Let’s be honest: the hills to the north-west of Moniaive are a bit on the dull side. They are mostly covered in forestry and aren’t that dramatic. The Southern Upland Way (SUW) passes through them but doesn’t linger. They are remote and not many people visit. So how do you entice people to come to this area? Simple: an impressive piece of installation art: The Striding Arches.
This is a project by Andy Goldsworthy and other artists to place four huge sandstone arches on the hills around Cairnhead (NX702972). I’ll leave their web site to give the background: I’ll concentrate on our experience. 1
The first thing is to get there. In Moniaive there is a sign-post for the Striding Arches that takes you along a picturesque lane. Keep going, even when the grass is growing up the middle of the road and the tarmac ends! This glen feels remote but has been lived in and worked for centuries. Eventually you arrive at the car park and the first arch. Although this one doesn’t have the grand settings of the others it is very dramatic as it intersects a building! Spend some time exploring because there are some lovely features here. For example, the wall has some beautiful calligraphy showing the old names of this area.
The other arches aren’t so easy to get and require walking. We follow the forestry track up the glen until we emerge from the trees and join the SUW. There’s nothing to savour on this stretch so just get your head down and trudge. There isn’t a convenient circuit that covers all the arches so the first one, Benbrack, involves a there-and-back spur along the SUW. The good bit is that the views start to open up over to Cairnsmore of Carsphairn and Beninner. You first see the arch away in the distance on the top of the hill. It looks like a small hook that alien visitors used to lower the hill into place. 2
When you finally reach the arch it is very impressive. It is massive, towering perhaps 3m over your head. The blocks appear to be free standing yet solidly permanent. It was like a scenic amplifier: the arch drew your gaze and then onto the hills and views beyond. It reminded me of Play School, an old BBC TV programme when I was a kid that used to take you through the arched window to see something special. The view from up here was incredible. I was trying to work out what a bunch of hills were when I realised they were the Lakeland Fells: they just seemed so close.
After lunch we retrace our steps back along the SUW and when we reach the forestry track we head off up Colt Hill and the third arch. From here it’s a rough slog over Blackcraig Hill 3 and Mullwhanney to the last arch on Bail Hill. The walk is fine except for a sadistic gash in the side of Mullwhanney where you have to drop a couple of hundred metres only to immediately climb again. A nice viaduct here, preferably by someone like Thomas Telford, would be good but it’s unlikely to get funding just to make life easier for the two people a year who come this way. Pity.
The arch on Bail Hill gives a nice view down into the Cairnhead valley and back around to the other two arches. The photo on the left highlights the one thing I found disappointing on the Striding Arches: the stuff the builders left behind. The rusty patch on the grass was caused by hundreds of nails dumped and just rusting away. Similarly, the Benbrach arch still had some wooden pallets used to carry material up. Given the aim of creating a “sensitive meeting of art and nature”, 4 this spoiled the effect. From the summit it is a steep descent down a break in the trees back to the road in the valley and a couple of miles back to the car.
On the whole this was an interesting experience. The arches themselves are very impressive and enhance their location. The walking is rough and isolated: apart from the section on the SUW you won’t meet a soul.
- I’d like to thank Stuart and Carol for pointing the Striding Arches out to me. It would be very petty to point out that they still have to get to the the arch on Bain Hill: I just can’t stop myself. ↩
- Sugar levels dropping at this stage: Jazz is promised a lunch stop at the top. ↩
- Just one of many in Galloway: odd, given how imaginatively named most of the hills in this area usually are. ↩
- From www.stridingarches.com ↩
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