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Even the dire architecture and roof-top excrescences of the several times rebuilt Crinan Hotel cannot detract from the charm of the canal basin, but beware midges under the trees. As ever 'Pevsner' gets it bang on: 'A unique intimate place of green grass, white walls and black lock gates'. There always seems to be something going on at Crinan and you can join in with the main occupation which is to watch the boats making a cock up of getting in and out of the locks, or better being hurled around the sea lock as the water is allowed in. This is a great place to lounge, have an ice cream, and generally hang out.
The small café in the early 19th century old post office is nice but pricey (did my eyes or memory let me down, are the cappuccinos really £3.50? Yes they are, I re-checked in 2016). If you really want to spend money then dine in the Westward on the ground floor of the Crinan Hotel. It's good food alright but maybe not so good to stop you feeling uncomfortable as a scruffy yachtie (ph 01546 830 261). At weekends you can dine in Lock 16 on the top floor, with views. In February 2011 they reopened their Seafood Bar which does an excellent fish and chips for £10.50 (2015), and other more expensive stuff. The public bar next door is small and cosy, but no real ale. The hotel — and indeed the café — is very keen on hanging and encouraging original art, not surprising as Frances MacDonald, a well known Scottish painter, is the widow of Nick Ryan. They both ran the place since the 1970s, and now she carries on running it. She has also made something of a secret garden behind the hotel, and it is now I think open to the public.
I have never had to call on the services of the Crinan boatyard, or their chandlery, but they are I believe very good, and they have visitor moorings if you can't be bothered to anchor (ph 01546 830 232).
For the modestly energetic, a walk along the canal towpath is a pleasure at any time of the year from primroses in the spring to the colours of autumn The 200+ year old canal is of course a treat all of its own for getting between the Clyde and West Coast, at first for coastal vessels, fishing boats and colliers, but now for the leisure trade. The early sailors had no engines of course, so towed their boat with or without a hired man, or used a horse like the Rev. C Wilkinson writing under the name of 'Diagonal White' in 1892 "A horse covered with more or less skin tows you through at trotting speed for half-a-sovereign." The problem was stopping in the lock, he had to throw a stern rope round a hook on the lock gate. 'Britain's most beautiful shortcut' sums it up just right.
If you walk along the towpath from the Crinan basin to the first bridge, cross over and turn left you soon come to a waymarked track up the hill to the right (this is not marked on the OS map). It is a charming walk constructed by the Woodland Trust who own the land here. They are restoring broadleaf woods of Scotland (and the rest of the UK too). The walk takes you back to the canal basin in an hour or so, allowing for dawdling along the way, sitting on rustic benches to admire the view and all of that. Or do the walk the other way round, from the canal basin.
Another walk is from Crinan Harbour, where the road ends, towards Ardnoe Point where in 1km you should find the gravestone of a 19th century skipper who died of cholera. After 200 yards, do not take the main path up the hill but the narrow, boggy, rough and generally rubbish and poorly marked path through the woods along the shore line. The gravestone is very hidden in the undergrowth and in truth I have not been able to find it! I rather hoped I would somehow trip over it amongst all the tree roots, in the same way as Rat and Mole found Badger's House in the Wild Wood (Wind in the Willows). Possibly better to anchor in the bay if you can, rather than walk from the canal basin because there is too much road that way. And do what I didn't — take an OS map and a picture of the stone in your mind, and look for the ash tree if it hasn't been destroyed by the dreaded dieback fungal disease that was first spotted in the UK in 2012 (grid reference: 773 945).
If she is not in the basin, you may have spotted her under a smudge — or clouds — of black smoke from her coal-fired boiler, the VIC 32, the last seagoing coal-fired Clyde 'Puffer'. She was built in Yorkshire in 1943 (as old as me!) and used in the war by the navy as one of the Victualling Inshore Craft (hence VIC) around Scotland. In 1975 she was bought from Keith Schellenberg (a former erratic owner of Eigg), who had got hold of her in the 1960s, and restored by Nick and Rachel Walker. They gave her to the Puffer Preservation Trust in 2002 so she could continue to take passengers on scenic cruises around this part of Scotland. Long may she steam!
What to do if you find yourself stuck in Crinan on a wet, horrible and windy day, and have exhausted the local opportunities? West Coast Motors run the occasional bus to Lochgilphead, or you could summon a taxi, and there are then two good places to go. First, the Kilmartin House Museum, café and gift shop which majors on the pretty significant archaeology around the local glen (another bus I'm afraid). The second, is to the Mid Argyll Community Pool (McPool) in Lochgilphead.
I am slightly surprised there is no plaque anywhere hereabouts to commemorate the shipwreck of the Comet. She had been built on the Clyde in 1812 and provided the first commercially successful steamboat service in Europe, initially between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh, and then on the Glasgow to Fort William run through the Crinan Canal and via Oban. But in December 1820 she didn't make it through the Dorus Mòr (the big door) and was wrecked off Craignish Point, not a good time of year to be out and about with not enough horsepower for her paddles. Fortunately all the passengers and crew survived the experience.
Apparently one old Clyde skipper remarked about the Comet: "Kneel doon and thank God that ye sail wi' the Almichtie's ain win', and no wi' the de'il's fire and brimstone, like the splutterin' thing there" which in translation is: "Kneel down and thank God that you sail with the Almighty's own wind, and not with the devil's fire and brimstone like the spluttering thing there".
"I've decided I like sailing in places where you have land on either side of the boat,. You can choose to sail or walk or ride a bike as you pass some of the most invigorating scenery in the world." Sandi Toksvig on the Crinan Canal, in 'Island Race, an improbable voyage round the coast of Britain'.
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The basin and the café
The canal basin from the top of the Crinan Hotel
A lock cottage on the Crinan Canal
At anchor off the Crinan Hotel
The sailor's grave under an ash tree
Photo: © Karl Pipes