Day 61: Bings
West Linton to Winchburgh. 22.9 miles. Miles to date: 903.3.
As the miles and days drop away on the trip north, the things you love – and don’t love – about LeJog become clearer.
One of the things I like most is its ability to challenge preconceptions.
On paper – and the map – today’s walk didn’t look like much. An up-and-over of the low-lying Pentland Hills followed by a journey into the old industrial heartlands between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
This is an area littered with – and sometimes defined by – wastegrounds, and swiftly-built towns that have not aged well.
Of the canalside journey through Broxburn LeJog guidebook author Andy Robinson writes: “[this is] possibly slightly more risky than Cross Fell in poor weather. If you are walking alone and concerned about your personal safety, take a road route... “
I was ready to keep my head down and plod on.
As it turned out the day was full of interest, beauty and companionship in unexpected places – not least a urinal.
I left early.
I had to leave early. I’d done all there was to do in West Linton – the town in which no great national events have taken place – by six o'clock last night. I’d gone to bed at 8:30 out of boredom and couldn't eat another Mini Milk.
At breakfast I noticed a map torn from Robinson’s End to End book pinned to the wall. Did my host get many of us checking in?
“Oh yes,” she replied. “A few each month.”
Not for much longer though. Her shoulder’s giving her trouble and she’s struggling to change the sheets, so she’s selling up and downsizing.
It will make finding accommodation in West Linton a lot harder in future.
And even though I’ve had fun knocking it, truth is the town’s an important stopping point – just as it was to generations of cattle drovers – for LeJoggers; the last stopover before the pull over the Pentlands.
I couldn’t have asked for better weather for my final day in the lovely Southern Uplands. Clouds were sailing fast on a galloping breeze, sun transforming the mountainscapes by the minute. I was having so much fun photographing shapely West Cairn Hill I lost half an hour.
It was to be the Cross Borders Drove Road I followed yesterday that delivered me over the Pentland Hills – last of the Upland ranges – into Scotland’s Central Belt.
Above Baddinsgill, with its secluded stately home and grounds the landscape transforms from picturesque pasture to bleak moor, the steady track becoming a winding path through the marsh that weaves up and up to Cauldstane Slap, the high-level drovers’ pass between West and East Cairn Hill. This is the old Thieves Road – reivers would lurk in the heather to plunder cattle and sheep being driven over the lonely heights. No danger of that any more, an information sign says, the only peril on the heights now is the grouse hunter’s shotgun.
The descent doesn’t hold the same pastural charms as the climb. It’s fiddly and soggy. But the views compensate. These aren’t high hills, but there’s nothing north until the Orchils. I settle into the heather and trace the horizon from the volcanic plug of Arthur’s Seat above the spired city of Edinburgh past the Forth Bridge crossings glinting in the sun to the rift valley with its scattered towns, cities and neat estates.
On marshy Middle Head moor that seems to take an age to cross I meet a couple – the only walkers I’ve met in two days.
They’re heading to the tumulus on East Cairn Hill.
It’s quiet around here, I say.
“Oh aye. The walkers and climbers all zoom up the M74 to the Highlands, leaving the Pentlands in peace.”
But it wasn’t always the way.
A cast iron sign in the Slap was placed for Victorian day-trippers who made the popular Sunday afternoon jaunt between the railway stations at Mid Calder and West Linton. At 14 miles it’s a brisk walk. But this was a golden age of walking, earnest aesthetes seeking in the landscape the Romantic ideal cultivated by Wordsworth and his fellow Lakeland poets.
Fashions change. The crowds are gone now and the hills are quieter than they’ve been in centuries – the domain of grouse, sheep, ravens and and the occasional lover of solitude.
The Cross Borders Drove Road approaches Baddinsgill.
Pastural loveliness in the sheltered valley cradling Baddinsgill.
This made me laugh. The sheep ahead of me found themselves cornered so were forced to run the gauntlet down the back of a woodpile. They were going at a rate of knots, some doing hilarious jumps.
Victorian sign. They don't make 'em like they used to, etc.
Lonely mountain bowl approaching the Slap.
Retrospective of the Southern Uplands, stretching across the horizon.
The light on West Cairn Hill kept changing.
Crossing the Water of Leith.
Distant Pentland Hills.
Then, at Oakbank, on the outskirts of sprawling Livingston, my route enters the Almondell and Calderwood Country Park.
Marketed as the best kept secret in West Lothian, it was barely visible from the airy viewpoint of Corston Hill just two miles south. Your first introduction to it is a burger van in a nondescript car park on the noisy A71. I grab a tea and wander up the bank. Within the space of minutes, though I’m sandwiched between the urban sprawl of East Calder and Livingstone, all I can see is trees. As I continue through the thickets in ways cut through birch and bracken the steady rumble of traffic and planes from Edinburgh city airport overhead are lost to birdsong.
I follow the path as it skirts the old oxbow lake near Almondvale, weaving between copses planted on stabilised spoil heaps and then into more mature oak and beech woods, flanked on both sides by unseen streams in the choked hollows far below.
It’s a tapestry park; pockets of green from two old hunting estates and reclaimed industrial wastelands woven together into a long, thin wildlife corridor that allows you to stride out for miles along the River Almond – tumbling wide and fast towards Drum Sands just east of the Forth Bridges.
My parkland ramble starts pretty much alone – a tramp rolling tobacco on an old oak stump not returning my greeting. But by the time you enter Almondell you’re in the company of joggers, cyclists and kids enjoying the first week of the Scots’ school holidays.
Edinburgh and Arthur's Seat.
Quiet woods in the Country Park.
The River Almond.
A nice touch: a little wooden structure that gives walkers shelter from water dropping from the viaduct above. The stream on the right is the Union Canal feeder.
Just before Camp Viaduct a tiny stream branches off the Almond to feed the up-coming Union Canal. Wildflowers either side, it keeps a steady race that the footpath sticks with as it passes the Visitor Centre and enters the countryside again.
For three miles the feeder race holds its height so that by the time it meets the canal and crosses the Almond at Lin’s Mill Aqueduct the drop below is precipitous. I misread the map and end up having to retrace my steps across it, adding two vertigo-inspiring crossings to the day.
Lin's Mill Aquaduct. One of three on the Union Canal.
You can walk from Edinburgh to the Falkirk Wheel along the Union Canal, which I am pretty much doing.
The Union Canal crosses the River Almond – 23 metres above it.
The Almond below.
Wildflowers were everywhere along the canal. But not a single boat all day.
From here on it’s canals all the way to Winchburgh, my stopping point for the night.
Actually the canal – and my journey tomorrow – continues to Falkirk, where it meets the Forth & Clyde Canal that serves Glasgow.
Unlike England’s vast canal network, Scotland’s is tiny – just 137 miles of the UK's 2,200. What’s more, the Scottish canals aren’t connected to the main network. Come on a canal holiday here and you’ll be shuttling back and forth between Edinburgh and Glasgow or along the Great Glen.
Nor did these waters ever get the traffic of their southern counterparts.
The Union canal was opened in 1822 but within just 20 years trade was already being lost to the first railways linking Edinburgh to Glasgow. By 1965, with the lock flight linking it to the Forth & Clyde Canal filled, the Union Canal was closed.
In 2001, after a whopping £83.5 million facelift, it was reopened – for recreation this time around.
New bridge, built in 1995 as part of the M8 extension.
Bings tower over Broxburn.
The fortunes of the canal are mirrorred in the landscape and towns around.
A century ago this was the centre of a huge coalfield, where shale gas was extracted and refined to oil by entrepreneur James ‘Paraffin’ Young. When his patents expired the whole area became a hive of activity, companies digging pits and erecting retorts on the pastures and woods to make Scotland one of the world’s great fuel exporters. By the time the Great War came these few square miles were producing two per cent of the world’s crude oil, its paraffin lighting a quarter of London’s lamps.
As the money rolled in, the waste piled up, in vast shale bings that over decades became hills so big that – like the Great Wall of China – you could see them from space.
You see them still (you can’t fail to) as you drive between Glasgow and Edinburgh on the M8: massive red-green waste mountains that dominate the skyline. The Ayers Rocks of West Lothian.
The canal takes you right next to them, where their scale is breathtaking. Not just how high they are. But how big. King of them all, Greendykes Bing, has a larger footprint than the town of Winchburgh.
Niddry Castle, sandwiched between sewage works and the bing.
The bings, legacy to an industry that will nor return, get greener by the year.
It was only 1962 when the last shale mine closed and the narrow-gauge railway tracks ripped up.
Now the once rust-red mountains have been colonised by hazel, birch, sycamore, and swathes of rosebay willowherb. More than 80 plant species flourish here; foxes, hares and deer play on the slopes.
They’re not the only ones. Tyre treads down 90 degree slopes show speed junkies are having a ball on this ultimate downhill racecourse.
The regeneration should not be overplayed. The topsoil is delicate and the estates around are showing their age.
The industries which grew these towns – Broxburn’s population rose from 660 to nigh-on 6,000 in three decades – are gone for good. There are a few factories offering work, but not enough. The much-vaunted tech sector flourishing along the M8’s 'Silicon Glen' offer jobs to a different kind of worker.
Slightly more risky than Cross Fell in poor weather. Robinson's words haunt me as I approach Broxburn.
I’d been willing to brave it out before I got here (I’ve walked to Star City after all). But once an idea’s planted it’s hard to shift. I wuss out as the canal enters the estates, where the bridges have a few too many people hanging around for this walker’s comfort, and divert into the town centre instead.
It’s what you’d expect from a settlement whose best days are in the past. Empty shops. Busy bookies. Boarded windows.
And always the red-green hill of Greendykes Bing looming over the homes.
The high street.
Like Broxburn, Winchburgh’s not on the tourist trail. And Friday night at the Tally Ho Inn is already in full swing at 4.30.
It’s a local pub for local people. Not much space for incomers at the bar. Not the kind of place you’d order a veggie burger too loudly, either. There’s a make-your-own pizza option with haggis as one of three possible ingredients.
I order my £3 a pint Tennents and veggie burger as quietly as possible.
Just as I’m leaving I visit the gents.
There’s an older man in there already.
“You got far left to walk?” he asks. You’re not conspicuous with a 40 litre backpack.
“I’m finished for the day. Got a place in the village.”
“Oh aye. And tomorrow?”
“Kilsyth. Along the canals.”
“Kilsyth. What’d you want to go there for?”
“I’m walking to John o’Groats.”
“John o Groats?” He looks incredulous “You’re pullin’ me leg!”
“Don’t tell me ye come from Land’s End and all?”
“Yeah. I started out mid May.”
Another bloke comes into the loos and stands at the urinals.
“Jim. This guy’s walkin’ to John o’Groats! Come from Land’s End!”
“No! Serious? For charity?”
When another couple of burly Scots came in and joined the conversation it felt like there were more people in the loo then there were in the bar itself. I can't recall Andrew Robinson ever addressing this eventuality, but I'm sure if he had of done he'd have suggested sticking well clear and finding a major road instead.
But it was a nice way to say Tally Ho to the Tally Ho.
Sometimes it’s the landscapes that surprise you.
Just as often it’s the people.
Absolutely beautiful war memorial in Winchburgh. It is – apparently – Harry Ingram of the 16th Royal Scots, who died aged 22.
My kind of job.
Next: Day 62 – Winchburgh to Kilsyth.
Previous: Day 60 – Peebles to West Linton.