Walkers limber up for Newton Stewart festival

Wigtownshire Ramblers on the SempleTrail
Wigtownshire Ramblers on the SempleTrail

This week is the Newton Stewart Walking Festival and many Wigtownshire Ramblers will be assisting or participating in the event. For details see http://www.walkfestnewtonstewart.com.

The following Saturday, will be a walk around Killiegown and Castramont Woods near Gatehouse of Fleet. Meet at 09:00 at the Breastworks, Stranraer or at 09:30 at the Riverside car park in Newton Stewart to share transport. The walk will start from Gatehouse car park at 10:00. New walkers are welcome but please contact the walk leader on 01557 815287 for full details. If going direct to the start, please contact the walk leader in case of any changes.

Last Saturday in a change to the original programme out of respect for local lambing, the ramblers decided to travel further afield than usual. Accordingly about a dozen members headed off north and eventually assembled at the busy car park at Castle Semple Country Park near Lochwinnoch. Unfortunately, a breakdown on route left our group devoid of the Newton Stewart contingent which resulted in a tow to Ayr for repairs.

The sky was overcast and an unexpectedly heavy shower baptised the start of the walk. Being the May Bank Holiday weekend, the site was very busy with groups preparing for sailing, kayaking and cycling.

Since our 2015 visit the landscape, history and natural delights of Castle Semple have been illustrated by a series of “Lookooteries”; individually designed sculptures around the Semple Trail. Pausing near the walk‘s start, we admired a sculpture to the “Roaring Game”.

It pays tribute to winter curling on the loch. Lochwinnoch was one of the few places where curling stones were manufactured.

We set off along the shores of Castle Semple Loch.

We admired the views over Castle Semple Loch; a woven metal seat referring to the former works in Lochwinnoch and Howwood. Their past industries had included blanket making, silk and linen weaving, carpet making, spinning, bleaching and even deck chairs for RMS “Titanic”. The woodland trail led us across a busy cycle track and then up a shallow valley to an ornamental grotto, recently restored by the Semple Family Trust. The woodlands are a remnant of the policy woods around the Semple family mansion. The house itself was destroyed by fire in the 1950s but evidence of its opulence can be seen in the design of the various lodges and bridges around the site.

Heading through the woods past the grotto, notwithstanding an April shower, the walkers’ spirits were raised by the sight of a carpet of bluebells and yellow celandine, and entertained by two Labrador dogs retrieving sticks and treats from a pond. Our climb to the Parkhill viewpoint rewarded us not only with another splendid view down the Garnock valley towards Beith and Kilbirnie, but sunshine too. Some of the walkers decided that this was just the ideal spot to take a seat beneath the giant Semple Trail Map Sculpture, the map illustrating how water shaped the landscape and pointing out Castle Semple Loch, Barr Loch and the Black Cart Water.

Pressing onwards, the group made a slight detour to Johnshill. The striking high backed seats here facing south over the loch offered us tranquil views of the trail and the village of Lochwinnoch. By popular vote, this was the perfect spot for an early lunch in the weak sunshine. A carved granite stone with a few verses from Betty Mackellar’s poem, “Come sit with me” seemed most apt for the day, “Open up the window of your eye to see the greyness of the Semple Loch stretched like a length of satin cloth below a Lochwinnoch sky”.

Not wishing to linger too long in the rather cool breeze, we continued down the northern slope of the hill, past Downie’s Mound with its seven yews; only two were in evidence, and onwards to the category B listed cascades, recently restored. The informative notice boards advised us that they were created in the C 18th when it was very fashionable to have formal gardens with water features. However, the unusually dry April weather meant that little water was cascading down the refurbished honey-coloured sandstone. The neighbouring cave, also recently restored, would have been another desirable feature when constructed in the C 18th. Both it and the nearby renovated C19th ice house were used to store ice cut from the adjacent cascade ponds. A track from the woods lead us to the ruins of the Collegiate Church. This substantial ruin was originally constructed in 1504 by John Semple, the first Lord Semple, “built to the Glory of God and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the prosperity of his Sovereign Lord King James IV, and Queen Margaret, his Royal Consort” and his ancestors and descendants. Both King James and Lord Semple were killed soon afterwards at the battle of Flodden. The tombs of many of the Semple family remain within the walls of the church.

Beyond the church we followed the road back to the cycle track which had been built on a derelict railway track. We walked along the busy railway track way eastwards for some distance and then turned down a path which circled Kenmure Hill with its tower on the summit. Having rounded the hill, we stopped at another recent edition, an attractive curved sandstone bench with a bronze globe. This represented the fact that locally made products have been traded with destinations around the globe. Some of the walkers elected to recharge their batteries here whilst their more adventurous comrades climbed up the gentle western slope and soon reached the tower. There were fine views eastwards towards Paisley and Glasgow and westwards over Castle Semple Loch. The octagonal tower was well built in classical style in 1758 by the Macdowall’s of Garthland who once owned the Castle Semple Estate. This provided us with a local link with the Macdowall’s of the Rhins of Galloway. The tower, or Temple, is believed to have masonic connections and is built on a strict north-south, east-west orientation.

After descending the hill to the valley floor, our two groups reunited. An attractive stretch along the banks of the Black Cart water was followed where several greylag geese made their presence known to us in their inimitable noisy style. A little further along the path we reached the Garthland Bridge, an old stone bridge over the Black Cart built in 1767 and still in daily use for road traffic. Beyond the bridge we entered Howwood village. Here the opportunity was taken to partake of tea, coffee and even ice cream at the recently opened Braefoot Café where the service was both friendly and efficient. Thereafter we climbed towards Bowfield, as a “swanky Yankee” green Cadillac wafted effortlessly past us. On the way we passed an unusual war memorial. Instead of the usual monument the villagers decided to erect a home for a district nurse with a commemoration plaque on the wall. When the house was no longer required it was demolished and the site converted to a garden of remembrance.

Beyond the smart country club at Bowfield we dropped down the hill a little and took a grassy path and crossed a small burn and ruined cottage. The path became a road and led us to the pretty hamlet of Newton of Belltrees and onwards towards the large mansion house at Auchengrange. From there the road went down to the busy A737 which we crossed and continued back towards Lochwinnoch. On reaching the RSPB visitor centre we paused to watch the local wildlife. After leaving the visitor centre we followed the path back to the cars stopping briefly at the final sculpture on the trail by the loch shore. Situated but a short stroll from the Castle Semple Visitor Centre, the imposing folded map plots the site and lists its wildlife while carved stones translate birds’ names into the Lowland tongue. After a quick change we drove to Howwood to complete a most enjoyable day with a lovely meal at the newly refurbished Boarding House.