Saturday, 22 October 2016

Perthshire - The cusp of summer and autumn

Autumn is in full swing now but I'm a bit behind on my blogging so here's a selection of pics and words from an off-road cycle trip with bike buddy Graham from the tail end of summer. It's a wee tour I'd had my eye on for some time that we spread over two days with an overnight wild camp. The route makes a big northerly circle out of Pitlochry, cycling up the wonderful Glen Tilt then making a rough crossing through the hills to descend Gleann Fearnach. The route itself seemed to be on the cusp of summer and autumn as Glen Tilt was warm and green still, while Fearnach had a chillier feel and a more rusty palette. 

Our ride started with a short pedal north through the Pass of Killiecrankie to Blair Atholl and the start of the cycle up Glen Tilt. Glen Tilt is a long, long glen with a good dirt track most of the way. It has a wonderful mix of pasture and woodland, gorge and high mountain.

The track was lined by rowans covered with red berries. In the lush greenery and warm sunshine it felt still like high summer.

Beyond the last trees, the glen narrows and the slopes of the Beinn a'Ghlo massive tower above. There are three Munros up there that make for a great, if long, day out on the hills.

At the head of the glen, the track narrows and then becomes a footpath as the mountains start to close in.

The Falls of Tarff are crossed by the Bedford Bridge, in remembrance of Francis John Bedford who drowned at this spot in 1879. It's a lovely remote spot and I'm sure if it was less so, the falls would be hugely popular.

Beyond the falls, we pitched the tents on a grassy shelf above the river and sipped afternoon tea sitting outside until a few lingering summer midges chased us indoors.

Next morning, with the landscape bathed in golden early sunshine, we crossed the open moors on a narrow, rough path that had us pushing for most of it.

On the far side in Gleann Fearnach autumn seemed to be creeping in already and the rowans were scarlet.

The reward for the hard push through the hills was a long and fast descent on the excellent track down Gleann Fearnach. Wild and open in its upper reaches, it later drops down into pretty woodland and fields. The track wasn't the only reward for our efforts ... there was coffee and cake waiting in Pitlochry as well.

Fact File
Route: take bike route 7 north out of Pitlochry. At Killiecrankie cross the river on the bridge and turn right. This back road is more pleasant than the B road. It eventually passes under the A9 and becomes a riverside track into Blair Atholl. Turn right on the main road into Blair Atholl then left immediately after the bridge over the Tilt. This road soon swings left under a stone arch footbridge. The entrance to Glen Tilt is just after on the right. Cycle the full length of Glen Tilt. Where it narrows and the main track turns uphill to the left away from the river, the right hand split to stay alongside the river. Cross the bridge over the Tarff and follow the footpath beyond here. About 400m later a path leaves to the right to cross the river. Take that path and follow it steeply up the other side. I've passed here a couple of times and not had any difficulty crossing the river but it could be tricky in a spate. Follow the path to Fealar Lodge and then the main track that heads south all the way to Straloch. Take the A924 back to Pitlochry. Although an "A" road, it's pretty quite and a lovely ride.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

West - Bay of Alders

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture around the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance”

These words were written by Gavin Maxwell almost 60 years ago when he first arrived at the place he called Camusfearna, the setting of his book, Ring of Bright Water.  The place was no less beautiful to me as I stood before it now. In late summer there was no snow yet on the tops and a keen wind made the sea rough, pushing white horses to the shore but all the elements of the place as he’d described remained the same. Behind the bay the steep hillside was covered with woodland and rowans heavy with red berries. The Sandaig islands floated offshore, green turfed except for the white smudges of beach at their edges. And encircling the bay were the dark, peaty waters of the alder-lined burn, the “ring of bright water”.

The real name of the place is Sandaig and it occupies a remote spot in a quiet corner of the land on the Glenelg Peninsula. Rob and I passed on our September cycling holiday. Like thousands of people, the book had enthralled me, evoking as it did a sense of a simpler time and a wilder world. I’d always wanted to visit the place where the story had played out. It was a beautiful place as written but with very palpable undertones of melancholy that mirror the tragedies and sadness which were to follow after the book's success. I was especially moved by the memorial erected by Gavin Maxwell to his favourite otter, Edal. The inscription read “whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature”. An epitaph or a mantra for the mad modern world.
It had been a convoluted and let’s say, interesting, journey there by bicycle. The train had put us out a few days before at Connel and we’d followed a wonderful disused rail route, now opened as the Caledonia Way. At times it hugged the seashore and at other times it meandered through woods and fields. Heavy showers of rain passed over and made the place damp and drippy.

A rough section of the West Highland Way had then taken us down into Fort William before we enjoyed an easy pootle along the Caledonian Canal to Invergarry. It felt still like the summer in the sun and the warmth and the midges. Midge-sucking machines at the campsite at Invergarry made little impact on the hordes of them. A café in Edinburgh has just started serving insect brownies, part of tackling climate change so that we get protein from insects instead of farmed meat which has a huge environmental impact. I wondered if the sucked-up midges in the machines at Invergarry were therefore baked into garibaldi biscuits instead of dead flies.
We cycled west along the longest cul-de-sac in Scotland, the 22 miles of single track road to the tiny outpost of Kinlochourn. The last couple of miles were spectacular as they plummeted steeply to the village which sits at the head of Loch Hourn, a long wiggly finger of sea loch that reaches deep into the hills. Our exit from the dead-end was a tough push through hills and river gorges to Corran, another delightful outpost with end-of-the-road charm and a sense of being far from the modern world.

We slept well at our wild camp spot by the river which was lucky as the road onwards to Sandaig and beyond to Glenelg and Skye was a rollercoaster of steep and ups and downs. The old ferry onto Skye, the Glenahullish, laid on more charm for us. Built in 1969, she’s the last manually operated turntable ferry in the world and pootles back and forward in summer between Glenelg and Skye.
If you want to enjoy the delights of the Glenahullish, you’ll have to cycle over the big pass in these parts, the Mam Ratagan. We crossed northwards, the easier direction, and were rewarded with a stunning panorama of Loch Duich and the Five Sisters of Kintail. I love the legend of the Five Sisters. The story goes that the five sisters were originally seven, but two brothers sailed into Loch Duich from a foreign land and were smitten by the youngest two sisters. Their father refused to allow them to marry before their older sisters but the brothers swore they had five older brothers who they would send back to marry the other sisters. The two brothers sailed off with their new brides, never to be seen again. The five remaining sisters waited... and waited... and were eventually turned to stone to preserve their beauty for evermore, forming the mountain ridge along Glen Shiel, with its five prominent peaks that we see today.

We left Kintail eastwards by another tough, remote mountain pass and lingered a while in the old Camban bothy, joined by a hiker from Montana, of all places. I’ve cycled across Montana and it was funny to be in this desolate spot in Scotland trading place names that most people have never heard of. The Montana man complained of the lack of sun in Scotland. We didn’t linger too long though before pressing on for the welcome woods and easy tracks of Glen Affric. The rain caught us before Cannich and the outside modern world caught us before Inverness.

More phtotos on Flickr - click here.

Fact File
Start: Connel on the Oban train lined
Finish: Inverness
Route: Take the Caledonia Way cycle route north to Ballahulish and continue to Glen Coe and Kinlochleven. Cycle the West Highland Way route to Fort William - join it via the road to Mamore Lodge and leave it Blar a'Chaorainn to take the road into Fort William. Use the Caledonian Canal to Invergarry and the road to Kinlochourn. Take the steep, rough and difficult hill path through to Corran. Cycle north from Corran to Glenelg. We made a short detour to Broadford on Skye via the Glenelg ferry then returned to Glenelg to cycle over the Mam Ratagan to Shiel Bridge. We cycled into Glen Affric via Gleann Lichd and another steep and difficult hill pass. From Cannich we took back roads into Inverness but you can also pick up the top end of the Great Glen Way.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Glen Falloch - Days of exceptional beauty

Two exceptional autumn days on the hills. Crisp blue skies above with an early winter chill on the crystal clear air. Stags rutting on the hillsides and the deer grass turning to fire. Below the rowans are ripe with red berries, the bracken is russet and the river tumbles by.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Northeast - Coasting

At the height of midgie season in Scotland there's only one place to escape to where you can enjoy unhurried picnics and relaxed evenings at the tent - the east coast. Here's a wee cycle tour I did with bike buddy Graham a couple of weekends ago that hugs the northeast coast between Stonehaven and Dundee.

Straight out of Stonehaven there was a wee climb that provided a great view back over the town's picturesque harbour with its crescent of fisher cottages.

Just around the next corner were the atmospheric ruins of Dunnottar Castle, sitting on a rocky promontory poking out into the North Sea. Perhaps it wasn't atmospheric on this occasion at the height of summer with screaming bairns and a hot food van! The castle dates from medieval times and was the hiding place of the Scottish crown jewels from Oliver Cromwell's invading army in the 17th century.

The road south from here picked its way along quiet country back roads that cut across the golden fields of late summer and through little hamlets before it dropped to the beach again at Inverbervie. 

From here we bumped along the coast on a grassy track to the old fishing village of Gourdon. Some miles further on we parked up the bikes and ambled down to the beautiful, wild beach at St Cyrus. The dunes were dotted with wildflowers and seabirds wheeled above in the crags.

The bike route from here was a pleasant pootle to Montrose through woods filled with the aroma of pine trees warmed by the sun. We cycled across the links at Montrose on an old military airstrip before detouring up to Montrose Basin, a vast tidal basin picked over by waders at low tides. We watched an osprey eating a fish, terns nesting on platforms in the water and sand martins flitting in and out of their nesting holes. 

We returned to town for a sit-in chippy then found a gorgeous wild camp spot out on the links. It was close to an old fishing station and the lines for drying nets were silhoutted against a fiery sunset. There were no midgies.

Next morning more quiet back roads took us south to Arbroath and we nosed around its busy harbour looking for a morning coffee but the only place open was a kiosk selling the famous Arbroath smokies. 

On the south side of town, we paused at the beautiful sculpture marking the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath. This was a declaration of Scottish indepenence made in 1320. It was said to be one of the earliest declarations in the world of popular sovereignty, that is the idea that government is a contract and kings can be appointed by the community rather than god. 

The cycle onwards from Arbroath to Dundee followed miles of traffic-free bike paths, lined by the wildflowers of summer, before entering the city through its industrial port.

Fact File
Start: Stonehaven by Edinburgh/Glasgow to Aberdeen train.
Finish: Dundee for trains to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and Stirling.
Map: Sustrans NCN1 Edinburgh to Aberdeen
Route: From the train station in Stonehaven cycle to the waterfront and pick up signs for National Cycle Route 1 south. We followed the route south all the way to Dundee. Dunottar Castle is right on the route. Montrose Basin is a short detour to the right as you pass the viaduct that brings the train line into Montrose. The statue of the Declaration of Arbroath is another short detour from the route - where the route enters an amusement park turn right and follow the road round to the left and under the railway line - the statue is straight ahead.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Minchmoor - Another Borders bike ride

The Minchmoor is a high moorland track in the Border hills between Innerleithen and Selkirk. Said to be one of the oldest paths in the country, it possibly dates back to Pictish times and was a main east-west crossing into medieval times. Befitting of its ancient heritage, it's a place of atmosphere and mystery, and a place of puffing and sweating, as I discovered traversing it by bike.

The track begins with a steep cycle above Traquair and passes through a gap in an old drystane dyke where there are mysterious plaques covered with random words and unfathomable sayings. The track tops out from the climb at the Point of Resolution where a modern art feature has created patterns in the heather that look like the crop circles of an alien landing.

From here the old route undulates eastwards along the spine of the ridge, at times on a good cyclable surface and at other times on a rutted, muddy, narrow trail. It stays high for miles and it felt like I was on the roof of the Borders up here with views stretching across green, rolling hills. The old route soon passes the mysterious Cheese Well, a mountain spring where in days gone by travellers would make an offering of cheese to the fairies to ensure a safe passage. These days the offerings are made in coins - times are harder for fairies.

The climax of the Minchmoor comes as it nears it's high point at the eastern end above Selkirk. Three tall, stone cairns dating from the 16th century dominate the skyline ahead. They're called the Three Brethren and traditionally mark the boundaries of the three burghs that meet at this point. 

It's a magical spot up here with big open skies and a real sense of the age and significance of the place. It makes your skin tingle and on a fine day you're not want to move on. But what goes up, comes down and the steep descent can't be resisted for long.

Fact File
Start: Innerleithen accessible from the Borders railway at Galashiels.
Finish: Selkirk, also accessible for the Borders railway at Galashiels.
Route: Cross the bridge over the Tweed to the south side and turn left towards Traquair. At a four way road split with a cross turn left uphill and follow the signs for the Minchmoor which is also the Southern Upland Way. Keep on the main track east until reaching the Three Brethren. We took the trail southwards from the cairns then turned left at a split to follow the Long Philip Burn and then the road into Selkirk.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Borders - Brilliant bitesize Borders bicycle bimble

I’m fair getting to know my way around the Borders these days on account of two things – the new Borders railway opening and the new boyfriend living near the end of it! I do feel like I’ve discovered a whole different world down there and its quiet roads, long distance trails and disused railway lines make for some brilliant cycling. Here’s a bitesize tour that takes in a few highlights.
The route starts at the end of the Waverley line at Tweedbank where a purpose-built bike path whisks you away from the station and on to the pretty town of Melrose. Be warned that it’s a stiff pull out of Melrose as the road south climbs over the shoulder of the Eildon Hills. 

The Eildons are a real compass point in this part of the Borders despite being only 1300 feet high, as they are visible from almost every road and rise. There has been a population in this area since the Bronze Age and its significance continued into Roman times with the building of Trimontium, a large Roman fort set on the lower slopes close to the River Tweed.
A network of empty, undulating back roads and a quiet section of St Cuthbert’s Way that gets lost in the woods, take you over the Teviot and a little distance along its banks before heading for Jedburgh. It’s a gorgeous wee Borders town whose central Mercat Cross is decorated in summer with flowers and bunting. 

There’s another stiff climb out of Jedburgh on a single track road that’s a dream to cycle. It passes high above the fields and farms. The dark rise to the south is the Cheviots, across the border in England. In summer the wind sends waves of movement across swathes of golden green wheat. From its high point, the road meanders down back to the valley as goldfinches and yellowhammers flit back and forth amongst the hedgerows.
An old railway line heads east now. It’s a good if bumpy track at first but latterly becomes a thin, muddy line through dense, overgrown summer vegetation. You’ll be wishing for a machete on your bicycle multi-tool.  Eventually you’ll pop out into another lovely Borders town, Kelso. In the warm sunshine, it’s central cobbled square can pass for a Spanish piazza. 

Kelso’s other highlight is the stately pile of Floors Castle. It dates from 1726 and is the traditional seat of the Duke of Roxburgh. Common people and cyclists can enjoy a slice of the grandeur with coffee and cake in the terrace café that overlooks the walled garden.
The tour turns back now towards Tweedbank via a network of back roads and fairly ramps up the sightseeing spots. The first detour is to Wallace’s Statue, a larger than life and slightly clumsy statue of William Wallace that gazes out across the Tweed. It was erected in 1814 by the 11th Earl of Buchan, the local eccentric of the day.   

A short cycle further on is probably the most visited spot in the Borders, Scott’s View. It overlooks the Eildon Hills and the River Tweed and was said to be a favourite place of Sir Walter Scott who lived close by at Abbotsford. An old story tells that he stopped so often on his way home to enjoy the view here that his horses would pull up at the spot without even a command. Scott’s funeral cortege passed this way and legend has it that the horses stopped at the place to allow their master once last look at his favourite view.

The final stop on the tour is Leaderfoot Viaduct, a stately crossing of the Tweed that once carried the Berwickshire Railway. It was opened in 1863 and its 19 arches are 126 feet high. Close to Leaderfoot is the area of the old Roman fort, Trimontium. While there’s not much to see on the ground today, information boards help to bring the place to life. There’s great view of all this from the old Drygrange Bridge, a road bridge dating from 1776 that spans the Tweed here. And pasted on top of all the old stuff is the new A68 road with its busy, Edinburgh-bound traffic. This spot is amusingly referred to as “Tripontium”.
From here it’s a short bimble back to Tweedbank to catch a train home.
Fact File
All the photos on Flickr - click HERE.
Start/finish: Tweedbank Railway Station (regular trains from Edinburgh)
Map: Nicolsons Road 3, Southern Scotland and Northumberland, 1:250,000
Route: From Tweedbank station take the signposted bike path link to Melrose. Eventually pick up the main road into Melrose and follow it around its one-way system to pass the ruins Melrose Abbey. The road comes into the market square – go straight on up Dingleton Road which climbs out of Melrose over the shoulder of the Eildon Hills. This the B6359. Follow it south to a left turn at Cavers Carre signed for bike route 4. It crosses the Ale Water at a ford (there’s also a footbridge). Follow the track out the other side until joins the B6400, turn left and follow that road to Ancrum then across the A68. About 1km further on turn into the country estate at Harestanes where there’s a café. Pick up St Cuthbert’s Way here and follow it south through the woods and across the River Teviot. A lovely section here cycling alongside the river. Some steps take the route up to the A698 where you’ll have to left over the crash barrier. Take the non-classified road opposite into Jedburgh and be user to detour the gorgeous Mercat Cross in the centre.
Out of Jedburgh we took another non-classified road that leaves the town to the right just before the bridge over Jed Water. It climbs high to Ulston for some great views and really enjoyable sweeping descent to Crailing. Cross the A698 and take the wee road opposite to join the B6400 via Kirkmains. Turn north and immediately after the road crosses the Teviot Water take the track to the right signed for the Borders Abbeys Way. This is an old railway line. Stay on it until it emerges onto the road at Roxburgh. It’s quite overgrown towards the end. Turn right then follow this back road to the A699 and into Kelso. It’s a quiet A road and there’s a great view of Floors Castle from here across the Tweed. Cross the town and join the A6089 briefly before turning off west on the B6397. There’s a back entrance here if you want to just visit the Castle’s café and not pay the entrance fee.
Follow the national cycle network signs west to Clintmains and shortly after turn right signed for Wallace’s Statue and Scott’s View. The statue is a short detour from the road on a good surface. Continue north and pass Scott’s View. At a T junction turn left and descend to the Tweed. It’s tricky to spot but just after the road has crossed the bridge over Leader Water, it passes under the A68 and there’s a wee path to the left that takes you onto Drygrange Bridge for a great view of the Leaderfoot Viaduct. On the other side turn right up the hill and cycle through the area of Trimontium. The road emerges into Newstead and you can go right or left at the fork to return to Melrose to take the bike route back to Tweedbank.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Speyside - The Burma Road

The Burma Road is a name to capture your imagination,  if ever there was one. Rob and I biked it a few weekends back. Unsurprisingly it doesn't lead to Burma but acquired its name due to having been laid by prisoners of war. Today it's a rough track over the hills above Aviemore and a big  climb by bike.

We started our ride at Kincraig and headed north towards Aviemore on a new stretch of the Speyside Way, a delightful undulating track through summer birch woods that dovetails with the railway.

The climb then started at Lynwilg, easy to begin with but quickly steepening.  The midges made us not want to stop to rest or take advantage of the goodies in the trackside honesty box.

The road topped out above the grey hills of the Monadhliath and was flat briefly before the long descent on its north side.

At the bottom of the descent, we followed the River Dulnain downriver and made a beautiful wild camp in the pine woods. The eyecatching black and white of oystercatchers flying by contrasted with the rich greens of the forest.

Next day we biked on along empty tracks through the summer woods and down quiet winding back roads to the forests of Abernethy for a second night out in the tent. There were detours to the old Sluggan Bridge, part of General Wade's military road north, and the nesting ospreys at Loch Garten.

From Abernethy we biked over Ryvoan Pass with the high tops of the Cairngorms to our left and paused in the bothy to escape a rain shower. We made a fast descent to Aviemore on the fabulous Old Logging Way before returning to our start at Kincraig.

Fact File
Start/finish: Kincraig
Route: In Kincraig take the Speyside Way track to Aviemore - you can pick it up on the right as you climb up through the village passed the shop. Follow this to its end when it crosses the B9152. Turn left on this road and cycle south for approx 1.5km, taking the right turn signed for the A9. Cross the A9 to Lynwilg and follow the wee road through the hamlet to the right. The Burma Road is signed from here after the bridge. It's a stiff climb, steep in places, but the long decsent is more gradual. At the bottom, cross the wooden bridge over the River Dulnain and turn right. Follow this track until it emerges at the hamlet of Inverlaidnan and swing to the right, cross the bridge and follow the track right where it soon joins the tarmac road into Carrbridge. A little way down here is the worthwhile short detour to the Sluggan Bridge, signed for the national cycle network. From Carrbridge (nice cafe a few doors down from shop) we followed the national cycle network offroad route to Boat of Garten which was really nice through the woods. After Boat of Garten we truned left on the B970 and then took a right to the RSPB centre at Loch Garten to see the ospreys. We retraced our tire tracks a little way back down the Loch Garten road and picked up the Speyside Way in the direction of Nethy Bridge. When it crossed the C class road south out of Nethybridge we followed that road, took the next left hand split and then the forest track up to Forest Lodge. We crossed the bridge over the River Nethy a few hundred metres northeast of the lodge and followed this track a long way out to camp. Next morning we returned to Forest Lodge and then took the signed track west for Ryvoan Pass. At Glen More we took the Old Logging Way down to Aviemore and picked up the Speyside Way back to Kincraig.