Sunday, 19 October 2014

Loch Rannoch - The best things

When Bart and I were cycling around Inverpolly in the last blog, we stopped for coffee at Drumbeg in the Secret Tea Garden, a small cafĂ© hidden away in a garden whose green lushness contrasted with the sparse surrounding moors. On the wall was a quirky sign that read “The best things in life aren’t things”. At first I thought that was spot-on but after giving it a second thought I decided that my bicycle is a “thing” and it is one of the best things in my life. So much so that, even after several months of cycling, the first thing I wanted to do with a bit of free time in Scotland was to ride my bike. So my friend Graham and I set out on a two-day cycle around the Loch Rannoch area. Here are some of the best things from the trip.

I loved the lines in the sand formed by the wind-driven waters of the loch. Luckily, those clouds didn't rain on us.

Golden birch leaves were washed in on a gentle breeze and settled amongst the rocks on the shore.

We put the tents up on the south shore of Loch Rannoch in a lovely copse of birch trees on a beautiful still evening and retreated indoors early to escape some lingering midges of summer.

Gunmetal grey clouds threatened rain but late evening sun punched through and set the lochside trees alight.

The next day early morning showers gave way to weak sunshine that filtered through the trees. Graham cycled ahead through the pine forests, hoping to add to the tally of red squirrels that we'd already seen.

Fact File
Start/Finish: Pitlochry. Whilst it's disappointing that the new rail franchise has not gone to a Scottish company, I'm quite excited about the Dutch company taking over who have promised a cycle-rail integrated network. Hopefully that will mean in future you can get your bike on the Inverness trains that stop at Pitlochry which are so often fully booked for bikes. This time, we took Graham's van. 
Map: OS Landranger 51 and 52
Route: Follow the national cycle route signs out of Pitlochry going south, turning left after the suspension bridge but then right at the next junction. Cycle up the hill and pick up a bike path to the right heading north beside the A9. This will take you onto the Foss road. Follow the idyllic Foss road west to its junction with the B846 and turn right to Tummel Bridge. Take the B846 to Kinloch Rannoch (nice cafe and small shop) and then west along the north shore of Loch Rannoch to Bridge of Gaur and return via the south shore of Loch Rannoch. For the return we took the Schiehallion road out of Kinloch Rannoch. It's a lovely route with a bit of climbing but then a long high-level meander below Schiehallion before dropping again to the Foss road and returning to Pitlochry.
Tip: We parked Graham's van in a parking place opposite Pitlochry Town Hall a little way up the A924. There's a wee stream and pond here and we had brilliant views of a kingfisher.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Inverpolly - The flow

Inverpolly is a rugged, remote corner in the northwest Highlands. It has a carpet of bog that’s emerald green in summer and dotted with hundreds of sapphire lochans so that the overall impression is one of water. Above rise bizarre peaks and ridges of rock, weathered into strange shapes by the elements. The suddenness of their slopes gives an illusion of height when in fact they are relatively small mountains. To the west Inverpolly flows to the coast and meets the beautiful bays and beaches around Lochinver. It seemed like a perfect place for Bart and I to take advantage of the Indian summer and explore by bike and boat.

We set out by bike first, leaving Bart’s campervan parked on a quiet single track road beside a small river where we’d practised our canoe skills. The first day the river was empty and sluggish after a dry summer but then the rains came, and the water flowed and we flowed with it, over small rapids and through faster channels in the rocks. But the sun was back next day as we cycled the spectacular coast road via Lochinver and Drumbeg. Morning mist clung initially to Stac Pollaidh, giving us only tantalising glimpses of its jagged ridge, looking like a row of bad teeth.

It was a tough ride with many short, severe climbs, some as steep as 25%, but the reward was to flow effortlessly every time down the other side.  Tough but beautiful. This must be one of the most spectacular bike rides in the country. A single track road wynds its way along the coast passing idyllic bays of aquamarine water and yellow seaweed, and beaches of white sand. There were rambling, untidy crofts around Clachtoll and Stoer where rusting, discarded farm machinery somehow added charm to the scene. And looking over all of this the dark shapes of the mountains above. As we cycled on, the pleasant sunshine of the day gave way to an early evening weather front. We pressed on and eventually put the tent up at Inchnadamph within the tumbling walls of an old shieling. It was infested with ticks but it was too late and too wet to move.

If water is at the heart of Inverpolly then next it was time for us to take to it in Bart’s new packraft. For those not familiar with packrafts, they are super lightweight rafts which pack down small enough to fit inside your rucksack and are paddled like a kayak.  The idea of packrafts is that you can integrate walking or cycling with crossing bodies of water. We started out on foot with the packraft slung in a drybag and the paddles attached to our rucsacks. On a glorious morning we climbed up through an old pinewood, plodded across a boggy pass below Stac Pollaidh and picked our way through sparse birches to the water’s edge. We both squeezed into the two-man boat, pushed off from the sandy beach and paddled out onto the mirror surface of the loch.

I’ve always dreamed about paddling the Inverpolly waters and the reality of it that day was magical. We saw not another soul and the place had a wild, remote feel as the rocky peaks of Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor and Suilven rose above us into a clear blue sky. The water was like glass and confused our senses with the perfection of its reflections. We took the boat down a short section of river that connected two lochs but the water was low again and I got out mid-stream to give Bart some flotation and he flowed down into the next glass-like loch. At lunchtime we hauled out onto a sandy beach in a bay of birch trees and ate our snacks in the warm sunshine before paddling back.

That evening we completed a beautiful day by parking Bart’s van at Achnahaird Beach, an expanse of white sand and blue waters to the west. As we sipped a glass of wine and cooked supper, a full moon rose and its silvery light flowed over the peaks and lochs of Inverpolly.

More photos on Flickr - click the link.
Fact File 
Map: OS Landranger 15
Routes: For the cycling section, we left Bart's camper at Bhlugasary, off the A835 north of Ullapool. We cycled north on the A835 which is not busy and took the turn off signed for Achiltibuie which meanders below Stac Pollaidh and then the tiny road signed for Lochinver. This road is spectacular with superb mountain views, gorgeous bays and beautiful beaches. There is a Spar shop in Lochinver for supplies. Just north of Lochinver we took the road for Clachtoll, Stoer and Drumbeg. There is a grocery shop and tearoom at Drumbeg. This road joins the A894 and we followed that road then the A837 and the A835 back to our start point. We found a campspot by following the track that leads into the hills beside the river at Inchnadamph. None of the A roads were busy. The route is incredibly hilly so be prepared for lots of ups and downs. 
For the packrafting trip, we parked Bart's camper in a layby about 1km east of the Stac Pollaidh car park and walked further east along the road before taking a small path that climbs the hillside about 500m east of the house at Linneraineach. We followed that path to its split, took the right hand split and put the packraft in at the far southeast corner of Loch an Doire Dhuibh where there is good access at a sandy beach. We paddled into Loch Gainmheich and down the short section of river into Loch Sionascaig. For the return, we paddled back to Loch an Doire Dhuibh and came out of the water at the western tip where we picked up the end of the other split in our outward path.

Monday, 13 October 2014

I'm back ...

After a few months cycling around northern Europe, I'm back and ready for some hot outdoor Scottish action. Well, it's already October, so maybe not so hot! As we slip into autumn, I can't wait to get back out into the Scottish hills. Keep watching to hear about my first ever packrafting trip in the wilds of Inverpolly.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

I'll be right back after this short break ...

I'm away on my latest adventure - a cycle to the midnight sun. You can follow the story of my bike ride exploring the northern reaches of Europe at my other blog, "northern exposure". Click on the "northern exposure" link to the right or click "HERE".

Back in a few months ...

Love Pauline :-)

Monday, 24 March 2014

Edinburgh - Monday mornings

Argentina, February 2011

We unzip the tents at 5.30am. It´s still dark and there´s a sliver of silver moon. All is still and quiet around our wild camp in the desert beside a salt lake. By the time we are having breakfast, huddled in fleeces against the dawn chill, there is a band of golden light on the horizon. And as we push the bikes back to the road, the sun´s peachy morning rays are already touching the rocky peaks of the Andes to the west. We slip into our toe clips, push off along the road and share a smile - this certainly beats heading into work on a Monday morning!

Edinburgh, March 2014
I pedal west along the canal as the sun rises above the city. I love it up here on the canal. I can see across the whole of the morning. I drop down to the river and cycle beside its rushing waters as beams of sunshine penetrate the trees. A dipper darts between rocks. A heron hangs around in the shallows. I weave a path through the industrial zone to the office. Ugly, boxy warehouses crowd in but there’s a backdrop of wild hills and a skein of winter geese in a salmon sky. It certainly beats heading into work in a traffic jam on a Monday morning!

Today was my last Monday morning at the office. By the end of the week I’ll have finished my job, packed away my belongings and loaded up the bike to set off on my next cycling adventure. Over the coming months, I’ll be following the winter geese north as I cycle to the land of the midnight sun. 

Keep watching ...

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The old ways - addendum

The other day I noticed on my commute to work that new waymarkers had appeared along the stretch of the Water of Leith path that I cycle along every day. They signify that this is now part of the new John Muir Way. A Scottish-American naturalist of the nineteenth century, John Muir is credited with coming up with the concept of national parks and wilderness preservation. When it opens this year, the long distance footpath named in his honour, will link his birthplace in Dunbar to the west coast at Helensburgh, from where his family sailed to America. The section of the Three Lochs Way that I walked with Graham and Andrew between Helensburgh and Balloch will become part of that link.

In recent times, it seems like dozens of these new long distance footpaths have opened up all over the country. In my younger days, I might have poo-pooed the idea of waymarked trails but now, with greater maturity and insight, I absolutely love the idea. These long distance paths and tracks criss-cross the country, sometimes in wild areas and sometimes in very urban areas. They link people and places by boot and bike, and often bring back into use ancient, once-forgotten routes. 

The old ways are becoming the new ways.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Three Lochs Way - The old ways

Sometimes the old ways are best. Like creating a handwritten letter and despatching it by post, instead of firing off an impersonal email. Or eating chips from newspaper instead of those horrible polystyrene trays. And when you’re wandering the gentle hills around Helensburgh on a winter weekend, the best way to explore is by the ancient tracks and trails that make up the old ways. So last weekend, with walking friends Graham and Andrew, I spent two days trekking some of the Three Lochs Way which passes through Helensburgh and links it with nearby villages on old roads and ancient paths.

We jumped off the bus at the sleepy village of Garelochhead into a brisk morning with blue skies above and dollops of snow on the hills. Our route immediately started to climb steeply above the waters of the Gare Loch, at first on a new path that wound its way up through sparse birch wood alive with the twitter of tits and then latterly on a thin trail following the undulating line of an old drystane dyke. As we’d made a late start, it was already lunchtime so we sat in warm sunshine munching a picnic with our backs against the dyke and our feet pointing down to Faslane, Scotland’s nuclear submarine base, that nestles on the shores of the loch below. 

When Andrew pointed out that we were in the worst possible spot if nuclear war erupted at that moment, we finished lunch quickly and got moving again. Or perhaps it was just that the sun disappeared behind a cloud and the temperature changed to chilly. The muddy trail under our feet gave way to firm tarmac as we joined one of the old roads in the area, the American Road. It was built during the Second World War as part of the Americans’ land lease agreements and today gives access to the military training area that covers the upper slopes here. The road also gave us lovely views over the snow-capped, rocky hills of Argyll.

Where the American Road ends, the Three Lochs Way markers point you down into Glen Fruin on a quiet back road but we decided to stay high and walk over the ridge of hills above Rhu and Helensburgh called The Fruin. Very quickly we wished we had taken the road. There seemed to be no firm ground as we plodded with heavy packs through bog and water, climbed over barbed wire fences and jumped over a series of deep trenches that had been dug for forestry but never planted. By the time we were at the end of the ridge, we felt like we’d gone through one of those military style training workouts. 

Andrew was less than pleased. Graham was complaining about wet feet. And I think I swore. However it was worth the effort to be up high in the open air, the empty landscape and the big skies as a late afternoon sun created patterns of light on the snow-covered hills. Despite being quite close to civilisation, there was a surprisingly wild feel to this place, perhaps heightened by the patches of snow that we crossed or the lateness of the day. At the far end of the ridge, we gratefully found a path down the other side and rejoined the Three Lochs Way.

We started to descend towards Helensburgh on one of the old ways on our journey, the Highlandman’s Road. The road is an old pack horse track that once provided a link for the people of Glen Fruin to the nearest church at Rhu, on the shores of the Gare Loch. The muddy track entered the darkening Highlandman’s Wood and passed close to a cup-marked boulder. This old rock is a glacial erratic, picked up and then deposited here by retreating glaciers in the last ice age. Bronze Age people carved out the cup shapes which may have been boundary signs or way markers. And modern man added his own graffiti and plastic litter. We found a camp spot by crossing two bendy, precarious planks over the burn and got the tents up as the last light faded and the wood descended into darkness.

Next morning we woke to a light shower of snowflakes drifting gently through the trees to the forest floor. We made hot breakfasts before returning to the Highlandman’s Road via the planks which had acquired a thin coating of ice overnight. By now the sun was up, casting long tree shadows across our track. The Three Lochs Way enters Helensburgh at the Hill House, a stately home at the top of the town designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. It’s not open at this time of year so we had to peer over the walls and through the gates for a peek.  Even if it was open, I'm sure they wouldn’t admit mud-splattered walkers into the fine interiors. The route continued down to the waterfront at Helensburgh passing large, expensive Victorian villas. I imagined people munching triangles of toast, sipping lashings of tea and pouring over the Sunday papers in their big, bay windows, oblivious to the three unwashed walkers passing who’d spent the night in the woods nearby.

Helensburgh surprised me. As we walked the wide avenues we had spectacular views along the streets to the snow-covered mountains further west. I had never placed Helensburgh as a mountain town. Secondly, it was larger than I had imagined. It took quite a time to cross before we popped out on the other side on a farm track that climbed back up into the hills. As we climbed, the Clyde Estuary was at our backs, its southern shore obliterated from view by vast sheets of rain while we stayed in beautiful sunshine on the northern shore. The Three Lochs Way was heading now to Balloch over a high pass that opened up spectacular views to Loch Lomond and its snow-plastered namesake, Ben Lomond.

As we began the descent from the pass, the underfoot conditions changed from mud to a stony track, in places bounded by an old, moss-covered drystane dyke and in other places by an avenue of tall beech trees illuminated by soft afternoon sun. These final few miles were following another old route, the Stoneymollan Road. The road is an ancient coffin route that people used for carrying coffins from Balloch on Loch Lomond to consecrated ground in Cardross on the Clyde. At 7km long and with a bit of climbing, that’s quite a way to carry the deadweight of a coffin. Mind you, after two days on a walking route that might have been easy but for bog and mud, our rucksacks also felt like deadweights.

At the bottom of the Stoneymollan Road, our boots returned to tarmac as we crossed a flyover above the screaming traffic on the A82, entered Balloch and left behind the old ways.

More photos -click here or on the Flickr logo.

Fact File
Start: Garelochhead. Trains on the West Highland Line stop at Garelochhead but as there's a limited number, we took a train to Helensburgh (direct from Edinburgh or connections in Glasgow) and then a short bus ride to Garelochhead (around the corner from the station, take buses to Garelochhead or Coulport).
Finish: Balloch. Trains/buses to Glasgow.
Maps: We used printouts from the Three Lochs Way website - click here. They also gave some background snippets of information. Most of the route is on OS Landranger 56.
Route: The route is mostly well signed with Three Lochs Way markers. In Garelochhead the link path to the Three Lochs Way leaves from Station Road just below the station and is well signed. Instead of following the official route on the unclassified road through Glen Fruin, we walked over the Fruin. I can't really recommend this route - it was wet, boggy, rough and really hard going. At the far end of the ridge there is a bit of path that takes you back down to rejoin the official route on the Highlandman's Road. We followed a large firebreak in the forestry here and found a camp spot in the old wood. Signs take you along a path into Helensburgh called the Upland Way then along the main Glasgow road. The route leaves Helensburgh just before the new high school. Look carefully for the sign as we missed it and maps are a little confusing because of building work. A clear, if muddy, well-signed route takes you up to the pass below Ben Bowie then into forestry. You enter the forestry on a path which joins a track - turn right when you join the track (there's no sign here). The forest track ends at a turning circle and a faint path continues straight on into the trees. You now have to follow red and white tape tied to the trees through dense forestry. The route is steep and slippy in places. The tape takes you to a point deep in the forestry so that you have no idea where you are ... and then stops! At this point head north along a faint gap in the trees and you'll soon leave the forestry and come onto a track. Turn right and pick up Three Lochs Way markers again all the way into Balloch.
Tip: There is a website dedicated to old routes and drove roads in Scotland called Heritage Paths - click here.