This and other photographs below show an act of quite shocking vandalism to the historic towpath on the Crinan Canal. This appears to have been carried out by Sustrans and Scottish Waterways with no public consultation – although this is a public and a heritage amenity.
A section of the towpath from east of Lock 9 and on down west to or beyond Lock 11, has been sheeted and coated with a thick gob of tarmac. A long section stretching further east towards Cairnbaan has already been sheeted and is ready for tarmac surfacing.
This is the equivalent of slapping white PVC windows in a historic house for sheer convenience.
The tarmac surfacing grossly urbanises a charming and historic piece of industrial architecture which, until now, has retained its authenticity.
The canal and the towpath run through the National Nature Reserve at Moine Mhor which is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest and an open, estuarial flatland of unique beauty. This surface could not be more alien in this place.
It turns a historic engineering achievement, still in valuable use today, into a suburban walkway – and potential driveway.
Barnakill Farm, on this northern side of the canal, has had to use the towpath for its vehicular access, with some vehicles and machinery too big and too heavy to use the unique sliding bridge between the two gates at Lock 11.
There is no doubt that the farm’s usage – which is unavoidable, had left this section of the towpath markedly potholed – and the argument for what has been done is clearly practical, if brutally and damagingly so.
With this errant section surfaced to the dimensions of a single track road, the risk now is that more traffic will try an easy and ‘surreptitious’ access down the canal by this facility.
There is no real way back from what has already been done because, as our photographs show, the underlying historic gravel path has been ‘sheeted’ to prepare for tarmac surfacing and is now structurally damaged, in terms of any hope of restitution.
The issue now is to make sure that any thought that Sustrans and Scottish Waterways may be entertaining to tarmac the entire towpath of the Crinan Canal to save themselves the bother of maintaining it properly, cannot be contemplated. This would be quite unacceptable.
None of the other sections of the towpath sustain the impact of farm traffic as this does, so there is no reason for other than normal maintenance of the traditional gravel path elsewhere.
The experience of being outdoors in the natural world, which fewer and fewer people enjoy, means, amongst other things, different textures below the feet.
Tarmac is the default experience for the majority of the population these days.
Its unnecessary application in situations like this one is yet another example of the reduction of a richer experience for those who at least take advantage of outdoor and scenic places that are easy to reach , like this one.
We understand that Historic Scotland, supposed custodian of Scotland’s historic built structures, has already been asked for its view and its intentions in respect of this unalterable change to the canal towpath. Were they consulted beforehand?
There is, of course, also now a real safety risk that did not exist before for those talking and looking around them as they walk along the towpath, as such places invite.
Where the traditional towpath, hardened for farm traffic in this section, was level with and ran into the grass at its margins, this slab of black icing stands proud within those margins, leaving a nasty little drop at its edges that can wreck an unwary ankles in accidental falls. Such a trip and fall off the edge of this standing slab – or a bicycle running off it while swerving to avoid a stumbling runner or a dog - has the capacity to take someone down the canal bank and into the water.
The way the tarmac slab has been slapped down on the surface of the path undoubtedly increases the probability of an accident. Given that this is a path along which people walk, walk dogs, run, cycle and compete in public athletic events, what risk assessments were done before this specific process was deployed?
The state of the towpath today in this regard, can be compared with the photographs here of the way it was, only a few months ago, at the Crinan Canal Water Festival, run by Heart of Argyll Tourism Association.
Anyone doubting the possibility of a ankle wrenching tumble off the edge of this slab and a pitch into the canal has only to look at the crowd in this same section below Locks 10 and 11 at the 2012 Water Festival, when the path was flat.
In the ‘slab of black icing’ analogy, we understand that Sustrans intends to ‘dust’ the surface of the tarmac with some grit, to pretend it isn’t what it is.
This may, of course, only make it more dangerous for cycles and runners, in the way that dusting the new tarmac surface of roads gives them the same grip as an ice rink.
In the end this is all about creeping urbanisation, about manicuring our landscapes and walking places beyond reality, banishing darkness and the textures and experiences of other places – doing nothing but changing the views, living a virtual life in someone else’s photostream.
It is bitterly ironic that in this Year of Natural Scotland, our public sector agencies are busily and unaccountably making it ever less natural.