The top of my track seems like the right place to start. There are various adventures by bike that head off from here, but my clearest memories are of the land immediately surrounding my old house. I say immediately, but this is relative – our nearest neighbour was about a mile away. This meant that the woodland and farmland around my house was like an extension of my own garden. It was very rare to see anyone else around – if you did they were probably up to no good, or lost – so as a child I had pretty much free reign to go wherever I liked in the area I describe here.
Head down the hill from the top of the track. It used to get progressively rougher as you went down, starting off as a sort of smoothish cobbled affair, but degenerating into a typical rutted forest track. Just on the left as you head down the hill there was a sycamore mixed up with an elder tree. This is where I used to leave my bike – unlocked – while I was away at school. Having been dropped off by the school bus, I used to either pedal as fast as I could (with no helmet) to see how quickly I could get down, or see how few pedal strokes I could use. Tricky, as there are a couple of flat sections.
The woods to the left of the track were blown down in a storm in the 80s, and what was left was an impenetrable tangle of roots and branches. At the bottom of the first hill, on the right, there’s a small forest track – Lovers’ Lane, sometimes frequented by couples in cars.
Heading down along the next flat section, there are fields on the right and another forest track off to the left. Walking up the stream under the concrete bridge here was possible with care – but woe betide if you got water in your wellies. Follow this track up and the woods either side are growing on a steep hillside. Somewhere in a photo album there is a picture of me with Dick the horse – a carthorse used to pull thinned trees up the steep bankings and onto this track. Huge logpiles of felled trees were a favourite climbing site before they were taken to the sawmill. I remember the ditch on one side of this upper track was covered in a huge deep carpet of moss which made a soft, if damp, spot for a picnic or just to lie down and look at the sky. In spring, at the right spot you could head down from this track and find yourself in a birch wood with a carpet of bluebells round your feet.
Back on the main track, it heads downhill again after the flat section. On the left here is a deciduous section of trees around the stream that flows here. There are a few pools here, where we used to paddle, swim and make dams. I also use to try and tickle the trout that escaped from Loch Fern further upstream, but never managed to get near enough for a stroke, nevermind tickling them into a stupor and landing them on the riverbank.
Continuing on down the track, there’s larch trees on the right and another storm damaged section of conifers on the left. I remember going for a walk after the storm and getting completely lost as all the usual landmarks had disappeared in a mass of fallen trees. Eventually the Forestry Commission cleared the site, leaving all the branches behind. These were shaped like giant feather, and were perfect for making big igloo shaped dens. A fast growing creeping plant grew up all over the cleared woods, and I remember planting it on top of the dens to bind the branches together. I spent days and weeks with two friends building and refining the dens, trying to make them weatherproof and giving them floors.
The track levels off briefly, and then descends again towards the house. On the right of this final descent you can head into the woods, past our secondary well (only used for outside taps because it had frogs living in it) and on the other side, at the edge by the field, there’s an old ruined cottage (called Quahead on the map). This was a mass of snowdrops and then daffodils in spring – whoever had lived there must have planted a few and then over the years they’d completely naturalised and formed a carpet throughout what would have been the garden.
[editor’s note: I really wanted to see this and even timed my visit to coincide with peak daffodil season, but in the end felt a bit shy about tramping around too near the house itself – it just felt a bit too close to trespassing…]
At the bottom of the track is my old house. It used to be a station on the old Paddy Line, closed during the Beeching era, and when I lived there consisted of a large white single storey house, a garage, and a former toilet outbuilding which housed our goats, hens, and my dad’s knitting machine (not all in the same room!). The field to the right of the track contains a small stream, and many hours were spent catching sticklebacks, and on one startling occasion, a water scorpion. On the left was a path up to the main stream, where more swimming and dam building took place. There was also a particularly squishy bog, where we used to play at standing in it for as long as possible while still being able to get out again. Getting stuck and having to call my mum for help to be pulled out resulted in the inevitable telling off.
The track continues round the garden, where on one edge there was a sycamore with a branch that was handy for hanging upside down from (not sure why this was such a favoured pass time!), and at the bottom of the garden there was a huge old chestnut tree in which we had a swing. My mum would send us here to play with any noise making battery operated toys that she didn’t want to have to listen to!
There’s a couple of faint tracks from the bottom of the garden that led to the old railway lines. One of these led to a field where my Great Aunt and I would go mushroom picking, another led to a thicket of brambles where we could pick blackberries, and for a while the old railway line itself could be relied upon for a few wild strawberries.
Heading across the old railway line (on the right there’s a swampy pond where, through the exchange of a number of messages in bottles, my younger brother became convinced that a pirate was living) up a slight incline, there’s more larch trees on the right. These would carpet the track in gorgeous lime greens in spring, and autumn golds at the end of the year. Note the little track off to the left here, we’ll come back to it, but keep going until you get to a large open turning area.
On the right is Green Quarry, and old quarry with a shelf of rock heading diagonally up to the left. I was allowed to climb up here, and it felt very intrepid, although I never enjoyed it quite as much after the time that I came within an inch of standing on a large adder. Its black zigzag and grey body provided the perfect camouflage against the granite rock, and as it reared its head and hissed at me I was glad I had wellies on to provide plenty of protection from its fangs.
The track peters out and bends round to the right, and up to another old quarry. Here there was a particular tussock which could usually be relied upon on warm days to have a brown adder sunning itself. There were lots of adders around – you never rode over a stick without checking first if it was in fact a stick – and they found their way into the conservatory beside the house with such frequency that we had a net and jar on permanent standby.
This old quarry has a pool of water in the bottom of it that was home to newts. It was quite a discovery when we first saw them there, and the quarry became forever known as ‘The Newt Pond’. Whenever I see signs warning people not to swim in lakes or quarries, I think of the water here. It was so dark, you had no idea where the bottom was, but in dry weather the water level would drop and pieces of rusted and mangled machinery would emerge from the depths. I can never quite get rid of the image of getting my foot stuck in such a thing when I’m swimming in open water now.
Past the old quarry is a small sheep farm that was only connected to the National Grid when I was a child. The farmer here hand dug huge ditches across the farmland, and on foot you can walk round in a loop back to my house – this was a regular dog walk for us outside the lambing season, and we used to run in circles and use the ditches to try and make the lose our scent in games of hide and seek. They always found us.
Going back along the track to the turning spotted before, now on the right, you’ll come to a small building on the left, and a gate. This was the shortcut to Dalbeattie, avoiding the hills of the road route, but taking you through the old ammunitions factory, known by some overly imaginative locals as the haunted village.
Heading over the gate and along the track, there’s a selection of buildings, some underground bunkers, and a complex network of canals and waterways. Some of the buildings have mysterious cogs, machinery, and dark openings to black waters below. On the right, just off the track, one of the first buildings has a sort of concrete porch along the front of it – it looks a bit like it should be in the wild west with a rocking chair on it. This building had poetry and graffiti pencilled on the walls by the workers in the factory.
From time to time, the army would come and blow up a building and carry out training exercises on this land, but I think eventually someone thought that maybe the buildings should be preserved, and they stopped blowing them up. I spent many days exploring the network of bunkers, buildings, and walkways, always a bit scared of what you might find, on the look-out for holes in the ground (there were lots), but never finding anything more frightening than a dead sheep. [Hannah adds: Just found this link which suggests the whole site is now unsafe!]
The track continues on next to the railway line for a bit, over bridges that seemed worryingly rusty even to me as a child, then past the radiator factory with its distinctive smell of chemicals and paint, through an industrial estate (where, on days where I was feeling particularly committed to the cause, I would take my roller skates – this was the nearest bit of smoothish tarmac) and on to the main road to Dalbeattie. This marks the outer edge of my childhood world, save for a few cycle routes that seemed epic as a 9 or 10 year old, and would probably be surprising to today’s generation where children rarely go past the end of the street alone – and even then they have a mobile phone just in case. But then, the scale of the land and the freedom I had to roam in it surprises me now I reflect on it. I can’t recall ever having any accidents or encountering any real dangers, and I wonder whether this is a sign that letting your kids explore by themselves isn’t as dangerous as many might think, or whether I was just lucky. Certainly I feel lucky to have had a childhood where this kind of exploring was a possibility.
Thanks to Hannah for sharing these memories.