|To:||Rest and be Thankful (NN229074)|
|Length:||9 miles (14.5 km)|
|Meets:||A82, B838, A814, B828|
|Route outline (key)|
The A83 starts on the A82 at Tarbet on the banks of Loch Lomond. From here it crosses the very narrow isthmus to Arrochar at the head of Loch Long, before following the western shore to the mouth of Glen Croe at Ardgarten. From here the route becomes interesting as the long ascent of Glen Croe leads to the infamous Rest and be Thankful, the highest point on the A83 and a stunning viewpoint in the midst of a wilderness.
Tarbet - Arrochar
There is no doubt that a military road was constructed from Tarbet to Inveraray in the 1750s, and much of that route is still followed by the modern road. However, we haven't even left Tarbet when the first possible deviation presents itself. It is possible that the loop road to the station may show the original course of the military road, or it may just be a road built by the railway. Then, as we cross the summit of the short Glen Tarbet and start to descend into Arrochar, the pavement lifts to the right, following the old road alignment around the Army Cadet Centre. This would have produced a junction with the B838 with different priorities, as the straight line would have been from Tarbet down Church Road, rather than the modern A83 route.
However, it appears that the military road didn't follow either route, as it drops down to the shore of Loch Long from behind the PO in Arrochar, now a driveway to a B&B. It is difficult to trace any line in the landscape today, but old maps show it running around the hill, always to the north of the modern alignment. Meanwhile the modern road, which predates classification in 1922, sweeps down round a gentle curve to meet the A814 from Helensburgh right on the shore.
Arrochar - Ardgarten
The twin-concrete arch bridge across the Loin Water at the head of Loch Long dates from the 1930s, and replaced the original bridge which lay a little to the north. Indeed, the abutment can still be seen on the west bank. As the road curves around to the west shore of the loch, a driveway leads into bushes, where another old bridge crosses a small stream. This seems to be the old route of the A83, turning south to rejoin the modern road at the Succoth junction, albeit parallel to the Succoth road.
The next section of new road is found at the pier site. Here, the old road can still be driven past derelict industry and a terrace of houses, running almost parallel, but on the shore side of the A83 proper. It appears that this section was realigned relatively recently, probably in the 1960s. There is then just over a mile to the sweeping bend at the entrance to Glen Croe, where the A83 turns inland past the tiny settlement of Ardgarten to cross the neck of the Cowal Peninsula.
While the sweeping bend of the new road is probably an improvement on what was built in the 1750s, it is not until Larachpark after the Ardgarten forest turning that we find an old road still in situ. All of the new alignment from here to the Rest and be Thankful seems to date from the late 1930s, although sadly no precise date has yet been found. The OS quarter inch map of 1946 still seems to show the old alignment, but with the war in the intervening years it is quite possible that the map was not fully updated.
The old road through Larachpark still serves a few houses, but the section opposite Creagdhu is now abandoned, with the old bridge long gone. It appears it can still be accessed for parking however. A little further up the old road is now disguised as the entrance to the Forestry Car Park at 'Honeymoon Bridge'. The forest road turns right in the car park, while the old road keeps on up Glen Croe, climbing over a low hill known as the 'Little Rest'. This steep climb was needed to avoid having to cross the River Croe, something that the engineers of the 1930s were not so concerned about.
Indeed, the A83 of today crosses the River twice. The first bridge is some distance past the car park, almost under the summit of the Little Rest, while the second is where the two roads rejoin. The old road is still easily walkable, and apart from one collapsed culvert it is still surfaced in tarmac and reasonably well drained. It doesn't even feel too steep, but it is narrow and twisty, and seems to be set in a ledge in the hillside at times, making it hard to widen the road without some serious engineering. Hence why the new road was built on the flatter land across the river. Not that it was always easy there though, at one point the road appears to have been built on the old riverbed, with the river channelled into a narrow gap between a steep slope and the roads retaining wall.
The two routes then run as one once more, but not for long. A track turns off to the left shortly before the A83 swings round to the right around a rocky knoll. It is here that the two routes finally diverge for the ascent to The Rest. It is over two miles until they meet again, and each has an adventure on the way.
The old road to The Rest
The modern junction is clearly not on the alignment of the old road, with that now forming a stubby dead end in between the two roads. However, we are soon on the old road, dating back to the 1750s, and at first it is a gentle stroll. On our left the River Croe meanders around, while on the right the modern road is hidden by just a few trees. A bridge crosses the river, providing access to the Forest beyond, and then the conifers close in on us and the river.
The old road is wide here, almost wide enough for a centreline, but after a few minutes the river swings off to the left, and is lost behind a small stand of dense trees. Here, although it may have been altered by the forest, the surfaced road is reduced to about 6 feet, with less than 9 feet between verges. It is difficult to imagine how traffic, even in the 1930s, could have managed on such a route with no sign of passing places. This section seems to be home to a mad sheep that refuses to leave the tarmac, despite being terrified of humans!
Eventually, a gate is reached and the road opens out once more. The modern house of Laigh Glencroe stands on the new road, while the old road is lined with the ruins of the old farmstead. The road is running through open fields, with occasional gates. Each field has livestock in it, sheep, horses and cattle, but they pay little heed as we slowly climb the gentle slopes. A few small streams are crossed with culverts, but then the Croe Water turns east to drain the mountains, and must be crossed. The bridge on the old road is a square-cut concrete span, presumably dating from the 20th Century, but must have been a replacement for an earlier structure that was somehow damaged.
We are now roughly halfway up to The Rest, but have barely climbed 30m, while the new road is another 40m above us. Indeed, we still have 120m to climb to the summit and yet the road remains firmly in the bottom of the glen, climbing only gently for a while yet. And then, suddenly, the ascent begins in earnest. The head of the glen is rapidly closing in ahead of us, and with nowhere else to go, the military road builders had to start tackling the gradient. By the time the track down to High Glencroe cottage is reached, we have climbed 50m, but still the road remains well surfaced for the most part, and averaging about 14 feet wide. Not really wide enough for modern two-way traffic, but not far off the 15 foot standard of the 1750s.
Ahead of us, the road sneaks round a quick bend which slowly opens up to reveal a substantial bridge across a side stream. A little further on, and another bridge is found, but this time much smaller. We then climb to a sharp left hand bend, which takes us on a long traverse to the hairpin doubling back up to the car park of the Rest and be Thankful. While this old road may seem to have left the ascent rather late, when you consider the problems that the new road has, it maybe that the engineers 250 years ago simply recognised the landscape better.
The new road to The Rest
Any story of the new road to The Rest is going to be dominated by the problems of the landslips that have plagues it in recent years. While the engineers of Transport Scotland have struggled to get to grips with the difficult slopes across which the road was taken in the 1930s, nature has seemed to thwart their every move, dumping hundreds of tonnes of mud and rock on the carriageway where it was least expected.
To consider the route to start with, from the junction with the old road, we sweep round a right hand bend, through forestry and immediately begin the ascent. The new road was designed with modern traffic in mind, and so a long gradual climb was provided to allow the maximum speed from lorries of the day. By the time we cross the Croe Water, we are more than twice as far up than the old road, but even so the ascent has to steepen. The bridge is a fine 3-span concrete structure, similar to many others on the A83 and A82, but due to the deep cut of the river the bridge stands tall on slender piers.
With the climb steepening, the road has to wiggle around the undulating contours. There is no broad valley floor here, instead a narrow ledge has been cut across the steep hillside for the road, and this in part is the problem. Whilst there are retaining walls in places, some of the road edge just leads straight onto the steep grassy slopes of Beinn Luibhean. 70 years after the ledge was cut, and the landscape has changed, however subtly. The minute annual build up of soil from rotting vegetation, the shuffle of rocks and slips of mud from sheep, and people, traversing the hill, and slowly but surely the slope has become unstable. Hence, in heavy rain something has to give, and gravity wins.
It is easy to diagnose the problem, but it appears to be extremely difficult to identify where the next slip will occur, and with the expense of protecting the whole road being immense, a final engineering solution is proving elusive at present. Instead, clever detection equipment has been installed, in the hope of identifying movement and setting off the red-signals on temporary traffic lights at either end of the danger zone. With slips now occurring annually, and the diversion route adding over an hour onto journeys, patience is now wearing thin on the communities of South Argyll, and it is difficult to see how much longer this issue can be tolerated for.
It is hard to miss the catch fencing, floodlights and other paraphenalia now installed along the road here, but it is soon passed (hopefully!), and then there are just a couple of tight bends before the summit is reached, and the car park and viewpoint of the Rest and be Thankful. Here, the B828 turns left down Gleann Mor to Lochgoilhead, while the A83 turns north to descend Glen Kinglass to the shores of Loch Fyne at Cairndow.