Wednesday, 16 June 2010

All Aboard the Clockwork Orange

DAY 25:

With the Transport Museum being closed, I found myself with a whole morning to fill and nothing much to fill it with. I was, in short, at a bit of a loose end. But not for long.

Glasgow's Buchanan Street bus station, where I arrived from Ayr yesterday, is absolutely enormous, with stands – or stances, as they seem call them here - for no less than 57 buses. It's no wonder they have to employ men with hi-vis tabards and whistles to carefully guide drives as they attempt to reverse their buses out of their stands and prevent them from driving into each other. With buses and coaches seeming to arrive or depart every few seconds, it's like watching someone trying to choreograph elephants. Great fun!

But they don't like being photographed, as I soon discovered. In fact, this was the first time on the trip so far that I have been shouted at for photographing buses. Well, after all, I could be a terrorist or anything....

The bus station also has information centres, ticket offices, a newsagent and, I'm delighted to say, proper left luggage facilities. So after leaving my Travelodge and with much time on my hands, my very first port of call was to be the bus station so I could drop off my heavy rucksack (in exchange for a fairly hefty £5) and hit the streets unencumbered.

I spent part of the morning wandering around Glasgow Cathedral, which is the only double-decker church that I can ever remember visiting, then climbed up to the Necropolis, a huge Victorian graveyard with some of the biggest and most extravagant (and therefore expensive) gravestones and monuments imaginable. All manner of worthy souls found their final resting place here, including one William Miller, the author of the well-known children's poem 'Wee Willie Winky'. It's an astonishing place which demonstrates just how affluent and industrious Glasgow must have been during Victorian times. Not for nothing was it referred to as the Empire's Second City.

I then made my way back into the city centre and climbed aboard Glasgow's diminutive underground railway, affectionately called 'The Clockwork Orange' on account of the fact that its trains are painted orange (mostly) and it looks like a clockwork toy. The carriages are tiny, much smaller than those on the London Underground -
I even managed to bounce my head off the roof of the carriage just by sitting down too quickly. Glasgow's subway also has the distinction of being the only underground system in the UK which is wholly underground.

In all other respects, it is as quick and as comfortable as it's bigger London brother, though a few of its stations, like Shields Road where I got off to visit the fascinating and beautiful Mackintosh-designed Scotland Street School – are little more than raised platforms between two sets of electrified track. It's a bit unnerving, that!

You can travel the whole circular route in about half an hour so that's just what I did, travelling from Buchanan Street in one direction and getting back on the same train for the journey back. That brought me back to the mighty Buchanan Street Bus Station in time to collect my rucksack and make the 13.02 bus to Balfron.

Now, I have to confess that I had never heard of Balfron before I decided to travel there, nor is there any good reason why I should have. It's only importance to me lay in its position, which is just to the north of the scenically-gifted Campsie Fells (which overlook Glasgow's northern suburbs) and therefore on the scenic route to Stirling which was where I was actually heading.

Having clambered out of Glasgow's dense northern suburbs (and at least I now know where Partick Thistle FC play) we were quickly out among the green fields and beneath the impressive slopes of the Campsies. These are the soft, rounded hills I saw tucked behind Glasgow's tower blocks yesterday from the top of my luxury double-decker coach. But they also have a hard edge, with the village of Strathblane seeming to be almost peppered with scree from the rocky westerly-facing crags towering above it.

We bowl along the Blane Valley, an intensely rich and conventionally-attractive glen with steep, thickly-wooded slopes that quickly mellow into wide flower-strewn meadows. No wonder the cows and sheep look so relaxed and contented. It's a lovely place and, to be honest, more than I had hoped for.

The bus makes a quick stop at the Glengoyne Distillery, which is well worth a visit, before carrying on to Balfron where it unexpectedly morphs into a bus going to Stirling Bus Station. On reflection, the driver probably told me it was going on to Stirling when I got on and asked for a through ticket, but then his accent was so, er... authentically Scottish, shall we say, that he probably said quite a lot of things that I didn't pick up. Like, two out of every three words....

Anyway, I stay on board and we are soon positively barrelling down the Forth Valley towards the fair city of Stirling, with its Wallace Monument and the aggressive-looking Stirling Castle clearly visible long before we get to the city.

I really like Stirling. I don't like its huge shopping mall (under which is built the bus station – wouldn't you just know it?) because it could be absolutely anywhere is the UK or America, but I love its streets, and its steep road up to the castle, and the old Stirling Gaol which has been brilliantly restored, and its youth hostel, and the tang of heather and ice in the air, its sheer unvarnished Scottishness. Yes, this is probably the last bit of level ground in Scotland –everything north of here is big, hairy and mountainous (and that's just the kids! No, sorry, only joking...)

Technically, the border between the Highlands and the Lowlands is defined by the geological fault line that runs sort of south-west to north-east directly through The Trossachs, where I am staying for the night (in Callander, in fact). Tomorrow, if I have not already crossed it, I will be crossing the divide into the Highlands properly, travelling deep into the Perthshire glens, catching a post bus to a place I can barely spell, passing the scene of a notorious massacre, before ending my day down by the sea again, only this time in the shadow of the biggest Ben of them all.

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