Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Loch Leven - Visitors on boats and wings

There’s a wonderful place of wildness in the heart of central Scotland that is a weave of water, wildlife, woods, hedgerows and hills. The place is Loch Leven and the recently completed trail that encircles the loch is the thread that binds together this weave of wonder. On a grey November morning thick with mist, I set out to explore the loch trail by bike. 

About two thirds of the route has been in place for a number of years and provided a pleasant enough little pootle. But the completion of the trail around the whole loch has created a super little journey through a fascinating landscape. It’s instantly become one of my favourite things to do in Scotland.

I joined the trail at its southeast limit where the River Leven flows out from the loch. At this point the straight lines of the river make it look more like a canal. About 200 years ago the level of the loch was lowered to create more farmland by digging out a deeper and straighter channel for the river. It’s known as the River Leven Cut. The water flow was controlled by sluices and gates, allowing mills to be built to take advantage of the more reliable water supply. Linen mills and weaving were common here as it was said the soft waters of the loch were excellent for soaking flax before it was turned into linen.

On my clockwise circuit of the loch the next stop was the RSPB Vane Farm Reserve. From the visitor centre a series of trails radiate outwards, heading down to the loch shore and its associated wetlands, or climbing up through the birch woods on the steep flanks of Benarty Hill which is more romantically known in these parts as the Sleeping Giant. It rises above the southern limit of the loch. Vane Farm is best known for its winter visitors from Iceland, the pink-footed geese and whooper swans.

Beyond Vane Farm the trail crossed open farmland via a small rise that gave views across the loch and the Lomond Hills as mist rolled atmospherically over the sharp edge of the Bishop Hill. A little further on and the route reaches the largest settlement beside the loch, Kinross. It was from Kinross that the great “bonspiels” or curling competitions were held when the loch froze in winter. It takes two weeks of continuous deep cold to create ice to a safe enough depth for curling so it’s perhaps a sign of a changing climate that there hasn’t been a bonspiel for 50 years.  Here’s another meteorogical snippet.  Did you know that isobars were invented at Loch Leven by Alexander Buchan? 

At Kinross the trail hugs the shore, passes the pier and skirts round the cemetery close to its old watchtower from where a lookout was once kept for body snatchers. It’s from this point that you get a good view of the islands in Loch Leven. The most distant is St Serf’s Island which was settled by monks. 600 years ago they wrote the complete history of Scotland called the Orygynale Cronykil. That’s their spelling, not mine! The most famous island is Castle Island which housed royalty and of course imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. It’s said that the key to the door that imprisoned Mary fell from the boat as she was eventually rowed away and today still lies somewhere at the bottom of the loch. The history of Loch Leven dates back much farther than monks and kings, and it’s believed the area was first settled 5000 years ago. There are the remains of a crannog in the loch and ancient burials and standing stones at Orwell, close to the trail.

The human history of Loch Leven is fascinating but when you superimpose on that the natural history, the atmosphere and magic of the place is tangible. All day as I cycled the skies were full of big skeins of noisy geese and huge flocks of greylags gathered in the quiet bays of the loch, their orange beaks providing a flash of colour on a grey day. In the last few weeks approximately 14,000 pink-footed geese have been counted at Loch Leven. That’s almost 10% of the world population. I pedalled passed flocks of widgeon on the water and put up moorhens and herons from the wet areas and a buzzard from scrubby hedgerows. There is so much to see here, especially if you have your binoculars which I somehow forgot to stick in the pannier when I left the house. The strange thing about Loch Leven is that it has the atmosphere of a wild place but all around there is a manmade landscape of farmland and small villages. Somehow the vastness of the water and the big, open skies create a wilder arena where nature is dominant. I think that’s the magic that I love about this place.

Beyond Kinross the character of the trail changed as it became enclosed by hedgerows whose red hawthorn berries each held a droplet of water condensed from the morning mist. It then passed into dense, damp woodland which, on a quiet day with nobody around, was slightly primeval. Here the steep-sided Bishop Hill rose right above the route. 

The trail is only 13 miles all round so, even with lots of stops including one for coffee and cake, it wasn’t long before I cycled over the bridge above the River Leven Cut and was back at my start point. I took a seat and lingered a while longer, looking out over the calm, grey water. There are lots of seats placed around the trail. Some are works of art and most have a fun little inscription on them. For some reason, I remembered above all the others the inscription below. Although I've added my own ending!

To island homes of monks and kings, come visitors on boats and wings. And bikes.

Fact File
Start/finish/route: There are several access points around the trail, the main ones being at Kinross pier, Findatie and RSPB Vane Farm. I took the train to Lochgelly on the Fife Circle line which is the nearest station. I cycled north through Ballingry along the B920 and then turned left onto the B9097 which is signed for Vane Farm. The first access point is at the cafe and lodges at Findatie Farm. Once on the trail you can't get lost!
Map: OS Landranger 58 and you can download maps at Loch Leven Heritage Trail.
Tip: On the north side of the trail is a spur which is signposted to Loch Leven's Larder, a cafe/farm shop/mini House of Bruar. There's also a shop and cafe at the RSPB Vane Farm Reserve, accessed by steps under the road.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Trossachs - Riding the rails

Meandering north from Callander and flirting with the edges of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, is a wee gem of a cycle ride. It forms part of National Cycle Network route 7 and for much of the way follows the bed of the old Callander to Oban railway line. It's a real tragedy that we lost so many of these spectacular rail routes in Scotland, but at least you can still enjoy many of the old lines today by boot or bike. It was by bike that I explored this route a few days ago and, as most of it is wrapped up in woods, it was a perfect place at the end of October to catch autumn's swansong.

There is no railway line serving Callander these days, so my friend Graham and I rode the rails to Bridge of Allan and picked our way to Callander along rural back roads. The old railway line left Callander on a track through the woods carpeted with golden leaves and that's the way we cycled.

Morning rain cleared and weak sunshine drenched the woods in subtle autumn light.

The branches of this oak tree hung over the Falls of Leny which were swollen by the torrential rain of the last few days. This is one section where the bed of the old railway line is lost so the bike route here followed a woodland footpath that twists through the forest alongside the deafening rumble of the water.

North of the Pass of Leny, we rejoined the route of the old railway as it passed along the quiet west shore of Loch Lubnaig. The low afternoon sun didn't clear the top of Ben Ledi above, keeping us in chilly shade while the other shore was a blaze of colour and light.

The recent rains had flooded most of the valley and raised the loch waters, stranding this lone tree.

We cycled into Strathyre which was once a station on the old line and then picked up a section of brand new cycle path. It uses the old railway line to connect Strathyre directly with Kingshouse, cutting out the original big detour for bicycles via Balquidder. It's quite a low-lying section and on this trip, some of it was under water!

As we approached Kingshouse, the sun rounded the corner of Ben Sheann and cast a soft light over the swollen waters of Loch Voil and the flat top of Stob Binnein to the west.

Trailside bracken had a full spectrum of colour from green to yellow to brown.

You may think that a cycle route that follows an old railway line would be flat. Not this one! At Lochearnhead the route makes a big zig-zagging climb above the village. The reward is a great view along Loch Earn and more gorgeous autumn woods.

The route continues to climb up through Glen Ogle to the most iconic part of the old railway, the Glen Ogle Viaduct, and then on to the top of the pass.

This cycle route mixes asphalt with dirt trails and so it was a perfect test for my new trail bike, the Specialised Ariel Elite. The Ariel is designed as the "go anywhere" bike, equally at home on or off road. I was really happy with its performance and handling, and especially loved the smoooth braking power of the disc brakes in the wet and muddy conditions. And doesn't it just look lovely as well?

Near the top of the route a huge thorn somehow found its way through Graham's tire and there was a puncture to fix. It would have to be the rear one of course.

The day ended with a wild camp at the top of the pass. The gaps in the trees were windows to spectacular star-gazing on a cold, clear night. Next morning the camp site was visited by a robin who sang his sweet song above the tents as we packed for the cycle back to Callander and on to Bridge of Allan to catch the train home.

Fact File
Start/finish: Bridge of Allan (or Callander if you're not using the train).
Maps: OS Landranger 57 and 51 or Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 Lochs and Glens North.
Route: From the rail station in Bridge of Allan turn west on the main road then take the first left onto a farm road signed for Carse of Lecropt. Follow this delightful single track road which has some lovely views to the B824 and then into Doune. From there take the deserted B8032 towards Callander which joins the A81 (quiet). From Callander it's all pretty easy, just follow the signs for National Cycle Route 7 in the northerly direction. Until recently route 7 out of Strathyre followed the back road to Balquidder, a big detour. A new bike path now makes a direct link to Kingshouse. To pick it up, as you come into Strathyre from the forest road, follow the bike signs for the village centre, keep going straight and you'll find yourself on the new route.
Tip: We camped beside Lochan Lairig Cheile at the top of Glen Ogle. There are good spots in the trees if you follow the forest track to the left as you approach the loch.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Edinburgh - I do like to be beside the seaside

With the end of my bicycle adventure around northern Europe, it’s time to settle down again for a little while, get back to work and of course, get into the Scottish outdoors. But before all that, I’ve spent the last few weeks settling into my new home in Edinburgh. Well, it’s sort of a new home. I’ve moved back down to Portobello, Edinburgh’s seaside, where I lived previously for many years and am renting space again from my friend, Graham. 

As a city location, I love Portobello. The house is right at the sea so it’s perfect for long morning ambles along the beach, preferably in wild, wet weather. There are birds to see all year round but in winter the numbers swell with visiting waders that gather in flocks in the quieter corners of the beach. In calmer weather, it’s great to be able to pop the canoe in the water at the bottom of the street for a spot of paddling.

Close by there are super places for longer walks such as the wynding, woodland paths overgrown by ivy that surround the old house at Newhailes, or Figgate Park with its long view to Arthur's Seat and a boardwalk that reaches out into the pond. Sitting there makes me feel like I’m out on the water with the birds. The other great aspect of Portobello is that it’s so easy to escape the city from here. Ten minutes of cycling takes me to the quiet back roads and bicycle trails of East Lothian or I can cycle a little way along the coast to the beautiful bays at Aberlady and Gullane.

But the highlight of being back in Portobello is my new garden shed! Tucked away at the bottom of the garden, it looks like any other shed from the outside but inside is a fabulous, cosy garden studio. I’m so grateful to Graham and Bart who worked really hard to build it for me. The garden itself is small but is enclosed by tall trees and bushes that give my shed an air of secrecy. I love sitting at my door and watching all the birds that visit the feeders and bird bath.

Every day in the garden there are sparrows, blue tits, coal tits, blackbirds, collared doves, a wren and two robins that quarrel constantly. Over the years many other types of bird have visited. In summer, swifts nest every year under the roof. The air space above the garden is their hunting territory during the long summer days and at nights long-eared bats take over. A mouse lives behind the other shed in the garden and eats the bird food that falls to the ground. He prefers peanuts to seeds. The backdrop to the birds’ twittering is the rustle of the tall golden birch above my door or the crash of the surf on the beach. It’s a wonderful peaceful haven right in the city.

As well as some personal relaxation space in the shed, there is a storage area for all my outdoor kit. I’m sure that in the months to come, I’ll be heading down there with big mugs of tea, spreading my maps out on the floor and pouring over them for hours. There’s no doubt that plans for trips to the Scottish hills will be hatched down there as well as plans for my next big cycle adventure, wherever that may be.

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.