How many shades of green are there? In the Galloway Forest Park that has to be the question. It’s a glorious sunny day as I detour to Loch Trool on my way to Newton Stewart and the green hues are intense and definitely too many to count. These wooded hills are popular for hikers and cyclists but Bruce’s Stone, overlooking Loch Trool and beneath the 2,766 feet Merrick - southern Scotland’s highest hill - is an easy destination by car and a place to drink in the view, savour the woodland scents and put the city completely out of mind.
Galloway’s greenness continues south to the Machars where cows graze in the rolling fields. This lush land has long been attractive – the evidence of the people who lived off its largess is there in its Iron Age remains, religious relics, Georgian villages and glorious gardens. But it is now an area largely undiscovered by tourists.
Things will change as more people hear about its driving route – the South West Coastal 300 – part of which follows the coast of the Solway Firth. For my first post-Covid roadtrip of a route planned around a 100-mile section of the SWC300 – all to the west and south of Newton Stewart, I needed a base.
Budget or boutique
The Crown is an unpretentious county town hotel, full of character and quirks. Value for money, it is welcoming and practical and has 15 en-suite rooms and five two-bedroom self-catering holiday lets.
Distancing, masks and covid-secure practices are firmly in place.
The Crown’s 15 bedrooms are decorated with an occasional flourish – perhaps one dramatic papered wall – adding style to simple spaces.
Wining and dining
Comforting platefuls – burgers, fish and chips or steak pie with a daily special or two – are served in the Knights Restaurant. My pork loin is topped with Stornoway Black Pudding and bacon, coated in a brandy cream sauce and matched with vegetables and – because I was on holiday – chips. The problem is the oh-so-tempting warm pecan pie … because I have no room for it. A starter of scampi served with a wee salad and tartar sauce and then the delicious pecan flan and its burst of strawberry, crumble of meringue, caramel sauce and Cream of Galloway ice cream is the final night solution to my waistline dilemma.
Worth getting out of bed for
Newton Stewart is an ideal base to explore western Galloway. There is walking and cycling in the forests to the north, history, culture and coast of the Whithorn peninsula to the south. A day out on the Machars will lead you to Scotland’s “booktown”, Wigtown, where bookshops tempt you to linger.
However, my mission is to learn about St Ninian and so it is to Whithorn that I head. The town is home to the Whithorn Story where an informative exhibition fills me in on the details of the early Christian who turned up on the Galloway shore and built his church. There’s also a replica Iron Age roundhouse (and a chance to see the Whithorn Trust’s apprentices making a canoe with Iron Age tools) and a ruined priory to explore. Best of all, is the homemade lemon drizzle cake in the Trust’s cafe, eaten as I admire the colours of the pretty Georgian houses outside.
The Crown is however perfectly positioned for Newton Stewart’s star attraction – Crafty Distillery. Only a 10-minute walk away, a tour and tasting at this gin distillery is a must. It shows how crafting spirit from wheat grown not 25 miles away and then making gin with local botanicals (bladderwrack seaweed and noble fir needles) in a dramatic setting built using materials from Galloway – granite, wood, even windows – can capture the spirit of a place in the most unexpected way.
There is a room to lock bikes in and wet clothes will dry in the boiler room.
Nothing is too much trouble for the friendly staff at The Crown.
Prices start from £80 for two in a double room with breakfast.
The Crown Hotel, 102 Queen Street, Newton Stewart, Dumfries and Galloway, DG8 6JW (01671 402 727, www.the-crown-hotel.com)
Further information: www.visitsouthwestscotland.com; craftydistillery.com; www.whithorn.com