Things are not always what they seem

It was only during a couple of recent conversations here at Cove Park that I realised that my unquestioning acceptance that, although this can appear to be a remote untouched piece of wilderness, it is in fact a military arsenal, was a bit unusual.

A couple of people remarked on the frequency with which they passed MOD police cars on the road, and the long stretches on razor wire that are visible up on the hillside, and on the sounds of gunfire in the distance one afternoon.  To me, with perhaps the exception of the gunfire, this all feels entirely as expected.

In the Cold War era, it was widely assumed that the hills around here were used for storage of warheads of various kinds, that the well made roads that disappeared into to the hillsides behind high fences were something to do with the nuclear deterrent.  Whether or not these beliefs were correct, the arrival of Trident and the massive expansion of Coulport left us in no doubt.

The ‘military road’, like any military road worthy of its name,  was built straight through the hills, to join Loch Lomond to Loch Long and to more than half the journey time.  The winding lochside roads were left to crumble under the slower wheels of civilian traffic until the main construction work was completed and the new road was made available for everyone’s use.  Although the  close eye of the MOD police and the signs along the way leave us in no doubt as to who holds the balance of power in these parts.

Whenever I drive along the road it feels as if I could be alone in the world, as I rarely see any other traffic.  But walking along part of it yesterday, an experiment to see if I could complete a circuit from Cove Park to the shore and back without having to double back, cars and vans roared past me at high speed; city velocities of people in a hurry, perhaps also reflective of the apparent absence of a speed limit on the road.

Maybe we all want to assume that where there is little human habitation or wild hillsides that everything is ‘natural’ and unspoilt.  In the British Isles, I think it is a romantic notion that rarely holds up to too much examination.

When I look out at the wonderful view from my cube out towards Loch Long and Ardentinny opposite, I can see hillsides green with trees.  But even from this distance I can see that they are plantations of non native conifers planted by the Forestry Commission, as in so many areas of Scotland since the Second World War; a reforestation exercise to replace woods gradually consumed by the people who lived here in the preceding centuries.

I don’t know what the trees native to this area are.  It could be the scrubby deciduous trees around the edge of the site here; but the rhododendrons which grow like weeds at the side of the road aren’t native either.  Brought from the Himalayas for horticultural interest a couple of centuries ago, they long since escaped gardens to make their own mark on the landscape.

Just because a landscape isn’t covered in buildings and roads doesn’t mean that man hasn’t fundamentally changed it.

Leave a comment


  1. Jill Goldberg

     /  October 16, 2011

    You make an extremely good point, and, as it happens, a fortuitous one for me. I went walking across Rondebosch Common yesterday, the south side of which is about 20 steps from where I live. Unless one is willing to wade through mud and mole hills and risk stepping on snakes, one joins the joggers and serious walkers around its outskirts. But not any more – there is now a series of paths (sandy but smooth and marked by broken bricks and stones) winding across the land, with intermittent sign posts and information plaques. I suppose this is a good way to attract people to the middle, and make information about its flora and fauna available to everyone, but I couldn’t help feeling that this was wrong, somehow, like just another annexation. And there are some poppies growing along the east side, escaped from nearby gardens, like your rhododendrons.

    • Hi Jill, Access versus wilderness is one of the trickiest equations, isn’t it? In certain part of the UK they’ve had to build paths to keep people from eroding hillsides through overuse, which I can see is sensible, but also a bit sad. I think in places like SA you are much more aware of plants and animals that were ‘introduced’ than we are in the UK – we just seem to accept it, whereas my impression is that you are more likely to try to take action against the unwelcome effects.


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