about the wonderful West Island Way walking trail on the island of Bute. https://pocketmags.com/iscot-magazine

You can also read about Robert Burns, the remote but beautiful Applecross Peninsula, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, current affairs, whisky, the dreaded midge, Meal Makers (help for the elderly) and much more.

And if you love the great outdoors here’s a new website devoted to Argyll: http://www.wildaboutargyll.co.uk/  Watch the short film and see how many of these places you have already been to – and then visit the rest!

There’s something for everyone in Scotland!

Time out in the Trossachs 1: An Ceann Mòr on Loch Lomond

‘An Ceann Mòr’ or ‘The Great Headland’: the dramatic new pyramid-shaped viewing platform at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside

Ask most people to name a place in Scotland that they’ve heard of and chances are they’ll come up with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. What Walter Scott set in motion all those years ago with his poem The Lady of the Lake continues today. And with good reason. A National Park since 2002, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs is possibly one of the best-known areas of Scotland. Natural beauty, lochs and mountains, hills and glens –  the Park has them all: and a-plenty.

When the Scottish Government launched its first Scenic Routes competition, there was a wealth of entries. Young architects from all over submitted pland for special installations, designed to enchance particular areas in the Park. The four winning entries were duly built and have become popular and much-loved sites for visitors.

‘Stargate Loch Lomond’ – Loch Lomond’s very own pyramid!

It’s not often you associate the Scottish countryside with pyramids, but Loch Lomond now has a splendid one!  An Ceann Mòr, Gaelic for the Great Headland, is one of four installations that marked the inaugural Scottish Scenic Routes project.  Funded by the Scottish Government, the four new landmarks were specifically designed to highlight features of much loved areas of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

The challenge to take a beautiful and much-loved spot and succeed in enhancing it has been at the heart of the Scenic Routes competitions, and it’s a challenge  talented young architects have risen to with resounding success. The winning designs are all very different, but have one thing in common; they make you stop, think and see a familiar scene in a new way.

Our first stop was the striking pyramid, An Ceann Mòr, which sits high above the loch close to the Inveruglas Visitor Centre, with stunning views down towards Ben Lomond and over to the Arrochar Alps. But that’s not all you’ll see as you stand on this beautiful wooden structure. You’ll find your eyes drawn to another distinctive landmark, the Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric power station. How often do we drive past it without giving it a second thought? And yet its construction was part of one of the most progressive and far-reaching engineering projects in the world.

Loch Sloy information board

Completed in 1949 and officially ‘switched on’ in 1950, Loch Sloy produces hydro-electricity, and in a country of rivers, lochs and plentiful rain, that supply is likely to be inexhaustible! The history of its construction – which included the tragic loss of 21 lives – is a revelation.  In fact, the massive scale of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Scheme was unprecedented, but succeeded in bringing ‘Power to the Glens’ in a way never before imaginable. By 1963 90% of the Highlands were attached to the grid, more than twice as many as when the scheme began just after the Second World War.

The Hydro Board was the led by the Scottish politician Tom Johnston and over three decades the ‘Hydro Boys’ and the ‘Tunnel Tigers’ created generation and distribution schemes that became renowned the world over. Their achievements are all the more remarkable given the harsh conditions and often unforgiving terrain they had to work in. However, this ‘Power from the Glens’ ultimately changed the face of rural Scotland and the benefits continue to this day.

Hopefully An Ceann Mòr will be long-lasting too. It was designed by three young architects Daniel Bar, Stephane Toussaint and Sean Edwards from BTE Architects in Glasgow.  Eight metres high and with 31 steps, it is made from sustainable timber, wood which the young architects have chosen especially as it will gradually weather to a more muted silver-grey colour, blending in naturally to become part of the surrounding landscape.

Part of the landscape, but also a feature that makes us take more notice of that landscape than ever before. And that’s no bad thing at all!

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Stoneymollan Road: the Coffin Road from Balloch to Cardross

Once upon a time there were old tracks the length and breadth of Scotland. Before the advent of trains, buses and cars, the majority of people had no alternative but to walk. Tracks went up hill and down dale, often taking the most direct route possible from one place to another. However, over the years many of these old tracks have disappeared; become overgrown, built over, ploughed up, forgotten. But a few still exist, and have been incorporated into the growing number of newly-created walks and trails.

One of these is the Stoneymollan Road, an old track that runs from Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, to the burial ground at St Mahew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, not far from Cardross. It may seem strange to us today, but this route was once an old coffin road. Why such a curious name? The answer to that goes back centuries. In Medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and these churches were often few and far between. Rural settlements were scattered and often remote from a church. As the population grew and spread, new settlements appeared, and people were often faced with a long trek to the nearest cemetery. And the coffin had to be shouldered and carried the whole way!

The tracks became known as coffin roads, though there were many other names too: corpse roads, funeral roads, lych-ways, burial roads, coffin lines, bier roads, church-ways and more. These coffin roads were often long and across difficult terrain. Imagine having to undertake the journey in the snow, or torrential rain!

Over time, numerous eerie superstitions, some very ancient, others newer, became attached to these old tracks: the coffin must not touch the ground or the deceased’s spirit would return to haunt the living; the corpse’s feet must face away from their house or they could return to haunt their former home; the coffin bearers must not step off the path onto neighbouring farmland or the crops would be blighted; spirits liked to travel in straight lines, so the paths often meandered; spirits could not cross running water, so the paths crossed burns; you could lose a following spirit at a crossroad, so the route would have a crossroad! Spooky!!

The crumbling shell of Woodhall House

However, as communities grew more churches were built and the need for these coffin roads declined and finally died out altogether. So instead of being a route for coffin bearers, the old Stoneymollan Coffin Road is now part of both the Three Lochs Way and the John Muir Way and links Loch Lomondside with the Firth of Clyde (and vice-versa). And the people you’re most likely to meet today will be walkers, joggers and even cyclists!

Setting off from Balloch we noticed the crumbling remains of Woodhall House, with an array of rusty iron gates, nearly invisible under shrubs and trees: almost like the hedge of thorns that grew up around Sleeping Beauty. This area used to be full of such grand houses even though the settlement at Balloch itself was small. But Balloch had its pier and boats regularly plied the waters of Loch Lomond. Later came the railway, which for many years ran right up to the pier, until that spur was closed in 1986.

The hidden gates to Sleeping Beauty’s palace?

The track goes upwards and the higher the track, especially atop Stoneymollan Muir, the better the views back over Loch Lomond. When you reach the highest point a spectacular panorama opens up westwards, over towards Cowal and, if you’re lucky with the weather, sometimes even as far as Arran. There is a tremendous sense of space and openess on this track: a real sense of freedom.

Then it’s downhill all the way to St Mahew’s Chapel in Kirkton. This lovely old building was restored in the 1950s, but it’s history goes back to at least 1467, and it’s possible that there may have been a Christian missionary building on this site from the early sixth century onwards.  For almost two centuries the building served as a school prior to its restoration, but the site was one that had long been held sacred, and is so again today.

When you come Cardross at the end of the walk you can take the bus or train back into Glasgow. While if you walk the route from Cardross to Balloch (ie west to east and sometimes easier in the prevailing westerly wind), you can likewise take the bus or train from Balloch back into town: but don’t forget to check the timetables. Alternatively get a friend to pick you up from whichever end you arrive at!

Boo!

But watch out for any spirits that might just still be lingering along this old coffin road!

Stoneymollan Road

Three Lochs Way

St Mahew’s R.C.Church

St Mahew’s Chapel at Kirkton

It’s Tintin’s Birthday!

Today Tintin turns 88 and he and Snowy are still going strong! His enduring appeal is due partly to the exciting stories, partly to the wonderful drawings and partly to Hergé’s use of authentic locations. One of my favourite books is The Black Island and it was a thrill to discover that real places in Scotland had inspired Hergé and his team when they updated the original edition for publication in the UK.

Which places? Which castles? Which islands? I hear you ask: and so, without further ado, here are the answers, as we go:

In search of Tintin!

Lochranza Castle on Arran

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

The village of Castlebay on the Isle of Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island

The village of Castlebay on Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island. Photo courtesy of Annie Houston

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Both share that exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement on a rugged, wild and isolated Scottish island.

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1933

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!

The Bearsden Shark bites back: with his own Website!

Last January I wrote about the cairn and information board erected to mark the area around the Manse Burn in Baljaffray where the Bearsden Shark was found in 1982. A year on and Akmonistion Zangerli, aka The Bearsden Shark, now has his own website! We visited Baljaffray again today and, to celebrate our oldest resident’s newfound internet presence, I thought it would be appropriate to put the post up again.

“Hunting the Shark”: or Bearsden’s oldest Resident!

Walking alongside the Manse Burn as it flows through Baljaffray to the north of Bearsden, it’s hard to imagine that 330 million years ago the land here not only lay close to the Equator, but was covered in tropical lagoons and teeming with marine life!  But thanks to Bearsden’s oldest known resident – the Bearsden Shark – it’s possible to know what kind of creatures lived here and what sort of environment they lived in.

The first indication that the Manse Burn was a rich source of fossils came in 1981 when a young boy found something that he couldn’t identify and took it to Stan Wood, a local fossil expert.

Not long after, the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University organised an excavation and began to unearth an abundance of fossils which eventually included the most complete and best preserved fossil shark of its kind in the whole world!  In fact the area along the Manse Burn turned out to be so rich in fossils that it was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is one of the best Carboniferous fish sites anywhere.

From the reconstruction it’s easy to see that it was a strange looking beast and scientists have discovered that not only did it have teeth in its mouth, but also along the top of its head and around its distinctive dorsal fin!!  A formidable foe indeed!

Dr Neil Clark’s reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark

It was identified as a male shark belonging to the group known as Stethacanthidae: and not only was the Bearsden Shark fossil complete – or as ‘complete’ as a fossil can be – but it was so well preserved that it was possible to identify muscles, blood vessels and even his last meal!   However, even though unearthed more than thirty years ago, it took nearly twenty years to finally decide that it was indeed a new species and in 2001 it was given the name of ‘akmonistion zangerli’: though most people (understandably) still refer to it simply as the Bearsden Shark!

The ‘Bearsden Shark’ fence across the Manse Burn

Such is his fame that he has had a poem composed about his life (The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan), as well as a number of PhDs written in his honour and now has a cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn in Baljaffray to mark his importance in our understanding of life all those millions of years ago. The new board and cairn were unveiled by Dr Neil Clark, curator of Palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, whose reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark is shown above.

The cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn

A cold-blooded killer from the Carboniferous Era, our shark, like millions of other creatures “softly and suddenly vanished away”*: so suddenly in this case that he didn’t have enough time to fully digest his final fish supper: made up of shrimps! But nonetheless he did leave a lasting legacy from 330 million years ago.  Not bad for a Bearsden Boy!

The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan

The Bearsden Shark Website

*From The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll

A bright start to the New Year by Loch Lomond’s Shores

The ‘Maid of the Loch’ with Ben Lomond behind

January 1st 2017 – New Year’s Day – the sun shone and skies were blue. So what better way to start the year than by heading north to Loch Lomond.  We parked at Lomond Shores then set off to walk along a short stretch of the West Loch Lomond Cycle Path. This section of the cycle route is also part of the John Muir Way and takes you onto the Old Luss Road.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine that the road alongside Loch Lomond wasn’t classified until the 1920s or that much of it followed the line of the 18th century Old Military Road. These military roads – built by General Wade and Major Caulfeild (sic) – linked the Central Lowlands with fortified army barracks in the Highlands; barracks which had been established to quell the Highland population after the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715. One of the best known of these today is the old road between Glen Kinglas and  Glen Croe, the Rest and Be Thankful.

“REST & BE THANKFUL: MILITARY ROAD REPd BY 93rd REGt 1768 TRANSFERRED TO COMMRs FOR H, R & C IN THE YEAR 1814”

In the early 19th century the Loch Lomond route was surveyed and improved by the renowned Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford. Telford, a poor shepherd’s son, was born in Dumfriesshire in 1857, yet became the most outstanding canal- and road-builder of his time.  His system of road-building involved several layers of stone, topped by cobbles, coupled with adequate drainage, all of which made for hard-wearing, long-lasting roads: labour-intensive, but not high-tech.

The decade after the First World War saw car ownership increase rapidly and the 1920 Road Act highlighted the poor state of Britain’s roads. Road classification was introduced and high unemployment levels after that terrible war meant there was a ready pool of labour available for a widespread programme of new road building. But, in many parts of Scotland, I doubt Thomas Telford would have seen a huge difference between his roads and those a century later in the 1930s! And it wasn’t until the 1980s that the modern, widened road we know today was built between Balloch Roundabout and Tarbet.

Fortunately for walkers and cyclists a number of stretches of the older road still exist and these follow the shore of the loch more closely that the new road does. So we undoubtedly get the best views! And we certainly saw plenty of cyclists making the most of the good weather.

The stone trough on the Old Luss Road

Here and there are indications of older times: an old stone horse trough, a gate to nowhere, an old lodge house and crumbling gates to former estate buildings. And on one side of the road stone walls and beech hedges have been left to their own devices and morphed into strange hybrid shapes along the roadside!

On our return to Lomond Shores we tucked into a hot and tasty lunch in the cafe high up in the Drumkinnon Tower, while enjoying the stunning views over the the loch, to the paddle steamer the Maid of the Loch and towards Ben Lomond.  The aquarium below was full of visitors, mostly families with children who were full of excitement at the array of aquatic creatures they had just seen: from the family of otters – Lily, Pickle and Cub – to tiny seahorses, sharks and the cartoon-like cow-nosed rays.

The mighty Drumkinnon Tower at Lomond Shores, which houses the aquarium and a cafe with stunning views over the loch

For us this was a gentle day out, but for the more adventurous – and fitter – there’s always the Tree Zone, an aerial adventure course. And if you want a really great way to discover the park area, then go for one of Scotland’s Wild’s active tours. There really are so many different ways to discover and enjoy this wonderful part of Scotland.

And that’s a good thought for a brand New Year!

Maid of the Loch

Sea Life Aquarium, Loch Lomond

Lomond Shores

Lomond and Trossachs National Park

Scotland’s Wild for active tours of the National Park area

Tree Zone Loch Lomond

The Christmas Robin – a tiny living Prayer

I have a good friend, for whom the sight of a robin is a reminder of her much-loved and much-missed mother. Seeing a robin flit by is always a welcome sight for her. A reassurance. A tiny living prayer.

It made me wonder why certain birds and animals have acquired a particular significance. Harbingers of good – or bad – luck.  It could be a black cat crossing your path. Rabbits and their feet. Magpies with ‘One for sorrow, two for joy…’ And there are many more. Today robins have a strong association with Christmas and even a cursory glance at a pile of Christmas cards will reveal many picturing bright little robins. What brought this about?

One story I read tells of the very first Christmas when a robin was bravely fanning the dying embers of the fire in the stable where the infant Jesus lay sleeping. If the fire went out the child would be chilled. The robin didn’t give up, but gathered twigs to keep the fire alight. A hot spark leapt from the fire and the little robin’s breast was burnt red. When Mary returned she blessed the robin for his care of her baby son, and for his bravery. From then on all robins carried a redbreast, a proud reminder of their generous act. And thus began their close association with Christmas.

Another legend tells of a robin trying to ease Jesus’ pain at the crucifixion by removing one of the vicious barbs from the crown of thorns. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the robin’s breast, again to become a permanent marker of the little bird’s bravery and compassion.

More mundane perhaps, is the story that Victorian postmen, clad in their bright red jackets, became known as ‘robin redbreasts’ and before long a robin appeared on an early Christmas card. Christmas cards were a new idea in the mid-19th century and rapidly became very popular. The robin has had pride of place there ever since!

One curious fact I discovered: look closely and you’ll see that a robin’s breast is orange, rather than red. It seems that the colour we know as orange today – named from the fruit – didn’t exist in the English language until the 16th century and wasn’t used as a distinct colour name until much later. ‘Robin Orangebreast’ doesn’t sound quite the same, though, and definitely lacks alliterative appeal!

But however their name, or their connection with Christmas, really came about, they are bright-eyed, intelligent, engaging little birds. Gardeners know that as soon as you turn the soil a robin will be there watching you closely, following your movements on the lookout for food in the disturbed earth. I find it a great pleasure to see these delightful creatures in my garden, or wherever I am outdoors. And the notion of their being a tiny living prayer is one I’m more than happy to go along with. Especially at Christmas.

Steps on the Road to Recovery

The journey on the road to recovery from illness can take different paths

If you know Bute, you’ll know the long, steep, twisting road that’s very appropriately called the Serpentine. It’s a favourite challenge with cycling enthusiasts, who test their mettle tackling the 13 hairpin bends to get to the top. Today we’re sitting in a flat halfway up this precipitous road with a spectacular view right over Rothesay Bay and beyond. From here we can see the Calmac ferry making its final turn to berth at the pier, bringing both residents and visitors to this popular island in the Firth of Clyde. With its gleaming white superstructure and red and black funnels, emblazoned with the company’s insignia, the ferry is a vivid and welcome sight – no matter how often you may have seen it before.

We’re here for a few days holiday – though rest and recuperation would be a more accurate description. My husband almost lost his life a short while ago and even though he’s recovering well, and so very grateful to be alive, it still takes time to come to terms with an event that could have changed our lives forever.

Karen Latto of PrintPoint, with author Richard Smith

Karen Latto of Print Point, with author Richard Smith

It felt like more than a coincidence when we discovered that Print Point, the island’s fine bookshop, was hosting a visit from eminent gynaecological surgeon and cancer specialist J Richard Smith. Richard’s new book – The Journey – is an account of the author’s own brush with ‘the reality of mortality’, as well as examining the physical and psychological challenges faced by recovering patients. You might think that recovery from a life-threatening illness, or accident, would leave you ready to carry on with life as before, but in fact, he told us, people often fall into one of two categories. There are  those who recover and have a heightened sense of being given a second chance and endeavour to live each day to the full. But, sadly, there are others who find themselves sinking into a state of dread, so anxious are they that the illness might recur that they become unable to live life meaningfully, and become prisoners of their own fears.

The road to recovery can be a long one, but can also be a joyous one

The road to recovery can be a long one, but can also be a joyous one

Like most people, I’d heard it said that, if you fall off a horse you should get back on one again as soon as possible before you find yourself too scared to do so. But I hadn’t thought of this in connection with major illnesses and accidents.

I do now.

Unbidden and unwelcome comes the thought that if it could happen once it could happen again. And how do you deal with that?

Richard Smith’s book suggests one way. With his many years experience working with patients who are at their most vulnerable, physically as well as psychologically, The Journey (subtitled Spirituality, Pilgrimage and Chant) maps Richard’s own ‘pilgrimage’, his journeys of discovery. He writes of the road he has travelled towards physical and spiritual wellbeing; “of the challenges and wonders of pilgrim paths to ancient sites such as Jerusalem, Assisi, Iona, Patmos and Mount Athos… The Journey is a book about being whole and is for anyone on the pathway to physical healing after illness, or seeking greater spiritual fulfillment.”

Old Man's Beard lichen tells of a healthy environment in nature

Old Man’s Beard lichen tells of a healthy environment in nature – exercise and being outdoors helps us feel healthier too!

Right now we feel such gratitude that we’ve been given that second chance and are learning to overcome the fears that inevitably accompany it. I hope the path we chose is the one where we continue to live life with relish and make the most of each day as it comes.

Reading Richard’s book, being back on Bute, having the support of friends; these all contribute to the ongoing process of recovery. And I’m grateful for all of them.

The Journey by J Richard Smith

The Camping Coach of Adventure!

British Rail camping coaches“A CAMPING COACH. Another recent form of holiday-making by rail is in the camping coach. These coaches stand in some remote, rural siding and come under the care of the local station-master.” (From Railway Wonders of the World, April 1935)

Can you imagine how exciting it must have been for children to have their very own railway carriage to live in? In the summer of 1963 we had just that, and had one of the best family holidays ever! A converted railway carriage that sat on a siding beside the station at Plockton. Perfect accommodation set in a stunning location on the north-west coast of Scotland.

The carriage was fitted out with a kitchen, living and dining area and three ‘bedrooms’. The only thing lacking was a toilet, but we were free to use the station toilet, with ‘potties’ to hand for young children in the night!img003-1

In those days Plockton, a Highland village on the shores of Loch Carron, had yet to acquire fame as the fictional home of PC Hamish Macbeth (and who can forget Robert Carlyle in the role?). But it was definitely well-known as a wonderful place to spend the summer.  Close to sea, loch, hill and glen.

The very first 'Alison' book by Sheila Stuart

The very first ‘Alison’ book by Sheila Stuart

As children growing up with books like Swallows and Amazons, the Famous Five and Sheila Stuart’s Alison books, there couldn’t have been a more perfect a place for a holiday. We were ready to swim, row, fish, cycle, explore caves, find treasure, climb trees, scale cliffs, foil dastardly crooks: in short, we were ready for adventure! And while the Famous Five might have had their own island and lighthouse, we felt we were doing just as well spending the long summer holidays in a railway carriage!

img002-2Why camping coaches? The first coaches made their appearance in the 1930s at a time when cycling, hiking and camping were becoming increasingly popular among Britain’s urban population. Very many people still lived crammed into the grimy, heavily-industrialised cities, where pollution, in particular smog, was a problem.

We might think that smog was only a problem in late Victorian times; a useful cover for criminals in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, or the infamous and creepy pea-soupers of old black and white films watched on wet Sunday afternoons. But in reality smog was deadly problem long after that. In fact, as late as 1952 the Great Smog in London is believed to have caused up to 12,000 deaths and ultimately prompted the 1956 Clean Air Act.

The very first of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, 1942As holidays became more common, and for longer periods, people sought the fresh, clean air of the countryside. For families with children camping coaches held a greater appeal than spending your holiday under canvas. In the railway coach you had a proper roof over your head and more space, but were still away from home. They were also usually set beside beautiful remote rural and coastal areas of Britain. Cheaper too than a guest house. Private cars were not common, so being able to take the train right to your holiday doorstep was an additional bonus.

World War II saw the coaches taken out of service, but for two decades after the war they flourished again, better equipped and more luxurious than before.  Till along came Richard Beeching with his axe: lines were closed, stations closed and many of the most popular camping coach sites disappeared. Cheap flights and holidays in the sun also played their part in ending this unique type of holiday.kyleakin-lighthouse-eilean-ban-500p-copy

The camping coach at Plockton may be long gone, but today the station building itself is available for holidays. And in a few places the camping coach is making a come-back. So if you have fond memories from your childhood, or have children who revel in Thomas the Tank Engine, then one of today’s new camping coaches might just be the place for you!  It certainly was a brilliant ‘Camping Coach of Adventure’ for us !