Marhofn 171.09 - May 2007

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Hello Yellow Book Road

Val Hamilton

Intrinsically, bagging tends to place emphasis on quantity rather than quality, so this garden bagging follow-up is perhaps a little unusual for Marhofn. I've only managed four garden bags over the last two years, but all were memorable and the 2005 ones were of a particularly high standard.

The first was Portrack, the garden of Charles Jencks who is known for his award-winning sculptural landscapes at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and at several Maggie's Cancer Caring centres. Portrack is near Holywood, just north of Dumfries, and well placed for a quick morning bag of section 27C Marilyns. I'd originally planned to climb Woodhead Hill but couldn't find a suitable parking place (always the hardest bit of any hill day for me). Instead I opted for See Morris Hill, the hard way, from Irongray churchyard. I can't recommend the route, which involved some serious fence climbing and a sheer descent through a wood, but the churchyard is interesting and there's a big car park there.

In the garden at Portrack (photo: Val Hamilton)

In the garden at Portrack (photo: Val Hamilton)

Those who think of Portrack as the industrial estate outside Middlesbrough should forget the DIY shop connotations, although there is something industrial about this 'garden'. It's not aimed at the flower lover: there is some planting, but the emphasis is on man-made landforms, with concrete and metal structures and sculptures. There's not much chance for quiet contemplation either: the garden is rarely open and there were over 1000 visitors on a grey afternoon in May. But it was fun, everyone shared their enjoyment, and the ant-like columns twisting their way round the trademark spiral paths of the grass cone hill made me laugh aloud.

Portrack was an experience and a tick but one visit was fine. My second big bag of 2005, Little Sparta, was different. Little Sparta was created by the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, in four acres of Pentland hillside near Dunsyre. It lies under Black Mount, which we climbed easily from Elsrickle, although we found there was no point in deviating from the vehicle tracks as the land is farmed and fenced high up the hill and you need to use the gates. Recently Little Sparta has been open two afternoons a week during the summer, and you'll find it by the long row of cars parked on the verge of the narrow road leading to it. There's a half-mile walk up a rough track to an unassuming plot of land which is Tardis-like in extent. Again there are few flowers, although there are plenty of trees, shrubs, lochans and burns. But the important features of Little Sparta are the stone carvings of poems, names and Latin inscriptions. Many of the references were wasted on me, requiring a better classical education than mine. But some were easy: most descriptions of the gardens include the slab next to a stand of pine trees which reads 'Bring back the birch'.

Again the garden was busy, but its narrow paths, nooks and folds, and dense tree planting, meant that there were plenty of quiet corners. It's a great place, but on checking the website I see that the entry fee is £10 and there are no teas.

In 2006 garden bagging returned to more traditional ticks in the yellow Gardens of Scotland book. The first was Dundonnell House, in the shadow of An Teallach, which we combined with a quick ascent of Sail Mhor, although its house-Marilyn would be Beinn nam Ban. The morning climb up Sail Mhor's corrie was ideal walking - easy terrain at a perfect angle, culminating in a show-stopping view to the west. The garden was good too - open only one Wednesday a year, so a prized tick, and comprising a traditional walled garden and herbaceous borders, with an arboretum across the Dundonnell River. Great teas and very friendly locals.

A long weekend in Braemar gave us the chance to visit Tillypronie, north-west of Aboyne, another once-a-year special. Morven is the obvious hill to climb, but we settled for the circular walk round Craigendarroch and a trip to the astonishing globular chasm of Burn o'Vat near Loch Kinord. The garden is extensive, on a steep south-facing slope and full of interesting trees and odd corners. The teas were of the highest standard, with the best-ever selection of interesting cakes.

Like many baggers, I now have to look farther afield for new ticks, but as the content of the yellow book changes every year, there's always the chance that the next edition will include somewhere new and exciting on the slopes of an unticked Marilyn.

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