Tanks for the memories
Robust adventure at a Scottish castle
I am not hugely well informed about military hardware, but I do know two things about tanks. One, I’d like to drive one. Two, if I ever have the misfortune to find myself in one in a war zone, the last person I want commanding it is me.
Tanks are claustrophobic vehicles and I am disinclined to be cooped up with the stench of my terror. In southern Scotland, however, I have found a way to explore my tank-driving fantasy without worrying about soiling my shorts.
On a farm overlooking the Solway Firth, I am in control, in the loosest sense, of a GKN Sankey FV432 APC, a 15-tonne armoured personnel carrier that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the desert this thing could thunder along at 72km/h, but I am grinding down muddy tracks at walking speed, gingerly pressing the throttle pedal and yanking the two steering levers, with the result that the great beast veers from one side of the track to the other and keeps threatening to plough into the trees.
“You are overthinking it,” says Steve Hanna, who runs Galloway Tanks & Activity Centre. He is a patient man, but I am beginning to suspect he may have limits. “These are designed for 18-year-old brutes.” In a war situation we’d have the hatch down and would be scanning for ambushs through a periscope. Today we can poke out our heads and the only thing to surprise us from the undergrowth is a startled hare.
Even at my tortoise pace, the plunge down a slight incline into a muddy pool is exhilarating and I am buzzing, and, I must confess, slightly trembling by the end of a couple of circuits. Somewhat worryingly, when Angus, my 13-year-old son, has a go he is praised by Hanna for his much smoother use of the throttle. He could make a tank commander one day. (My wife must never read this article.)
We are on a father-and-son trip. To be clear, I regard none of the activities we enjoyed in Scotland as the exclusive preserve of boys. Indeed, I think my daughter would be a terrifyingly good tank driver. But it just happens that the kids’ holidays don’t match, so my son and I head off for a mini-break for some tankin’, shootin’ and fishin’. We take the sleeper train from Euston in London to Glasgow. “Sleeper” is a bit of a misnomer, but the experience is a rattlingly fun start to an adventure. Then it is a one-hour drive to Glenapp Castle, a handsome and comfortable hotel on the Firth of Clyde.
Glenapp is a grand Victorian castle run like a country house of yesteryear. During our visit an American shooting party is among the guests, but the hotel is also developing a wide range of activities for all the family. After a couple of games of croquet on the lawn beneath our guestroom, which itself is big enough for a full set of hoops, we go fishing with Roderick Leitch, the local harbour master and captain of the castle’s boat, The Glenapp Castle, which is available for charters.
With Gilbert Browne and Bill Prince, two of the area’s wiliest fishermen, on board we head out to Ailsa Craig, the lump of volcanic rock 16km offshore, from which Scotland’s blue hone granite curling stones were traditionally quarried.
The island, described by Keats as a “craggy ocean-pyramid”, is a haven for seabirds. We are also told of a local dragon myth. We don’t see any, but then we are intensely focused on fish. Browne and Prince show us how to cast and then how to battle to land our catches, finding the right rhythm of pulling and reeling. Here the sport is man versus fish versus seal, and all too often, just when you think you are winning, a blubbery thief rises up at the last minute and gobbles the fish off the line.
Yet bobbing under the vertiginous cliffs, with a rod in one hand and a dram in the other, it is hard to feel anything but contentment. I take a 3kg pollock back to the hotel, where the obliging chef grills it for our supper.
The next day, after tankin’, we shoot clays at Scotland’s Outdoor Centre. This is a rather grand name for a few partly wooded hectares belonging to the farmer Alistair Brooke. Still, he proves a terrific teacher, showing us how to avoid the instinct to chase the clay too fast and miss. When you move the gun in a relaxed way, almost casually, you start to get hits. Yes, I am sure he controls the speed and trajectory of the clays to maximise my chances, but, boy, is it satisfying to be able to blast a moving target. Angus hits three in a row, so if he doesn’t fancy tank driving perhaps he’ll make a sniper. We tackle the big universal questions on this trip, too.
Elizabeth Tindal, a dark sky ranger armed with powerful binoculars, takes us out after dinner for a walk up to the deer park behind the castle. The night looks unpromising, given the thick cloud, but apparently dark sky rangers can fix that.
The clouds roll away and we lie on our backs and absorb the heavens.
Through the binoculars we have a good look at Altair, one of the easiest stars to see with the naked eye, and the
Glenapp Castle, Ayrshire, top; driving an armoured personnel carrier, above; Earl of Inchcape Suite, above right