Dipping our noses over the Scottish border for the first time on this circumnavigation, the broad, sparse and forested acres of Dumfries and Galloway beckon.
We are back in 2007 now, on our way home from a three-generation, eight-berth family holiday in a remote house on the Sound of Sleat. More of that in later pages. The series goes clockwise, so we’ll hit North West Scotland later. For now, imagine five of us packed into a battered Zafira heading on a long schlep south and looking for somewhere to break the journey. We’d parted company with Mum, Dad and Bruv as they prepared to drop off their hire car and couple up with the Kyle of Lochalsh Line for the splendid Highland train journey back to Inverness via Achnasheen.
“Stop the car!” cried Granny. She’d lost a knitting needle. The girls chuckled and raised collective eyebrows. We were seriously overdue a break, though and this was the cue to pull over. Tourist Information helpfully found us B&B in Annan (remember when that’s what a Tourist Info Bureaux used to do?). To be honest, I’d barely heard of the place.
On we went, Annan-bound. Wherever that was. Hanging a right off the M6, we spun through the bizarre would-be tourist honey pot of Gretna Green. This curio of 18th century illicit marriage still retains a foothold in border folklore, and was marked by a hotel, tea room and gift shop on the site of the original blacksmiths forge. Once the nuptials were struck over the anvil, I noted that the heavily sponsored roundabout opposite was advertising a plethora of newlywed activities. The ‘Marital Maze’ sounded particularly intriguing.
The A74 took us north of the new town of Gretna (as oppose to the Green – more of this later) and in to the quiet streets of Annan. The B&B was on a wide residential road of stout Edwardian villas just off the town centre. There’s always a frisson of danger when booking a B&B. You never quite know what you will get. 80% of the time, the stay is unremarkable. For the remaining 20% there is an element of unpredictability.
On this trip, the unpredictable won out. After dropping our bags with the aim of heading out for a bite to eat, our landlords, a married couple of mature standing, matching golfing jumpers and lilting accents, had us trapped in the residents lounge. Before we knew what had hit us, out came the family anecdotes accompanied by battered photo albums, tea and cake. I was half expecting a screen to drop from the ceiling and the flicker of a slide projector to kick in.
Luckily, we had a secret weapon. Granny - my Mother-in-law - was in our party. When it came to banter, Granny was an Irish World Champion contender. Unstoppable. The discussions she used to have with her sisters were the stuff of family legend. That they all talked at the same wouldn’t surprise anyone, but their ability to simultaneously introduce new nuggets of gossip and also respond to earlier chat without any of them drawing breath or pausing the flow was a miracle of communication the surface of which social media has barely scratched. A cacophonic brain-scrambling experience that I almost miss!
Our hosts were game, however. Something to do with a shared Celtic gabble-gene, I assumed. We did prise ourselves away eventually, and escaped to the Queensberry Arms for a bit of scram and a drink. We didn’t need to book. The place was like a morgue.
When we got back, our hosts were still up. Lying in wait with the lights down low, they heard the click of the front-door latch and they pounced, wielding milky drinks and night caps. The girls ran off to bed whilst we bravely took the anecdote battle to the locals, led unswervingly from the front by Granny. “Ah sure, my son Chris built most of the Barcelona Olympic village…”
Breakfast passed off remarkably calmly. There were no other guests, but our hosts seemed distracted by various housekeeping and booking-in tasks. We snuck out for an explore.
I was a bit disappointed with Annan. The town had some fine red sandstone civic and commercial buildings dating from the early part of the 20th century when the export trade brought prosperity to the area. Annan was at the centre of a rail hub linking the west coast port of Stranraer with lines north to Glasgow and south to England. With the decline of both the port trade and the closure of the railways, Annan had become this strange ghost of a forgotten town home to about 10,000 souls. Some roughness around the edges was apparent. Those statement buildings had become burdensome maintenance responsibilities and stinging reminders of departed status.
I came across a website listing a range of ‘interesting and unusual’ facts about Annan. There weren’t many. A highlight: one of Scotland’s most haunted roads passes through the town. How would you know? The list also included reference to the Annan Academy, founded in 1802, which had seen the philosopher Thomas Carlyle pass through its doors. A local called Crystal had responded in the comments box to dispute its inclusion. “Annan academy may have been great years ago but now it's a shit-whole (sic – a bit of a question mark there about the quality of its English Language department) with kids pulling knives on teachers. It's more like a prison the way the police patrol it.”
If the attributes of the town were in question, there was always the coastline. We went for a ramble, heading south, nominally by the banks of the River Annan, but in fact you don’t see much of the actual river once you’ve left the town. Eventually we found our way out to the estuary and the vast Solway Firth. It is just about possible to walk along the coast back as far as Gretna. We didn’t try, but as an entertaining blog by Ruth Livingstone documents, the route is not exactly a pleasant amble across gently shelving beaches. Cloying mudflats, impenetrable bogs and military debris present seemed to be the order of the day.
Annan Merse is a wide expanse of wetland at the mouth of the Annan, extending east towards Torduff Point. Ann, who is blogging her trek around the entire British coastline, was unimpressed.
“I know these wetlands are supposed to be teeming with wildlife, but they look rather bleak and desolate to me. After a while, my nice, dry bank disappears, and I’m picking my way across marsh, leaping across waterways and balancing on dry tussocks. Occasionally I find a handy bridge, but most of the time it seems to be a matter of finding my own way. Torduff Point. A place I had hoped would be pretty and scenic, but isn’t. Ah well. Onwards.”
Ann had reached the MoD land outside Eastriggs. The site contains 63 stand-alone explosives storehouses which used to hold munitions for the three armed services. It closed in 2010, just a few years after our visit. At that time the area was still prohibited and Ann reported signs on the fences warning of guard dogs patrolling the area. “But I don’t see any dogs”, she said, “nor security cameras, nor anybody… it’s a lonely and deserted landscape.” Beyond a fenced-off pit that only temporarily blocked the progress of our resolute hiker, she observed “…a crumbling mess of deserted buildings. Their foundations are slowly slipping down the bank and the shore is littered with tumbled bricks and smashed concrete.”
Munitions are a staggeringly important part of the history of this coastline. I had no idea until we visited. Eastriggs and Gretna were both originally constructed during World War I as accommodation for the largest munitions factory in the world, HM Factory, Gretna, between 1916 and 1918. The villages began as a collection of wooden huts, but were developed as model villages.
The factory, Codenamed ‘Moorside’ was a nine-mile long establishment built to supply ammunition to the British Army in World War I stretching from Eastriggs along the Solway coast as far as Longtown back over the border into England. Between 20,000 and 30,000 workers, mostly women, found employment there at the factory’s peak. The site was chosen for its remoteness from populated areas – which I can happily testify to – but also had good access for services and supplies. It would prove difficult for the Luftwaffe to reach the area, so far north and west. The area itself had a vast empty landscape of natural cover, with the sea frets and mist from the surrounding hills combining to obscure the site from the air.
What a grim job it must have been. A museum back down the coast in Gretna tells the story of the factory. The workers mixed by hand an unholy cocktail of nitro-glycerine and guncotton into cordite paste – which became known as ‘devil’s porridge’, before loading it into shell cases. Devil’s Porridge is now the name of the museum.
There is nothing much left of the site now. We stopped a couple of times on the road back to Gretna on our way off the Solway Firth, but we could see very little. Most of WWI factory was cleared in the 1920’s. Some land and buildings which survived were incorporated in to the later munitions storage site. Viewed through the magic filter of Google Earth, there’s nothing to see of the former site, but the explosives storehouse – all separated from each other and surrounded by earthen banks to prevent chain-reaction explosions – are very clear, deposited in grassy landscape like sand bunkers on an epic golf course.
Granny found her knitting needle as we climbed back in to the car. We took that as a cue to scoot away, leaving this surreal and curious corner of the world to its quiet ways.
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