If You Go Down to Big Wood…

by Linda Brown

Every May, you can be guaranteed to find a fabulous display of bluebells at Big Wood. Thousands of the iconic wildflowers are spread like a magnificent violet-blue cloak across the woodland floor. No wonder, Big Wood, situated just outside Newmilns, next to Loudoun Gowf Club and bordering Loudoun estate, is known locally as The Bluebell Planting.

It is a beautiful, bright morning. Sunshine dapples the leaves of the trees around me. I’ve entered Big Wood from the layby on the busy and noisy A71, but as I walk along the well-trodden path leading further into the woods, the sound of traffic whooshing past fades.

I pause, mesmerised, admiring this bluebell paradise. Perfect tiny bells nod gently in the spring breeze. Folklore suggests bluebells are enchanted. Magical or not, I know it will not be long before these bonny wee flowers seem to vanish overnight, until, after next year’s April showers, they burst into bloom again.
Bluebells are associated with ancient woodland and certainly, Big Wood boasts some very old trees – oak, beech and sycamore. It also has a strong connection to Ayrshire’s past.

Sauntering along, I think of my own past, remembering childhood adventures here with my pals, when we played at being the Famous Five, and we all wanted to be George and no-one wanted to be Dick. Today, I’m on a solo adventure; I’m castle hunting. Somewhere deep inside Big Wood are the remains of the first Loudoun Castle – Arclowden, a 12th century motte and bailey castle and reputedly the home of Lady Margaret Crawford, mother to one ‘Braveheart’… William Wallace. This medieval castle was destroyed circa 1485 by the feuding Kennedy clan of Carrick.

A kerfuffle in the treetops above my head distracts me; a troupe of grey squirrels are performing aerial acrobatics. They bound along branches and take spectacular leaps from tree to tree. They remind me of freerunners I’ve watched on YouTube; guys who flip across an urban skyline, jumping from roof to roof. I zoom in with my camera and try to focus on the squirrels’ daredevil antics, but they are too fast and prove impossible to photograph. Eventually, they realise a human is watching and freeze, hiding high amongst the greenery, so I give up and move on.

Great spotted woodpeckers frequent these woods (so I’ve been told). I keep a lookout for a flash of white, red and black plumage and my ears are alert, listening either for their loud call or the distinctive drumming sound they make as they tap on hollow trees. But there is no sight nor sound of them. Instead, I hear the rapid ‘twip twip’ of a nuthatch and spy two of these agile little birds taking turns like tag wrestlers to zip on a mission into undergrowth, then, with pruch clamped in their beaks, zoom back to a tall tree where they squeeze through a knot in the bark. Of course, this is nesting season for many birds, and the nuthatches must be feeding a little brood inside. Keeping a safe distance away, so not to disturb the new parents and weans, I discreetly capture some images of mum and dad leaving the nest. I wonder when the babies will fledge? Last year, while walking in Big Wood I was lucky enough to spot a newly fledged downy chick resting on a high branch. Thrush or fieldfare? I wasn’t certain. Later, I tried to identify the fledgling online. But even Google Images couldn’t be sure.

Moving on, I take a moment to detour off the path, and head down a gentle slope to the Hag Burn which meanders through the woods. The burn burbles pleasantly; the water level is fairly low and a chaffinch, taking a bath, splashes in the shallows. It is amazing to think that during the autumn and winter months, some trout on the nearby River Irvine migrate to the Hag. They leap the culvert where the burn flows into the river, swim below the A71, then continue upstream to their spawning grounds. This can’t be an easy journey; fallen trees and branches lying across the streambed must impede their task.

Deeper in the woods, a fallen tree, a victim of the winter storms, blocks the path. Fortunately, my wee legs are still capable of clambering over it. Up ahead is evidence of Big Wood’s industrial past – the ruins of lime kilns, where, more than two hundred years ago, limestone quarried nearby was burned with coal to produce quicklime. Opposite the kilns, a little stone bridge – narrow, crumbling and overgrown with weeds, the type of bridge you’d expect an irate troll to live beneath – crosses the Hag. On the other side of the bridge, a stony path leads to farmland and facing me is a high grassy banking covered with tall trees. This banking, I suspect, is what I have been looking for; Arclowden’s motte – the earth mound on top of which the castle would have stood. Recently, I’ve read that an archaeology enthusiast has, over several years of excavation work, uncovered ancient stonework. However, it looks like nature has totally reclaimed the site and it seems unlikely I will spot any sign of this. But maybe I should take a gander on the top? Using my hiking stick for leverage, I sprauchle up the steep incline, hoping the effort is worth it and that I’ll not bounce back down later on my well-padded behind. Of course, once I’m up, there is nothing much to see; just an expanse of grass, decaying leaves and trees, including more casualties of our high winds, lying forlornly on the ground, their dead branches brittle and bare. But I have a scout about anyway. A twig cracks beneath my walking boot – then my heart ricochets against my chest, as two young roe deer bolt from their hiding place under the branches of one of the fallen trees, where they must have been cooried in, enjoying a mid-morning nap. One of the deer takes a flying leap down the banking I’ve just climbed, and I glimpse his white rump bouncing along the path before he vanishes into undergrowth. The second deer hesitates. For a split-second, fear of me petrifies him to the spot, then he runs. In his confusion, he zig-zags so close I could almost reach out and touch him, before he too scuds down the slope and disappears.

I catch my breath. It has all happened so fast, I didn’t even have time to think about removing my camera’s lens cap. Oh, well, at least my mission is accomplished – I’ve found where Arclowden once stood (I think?). Just a pity I’ve missed out on capturing some close-up deer shots. Maybe next time? Perhaps?

Or maybe there will be more chance of me snapping the troll I’m certain lives under the Hag brig.