Simon Walton concludes his strut through Scotland’s West Lothian. Last time, he was on the catwalk, with Karl Lagerfeld, who unveiled his new Chanel collection at the region’s Linlithgow Palace. For this second instalment, our correspondent heads from high couture to high street, and checks in at the check outs in the retail heartland of Scotland’s heartland
While other shopping centres have post-industrial backdrops and congestion threatened parking problems, Livingston’s Centre is bracketed by rolling hills to the south, and, erm, more rolling hills to the north. The Almond Valley, in which the centre, and the town both sit, is host to a country park, and a succession of neatly packaged post industrial settings, telling the story of West Lothian’s earthier past – a past of shale oil refining, heavy manufacturing, and coal mining. Of the former, the sculpted ‘shale bings’, the spoil heaps, are now ocher-hued land marks, and the once mighty factories and mills have now almost universally succumbed to redevelopment. Nearby Bathgate, once famously prosperous on the back of dirty industry, is reborn with residential development and as the hub of a swish electric train service, linking West Lothian with Glasgow and Edinburgh and beyond.
The heritage of coal mining has perhaps offered the most opportunities for rebirth. The unlikely, yet very rewarding Polkemmet Country Park covers a vast area around Whitburn in the west of the county, where once only grim and grimy miners toiled beneath the surface, in one of Scotland’s last deep mines. Now the whole area offers an oasis of pleasant forest walks – it’s part of a much wider forestation project in central Scotland – and recently became home to the Scottish Owl Centre. Rather unassumingly calling itself the largest collection of owls in the country, that unwitting boast has to be put in context, since there are significant other bird of prey concerns nearby, not least West Lothian’s own Five Sisters Zoo and a multitude of RSPB reserves.
This family run concern is truly a delight. Rod and Nikki Angus, the owners, greet arrivals in person – and that’s a full time job in itself – as school, group and individual visitors funnel through the enclosures to the theatre spaces, where some of these baby-faced silent killers demonstrate their less-cuddly nature. After a visit, that distant t’wit-t’woo, a call only a handful of species actually make, will mean something entirely different – usually ‘stealthy death from above’. On more equitable terms, you can meet face-to-face everything from the giant Siberian Eagle Owl to the tiny Scops Owl, and learn about their habits and habitats and how to help in their conservation. It would take a heard heart indeed to be anxious to leave.
Leave though you must, if you are to make time for curtain up at the Howden Park Theatre. Not the only one by far, but the newest of the county’s venues for performing arts. Set amid rolling grounds, which belie its central Livingston location, Howden Park’s 296 seat auditorium is at the heart of a gallery, studio, and performance complex. There’s pre-theatre dining too in a stylish, modern bistro. Stylish? Yes. Fashionable? Ask Lagerfeld’s crew.
The Dalyell’s welcome at their loftily positioned House of the Binns has all the reputation of patriach Tam’s exchanges in the House of Commons. Interesting though the property undoubtedly is, the opening hours are restricted, which leave this National Trust for Scotland property as an often overlooked county jewel. Much easier is it to spend time at the nearby Houstoun House, which, for many years has been a leading property of the West Lothian head-quartered Macdonald Hotels. Set amid twenty-acres of manicured grounds and woodlands, the hotel centres on a tower house, dating from the early seventeenth century. It’s said that Mary Queen of Scots had an earlier residence on the same site, so Houston House claims her as its own.
Then again, everywhere in West Lothian except the Debenhams anchor store at the Livingston Centre claims Mary as their own. What you can claim as your own though is the private dining facility at Jeremy Wares Restaurant within Houstoun House. Scottish gourmands will already be familiar with the chef, from his previous businesses in Perth and a gourmet consultancy no less. Here, you can expect Scottish dishes with a modern twist, such as Ham Hock Terrine and venison from his native Perthshire – or maybe from the Hopetoun Farm Shop, next door to the equally fashionable New Hopetoun Gardens (Scottish TV gardening enthusiasts will recognise the owners). In this case, Farm Shop is an innocuous title for an emporium of quality designer fine food, where the price tags might just make a Lagerfeld think twice. Still, nobody expects you to do your weekly shop, this is a luxury experience – see how the other half eat. Then again, if quality counts, this is the place to come and indulge, just a little.
West Lothian’s Fashionable fact box
For brochures, advice and information, phone 01506 283093, email Anna.Young@westlothian.gov.uk or visit www.visitwestlothian.co.uk
Simon was a guest of Livingston’s Mercure Hotel (www.mercure.com; 0844 8159102). For independent travellers, Simon also recommends Belsyde Country House Bed and Breakfast (www.belsyde.com; 01506 842098).
Chauffeur services by Salmond’s of West Calder (www.salmondsminicoaches.co.uk; 01501 770697).