Walking with Claire MacDonald on 9 June 2012

Culzean

I am walking with my friend Claire MacDonald. Claire seems to have accidentally arrived in my life (I wrote about the theatre company she co-founded, Impact, and she then invited me to join a research project). There are so many connections and overlaps in our lives that I am profoundly grateful for the accident. Claire is one of my important wise women. She is also one of the busiest people I know, buzzing with energy and projects, and rarely in one place for long, so the fact that we are walking together today is a real gift. Our path is in South Ayrshire, the site of Claire’s teenage years.

It’s surely been one of the coldest, wettest June’s of my life time. But 40 Walks hasn’t let me down yet – and indeed, the morning brings bursts of sunshine, the showers completely blown away by the time I meet Claire at Girvan train station. Our walk begins in the small village of Maidens. Though Ayrshire is not far from Glasgow, this is my first visit to Maidens, which sits directly on the Ayrshire coast, beyond which lies the almost imperceptible outline of the Isle of Arran, a blur through the low lying cloud. The Olympic flags flying down the ‘main street’, emblazoned with the London 2012 logo, are truly surreal. (London by the Scottish sea? Perhaps the nearby Turnberry golf course provides the rationale?) Before setting off we stop in for a cup of tea with Mrs Lockhart, now in her 90s, and an enduring influence in Claire’s life (one of Claire’s wise women, without a doubt). Betty’s house is filled with wonderful paintings and heavy shelves of literature and art books – a key place in Claire’s cultural education. (Both Betty and her husband, Bill, were students at Glasgow School of Art.)

Leaving Betty’s home, we cross Ardlochan road, walking along grass abundant with yellow and pink wild flowers, the beach just below. The tide is out, the sand exposed. It feels great to smell the sea air, the wind untangling the stress of the week. We jump down onto the sand. There’s not another single person on the whole expanse of the beach – even though there’s a small caravan park nestling in, sheltered by a clutch of distinctive Scots Pine. Some bungalows at the end of this stretch have merged their gardens with the wild flowers, a seamless flow of colours spilling down the hill.

Crossing a small wooden bridge we head into Culzean Estate, managed by the National Trust. (The recorded history of Culzean dates back to the 16th Century – this is another place that remarkably I am visiting for the first time.) Board walks lead us up the hill – new additions since Claire was a teenager and this was her habitual back yard. Pine trees stand symmetrical to our right and as we go higher, the view of the empty beach opens up. We pause at the top, looking right down the bay, then walk on through heather, following the coast line. We are effectively navigating the borders of Culzean, the sea to one side and flora to the other. Some of the trees are truly remarkable – their branches curving like manmade sculptures, or with naturally formed thatching that could easily provide shelter if the skies chose to open.

A path leads us to a more established part of the Estate, which in turn leads us around a huge pond, lilies floating on its calm surface, iridescent yellow iris. A grey heron stands to attention. We have reverted to our typical mode of togetherness – passionate and engaged discussion, lots of different strands and diversions (family, feminism, sisterhood, loss of mothers early in life, life choices, talking the talk and walking the walk…) We buzz along, passing a tree scored deep with messages from the past, a memorial bench with a sentiment that makes us smile, taking the fork that leads back down to the beach, and the Dolphin House Outdoor Education Centre – originally the laundry of Culzean Castle (18th Century). Claire shares the outline of her current ambitious project – a biography of the founder and funder of Dartington Hall, the remarkable Dorothy Elmhirst (nee Whitney). As someone who has worked at Dartington, is married to an American (and academic historian – another Bill), and who spends a lot of time back and forth to the States, Claire seems the ideal match for Dorothy.

A short walk along the stony (deserted) shore leads us to another boardwalk and another hike up a hill, back into the Estate grounds. Rejoining the pond (Swan Pond – deed a couple of swans glide on the pond) we make our way towards the Swan House. In the park proper, families are out enjoying the sun. Swan House is now a parlour for Arran Ice Creams – which we enjoy immensely. Then we head towards another of Claire’s teenage haunts – one which continues to lure her today – the aptly named Happy Valley. As she says, it’s like something out of a Tolkein novel, huge gnarly trees that could well be home to who knows what? This part of the Estate is carefully managed – the scenery clearly landscaped (sculptures placed at key points on the route) – and in this it differs from what it would have been like when Claire was in her teens. But it’s still a beautiful place, with ancient trees standing lordly, and bushes still in red and russet bloom.

A trellis tunnel leads the way to spectacular walled gardens, palm trees homage to the warmer climes of the Ayrshire coast line perhaps? The lawns are manicured, the borders immaculate, the flowers heavy with their own weight. Orange poppies remind me of my mum. Greenhouses and vegetable patches (spring onions, lettuce) and herb gardens seem put to good use. We’ve been walking a good few hours now, and realise that it’s time to make our way back to Betty, and another cup of tea, before I have to catch the train back to Glasgow. Claire knows this place well (like the back of her hand?) and leads us swiftly down an avenue of trees, directly to the beach. We are in time with the tide – it has come in whilst we have been up high. The small white waves tumble to the shore. We are still the only people walking along it. We have talked and walked far and wide today – which comes as no surprise to Betty when I tell her. My legs may be a bit tired but my mind is dancing.

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2 Responses to “Walking with Claire MacDonald on 9 June 2012”

  1. anne Says:

    thank you for the lovely reminder of Maidens and the knarled trees in Culzean. This was indeed a happy place I spent many a summers day when I was also a teenager, having either cycled the 12.5 miles or so from my home in Alloway or stayed with my mum’s cousin in Maidens. hope you enjoyed your first visit.

  2. Dee Heddon Says:

    Anne, I’ll definitely be returning!

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