September – my favourite month of the year. I was born in September 53 years ago (I know, you’re saying how can that possibly be?). I love everything about September – the air, the colours, the letting go of a lucklastre summer and no longer feeling pressurised into wearing hypothermia-inducing skimpy clothes. September feels right to me, it’s where I belong.
This month I’ve travelled a bit, met up with friends, had a few highs and a few lows and have a feeling that my life is now moving on from the ‘big C’.
This time last year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had no conception of how it would pan out and I was very scared. My birthday in 2014 was a blur. I can’t remember anything but just wishing for the time that the surgery would be over and I would feel better. It took a while – the healing process was slow – but now I look back on the many, many good times I’ve had in the last 12 months and I feel blessed.
Yes, time heals. But it’s the wonderful people in my life who helped mend me that count. You’ve been FANTASTIC. Yesterday was my birthday and I was overwhelmed by everyone’s good wishes, (and a special thank you to those who participated in the marathon session in a west end hostelry which has resulted in my rather delicate disposition today.)
Sometimes, curiosity gets the better of me and nothing else will do but to satisfy it. So it was this week with the island of Great Cumbrae (I’ve yet to be convinced of it’s ‘great’ness) which I’ve been meaning to visit for some time. My pal Lorna and I set off at a fairly early hour – for us – to catch the ferry from Largs to the Cumbrae slip where we met a bus which conveyed us to Millport, a faded seaside town on a large bay edged with impressive Victorian villas and boasting two bicycle hire shops (cycling round the island being one of Cumbrae’s few discernible attractions).
Our walk took us cross-country to Fintry Bay, returning along the coastline. It was a blustery, grey day which threatened rain and I soon became chilled to the bone and was glad of a bowl of soup at the bay’s lovely cafe. Lorna had brought a packed lunch which we ate al fresco and my, how fresco it was. We returned to Millport and, as often happens in our screwed-up Scottish summer, the sun came out so we went in search of a beer garden. We found only one – a barren, concrete yard, complete with rat traps and wheelie bins, and not even a hanging basket to cheer the spirit. However, we are Glasgow girls and a beer in the fleeting sunshine was enough for us to agree we’d had a great day out.
That said, my curiosity is satisfied and I don’t feel the need to return to Great Cumbrae for a while.
After a couple of weeks out of the loop, I’m now back on track and determined to walk 30 miles by the end of the week. Yesterday’s circular route in Argyll links Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House in the douce seaside town of Helensburgh with Rhu Marina. The high path passes through a woodland nature reserve with glimpses across the water to Greenock, Gouroch and the Rosneath peninsula. I was lucky to get a good day for it – sunny and 23C – a rare phenomenon this summer. It was a lovely, peaceful walk.
After the walk, I went for a bit of a drive up the Gare Loch coming to a site where ‘Peace’ is an extremely hot topic in Scotland. First I passed the 33-year-old Peace Camp and then HMNB Clyde, better known as the Faslane Naval Base. I was shocked (it’s almost 20 years since I drove this way) both by the menacing scale of the place and by how much the sight of it unsettled me. Faslane is the home of Britain’s nuclear weapons in the shape of nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles.
Due to its strategic position – secluded but navigable – Faslane was first constructed and used as a base in World War II. At the height of the Cold War, it became the base for the Polaris missile system, which was progressively replaced by Trident missiles from the mid 1990’s onwards. Last year, the UK Government pressed ahead with its £3 billion expansion of the base amid political opposition from the SNP.
No matter what your beliefs on Trident and the nuclear deterrent, it’s hard to deny that Faslane is a blot on our beautiful landscape.
Yesterday, in search of sunshine, I headed north-west to the Crinan Canal in the heart of Argyll, which now ranks in my top ten Scots Spots. I persuaded the old man to come with me (he’s not that bothered about sunshine and is a fairly reluctant walker) luring him with the promise of a pint of Nigerian Lager on our return. It never fails. I was delighted to have him along, not least because he could carry my rucksack, full off the stuff I love such as food, drinks and maps. Man, I’ve missed having stuff.
We had neither the time nor the necessary logistics (because there are no linking buses on a Sunday) to walk the nine-mile length of the canal, so we walked from Crinan to Cairnbann and back – a distance of eight miles. We saw a variety of boats – from rusty tubs to majestic yachts and passed through some stunning countryside. The surrounding area is known as ‘Dalriada’ – an ancient coastal kingdom which is the habitat of a huge range of wildlife.
According to Scottish Canals, 2,000 boats make the journey along “Britain’s most beautiful shortcut”. Once an important commercial connection with the Western Isles, most of the traffic is now pleasure craft. The canal links Loch Fyne at Ardrishaig with the Sound of Jura, creating a vital waterway through the Kintyre Peninsula. Building work started 222 years ago and by 1854, 33,000 passengers, 27,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle were transported along it.
We found some sunshine and it felt quite warm for a while – perfect weather for working up a thirst.
It seems fitting that on the day that Andy Murray got through to the semi-finals of Wimbledon, that I travelled to his birthplace as a way of demonstrating my support. Dunblane is not a town I was previously familiar with and I found it a bonny place with an imposing cathedral and a golden postbox.
I set off on National Cycle Route 765 to walk five miles and back to Doune. Now, I’m a wee bit apprehensive of cycle routes, having been very nearly mowed down a few times on the Kelvinside Walkway by ardent cyclists. (And no, I’m not of the intolerant ‘lycra-clad Nazi’ persuasion, a la Jeremy Clarkson. I just don’t fancy tyre treads tattooed on my face). But Cycle Routes pass through some of the best of Scotland’s countryside and they’re all way marked, so there is very little possibility of a person getting lost, even someone as relentlessly distracted as myself.
Leaving the Cathedral and following a brief walk along the river, I found myself walking through pebble-dashed Utopia, where the lawns are manicured, the cars are polished and everything is as it should be. These suburbs are quietly patriotic, with street names such as Bruce Avenue, Wallace Road and Scott Drive.
Soon I was out in the countryside with views out to the mountains beyond – which I have at one time climbed, but cannae for the life of me remember any of their names. It’s an age thing.
I walked all the way to Doune without passing a single cyclist. I suspect that they may have been put off by the amount and size of the puddles, which were impossible to circumnavigate and, it being farmland, very dubby and not at all lycra-friendly. On arrival at the small town, I was pleased to note that the bunting was out for me.
Yesterday’s walk was an enjoyable and varied one, a circular route taking in two Roman hill forts on the Antonine Wall, as well as the Forth and Clyde Canal. The start – and finish – point was the Auchinstarry Marina on the canal, which has good facilities including a pub hotel, The Boathouse – Scotland’s first eco pub – and a scents and sensitivities garden.
From the marina I set off to the wonderfully-named village of Twechar which was built as a mining village in 1860. The original miners’ rows have gone but the ‘spirit’ of the bygone industry remains in the shape of the Twechar Miners’ Welfare and Social Club, of which I happen to be a member. Oh, yes. One Sunday afternoon some years ago, I was walking the canal when I found myself in need of a comfort break. I did a detour into Twechar in search of conveniences and spotting the Tennents red ‘T’ sign, I headed for the hall (pictured).
An old boy on the door informed me that to get inside, I would have to join the club. After some rudimentary paperwork, I was duly signed in and after using the facilities, I felt it would be rude not to partake of a small libation, especially as the place was in full swing. I got chatting to some of my fellow club members and before I left was invited to join the annual ‘booze cruise’ – a barge trip down the canal to Kirkintilloch. ‘But don’t tell any of the wives.’ I was warned by one erstwhile miner, ‘They’re not invited’.
From there, I followed a track uphill to the site of Bar Hill Roman Fort. Just south of the Antonine Wall, it was built around 142 AD and was once home to a garrison of 480 men from all parts of the Roman Empire. I then continued on to the top of Castle Hill, the site of an even earlier iron-age fort.
Before returning to the canal path, I crossed Croy Hill on a grassy path that follows the line of the Antonine Wall. I’m not going to mention the weather as I could descend into full-scale rant, I just had to be content with rather gloomy views across the Campsies and beyond.
Yesterday’s walk was – of necessity – a gentle one. My walking companion for the afternoon, Blonde Eleanor, had mysteriously twisted her knee and was not up for any roughty-toughty hiking. She doesn’t know how she did it but as both wine and disco dancing were involved the previous evening, go figure.
We headed up to Aberfoyle, a pretty village in a glorious setting, to walk the Lochan Spling circuit. It was a leisurely 4-mile walk around this attractive forest loch. As usual, there was a lot to chat about, including the imminent West Highland Way Challenge for Breakthrough Breast Cancer which we embark on in two weeks’ time. We fretted a bit about our fitness levels and my ability to carry my ‘stuff’ as I’m still healing and not able to wear a rucksack. Eleanor is a rather reluctant walker and so we needed to dwell on the benefits of the Challenge – good cause, health benefits, social aspect and the opportunity to enjoy our fabulous Scottish Outdoors.
Yesterday’s walk was just what the doctor ordered – gentle, peaceful with lovely views.
We were joined along the way by some stunning sculptures of a dragonfly and an osprey. These were crafted by internationally-renowned Scottish sculptor and environmental artist, Rob Mulholland. According to my research, there is also a sculpture of a pike on the loch, but we didn’t see it. Must have been the one that got away.
If you would like to donate please visit https://www.justgiving.com/Wendy-Smith2015/
I’m completely overwhelmed by the generosity of two Scottish artists who have donated stunning paintings to my fundraising efforts for Breakthrough Breast Cancer. My friend Louise Burns, who owns the fabulous Christo’s Gallery on Glasgow’s Great Western Road, approached artist Angela Hynd to ask whether she would like to get involved with my cause. Angela generously offered to contribute and painted the beautiful ‘Silver Birch’ in oils. She says that the painting represents growth because in early Celtic mythology, the birch symbolised renewal and purification. Bundles of birch twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year, and gardeners still use the birch besom, or broom, to ‘purify’ their gardens.
Angela’s partner Scott Prentice, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor, also wished to contribute and created the gorgeous ‘Sunflowers’ in acrylics. It’s a rich, heart-warming painting.
The paintings will be auctioned off in Christo’s with the proceeds going to Breakthrough Breast Cancer, an organisation which funds a quarter of all breast cancer research in the UK. I decided to get involved in fundraising following my breast cancer diagnosis last September. I’ve signed up for the charity’s West Highland Way Challenge next month and I’m currently in training. These paintings will help my fundraising efforts enormously and the kindness of Angela, Scott and Louise has given me a very welcome impetus and motivation to complete the challenge.
So a huge THANK YOU to the artists….and a bit about them:-
Born in 1971, Angela Hynd found her first creative outlet in the family silversmith workshop where she served her apprenticeship making hand crafted traditional Celtic jewellery. Deciding to follow her own artistic path she then took up studies in illustration and had been working in this field since graduating in 1999. During the last ten years Angela has been concentrating on oils, her favourite medium and due to the appreciation of her work, is spending more and more time in the studio. Her work now features in collections all over the world with RBS being one of her patrons.
Scott Pentice is a Glasgow born artist who studied Illustration at GSA but through the years he has honed his skill by using all sorts of mediums to display his message, usually of beauty but often leaning to the darker side of life. He says: “I work both traditionally using a variety of mediums such as watercolour, gouache, acrylic, pastel or pen & ink but I also enjoy using more modern techniques in computer image generation and image manipulation, using our G3 power Mac. My partner and I are currently writing and illustrating our own children’s books and also have a keen interest in photography and animation.”
Christo’s Gallery has collections from mainly Scottish-based artists and designers. Owner Louise Burns takes time to source each piece and displays a wide range of art, with something to appeal to most tastes. She says: “Sourcing, displaying and selling beautiful art gives me a great amount of personal pleasure. Being able to share my interest with others is invigorating and satisfying.”
To get in touch with Louise at Christo’s, call 0141 579 0004.
Yesterday I set off for one of my favourite Scottish walks – an 8-mile circuit of Lock Muick, near Ballater in Aberdeenshire. This grand loch is part of the Balmoral Estate and is located at the foot of Lochnagar, one of Scotland’s finest mountains and the inspiration for Prince Charles’s children’s book ‘The Old Man of Lochnagar’. I’ve scaled this mountain a few times and it is quite spectacular, popular with both hikers and rock climbers.
My trek around the loch involved both business and pleasure as I finally got round to the serious task of breaking in my gorgeous new purple boots. Since I purchased them a few weeks ago, I have gazed on them admiringly, as more glamorous women would on their Jimmy Choos. They have been fondled and photographed but, until yesterday, their action had been confined to my shag pile. However, my old boots are now losing the will to walk – bits are falling off and the soles are worn down – so the new ones had to be put to the test before I tackle the West Highland Way Challenge for Breakthrough Breast Cancer next month. So it was with some intrepidation that I laced up for the walk – partly because breaking in new boots can lead to that dreaded affliction, sair feet, but also because I feared they might get dirty.
The Loch Muick circuit takes in some fine views and a variety of wildlife can be found there, including red squirrels, red deer, eagles, bats, oyster catchers, salmon and trout. As I bent down to adjust my laces, I saw some tadpoles.
So how did my new boots shape up? Result! They are as comfy as they are colourful and, as luck would have it, the ‘bog factor’ was low so they remain fairly pristine….for now.
If you would like to donate please visit https://www.justgiving.com/Wendy-Smith2015/
These boots were made for walking……….but just not today. In the last week, I’ve clocked up 33 miles of hiking, am stiff, have sair feet and am badly in need of a chiropody appointment. So I’m hanging up my boots for the next 24 hours, cracking open the Prosecco and tuning into BBC Radio Scotland. My pal Fiona Stalker’s new show ‘Out For The Weekend’ – a programme featuring the multitude of activities on offer in Scotland’s great outdoors – begins this afternoon and we’re VERY excited (OK, maybe not so much about the gardening feature as we don’t even have a window box). I’ll be on air during the show, talking about how I’m walking my way back to health and happiness following my breast cancer diagnosis eight months ago and resultant surgery.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there’s been quite a transformation. When I began walking 10 weeks ago, I was physically and mentally wounded and was desperate to regain my strength and well being. Since then I’ve trudged, tramped and trekked more than 200 miles north, south, east and west in our beautiful country and I’m feeling so much better.
While I’ve still got some way to go – and am slightly nervous about the West Highland Way Challenge I’ve signed up to in four weeks’ time – I know I’m on the right track and plan to continue walking regularly until I regain full fitness and beyond.
But tomorrow’s another day. For now, it’s feet up and fizz!
If you would like to donate please visit https://www.justgiving.com/Wendy-Smith2015/