Crossing the solar system in West Lothian
by nigheandonn » Mon Mar 07, 2016 9:44 pm
Date walked: 06/02/20164 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
The answer to that turned out even more interesting than I'd expected - the story starts with a scale model of the solar system built in 1776 by the Earl of Buchan in the grounds of his house at Kirkhill, now in Broxburn. The details of the model and the distances used were inscribed on a pillar which stood on the grounds until it collapsed in the 1970s.
The pillar was rebuilt in Almondell Country Park in 1998, and at some point after that there was a project to build a new model solar system with the planets represented by sculptures, stretching across West Lothian from Almondell in the south to Beecraigs and Kingscavil in the north.
Linking them seemed like the kind of walk that, although baffling to people who love mountains and wilderness, could be good if you're interested in places - meeting roads and rivers and canals and railways, through country parks and towns and tiny villages. Plus it was a nice flat walk for a dull winter's day - and as a bonus, it felt a bit like a treaure hunt!
I could possibly have got closer to the beginning of the walk on a bus, but I'd still have had to go in to Haymarket to catch it, and all adventures are better with added train. So the walk started from Kirknewton station, down to cross the main road, down a sneaky path, and onto not quite the right path into Almondell, crossing an old viaduct.
Down at river level it was all bridges - the viaduct, a new green one, little ones over sidestreams, and the 18th century Nasmyth Bridge, rebuilt after it collapsed.
The pillar now stands outside the visitor centre in Almondell Country Park, which was once the stable block of a house owned by the Earl of Buchan's brother. So all the careful details inscribed on it about where it stands are wrong, making me feel a bit sorry for it, but it's fascinating all the same - latin quotation on one side, dedication on another, location details on the third, and the table setting out the distances of the solar system on the fourth. (For a bit more about the pillar itself, see here.)
Uranus is the first planet in this direction, hung in the trees over the road up from the visitor centre.
From the park entrance the road leads north, under the railway line and the motorway, and then over the canal, where I left it and went down to join the towpath. Saturn is just under the bridge here, in the form of a diagram of the movements of its rings by James Clerk Maxwell.
Jupiter is not much further on, just past the next bridge, surrounded by mirrored disks which represent its many moons.
Over the next bridge and through the wiggly roads of a housing estate is the asteroid Thule 279, somehow represented by sandstone benches carved with lines of poetry.
Kirkhill House itself is up the hill from the main road through Broxburn, tucked in among modern houses now, but still with glimpses of the commanding view and position it must once have had.
The sun is attached to Broxburn Academy, not far from the original site. I managed to overshoot by heading uphill from Kirkhill House and walking right round the top of the school, but the sun is nice and obvious once you get round to the right side.
My instructions let me down here - all they said was that Mercury and Venus were in the school grounds. The gate was open, so I went in and had a look around, but found nothing (not that I really knew what I was looking for).
I eventually found Venus by accident, attached to the outside of the fence, while walking back down to the main road to look for some lunch, but never did find Mercury. Venus is represented by a series of holes suggesting its movement across the the sky, but it's badly graffitied - this is the better side.
After a break for lunch I started again from the Academy, working my way outwards again. Earth, in two planters in a green space just above the last of the houses, was badly overgrown, but rust red Mars in the edge of the woodland beyond had survived better, as well as having a very good view of the Pentland range.
I took a chance that there would be a way out to the minor road to the north, without retracing my steps back into Broxburn, and there was, more or less - a tangle of paths through the woodland, heading vaguely left whenever there was an option, out at a corner to thread through the trees at the edge of a field and up the unploughed edge of another, to meet a track which brought me out actually on the road running north from Uphall, just south of the crossroads.
I turned left towards Beecraigs and Pluto, but then stopped to think - I wasn't going to get in two more planets before the light failed, and apart from it not really being a planet, I was more likely to get back to Beecraigs another time. So change of plan, and up a tight and bendy road through Ecclesmachan, and past the point where I moved from views towards the Pentlands to views towards the sea.
There was too much traffic about for comfortable walking on such a narrow road, so I turned left towards Ochiltree, on a narrower but quieter one, past the odd lumpy shape of Binny Craig. At the corner where I turned right again there was a slightly unexpected looking castle - it was marked on the map, but I'd expected a little square ruin. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy random cross country wandering - you never really know what you're going to find.
Round the corner it was almost Northumberland scenery, low parallel lines of hill and valley, but running east to west rather than north to south. A steep descent and not quite as steep an ascent brought me eventually to Kingscavil, where Neptune should have been hanging as a lantern above the door.
The hook was still there, but the lantern was gone - possibly inside, but the door was locked. A disappointing ending, because it was probably the prettiest of the sculptures.
I was almost back at the canal, and thought about following it into Linlithgow, but with the light fading, sitting on the wall and waiting for the bus to come along and take me home seemed like a better idea.
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by denfinella » Tue Mar 08, 2016 2:02 pm
Tempted to try this myself later in the year. Might it be easily cycled (help with the road walking)?
Thanks for posting
by nigheandonn » Tue Mar 08, 2016 2:56 pm
There are directions and a map of sorts on the project's webpage - http://www.kirkhillpillarproject.org.uk/visit.php
I was a bit disappointed by the state of some of the sculptures - although some of that was probably just it being damp February. But I was still fascinated by the whole idea, and by the original pillar.
by denfinella » Tue Mar 08, 2016 7:13 pm
by snodland » Tue Mar 08, 2016 9:34 pm
by Alteknacker » Tue Mar 08, 2016 11:06 pm
One thing I couldn't work out, even following up on the website, was how the different planets were located relative to each other... Did I miss something??
by nigheandonn » Wed Mar 09, 2016 12:11 am
Alteknacker: I know they laid out the orbits on a map, but I don't think the planets are arranged as at a particular time, because they talk about looking for a site near the sea for Neptune, and being glad one of the orbits ran through Almondell so one of the site could be near the pillar.