Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Stirling: day trip by train from Alloa

Stirling is a pleasant town to visit and can be accessed easily by train.  I wanted to use the relatively newly reopened section of railway from Alloa which is in Clackmannanshire. 

At Aloa Station
© Professor Whitestick

This section of the railway has been reopened with an hourly service to Stirling and on to Glasgow Queen Street.  The journey passes through the foothills of the Ochil Hills and the Wallace Monument could be made out at Bridge of Allan as the line joins the main Stirling – Perth line and crosses the River Forth into Stirling Station.  Stirling is the tidal limit of the River Forth and was the historic bridge crossing point. 

The station has several island platforms connected by bridge, though there is also lift access from the platform to the bridge.  There are ticket controlled gates and though tempted did not use my London Freedom Pass!  There is a very friendly information office in Stirling station and staff assembled a good selection of timetables for me and answered any questions I had. 

I couldn’t make out the castle, though the old town is a short walk from a tactile crossing outside the station.  Stirling still has cobbled streets and on climbing you pass by a Mercat Cross with the unicorn on a column and a circular monument.  The unicorn is known as a ‘puggy’ and it was a tradition in Stirling for people to gather during certain festivities and get rather drunk.  My mother used to use the expression ‘as fu’ as a puggy’  This was a more polite description of someone who had far too much to drink and I had always assumed that a puggy was a dog until someone read out the notice at the Mercat Cross.  Further up, on the right is Argyle Lodge, which is closed.  I reached the castle esplanade and car park and it was remarked that there were coaches from as far as the Czech Republic and one could hear many European languages spoken.

The access to the castle is relatively free of the tourist tack shops which can spoil a visit in the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.  Stirling gives a better idea of what life was really like in a medieval Scottish town without resorting to ghost stories, storytelling, excessive bagpipe music and £35 kilts on offer.  There is a bus shuttle from the town centre to the castle, but we didn’t take this.   It seemed that very few people actually walked up, having obviously come by coach, car or bus.

Stirling Castle resembles Edinburgh Castle, and there is often some confusion in identifying the two from photographs, bearing in mind that both castles were in continuous military use – in Stirling’s case until the mid-60s.  The ‘crag and tail’ geology of both ‘Castle Rocks’ is the same, the tail being the glacial debris in the direction of the ice.  Historically, whoever controlled Stirling Castle controlled Scotland on account of the mountains, hills and river systems.  Many battles were fought here including Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn with such figures as William Wallace, King Robert the Bruce and several King Edwards of England. 

Now much of the modern period military vandalism of Stirling has been discarded and the castle property has been refitted to its 16th century glory during the reigns of King James IV and King James V (father of Mary, Queen of Scots).  It was opened as a Royal Palace by The Queen in July 2011.  The Great Hall looks stunning, especially in sunshine and against a blue sky.  The refurbishment has not been without controversy and has been compared with a theme park by some critics. 

I found all the staff very approachable, especially asking about James II’s killing of the Douglas family.  This is a defenestration mystery. There is an exhibition of the Stirling Heads which have been restored.  These are beautiful wooden carvings, though they can’t be touched.

Replicas of the 'Stirling Heads'
© Professor Whitestick

Tip: It’s worthwhile getting an Historic Scotland pass as an accompanying carer goes free.  The audio guide is just about accessible and the staff gave instructions on the settings, though there is a frequent problem of finding the number of the given exhibit if you wander off the prescribed route.  It is possible to tag on to a tour, though I would recommend that anyone not dressed as a tourist can be approached, especially if wearing a Mary Queen of Scots or King James outfit!  Historic Scotland staff are all well-trained.   

To cap off the visit, we enjoyed a very pleasant fish tea at La Ciociara in the town centre.  There is a large covered shopping mall called the Thistles if you are in need of retail therapy.  If you need a nice coffee, I would advise you to get one before you get to the station! 

Having been to Stirling before, I couldn’t make out the Great Hall from the station, as the light had become poor and the sky was by now overcast – though I know it’s there!  On previous visits I have been able to make out the Ochil Hills and the foothills of the Highlands, but it was a mixture of a not so good eyes day and changing light. 

Stirling bus and train stations both have good links to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Inverness and London.  It is still an important railway junction and quite busy, with the Alloa-Stirling service well used by commuters from all over.  Return from Alloa to Stirling with a Railcard is £2.10. 

Alloa station is located in a pedestrian area with many tactile crossings to and from Alloa centre and a large supermarket with café/restaurants.  Reminder: the train service is hourly and Alloa is the end station.  Buying tickets is via a machine only, though there is a conductor on the train.