Coast and Country Nature

A NOSTALGIC Walk Near Inverkip In The Calm Before The Autumn Storm

CERTAIN places lend themselves well to Autumn's moods. Here in the west, with its wet and windy climate, days of “mellow fruitfulness” –- to quote Keats -– are rare indeed, writes David Carnduff.

But if you are prepared to brave what the Atlantic throws at us, the season can still be enjoyed as days shorten and winter looms ever closer.

You can catch that melancholy end-of-season mood along the network of old roads and tracks around Inverkip -- once infamous for its “witches” -- where branches creak eerily in the wind and fallen leaves scurry around like animals possessed. Although days of superstition have long since gone, there remains tangible evidence of the folk who tried to win a living from the land in times past.

That link to a bygone era is evident along the old track running from the village outskirts to Kelly at Wemyss Bay. I am not sure when this track was laid, but it must be centuries old and probably served as an important link between farming communities in less hurried times when horse power was agriculture's driving force.

This is not just a random path; it was carefully laid with stone and runs straight as a dye in places, thanks to the skills of labourers employed, presumably, by the Shaw Stewarts who have held these lands since medieval times.

Signs of Autumn were all around when I took a walk along the track on one of the few dry mornings that October has offered us: leaves turning russet and yellow, hawthorn berries hanging heavily in the hedgerows and fungi emerging among the leaf litter.

Look carefully along here and you will see ample evidence of how these fields were worked more intensively in the past, and it's easy to imagine sturdy Clydesdales pulling ploughs through the heavy earth.

Here and there, the remains of gates and fences that once kept animals in check stand twisted and rusted, and ornate iron posts, solidly rooted in the earth, provide an intriguing contrast to the wind turbines erected in the past year or two.

It's an area I know of old, for as a kid growing up here in the sixties, the farms were a magnet to a gang of us who treated the byres, sheds and outhouses as adventure playgrounds. The farmer was too busy to notice as we leapt from stacks of hay bales or explored dim and dusty lofts, but occasionally he gave us tasks to do which we accepted with naïve enthusiasm.

I remember once being asked to “thin neeps”, which involved creeping on hands and knees along seemingly unending furrows in a huge field and pulling out the weaker plants. The 'pay' at the end of a back-breaking day was, yes, you've guessed it -– a turnip to take home to my mother.

However, I met my Waterloo one day when asked to help load hay bales on to to a pick-up. I was so puny I couldn't lift them off the ground, never mind throw them on to the back of a truck. I was given a couple of chances then brushed aside as an older, stronger farmhand who had obviously had his porridge that morning, stepped up and completed the job. Crestfallen by my inadequacies, I sulked off home and announced to my parents that I no longer wanted to be a farmer and had decided to be a pilot instead.

Nowadays, these lands seem to be used mainly for sheep, and fences are coated with “blaw” -- wool caught in the wires as the animals squeeze through. There's an old Scots ballad that tells of “tramps and hawkers and gaitherers o' blaw” -- a reference to the itinerant workers who presumably could earn a few coppers by selling sacks of wool.

The track is lined in parts with beech trees that look as if they were once kept in trim as hedges. But when the pruning stopped they flourished into full-grown trees -– and among their fallen leaves there was an interesting crop of fungi, including the dangerously hallucinogenic fly agaric and, growing right beside it, one of the most sought-after for eating –- the so-called “Penny Bun”.

The so-called "Penny Bun" mushroom, left, is considered one of the finest for eating. In contrast, to the "Penny Bun", fly agaric, right, is poisonous with hallucogenic properties. 

With Hurricane Ophelia brewing in the Atlantic and the western sky as black as your hat, I retraced my steps knowing that this part of Inverclyde has survived many an Autumn storm and should remain unchanged for years to come.

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