What would the words ‘Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Gateway Centre’ conjure up for you? A place to find out about the stunning wildlife and habitats of the park? A starting point for daily guided walks and activities? A scene-framing, mood-setting haven?
How about, as I now find the website boasts: ‘Cafe on the loch, a childrens’ play area, and a superb gift shop.’ The strapline for the site, which also includes the adjacent, vast shopping centre which is Loch Lomond Shores, and a Sea Life Centre, is actually: ‘Shop, Eat, Play (with picture of an exotic fish attached).
My other half and I headed to Balloch, at the south end of Loch Lomond, early last Friday to get an outboard motor fixed. As we found the marina was closed until 10am I suggested checking out the Centre, which I’d never visited. Misgivings began as we turned off the main road into the car park – a vast labyrinth of tarmac, dividing into bays with neatly trimmed, suburban hedging and street lights. I didn’t feel as if I was being led to the entrance to one of the most spectacular and wildlife-rich national parks in the country. I felt like I was arriving at an out-of-town shopping mall – which I was.
Compare that with the vision of the architects who designed it:
‘… the Centre acts as a symbolic gateway to the woodlands along the shore beyond the development and, hence, to the National Park itself. In contrast to many other visitor centres, the transparency of its construction suggests that the main exhibit is the world outside’. So said Bennetts Associates. They must be turning in their zero-carbon office spaces.
To be fair, the Gateway Centre was actually also closed, so I couldn't go inside. It was ironic indeed that it was those transparent walls that allowed me to see the large multi-coloured ball pit of the children’s play area rammed up to the glass, the café, and the extensive gift shop packed with geegaws and trinkets – which were all obscuring any view I might have had of the woodlands, the loch, and the world outside.
There is an unfinished temple on the top of Calton Hill in Edinburgh, built to honour the dead of the Napoleonic Wars, which is known as ‘Scotland’s Shame’ because they couldn’t raise enough money to finish it. I think it now has a competitor for the name.