CLVII – Dumbarton to Helensburgh

Hasteful MammalON THE second day of my recent trip, I awoke to find that the promised sunshine had delivered itself in abundance. The skies were blue and the weather warm while, down south in London, water was falling from the sky.  I knew then that, as I walked to Helensburgh, a dash of unashamed schadenfreude would enhance my every step.

Dumbarton

Starting the Day

The Lemming and I ate our breakfasts and then checked out of our hotel.  They were kind enough to allow us to leave the Lemming’s car there while we spent our day walking.  And this despite the utter incomprehension of one of their staff, who clearly thought we were stark raving mad to walk any further than that car. 

Since we were on the eastern edge of Dumbarton, the first place that we actually walked was further into that town.

Dumbarton & Industry

Today Dumbarton is mostly a commuter town for Glasgow, though Chivas Brothers’ bottling plant and bonded warehouse betray its involvement in the whisky industry (though this has diminished from what it once was). 

Like many towns along the Clyde, Dumbarton was previously a notable shipbuilding port. In 1869, it built the tea clipper Cutty Sark — named for a witch in a Robert Burns poem — which achieved an impressive speed of 17½ knots and is now laid up in dry dock in Greenwich. Dumbarton’s last shipyard closed down in 1963, a little over a century after its previous industry of note had similarly ended: 

From 1777 to 1850 Dumbarton had been a centre for glassmaking, rising to become the most influential glassworks in Britain; it produced both bottles and window panes.

Dunbartonshire

If Dumbarton’s industrial history stretches back over two hundred years, its administrative history is far older.  Today, it houses the council of West Dunbartonshire, which seems only right as, before Scottish local government went through various reorganisations, it was the county town of the whole of Dunbartonshire.

Of course, the county takes its name from the town, as is usual, although they somehow settled on two different spellings.  Both versions come from the Gaelic Dùn Breatann meaning ‘the fort of the Britons’. 

Kingdom of Strathclyde

The fort in question is now Dumbarton Castle, which perches high on a lump of basalt known as Dumbarton Rock. And the Britons were those of the Kingdom of Strathclyde (or Ystrad Clud in the Cumbric that they spoke). 

One of the kingdoms of the Old North (yr Hen Ogledd) of Welsh legend, Strathclyde originated in the post-Roman fifth century and lasted until the eleventh, when it was absorbed into Scotland

Dumbarton, with its imposing fort, was Strathclyde’s capital and the seat of its kings, one example being Rhydderch Hael (died c. 614), who fought both the Saxons of Bernicia and the Gaels of Dalriata and who was said to wield the sword Dyrnwyn, which blazed with fire when drawn by a worthy man.  The ‘hael’ in Rydderch’s name was an epithet meaning ‘generous’ and referred to his willingness to hand over Dyrnwyn to almost anyone, though no one ever accepted for fear of proving unworthy.

Dumbarton Rock
Dumbarton Rock
Dumbarton Rock. As good a place as any to wave a burning blade about.

A blazing sword, magic or otherwise, is nothing compared to the fires that originally fashioned Dumbarton Rock. It formed from an ancient blob of magma that plugged the cone of a volcano some 350 million years ago. 

Dumbarton Castle

Today, the cone is long since eroded and far newer structures grace the rock’s flank.

Dumbarton Castle
These are decidedly Georgian, for instance.

Sadly the castle was closed to visitors at such an early hour but I consoled myself with the view across the Clyde to Langbank, where I stopped for lunch two walks ago.

Langbank, as seen from Dumbarton Castle
I came the long way round.
The Scenic Route

Going the long way round was, coincidentally, also my plan for the day.  Helensburgh is just seven or eight miles down the coast from Dumbarton but I had a plan to double that distance by describing two sides of a triangle.  This meant that the only two points of the day’s trek that would be genuinely coastal were its start and finish, though they would not be the only shoreline. 

High Street

First though, we had to continue through the centre of Dumbarton, where handily-situated cash machines and shops equipped us with drinks and munchies.

Dumbarton High Street
This pub is a cocktail of Dumbarton’s industrial history.  It sells whisky, it’s called the Clipper and between its wares and its conservatory, it contains an awful lot of glass.
River Leven

Heading westwards through Dumbarton, it wasn’t long before we encountered a barrier to our progress in the form of the River Leven, whose name derives from the Gaelic leamhan meaning ‘elm bank’.  Six miles long and draining the cold, clear waters of Loch Lomond into the Clyde, it was too broad to jump and too deep to wade; we wouldn’t be going to Helensburgh unless we found a way to cross it.

River Leven
Isn’t that a bridge up ahead?
Old Dumbarton Bridge
Old Dumbarton Bridge
Told you so.

Old Dumbarton Bridge was built in 1765 by a local man with the utterly unremarkable name of John Brown. He did so on the instructions of the Duke of Argyll who found the existing ford an inconvenient feature of the road from Glasgow to his Rosneath estate.  It is the oldest bridge across the Leven, though it isn’t entirely original, having been widened in 1884 and largely rebuilt during renovations in 1934 and 2005.

As we reached the bridge we passed by the site of the 1777 glassworks, now occupied by a health centre. Once across, we turned right and made our way up the Leven’s western bank, heading northwards and away from the Clyde.  It was now our intention to follow the Leven all the way to the loch. 

Artizan Bridge

At this point, the path was urban parkland and the path leading through it was also National Cycle Network route 7.  This carried us beneath one of the river’s newer bridges, the Artizan Bridge, a modern box girder construction opened in 1974 as part of the redevelopment of Dumbarton’s Artizan area.  In design it closely resembles the Erskine Bridge across the Clyde, except that it is a great deal lower and shorter.

Dalreoch Railway Bridge

Almost immediately after the Artizan Bridge, we passed beneath the Dalreoch Railway Bridge, which was wreathed in scaffolding and had men slung underneath it busily making repairs.  The bridge was built in 1850 to carry the railway line from Bowling to Balloch Pier.

The sight of this ongoing maintenance led the Lemming and I into a lengthy discussion about safety at work — a subject more important to him as his work involves power stations while mine involves mostly databases.  This subject engrossed us for a while as we left Dumbarton behind us and ventured along a muddy cycle path across a wet and well-vegetated remnant of the Leven’s tidal marsh.

The Tidal Marshes

A Colourful History

Today, a walk along the Leven is mostly a leafy delight that is surprisingly non-indicative of its literally colourful past.  Once a broad and marshy stream, its pure, clear waters attracted the textile industry who needed such a source to assist with their bleaching and dyeing.  This industry dominated the river for almost two hundred and fifty years, spawning almost a dozen different sites.  For those situated downstream of many others, I doubt the water was that clear. 

Mains of Cardross

In following the river’s entire course we would naturally pass all these sites, though we’d see little evidence of their existence.  Surprisingly though, the first site of historic significance that we passed outside Dumbarton, preceded the textile industry by several centuries. It was also annoyingly uncertain:  King Robert the Bruce (1296-1329) — one of Scotland’s favourite figures of history — owned the manor house of Mains of Cardross about a half mile north of Dalreoch but no one knows exactly where.  You might say “so what, kings owned lots of places” but Mains of Cardross is the place where the Bruce died.  Wherever it is.

Leven Bridge

Although the path was fairly close to the Leven, the broad tidal marshiness of its lower reaches and their rather verdant nature meant that for most of the first mile or so we couldn’t see much of the river.  This came to an end at Leven Bridge, built in 1970 to carry the A82’s Alexandria Bypass.  It wasn’t the prettiest of bridges, I’ll admit, but at least we could actually see the water flowing beneath it.

Leven Bridge
Flowing above it would have been bad.

A small herd of incurious cows watched us as we passed beneath it and on the other side we found the path transformed. It now ran right beside the river, lined with trees and dappled in sunlight.

Renton

Dalquhurn Bleachworks

On the far side, set some way in from the river, was Chivas Brother’s bottling site, while beside us to our left were new housing developments

This had once been the location of the Dalquhurn Bleaching Company, the earliest of the textile works. A man named Andrew Johnston opened a small bleach-field site in 1715 — cloth was bleached by soaking and exposure to sunlight — which he sold to Walter Stirling and Archibald Duncan in 1728.  They expanded the bleach fields to cover twelve acres, eventually selling them in 1791 to Walter’s nephew William Stirling.

In 1814, those vast fields of bleaching cloth became suddenly obsolete when a bleaching method was invented that didn’t require strong sunshine.  Rebuilt to cater for this indoor technology, the works survived a series of fires in 1876, which may or may not have been arson — 19th century work safety was sufficiently imaginary that random fires happened all the time. 

United Turkey Red Company

In 1897, the firm, along with many of what had hitherto been its competitors, combined to form the United Turkey Red Company Ltd (UTR), named for a bright Turkish-origin dye whose tricky technique they had mastered. The massive combine of UTR would dominate the Leven for the next sixty years or so, locked in competition with the Manchester-based Calico Printers Association (CPA). 

Though the largest bleaching, dyeing and printing firm in Scotland, UTR was not without its troubles, which included a crippling strike during the depression of 1931.  One of their greatest mistakes was moving UTR’s head offices to Glasgow. While this gave their directors the access to transport, communication and clients they craved, it also led to arms-length management of the actual factories and that proved quite disastrous.  

Ailing and uncompetitive, in 1960 UTR was bought by its erstwhile rival, CPA, who let it fall dormant and closed down its remaining works.

Lennox Knitwear

Most of the Dalquhurn site hadn’t lasted that long, having been closed in 1942 while still in the ownership of UTR.  The exception was a small subsidiary, Lennox Knitwear, set up in 1947 as part of an attempt to diversify.  This somehow outlasted its own parent company, though not by much, surviving until 1962.

Flora & Fauna

At Dalquhurn, the river described the sort of tight meander that is basically an oxbow lake waiting to happen.  The path cut across the loop at its neck and returned us to the leafy riverside, said leaves being a riot of autumnal shades. 

The river at this point was showing off its fauna, including moorhens, ducks and grebes, plus the occasional heron.  That the latter were hardly wasting their time was demonstrated beautifully when twice we watched silvery fish leap up into the air.  And then, just as all was building to the point where, were it a Disney film, the birds and fish would break into a song and dance number, we spotted signs of civilisation to our left and found we had entered Renton.

Renton FC

Renton is a smallish village that not only once had a textile industry but also used to play football.  Its team, which folded in 1922, was one of the founding members of the Scottish Football League in 1873.  Of course, when the team was itself founded a year earlier, Renton was hive of industry encompassing both the Dalquhurn Bleachworks and Cordale Printworks in its boundaries. 

Tobias Smollett

The village was built on land belonging to the Smolletts, a prestigious family of Dumbarton lawyers and merchants, who had purchased the Dalquhurn Estate alongside land in nearby Bonhill

In 1721 in Dalquhurn House, a boy named Tobias Smollett was born.  The cousin of James Smollett, who owned the estate, he grew up to be a naval surgeon and later a London doctor and never returned to live in the vale during his adult life. This is perhaps sad as Renton is quite keen to claim him.

In addition to doctoring, Tobias went on to become a poet and author and pioneered the early English novel.  Sadly, becoming an author may bring fame but is no guarantee of riches and Tobias died in poverty, far from home, in Livorno in Italy in 1771. Three years later a memorial pillar was erected in what is now Renton, bearing a Latin inscription composed by the renowned lexicographer and writer Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).

Tobias SMollett Memorial
MEMORIAL (n). A statue or structure established to remind people of a person or event.
Model Village

The following year, Tobias’s sister, Jane Telfer, inherited the estate from her cousin James and decided to develop it. She founded the model village of Renton in 1782, housing the growing textiles workforce.  Its name she took from her daughter-in-law (married to her son Alexander) whose name before marriage had been Cecilia Renton.

Dalquhurn Industrial Estate

Following the Leven upstream, the Lemming and I passed under a fairly nondescript footbridge, built in the 1950’s to provide access to a newly formed industrial estate on the eastern bank.  The estate is still there and houses several firms, so was presumably a success. 

Heron’s Point

Directly north of it, the Leven looped through another dramatic oxbow-in-waiting meander, formerly known as Heron’s Point.  This was once the location of Cordale Printworks, opened by William Stirling in 1770. A successful Glasgow merchant, he was the same William Stirling as would buy Dalquhurn Bleachworks twenty years later. 

Having been united with Daulquhurn, Cordale shared its fate — becoming part of UTR in 1897, only to be closed down in the mid 1940s and then immediately demolished.  Today, other than a few nearby street names, there is little sign of its past.

Leven near Heron's Point
Post-industrial dereliction — the Vale of Leven is doing it wrong. Or possibly very right indeed.

Bonhill

Place of Bonhill

Just upstream from Cordale was a small park, where the Lemming and I sat on a bench, taking a momentary rest.  Nearby, though I failed to realise it, was Place of Bonhill, which had been the main home of the Smollett family (the actual village, now town, of Bonhill is on the opposite bank). 

Millburn Works

When we were suitably rested we continued past another site whose industrial past was not evident. The site in question was that of the awesomely named Millburn Pyroligneous and Liquor Works, which stood on the western bank a short distance upstream, where a grain mill had once stood before it. 

Founded by a man named John Turnbull in the 1790s, the works manufactured pyroligneous acid or wood vinegar by heating wood in the absence of oxygen in a process similar to charcoal-burning.  This and other ‘dyeing liquors’ were then used at Cordale Printworks, of which Turnbull was also a partner. 

The factory closed sometime around 1900 and the site was cleared, becoming occupied in 1962 by a school.  That school has since been rebuilt twice and today is called the Vale of Leven Academy.

Black Bridge

As the Lemming and I ambled past the Vale of Leven Academy and along the meandering riverside path, we came to what could only be the piers of a dismantled railway bridge. The Lemming, never one to shirk at standing on top of high things (all the better to go for a plummet), clambered up the nearest abutment to read a signpost atop it — it said that the bridge was closed. 

Known as the Black Bridge on account of the colour it was painted, it had been a pedestrian footbridge ever since the late 1930s but recently developed a bad case of holes.  Deemed unsafe, it was demolished in 2014, removing a structure that had stood since 1875.  It had originally been built on account of Dillichip Dyeworks on the outskirts of Bonhill.

Dillichip Dyeworks

This 1820s bleachworks was bought in 1866 by a local textile titan — Sir Archibald Orr Ewing — who converted the site into a dyeworks and expanded it significantly with a private railway spur laid into the works (hence the bridge). 

In 1897, it became yet another part of UTR, who closed it down in 1936.  Many of the buildings are still standing, now put to use as part of a bonded warehouse.

Kirkland Printworks

Dillichip had not been the only works on the Bonhill side; there had also been Kirkland Printworks, established in 1836.  In 1860, this too was purchased by Archibald Orr Ewing who promptly had it demolished. When he later acquired Dillichip, he expanded that site over Kirkland. 

Lang’s Wee Field

A third, older Bonhill site was actually named Bonhill Printworks although everyone actually called it ‘Lang’s Wee Field’ after proprietor Gilbert Lang, who opened it in 1793.  Small, hemmed in and not particularly successful, it lasted only until 1840, when it closed.

Alexandria

Rainbow Bridge

Continuing upstream, the Lemming and I started to see the houses of Bonhill on the eastern bank of the Leven and mused to each other about their propensity for flooding (we decided they were probably safe). 

On our bank, the trees gave way to blocks of modern-looking flats. These were part of the town of Alexandria, linked to Bonhill and Jamestown (which run into each other) by the so-called Rainbow Bridge.

Rainbow Bridge, Alexandria
Judging by the extent of redshift, it is moving away from us fast.

Built in 1987 at a cost of £700 k and officially the Bonhill Bridge, the Rainbow Bridge is the third bridge at this location and was deliberately designed to resemble its predecessor in shape if not in colour. 

Whipple Arch

The previous bridge, known as the Whipple Arch, stood directly upstream and was built in 1898 but proved insufficient for the demands of ever-heavier road traffic.  Sandstone from its piers has been fashioned into three decorative pyramids (perhaps influenced by the association of ‘Alexandria’ with Egypt), behind which stand four gas lamps that once illuminated it.

Pyramids and lamps taken from the Whipple Arch
This bridge is definitely down.
Bawbee Bridge

The original bridge on this site was nicknamed the Bawbee Bridge after the toll charged to cross it (a bawbee was a pre-union Scots sixpence, equivalent in value to a Sterling halfpenny).  Not that the bridge was pre-Union (it was built in 1836); it’s just that the term stuck around.  In fact prior to the 1780s there wasn’t even an Alexandria to bridge to, unless you count a grocer’s shop next to a road junction. 

The town grew rapidly from nothing, providing housing for increasing numbers of workers.  Most of it was built on Smollett land and Alexander Telfer Smollett (1764-1799) — the son of Cecilia Smollett née Renton — saw no problem in naming it after himself.

Mechanics’ Institute

Overlooking the western end of the bridge was a shabby-looking building with a monumental portico. Its origins go back to two years before the first bridge was built, when Alexandria established a Mechanics’ Institute — a working men’s college of a type increasingly popular at the time. 

By 1862, the institute was in a position to build itself a purpose-built home within which it could easily store its library (i.e. the building to which I refer).  This served them well until 1897, when the Mechanics’ Institute closed down but the Library remained safe in its building, administered by a special committee until the parish council took it over in 1907.  They kept it running for a while but by the 1920s the building had become a cinema, leading to some rather incongruous extensions. It became a bingo hall in the 1960s and a furniture shop sometime after 2008.

Alexandria Mechanics' Institute
Once it held books, now it sells bookcases.
Ferryfield Printworks

Before there was even a bridge at all, back when mechanics were still dreaming of an institute, the Leven was crossed by chain ferry instead.  This lent its name to the adjacent Ferryfield Printworks, established in 1785.  Never terribly successful, the printworks went through a succession of different owners before becoming part of UTR’s arch-rival, CPA in 1906. 

Being run from Manchester in those days of limited communication was even less successful than being run from Glasgow and by 1915 the works had closed down. They were demolished in 1926. 

Dalmonach Works

Meanwhile, Dalmonach Works on the opposite bank, which were opened by the Kibble family in 1785, also ended up joining CPA — in their case in 1899.  Dalmonach had already had one phoenix-like rise from the literal ashes (it burnt down in 1812) but by 1929, CPA mismanagement had led to its permanent downfall. 

An autumnal tree
Downfall also awaits these lovely leaves.

As the Lemming and I continued our journey upstream, we were not entirely ignorant of the Vale of Leven’s industrial past on account of periodic information signs, some of which hadn’t yet been vandalised into illegibility.  We also saw river debris collected in a lade (i.e. leat) that once would have fed Dalmonach Works.  And then the meandering river path conveyed us past a long brick wall that today bounds an industrial estate that includes, amongst other companies, the Loch Lomond Distillery

Lomond Industrial Estate

I’m sure you won’t be shocked and surprised if I tell you that this was the site of yet another textile works.  Originally it was actually threeLevenfield Printworks (est. 1768), Croftengea Bleachworks (est. 1790) and Charleston Engraving Works (est. 1830), the latter of which made printing cylinders. 

Croftengea was the first of the Leven textile works to master the Turkey red process in 1827, guaranteeing its economic success. It and Levenfield were then purchased in 1860 by Archibald Orr Ewing’s older brother John, who was having a bit of a spat with his sibling.  John merged his two acquisitions, forming Alexandria Works, which became part of UTR in 1897 along with Charleston Engraving Works.  The resulting combined site was amongst the longest-lasting of the UTR works, lasing until 1960 when UTR itself became defunct.

Stirling Bridge

Balloch

We soon left the brick wall behind and negotiated the Leven’s final meander surrounded by glorious autumnal trees, grebes, moorhens and so on.  We passed beneath Stirling Bridge — a footbridge since 1934 but originally an 1877 railway crossing. 

Milton Works & Levenbank Works

Somewhere off on our right, across the river and lost in the trees were the locations of two more long-vanished textile sites, Milton (est. 1772) and Levenbank (est.1784) Works.  Both were taken over by Archibald Orr Ewing in the mid 19th century and became part of UTR in 1897.  Milton Works only survived one further decade, closing down in 1911, while Levenbank limped on to just after WW2.

River Leven Barrage

As we progressed north, the foot and cycle path met a road while ahead we saw not a bridge but a weir.  This was the River Leven Barrage, opened in 1971 as part of the Loch Lomond Water Scheme.  There is a fall of 8 m from Loch Lomond to the Clyde and, while this is less than a standard Ordnance Survey contour line, it’s enough of a drop that in rainy West Scotland people prefer that the flow of the Leven has some sort of moderating influence.

River Leven Barrage
Because one can have too much of a good thing.

Once we were past the barrage the river was full of lots of boats, all of them moored up for winter.  Come the summer, of course, they’ll be all over the loch. 

Lomond Radium Works

A slightly radioactive boatyard occupied the eastern shore, thanks to five short years of throwing safety to the softly glowing winds when the Loch Lomond Radium Works stood on the site between 1915 and 1920. 

When the site was closed shortly after the death of its owner — Glasgow chemist John Stewart MacArthur — the radium was dumped and buried in two tanks, capped with a massive concrete block.  Some efforts to clean it up were made in 1963 and the radon levels are said to be ‘safe’ but as you might imagine no one is permitted to move the concrete.

Boatyard on the Leven
I expect the boatyard owner’s quite ticked off.
Drumkinnon Wood

We passed beneath the Leven’s last two bridges — the 1935 Lomond Road Bridge (in the picture above) and the 1887 Balloch Bridge, which was upgraded in 2003.  After having the riverside mostly to ourselves so far we now found ourselves on a rather busy woodland path, it being close enough to Balloch that people never further than 50 m from their vehicles felt comfortable in going for a stroll.  And good on them for strolling, I suppose.

I believe what we were strolling through was Drumkinnon Wood, part of which was once home to the last gasp of the Vale of Leven textile industry. This came in the form of British Silk Dyers, a misleadingly-named, French-owned company formed in 1929 and which broke the record for failed textiles ventures by collapsing within months.

Bought out and reopened by the Swiss in 1932, it somehow weathered a messy 1934 strike but closed in 1980 after the boilers exploded. This caused more damage than they could ever hope to afford to fix and BSD shut its doors the next day, never to open them again. The site has houses on it now.

Loch Lomond

Reaching the Loch

And thus, at the end of the surprisingly popular leafy path, we reached the end of our riverside stage and the source of the Leven.  Here we found two things that I wanted to look at, both of which had inspired me to hatch my ‘great detour’ plan:

PS Maid of the Loch
This was one.
Loch Lomond
And this was the other.
PS Maid of the Loch

PS Maid of the Loch was the last paddle steamer built in Britain. She was launched in 1953 by A&J Inglis of Glasgow, the same shipbuilders that made PS Waverley.  Being destined for service on a freshwater lake — unlike the Waverley, she isn’t sea-going — and being the largest vessel built for inland waterway operation in Britain, they then had to disassemble her and then send to her Balloch by train as a big kit. 

She operated on the waters of Loch Lomond for a respectable 29 years but then fell into disrepair. Owned since 1995 by a purposely-established charity, the Loch Lomond Steamship Company, she is slowly undergoing restoration with a view to eventually seeing her steam again.

Currently, though in a fixed mooring, she is open to the public as a café and functions venue.  

Balloch Pier Station

PS Maid of the Loch sits beside the disused platform of what used to be Balloch Pier Station, which once allowed passengers to go direct from train to steamer.  With the steamer taken out of service in 1981, the station had little purpose and was closed in 1986; the track was subsequently lifted and much of what used to be the station is now buried under a car park.

About the Loch

The loch on which the Maid once steamed is Loch Lomond, the largest inland stretch of water in Great Britain by surface area (27 square miles). Though 620 ft or 190 m at its deepest point, most of its wider southern end is only about 20 m.  It contains about thirty islands and the water between them is typically speckled with countless boats in the summer.  It’s also the subject of a popular, traditional Scottish song, The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, of which naturally only the chorus is often remembered:

O ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond.

The Loch forms part of the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park and is, many would agree, a rather attractive place to visit. Accordingly it gets a lot of visitors, which is why someone had built Loch Lomond Shores, a centre for retail, refreshments and leisure activities.  What this meant in practical terms was that we had no difficulty in procuring cups of tea, accompanied by lunch and (in my case) cake.  When we’d suitably refuelled and refreshed ourselves, we headed west out of the centre and onto Old Luss Road, which is exactly what it says on the road sign.

Old Luss Road

Old Luss Road was quiet and leafy, the actual traffic having long been diverted onto a bypass that forms the A82.  The only traffic we had to contend with was a single motorcyclist, who was riding up and down while a photographer took pictures of him, and that most reassuring of road-going sights, a bright red Royal Mail van. 

At first, the road was disappointingly separated from the loch by Cameron House and its golf course — an 18th century mansion that once belonged to the Smolletts, the house is now a luxury hotel — but then it decided to compound my disappointment by actually ending.  Or rather, as the A82 dropped back onto the road’s alignment, the old road ended as a carriageway and became a simple footpath. 

School Road

This meant that we had to briefly walk close to the A-road but we soon turned off onto a shore road that went past Duck Bay Marina.  There we paused to look out over the loch again while I took a multitude of photos almost identical to that last one and the Lemming satisfied his overwhelming desire to dip his toe in the water.

Alongside the A-Road

We followed the route of NCN 7 up the loch shore until it pulled aside to join the A82.  The next section was perhaps the least fun part of the walk as the A-road was quite busy but we did at least still have a decent foot and cycle path upon which to walk.

Leaving Loch Lomond

At the hamlet of Arden, we turned off onto the A818, which was considerably quieter; I had feared that on this road we would have no pedestrian footway but as it transpired there was cycle path there too.  While it lacked the watery charm of the Leven or Loch Lomond, it was by no means unpleasant. And this was good because we had something like four miles of it.

A818
If nothing else the trees are pretty.

To say that it wasn’t watery isn’t quite true though, as quite a lot of the land beside the road was extremely boggy and we were once again amazed at how much water can pool in mud that is at the top of a hill.  We were also glad of firm tarmac underfoot.  The highest point of the road was only about 50 m above sea level — or 42 m above Loch Lomond — but this was enough to allow us a final glimpse of that very loch.

Last gimpse of Loch Lomond
I think it’s following us.

The A818 turned left at a cross roads, which is to say that the A-route switched which road it was following. We did likewise and now found ourselves heading south and then west, drawing closer to Helensburgh. 

Helensburgh

The John Muir Way

We crossed Fruin Water, a stream that feeds into Loch Lomond, and shortly afterwards our route was joined by the John Muir Way, a 130 mile long-distance footpath between Dunbar and Helensburgh.  The way is named for John Muir (1838-1914), a conservationist born in Dunbar who helped found the US National Park Service, having emigrated for Puritanical reasons (his father thought the Church of Scotland wasn’t strict enough). 

The John Muir Way would now stay with us until the very outskirts of Helensburgh, where it would choose a different street from us.  We didn’t care; we had our route and we were sticking to it.

Glen Fruin
Although, Glen Fruin does look kinda tempting…
Entering Helensburgh

We resisted any temptation to divert along Glen Fruin and so before long we found ourselves entering Helensburgh (Baile Eilidh).  Today, the town falls under the council area of Argyll and Bute but traditionally it was part of Dunbartonshire, the county boundary being Loch Long

Helensburgh is one of those planned towns that sprang up from nothing, or in this case from a health spa and the desire of Sir James Colquhoun of Luss to create a new seaside resort.  This he did in 1776, naming it after his wife.  It was highly successful, being well-placed to be linked to Glasgow and Greenock by steamer (from 1812) and the railway (1858). 

The town has two stations, Helensburgh Upper on the through line to Arrochar and Helensburgh Central, a terminus.  A little investigation revealed that we needed the latter.

Victoria Hall

As is possibly fitting for a town founded in 1776, Helensburgh is laid out in a grid pattern. We were traversing down Sinclair Street, a dead straight road dropping slowly downhill. Towards the outskirts it was surrounded by houses but as we grew closer to the seafront, the buildings began to look different.

Victoria Hall - a Scottish Baronial style building on Sinclair St
Some of them broke out in turret rash.

The building above is Victoria Hall, a purpose-built hub for community events opened in 1887.  Its style is Victorian Scotland’s favourite, namely Scottish Baronial. 

Helensburgh Seafront Clock Tower

We passed several other imposing buildings as we headed further into town.  There, we located Helensburgh Central and assessed how well (or badly) we were doing for time.

Helensburgh Seafront Clock Tower
Just in case we weren’t sure this clock tower was for sale.

Helensburgh Seafront Clock Tower was originally part of the parish church, opened in 1847 on land gifted by Sir James Colquhoun.  Closed in 1956 when various churches merged, it became a hostel for naval personnel until 1968. It then rather sadly fell derelict but by 1982 had found a new owner who wanted to bulldoze it and build flats in its place.  The council’s planning committee was less than keen and they compromised on letting him bulldoze the nave while leaving the tower intact.  It currently contains the tourist information office and abuts the aforementioned flats.

Helensburgh seafront
The rest of the seafront is also pretty hotchpotch.
Rest & Relaxation

Having checked when our train was, we figured we had plenty of time to go and find a café, so we did.  The café in question provided a further tea and cake intake and allowed us to rest us and relax.

Colquhoun Square
The café was on Colquhoun Square.

Tea drunk and cake consumed we returned to Helensburgh Central and caught the train back to Dumbarton.  There, we picked up the Lemming’s car and used it to convey ourselves to our next hotel, which was located in Kilcreggan.  Good food and several drinks followed, accompanied by planning for the next day’s walk…


Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,654 miles

Note 1:  Dumbarton Rock and autumnal tree photos courtesy of the Lemming

Note 2:  As usual I’ve had a whale of a time researching things pertaining to this walk but on this occasion I feel compelled to credit a most impressive resource, the Vale of Leven history website.

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