Old ways repurposed
Springtime walks in Scotland can be dreich and cold, but not always: the spring and summer of 2018 were among sunniest on record and May’s weather was ideal for getting out and about.
What is now the second section of the route begins at Paisley Abbey, historically either the conclusion of pilgrimages or their starting-point. It was the historic seat of Christian power in the area, its charter being granted by Walter FitzAlan, the first High Steward of Scotland, in 1163 for a Cluniac priory. Even before then, Paisley had become a pilgrim centre, associated with St Mirrin who is credited with bringing Christianity to the area in, perhaps, the sixth century.
Paisley Abbey might often be seen on cloudy days with threatening rain: this is, after all, the west of Scotland! In the bright light of a May morning with the cherry blossom out, it looked picture-postcard perfect through the short-lived display of pink flowers along the banks of the White Cart Water.
Cycle route 7 runs almost through the middle Paisley town centre, and can readily be joined by walking from the Abbey along Bridge Street, Gordon Street and Causeyside Street, turning off at Stow Brae.
Pilgrims arriving from the south, having walked from Whithorn and other parts of Scotland would have regarded the Abbey, in whatever weather, with a sense of relief. They had, after all, come to the end of a challenging journey. It is an impressive building even today; in the medieval period it would have been awe-inspiring in its size and grandeur.
The route from the Abbey to the cycle path reveals another painted tenement end which brightens up the town centre.
The Kingfisher Mural by local boys Mark Worst and Ross Dinnett was completed in February, 2017. It shows the Thomas Coats Memorial Church – a Paisley landmark – and a kingfisher, sometimes seen on the banks of the White Cart Water but symbolic, too, of Alexander Wilson. Whilst famous for his ornithological work in the United States, Wilson was born in Paisley and started out there as a weaver and poet. During his career he drew many images of birds across north America; it is, then, fitting that an illustration of a local bird features on a wall in his home town centre – and being much larger than lifesize makes it easier to spot!
Most of this section makes use of National Cycle Route 7, the bed of a former railway. The Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock Railway which, along with the Glasgow, Paisley, Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway became, in time, the Glasgow and South West Railway, ran a number of lines in west and south-west Scotland. Competition for railway lines in the mid-eighteenth century was fierce and at least three competing schemes were proposed. Within a hundred years all that had changed: railway rationalisation in the 1960s rather disguises the huge impact of rail transport on Paisley and throughout this part of Scotland. One subtle remaining indication is the path’s sign in the shape of a former semaphore railway signal.
The track-bed through most of the west of Paisley sits lower than the surrounding land though, as it approaches Elderslie, it forms an embankment. The difference between cutting and embankment is greater than might be imagined. For one thing, there’s a large collection of bridges over the former railway, differing in style, size and level of maintenance. Some are heavily used, carrying the main arterial roads to and from the town centre, while others – redundant for decades – sit quietly rusting away.
There’s also the difficulty seeing further than the cutting. The walk through Ferguslie Park, identified by the Scottish Government a few years ago as the most deprived area in Scotland, is delightful when the sun shines through the spring leaves and people are out cycling, jogging or taking their dogs for a stroll. Even the recently refurbished tower block has an attractive symmetry in its windows and shadows.
It is possible to see quite a distance ahead and behind, too; the railway line runs fairly straight for much of this part of the route. It can be difficult to tell, though, what lies on either side of the cutting: the peace of the walk, particularly early on a Saturday morning, gives little clue that one is walking through Scotland’s largest town.
The embankment is different: slightly breezier, a little more chilly, but with a great view of the weir and remains of a former bridge over the Black Cart Water. It is just about possible to glimpse the Clyde estuary in the far distance to the north.
At this point the path diverts, the south-west path which is not to be taken remains on the south side of the A737. The route to Lochwinnoch, which is signposted, passes over the busy dual carriageway on a footbridge, and shortly thereafter St Benedict’s School can be seen on the left.
In the early years of the sixteenth century, John Sempill instituted Castle Semple Collegiate Church, a fellowship of six priests with support staff, engaged to pray for the souls of deceased members of the Sempill family. A ruin now, though with intricate masonry details still clearly visible, it is a reminder of a way of looking at the world in broader perspective than might be thought important today.
At the very least, here was a patron and group of prayers looking to the long game. It’s easy to criticise them as misguided or self-interested (they were, after all, engaged to pray for the family who paid their board and lodging; it is less clear that their prayerful duties extended beyond that family’s circle). Yet, in the terms understood in their time, they were concerned for the life to come.
I was interested at the way this former railway line has been re-purposed. In times past the trains running here were moving goods and people to keep Paisley’s commerce, and Scotland’s economy, at the forefront of the world. Now, in different times, it has found a new life as an alternative route for keen cycling commuters, but much more as a place to come to relax on your bike, or jog, or walk the dog – or ride your horse!
It is not only the pathway which has been rejuvenated. Old millstones have been turned into wheels on a large bicycle sculpture adjacent to the route; elsewhere fence posts form a type of skeleton wigwam. Life is re-purposed in the area, too: working days give way to retirement, though challenges to employment mean some are denied opportunities to make the most of their skills through a working life. A change of job, or place to live, might make it harder to do the same old things; equally these changes may, just offer new possibilities in surprising directions.
Perhaps it’s the commitment to re-purposing which makes all the difference. Historical societies have their place and the past ought to be honour and remembered; but it’s a hard place to locate the present. Maybe the railwaymen of the past would complain about the loss of signals and sidings and stations; or, perhaps they would be pleased to see new ways of getting about opening up, and the sites of their earlier hard work now having more of a focus on leisure and enjoyment.
Having a broader view, which takes in the present as well as the past, may be helpful. So would a view which sees laterally as well as forward and back. Several supermarkets sit close to the path which, otherwise, appears to cut through open country. It runs, in fact, through the built-up western area of Paisley. Routine can be great, but pathways of habit can become rat-runs of familiarity. Regularly practising something can make it second nature, but can also dull a sense of expectancy or surprise. Predictability has its strong points – as anyone waiting for the morning commuter train will tell you – yet there is nothing quite like coming across something familiar in a new way, or getting a view which is broader, bigger and more expansive.
The question put to wanderers in first-century Palestine might still have something to elicit from us: ‘Consider the lilies..,’ was that about noticing, remarking and wondering? Part of Christ’s genius was to make connections between familiar things and deep principles. Lilies can, then, speak of an antidote to anxiety in a consumer-focused world. All it takes is to be able to look the right way.
Another thing – you don’t always know who you’ll meet on your way. Most of my journey turned out to be entirely solitary, but as I sauntered into Lochwinnoch I bumped into Richard and Maureen, friends from church who live no more than a hundred yards from the Manse where I stay. Ignoring issues of probability in bumping into known faces in such an unplanned way (after all, if it happened then the probability must be 1.0), there is the treat of coming across people you might not expect – and are delighted to see. We passed the time of day after I discovered they not infrequently came here for a walk, and with such scenery on a lovely day, why wouldn’t you? I was buoyed up to continue the next couple of miles into Lochwinnoch village centre.
At various points, the pathway appears to broaden somewhat, at the site of former stations such as Houston, Castle Semple and Georgetown. Walking along a former railway line means the route remains easy throughout, with no discernible gradients. Castle Semple Loch appears on the the left, a popular spot for water sports and which also houses the nature reserve, worth visiting in its own right.
The route continues past the loch and enters the town of Lochwinnoch. This village was planned in the late eighteenth century along three straight roads; it did not develop organically (or chaotically) over time. The Parish Church, erected in 1808, is only one of the more recent expressions of Christianity in the area. It is likely monks were established at various preaching sites by the sixth century. Nonetheless, the present church building looked particularly impressive in the springtime.
From here it is possible to walk the return route along the same path, or to catch a train to Paisley from Lochwinnoch railway station.