Tanks for the mem­o­ries

Ro­bust ad­ven­ture at a Scot­tish cas­tle

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - DAMIAN WHITWORTH

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

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