Walking with Minty Donald and Nick Miller on 27 November 2010

From Yoker to Dumbarton

I am walking with my friends Minty Donald and Nick Millar. Suffering from a bout of insomnia, I know at 3am that it’s snowing, and snowing heavily. By the time the sun is up, the snow is settled, sparkling. Perfect weather for a (flat) walk. I feel privileged to be starting out from Minty and Nick’s new home. Located, for the time being, in a ship-building yard in Yoker, their home is a boat, named Laika. It seems impressively, breathtakingly huge, but most impressive is that the entire interior (luxurious, stylish and practical) has been designed and crafted by Nick. Gingerly climbing the icy step ladders, as soon as I go through their front door the cosy warmth embraces me. Their home, like mine, has central heating (which is just as well given the freezing temperatures of the past few days). I’m not good on water, so the fact that the boat is still on dry land is something of a personal boon.

We’re walking from Yoker to Dumbarton, following the Forth and Clyde Canal which will then meet the Clyde. We reckon it’s about 7 or 8 miles. It’s a nice coincidence that my previous walk took me in the opposite direction along the Clyde. The fact that it’s a watery walk fits my walking companions. Not only are they boat dwellers but their current art project, Bridging, is made on and for and with the Clyde.

To get to the canal, we must first walk to Clydebank. Passing in front of an industrial estate, we come across the old ticket offices of the Cunard Shipping Line on Cunard Street. The buildings are now a row of residential houses. The shiny new structure of Clydebank College sits beside the Clyde, the nearby Titan crane towering in an empty landscape (former site of the John Brown shipyard). In the summer, you can take a lift to the top (one of the town’s regeneration initiatives). We follow the main road to the Clyde shopping centre, another new development.. The juxtaposition of this with the still standing but dilapidated 1970s concrete ‘mall’ is startling, like two faces of the town, one well worn, the other subjected to a surgical lift.

We join the Forth and Clyde canal here, walking our way out of Clydebank. The surface of the canal is semi-frozen, flotsam and jetsam (Irn bru bottle, crisp poke, football) suspended in the water as if in a freeze-frame animation. The canal side flora, though long-ago stripped bare of its summer plumage, wears snow flowers, snow forming on empty stems like rare winter exotica. The bull reeds are half brown, half white, as if painted by hand. Seagulls step almost gingerly on the ice, one of them taken by surprise as it begins to skate.

As we walk into Dalmuir, Nick spots some tracks in the snow that he thinks might belong to a fox. And then we see a large circle of coagulating blood in the snow. A fox’s prey? Signs warn that the ice is thin and I wonder if they have been put up over night. As Nick explains the mechanisms of the Dalmuir Drop Lock I am struck by how long it must take for a vessel to make its way through here. I suspect the slow speed, or the interrupted nature of this form of travel would frustrate me. Continuing along the canal, past a small, fairytale wooden bridge, we watch  a skulk of foxes on the bank opposite. Two are napping in the sun, whilst another grooms its mate.

Erskine Bridge looms in the distance and beyond it the old Kilpatrick hills. At Kilpatrick we walk down to the Clyde, standing on the remains of the Erskine Ferry pier. The view down the Clyde, towards Glasgow, is fantastic. We continue our walk, through the Saltings Nature Reserve, its entrance marked by a totem pole of a Scottish Thistle. The Erskine Bridge is directly above us. Though its span is huge, it looks almost delicate in its construction. It’s also surprisingly quiet, with few cars seeming to cross it. A large pair of sculptural wicker swans fly towards the bridge. As I stop to take a picture of some bright red berries, Nick spots a hind, her bright white tail marking her out from the surrounding trees. Presumably the snow has tempted her to these low grounds.

We walk along the old railway track and at Bowling join the canal again, which in turn flows into the Firth of Clyde. A rough narrow ledge above the water takes us past carcasses of disintegrating, dissolving old boats, their remains like rib cages of long-ago beached sea mammals. I’ve passed by this scene many times, looking out from the train window. The watery scrap yard has always struck me as sad, haunting even. These must, at one time, have been majestic boats, part of a way of life.

At Bowling train station we have to cross over the footbridge, making our way again onto the old railway track. Following the National Cycle Railway Network route, we pass through Milton as the sun begins to sink, setting the rocks on our right a deep, glowing russet. We talk about our mutual acquaintances, John Fox and Sue Gill (see Walking with Gerry Harris), and Welfare State. Minty and Nick share fond memories of a Welfare State workshop that they attended in the summer of 1989, in Kent. They were not together then and they reveal that it was here that they first recognised a connection, a shared sensibility, a compatability.

To my surprise, the route cuts through a suburban housing estate, eerily quiet, the still-deep snow absorbing everyday sounds. A tree-lined walk leads us towards Dumbarton town centre, where three hot chocolates in the Gossip Coffee Shop are drunk with deep gratitude. Our cheeks are flushed ruddy.

In a week’s time I will turn 41. This is the 19th walk of my 40 walks. The  first walk of my 40th year was through snow. The last walk of my 40th year was through snow. Another pleasing moment of coincidence. I am looking forward to walking into my 41st year.

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