Saturday, 20 December 2014

Glen Tilt - In the bleak midwinter

I'll have to have words with whoever wrote those words because I have never found midwinter to be bleak. Just the opposite. Is there anything more beautiful than the landscape's details picked out in a thick, hoary frost or softened with a blanket of fresh snow? Or anything more wonderful than the golden light of a low December sun filtering through the bare branches of a winter wood?

I wandered through a winter wood last weekend. It was good to be out for the first time this winter in snow. I had a long amble round Glen Tilt. The cloud was low so it wasn't worth it to be up high. The several inches of fresh powdery snow already blanketing the glen were added to throughout the day by gently falling flakes.

The red deer were as numerous as the snowflakes in the glen. I have never seen so many deer as I saw that day. 

Huge herds flowed across the snow-covered hillsides and formed long, snaking lines on the ridges. It really made me think of the great wildebeest or caribou migrations that we see on telly. I think I realised for the first time that these movements of red deer are a similar migration as they are forced to move lower in bad winter weather to find shelter and food. Everywhere there were exposed patches of grass and moss where they had scraped back the snow in search of meagre grazing.

I scraped back the snow myself to dig out a small spot for the tent, then grazed on hot soup and a roll before climbing up a ridge above to be amongst the deer. Their musky smell hung everywhere in the chill air. There was no colour to the afternoon. It barely got light except for a brief moment when the sun posted some rays through a narrow letterbox of sky between the snow-covered hillside and the snow-laden clouds. Snowflakes continued to fall into the evening and I wondered if I would be snowed-in come morning.

I needn't have worried. Overnight the weather front shifted, the snow turned to rain and the fluffy powder of yesterday turned to slush. I walked out of the glen in heavy rain, enjoying the shelter of the trees. I counted five red squirrels and a stoat, enjoyed the endless twitter of finches in the hedgerows and warmed my soul with the sight of Blair Atholl's Christmas tree whose colourful lights sent out a warm glow in the half dark afternoon. The day was grey and cold and wet but it wasn't bleak. 

Fact File
More photos on Flickr: click HERE
Start/finish: Blair Atholl train station served by Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness trains.
Map: OS Landranger 43
Route: Turn right on exiting the station and just after the entrance to the campground pick up a small path that leaves the pavement to the left and passes in front of the field to go down to the River Tilt. Follow this path and any walkers' signs up Glen Tilt. Just before Gilbert's Bridge take the track that goes up to the left and follow it to a gorgeous stone bridge over a waterfall at grid ref NN888713. Just above here are the ruins of some shielings and I pitched the tent here and continued walking up the ridge above. Next day I walked back to Gilbert's Bridge, crossed it, turned right and then soon followed a walkers' sign to the left. This gives a different way back to Blair Atholl and is a lovely track, high above the glen, that passes through open birch woods. It eventually joins a small road where you should turn right to go steeply downhill back to Blair Atholl. 
Info: "In the Bleak Midwinter" was originally a poem written by Christina Rosetti in the mid 19th century which subsequently became a Christmas carol.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Trossachs - Seventh heaven




Dumbarton may not sound like the place for fun in the great outdoors but it was a convenient starting point for a short weekend bike trip to take advantage of the short winter days. Also, a couple of blogs ago, I was cycling National Cycle Route number 7 north of Callander and wanted to explore the more southerly section around Aberfoyle. 


I cycled out of the train station at Dumbarton and straight onto the bike route. I love it when things work like that. A lovely traffic-free cycle path then headed north alongside the fast-flowing waters of the River Leven. A look at the map suggested this was a heavily built up area but the river created a green corridor and trees obscured the concrete. The stench of wet manure hung in the damp country air and a profusion of fresh cowpats beside the trail focused the mind. 


A flotilla of small boats, all jammed up together on the river like a pile of flotsam, signalled arrival in Balloch. The bike route left the town quickly and climbed high on quiet farm roads. There were no views of over Loch Lomond on a murky day that barely seemed to get light. My lungs started working overtime in the cold, damp air as the route made a big pull up and over the hills from Drymen to Aberfoyle on a tiny road that you would more expect to find in the north Highlands. It crossed a barren landscape in mist so thick that I switched on the bike lights in the middle of the afternoon. I guess it might be busy here in summer but on a dim, drizzly day in late November, it was only me up there.


The Menteith Hills and the high ground of Achray Forest are the backdrop to the Trossachs village of Aberfoyle. The only breach through them is the steep Duke's Pass. The number seven route climbed out of Aberfoyle and quickly left the tarmac road to head up vertical forest trails. It was nice to begin with, until I hit the mud. Forest trucks had churned up a large section of the track near the top of the pass, turning it into a quagmire of thick, sticky mud. It was nearly impassable and I pushed for much of it as runny mud squelched into my trainers. On top of this, I missed one turning because trucks had obscured the sign and I missed another because I need glasses and didn't see it. By the end of it, the bike and I were caked in mud that started to set like concrete.


Once passed the Mud of Doom, the route down through the forest to Loch Venachar was pure joy on a great track that twisted through the trees and hugged the hidden shores of Loch Drunkie. There was not a breath of wind to ripple the inky black waters or shift the strands of mist that hung in the tall pines. My wrestle with the Mud of Doom had cost me precious daylight time and as I cycled beside Loch Venacher what little light there was had pretty much drained from the day. I quickly dunked the bike and my kit in the water to shift the worst of the mud and got the tent up in the woods. I sparked the stove into life as the dusktime honks of whooper swans on the loch were replaced in the advancing darkness by the hoots of an owl and the throaty bark of a deer. 




There are few things more enjoyable in life than unzipping your tent in the morning at a beautiful wild spot and sipping hot coffee from the snug comfort of your sleeping bag. This morning the sun dragged itself out of bed later than me as it threw a veil of peachy light over the surrounding hills. Canada geese talked quietly amongst themselves on the water and the faint voices of fishermen reached me from the far away shore. It's hard to get moving on beautiful mornings like this. You just want to drink it all in ... and stay cosy in your sleeping bag.


The number seven route headed east now, along the south shore of Loch Venachar on a forest path covered with larch needles and then entered Callander through its back door. The low winter sun hadn't managed to pull itself above the Menteith Hills so I needed a warming coffee in town to defrost cold hands. 



Beyond Callander the number seven turns north so we parted company as I continued cycling east to Doune where I picked up the Doune Trail for the last few miles to Dunblane and my train home. This old railway line has been turned into a car-free bike path. It cut across the winter fields and squeezed between bare hedgerows alive with the twitter of tits. Up ahead the sun drenched the steep flanks of the Ochil Hills in a rich winter light. The sky was blue and the air was crisp and clear. 

It was cycle route heaven rather than cycle route seven. 




Fact File
More photos on Flickr:click here.
Start: Dumbarton Central Rail Station. The direct Edinburgh to Helensburgh train stops here or you can pick up direct services from Glasgow.
Finish: Dunblane Rail Station. Inverness to Glasgow trains stop here and the direct Dunblane to Edinburgh and Dunblane to Glasgow services start here.
Map: Most of the route is on Sustrans National Cycle Route 7 map, Lochs and Glens North.
Route: You'll pick up the bike route right outside the station. Follow route 7 signs a short way through town to pick up the bike path to Balloch alongside the River Leven. Following route 7 signs take you onto Drymen via a traffic-free country park then tiny, quiet farm roads and a super section of off-road path that crosses fields and the quirky pipe bridge. The route in this area meets the West Highland Way, the John Muir Way and the Rob Roy Way. But just keep following the 7 signs over the hills to Aberfoyle. Beyond Aberfoyle route 7 crosses through Achray Forest. There are some steep off-road climbs here. The section that has been turned to mud is really, really bad. I'm not exaggerating. I suggest avoiding it by staying on the A821 road out of Aberfoyle which is not too busy to the top of the pass and then joining Forest Drive which is a section of forest trail that the public are allowed to drive along. The route from here is a good quality track. At the bottom, route 7 turns east for Callander. The section on the south shore of Loch Venachar is super cycling on a narrow, undulating woodland path then a private estate road. Leave the 7 at Callander and take the very quiet B8032 to Doune. Heading east through Doune, follow a sign to the left from the main street for bike route 765 which takes you onto the traffic-free Doune Trail into Dunblane. There's one very muddy, pot-holed section but it's quite short. When you arrive on the outskirts of Dunblane, just keep going straight ahead and you'll soon come to the railway station.
Tip: Neither of the train services I travelled on need you to book your bike on in advance if you use the local Edinburgh trains out of Dunblane, making this a handy last-minute option for a quick weekend bike tour. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Gear review - Chiba Express waterproof/winter cycling gloves



Is there life on other planets? How were the pyramids built? Does the Loch Ness Monster really exist? Is it possible to have waterproof gloves that are truly waterproof? These are some of the great mysteries that puzzle mankind. I can’t shed any light on the first three but I’m pretty sure I can answer the last one.


I own several pairs of “waterproof” gloves. That’s not because I need lots. It’s just that I keep buying different ones in the hope of finding gloves that do what they say on the label … repel water whilst maintaining a dry internal environment for my hands! The latest ones I tried are these Chiba Express waterproof cycling gloves.


The main body of the glove is made from softshell. It’s very flexible so it’s really comfortable for wearing on the bike with plenty of dexterity for changing gears, ringing bells or switching lights off and on. The cuff is neoprene and I really like the fact that it’s a nice tight fit. I can never understand why manufacturers of waterproof gloves often design a big, chunky cuff. When it’s raining I want the sleeves of my waterproof jacket to slide easily over the cuff of my gloves to prevent any leakage around the wrist. They do that nicely with the Chiba Express.


The palm of the gloves has a grippy synthetic surface and there are gel pads for comfort. There’s a little loop on the back of one of the fingers to pull the glove off quickly. The softshell fabric is quite thick but there is no extra insulation so they won’t keep hands warm on the very coldest of days but should be good for most of the winter months. All of these features make the Chiba Express a really nice pair of gloves but the brilliant thing is the waterproof cover that hides neatly inside a pocket on the back of the cuff of each glove until you need it. The cover stretches over the tips of the fingers and encloses the thumb but it leaves the palm free to maintain grip on the handlebars. Given that your hand position is fairly fixed on the bike, I thought the covers would keep the worst of any rain off.


The test came last week with a commute to work in torrential rain. I whipped the covers out soon after I left the house and my ride takes me an hour. The covers certainly kept the gloves dry for most of the way. It was of course inevitable that without a complete waterproof cover there would be some leakage in really heavy rain. That’s pretty much what happened, although the gloves were not by any means completely soaked through and my hands were still warm. 

So they are not truly waterproof gloves but I still really like them. The best thing I have for keeping out water are my Goretex over-mitts but they’re really impractical, have limited dexterity and it’s a devil to try to get the second one tucked under your jacket sleeve once you’ve put on the first one. I can see that on many occasions when I hit a short, sharp shower or I’m out for a while in light rain, the Chiba Express gloves will do a good job and save me the trouble of changing to the mitts. I bought my gloves for £26 at BG Cycles in Portobello, Edinburgh and they come in unisex sizes small to extra large. The small was surprisingly a half decent fit on my tiny hands.


I’ve no hesitation in recommending these gloves but the search for truly waterproof gloves … like the search for Nessie … continues.

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
More photos on Flickr: click here.
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.